For disclaimers see Part 1 . Also check out my blog for updates : http://kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com/
Xena stood with her hands on her hips amidst a contingent of black-clad soldiers and Amazons covered from head to toe in eerie white paint. They were a striking contract to each other and one she hoped would throw Draco's elusive detachment into chaos.
It was just approaching the midnight hour and her select group of warriors had spent most of the night on horseback. The goal was to find the missing soldiers that Xena knew were out there somewhere. She was sure they were flanking her army and would make their move sometime during the coming battle. It was something Draco would do. A predictability that Xena was counting on.
Her goal, however, was to find them and take them out. So far, though, she had yet to locate the missing detachment. It boggled her mind that Draco was once again outwitting her. Then again, she wasn't giving up, either.
And then there was Ephiny and her covert group, who were also doing a late-night raid of their own. The regent carefully selected six Amazon warriors to don the black paint used by the men Xena had taken with her. The Amazons were to scope out the situation with Draco's wagons—the ones with the crosses on them.
“This stuff really itches, Xena,” Eponin scratched her rear, as she stood next to the tall woman. “You shoulda told us it was gonna dry and feel like damned sand against our skin.”
“You weren't supposed to put it underneath your clothing, Pon,” Xena shot back with a wry grin.
“Didn't get that memo,” Eponin groused. “We been ridin' around all over the place and haven't found a single trace of those missing soldiers. You figure they maybe turned tail and deserted?”
“Not likely,” Xena shook her head.
They were taking a brief rest from their search. Xena knew the horses needed it and she also figured the Amazons wouldn't mind a few minutes to stretch their sore muscles. Since her hundred or so men she had with her were from the Corinthian cavalry, they didn't mind the long candlemarks in the saddle. They were used to it.
“It ain't like all those guys can just up and disappear, Xe,” Eponin continued. “You think they're hiding somewhere? Maybe in those caves a league south of here?”
Xena's gaze shot to Eponin's. “What caves?”
“Oh, you don't know about those?” Eponin crossed her arms over her chest and smirked. “Thought your boys scouted the entire area.”
A low growl escaped Xena. “Eponin…”
“Hey, don't be growlin' at me, Champ,” Eponin held her hands up in surrender. “A few of us went scoutin' yesterday and kinda stumbled on ‘em by accident. They're pretty well hidden behind a lot of brush and bushes. Anyone would miss ‘em if they weren't lookin' close.”
“And how did your bunch find them?” Xena then thought better of asking. “Wait, never mind. I don't think I really want to know.”
“One of the younger kids was looking for a place to…um…well, you know,” Eponin supplied anyway. “She kinda fell against the opening of one when she was…um…yeah, not gonna go there.”
“Right,” she slapped a hand over her face. “Didn't I just say I didn't want the particulars? The important thing is we need to check out those caves.”
“In the dark?” The weapons master shivered.
Xena eyed the woman. “Seriously, Pon? What are you afraid of?”
“N-nothin',” she stammered. “I just…I'm just not a big fan of…um…” she lowered her voice to a loud whisper, “bats. There, I said it.” She crossed her arms defiantly over her painted chest. “You happy now? Oh, and don't get me started on bacchae. Those things are waaaaay nastier than bats.”
Xena kept her expression composed. “I think we'll have more to worry about than bats and bacchae when we get to those caves, Eponin. If we have to go up against a thousand soldiers with our paltry numbers, we're going to be in for a world of hurt. I would say that's much more intimidating than all the bats and bacchae in Greece.”
“Huh, you ain't met a bacchae, then,” Eponin shivered again. “Damned things are scarier than harpies. They got these orange eyes that mesmerize ya, then they bite ya and drag ya off to their master. You become one of ‘em and can't think of anything except bitin' other people.”
“I know what bacchae do,” Xena smirked. “And if those guys are holed up in those caves with a bunch of bacchae, then our job is already done. They won't be a factor in the coming fight.”
“No, but they won't be human no more, either,” Eponin added.
“No, they'll be dead,” Xena glared at the woman. “Bacchae kill men. They don't turn them into bacchae.” She took a step toward Eponin and leaned in close. “Bacchus knows that it's much easier to manipulate women than men.”
“Seriously?” Eponin shot her a bewildered look.
Xena knew the slight went over Eponin's head the instant it left her lips. Eponin, like many warriors, was a literalist and took things at face value. She rarely understood the vagaries of subtle innuendo.
“Oh, boy,” Xena just shook her head and then turned her back on the Amazon. “Let's go, people! Time to get moving!”
Painted from head to toe in itchy black paint, Ephiny lay on her belly in the tall grass on the outskirts of Draco's encampment. She absently scratched her arm and glanced down at the marks her nails made. Rolling her eyes at the four tanned streaks amidst the black paint, the regent blew out an irritated breath.
“Damned woman and her stupid ideas,” Ephiny muttered under her breath and returned her attention to the encampment spread out before her.
She noticed one huge bonfire in the middle of the encampment and an opulent tent behind it. Ephiny suspected it was Draco's, although she couldn't get close enough to be sure and hadn't seen the man make an appearance all night.
The wagons were nowhere to be found, leading Ephiny to believe Draco had ordered them dismantled and burned in the bonfire. She wondered where the crosses were and then tossed the thought aside. There was no visible proof they were there at all.
“You thinking what I'm thinking?” Margalene said in a low voice, as she scooted up next to the curly-haired regent.
“Not sure,” Ephiny answered without taking her eyes off the encampment. “What are you thinking, Margalene?”
“I'm thinking there weren't really crosses,” Margalene continued with a frown that could barely be seen through the black paint on her face. “I'm thinking the Conqueror was just seeing things.”
“Maybe,” Ephiny merely nodded. “Maybe not.”
“You can't just hide stuff like that,” Margalene added. “We skirted most of the perimeter and didn't see any crosses anywhere. Those things are just too big to up and disappear, unless they were thrown into that bonfire before we got here.”
“Maybe,” the regent continued to watch the men moving around the camp. “I'm going to take a closer look at that tent. Stay here and make sure everyone keeps their heads down. This black crap we're wearing…” She scratched her neck this time. “It's itchy as all get-out.”
“I know,” Margalene scratched her nose and took some of the paint off. “What did they put in this stuff? It itches like crazy.”
“Not sure,” Ephiny replied. “But I'm sure going to ask Xena when I see her again.”
Ephiny then slithered off into the dense grass, leaving Margalene and the others behind. She continued to belly-crawl her way to the edge of the encampment until she reached some stacked crates. She ducked behind them and stood up, then made her way closer to the back of the tent. The men were pretty well into their ale, wine and port. The liquor flowed freely from kegs scattered throughout the camp and the men were well on their way to being completely drunk.
Ephiny ducked down low when a group of jovial soldiers passed within a few paces of her position. She waited patiently for them to pass on by and then she moved closer to the green and gold fabric of the tent. She gingerly lifted the bottom edge of the temporary structure and listened intently to the murmur of voices coming from within.
“Everything is set, Lord Draco,” a man's gruff words drifted up to Ephiny's ears. “Our men should acquire the package shortly. They will bring it directly here when they do.”
“They know they're not to harm her in any way?” Another voice—Ephiny assumed it was Draco—inquired. “I don't want her half-dead when they bring her in.”
“No need to worry, Lord Draco,” the other voice assured. “They have orders to kill the escort but to leave the package untouched.”
“Good,” Draco returned. “Your men better not screw this up, Marco. You know what happened to Hector when he came back with his damned tongue cut out and no way to tell me who did it. Damned idiot couldn't even write me a message before I sliced him open and spilled his entrails onto the ground at his feet. That's what I get for befriending an illiterate mute.”
“Y-yes, m'lord,” Marco stammered. “M-my men know what's expected. They will follow your orders without fail.”
“They'd better,” Draco growled. “Or it will be your head. Dismissed.”
Ephiny continued to listen. She could hear shuffling around within and then heard a noise behind her that made her blood run cold.
“Hello, Amazon,” Draco greeted her in an overly cheery tone. “Nice look. You pick that one up from Xena? She was always one for the dramatic. But I have to say, black really isn't your color.” His tone then turned menacing. “You'll want to turn around slowly and raise those hands in the air where I can see them. Wouldn't want you to do something stupid and get blood all over that black paint.”
Ephiny did as she was told and came face-to-face with a dark-skinned man who stood almost a head taller than her. His dark-brown eyes were full of amusement, as he held a loaded crossbow aimed at her heart.
“You do know it's not nice to eavesdrop on people, right?” Draco smirked. “Tell me where you left the rest of your sisters and I may just let you live.”
“I came alone,” Ephiny let the lie easily slip off her tongue.
“Riiiiight,” Draco moved closer and stared into her defiant hazel eyes. “You overheard my conversation with Marco, so you know what I do to those who betray me.”
Ephiny held his gaze. “I'm not betraying you. We're on opposing sides, Draco.” She let the hint of a smile touch her lips. “That's not betrayal. It's just good reconnaissance.”
“Not quite good enough, if I caught you,” Draco eyed her painted attire and then his own face broke out into a grin. “But you're right. I should just cut your tongue out and send you back to Xena with a message you can't deliver. Serve the bitch right for what she did to Hector. He was one of my best men.”
Ephiny kept her expression neutral as she watched him fondle the hilt of the dagger tucked into his leather pants. “She won't spill my guts over it, if that's what you're thinking. I'm not exactly one of her favorites.”
He moved a step closer and ran the backs of his fingers along her painted cheek. “No, but I'm sure you're someone of importance to the Amazons. Even with all that black paint on you, I can still see the defiance in your eyes. You're a leader among them, which says you're someone. I'm sure they would be none too happy to have one of their top warriors dumped back into their laps without her tongue in her pretty little painted head.”
Ephiny shrugged. “Cut my tongue out. At least I'll be able to write a message and deliver it to your enemy.”
Draco chuckled, but the amusement didn't reach his eyes. “Not if I cut off your hands, too.”
Ephiny tucked her hands behind her back. “You think my sisters will stand idly by and let you do any of that?”
Draco looked around and lifted his hands up, then returned the crossbow to its previous position. “You just said you're alone.”
“I lied,” Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest and smirked.
Draco chuckled again. “It's not nice to lie to me, Amazon.”
“It's not nice to target one of our queens,” Ephiny shot back with a knowing grin. She was actually enjoying the verbal banter and hoped it gave her sisters the chance to get into place.
His chuckle turned into a guffaw of laughter that brought tears to his dark eyes. “Oh, that's rich. You're telling me Xena hooked up with a queen of the damned Amazons? Leave it to her to find some barbarian bitch to take to her bed. That's just perfect.”
“I'm not telling you anything,” Ephiny tried not to let him see her chagrin for having said too much.
“Oh, but you just did, Amazon,” Draco's expression sobered instantly. “Good to know, too. That will certainly make things interesting tomorrow. I can't wait to see her face or the faces of your sisters when I throw that little detail into the mix.” Several of his soldiers converged on their position. “Now, I hope you enjoy the accommodations for the evening. I'd offer you refreshment, but we're fresh out of Amazon wine. Take her to where we're keeping the others, boys.”
Ephiny looked beyond Draco's shoulder and realized she didn't stand a chance of escape. Two thugs stood behind Draco with swords held at the ready and two more stepped up behind her, grabbing her upper arms before she could react. One thug quickly removed the dagger from her belt and held the sharp blade at her throat.
“Give me a reason, Amazon,” he hissed in her ear.
Draco chuckled. “My men are just itching to spill some Amazon blood. A few of them served under Krykus when war broke out between the centaurs and Amazons. They were pissed when Queen Melosa and Tyldus turned the tables on Krykus and killed him.”
“He was my best friend,” the man with the dagger to her throat hissed. “We grew up in the same village together. I should just slit your throat right here for what you bitches did to him.”
“Dragging him behind two centaurs until his body was unrecognizable was too good for what he did,” Ephiny shot back with a menacing grin. “Krykus was a bastard who deserved to die for his betrayal. Melosa wanted nothing more than to make him suffer a long and painful death for starting the war between our tribe and the centaurs. But Tyldus was too angry and upset over his son's death. Krykus should have planned that better. Using centaur arrows to kill a centaur was just plain stupid.”
“It wasn't supposed to happen like that,” the man hissed. “That arrow was meant for one of you Amazons, not for him. How were we to know the idiot centaur would rush in like that and put himself in harm's way, just to save one of you?”
Ephiny glared at him. “He saved my life that day, you pig. Turns out Phantes was a better man than any of you ever will be. Taking that arrow to the heart sealed the alliance between the Amazons and centaurs.”
“All right, all right,” Draco put a hand up between them. “Enough talk. Wash that crap off her, then throw her in the pit with the others. We don't have time for idle chitchat. There's too much to do before tomorrow.” His gaze met Ephiny's. “Time enough later to take revenge against the Amazons.”
The two thugs tied her hands behind her back and then roughly dragged her over to a barrel. Lifting the barrel, they unceremoniously dumped the contents over her head. Water poured over her, washing away most of the black paint and revealing the Amazon beneath.
They then escorted her, soaking wet, toward a stand of trees on the other side of the encampment. Ephiny knew the woods fairly well, but was unprepared for what came next. One of the men reached down, yanked on something in the grass and lifted a hidden trap door to reveal a large pit in the ground. Several frightened faces looked up expectantly, as her two captors shoved her forward and she dropped to the ground below.
Unable to put her hands out to cushion her fall, Ephiny landed hard on her stomach and waited for the air to return to her lungs. The door above closed with a resounding click and a metal pin slid into place. She glanced up and realized the door was too high for her to reach and the pit was large enough to hold about twenty prisoners. She then took in the expectant faces looking at her, as she rolled to her back, climbed to her feet and looked for a way out.
“Don't bother,” a man to her right and steeped in shadow uttered quietly. “There's no escape and you wouldn't get far if you could. Draco's men would just hunt you down and kill you.”
He stepped forward and Ephiny could see that he was about Gabrielle's height and sported a shock of blond hair the color of winter wheat on his head. But that's where the similarity ended. He had a stubbly growth of beard on his weathered face and his eyes were the color of pale amber.
“Who are you people?” She asked, as she glanced at them each in turn.
There were two young girls—twins—who clung to each other and several adults who just stared back at her with vacant eyes. Some of them had soot on their clothes and faces. One woman, however, stepped forward and crossed her arms defiantly over her chest.
“You're an Amazon,” the woman stated with suspicion.
“I am,” Ephiny nodded, then warily eyed the woman.
“There's a rumor that one of our own went to live with the Amazons,” the woman with mousy-brown hair and the looks of a homely peasant said. “That true?”
“Depends,” Ephiny glared at the woman. “I don't know who you people are.”
“We're what's left of the servants who served the Conqueror at the keep in Surra,” the woman motioned toward the bedraggled people behind her. “Name's Nora. I was in charge of the kitchen help and the maids.”
Ephiny's expression turned cold at the mention of the woman's name. She'd heard that name before.
“I heard that job belonged to someone else,” Ephiny's tone held no emotion.
Nora bristled. “No way an Amazon would hear nothin' ‘bout the Conqueror's business, ‘lessn you know the woman personally.”
“I do,” Ephiny stood her ground as Nora tried to intimidate her with an angry glare. “I'm not scared of a bully who gets someone else to rape and beat an innocent woman half to death, then leaves her to die. You make me sick.”
Several of the others gasped at her words. Nora just smirked.
“I ain't no bully,” she sneered and turned her back on the Amazon. “And the Conqueror's whore got what she deserved. She needed a lesson in what's what.”
Ephiny launched herself at the woman's back and took Nora down in a tangle of limbs. Ephiny went berserk as she wrapped her legs around the woman and head-butted her several times. She couldn't use her arms with her hands tied behind her back, but that didn't stop her from kicking the woman over and over. Her blows were sure as she opened several wounds on the woman's face. Ephiny couldn't seem to stop herself, even when the woman whimpered and begged her to stop. She just kept right on kicking away and watched with satisfaction as the woman bled.
“Stop!” Nora cried, as she raised her arms to block the blows to her face. “Someone…please…”
But no one moved a muscle to help her. No one dared. They'd seen the crazed look in the Amazon's eyes in that brief instant before the attack. Besides, not a single one was allied to the woman who had gotten them all into their present predicament.
“Nora's the one responsible for everything,” one of the twins piped in. “We saw her with Draco. She was his spy and told on us when we tried to do stuff. She's the one got Traecus killed. She's also the one got Gabrielle sent away.”
Ephiny paused with a heel poised to strike and looked up at the girls. Only one of them spoke to her. The other just nodded mutely.
“Then she is the one responsible for what happened to Gabrielle?” Ephiny knew the answer, as she looked down at the bloody, battered and swollen face. “You bitch!”
No amount of crying or begging on Nora's part could deter Ephiny from giving her the sound beating the regent felt she deserved. Ephiny recalled what Gabrielle looked like during those first few days after she was brought to the Amazon village, as she kicked out in anger. She also remembered how much pain Gabrielle was in, even after she was finally able to leave the healer's hut.
“Will you kill her for what she did to Traecus?” The girl's small voice interrupted Ephiny's tirade and stopped her in mid-kick again.
The regent looked down at Nora and lowered her foot to the ground. Each breath heaved in her chest, as she scooted off the battered woman, managed to get to her feet and walked over to a shadowy corner of the pit. Everyone made room for her and no one lifted a finger to help Nora. They just left her lying on the dirt floor in a pool of her own blood.
Ephiny sat down with her back against the dirt wall and tried to catch her breath. Her arms ached from having her hands tied behind her back, but she ignored the discomfort. She leaned her forehead on her upraised knees and tried to slow her breathing, as well as her racing heart.
Someone sat down next to her. She raised her head and met two pairs of innocent eyes.
“You're her friend, aren't you?” The toe-headed girl said, as Ephiny turned slightly so the girl could untie her hands.
“My name's Ephiny,” the regent smiled half-heartedly, as the rope came free and she rubbed her wrists.
“I'm Trika and she's Besine,” the girl said with a slight lisp. “Besine hasn't spoken a word since our parents died. That's when we went to live at the keep.”
“You were servants, too?”
“We had chores,” Trika shrugged. “Xena didn't want anyone to think we were getting special treatment, just ‘cause we were kids.”
“Ah,” Ephiny nodded and glanced at the red marks on her wrists.
“Do those hurt?” Trika winced.
“Not really,” Ephiny glanced over at Nora, who hadn't moved. “I just wish my hands hadn't been tied when I went after her. Using my fists would have been a lot more satisfying after what she did to our queen.”
“Who's your queen?” Trika asked expectantly. “Is she really nice? Will she let us come live with you if we ask really nicely and promise to do chores for her?”
Ephiny couldn't help but smile at the girl's exuberance. “You've met her, actually,” she answered. “Her name is Gabrielle.”
It took a moment for that to sink in with Trika, but Besine's eyes widened instantly.
“Gabrielle?” Trika repeated. “She's your queen?”
Ephiny chuckled. “Yes, she is. It's a very long story. I'm sure she'll want to tell it to you herself. But it began when Nora had her beaten in the keep at Surra.”
Trika glanced over to the still-unconscious woman. “She's not nice. She used to make us empty the chamber pots and clean them out with soap that made our eyes sting. Besine and me always went to bed crying when we had to do that. If we didn't do it right, she would hit or kick us. She even hit Besine so hard once that she gave her a bloody nose. Right, Besine?” Besine nodded.
Ephiny wrapped an arm around each girl's shoulders. “I don't think Nora is going to bother either of you again. Her days of bullying people are over.”
Trika rested her head against the Amazon's shoulder. “You're really nice. I'm glad they put you down here with us.” Then she lifted her head and looked up at Ephiny with surprise. “Why are you all wet?”
“Long story,” Ephiny just chuckled.
Ephiny glanced up at the trap door above and her expression sobered. Yeah, that was still a problem. She tried to take comfort in her new role as protector, but it was hard to do under the circumstances. She just hoped Margalene and the others managed to escape. Maybe they would be able to go for help and return with a rescue party. One could hope.
A moment later, the sound of metal grating on wood had all their attention on the door above. Then several women dropped into the pit. The women were soaking wet, as well. Margalene was the first to glance around and spot Ephiny.
“Regent,” she said, as she moved over to sit next to Ephiny.
“Oh, for the love of the gods,” Ephiny sighed in exasperation. “Didn't I tell you not to follow me, Margalene?”
“We didn't,” Margalene glanced at the two girls on either side of the regent. “Draco's goons flushed us out, so to speak, and brought us here.” She glared at her surroundings. “Nice place you got here, your highness. I guess we now know what happened to those people Xena saw on those crosses.” She caught sight of the blond man across the pit from them. “I take it he's the one Xena mistook for the queen?”
Ephiny nodded. “Like our digs?” Ephiny decided to play along and actually glanced around, too. “I'm thinking of having the decorator's head lopped off, though. It's a bit too cramped for my tastes.” She then glanced at Nora. “And it's so hard to find good help these days.”
Margalene and the other Amazons stared at her in bewilderment, as they tried to gauge if the regent was serious or…
“It was a joke,” Ephiny stated flatly and rolled her eyes. “I swear you guys are so easy.”
They all breathed a collective sigh of relief and joined her. Margalene noticed the other people huddled on the far side of the pit.
“Who are these people, your highness?” Rayna asked in a loud whisper. “And what's with her?”
“Oh, they're just some strays I picked up along the way,” Ephiny waved a negligent hand. “Actually, they're servants from the keep at Surra. These girls, too.” She squeezed their shoulders protectively. “Nora, over there, was responsible for Gabrielle's condition when she was first brought to us.”
“You the one who beat her?” Margalene shot Ephiny a curious look and received a nod in answer. “And why are the rest of them here?”
Ephiny rolled her eyes. “Draco brought them with him for a reason that eludes me at the moment. I really didn't get the chance to ask him what his plans are for any of us.”
“Ephiny beat the daylights outta her,” Trika piped in with a proud grin. “And now we're going to live with Queen Gabrielle.”
“Your highness?” Rayna shot the regent a confused look.
“Trika and Besine,” Ephiny nodded to the two girls. “Meet the Amazons. Amazons, meet Trika and Besine.”
Besine beamed a gap-toothed smile, while Trika merely nodded at the intimidating women.
“I still don't get it,” Margalene added. “Who are these kids?”
“Queen Gabrielle knows them,” Ephiny smirked. “They were all servants together in the Conqueror's keep at Surra.”
Margalene shook her head in confusion. “Wasn't Queen Gabrielle headed to Surra to liberate the keep?”
“Draco burned the keep,” Trika said. “He said he didn't want Xena returning there to live after the war is over.”
They all exchanged bewildered looks.
“Oh, boy,” Ephiny sighed heavily. “Draco mentioned something about a package that his men were to intercept and bring here. I think he plans on grabbing Gabrielle and using her against Xena somehow.”
“Ares' left nut,” Margalene added. “This does not bode well.”
“You can say that again,” Rayna added with a shake of her head.
A big storm was brewing by the time they reached the caves. They picketed the Amazons' horses in a thicket far enough away that the skittish beasts wouldn't alert anyone to their presence. Then the hundred or so painted Amazon warriors, armed with swords and bows and arrows, traveled the rest of the way on foot. Xena ordered her men to hang back until everything was in place and Xena gave them the signal. The men blended into the shadows and would not be seen by the few sentries guarding the perimeter. The Amazons in their white paint, however, struck an eerie contrast as flashes of lightning pierced the darkness.
Xena knew they were right on target the instant she caught a whiff of horses and campfires on the stiff breeze. She motioned for silence, as she crept along with the Amazons. She then sent a silent signal to Eponin for the Amazons to take to the trees. The women disappeared in the canopy above and positioned themselves as close to the caves as possible.
Hunkering down in some bushes just beyond the dozen or more caves and the bright campfires that dotted the entrances, Xena watched and listened to Draco's men. There were thirty men sitting around three campfires directly in front of her. They were drinking and laughing animatedly about something. Xena tuned out everything around her, including the gathering storm, and concentrated on the conversation.
“…damned woman won't know what hit her when we're through,” a tattooed bald guy said, as he raised his mug and downed its contents in several gulps.
“Yeah,” another agreed. “Conqueror my ass!” He spat on the ground next to him. “Woman's not worth the air she's been breathin' since birth. Bah!” He slapped his tattooed friend on the shoulder and downed the contents of his mug. “Now, Draco! He's a good ‘un ta keep us separate from the rest o' the army. ‘Twill be a sight ta see when we go chargin' in from behind her measly bunch. They'll be scattering like fleas or wettin' themselves, that's for sure.”
A woman stepped forward to fill their cups and Xena recognized her as one of the servants from the keep at Surra. The woman's face was bruised, her hair was in a tangled mess and her clothes were no more than rags hanging on her gaunt frame, but something in her eyes caught Xena's attention.
After refilling all their cups and watching them drink, the woman leaned toward the tattooed guy and whispered something in his ear. The man's expression went from amused to angry to terrified in the space of a heartbeat. He suddenly shot up from the log he'd been sitting on and grabbed the woman by the throat.
“Damned woman just poisoned us all!” He shouted to his comrades, as he squeezed her throat in his hand. “You'll die, too, bitch!”
“Not before you do, bastard!” She rasped and then spit in his face.
As if on cue, the man suddenly doubled over and retched onto the ground at his feet. Those around him did the same and soon the place was filled with the sounds of retching men.
Xena realized her chance was at hand. She stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled loudly. A barrage of arrows flew from the trees and hit their marks. Men who had been retching only moments before suddenly toppled to the ground with arrows protruding from their bodies.
More men poured out of the caves. Some of them were armed, while others were just curious to know what was going on. Another barrage of arrows flew from the trees and took down many of them where they stood.
Shouts rang out from Draco's men, but chaos also ensued. Some of them tried to figure out where the arrows were coming from, while others just dove into the bushes for cover.
Xena hunkered down lower in her hiding place and waited patiently for someone to take charge of the chaotic scene. But when it became clear that no one would, she merely whistled another signal and watched as fifty Amazons dropped from the trees during a particularly bright flash of lightning and a loud rumble of thunder. The timing couldn't have been more perfect, Xena mused, as several of the men froze in shock.
Screams of terror erupted from those closest to the trees, as the Amazons poured into the chaos with swords drawn and took down as many men as possible. Xena then watched more men pour from the caves. Those men wore their battle gear and carried their swords at the ready. When they saw the painted warriors in their midst, they charged into the fray.
Blood from the dead and dying coated the Amazons and mingled with the white paint on their bodies. They were a terrifying sight to behold, as they charged into the encampment like eerie specters and took down those in their path. But the men who poured out of the caves were not as easily intimidated by the painted and bloodied warriors in their midst. They engaged the women in combat, just as they would any other enemy.
Xena issued a third signal and then gave her signature battle cry. She drew her sword from its sheath at her back and charged from the bushes, as the remaining Amazons dropped from the trees and the Corinthian horsemen charged into the fray. The scene turned into a nightmare of clashing swords, screaming Amazons, and blood. Draco's men found themselves in the midst of horses, men and painted warriors who looked more like banshees than women.
More than a hundred men scattered into the trees and kept right on running. Others tried to fight against their own terror, as they found themselves fighting for their very lives. Still others jumped into the chaos and fought valiantly against the foe in their midst.
Xena engaged more than a dozen men at once. Quickly disarming a soldier closest to her, she used his sword and her own to drive the other men back. Twirling both swords in a blur, she took out three soldiers at once and another three who charged her from the other side. Instincts primed for battle and her bloodlust unleashed, Xena went on a rampage that took down every soldier within reach. Her swords flew left and right, forward and backward in a blinding blur.
The two swords became extensions of her arms as she slashed, thrusted, parried and plowed her way through the press of men. She was relentless in her attacks and felt a thrill of sexual energy race through her as she shoved one blade into the belly of an adversary and lopped off the head of another. She pulled the first blade free and felt the spray of warm blood hit her. It was intoxicating and completely unleashed the sleeping beast within.
Her senses came alive, as the bloodlust pounded through her entire body. The mark on the back of her neck burned, but the pain was nothing compared to the ecstasy that made her hyperaware of every movement, sound and smell that reached her. She was on fire with sensations, as a whisper of movement glanced off her left side and she swung her sword in a blur in that direction.
The blade sliced cleanly through the midsection of an attacker and his entrails spilled onto the ground at her feet. But Xena didn't notice, as she continued a direct path through the soldiers in front of her and onward toward the mouth of one cave in particular.
Grabbing a fallen spear from the ground, she quickly sheathed her sword and threw the other into the chest of yet another charging soldier. Xena drove the point of the spear into the ground and used it to fling herself around in a circle with a loud battle cry. She kicked and jabbed the men within reach, shattering bone and cartilage with the heels of her boots, until not a single one was left standing. Then she yanked the spear up out of the ground and threw it through the chests of another four charging soldiers.
She drew her sword again and continued on with single-minded determination. The men in her path didn't stand a chance as she hacked, slashed and pounded her way to the cave entrance. And even when she made it to the opening, she just continued to plow her way through until she reached the interior.
What she found inside made her hackles rise and her blood run cold, even as the bloodlust continued to throb within her. The cave was mostly deserted. Most of the soldiers had already poured outside to engage the enemy, leaving a handful of people huddled near the very back wall.
Xena gingerly approached the small group of women and children huddled beneath a stone ledge. Her breath heaving and her body throbbing, she didn't trust herself to get too close to them. So she just stood several paces away.
“Who are you?” Xena's voice pierced the silence that hung over the large room.
One gray head lifted from the group and a wrinkled face met Xena's glare. “You know exactly who we are, child.”
“Agatha?” Surprise tinged Xena's voice. “Is it really you?”
Agatha shuffled forward, while the others continued to huddle together. The old woman looked much the worse for wear than the last time Xena had seen her. Her clothing hung limply on her bony frame and her gray hair—usually kept in a neat bun at the nape of her neck—was matted and tangled.
“Stop gaping like a confused kid. Yes, it's really me, Xena,” Agatha smiled sadly. “Who else would I be? And it's about damned time you finally showed up.”
“I…” Xena shook herself, as her senses tingled a warning just before a stray soldier charged her from behind. She didn't think about what she did. She merely reacted to the threat and dispatched the man with a quick backward thrust of her blade into his gut. She yanked the blade free and spun around to dispatch him completely. As he fell at her feet, she turned back to the frightened women and children. “We need to get you out of here and to safety. This place is crawling with Draco's soldiers.”
“I agree,” Agatha replied, as she signaled to the still-huddled group. “Come on, everyone, time to make our escape.”
Xena moved ahead of the group to the cave entrance and then stopped. “Are there others?” She asked the older woman behind her.
“We're the only ones that I know of,” Agatha answered. “Draco sent us along with these men to see to their needs.”
“How many men are there?”
“There were about a thousand when we started out,” Agatha answered. “But several of us were able to do what we could to thin their numbers.”
“Poison?” Xena's brow quirked at the woman.
“Among other things,” Agatha chuckled wryly. “They tried to keep a close eye on us, but they had other things on their minds. Maida was especially helpful when it came to slitting the throat of two or three of them or poisoning their drink. I really don't know how many soldiers she killed. But remind me not to get on her bad side. That woman's got a mean streak a league wide and knows her poisons, too.” She crossed her arms over her chest and shot Xena a knowing grin. “She was poisoning some of the soldiers outside when the ones in here, who were bunking down for the night, suddenly grabbed their weapons and poured outside like a pack of rabid wolves,” Agatha added.
“She succeeded,” Xena smirked. “Took out enough of them to make our job a bit easier.”
“Good for her,” Agatha stepped forward next to Xena and finally caught a glimpse of the scene playing out in front of the caves. “Oh, my!” She gasped, as several ghostly-white Amazons chased a dozen of Draco's men past the cave entrance. “What in the world?”
“All part of the plan,” Xena watched several of Draco's men veer off and head towards her. “Stay here and don't come out until it's safe.”
Xena then charged toward the men and hacked and slashed her way through them. Not a single one was left standing as Xena tore through their midst with her bloody sword. She then turned back to see that Agatha was watching her curiously and signaled for the woman and her charges to follow her.
Agatha didn't hesitate. She herded her charges toward Xena.
“Don't look around,” she ordered. “Just keep your eyes on Xena and keep right on going.”
The group made it to the bushes and disappeared through them, as Eponin, her Amazons and the Corinthian cavalrymen continued their assault on Draco's troops. A moment after Xena and her charges disappeared beneath the protective canopy, the skies opened up and released a deluge that put the fires out and started the process of washing the ground clean of blood.
Gabrielle and her retinue pushed their mounts as fast as possible throughout the long night and into the dawn of a new day. They knew there was a measure of urgency to reach Xena and the army, but Solari was also adamant that they take frequent breaks to let Gabrielle rest. Gabrielle wasn't up to arguing with the woman's logic, even if she'd wanted to. She just didn't have the energy or the focus to do so.
The sun was breaking over the horizon in golden hues by the time they passed the last deserted building and left the road for the cover of the trees. They figured there were patrols out and about. Enemy patrols. Draco would want to know if anyone was trying to flank him. But they were trying to avoid Draco and his army and had veered northwest in an effort to stay far away from them.
“I'm calling another halt,” Solari leaned over her saddle and eyed the grayish pallor of the woman next to her. “You're not looking good at all, My Queen.”
Gabrielle didn't argue. She just pulled on the reins of her bay gelding and winced when he jerked to a halt. Every movement she made was painful and had beads of sweat dotting her brow. But she was bound and determined not to make a fuss, not to groan or make a sound. She was the queen and she'd made the decision to continue on.
“We should be far enough away from the road to make a small fire and heat some food,” Solari's tone was hushed, as she spoke to those around her. “Melva, you and Mara take care of the prisoner.” She received quick nods from the two women. “The rest of you get to work on that fire. Keep it small, just in case.”
Solari dismounted and glanced up at the woman still seated on the horse next to hers. She noted the lines of fatigue and the pale features. Gabrielle hadn't uttered a single protest or sound during that entire leg of the journey. But Solari could see the toll Gabrielle's injuries were taking on her.
“I can't,” the weakly uttered words caught Solari by surprise.
“My Queen?” The newly-promoted captain of the queen's guard moved around to stand next to the tall bay. “Hey, Gabrielle?” She gently laid a hand on the blonde's bare thigh.
Gabrielle turned her head slightly and looked into Solari's concerned eyes. “I can't move, Sol.” She said through clenched teeth, as she took a few shallow breaths and tried not to let the tears fall. “I…can't,” she finished.
Solari's brow furrowed. “You want us to help you down?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I'm afraid if I get down I'll never get back up here again.” The gelding chose that moment to shake a fly loose and nearly unseated her in the process. It was all she could do to stay in the saddle. “ Urrrrgh! ” Eyes tightly shut, she clenched her teeth and waited for the intense pain and nausea to subside.
“Hang in there, My Queen,” Solari encouraged with a gentle pat to Gabrielle's leg. “We'll think of something. Just sit tight.”
Sitting tight was her only option, Gabrielle mused. She was more tensely strung than an Amazon bowstring and just as likely to snap. There was no help for it. If she even tried to relax, the pain just intensified to the point that she was ready to just fall right out of the saddle and die where she lay. But that wasn't an option. So she just sat there, ramrod straight with her eyes squeezed shut.
Tears streaked down her cheeks and she knew they were there, but she also knew she couldn't raise her hands to wipe them away. Broken ribs. Who knew they could be so painful? And who knew every little movement could bring such intense agony?
Xena. That's who. Gabrielle conjured an image of her dark-haired, blue-eyed, smiling lover and kept it firmly locked in her mind's eye. Xena's silky voice washed over her and chased away the worst of the pain. Words of encouragement dancing on lips as luscious as a ripe, juicy grape and just as delicious.
“My Queen?” Solari's voice broke into Gabrielle's reverie and snapped her back to the present.
“I sent two of the scouts on ahead to see if they can pinpoint the Conqueror's army,” Solari said. “Mara found a better place not far away that we can use to hold up in for a time until they return. It's surrounded by dense underbrush and will afford us much better cover than this. Do you think you can hold on until we get there?”
“Do I…have a choice?” Gabrielle couldn't help the catch in her voice. “Let's just get on with it, Sol—before I embarrass us all by falling off this damned horse.”
“Yes, your majesty,” Solari climbed easily into the saddle and waited while the rest of them did the same.
When they were all mounted up, Solari nudged her mount into a slow and steady walk. Gabrielle, who had managed to train the bay to respond to lesser commands the previous night, nudged him with a foot. The bay responded by following close behind Solari's mare. The mare swished her tail in annoyance and even kicked out a bit to get him to back off a bit, which he did.
They meandered farther away from the road and into denser underbrush, until they came to a small stream. Mara took the lead then and followed the stream for a bit. She then turned her own mount back up onto dry land and dismounted near some boulders.
“We'll need to picket the horses here and go the rest of the way on foot,” Mara said.
The Amazons made quick work of cutting some of the dense underbrush away from a small clearing. They then led most of the horses into the clearing and took care of them.
“How can we get you down from there, My Queen?” Solari looked up expectantly.
“I honestly don't know,” Gabrielle said on a reserved half-sigh.
She tried to lift one leg over the saddle bow, but stopped immediately when that slightest action had sent a bolt of sharp pain radiating through her side. Knowing there was nothing to do but just go for it, Gabrielle leaned forward, hugged the bay's neck and slid her entire body out of the saddle in one swift motion.
It was a good thing that Solari was there to catch her, because as soon as Gabrielle's feet hit the ground she collapsed. Her legs just wouldn't hold her anymore.
“I got ya,” Solari managed to wrap her arms around Gabrielle's body, when she heard a heart-wrenching groan escape the woman's lips. “A little help over here, sisters!” She called.
Three women were instantly there to offer their support. They gingerly lay Gabrielle down in the short grass and then looked to Solari for further orders.
“We need a litter,” Solari motioned for them to get to work. “We'll transport her to Mara's secret hideout that way, rather than try to carry her in.”
Solari knelt next to Gabrielle and the deep furrowed brow and lines of tension etched on her youthful features. Sweat trickled down the queen's brow, as she breathed shallowly and kept her eyes tightly shut.
“Gimme a second,” Gabrielle ground out.
“No problem, your majesty.” Solari placed a comforting hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and waited patiently. “We have a skin of fresh water here. Do you need a drink?”
“Another sec,” Gabrielle answered, as she tried not to pass out. The pain was so intense that she could barely breathe. “Jus…”
“It's okay, Gabrielle,” Solari brushed the damp hair away from the woman's forehead with the backs of her fingers. “Take your time. We're not going anywhere yet.”
Gabrielle concentrated on breathing. The world was spinning behind her closed eyes, even though she knew she was lying down. Each shallow breath sent pain stabbing deep into her side and radiated throughout her torso. It was agony. She'd pushed it. Pushed her battered body too far. Now she was paying the price of her pride and her single-minded determination to reach Xena.
More tears slipped from her eyes and rolled into the damp hair at her temple, as her thoughts turned to Xena. Was it so wrong to want to reach her lover and be wrapped in those strong arms? Was it wrong to want to feel safe and protected again? To know that someone else was in charge and would make the decisions she felt she was incapable of making? So much had happened and so much responsibility had been heaped on her young shoulders in such a short time. It was overwhelming. It was…
“Gabrielle?” A gentle hand on her shoulder brought her back from the edge of a dark abyss so deep she didn't know if she could have ever returned.
“Yes?” She answered in a voice rough from crying.
“The litter is ready,” Solari continued. “We just need to lift you onto it.”
Gabrielle kept her eyes tightly shut and just nodded. She didn't want to look at the worried faces of the Amazons—her Amazons. Her sisters. Her responsibility. They were counting on her to be their queen—counting on her to lead them. But that wasn't possible at the moment. She couldn't think of anything but the pain and misery.
And then she was gently lifted and set back down. She tried not to cry out when her ribs ground together, but heard a small whimper and knew it came from her lips. She just waited. Waited for the pain to subside enough that she wasn't sinking into that abyss again. Waited for the murmured voices around her to subside. Waited for the world to stop spinning behind her closed lids. And she waited for her shallow pants to slow.
The litter she was on moved. She felt a slight jolt and heard a murmured “Apologies, your majesty.” She was floating then. Eyes still tightly shut, she just lay there and felt the gentle sway of the makeshift carrier. They passed through the denser brush. Something scratched her arm. And then she was lying in the cool shade on a bed of pine boughs.
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open and she looked up into the expectant face of Solari.
“Better?” Solari asked, as she pressed the end of a skin to Gabrielle's lips.
Gabrielle drank her fill of the sweet, cool water. It was refreshing and actually worked to lift her spirits slightly.
“Better,” she sighed in relief, as her body actually relaxed for the first time in what seemed like ages. “Thank you, Sol. You don't know how glad I am to be off that horse.”
“Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea,” Solari put in with a wry grin. “Your face kinda says it all. It's not scrunched in agony as much as it was before. And your color is coming back, too.” She took a small cloth and wet it with some water from the skin, then gently wiped Gabrielle's face with it. “We should have stopped candlemarks ago, your majesty.”
“I know,” Gabrielle agreed tiredly. “I'm an idiot. I admit it. Gabrielle, idiot queen of the Thracian Amazons.”
“You're stubborn, I'll give you that,” Solari added with a short snicker. “Probably a trait of you queens, though. Melosa was just as stubborn. It's probably what killed her.”
Gabrielle's eyes met Solari's. “Why do you say that?”
“Those of us who were close to her knew she wasn't feeling well, long before the poison took her down,” Solari shook her head at the thought. “If I hadn't been terrified of going against her wishes, I probably would have said something. I didn't and she's dead because of it.”
“It wasn't your fault, Sol,” Gabrielle reached over enough to put a hand on Solari's. “Melosa was poisoned by someone she trusted implicitly. Sehran is the one who killed her, not you.”
Solari sighed heavily. “Still,” she continued. “Maybe if I'd said something—tried to intervene or get her to at least stop drinking that damned wine—Melosa would still be alive today. Things just might be different than they are right now.” She cocked her head and ran the cloth against Gabrielle's brow. “You wouldn't be laying here in so much pain.”
Gabrielle considered Solari's words for a moment. “Things happen for a reason, Sol,” she finally said. “I have to believe that.” She turned her head and glanced over to where Sehran was tightly bound to the trunk of a tree. “Maybe I'm not meant to fight in this battle alongside Xena. Maybe it's something she has to do without me. It's possible the Fates knew what was coming and found a way to keep me away. Or maybe one of the gods is responsible. I don't know. I just know that I'm not going anywhere anytime soon.”
“You want me to make you some more of that willow bark tea?” Solari asked hopefully. “It might take the edge off.”
“That would be great, Sol. Thanks,” Gabrielle nodded and let her eyes drift shut.
She let herself sink down into the darkness, as a pair of blue eyes framed by dark hair and a brilliant smile danced in her mind's eye.
“Your men failed, Marco!!!” Draco kicked a chair and watched it fly across the tent. He marched over to the man and towered over him. “You said they wouldn't fail and they did!!!”
“I'm s-sorry, m'lord,” Marco stared up into rage-filled brown eyes glaring back at him. “They looked everywhere, searched every road from here to Amphipolis and found no sign of her. It seems she just…vanished.”
Draco backhanded the man so swiftly that Marco never saw the blow coming. His head snapped to the side and blood trickled from his lip. He reached up and wiped it away, then met Draco's gaze again.
“EXCUSES!!!” Draco raised his fist and struck the man against the jaw so hard that Marco went flying. Then he lowered his voice to a menacing growl. “You promised me results, Marco. You PROMISED to bring her to me. And I BELIEVED you!!!”
Marco tried to regain his feet and found himself hauled to them, instead, as Draco grabbed his vest and threw him across the tent.
“My Lord!” Marco cried, as he landed on a table and it collapsed beneath his weight.
Draco pulled the dagger from his belt and stalked toward the man with menace and death in his dark eyes. “Save it for Hades, Marco,” he growled, as he grabbed the man by the hair and rammed the blade into Marco's gut. “Tell him I said hello, by the way. I'll be sending him some more souls shortly. I'm sure he'll be pleased.”
Marco's eyes widened and he gasped one last time as his life ebbed from his body and he collapsed in a heap at Draco's feet. The warlord-turned-tyrant smiled wickedly, as he wiped the bloody blade on the dead man's tunic.
“I'm coming for you, Xena,” Draco chuckled maniacally and left the tent.
Everything was ready. The army. The Amazons. The catapults were positioned just right for a full-on attack. Only one thing was missing—Ephiny. The Amazon hadn't returned with her contingent and Xena had a sinking feeling something had gone wrong long before the lone painted Amazon rode into camp at dawn. Ephiny and the others had been captured.
Xena stood with her hands on her hips and watched her men prepare for battle. They were primed. They were ready. And so was she. She wanted to get it over with. She wanted to get back to living her life. She wanted…
The thought brought a wistful smile to her features. She knew exactly what she wanted and it wasn't the life she'd had before she met the spunky young woman who had turned her entire world upside down. Nope. She wanted Gabrielle. Xena was ready to spend the rest of her life with the woman who swept in and stole her heart—share her hopes and dreams and so much more. She was even willing to start a family with her soul's mate, if that's what Gabrielle wanted. She was ready to do whatever it took to make Gabrielle happy.
But first things first.
She had a war to win and a thorn in her side to remove and annihilate once and for all. Draco was no longer just an enemy to be trampled into dust. He was no longer a mere annoyance. He was a cheat—a rotten, filthy scoundrel who kept disrupting her plans. His lowlife maggot ways needed to be crushed beneath her boot heel.
“Everyone make it back okay?” Eponin's cheery voice intruded on her dour mood. “I saw ya escortin' a bunch of people from one of them caves last night. They looked a little worse for wear.”
“They were,” Xena nodded and noticed the woman was no longer wearing the white paint. “We made it back just fine. And your Amazons?”
“A few scratches and bruises,” Eponin shrugged. “Nothin' worth mentioning. I think we scared ‘em and confused ‘em good, just like you said. They couldn't figure out what all the white and black was about. Most of ‘em took off for the hills. A bunch stayed and tried to fight. Those cavalry guys really knew their stuff and trampled some of ‘em good.” She beamed proudly. “I can add a few more feathers to my collection, just as soon as I tell Eph what we did. Oh, and it took us a while to get all the damned white paint and blood off, when we got back. I'm really curious to know what you put in it that made it so damned itchy.”
“Ancient Chinese secret,” Xena deadpanned.
“Chiya, right,” Eponin chuckled. “I'm still scratchin'.” And she did just that.
“About Ephiny,” Xena turned her head to look at the amused weapons master. “They're not back yet.”
“Yeah,” Eponin's brow furrowed in concern. “I talked to Queen Grenella when I got back. She's a little worried. Although, she was also fussin' over one of those women you brought in, so I don't know what she was more worried about.”
“Agatha,” Xena commented absently, as she returned her attention to her men. “They're life mates.”
“Ah, that explains it,” Eponin nodded sagely. “Kinda explains a lot. I remember seein' that one when Queen Gabrielle first came to us. She was…”
“She's my mother's sister,” Xena cut in.
Eponin's eyes widened, but she didn't get the chance to comment further, because Xena's commander suddenly appeared next to them.
“Conqueror,” Braes saluted.
“Yeeeessss?” She didn't bother to look at him.
“Two Amazon scouts rode in just moments ago,” he said.
“And I care, why?” She shot a glance at Eponin. “You should be telling her this, not me.”
“They just came in from one of their queens,” Braes continued. “They're in your tent. Said they've been journeying from Surra—”
She rounded on him in an instant, eyes flashing with fire as she grabbed his armor and lifted him off the ground.
“Y-yes, Conqueror,” he wiggled his feet and realized they were no longer touching the ground.
“Which queen?” Xena hissed into his face.
“A Queen Gab—”
She dropped him back to his feet as suddenly as she had lifted him. He spared a quick glance at the Amazon, then they both watched Xena's long strides carry her quickly in the direction of her tent. Braes then righted his armor and blew out an exasperated breath.
“Why the hades do I even bother?” He groused, as he took off in the other direction, leaving a stunned Eponin still standing there.
She didn't stand there for long, though. Quickly making a decision, she followed in Xena's wake and made her way to the army's command tent that also doubled as Xena's quarters.
Xena reached her tent and burst right in without warning. She saw the two startled Amazons and crossed the room to stand in front of them.
“Where's Gabrielle?” Xena eyed both shorter women suspiciously. “Why isn't she with you?”
“We were sent ahead,” the stouter of the two answered as she crossed her arms defiantly. “The queen is…um…”
“She wasn't able to make it this far,” the taller and more slender of the two put in. “She was injured last night.”
“Jaela,” the stout one shot her companion a warning glare.
“Oh, please, Dromedra,” Jaela just rolled her eyes. “Do you really think her majesty wanted us to come all this way just so we could dance around the truth? She pushed us beyond the limits of human endurance just to get us this far. It's not her fault she couldn't make it the rest of the way.”
They both looked up to see Eponin enter the tent. Both women bowed in deference to the weapons master.
Xena looked from one to the other and rolled her own eyes in frustration. “Enough!” She shouted. “Tell me what happened. Why isn't Gabrielle here?”
“Yeah, talk, you two,” Eponin put in with a scowl. “What ain't ya tellin' us?”
Jaela shot Dromedra a questioning look.
“Don't look at me, Jae. You're the one who opened this particular bag of hydras,” Dromedra shrugged. “Might as well tell them the whole sordid tale now.”
“Eeeyah,” Jaela ran a hand through her short-cropped blond hair. “Okay, so we went to Surra and it was deserted. Well, not exactly deserted. Her majesty and Sol went there to scout it out and discovered Draco had burned the place. There were bodies inside and everything was charred beyond recognition.”
Xena was only half listening as she digested the information. So, they made it to Surra okay. At least that was something.
“Queen Gabrielle went a little…um…weird after that,” Jaela continued. “They got back and she got this faraway look in her eyes and said we had to go, like, immediately. No camping for the night. We had to ride, right then and there.”
“That don't sound like her maj,” Eponin put in. “What was up?”
“She said something about a message in one of the rooms,” Dromedra supplied. “Draco must have left it when he set the place on fire. She said it was a message for her about Xena. Then we split like our leathers were on fire.”
“Yeah,” Jaela nodded. “Had to swap our horses for new ones along the way, because we ran ours nearly to death. We probably woulda made it, too, if Sehran…”
A long pause ensued, as the two Amazons glanced at each other and shared a silent exchange with their eyes alone.
“Sehran? Isn't she captain of the queen's guard?” Xena shot a look at Eponin, when neither woman continued right away.
“Yeah,” Eponin shrugged.
“Was,” Dromedra shifted uncomfortably. “'Til yesterday.”
“What happened yesterday?” Xena eyed both women, in turn.
“Sehran went on a rant,” Jaela said. “Solari was talking to her and she just started saying stuff about how the Amazons needed strong leadership, especially now that Melosa is gone. She also confessed to poisoning Queen Melosa, but said she didn't mean to kill her.”
Eponin's face contorted in anger. “Sehran is…”
“Apparently, she's one of Velasca's crazies,” Dromedra quickly added. “Admitted it right to Queen Gabrielle. She also admitted to trying to poison her latest majesty.”
“What?!?” Xena exploded.
“It didn't work,” Jaela quickly blurted, as she held up a staying hand. “Apparently both Solari and Queen Gabrielle knew what was going on when Sehran put the poison in her majesty's cider skin. Smart as she is, her majesty switched the skins when she realized what Sehran was trying to do.”
“Is that why Gabrielle couldn't make it here?” Xena tried to put the scattered pieces together, but came up with a big hole in their story.
“Um, no, not exactly,” Jaela looked to Dromedra to finish the tale.
They could both sense the agitation in the woman towering in front of them. Xena was a power to be reckoned with under normal circumstances. But they also knew how their queen felt about Xena and vice versa.
“Just spit it out, you two,” Eponin said impatiently.
“Sehran issued the challenge,” Dromedra blurted.
“What?!?” Xena exploded again.
“Actually,” Jaela held up a hand again. “The queen was amazing. Sehran is an incredible fighter—one of the best—and Queen Gabrielle managed to hold her own against her.”
“More than that,” Dromedra added with a cocky grin. “She actually took Sehran down with some moves I've never seen another Amazon use before. It was like she was going up against Ephiny, all over again. Her majesty was just that good with that little stick of hers. She actually broke Sehran's knee and knocked out some teeth. It was great.”
“Yeah, but…” Jaela met the ice-blue eyes watching them intently.
“But what?” Xena growled.
“But Sehran got in some pretty painful blows, too,” Dromedra said. “We thought, for sure, Queen Gabrielle was done-in after Sehran cracked her ribs. But the queen just got right back up and continued fighting. She didn't even look like she was hurt or anything. Then Sehran took her down again and…” Her words trailed off.
“Queen Gabrielle was down when she broke Sehran's kneecap with the tip of her staff,” Jaela finished. “The next thing we knew she was on her feet again and had her staff to Sehran's throat. She demanded that Sehran yield to her, but…”
“Sehran wanted Queen Gabrielle to kill her,” Dromedra continued. “She said she'd disgraced the Amazons and our queen by issuing the challenge and killing Melosa in the first place.”
“Queen Gabrielle spared Sehran's life,” Jaela added. “Said have to bring her here to face an Amazon tribunal.”
Xena actually scoffed. “Sehran can join Gwyn-Taleen and what's left of her bunch. They fired our own catapults against us yesterday. Took out a number of able-bodied soldiers before I could stop them.”
“Stop them?” Both Amazons said in unison.
Xena lifted a finger and pointed it at them. “They were spouting the same damned message as Velasca and Marena. Not to mention, they killed my men.”
“Yeah, they're lucky to be alive,” Eponin added with an angry scowl. “Can't believe all this crap that's been going on. Amazons turnin' on Amazons. That just ain't right.”
“Hey,” Dromedra held up her hands in surrender. “No arguments, there, Eponin. Not after what Sehran pulled with Queen Gabrielle.”
“Speaking of which, where is she?” Xena blew out a tired sigh. “Where is Gabrielle?”
“Solari and the others took her to a safe place,” Jaela answered. “They'll hole up there until they can figure a way to transport her here or someplace safer. Queen Gabrielle couldn't…um—”
“She didn't look too good when we left,” Dromedra interjected. “And she couldn't dismount the horse she was riding. I think her ribs were really bothering her.”
Xena turned away from them in order to compose her features. She swiped a hand down her face, as she tried to come up with a way to be in two places at once. Her heart was aching to go to Gabrielle, but her head told her she needed to lead the army and finish what she'd started. She just wished Ephiny wasn't in Draco's clutches. Could things get any worse?
“Eponin?” Xena glanced at the weapons master.
“We need another plan,” Xena shook her head and blew out an exasperated breath.
“I hear that, Champ,” Eponin nodded. “We can take this over to Queen Grenella. See what she thinks.”
“Good idea,” Xena nodded. “Damned Amazons,” she added on a low growl, as she stormed from the tent.
“We need a plan,” Ephiny said and looked to the expectant faces around her. “Any ideas?”
“Lure some soldiers down here and use them as hostages so we can make a break for it?” Rayna suggested.
“I don't think they're that stupid,” Margalene snorted. “Besides, what in the world would we use for weapons?”
“Bare hands,” Ephiny added. “But Margalene's right, they're not just going to come down here for no reason. We need a way to lure them down, make them think there's something wrong and convince them that we need…”
“Help!” Rayna finished excitedly. “One of us can pretend to be hurt or sick or…”
Margalene slapped a hand over the woman's mouth. “Why not use what we have already?” She pointed to Nora, who hadn't stirred at all during the night and still lay as still as death on the floor where they'd left her. “The woman that Ephiny beat the crap out of could give us just what we need to get a couple soldiers down here.”
“Definitely,” Ephiny nodded. “Let's do it.”
Rayna walked over to the trap door and cupped her hands around her mouth. She was just about to yell, when the pin slid back and the door suddenly flew open. Bright sunlight streamed down in Rayna's face and she quickly jumped back as a ladder dropped into the space.
Rayna glanced at her companions with wide eyes and shrugged as she moved back toward them. A pair of legs appeared on the ladder and descended, as several crossbows also appeared.
“Don't bother trying anything,” Draco said, as he easily hopped from the ladder to stand before them with his arms crossed over his chest. He wore a different outfit than he had the day before—a simple tunic open to reveal his muscular chest and a padded silver studded leather vest. Black leather pants tucked into boots that hugged his calves and a silver-buckled belt completed the ensemble. He wore his signature plumed headpiece and carried a sword at one hip. Three men climbed down and stood next to him. “My men will shoot you down like dogs if you even twitch, Amazon. So don't try anything stupid.” He then smiled charmingly and glanced down at Nora's prone figure. “I see we're all getting along.” He shot Ephiny a raised-browed look. “Did she comment on your attire?”
Ephiny crossed her own arms over her own chest and shot him a glare. “Not exactly.”
He eyed Nora again with far less interest and then returned his attention to those standing before him. They were a mix of bedraggled servants from Xena's keep at Surra and season Amazon warriors. The contrast was striking and didn't go unnoticed by the dark warlord. The woman standing before him was obviously someone of note to the Amazons, he realized. She was the one who kept stepping forward to address him, as if she were used to being in charge. Interesting.
“Right,” he continued with forced enthusiasm. “I have a little surprise planned for all of you. I think you're really gonna like it, too.”
“Not real fond of surprises, either,” Ephiny shot back. “You want to just tell us what you're going to do?” She wrapped her arms around the two younger girls next to her. “We'd kinda like to prepare the girls for whatever sick machinations you're going to drop on us, you pig.”
“Oh, I don't deal in sick machinations, Amazon,” he eyed her from head to toe. “But I do enjoy a good challenge.”
Ephiny smirked and then spat in his face. She wasn't quite prepared when he shot a hand out and grabbed her throat in the iron grip of one hand. His expression changed instantly from tolerant amusement to sober menace, as he slowly pulled her close to him.
“I'm going to enjoy watching you die, Amazon,” he hissed in her face, as he slowly squeezed off her air. “It'll be one of the highlights of this whole damned thing. It'll be right up there with Xena falling to her knees at my feet right before I separate her head from her shoulders, once and for all.”
Ephiny tried to take a breath, but his grip on her throat was too tight. She grabbed his hand and tried to pry it loose, but his grip was just too strong. She felt the world spin and saw everything close in, until her vision tunneled to a pinprick. Then his grip instantly let loose and she stumbled backwards. She inhaled deeply, as she grabbed her bruised throat and glared up at him.
“But this is neither the time nor place for you to die,” Draco continued in an even tone. “No,” he shook his head. “I have other plans for you. For all of you,” he finished with a menacing chuckle. Then he turned away and shot over his shoulder, “I hope Xena enjoys watching her friends die slow and painful deaths.”
Ephiny watched in silence as he climbed back up the ladder, followed by his armed escort. Once they were gone, the trap door dropped back into place and the bolt slid home. All was once again relatively quiet in the large pit, as everyone waited with bated breath.
“So,” Rayna finally broke the silence. “Do we wait to see what he's planning? Or do we rally the troops and get the hades outta here?”
Ephiny continued to absently rub her throat. “I think we definitely need a different plan.”
“What do you suggest?” Margalene stepped forward and eyed the regent.
“I suggest we figure out what Xena would do in a situation like this,” Ephiny said.
“Kick ass?” Rayna supplied and then glanced at the two youths watching her intently. “I mean…”
“We definitely need a better plan,” Margalene shook her head at Rayna.
Gabrielle was drifting in a relatively peaceful place. It wasn't Elysia. No. She could still hear the bickering of a few nearby Amazons. She'd been listening to their grumblings for a while. That alone told her she wasn't dead. No, that would be too easy. Dying wasn't for her. She still had too much to do. Besides, she'd been through too much in her short life to just give up and cross over, despite her brief visit from Lila.
Her sister had looked so peaceful and happy. Elysia certainly agreed with her. Lila had urged Gabrielle to join her—to give in and just cross over. But Gabrielle had resisted her sister's pleadings. She wanted to be with her family, but she wasn't quite ready to spend eternity with them. Someone still waited for her in the land of the living. Someone still needed her.
“Shh, not so loud. She's still sleeping,” a nearby voice chastised.
“She's been out for the better part of the entire day, Melva.” Solari sounded irritated and close. “We sent Dromedra and Jaela on ahead hours ago and haven't heard a thing from them. I'm really worried. We need to find out what happened. Maybe they were captured or…um…worse.”
“And what do you want the queen to do?” Melva shot back. “It's not like she's in any condition to ride off after them. Those ribs of hers are so bad I can't believe she lasted as long as she did. She had to be in excruciating pain during those final leagues.” Melva sighed. “I just don't think there's anything any of us can do right now. There's no way to move her in her present condition—not unless we want another dead queen on our hands. She shouldn't have been on that damned horse in the first place.”
Solari blew out an exasperated sigh. “I know, I know,” she said in a resigned tone. “I just can't help thinking something happened to those two. What if they weren't able to deliver their message? What then? Queen Gabrielle was sure the message Draco left for her at the keep would somehow affect Xena and the outcome of this war.”
“They'll make it,” Gabrielle's voice barely carried to the others.
“My Queen?” Solari knelt next to the makeshift pinebough bed and watched as Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open. “You're awake.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle nodded. “And kinda thirsty, too.”
A water skin suddenly appeared at Solari's shoulder. She grabbed it and carefully tilted it toward the reclining woman. Gabrielle drank her fill and then some.
“Better?” Solari finally pulled the skin away.
Gabrielle nodded again. “Much. Thanks.”
“We thought you were still sleeping,” Solari said, as she handed the skin back to Melva.
“Not really,” Gabrielle eyed the expectant faces of those around her. “You guys are kind of…um…Well, let's just say you're not real quiet.”
Melva gave Solari's shoulder a push. “See, I told you.”
“Hey,” Solari shot the woman a stern glare. “Watch it, Mel, or you'll be the next one chosen to watch over Sehran.”
They all glanced at the woman tied to a tree several paces away. A leather gag covered her mouth and her hands were tied. Gabrielle noticed. She also noticed Sehran's eyes glaring at her.
“Why are her hands tied? And what's with the gag?” Gabrielle asked.
“She tried to escape earlier,” Melva responded. “Went on another crazy rant about the pride and honor of the Amazon Nation, then just went nuts. It was all we could do to subdue her. She knocked Rayna out cold.”
“She managed to somehow get the ropes untied,” Solari added. “We're still trying to figure out how she did it. And she wouldn't shut up. Kept going on and on about how Velasca was right about ridding the Nation of weak leaders who will only get us all killed. I think she lost it back there. Maybe you hit her harder than we thought you did, your majesty. I really don't know.”
Gabrielle thought about that for a moment. “Remove the gag,” she said and caught the skeptical look from Solari. “I want to talk to her. Maybe find out what this is really about.”
“Why?” Solari shot Sehran a glare before returning her attention to Gabrielle. “She's just another nutcase, like Velasca and Marena.”
“She was Melosa's most trusted personal guard,” Gabrielle said. “I want to know why she turned. What makes her think the Amazon Nation is in so much trouble that she would kill Melosa, even if it was by accident? Actually, just by poisoning Melosa in the first place she created an opportunity for Velasca to gain a foothold in the tribe. Sehran may not have intended to kill Melosa herself, but Velasca did. She wanted control of the tribe. I want to know why.”
Solari motioned for Dressine to remove the gag from Sehran, which she did.
“I heard what you said,” Sehran licked her dry lips. “My loyalties do not extend to outsiders of the tribe.”
“I'm as much an Amazon sister as you are, Sehran,” Gabrielle said. “I want to know why you thought Velasca would make a better queen than Melosa. Velasca was a radical who only wanted to go to war against those she felt were weaker than she was.”
“She was a purist,” Sehran spat. “She believed in the purity of the royal line, not this...this dilution that Melosa brought into our midst.”
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. “Melosa appointed Terreis as her heir. Terreis was her sister's daughter.”
“And Terreis named you as her successor by giving you her right of caste,” Sehran added. “Melosa should not have accepted Terreis' hasty decision. Velasca was the next logical choice to succeed Melosa, not you.”
“But this conspiracy didn't have anything to do with me, Sehran,” Gabrielle eyed the woman. “It began long before I came along.”
Sehran looked away, unable to meet that probing green gaze. “I don't know what you're talking about,” she finally said.
“How many others are there in the Nation, Sehran?” Gabrielle prodded further. “How many others feel the same way Velasca did? That the Amazons should unite under one leader and wage war against all who oppose Amazon autonomy?”
“That's not…” Sehran glanced at Gabrielle. “It's not like that.”
“Then tell me how it is, Sehran,” Gabrielle softened her tone. “I know for a fact Xena's treaty with Melosa had something to do with it,” she added.
“It ruined everything!” Sehran shot back. “The damned Conqueror and her treaties. Did you know she was working on treaties with others, as well? An envoy was sent to Egypt and another to Chin. She even sent one to one of her former allies in Britannia.”
“Melosa's spies knew about them all,” Sehran cut in. “She knew about a great many things, including the plan to unite the tribes. But she signed the treaty anyway. She wanted peace, not unity. Melosa was weak. She believed the tribes would thrive on their own, as long as they signed those treaties with the Conqueror. But the treaties would not allow us to unite as one nation. We could increase our numbers, but we could not become one.”
“And that's what Velasca wanted,” Gabrielle nodded slightly. “She and Marena were planning a coup to take over all the tribes and they were using the Thracian tribe as their spring board.”
“Unity will make us stronger,” Sehran said in a deflated tone.
“The plan is still in place, then,” Gabrielle nodded. “There are others who wish to unite the tribes under one queen?”
“Our mission did not end just because the Conqueror killed Velasca,” Sehran continued. “We will prevail. We are a strong people and we will be even stronger and more powerful when we are one.”
“You weren't even strong enough or smart enough to defeat me in a challenge, Sehran,” Gabrielle stated. “How do you think this misguided plan of yours can possibly prevail? We are a strong nation by virtue of our values, our beliefs and our willingness to come together to defeat a common enemy. If we unite under one egotistical ruler, then we are no different than the warlords and thugs who swept through this land like wildfire before Xena wiped them out. And believe me when I tell you Velasca wasn't a peach. She cheated. She used people to get her way. Just look at how she used you, Sehran. That's not a ruler. That's a bully. Velasca was a bully whose only goal was acquiring power.”
Sehran considered Gabrielle's words thoughtfully for a moment. “Her ideals were sound.”
“Is it sound to want your people to go to war for no reason, other than your own need for power?” Gabrielle countered. “We can gain more—thrive and increase our numbers—by being at peace. Working together will gain us much more than we will ever gain by waging war. That's what Melosa knew and believed. How many seasoned warriors must die needlessly for you to understand that?”
“We are Amazons,” Sehran said in a tone devoid of emotion. “We aren't afraid to die.”
“Yes, we are Amazons,” Gabrielle agreed. “But going to war for the sake of war isn't the answer. Melosa knew it and so do I. So does Grenella, Jezreal, Ellatrice, Gwyn-Taleen…”
“Gwyn-Taleen will never yield to your way,” Sehran cut in. “She—” And then she closed her lips tight.
“She what, Sehran?” Gabrielle prodded and received only a curt shake of Sehran's head. “She's the other queen who was part of all this.”
“Gwyn-Taleen knows how important our goal is,” Sehran finally conceded. “She knows that everything now rides on her shoulders.”
“She's the third,” Gabrielle nodded. “She's the last one, isn't she?”
“Gwyn-Taleen and Velasca were milk sisters,” Sehran shrugged. “They nursed at the same breast and became as close as two sisters could be. When Gwyn-Taleen became queen of her tribe, they both vowed to unite the tribes under a banner of war and annihilate the enemies of the Nation, once and for all.”
“But Melosa challenged Illya and changed everything,” Gabrielle could actually see the pieces finally coming together. “She banished Velasca from the tribe for challenging her right to rule and then gave Terreis her right of caste. Melosa knew Terreis was an idealist who would strive for peace and wanted it as much as she did.”
“Melosa was determined to bring peace and sovereignty to our Thracian sisters,” Sehran continued. “She signed the treaty with the Conqueror in the hope that the others would follow suit.”
“But Velasca, Marena and Gwyn-Taleen never intended to ally themselves or their tribes with Xena,” Gabrielle supplied. “They saw—see—her as the enemy to everything the Nation stands for.”
“Yes,” Sehran nodded. “The treaties only allowed for individual tribal sovereignty. The tribes could not unite, nor could we go to war against the Conqueror.”
“They declared war against the Conqueror and allied themselves with Draco in order to make sure your side won,” Gabrielle blew out a breath and glanced at Solari. “And Gwyn-Taleen is the last link in the chain.”
“All I know is they vowed not to fail,” Sehran said. “There were three of them, so that if one failed the next one would pick up where she left off and carry the torch for her fallen sister.”
“I've heard enough,” Gabrielle said and turned her attention to Solari. “Send Melva and Dressine. Xena needs to know that she has one last traitor in her midst.”
“Yes, your majesty,” Solari turned to the two women who had heard everything. “Take the information to the Conqueror and the others. They need to know what's been going on, if they don't yet already know. And find out what happened to Jaela and Dromedra. I expect you to return with a report, as soon as possible.”
“Yes, Solari,” the two said in unison and hurried away.
“It's too late,” Sehran's words drifted over to those still standing there. “Gwyn-Taleen's plan would have been put into action days ago.”
Gabrielle returned her attention to the woman who had betrayed them. “Then Xena already knows about it and has already stopped her from carrying out whatever plan she tried to implement.”
“You sound so sure of her,” Sehran added.
“You don't know Xena like I do,” Gabrielle smiled confidently.
“You place too much faith in her,” Sehran said. “Your misguided love has blinded you and made you weak.”
“And, yet, I defeated you, Sehran,” Gabrielle shot back with a wry smirk and heard the chuckles from those around her. “I guess that's saying something.”
“It says I deserve to die,” Sehran responded sadly. “I am no longer worthy to call myself an Amazon.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “People change, Sehran. Xena changed. Her intentions weren't always good in those early years. It took her many years to learn to distinguish between what is right and good and what is selfish and wrong. Those traits aren't inherent in any of us. We have to learn the difference between right and wrong. And even then the lines can be blurred behind our own misguided views and ideals.”
Sehran eyed Gabrielle skeptically. “How could you possibly understand such things? You're…”
“Young?” Gabrielle finished for her. “Age has nothing to do with it, Sehran. I've studied the stars and spoken with philosophers. I've met oracles and talked with the Thracian priestess. I even had the opportunity to read many of the tombs in the archival library back at the village. There were some very wise queens in our history. They saw the Amazon Nation as so much more than just a bunch of bloodthirsty warriors bent on killing and taking what they wanted. I think that's where Melosa and Terreis learned to see things differently than Illya, Velasca, Marena and Gwyn-Taleen. The Amazon Nation can be strong and diverse at the same time. There's room for many philosophies, just as there is room for our tribes to grow and expand. We're only limited by our individual selfish greed and need for power. Otherwise, there is no limit to what we can do or how far we can go.”
“Wise words, My Queen,” Solari agreed.
“Thank you, Sol,” Gabrielle smiled and then turned her gaze on Sehran. “The Amazons cannot continue to thrive, however, if we are divided. A nation divided against itself cannot stand. It will collapse in on itself, just as assuredly as a hut does when its supports crumble and fall. In that sense, Velasca and her followers are right.” All eyes suddenly shot to hers. “Hear me out before you make your assumptions, sisters.”
Gabrielle waited until she had their undivided attention again. “We must unite for the benefit of the Nation as a whole, but we cannot do so and wage war against our allies. Xena isn't our enemy. Grenella said so herself. Xena was able to rid us of those who want to exterminate us, like Draco and those like him. Draco isn't our ally. If he defeats Xena, he will most assuredly wipe our warriors from the face of the earth and then target our villages, as well. He will never allow us to unite into a stronger nation. That goes against everything his selfish motives dictate. He is a tyrant and tyrants do not tolerate those in their midst who might eventually rise up against them.”
“So, what do we do, My Queen?” Solari turned her full attention on Gabrielle.
“I don't know,” Gabrielle shook her head and let it drop back to her makeshift bed, as she stared up at the canopy above. “I really don't know.”
“So, what do you suggest?” Grenella looked to Xena, who paced back and forth in the confines of the Amazon queen's tent. “This conspiracy runs far deeper than we first imagined.”
“Why would our sisters betray us like this?” Agatha, who sat in a chair and watched Xena pace, asked. “Oh, for the love of the gods, Xena, sit down. All your pacing is giving me a headache.”
Xena stopped pacing and turned to face the others. There were half a dozen Amazons crammed into that small tent. Eponin, Jaela and Dromedra, Agatha, Grenella, and Ashante were the only ones that Xena trusted with the intelligence she'd received.
“I think the bigger problem is figuring out what happened to Eph and her bunch,” Eponin ran a hand through her dark hair. “That rider didn't have much to give us. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm really worried something terrible happened to ‘em.”
“And Gabrielle is sitting with a traitor,” Xena added and then her concerned eyes met Jaela's and Dromedra's. “Are you two sure Sehran won't try something else?”
“Solari had Melva tie her to a tree before we left,” Jaela said.
“'Sides, don't think she's movin' all that well with that broken knee of hers,” Dromedra added. “Thing was swelled up bigger'n the damned tree trunk she was tied to.”
“I'll convene the tribunal and take care of Gwyn-Taleen,” Grenella changed the subject. “We need to get this taken care of before someone else turns traitor in our midst.”
“My Queen!” A voice outside the tent called.
Grenella moved to the tent opening and waved the newcomer inside. “What is so important that you had to interrupt us, when I gave strict orders that we aren't to be distrurbed?”
“My apologies, My Queen,” the woman bowed her head and averted her eyes. “But two more Amazons just arrived.”
All eyes shot to the newcomer.
“Who?” Grenella prodded.
“Messengers from Queen Gabrielle,” the woman responded and pulled the tent flap aside to let Melva and Dressine enter.
“Why aren't you two with the queen?” Eponin accused, as she stepped forward with a scowl. “What happened?”
Melva saw that Jaela and Dromedra were there. “Sisters,” she greeted them with a nod. “We were worried when you didn't immediately return.”
“Never mind them,” Xena pushed up next to Eponin. “What's your message? Did something happen to Gabrielle?”
“The queen sends her regards, Champion,” Melva bowed her head to Xena. “She was awake and talking when last we saw her.”
“Then why are you here?” Grenella put in with an impatient wave of her hand. “Why did she send you?”
“Information,” Dressine said. “Her majesty was concerned that our sisters are plotting against the Conqueror and will try something to harm her.”
“Well, thanks for the warning, but it's too late,” Xena shot back with a glare. “Gwyn-Taleen already set her part of whatever plan it is into action. She turned our catapults against the army and wiped out more than a hundred good men. We also lost one of the catapults.”
“Yeah, Xena set it on fire when she wiped out nearly all of Gwyn-Taleen's crew,” Eponin grinned wryly.
“Did you see Draco's army on your way here, sisters?” Grenella asked.
“Oddly, no,” Melva shook her head. “But we didn't take the direct route, either.”
“It took us the better part of a candlemark to skirt around the place we figured his army is camped,” Dressine added. “And we pushed the horses the entire time.”
Xena ran a hand through her hair. “And Gabrielle? How is she, really?”
“We found a small and very secluded clearing beneath some pine trees,” Melva replied. “She's resting comfortably on a bed of pine boughs. It was the best we could do, I'm afraid.”
Xena's brow shot up. “You didn't answer my question.”
“We…” Dressine looked to Melva for further explanation.
“She has broken ribs, as Jaela and Dromedra probably already told you,” Melva supplied. “I don't know how bad they are, but I think she aggravated them when we were riding last night. She collapsed and we had to build a litter to get her to the clearing. She was asleep most of today and only just woke up before Dressine and I left to come here.”
“Is she in pain?” Xena prodded.
Melva shrugged. “If she is she's not complaining about it. She didn't make a fuss at all last night and we rode pretty hard.”
“Wasn't until we stopped just before dawn that we realized she wasn't well,” Dressine added. “She couldn't climb down from the saddle.”
“How did she get down, then?” Xena's brow lifted.
“Um…” Dressine glanced at Melva.
“She…um…” Melva started and then stopped, as she crossed her arms and lifted a hand to stroke her chin thoughtfully. She then looked at Melva. “How did she get off that horse, anyway?”
“I wasn't really watching, Mel,” Dressine shrugged. “I was keeping an eye on Sehran at that point.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Xena blew out an exasperated breath.
“Conqueror!!” A soldier suddenly appeared in the tent opening and saluted.
Xena turned and glared at the intruder. “You'd better…”
“He barely had a chance to give us the signal before he went charging by us,” two out-of-breath Amazons stepped up behind him.
“Are you suicidal, soldier?” Xena glared at the blond youth.
“No, Conqueror,” he tried to catch his own breath, as his escort glared at his back. “General Braes told me to find you immediately, m'lord. You have to come quick!”
“What the…” Xena barely had the words out before she heard a sound that made her blood run cold. She charged outside and listened intently to the low rumble.
“Is that what I think it is?” Eponin stepped up next to Xena.
“It is, but it isn't coming from the right direction,” Xena held up a staying hand to keep Eponin from saying more. “It's coming from the northwest.”
“Isn't Draco's main force to our southeast, though?” Grenella moved in on Xena's other side.
“Could it be the troops we engaged last night?” Eponin added skeptically. “I thought we got most of ‘em. There weren't more'n a couple hundred who actually escaped.”
“And that's definitely more than a couple hundred soldiers marching,” Melva added. “It's more like…”
“Five thousand,” Xena finished for her. “It's another army.”
They all looked at Xena like she'd just grown another head.
“Five thousand soldiers?” Grenella choked out. “We don't have nearly enough…”
“Five thousand added to Draco's two thousand?” Eponin couldn't believe her ears. “That's…”
“We don't know who they are yet,” Xena put up a staying hand.
“That's what I'm trying to tell you, Conqueror,” the young soldier said with the hint of a grin on his lips. “You're needed immediately. You've gotta see this for yourself.”
“You won't get away with this, Draco,” Ephiny glared up at the man towering over her. “Xena is going to tear you limb from limb when she finds us.”
Draco laughed a maniacle laugh that didn't reach his dark eyes. “Thought you said you weren't worth anything, Amazon.”
Ephiny turned her head on the wooden crosspiece and looked at the two girls staring at her with wide eyes. She then glanced beyond them and saw Margalene watching her with concern. Her heart lept into her throat as she realized the girls were going to suffer the same fate that she and the others would.
“Let the kids go,” she returned her attention to Draco. “Let them go or I swear…”
“You aren't in any position to make threats, Amazon,” Draco chuckled. “Matter of fact, you're not in a position to do more than die a slow death.”
A soldier knelt next to Ephiny's outstretched arm and set a piece of wood on her hand. He then set the tip of a sharp spike on top of the piece of wood and produced a hammer. Ephiny's eyes widened as she realized he was about to drive that spike through her hand.
“Crucifixion?” She glared hateful daggers at Draco. “Did one of your Roman friends teach you that one, you son of a bitch?”
And then the hammer came down on the spike and she screamed in agony, while Draco smirked. The hammer raised and descended again and again. Ephiny managed to clamp her lips shut, but couldn't stop the loud groans as her flesh tore with each blow. The pain seared through first one hand and then the other. Her eyes welled and tears spilled down and disappeared into the hair at her temples.
“You son of a bitch!” She managed through clenched teeth once her hands were secured. She tried to catch her breath, but her palms throbbed in excruciating pain. And then her head snapped sideways again, as both girls looked at her with wide eyes and were lifted high into the air. “You fucking bastard!!!” She shouted, as he just chuckled.
Her legs were tied to the middle post she was lying on and then she, too, was hoisted high into the air. Her arms were secured to the crosspiece, but that didn't stop her weight from dragging on the spikes in her hands. The pain was like nothing she had ever experienced in her life. Excruciating couldn't even touch what she felt, as the cross jarred and swayed, then settled with a resounding thunk into a hole dug into the ground.
“Fucking…bastard,” Ephiny hissed, as she felt the world right itself and the night close in. A sliver of moonlight shown down on her, as the whimpers of the two girls next to her carried to her ears on a light breeze. Her heart was heavy when she realized she'd failed those who trusted her to take care of them. “I'm so sorry. So, so sorry,” she said in a breathless whisper, as she looked at the two girls and felt her heart break for the suffering they were forced to endure.
“You're kidding, right?” Xena glared at the man walking next to her.
“Not a bit, sis,” Toris grinned from ear to ear. “I brought the help you requested.” Amusement lit his light-blue eyes—eyes a shade lighter than hers.
Xena stopped and looked her brother up and down, noting his attire and the shiny new boots he wore. “Leather and armor?”
Tories fingered the brass on his leather bracers and the intricate design on his chest armor that closely matched hers. “Only the finest for the brother of the Conqueror.”
Hands on her hips, Xena turned to survey the soldiers and the six men standing apart from them. Toris made a beeline for the men and shook each of their arms, in turn. She just shook her head and waited.
“Conqueror,” a centaur pranced forward and clasped her bracered arm. “It's been a long time.”
“Tyldus,” Xena gave him a hesitant smile. “It has been a while.”
“You're looking better than the last time I saw you,” he said. “I hear you're no longer in the business of trying to wipe the centaurs from the face of Greece.”
“Things change,” she couldn't help but let a genuine smile touch grace her features. “I've mellowed over the years. It also helps that you and the Amazons finally made your peace. That was something.”
“Oh, it was,” he shot back with a teasing gleam. “I finally came to my senses when I lost my son in a raid. He stepped in front of an arrow meant for one of the Amazons and made me promise not to blame them for his death. Queen Melosa and I actually figured out that a warlord by the name of Krykus was behind a plot to get us to go to war against each other.” A smirk touched his lips. “We found the man and delivered swift and sure Amazon and centaur justice.”
“I'm sorry to hear about your son, Tyldus,” Xena sobered. “Phantes was a good centaur.”
“Yes, he was,” Tyldus nodded. “Thank you, Xena.”
“Now, you want to tell me what you're doing here?” Xena slapped him on the shoulder. “Centaurs don't usually get involved in skirmishes outside the realm of centaur territory.”
“Your brother is a very talented negotiator,” Tyldus said, as they were joined by the five others and her slightly-taller brother. “He convinced us it was in our best interests to join in this fight.”
“I heard my name,” Toris took the centaur's arm and gave it a good shake. “Hello, my friend. Glad you could join our little party.”
“Wouldn't miss it for the world,” Tyldus replied, then turned his attention to the others. “And a right royal affair it is, too.”
“Tyldus, leader of the noble centaurs,” Toris began the introductions. “I'd like you to meet Prince Philemon and his right hand man, Marshall General Joxer. They both serve King Lias.”
“And I am blessed by the gods to be married to the most beautiful woman in all of Greece,” Philemon put in with a huge grin. “Princess Diana is…”
“Yeah, yeah, Phil,” Joxer slapped the blond man on his shoulder armor. “But she can't hold a candle to my gorgeous hunk of womanly…”
Xena cleared her throat and watched the two men turn their attention to her. Twin expressions of utter disbelief lit both of their features at that point, as they exclaimed in unison, “Diana?” “Meg?”
“Neither,” Xena shot back with her typical stern aplomb. “Name's Xena. I'm the Conqueror.”
“Whoa,” Joxer tried to take a closer look, but jerked back instantly at the menace that leaped into those sky-blue eyes. “The resemblance is…”
“Uncanny,” Philemon added, as he squinted at her. “And here I thought Meg was Diana's spitting image in every way. But…”
“They could be triplets,” Joxer added with a grin. “Hey, Xena, you wanna…”
Xena's growled response and the deadly menacing gaze she shot him shut him up instantly.
Tyldus took that opportunity to step forward and clasp arms with the two men. But Joxer wasn't to be deterred. He stepped forward again and bowed at the waist.
“Conqueror, ‘tis an honor to share the same air as you,” he said with a flourish that earned him looks from the others. “I am at your service, my lady. Your wish is my command.”
“Please excuse him, Conqueror,” Philemon slapped a hand on Joxer's shoulder, earning a quick ‘ouch' and a glare. “He tends to err on the side of overindulgence, especially where beautiful women are concerned.”
“I do not!” Joxer exclaimed. “Prince Philemon…overexagerates.”
“Xena,” Sisyphus stepped between the two men and offered his arm to her. She placed her hand in his, instead, and watched as he gallantly kissed the back of it. “My brother's new son-in-law decided to appoint this clumsy oaf as his commander. Apparently Joxer, here, did a great service for the Princess Diana, with the help of a tavern keeper who looks a great deal like the princess. Anyway, they both earned a place in my neice's royal heart.” He shot Joxer and Philemon a distasteful glare. “I, for one, am not convinced my brother is still in his right mind, however.”
Xena chuckled. “Always the charmer, eh, Sisyphus? How is King Lias, anyway? It's been quite a while since I had the pleasure of his company at the keep in Surra.”
“He sends his regards and is praying to the gods for a speedy end to this nasty business. He would have come himself, except matters of state took precedence over leading his army,” he then shot Joxer and Philemon another glare that had them both stepping back several paces. “But if his two emissaries have anything to say about it, we'll be at this until Solstice. My poor wife will be beside herself if I'm not home soon.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” another man stepped forward and clasped arms with Xena. “King Cleades, Conqueror. I don't believe we've yet had the pleasure to meet in person, but your reputation preceeds you.”
“King Cleades,” Xena gripped his bejeweled arm firmly. “It's a pleasure to have you with us.” She then glanced at Gregor. “And you, too, King Gregor. It's been a while.”
“Always a pleasure, Conqueror,” Gregor stepped forward and briefly clasped her arm. “I've been busy with my new family. Young Prince Gabriel is growing up so fast that I can hardly keep up with him. You know he is almost ten winters old now? He looks nothing like me, but is a handsome boy, nonetheless. And Queen Pandora sends her regards, as well.”
“I'm sure the young prince takes after you in demeanor, if not in looks, King Gregor,” she released his arm and stepped back to survey the gathered men. “I take it you're the ones who brought the additional troops?”
“Your brother was most convincing,” Cleades clapped Toris on the shoulder. “He said it would behoove us all—” A throat-clearing had him glancing over at Tyldus who was glaring at him. “Oh, no offense to the centaurs, I assure you.”
“What I think King Cleades is trying to say,” Gregor stepped forward in his golden armor, “is that Toris was very convincing when he invited us to Athens and presented his argument as to why we should join you against this usurper Draco.”
“Yes, we all agreed to supply you with the troops you'll need to bring peace and prosperity back to Greece, Xena,” Sisyphus added. “Besides,” he leaned in close, “rumor has it the God of War is on your side.” He winked at her. “It's always good to have an in with the gods, if you know what I mean.”
Xena tried not to cringe, but couldn't help it. Sisyphus had always been a selfish ruler who prided himself on his uncanny ability to take advantage of any situation. She was sure he would sell his wife to Death herself, if it would earn him a few extra years of existence in the land of the living. It was either that or bribe his way into Elysia by emptying his treasury into Charon's hands. She was sure that one just might work, too, as greedy as the boatkeeper was.
“I'm pleased that my brother was able to convince you to join in the fight against Draco,” Xena pasted a tolerant smile on her features. “And I'm grateful to you all for bringing so many troops to join in the coming battle. We will need every able-bodied man—and centaur—among you. Now,” she shot a glare at her brother, “if you'll excuse us, I need to have a word with my brother—in private.”
Xena grabbed her brother's armor and unceremoniously herded him toward her tent. Toris had no choice but to let her push him inside the tent.
“Okay, spill it!” She hissed once they were safely away from prying ears. “What the hades is going on, Toris?”
“What?” He turned to face her and tried to straighten his garments into some semblance of order.
“What is this little stunt going to cost me?” Xena stood with her hands on her hips and glared at him with her piercing blue gaze.
“Nothing, I swear,” he shot back. “They were more than happy to pitch in and help, once I convinced them that it would be in their best interests to do so.”
Xena eyed him skeptically. “In their best interests? Exactly what does that mean?”
“Treaties, Xena,” Toris replied. “They just want assurances that you'll look out for them and continue to honor their sovereignty once you return to power.”
“Once I…” Her hands shot into the air and she sighed in exasperation. “Toris, I don't even know if I want to return to being the Conqueror, once this is all said and done.”
“What?!?” It was his turn to throw his hands up. “You're not serious, Xena! This is a golden opportunity!”
“Golden for you, maybe,” she tossed back. “I've spent the last few years of my life caged up in that keep and for what? I didn't ask to be Conqueror of the Known World, Tor. I just wanted to be sure Mother was safe and Cortese was gone. Everything else just seemed to fall into place, until I was stuck holding the bag for all these guys who were afraid to step up and do what I did.”
“They're not bad guys, Xe,” his tone turned pleading. “You just gotta give them half a chance. They brought their armies and want to make things right.”
“And where were they all those years ago?” Xena ground out between clenched teeth. “Huh? And where were you, brother dear? You tucked your tail between your legs—”
“I made a mistake,” Toris cut in. “I know what I did was wrong and I'm sorry. For crimany's sake, Xe, can't you just let it go? I'll never be able to make up for that one moment of weakness. I know that now. But I'm here now. And I'm ready to step up and do whatever it takes to make things right. That's gotta count for something.”
“Then lead your men into battle,” Xena crossed her arms over her armor-clad chest and shot him a triumphant smirk. “Do what you couldn't do all those years ago.”
He scowled. “What exactly are you saying, Xena?”
“I'm saying it's your turn, Toris,” she said. “It's time for you to lead the charge.”
He burst out laughing, until he noticed she wasn't laughing with him. Then his expression sobered instantly.
“I am,” she nodded.
“No buts this time, brother,” she slapped a hand on his shoulder and watched him wince. “Lead the army against Draco. That alone should put you in high regard with the Athenian council, and you'll get to finally be the hero, for once.”
She started for the tent opening.
“Wait, Xena,” he said and stopped her in her tracks. “What's this going to cost me?”
She shook her head as she turned to face him. “Nothing, Toris. I just have something more important to take care of than leading this pointless charge against Draco. There's…someone…who needs me.”
“Do I know him?” His expression softened into a smile.
“No,” she shook her head. “And she's a her, not a him. Her name is Gabrielle and I love her with every fiber of my being.”
A dark brow shot up on his face. “You love…a woman? That's…um…Isn't that just a little weird?”
“Does that really surprise you?” She shot back. “The girls back home always did find me much more attractive than you, brother dear. They were always throwing themselves at me, when you wanted them fawning all over you, instead.” Her expression sobered. “Even Dresdemona. I know you loved her, Toris.”
“Yeah, I did,” Toris's expression flared with anger. “You had no right to do what you did to her, Xe. She was so humiliated she begged her father to send her away, which he did.”
“And you lost your chance,” Xena nodded. “I'm really sorry about that. I had no idea, at the time, that you felt the way you did about her.”
“I really wanted to marry her,” Toris shrugged with regret. “She was the only girl I ever truly loved.”
“And then Cortese and his men showed up,” Xena added. “It all changed after that.”
“Yeah,” he agreed and then met her gaze. “Does she, this Gabrielle, share your feelings?”
Xena looked down at her hands and then back up again. “Yes,” she nodded. “We love each other very much.”
“And where is this mystery woman who has stolen my sister's heart?” Toris teased.
Xena's face fell. “She was injured on the way here and couldn't make it.”
He stepped up and brushed a lock of hair away from her cheek. “Then, sister dear, you need to go and be there for her. I would imagine she needs you more than we do, right now.”
A tear slipped from one blue eye, as Xena nodded and closed the distance between them. “Thanks, Tor,” she rested her cheek against his shoulder and let the tears fall unheeded as she hugged him. “This really means a lot to me.”
He moved back enough to look her in the eye. “Hey, what are big brothers for, anyway?” He smiled and his blue eyes sparkled with amusement. “Besides, I figure I owe you big time for leaving you in the lurch that last time.”
“Yeah, actually you do,” she swiped the tears from her cheeks and composed her features into her signature stoic mask of indifference. “Shall we go out there and share the news with the rest of them…um…General?”
“First, you have to tell me how to lead this army of yours,” Toris said. “I haven't exactly had a lot of experience doing this kind of thing.”
“Oh, brother dear,” Xena slapped a hand on his shoulder, as she led the way back outside. “It's not as difficult as you might think. But you do need to remember one important thing.”
“Always have a good plan in place. And if that plan fails, have an even better backup plan,” she smiled, as they approached the others. “And if the backup plan fails, well, there's always your favorite option.”
His brow furrowed in thought. “Run?”
“I need your help, Xena,” Eponin said, as Xena finished saddling her horse for her journey to meet up with Gabrielle. “I really need your help.”
“Oh?” Xena turned to face the Amazon and noticed the worry lines on the otherwise congenial woman's features. “What is it, Pon?”
“I was really worried about what Draco would do to Eph and her crew,” Eponin came right out with it. “So, Grenella and I decided to send a few scouts out to see what they could find out and…” She ran a hand through her hair in agitation, as tears welled up in her eyes. “He put them on crosses on top of a hill that overlooks the battlefield.”
“What?” Xena grasped Eponin's shoulders and looked her in the eye. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” the weapons master nodded. “One of the scouts came back and said she knew it was Ephiny and her group, as well as several others. She even said there were a couple of younger girls, but didn't know who they were. Could be they're servants from your keep at Surra, but only you would know for sure.”
“Are they still alive?”
Eponin nodded. “She was pretty sure they are. Said Ephiny lifted her head once or twice and even looked right at her one of those times.”
“Round up ten of your best,” Xena ordered in a no-nonsence tone. “Five archers, too. We'll go take a looksee and figure out a way to get them out of there.”
Eponin nodded and then put a hand on Xena's arm. “Thanks, Xena. I really appreciate this. I don't…uh…Eph is…well, you know,” she finished with an uncomfortable shrug.
Xena returned the gesture and smiled. “That's what friends are for, Eponin.”
“Yeah,” Eponin nodded. “I'll round up my Amazons and meet you…”
“We'll take the horses,” Xena glanced back at her saddled mount. “It'll be faster that way and I can just leave to go to Gabrielle from there.”
Sudden dawning lit Eponin's features. “Oh, rats, Xe, I totally forgot about you heading out to be with her maj.”
“It's okay, Pon,” Xena reassured. “I'll head out just as soon as we get Ephiny safely out of Draco's clutches.”
“Thanks again, Xena,” Eponin gave her a quick hug and then hurried off to round up her Amazons.
Toris approached at that moment.
“Hey, sis,” he said with a proud smile that made his eyes sparkle. “You got a moment?” He glanced at the retreating Amazon and just shook his head. “Amazons, centaurs…What's next? Maybe we should recruit an army of harpies or Cyclops or something? Never thought I'd see the day.”
“Whatever it takes, Toris,” Xena shrugged. “We'll take what we get at this point. Besides,” she added with a wry grin, “you're the one who recruited the centaurs. You do know they're former enemies of the Amazons, right?”
“I kinda got that when your Amazons threw a fit at having to fight side-by-side with Tyldus and his bunch. Never saw so many glares in all my life. You handled it pretty well, though. I guess I never thought my sister would be such a cool-headed diplomat.”
“Yeah, well, when you're the only woman in an army of men, you pick up a few things,” Xena replied. “Was there something you wanted to speak to me about? Or are you just here to chat about my many skills?”
“Oh, sorry, I know how busy you are,” he looked slightly abashed. “I wanted you to take a quick look at the plan before you head out. I know you're in a hurry, but maybe you can just make sure I didn't screw anything up, make any mistakes. I want to be sure we have all our ducks in a row on this. So, I figured…” He finished with a shrug and handed a scroll over.
“Change of plans, Toris,” Xena grabbed the scroll from his outstretched hand and gave it a quick onceover, then handed it back to him. “Looks good to me. You remember my advice about that backup plan?”
“Yep,” he patted the pouch at his belt. “Got that one right here. I even added a few of my own touches to what you gave me.” He glanced from Xena to the trees behind her. “So, what's this about a change in plans?”
“I have a little side mission I need to take care of before I head for Gabrielle,” Xena said. “The Thracian regent and her were captured last night. Anyway, Draco hung them on crosses with some servants from the keep at Surra.”
“So you're going to rescue them,” Toris added with a sober nod. “What do you need from us? We can certainly send a detachment or two out there to distract them. Maybe use the catapults to get their attention first?”
Xena considered that for a moment. “Or we could just get this damned thing started and see how far we can go with it. I'm really tired of waiting for Draco to make the first move.”
“I think he just did, Xe,” Toris patted her shoulder. “And you're right. It's high time we move forward with this war. I'll alert everyone and we'll give him a distraction he won't soon forget.”
“Thanks, Toris,” Xena covered his hand with hers and gave it a squeez. “It means a lot to have you here.” Then she grinned teasingly. “And you're not such a bad guy, anymore. I guess the years put some courage and wisdom in that thick skull of yours.”
“Yeah,” he put his other hand on hers. “Apparently, age really does add a measure of wisdom, even for you, little sister.”
“Yeah, well, let's not get carried away,” she shot him a playful half-smile. “This isn't over yet.”
“No, it's just the beginning, actually,” he grinned. “I'll see you out there, okay?” And then he added with a sober expression, “Take care of yourself, little sister.”
“You, too, big bro,” Xena patted his hand one last time and watched him move off. She then returned her attention to her saddled warhorse. “Okay, boy, we have a job to do. You up for this? Of course you are. Let's get to it.”
Gabrielle could do nothing more than lay there and think, ponder, wish, hope, dream. Moving certainly wasn't an option. Just breathing shallowly was a chore. Her ribs didn't hurt as much as they had earlier in the day, but the pain still throbbed. It hovered there. And her jaw felt like it was twice its normal size. She hadn't eaten anything all day, because chewing was just too much work.
“I really hate this,” she mumbled.
“My Queen?” Solari knelt next to her. “Is there something I can get you?”
“A new body?” Gabrielle groused.
Solari smiled. “At least you still have your sense of humor. That's something.”
A skin appeared and Gabrielle took a long drink from it. Water. Ugh!
“You guys think you can hunt down some meat and make a broth?” Gabrielle asked expectantly. “Maybe add some wild onions, mushrooms…No, scratch the mushrooms. I'm not really familiar with the ones that grow around here.”
“Starving,” Gabrielle cut her off. “But the nuts and berries aren't gonna cut it. And that jerky is too hard for me to chew. My jaw is killing me and my teeth hurt. Everything hurts, dammit.”
“How are your ribs feeling?” Solari lowered her voice so that only Gabrielle could hear her.
“Not too bad, as long as I don't breathe too deeply,” Gabrielle forced a half-smile. “And laughing is definitely out of the question.”
“Yeah, I'll bet,” Solari nodded.
“Any word from Melva and Dressine?”
“Nope,” the guardswoman shook her head.
Gabrielle looked up at the few stars peeking through the canopy above. “How many candlemarks past sunset is it? I kinda lost track of time when I was dozing in and out.”
“About three, My Queen,” Solari replied.
“What?” Solari looked up and met Gabrielle's sober gaze.
“You're supposed to call me Gabrielle, Sol,” she smiled to take the edge off her tone. “We agreed.”
“You promoted me to captain of your personal guard, My Queen,” Solari put a hand on one of Gabrielle's. “I can't…”
“I'm not the queen out here, Sol,” Gabrielle's expression turned pleading as tears sprang to her eyes. “Please. Just humor me, will you? I...” She breathed in and winced when a sharp pain shot through her side. “Damn!” She quietly exclaimed through clenched teeth. “Just, please, see if anyone can make some broth. I'm really hungry and I just want to be left alone for a while.”
“Yes, My…um…Gabrielle,” Solari replied, then got up and walked away.
She lay there listening to the crackling fire, as she closed her eyes and lost herself in images of a certain dark-haired, blue-eyed woman. Her heart ached to have Xena with her, even as her head told her that she couldn't have what she wanted. Xena was busy strategizing and planning Draco's defeat, after all. Or maybe the battle had already begun. In their secluded little glen, she really couldn't be sure. There was just no telling what was going on. And it didn't help that the two pairs of messengers they'd sent out hadn't returned.
“I still think you're too young and inexperienced to be queen,” Sehran's quiet words intruded in on Gabrielle's musings. “I mean, what you said about Velasca is probably true. She was ambitious and maybe a little power hungry. I don't know what she eventually had planned, but I have to believe she had the best interests of all the tribes at heart when she put her plan into action. I'm just not as sure as I was before. Maybe I was wrong.”
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open and she turned her head to look at the bound woman. “Age is relative, Sehran. It's not about how many years you've lived. It's about what you learn in those years that matters. And how you use the knowledge.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“I knew a few elders in my home village who didn't have the sense the gods gave them,” Gabrielle let a smile tug at the corners of her lips. “They were much older than anyone else and made selfish and stupid choices. Or they just didn't make any decisions at all. They let others do it for them. You'd think they would have learned a few things during all their years of life. But some of them just didn't. And then there were those who learned a great deal and used that knowledge to make things a little better—or sometimes worse—for others and themselves.” She paused to gaze up at the stars for a moment and listened to the crickets sing and the fire crackle. “I also knew a few younger villagers who learned from the mistakes their elders made. They actually used what they learned to help make things better.” She turned her gaze on Sehran. “And there are always those who just follow the majority and don't ever question what's being said, because they don't want to rock the boat, so to speak.”
Sehran considered that for a moment. “You think I'm the latter?”
“I think you need to start thinking for yourself, Sehran,” Gabrielle said. “Life isn't black and white, good and bad. There are many shades of gray and some of them are darker than others. You have to listen with both your heart and your head.”
“Velasca's way seemed so right,” Sehran shook her head. “Everything she said made so much sense.”
“There's nothing wrong with wanting what's best for the Nation, Sehran,” Gabrielle continued. “But you have to ask yourself, does the end justify the means? Xena wasn't always a good person. I know that. I watched her drive a sword through my sister's heart and thought the absolute worst of her for it. It still hurts me to see that vision of her doing what she did.”
“But you love her.”
“I do,” Gabrielle's nod was barely perceptible. “I hated her at first, though. She was the enemy—a monster without a heart and soul. She was the Conqueor.”
“What changed your mind?”
“I actually got to know the woman behind the façade of the Conqueror because of a case of mistaken identity,” Gabrielle answered. “I thought she was a horse trainer and didn't know she was the infamous Conqueror, at least at first. My heart actually fell in love with her then.”
“And after you knew the truth?”
“I didn't think I could ever feel anything but hate for her,” Gabrielle admitted. “But then I learned the truth and listened with my heart and my head. It wasn't easy. But it's been well worth it.”
“So, what was the truth?” Sehran asked.
“My sister was ill and I didn't know it,” Gabrielle replied. “She was dying and Xena knew that she wouldn't survive. So, she did what she thought best and acted in a way she saw as merciful.”
“Killing your sister was merciful?” Sehran shot her a skeptical look. “Sounds brutal, not merciful.”
“My sister is in a better place now,” Gabrielle felt tears spring to her eyes and tried to blink them away. “She's in the Elysian Fields with Mother and Father. And she's very happy.”
“You make it sound like you know that for a fact,” Sehran's tone was slightly sarcastic.
“I do,” Gabrielle said with assurance, as her gaze met Sehran's.
Sehran narrowed her gaze and really looked at Gabrielle. “That's not possible.”
“I've learned that anything is possible, Sehran,” Gabrielle grinned wryly. “I've also learned to trust in some things that we can't see with our eyes.”
“Like the gods?” Sehran chuckled.
“They do exist,” Gabrielle nodded. “But do I trust in them? No, not really. They're selfish and don't really care about humans, unless it comes to manipulating us for their own ends. Cecrops is sailing the seas for eternity because of Athena's jealousy. The Trojan War wasn't just a jealous spat over a beautiful woman. I firmly believe Ares had something to do with how much bloodshed took place on those distant shores. And Poseiden's fury knows no bounds where the seas are concerned.”
“Those are just stories meant to entertain and scare us,” Sehran scoffed. “They're not actually true.”
“Tell Cecrops that,” Gabrielle said and then glanced up at the stars again. “And ask Xena why she bears the mark of the God of War on the nape of her neck the next time you see her.”
“How do you know so much about all that?” Sehran asked after several moments of silence passed between them.
“I read and listen,” Gabrielle responded after a moment. “I already told you I've read most of what's in the archival library. And I pay attention to the bards and their stories. You can gleen a lot of valuable information from the stories. After all, they can't all be figments of the imagination, now, can they?”
Sehran sighed. “So, what do you think will happen to me?”
Gabrielle met Sehran's intent gaze. “I think that depends on you, Sehran. Honestly, I don't know. You challenged my right to be queen and you lost. I should have killed you right then and there.”
“But you didn't,” Sehran cocked her head thoughfully. “I still don't understand it.”
“Call it a misguided reverence for life,” Gabrielle replied with a wry half-grin. “I just don't think someone should die because they believe differently than I do or don't agree with me.”
“But I issued the challenge,” Sehran pointed out. “That alone is an act of treason punishable by death.”
“Shades of gray, Sehran,” Gabrielle continued. “Death is an easy solution—a very black solution. You die and it's all over. No more decisions. It's just over. But life—living with the consequences of your actions—is so much harder. Don't you think? To realize that you were willing to end a life for your beliefs and then learn that those beliefs were not as clearly delineated as you first believed? Learning from one's mistakes is one of the greatest achievements that we, as humans, can hope to strive for. If we don't learn from our mistakes, then where are we? Why are we here?”
“I thought we lived to serve the gods,” Sehran shot back.
“I don't believe that and neither do you,” Gabrielle added. “You're a very smart woman, Sehran. I have to believe you are more than capable of learning from the mistakes you've made and to use what you've learned for the greater good. Now, the question is, do you believe it of yourself? Because you're the only one who can change who you are.”
Sehran considered the question thoughtfully. “I guess we'll have to wait and see,” she finally said.
Ephiny could feel her life slipping away in the deathly silence that surrounded her. She was drifting in that place between life and death. It had been candlemarks since Draco's soldiers had nailed her to the cross and lifted it high into the air. At first, she had looked out over the valley and gazed upon the trees in the distance. But eventually her focus turned inward.
She had been able to hold herself up during those first few candlemarks. But her arms were so tired and she just couldn't do it any longer. It was getting harder and harder to breathe—harder to stay conscious. Harder to focus on anything anymore.
What a way to die, she thought bitterly, as she glanced with bleary eyes to her right. The girls had finally stopped whimpering and were now silent. They were probably struggling for each breath, just as she was.
Could one die without pain? Her arms and hands were numb, so she couldn't feel them anymore—couldn't feel those spikes in her hands anymore. And her chest didn't hurt as much as it just felt incredibly heavy—like something really heavy was sitting on it.
“How're you doing up there, Amazon?” Draco's irritatingly cheery voice intruded on her musings.
Ephiny narrowed her gaze and tried to focus, but could only see the flickering of the firelight far below. She couldn't even breathe deeply enough to answer—not that she really wanted to give him the satisfaction, anyway. She was beyond caring about anything, much less Draco and his taunting.
“No witty comeback for me this time, Amazon?” He said. “Oh, don't tell me you've already given up and are ready to die, just like that. I don't want Xena showing up, only to find you dead already. That's certainly no fun.”
There was a strange rumble in the distance and then a loud whistle followed. The whistle grew louder and louder, until a large ball of fire appeared in the sky overhead. The fireball cast an eerie glow over everything in its path.
“Ah, I was wondering when she'd start the assault,” Draco turned to watch the ball of flames, as it arced toward them. “Can't believe Xena would put you all in harm's way like this. She's usually pretty—”
His words were drowned out by the explosion that followed. And then another flaming projectile followed the first.
“Do you see them coming yet?” Draco called up to her. “You definitely have a better vantage point than we do down here, Amazon.”
Ephiny ignored his jibes, as she lifted her head enough to survey the darkness spread out in front of her. She blinked her eyes several times to clear her vision and noticed tiny pinpricks of light dancing in the distance. A smile of satisfaction touched the corners of her lips when she realized those pinpricks were getting bigger and drawing closer. And then she heard the sounds of a thousand or more men shouting out battle cries, as they charged.
“HERE THEY COME!!!” The shout rang out behind her and her smile grew larger. “SOUND THE ALARM!!! THE BATTLE BEGINS!!!”
“Finally,” Ephiny muttered on a breathless sigh.
Xena, Eponin and the dozen or so Amazons with them waited patiently at the edge of the clearing that marked the battlefield. They were huddled in small groups of two and three, while the archers Eponin had brought with her waited in the canopy above.
“Wait!” Xena put a hand on Eponin's arm to stop the woman from charging out into the open. “Just wait for Toris and the others to get closer.”
Eponin bit her tongue to keep from replying. But she did, however, shake off Xena's hand on her arm. “I know the drill, dammit. Doesn't mean I gotta like it, though.”
“They're still alive,” Xena narrowed her gaze. “Ephiny just raised her head to look around. She knows we're here.”
“She can't know that,” Eponin shot back with impatience, as her expression mirrored her deep concern. “Are those kids on those crosses next to her?”
Xena nodded, as her own expression remained neutral. “The bastard went too far this time.” And then she saw Draco's plumed headpiece bobbing away from the base of the crosses. “He's using them as a shield.”
Eponin watched the first wave of the Conqueror's army emerge from the trees with torches held high. More than a thousand men ran out into the middle of the battlefield, yelling at the top of their lungs and waving swords high above their heads. And she could see one of the generals—she thought his name was Joxer—atop a bay gelding. He looked awkward in the saddle, but he was somehow able to guide the horse and get it to do his bidding.
“We move when that first wave—”
And then Draco's men poured out from all sides and charged toward Joxer and his men, effectively drowning out anything else Xena was about to say. The two forces met in a bloody clash, as the catapults rained liquid fire behind Draco's lines and torches on both sides illuminated the scene.
“We gotta get to them!” Eponin shouted over the noise and clammer. “NOW!”
Xena merely nodded, as they charged into the fray and made a beeline for the crosses. Xena knew the only thing they had going for them was the element of surprise. Draco would expect her to lead the charge, not head the rescue effort.
As they approached the crosses, Xena watched with satisfaction as several arrows flew past and took out several of the guards in front of her. She evaded several soldiers who were charging over the hill and engaged several more who veered off in her direction.
Her battle cry rang out loud and clear in the night air, as she drew her sword, met the charge and tore through the line of men in front of her. The ground beneath her boots quickly ran red with the blood of those who tried to stop her. But Xena was determined. Her bloodlust quickly boiled to the surface and spilled over, as her sword arm swung left and right with savage precision.
And soon the entire battlefield was alive with clashing soldiers and fallen men. Screams tore through the air and mingled with the fierce cries of battle. Swords glinted in the torchlight, as flaming balls of fury soared high overhead.
Joxer and his men poured through an opening in the enemy lines. They managed to gain a foothold on Draco's men, but then a stray crossbow bolt found its mark just below Joxer's sword arm. He tumbled from the saddle and men poured in from all sides.
Toris saw Joxer fall and kicked his own horse into motion. He reached the fallen general in a flurry of hacking and slashing. Philemon, who had also see the general fall, also raced in to help. The battle raged, as the remaining leaders engaged the enemy, as well. It wasn't long before the Conqueror's entire army swarmed in to clash with Draco's men.
And all the while Xena fought like a woman possessed. She slashed, hacked, punched, kicked and used every trick in her vast repertoire to push back the tide of men that poured over the hilld at them. Eponin and her Amazons also held their own against the overwhelming numbers.
“We're totally outnumbered!” Eponin's shout carried over the dull roar of the battle waging not far below them. She glanced up and noticed a pair of hazel eyes watching her. “I'm comin', Eph! I promise!”
“I know, Pon,” came the weak reply that was almost lost in the uproar around them.
“We need help!” Eponin called to Xena. “Where are those—”
She barely got the words out before a sword blade got past her guard and sliced her upper arm. She spun around and met the downward arc of the blade, then shoved it up and spun back around with her own blade at mid-level. Her sword sliced cleanly through the belly of a young soldier who fell dead at her feet.
“Ares balls!” She hissed, as she glanced down at the free-flowing bloody slice on her upper arm.
“You okay, Eponin?” The Amazon closest to her asked, as she blocked her opponent's strike and ran him through with her blade.
“Bastard got past my guard!” Eponin charged forward and faced off against three more men.
She was so intent on what she was doing that she barely registered the new wave of soldiers that poured past her to engage the enemy on the other side of the hill.
“'Bout damned time you boys showed up!” She called to the rider that whizzed by at a full gallop.
“Didn't want to miss out on all the fun!” Gregor grinned from ear-to-ear, as he urged his mount to charge into another line of Draco's men. He lifted his sword and swung it down into the enemy, taking several of them out in one fell swoop.
Eponin pulled her attention away from the dark-haired king in time to block a strike from another enemy soldier. She shoved his blade back and followed it up with several swings that put him on the defensive. She struck, he blocked. Then she blocked as he launched a counterattack. They danced for several long moments, until Eponin finally found her opening and ran her blade through his armored chest. His eyes widened in shock, as his sword fell from lifeless fingers.
“I ain't got time to screw around!” Eponin yanked her blade from his chest and didn't wait for him to hit the ground, as she looked up at the cross towering over her. “You still with me up there?” A slight nod of a curly-blond head was her answer. “Xena!!!”
Xena had her own hands full, even as Gregor's men poured over the hill to take on those enemy soldiers who charged from the other direction. She was engaging six combatants, all of who rushed her at once. She'd pulled a dagger from her belt and was hacking and slashing with both weapons. What she really wished for, however, was her chakram. The round weapon was perfect for situations like this, one part of her mind reasoned as the rest concentrated on her opponents.
But she'd lost the weapon to Draco all those moons ago. It was one of the first things she'd wanted to reach for when she'd returned to consciousness. And then she'd looked up to find it dangling from a leather strap at Draco's hip. That grated on her like nothing else. Then she saw his fingers wrapped in bloody strips of cloth and realized he'd tried to use it. That brought a small grin of satisfaction to her lips, before he smacked her hard across the face and wiped the grin right off.
One soldier tried to slide past her guard and thrust his blade toward her exposed back. Xena's instincts kicked in and her bloodlust surged, as she spun in a lightning-quick circle and slashed her blade across his throat. Blood sprayed from the long gash, as he quickly dropped his sword and reached for his throat. But Xena ignored his gurgling and returned her attention to the other five.
Another one charged toward her. She spun around behind him, grabbed him with an arm against his throat, spun him toward his buddies and used his body as a shield. Two of his comrades thrust their blades into him before they realized what they'd done. Her iron grip on his throat kept him from falling, as she released her hold and shoved him toward the two. She then unconsciously blocked a strike from another opponent to her left and took him down with a quick sweep of a leg behind his. She dispatched him with her blade in dure course and turned to meet the next attack.
An arrow whizzed past her ear and took a lock of her dark hair with it. She heard the second arrow coming, grabbed it in mid-air, spun around and launched it directly into the eye socket of one of her opponents. She instinctively ducked three more arrows and caught a fourth aimed for her thigh.
She didn't have time to think and simply reacted. Her body went into full battle mode and she moved like a flash. Two more enemy soldiers went down in twin sprays of warm and sticky blood, while a third tried to take her from behind. She spun around so fast that his blade didn't have time to descend. She shoved her own blade into his gut up to its hilt and yanked upward, then allowed his momentum to carry him past her.
Blood covered her arms, chest and splattered her face as her blade came free. The salty tang filled her nostrils and unleashed the beast within. The mark on the back of her neck flared to life and sent her own heartbeat racing. She didn't feel the myriad of scratches and cuts that graced her exposed flesh. All she knew was the blood-red rage that sent her into a feeding frenzy.
Draco's men fell to her blade in droves as she hacked, slashed, parried, thrust, spun, somersaulted, kicked, punched and plowed her way through their midst with singleminded purpose. Her battle cries echoed across the field and mingled with the screams of the dying. She didn't see their faces, didn't pay attention to their expressions as they fell. All she saw was red. Blood red death.
And then she heard Eponin shout her name and reality came crashing back in like a heavy weight. Her vision cleared and she remembered those crosses towering over her.
With her signature battle cry, Xena took out her last remaining opponents and then launched herself into a backward somersault. She landed feet-first on the crosspiece of one cross and swung her blade in a downward arc that sliced cleanly through the ropes that held the occupant's legs in place. She then checked to see if the young girl's hands were secured with spikes and found that they weren't. She quickly hacked at both ropes holding the girl's arms and wrists, watching with satisfaction as two Amazons at the base of the cross quickly caught the girl before she hit the ground.
Xena then vaulted to the next cross and released its occupant with quick, sure strokes. She went right down the line, until all but one was free. Draco had actually made her job easier by having all the crosses lined up close enough together that all she had to do was jump from one to the next. When only Ephiny remained, Xena jumped down and raced back to where the regent still hung.
“Why didn't you free her first?” Eponin's angry glare met Xena's. “What's the deal, Xena?”
“It's not that easy, Pon,” Xena looked up at the bloody spikes that held the regent in place. “I need something to pry those spikes free.”
Understanding dawned in Eponin's eyes, as she realized Ephiny was the only one Draco had actually nailed to the cross. Two large spikes pierced the regent's hands and Eponin cringed at the sight.
“I'll find something,” Eponin said, as she darted away.
“Hang in there, Eph,” Xena called up to the woman still hanging above her. “We'll figure something out.”
She surveyed the ground around her and found nothing that would do the job. There were a few swords and daggers lying next to the bodies of the fallen. There were also a few discarded hammers nearby. What she really needed was a hammer with a flat end, she realized. But there was nothing within sight.
Several moments later, Eponin returned with a triumphant grin and a strange tool in her hand.
“I think this should do the trick,” the weapons master said, as she handed the tool over to Xena.
Xena grabbed the metal bar with a groove in the tip and glanced up. “Yeah, this should work,” she said and unceremoniously launched herself into the air. A quick somersault and she was perched on top of the crosspiece next to Ephiny's head. “Hey,” she caught the wary look in the regent's dull eyes. “You ready to get down from here?”
“Seriously?” Ephiny shot her an impatient glare. “I was ready the instant they put me up here.”
“This is gonna really hurt,” Xena put the grooved tip of the tool against one of the spike heads.
Ephiny shut her eyes tight and braced herself for the pain to come. An unconscious scream tore from her lips an instant later and carried over the battle raging below, as her hand came free of the wooden crosspiece with the spike still in it. Another scream tore from her throat, as Xena freed her other hand in quick succession. She then felt her legs dangle freely. Ephiny didn't have time to consider her predicament, as both arms suddenly came free and she fell toward the ground below.
And then someone caught her and held her close.
“Oh, Eph,” Eponin's whispered words penetrated her dazed senses, as her hands suddenly came alive with searing pain.
She was unceremoniously lowered to the ground an instant later. Her hands were on fire and she opened her eyes to see that the spikes were still deeply embedded in them.
“Hold still, Ephiny,” Xena's calm voice intruded. “I'm going to pull these out and bandage them until we can get you to safety. We don't have time for much more.”
All she could do was nod weakly and try not to scream in agony. And then her wrist was grabbed in a firm grip and one metal spike slid from her left hand. The pain was so intense that she passed out instantly.
“Is she—” Eponin looked at Xena with tears swimming in her eyes.
“Passed out cold,” Xena tossed one bloody spike away and quickly wrapped the limp and bleeding hand with a long bandage. Once she had the one hand completely covered, she went to work removing the spike from the other. When both hands were taken care of, Xena glanced up at the Amazon hovering at her shoulder. “You want to carry her?”
Eponin nodded and quickly hoisted the unconscious regent onto her shoulder. They both turned in time to see Draco standing there with more than a dozen armed men.
“Nice of you to join the party, Xena,” Draco stood with his legs apart, his bare arms crossed over his chest and her chakram dangling at one hip. “Of course, I actually thought you would be the one to lead the charge.” He glanced out at the battle still raging and noticed several men on horseback. “Didn't really take you for the type to rescue a bunch of Amazons and servants.”
Xena pulled her sword from the scabbard at her back and twirled it in front of her. “Go, Eponin,” she ordered. “Get her out of here and see to the others.”
Eponin still held her own sword in one hand, as she used her other to steady Ephiny's inert form on her shoulder. “You sure?”
“I got this. Go!” Xena urged, then focused her attention on Draco. “You too much of a coward to fight me yourself, Draco? It's so like you to hide behind a bunch of women and children.”
“I don't really consider Amazons women,” he chuckled, as he drew the sword at the hip opposite the chakram. “Of course, I don't really see you as a woman, either, Xena. You're more like the pesky fly that stands in the way of my ultimate victory. I look forward to marching into Corinth and crowning myself emperor of all Greece.”
“Nice, Draco,” Xena sneered. “I think you'd better prepare to face Hades, instead. ‘Cause that's what's really in your future.”
“Oh, Xena,” he shook his head and glanced at the men around him. “You really think you'll get past my men a second time?”
“I don't think, I know,” Xena answered and twirled her sword again. “I've had time to hone my skills, Draco. And there aren't any Romans here to back you up this time around.”
“I don't need Rome's elite to take you down, Xena,” Draco snickered. “I have these men to do it for me, and, belive me, they can taste your blood already. Can't you, boys?” The men all chuckled. “See? Mercenaries are so willing, as long as you pay them well. Oh, and I left your friend a little note. I wonder if she found it. I sent some men to find her, but she managed to elude them.”
“Gabrielle is far too intelligent for the likes of your men, Draco,” Xena hissed.
“Yeah, I'm sure you think so,” he sneered. “After all, you've been sleeping with her for how long?”
“Not really in the mood to talk about my sex life,” Xena made a come-and-get-it gesture with one hand. “Shall we just cut the chitchat and get to it?”
Draco's men charged toward her all at once and were met by the unleashed fury of the beast within. She moved in a blur and took out the first two with practiced ease. She blocked two more downward strikes and dispatched the next two in due course. She then spun around and drop-kicked another. Launching herself into the air, she somersaulted over the heads of the remaining three and landed behind them. She then swung her blade in a deadly arc that took them down in a spray of blood.
Draco watched in abject horror as Xena spun around to face him. She had made quick work of killing his best men and was now standing before her with cold fury flashing in steely eyes. His own blood ran cold as he met her icy glare and raised his the blade to meet her attack.
“This ends here, Draco,” Xena ground out between clenched teeth.
“Ares!!” Draco called to the air above him.
A flash of blinding light suddenly had the brooding God of War standing right there in their midst. He glanced at Xena with a triumphant smirk and then turned his brooding gaze on Draco.
“You bellowed?” He crossed his muscular arms over an equally muscular leather-clad chest.
“I did what you told me to do,” Draco pointed his sword at Xena. “She's yours.”
Ares rolled his eyes at the man. “Dumbass! She was always mine,” he shot Xena a glance and saw the fury in her eyes. He closed the distance and took her lips in a smoldering kiss. “Aren't you, my dear?”
Xena felt the surge of raw energy pour through her at the intimate contact and knew a moment of intense rage. It was so strong, so totally unexpected, that it dropped her to her knees at his feet.
Ares turned to Draco in triumph. “You've proven yourself useful, Draco. But now you are no longer needed,” a ball of molten light suddenly appeared in his hand and he tossed it into the startled man's chest.
Draco didn't have time to react as the pure energy engulfed him and his screams of agony tore through the night air. His teeth crackled as his mouth opened wide and his eyes rolled back in his head. Then he dropped to the ground in a smoldering heap. Ares managed to grab the chakram from Draco's belt just before he fell forward on the ground.
Ares then turned back to the woman kneeling at his feet and twirled the chakram on one finger. “See? I told you we'd be together again, Xena,” he caught the chakram in his hand and tossed it to the ground in front of her. He then reached down and tilted her chin up with his other hand until her eyes met his. What he saw stopped him in his tracks.
“I was never yours, Ares,” Xena choked out as she surged to her feet and drove her sword to its hilt into his torso with a wicked gleam. “But thanks for taking care of Draco for me.”
He sighed in resignation, as he stepped back from her blade and winced as the cold metal slid from his body. “You know you can't kill me with that.” And then he pushed the tip of the blade away from him with a finger.
“No, but it was fun to try, even if nothing came of it,” Xena smirked. “Now leave me alone. I'm done with you, Ares.” She glanced down at Draco's charred body and then out at the battle still raging on the field beyond. “Your mere presence makes me sick.”
He moved closer, instead. “I'm still very much a part of you, Xena,” he said and ran a finger along her blood-spattered jaw line. “And I always will be.” His finger stopped at her closed lips and he met her icy gaze. “This isn't over, you know. I will never stop trying to bring you back to the fold.”
Xena pulled back and glared into his soulless eyes. “You're wrong, Ares. My heart belongs to another and always will. As I told you before, my days of serving you are over. I am no longer yours.”
He stepped back with a look that said he wasn't convinced. “Then I guess I'll see you around, Xena.”
Before she could reply, he raised his hand, snapped his fingers and disappeared in a blinding flash. Xena just stood there and willed her legs to hold her up, as her heart pounded in her chest. Ares' presence had affected her more than she would ever willingly admit. She glanced down at Draco's charred body again and sighed. Then she reached down, picked up the chakram and secured it to the hook at her hip.
“Not sure any of this was worth it,” she muttered, as she lifted her sword and rested the blade against her shoulder. “Damned Ares and his godly machinations!”
“It's begun,” Solari said, as a low rumble echoed on the breeze.
“I know,” Gabrielle nodded with her eyes still closed. “I heard the first wave and felt the shudder roll through the ground beneath me.”
A curious brow lifted on the guardswoman's features. “You heard that?”
“Amazing what you can hear when you're tuned into everything around you,” Gabrielle commented.
“Okaaaay,” Solari eyed her queen curiously. “Anything else you're hearing or feeling?”
“Still hungry,” Gabrielle let one eye pop open. “Got anymore of that rabbit stew handy?”
Solari snickered. “You're a bottomless pit, My Queen. You know that?” She moved over to the small campfire and dished up another bowlful of the hearty broth that Petrice had made. She then returned to Gabrielle's side and spoonfed the reclining woman. “Better?”
“Much,” Gabrielle answered between bites. “Not sure the broth is really cutting it, though.”
Solari glanced into the bowl and smashed the few chunks of wild potatoes and carrots they'd managed to scavenge. “Here, try this,” she spooned some of the mashed concoction into Gabrielle's mouth.
“Mm,” Gabrielle let the mushy, meaty stuff slide down her throat. “That's actually really good. And I didn't have to chew it. What was it?”
“Potatoes and carrots,” Solari answered conversationally. “They cooked down enough that they're kinda turning to mush.”
“More,” Gabrielle eyed the bowl expectantly.
Solari fed her the rest and then spooned up another bowlful at Gabrielle's urging. When the queen finished off the last of the second helping, she lay back with a tired sigh.
“You keep asking me that,” Gabrielle shot back with an irritated glare. “I'm not better. I'm the same as I've been all day.” She blew out an exasperated breath and winced. “Urrrrrgh!”
“Okay,” Solari held up her hands in surrender. “So I won't ask anymore. I got it, your majesty. I got it.”
“I'm sorry,” Gabrielle said after a moment of silence. “I shouldn't have snapped at you like that. None of this is your fault, Sol.”
“No, it isn't,” Solari shot a glare at the bound woman behind her. “It's hers.”
“Hey!” Sehran shot back.
“Well, it is,” Solari crossed her arms indignantly. “You challenged her and broke her damned ribs, Sehran. What in the name of Artemis were you thinking, anyway?”
“She was thinking of the Nation,” Gabrielle answered. “Not that her motives were entirely pure and unselfish, but I'm not sure I can fault her logic.”
“How can you say that?” Solari shot Gabrielle a grimace. “She tried to kill you because she believes in Velasca's crazy idea that the Amazons…”
“I didn't say I agree with her motives, Sol,” Gabrielle interrupted. “I just can't fault her logic. She's right. I am weak—especially now. Maybe I really don't deserve to be queen of the tribe. I've had a lot of time to think about it and…”
“Oh please, do not go there, My Queen,” Solari shot back before Gabrielle could finish. “You may not be the best choice to lead us into battle, but I've learned a thing or two in the time that we've spent together. And one thing I know is that you are a born leader. You don't just jump into a situation. You weigh all the options and look at things from different angles. And you don't let your anger get the best of you. You don't have to be the greatest warrior in the Nation to lead. You just have to know what's best for everyone.”
A blond brow shot up on Gabrielle's features. “You really believe that, don't you,” Gabrielle stated.
“With all my heart, My Queen,” Solari put a fist to her chest. “You aren't the flash in the pan that everyone thought you were. Terreis and Melosa were right.”
“She's right,” Sehran piped in. “You really should listen to her, you know.”
Both Gabrielle and Solari shot the woman surprised stares.
Sehran met Gabrielle's gaze. “I guess, I can be taught.”
The battle still raged fiercely. Apparently, no one cared whether or not Draco was still in charge of his army. Nor did they care that he was toast—literally. Men from both sides clashed in a bloody mess of swords and blood and gore. The roar was deafening, as men and horses and centaurs and Amazons fought for dominance on a field littered with the dead and dying.
Xena watched it all with a detachment she hadn't felt in a very long time. Even the tang of blood that reached her nostrils didn't send her into the feeding frenzy that had washed over her earlier. Actually, she felt nothing. No rage. No bloodlust. Nothing. No, that wasn't true, either. She felt cold—a bone-deep cold that sent a shiver of dread through her.
And then her thoughts turned to Gabrielle and the cold vanished in the warmth of her memories. Bright green eyes dancing with amusement played in her mind's eye and she wanted nothing more than to go to the woman. But she had no idea where Gabrielle was.
Turning away from the battle scene, Xena made her way towards the woods that edged the vast clearing. She needed to find an Amazon who knew where Gabrielle was. She needed to go to her.
“Hey, Xena!” A voice called to her from somewhere close by and she turned to find a beaming Eponin waving enthusiastically. The weapons master broke into a run and closed the distance between them in a few heartbeats. “There you are!” Eponin bent forward and rested her hands on her knees as she tried to catch her breath. “Been lookin' all over for ya. Eph is askin' for you.”
“I need someone to take me to Gabrielle, Eponin,” Xena shot the woman an annoyed look. “I don't have time to do your regent's bidding.”
“She ain't askin' as the regent,” Eponin countered, as she finally straightened up. “Melva volunteered to take you to where her maj is and is waiting with Eph.”
“Oh,” Xena conceded. “By all means, lead the way, then.”
“Hey, whatever happened to Draco anyway?” Eponin asked conversationally, as they made their way into the woods on the far side of the still-raging battle. “No one's seen him since we were on that hill. And what's that thing hanging from your hip? Looks dangerous.”
“He's dead,” Xena stated flatly. “And it is. It's called a chakram. Long story short, Ares gave it to me a long time ago.”
“You killed Draco, then?” Eponin shot her a curious look.
“Not me,” Xena shook her head. “He had a run-in with Ares and…um…Let's just say he got the short end of the deal.”
“Ares?” Eponin gaped. “As in, the God of War?”
“One and the same,” Xena shrugged. “He showed up after you carried Ephiny away. We kinda have a history together. Another very long story not worth repeating right now.”
“Yeah, I'll bet,” Eponin just shook her head in consternation.
They reached a thicket and navigated through it with ease. On the other side Ephiny was being tended to by several Amazons, including Queen Grenella and Agatha.
“Ladies,” Xena greeted them with a curt nod.
“Oh, good, you're here,” Ephiny glanced up at the woman towering over her. “Tell her not to cut my damned hands off, Xena.”
Xena looked at the person Ephiny was glaring at and scowled. “You're not cutting her hands off, Agatha.”
“Oh, for the love of the gods, Xena,” Agatha stood with her hands on her ample, leather-clad hips. “I was going to do no such thing. But she won't let me look at them. I need to see underneath the bandages in order to assess the damage.”
“You're not cutting them off,” Ephiny shot back emphatically. “I don't care what you have to do to save them. I need my hands.”
“Who said anything about cutting off your hands, young woman?” Agatha spat.
Xena knelt next to the curly-haired blond, reached over and grabbed a bandaged hand. She could see that the blood had soaked through the bandage already.
“They'll need to be cleaned and cauterized, Eph,” Xena said, as she gingerly unwrapped the hand in hers. “Agatha is the best healer I know and will take care of them for you,” she glanced up at the elder woman, “won't you?”
“I was going to do just that, before you came along and interrupted me,” Agatha huffed impatiently and received a gentle pat from the woman next to her.
“Patience, Aggie,” Grenella urged. “These young kids don't know the first thing about what's good for ‘em, let me tell ya.”
Xena just glared at the two elderly women, who gave her twin I-told-you-so looks. They, in turn, just giggled like a couple of girls and rolled their eyes in exasperation.
“You want to talk about this one not knowing what's good for her?” Agatha shot Xena a wry grin. “Why do you think her mother asked me to watch over her at that stupid keep? She was forever getting into trouble. I patched her up more often than any of the servants. The kitchen staff with their burns and cuts couldn't hold a candle to what Xena used to get herself into while sparring with her men.”
“You obviously haven't been living with the likes of them,” Grenella nodded towards the Amazons hovering over Ephiny. “You only had one to deal with. I had a whole tribe of them.”
Agatha wrapped an arm around Grenella's shoulders and squeezed. “Now you know why I could only stay for brief visits,” she grinned knowingly. “I had enough on my hands with Xena.”
“Oh, now I really know how much you loved me, my dearest,” Grenella teased, as she gave Agatha a quick peck on the lips.
“I love you more and more each day, sweetheart,” Agatha returned with a soft smile. “You're the light in my life.” She turned her gaze on Xena. “And you're my greatest challenge. Why, may I ask, are you still here?”
Xena suddenly took on the bearing of a chastised child. “What?”
“You're supposed to be with Gabrielle,” Grenella nodded. “Why are you here?”
“I…uh…” Xena glanced to Eponin for help.
“Eph, where's Melva or Dressine or Jaela…” Eponin's expression turned thoughtful. “Who's the other one?”
Ephiny's brow lifted. “Dromedra?”
“Yes, Regent?” The last woman in question hastily stepped forward.
“Would you please escort the queen's champion to her majesty?” Ephiny smirked at Xena. “And make it quick? I really don't want these bitties getting their leathers in a bind. There's no telling what we would have to do to free them.”
The two elders shot her their most intimidating glares.
“Watch it, Regent,” Grenella growled. “You really don't want to lose favor with the other queens.”
“And I still haven't treated your hands,” Agatha added with a knowing gleam. “There are many painful remedies I could use on those wounds.”
“You could just cut them off, you know,” Grenella added with an evil grin and watched as Ephiny tucked both bandaged hands behind her. “Teach her a lesson in humility and respect for her elders.”
“Who are you calling an elder?” Agatha suddenly rounded on Grenella.
“Quick!” Ephiny hissed at Xena. “Get out of here while the getting's good, Xena. Go fetch our queen and bring her back here, so she can save me from all these crazy women.”
“Are you sure?” Xena put a hand on the regent's shoulder.
“Gabrielle is a lot better at dealing with all this than I am,” Ephiny said. “Go! And may Artemis watch over you and bring you both safely back here to us, Xena.”
“When we do return safely, the gods will have had no part in it. I assure you.” Xena shot her a wry grin. “There's one god, in particular, who I hope to never see again.”
Ephiny watched as Xena mounted her warhorse and Melva took off after her. She then glanced up at Eponin, who was watching her with unshed tears in her eyes.
“You gonna keep it together, Pon?” Ephiny asked in a quiet voice. “I don't think we're quite finished here, yet.”
Eponin sniffed back the tears and shook herself. “I guess so,” she said. “I was just thinkin'.”
“You up on that damned cross,” Eponin didn't bother to wipe away the single tear that escaped to trail down her cheek. “I'm really glad you're okay, Eph. I thought…” She cleared her throat. “I'm glad Xena got you down from there.”
“Me, too,” Ephiny raised one bandaged hand and touched Eponin's cheek with the tips of her fingers. “Me, too.”
“You're riding and that's final,” Xena glanced at the woman sitting uncomfortably in the saddle atop a dappled gray mare. “I'm not wasting time waiting for you to catch up. Beside, you can lead the way.”
“I really hate horses, Conqueror,” Dromedra complained, as she pulled back on the reins to get her feisty mount under control. “I swore I would never ride another horse after the last one stopped suddenly and tossed me into a patch of thorns.”
Xena glanced at her companion, as she nudged her mount into a trot and then a canter. “When was that?” She called over her shoulder.
“Right before Jaela and I reached the outskirts of the encampment,” Dromedra scowled, as she kicked her mount into motion.
Xena glanced back and watched the woman try to manhandle the dappled gray into submission. She reined in her own, larger mount and waited for the woman to catch up.
“Lesson one,” Xena glared at the flustered woman. “Be gentle. How would you like someone tugging on your mouth at the same time they're kicking you in the sides? Lesson two: relax. Horses are much better at reading the tension in your body than people are. If you tense up, they do, too. Lesson three: horses are a lot like people. If you respect them, they'll respect you.”
Xena nudged her mount into a canter again and glanced over her shoulder to see Dromedra do the same. For a brief instant, she actually gave the woman some credit for being such a quick learner. Then she heard Dromedra curse and glanced back to see the Amazon roll her eyes at the feisty mare. Xena couldn't help the smile that graced her features as she gave the stallion his head and galloped into the darkness.
Gabrielle could sense that dawn was approaching, even with her eyes tightly shut. She was moving. That much she knew. Every bump and dip sent agonizing jolts of pain shooting down her side, as sweat beaded on her brow and trickled down into her damp hair. Why? She asked herself for the umpteenth time.
The answer was always the same. They'd been discovered and had to escape before Draco's men overran them. She'd been the one to give the order. And she'd been the one to counter every argument Solari shot back at her. In the end, Gabrielle won. She was the queen, after all. But was she really winning?
Her jaw ached from clenching her teeth so tightly that she thought they would all crack and fall out. Then the litter hit yet another bump. She sucked in a breath and held it in an effort to keep from crying out. She wanted nothing more than to order her escort to find another hiding place where they could stop, but knew the futility of that.
Draco's men were close. Too close.
Gabrielle heard the sounds of hoofbeats nearby and her heart pounded wildly in her chest. Yes, Draco's men were too close.
“We'll never outrun them at this pace,” she said through clenched teeth.
“I'm certainly open to suggestions, My Queen,” Solari called over her shoulder from atop the horse that was dragging Gabrielle's litter. “It doesn't help that we're leaving a trail for them to follow.”
Gabrielle girded herself for what she was about to say. “Stop your horse and we'll dump the litter.”
Dead silence greeted her suggestion and Gabrielle figured Solari was ignoring her, until they actually pulled to a halt and Solari dismounted. She approached the side of the litter with her hands on her hips and a deep frown furrowing her brow.
“Are you insane?” Solari snapped. “Did that blow to your jaw actually affect your brain, My Queen?”
Gabrielle's eyes widened at the woman's tone, as she watched the rest of her escort step up next to Solari. None of them looked happy with her. A couple even looked ready to join in the chastising.
“Okay,” Gabrielle conceded. “So, it's not such a bright idea.”
“I've heard better suggestions out of centaurs, My Queen,” Petrice added insult to injury.
“You can't even sit up,” Solari added. “How do you expect to ride a damned horse?”
Gabrielle decided it was high time to put her words into actions. Unfortunately, her body just wasn't up to cooperating with her. Her attempt to sit upright fell flat, as did she.
“Okay, okay,” she groaned, as her ribs protested the slight movement she was able to make.
“See? I rest my case,” Solari threw her arms up.
“They're still coming,” Mara said, as she held up a hand for silence.
“Why does that only sound like two horses to me?” Gabrielle's whispered words cut into the silence that followed. “Anyone else think that's just a little odd?”
Solari motioned for the others to hide in some nearby bushes and take their horses with them.
“What about you and the queen?” Petrice whispered loudly. “We won't leave her.”
“Do you seriously want to stand there and argue about this right now?” Solari countered in an equally loud whisper. “I'll just cover her with one of the blankets and pretend she's my ailing mother or something. I think I can pull off the dutiful peasant routine.”
Gabrielle shot Solari a raised-browed look. “And if they decide to check under the blanket?”
“Pretend you have consumption and cough a lot,” Solari shrugged and shot a glare at Petrice. “Besides, you certainly won't be convincing with Sehran strapped belly-down to that horse of hers. There's really no way to explain that one away.”
“Fine,” Petrice conceded. “But if they even look like they're going to do anything…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Solari waved her off. “Just go. They're really close.” She grabbed a blanket from one of the packs tied to her saddle and threw it over Gabrielle. Then she lifted one corner and peeked underneath. “You okay in there, My Queen?”
“Just fine, Sol,” Gabrielle replied flatly and then eyed Solari's attire. “Don't you think you're a little underdressed to play the role of the dutiful peasant daughter?”
Solari glanced down at her Amazon attire. “What's wrong with what I'm wearing?”
“Never mind,” Gabrielle just rolled her eyes as the blanket fell back into place over her face.
Gabrielle listened intently to what was going on around her and could hear the whispered mutterings of her escort as they trudged through the bushes. She smiled to herself at the noise they made and hoped beyond hope that whoever was following them was deafer than a doornail.
The pounding of hooves approached and Gabrielle waited for the inevitable.
“Conqueror!” The shout rang out loud and clear.
The blanket was quickly pulled aside and suddenly Gabrielle found herself face-to-face with the woman she loved. “Xena?” Tears sprang suddenly to her eyes.
“Hey, there, sweetheart,” Xena smiled broadly, as she leaned down and took Gabrielle's lips in a smoldering kiss.
Continued in Part 8
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