Rite of Passage
The sounds of metal clashing could be heard through the woods as Xena parried blow after blow from her four attackers. Although the highwaymen were totally outclassed by the Warrior Princess, they were quick and agile enough to keep her attention fairly focused.
Xena was almost treating this latest attack as an unnecessary workout, and was hoping that the men would eventually realize their folly and run away before she had to do anything...lethal. She and Gabrielle had been unfortunate enough to come across seven other bands of cutthroats in their wanderings over the past month, and Xena was slowly growing tired of the constant fighting. She knew that Gabrielle was weary herself and quickly looked over to see how her friend was getting along.
To the far right of Xena, Gabrielle was getting along fine. Her Amazon staff had already disabled one attacker, and she was currently fighting another. The bard swung her quarterstaff in a quick fluid motion catching her attacker with a sharp blow on the shoulder. She could see the anger in his face as his arm, numbed by the blow, dropped to his side. Instead of waiting for feeling to return to his disabled arm, the highwayman redoubled his attack and quickly pelted the bard’s staff with a constant stream of blows, forcing her to backtrack in her stance.
Unfortunately, Gabrielle did not see the twisted tree root growing up from the ground in back of her. As she slowly retreated from the angry attacker, the bard stumbled over the exposed root, sending her toppling backwards. Realizing she was in trouble, Gabrielle attempted to put her staff in a full defensive position, but was too late. She felt the highwayman’s blade slice into her left arm as she hit the ground.
Xena, witnessing her friend’s fall, immediately dispatched one of her attackers with a swift roundhouse kick, and yelled out her piercing warcry as she jumped into the air, backflipping herself in between Gabrielle and the man poised to strike a killing blow. The Warrior Princess’ sword arched through the air with frightening speed, slicing its way through the highwayman’s chest on its way down to Xena’s side. Gabrielle’s would-be slayer fell dead to the ground.
The warrior assessed Gabrielle’s condition with a quick glance, and seeing that she was in no immediate danger, returned her attention to the remaining highwaymen. The men, shaken by the sudden death of their compatriot, looked at the face of his killer. No longer in a mood to continue giving these men the benefit of doubt, Xena’s face was filled with rage. Their attack was no longer just an inconvenience for her. Sensing this change, the ruffians quickly helped their one friend from the ground and ran into the woods. Xena followed their trail for a short distance to ensure herself that they were really gone, then returned to Gabrielle’s side.
The injured bard had moved herself back so as to sit against a nearby tree. Seeing that her arm was bleeding fairly heavily, she was attempting to use the tree to help herself stand and get to Argo when Xena returned. The warrior ran up to her friend and knelt down, gently forcing Gabrielle back down to the ground.
"You stay put and let me look at this."
Gabrielle knew better than to fight Xena and settled back against the tree. "I’m sorry, I tripped. Really stupid huh?"
Shaking her head, her attention focused back on Xena as she probed her injury. Finally, with the adrenaline rush from the fight fading, she began feeling pain and tried to pull away from her friend’s hands. "OUCH! That hurts!"
A look of concentrated concern was etched on Xena’s face, but she held Gabrielle’s arm in a vice-like grip, and continued her examination. "I’m sorry Gabrielle. Stay still...it’s only going to hurt more if you move around."
Finally completed with her examination, Xena turned and smiled at her friend. "You definitely need stitches, and this has to be cleaned out. The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be any real damage to the muscle." Looking up, Xena whistled for Argo. "There was a stream beyond that hill we just came over. Let’s go back there and set up camp."
Argo came through the woods and stopped near Xena’s side. The warrior stood up and reached into a saddlebag, pulling out one of her old shifts. Tearing it into strips, Xena knelt back down next to Gabrielle and wrapped her bloody arm. Once that was done, she reached under the bard’s unhurt arm. "Here, let me help you up." Xena practically picked Gabrielle up and supported her as she seemed to dip back towards the ground. "Hey, you okay?"
"Um, yeah, just a bit lightheaded, that’s all."
Slowly walking her over to Argo, Xena commented. "Well, you’ve lost a bit of blood. Once we settle in and get some food and water in you, you’ll feel better. With a bit of rest, you’ll be as good as new."
Gabrielle knew that Xena was saying this as much for her own benefit as for hers. Looking at Xena’s face, she could see her concern, and she could see something else there too. Knowing that she needed to reassure her warrior friend, Gabrielle smiled at her. "Hey, Xena...I’m okay...really. I’m sorry for all this."
Xena did not respond, and once they reached Argo, she lifted Gabrielle into the saddle, then quickly packed up the bard’s staff, grabbed Argo’s reins, and led her towards the stream.
Gabrielle was always amazed at how gentle Xena could be if she tried. After finding a defensible camp site near the stream, Xena had helped Gabrielle off Argo and settled her onto some blankets near their fire. She then began the painful process of washing out the gash in Gabrielle’s arm with alcohol. Knowing this was hurting her friend, Xena made every attempt to be gentle when she began sewing up the nasty wound.
Although she was in pain, Gabrielle endured the medical ministrations bravely. She knew that Xena couldn’t stand to see her hurt or in pain, so she tried her hardest not to flinch or show any outward signs of just how much she was hurting...with only limited success. The bard reached up with her good arm and lightly placed her hand on Xena’s chin, lifting her face up so they could make eye contact. She knew she needed to talk to her friend. She could see the emotions in Xena’s face, and it was obvious that she was not only concentrating on healing her, but she was also somehow blaming herself for the injury.
"Thank you, you saved my life *again*...and I *am* sorry about this."
"You have nothing to be sorry for Gabrielle. I should have..."
Xena had given Gabrielle the opening she needed. "See...see...I knew that’s what you were thinking. This is all your fault - right?"
Gabrielle’s exasperated tone got the expected reaction from Xena. Her eyebrow raised up as she replied, "Well, I was just going to say that..."
"NO! I don’t want... OUCH!"
Xena was in no mood to further the conversation especially after seeing that it distracted her from her work. "Let me concentrate on this Gabrielle. We’ll talk when I’m done." Xena focused herself totally on Gabrielle’s arm, even turning her body slightly away from her friend as she worked to make it very clear that she was not going to be goaded into conversation until she finished stitching the wound.
Xena finally finished sewing Gabrielle’s arm and was in the process of wrapping it when the bard forced the issue of the warrior’s misguided guilt again.
"So, just how is this your fault Xena...tell me."
Xena looked up at Gabrielle. "You’re right...it wasn’t my fault. You’re an excellent fighter Gabrielle and I know you can take care of yourself. I never meant to imply otherwise. But I can’t help worrying...okay? And when I saw you go down..."
Gabrielle placed her free hand across one of Xena’s. "Oh, okay...worrying’s okay, I guess. I mean, I know you worry...shoot, I worry about you all the time." Smiling, the bard looked down at her arm, then out at the surrounding woods. "I guess we’re stuck here a few days, huh?"
The warrior stood up, looked around, and started gathering all her medical supplies, stuffing them back in her healing pouch. "Hey, don’t complain. A little break isn’t such a bad idea. Actually, I’ve been thinking. When you’re able to travel again, why don’t we go visit Ephiny and the rest of the Amazons? We’re not all that far away, and they’d love to see you."
Xena could see the excited look on her friend’s face.
"Could we? That’d be great!" Her statement was followed by a loud growling in her stomach.
Xena chuckled. "And the other half speaks! You stay here...I’ll go get us some dinner. I need to get some more water anyway - I used all ours on you." Looking down at her bloody arms and hands Xena continued. "And I need to wash up. Any requests for supper?"
Of course the warrior knew what was coming, and she responded in unison with her injured friend. "EEL!"
Rolling her eyes, Xena placed her hand lovingly on Gabrielle’s head, ruffling her hair as she turned towards the stream. She called out to the bard from the far trees. "Hey, you stay put and rest. You’ve lost a lot of blood. I shouldn’t be long."
Xena, always practical about such things, caught dinner first thing, then quickly undressed to wash. Her adrenaline rush from the battle had long since passed, and she allowed a few silent tears to run down her face as she washed Gabrielle’s blood from her body. She never thought that anyone could mean as much to her as her friend from Poteidaia. She had fought the feelings as long as she could, but she realized some time ago that it was a losing battle. Her young traveling companion had come to mean the world to her, and she hated to see her hurt or in pain. Xena shook her head as she realized that her feelings for Gabrielle had put her into a lose/lose situation. The mere fact that the bard traveled with her meant that she was in constant danger...as much of a target as Xena. But the thought of traveling without her was equally painful.
Knowing there was no solution to her problem, Xena quickly finished bathing and made her way back to the campsite with dinner. As she entered the clearing, she saw that Gabrielle had made some tea and cut up some cheese and bread in preparation for their meal.
Seeing Xena approach, Gabrielle looked up from her tasks. "This was a lot harder than I thought it would be with just one arm." She looked down at her left arm hanging in front of her suspended in a sling fashioned with some old cloth that had been in Argo’s saddle.
Xena walked up to her friend. "Gabrielle...I told you I would do this. You need to lie down and rest...I’ll cook."
"Xena, I’m hungry, and I want to be able to *eat* this dinner. I’m not an invalid...I’ll cook...you just help me cut up the eel." Smiling at her friend, she continued. "Nothing personal, but you know...and this is even hard for me to believe...your culinary skills have actually gotten worse."
Xena handed the eel to her friend and replied with mock indignation in her voice. "You didn’t complain about the rabbit stew I cooked last week."
"Yeah, well...besides the fact that you’re bigger than me...I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. And I still think there’s hope for you yet. I’m willing to suffer through a less than palatable meal from time to time to give you some practice. But not tonight."
Xena and Gabrielle smiled at each other as the warrior lowered herself to the ground and began helping her friend prepare their dinner.
After three days, Gabrielle had rested enough to regain her strength, so the women set out for Amazon country. Their luck held out over their week-long journey, and they did not come across anymore highwaymen. The worst part of the trip came from the fact that Gabrielle’s stitches began to itch furiously. Xena had promised to take them out once they reached the Amazon village and was keeping true to her word - much to Gabrielle’s displeasure and discomfort. Her annoyance soon became Xena’s as the bard constantly begged the warrior to remove the stitches early. Thankfully, for both women’s sakes, their journey was near its end.
On the seventh day of their trek, Argo and the women entered Amazon country. Knowing they were being watched, Xena made sure that all her weapons were secured, and encouraged Gabrielle to continue with her normal storytelling. There was always a chance that the sentries on duty would not recognize either of the women, and she did not want to take any chances that their peaceful intentions would be misunderstood.
Finally, an advance guard dropped from the trees surrounding the travelers. Both Gabrielle and Xena immediately brought their arms up over their heads, clasping their hands together to convey their peaceful intentions to the masked warriors. Although Gabrielle’s arm had healed nicely, it was still a bit sore and stiff, and the quick upward motion of the peace greeting caused her to wince slightly.
Lifting her mask up over her forehead, Eponin looked worried as she and the other Amazon warriors bowed down on their knees.
"Queen Gabrielle, we’re surprised and honored to have you back home. Are you all right?"
Gabrielle had never been comfortable with the deference her Amazon sisters had shown her once she received the right of caste. It had only gotten worse when she was made queen.
"Eponin, please get up. It’s really good to see you again. And I’m fine...just a little mishap with a sword."
Eponin looked over to Xena for verification that her queen was well. The Warrior Princess nodded slightly to the Amazon, confirming that Gabrielle was all right. This seemed to satisfy the warrior who then quickly turned and issued orders for the remaining sentries to resume their duties. They each, in turn, bowed towards Gabrielle, then returned to the treetops.
Eponin turned back to her friends. "Let me escort you to the village. I know Ephiny and everyone will be happy to see you. How long are you staying?"
Gabrielle turned to her friend. "Xena?"
"Eponin, this was kind of a spur of the moment trip. I think we’ll just play it by ear...maybe a few weeks? Who knows..."
Nodding her head, Eponin turned and led the way toward the Amazon village. With a runner already dispatched to alert Queen Ephiny of their presence, Eponin knew that by the time they reached the village, a proper welcome would be waiting for their returning queen.
Xena noted as they walked towards the village, that Gabrielle had suddenly gotten very quiet. Worrying that she was over tired, or that something else was wrong, the warrior gently placed a hand on the bard’s shoulder. "Hey, you okay?"
Gabrielle turned and looked up at Xena. She had tears welling in her eyes. "I’m sorry, it’s just...um...the last time I came this way...I was...I was taking your sarcophagus back to Amphipolis. Not exactly pleasant memories. I’ll be okay..."
In an uncharacteristic public gesture, Xena moved over and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder, giving her a gentle hug. She kept her arm around her friend as they continued to walk. Xena knew that Gabrielle still had nightmares about her death from time to time. She didn’t realize that coming back to this place would be difficult for her.
"Gabrielle, if you don’t want to stay..."
"No, of course I want to stay! I’m fine...I just...well, I guess I’ll never really get over it, you know? But I want to stay." Gabrielle’s eyes began to sparkle again. "I can’t wait to see Ephiny and see how they’ve rebuilt the village." Looking forward to make sure that their escort wasn’t within listening distance, the bard continued in a whisper. "And I intend to challenge Eponin to another staff fight. I know I’ll beat her this time!"
Xena smiled when she saw her friend’s mood lighten. And in the distance she could hear the drums of the Amazon warriors. The Warrior Princess actually loved visiting the Amazons with Gabrielle. Normally, she was the one who got most of the attention wherever they went - unfortunately, most of the attention was not welcome. But here, the Amazons’ focus was on Gabrielle. She was their rightful queen, and even though Ephiny wore the mask, everyone loved the bard from Poteidaia. Xena relished the thought of being able to fade into the background while all the attention was lavished on her dear friend. Of course, Xena was treated very well by the Amazons. Besides her own formidable reputation, she was considered Queen Gabrielle’s family. She was shown the utmost deference for someone not possessing the right of caste.
Entering the village, the travelers were met by an enthusiastic Amazon crowd. They all gathered around to welcome Queen Gabrielle home. Slowly, the village crowd parted and made a path for the two women to walk through. At the end of the gauntlet stood Ephiny. The mask of queen was propped on the top of her head as she stood waiting for her friends to approach. Once Gabrielle was within an arms length of Ephiny, the Amazon bowed down.
"Welcome home Queen Gabrielle."
The bard smiled. "Ephiny, get up and give me a proper welcome!" Once Ephiny stood up, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her friend. "It’s so good to see you...all of you!"
Ephiny hugged her friend then turned and acknowledged the Warrior Princess. "Welcome Xena, it’s good to see you." Addressing them both, Ephiny stood back. "I wish we had known you were coming. We could’ve had a proper reception for you. But we’ll make that up to you by preparing a feast for tonight. Okay?"
"That sounds great," the bard replied.
As the acting Amazon queen escorted the travelers to Gabrielle’s hut, she asked if there was anything that they needed after their long journey.
Before Xena could get a word in edgewise, Gabrielle spoke up. "Xena needs to get these stitches out NOW! So, I guess whatever she needs to do that...the rest can wait." The bard turned to her friend. "You promised...and now," she joked as she pointed to *her* Amazon warriors, "I can force the issue. This itching is driving me crazy!"
One of Xena’s patented raised eyebrow looks was followed by a jovial smirk on her face. Trying not to laugh out loud, Xena replied. "Yes my queen..."
The weeks that followed their arrival were filled with activity. Solari, Ephiny’s second in command, had asked Xena to provide their warriors with some specialized fight training. Knowing that Gabrielle’s days were taken, she had agreed. And it did provide her a safe environment for keeping her fighting skills honed.
Gabrielle’s days were filled with meetings, consultations, and mediations on any number of disputes that needed resolution. Ephiny had insisted that the bard resume her position as queen, much to Gabrielle’s displeasure. They had finally reached a compromise. Each would share the duties while she and Xena were visiting.
In addition, Gabrielle had insisted on working out with Eponin. Her arm no longer hurt and much to Eponin’s surprise, she had been unable to beat the Amazon queen in their numerous staff fights. Of course, Xena was always standing by watching the bard, with very visible pride on her face, as she continued to win her matches.
Xena had also been challenged on any number of occasions to all sorts of competitions...chobos, staff, sword. Gabrielle stood by cheering her friend as Xena remained undefeated. Ephiny had been her latest victim. The acting queen had challenged Xena to a match with the short crossbow. Ephiny could not believe her eyes as Xena quickly hit the distant bullseye nine out of ten times. She suspected that the warrior missed the last one on purpose...but knew not to question her. All in all, Ephiny was just grateful that Xena was on their side...
Luckily, Xena and Gabrielle had found a few afternoons to wander off together, exploring and just relaxing in each other’s company. Knowing there was no reason to worry about coming across unwanted strangers, they could let their guard down for a while and take it easy. Gabrielle cherished this time together. Although all the walls were not down, Xena seemed more relaxed than she had been in a very long time. She was smiling more, laughed at her jokes, and seemed...well, seemed almost happy. There were times they would lay out in large empty fields, staring up at the clouds, suggesting what the shapes represented, or they talked about their childhood.
Gabrielle would have given anything she had to help Xena stay this happy, this open. Her normally somber friend carried the pain of the world on her shoulders and rarely allowed herself to have fun, or enjoy herself. Most of all, she rarely allowed anyone to see the real Xena. Those precious moments, like some shared this trip, filled the bard with a true sense of happiness. She knew that Xena trusted her enough to open up...even if only occasionally.
Unfortunately, it was during one of these lazy afternoons that they decided that it was probably time to move on. Ephiny, upon hearing this, had asked them to delay their departure for a few days. That evening over dinner she explained.
"Gabrielle, you’ve proven yourself with your staff, and obviously you’ve taken your responsibilities as queen to heart. But we were hoping that you would stay a bit longer. We wanted to ask you...well, we thought it was a good opportunity for you to go through your Rite of Passage ceremony."
"Rite of Passage?" Gabrielle was at a total loss and looked to Xena, who also shook her head quizzically.
Ephiny continued. "When an Amazon girl reaches her 13th summer, she must go through her Rite of Passage trial. Once completed, she becomes a full Amazon warrior."
"The young woman is sent into the woods without food or water. She must avoid contact for two nights, returning to the village on the third day."
"Oh," Gabrielle turned towards Solari, "that sounds pretty easy. I mean, I’m not 13 and I can image that would be very scary at that age. But I can do that..."
Ephiny clarified the rules for the bard. "Um, well, Gabrielle, there’s a slight *catch*. You won’t be alone in the woods. Someone is tasked with bringing you back before the third day. So, it’s not just surviving in the woods, it’s avoiding capture by your Amazon pursuer."
"Oh, okay...I get it. But who would I be running from?"
"Normally, the Amazon girl is chased by her mother or her closest living relative. In your case," Ephiny turned her head towards the Warrior Princess, "that would be Xena."
The warrior interjected herself forcefully into the conversation. "Whoa, wait a minute...wait a minute here...I’m not even an Amazon Ephiny." Xena would not state her real reasons for questioning her selection. Obviously Gabrielle was no match for her.
"Xena, you *are* Gabrielle’s family. And even though you say otherwise, you’re considered a true Amazon sister by everyone here. It’s your duty to assist your loved one in this ceremony."
"Xena," Gabrielle contended, "come on...I mean, this is something I should do. And Ephiny’s right. You’re my family."
Ephiny continued. "Gabrielle, you’ll be given a headstart and your only job is to return here after two evenings. We’ll begin tomorrow morning after breakfast." Turning towards Xena, Ephiny concluded her instructions. "And Xena, you have to give your solemn pledge that you’ll use all your abilities to find Gabrielle within the time allotted."
"Look, Gabrielle...Ephiny...I just don’t think it’s really fair...I mean..."
Gabrielle interjected with a smile on her face. "What Xena is so *nicely* trying to say is that she outclasses me a bit...okay, a lot more than a bit. What happens if I lose?"
"You can’t lose Gabrielle. It’s the challenge and the use of your Amazon skills that are important. If Xena catches up with you...well, so be it. Most young women are back in their beds after the first night."
Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Come on Xena...I want to do this...I should, you know? And who knows, I may surprise everyone!"
Quiet for a moment, the Warrior Princess turned towards her friend. "All right...if that’s what you want..."
Ephiny sighed with a bit of relief. "Good, that’s settled. Both of you should get a good night’s rest. You have a few long days ahead of you."
Breakfast the next morning went by quickly. Gabrielle was obviously nervous about the task at hand and only hoped that she could remember half the things that Xena had taught her about tracking and covering trails.
Xena, on the other hand, seemed relaxed and continually smiled at Gabrielle, or placed her hand on her leg or her arm, as if to give her silent encouragement. She was also constantly suggesting wild foods, roots and other things to her friend that supplied high long lasting energy just in case she felt she couldn’t stop over the next few days to prepare any other meal.
The breakfast finally ended and Ephiny gave Gabrielle some final instructions as she walked her to the edge of the village. The entire Amazon village was out in force to wish their queen good luck, which she gratefully acknowledged. The final person to wish her farewell was Xena. The Warrior Princess hugged her friend warmly.
"Good luck, and I’ll see you soon."
Gabrielle smiled up at her friend. "Thanks. And we’ll see...maybe not all *that* soon!" Taking her staff and her small travel pouch, the Amazon queen ran into the woods.
As Gabrielle’s form disappeared into the woods, Xena and the rest of the Amazons returned to the center of the village. The warrior sat back down near the bonfire and was soon joined by Ephiny. Solari and a number of her warriors congregated around Xena as the warrior posed a question to Ephiny.
"So, what kind of headstart does Gabrielle get?"
Ephiny cleared her throat. "Um, well, Xena, that’s the problem here. We’re supposed to let you go once the sun is directly overhead, you know, midday. But, you see, you’re honorbound to do your best to track Gabrielle down and we really feel we need to even up the odds a bit."
Ephiny quickly turned and nodded her head to Solari. The Amazon warrior and nine of her most elite soldiers grabbed the surprised Warrior Princess, forcing her to the ground, quickly disarming her and binding her arms behind her back. In no time, her legs were also bound together and Xena found herself being carried to the village jail. Struggling against the bindings did no good, so the Warrior Princess eventually relaxed her body allowing the Amazons to take her into one of their jail cells.
Once she was gently placed on the cell’s cot, Solari’s warriors left the enclosure, leaving only Ephiny and her second in command with the bound warrior. Ephiny tried to gauge Xena’s mood, as they were all concerned about how the Warrior Princess would react to their actions. This was not a woman to take lightly or make assumptions about. If they had misjudged her feelings for Gabrielle, or themselves...well, it could mean big trouble.
Xena’s face was a mask...revealing nothing. But her jaw was clinched tightly, and she visibly glared at the acting Amazon queen. Ephiny knew she was probably seething. Somehow she needed to calm her down...try to make a joke out of it...something...
"Um, Xena...I really am sorry about this and you probably think we’ve taken this whole thing way too seriously. I promise we’ll make this up to you somehow. Remember, " Ephiny spoke trying to play to Xena’s obvious feelings for Gabrielle, "we’re doing this for our queen, and *your* friend Gabrielle."
Xena found it hard to reply. Angry did not come *anywhere* near to describing what she was feeling. Ephiny, more than anyone, should have known that the embarrassment of being carried bound through the village was taking matters way too far. But the Warrior Princess also realized just how big of a risk the Amazons had taken for Gabrielle. She took a deep breath in an attempt to calm down, then replied in a barely controlled voice. "So, how long do I stay here?"
Solari offered her an answer and attempting to smile, failed miserably as she was too worried about Xena’s reaction to her imprisonment. "We thought we’d let you go tomorrow night actually."
Ephiny and Solari slowly stepped out of the cell, closing and locking the door behind them. Peering through the small opening in the cell door, Ephiny again apologized. "Xena, please understand and forgive us. And if you want anything...anything at all, just let one of the guards know. We promise to make your stay as comfortable as possible. And I just know we’ll all be laughing at this in a few days...right? Um...right?"
"Ephiny!" Xena called out. "You and I are going to have a *serious* conversation after this is over." The warrior smiled towards the acting queen with a look that sent chills down the Amazon’s spine. "Remember *that*."
Ephiny turned towards the three jail guards. "Give her anything she wants, but make sure she stays put!"
Turning and walking out of the jail, Solari noted almost timidly to her friend as she wiped the sweat off her forehead. "Well, that went better than I thought it would."
Ephiny shook her head and replied. "I wonder if we can just keep her in there indefinitely...think anyone would notice? Or wait till Gabrielle gets back, we all leave, and have *her* let her out...Maybe I can go join a roving band of gypsies...or better yet, sell myself into slavery...."
Gabrielle was perched up high in the trees eating her meager dinner of nuts and berries. The bard was exhausted from her day of running through the woods. She had backtracked so many times during the day that she was sure that Xena would at least have some trouble tracking her. She had then decided to travel through the trees like her Amazon sisters.
Although this strategy slowed her down, she felt that it minimized any trail she could be leaving for Xena to track. Of course this was Xena she was talking about. Gods only knew how she did it, but she could track anything...anything. Smiling as she munched on the last of her berries, Gabrielle imagined that her friend would probably be waiting next to her when she woke up in the morning.
Now all she had to do is figure out how to stay up in the trees as she slept without killing herself by falling. She searched through her travel bag and was surprised when she found Xena’s breast dagger there. Even when she was not around, Xena was looking out for her friend. Smiling, Gabrielle used the sharp knife to cut a vine and proceeded to tie herself to the tree trunk. Settling down, she fell into an exhausted sleep within minutes.
Ephiny walked into Xena’s cell with the warrior’s supper. The meal was extravagant by any standard; an obvious bribe to try to get on Xena’s good side.
"I thought *I* would do this Xena. I know you’ve refused all the other food and water we’ve offered you. I kind of assumed it was because someone has to feed you. I can understand your feelings, but you have to eat. I know this is hard for you...but please, let me do this."
Although Xena had visibly cooled off some, she was still not in the best of moods. "Untie me Ephiny. I’ll feed myself."
"Xena, I can’t do that. Tomorrow afternoon, I promise. Now please, you have to eat. And I will make this up to you...somehow...really."
Not waiting for a response, Ephiny placed the tray down on the hard ground and pulled a small table over to the cot. Placing the tray on the table, she watched as Xena hesitated, then sat up. The Amazon smiled at this small victory. Taking the mug of tea from the table, Ephiny began feeding her friend.
"By the way," Xena asked a short time later as she ate the roasted quail offered her, "is Gabrielle really out there alone?"
"No, not really. We have our sentries doubled whenever we have a passage rite in progress. So they’re always on the lookout for the initiates. If Gabrielle gets too close to our borders, she’ll be turned back. We can pretty much guarantee her safety as long as she stays within our lands."
"Good. I was worried. Gabrielle has a way of finding trouble."
Late that night, Xena was laying on the cot, waiting for one of the guards to check in on her. She had their schedule down in her mind, and counted, then saw one of Solari’s guards quickly look into the cell. Pretending to be asleep, Xena had worked on the bindings, and almost had her arms free. Once the guard checked up on her, the Warrior Princess knew she had a while to complete her work before being bothered again.
Besides the fact that she hated being locked up and bound, she had given her solemn pledge to Gabrielle to abide by the rules of the ceremony. She owed it to her friend to try her hardest to get out and track her down. Although she obviously hoped that Gabrielle would somehow outsmart her, she was determined to find the bard in the time allotted.
Finally, Xena released her bound hands. Quickly rubbing her arms to get some feeling back, the Warrior Princess reached down and untied her ankles. Still having a bit of time before the guards checked on her again, Xena quietly got off the cot and crept towards the cell door. She had noticed a slight ledge above the doorway earlier, and knew she could use it to her advantage.
On schedule, one of Solari’s guards peered into Xena’s cell, only to see that it was empty. Calling for the other sentries, the Amazon unlocked the door and the three women walked into the cell. They never knew what hit them.
Xena had been perched precariously above the cell door and once the Amazons entered the cell, she dropped down on them. With superhuman speed, she applied pressure points to the back of their necks as they all scramble to stand up. Knowing the guards would be unconscious for quite some time, Xena quickly dragged their bodies to the cot, used her bindings to secure them, and tore one of the blankets into pieces to use as gags. Ensuring that the women were as comfortable as possible, Xena took their swords and quietly left the jail cell, closing and locking the door behind her.
Unfortunately Xena did not see her weapons in the outer area of the jail. Assuming Ephiny had them, the warrior decided to take one of the guard’s swords and not worry about the rest. Her main focus was to get away from the village before anyone noticed she was gone. Once in the woods, Xena was confident that she would not be pursued.
The Warrior Princess slowly made her way towards the outskirts of the Amazon village. She had debated stopping in on Ephiny to pay her host a late night visit, but decided against it. Smiling, she knew that she had time enough to pay the Amazon back in turn for all her "hospitality" later. Not being able to resist the urge, Xena did leave her friend a small note just to let her know she had been there and to remind her that she would be back.
Finally, Xena made it into the woods and headed south. Knowing that it was too late to track Gabrielle, she had decided to head in the same general direction her friend had taken earlier that morning knowing she could pick up her trail at first light. After an extended bit of swift travel, Xena found a comfortable cove of trees, and finally settled down for the evening.
Dawn had come and gone. Ephiny stood with her hands on her hips, staring at Solari’s elite guard unit, as their bindings were released. She couldn’t help but smile and shake her head. Unfortunately Solari and her warriors felt otherwise.
"Let us go after her Ephiny! We’ll bring her back..."
"No...no...she got away fair and square. I hope we’ve all learned a valuable lesson here." Looking down at the note Xena left her, Ephiny mumbled, "Mine will come later." Turning back to her friends, she continued. "I just hope we’ve given Gabrielle enough of a headstart."
Walking out of the village jail, Solari looked over and saw Eponin coming towards her with a worried look on her face.
"Queen Ephiny, Solari...I think we have a problem. Five of our sentries from the southern border haven’t reported in this morning. So far, we’ve been unable to find them."
"Great...timing is just great here..." Ephiny turned to her friend. "Solari, mobilize an extra search team for Gabrielle and Xena, and let’s put the village on alert."
"You don’t think Xena..." Eponin began to question.
"No...no, of course not. But if there is a problem, we have Queen Gabrielle out there on her own and Xena without her weapons, oblivious to the fact that they may be in trouble."
Gabrielle felt like she’d been walking forever. Her feet hurt and she was thirsty. When she had woken up, she was pleased to find that Xena was nowhere to be found. This energized the bard who quickly climbed down from her treetop perch and resumed her wanderings. Remembering that there was some sort of stream along her pathway, she eagerly walked south in search of the refreshing water. Finally she literally stumbled onto the small stream.
Running to the water, the bard drank her fill of the refreshing liquid, then began to clean up a bit. As she scooped another handful of water over her neck, she thought she heard something behind her. Turning around expecting to see Xena, Gabrielle was shocked as an Amazon warrior fell into her arms. The woman was covered with blood and barely conscious. The bard soon found the cause...she had been stabbed in the back and probably left for dead in the woods. Doing her best to comfort the wounded woman, Gabrielle tried to make out the Amazon’s desperate words.
"...men...soldiers...fifty, maybe more. Queen Gab...get...safety...quickly..." The woman then died in Gabrielle’s arms.
Tears streamed down Gabrielle’s face as she gently laid the Amazon down on the ground. Her initial instincts were to somehow get the woman’s body back to the Amazon village for a proper funeral fire. But she knew her duty was to get back as soon as possible and warn the others.
Standing up, Gabrielle quickly assessed her situation. She had no idea where these men were and she was at least a half day’s walk from the village and help. Without any other options, the bard turned north and began jogging towards home. Suddenly, she heard voices in the distance.
"There’s another one! Come on!"
Not thinking about anything but getting away, Gabrielle’s strong legs carried her deeper and deeper into the woods. The years of walking along side Xena paid off and Gabrielle’s tireless pace soon took its toll on her pursuers.
After what seemed like forever, the bard slowed down enough to get her bearings. She was far southwest of the Amazon village and she knew she was not out of danger. In all likelihood the men would continue to look for her. But knowing she had to rest, Gabrielle looked around and saw the perfect tree to perch in. She quickly climbed up into the sheltering foliage and tried to calm down. For the first time since her passage rite had started, she sincerely wished that Xena would show up quickly.
Xena had picked up Gabrielle’s trail at first light and had even followed a few wild goose chases that her friend had set out for her along the way. But she continued to methodically track the bard’s trail. By midday, she had found the tree Gabrielle had slept in the previous night and laughed as she saw a small "G" carved in the treetop, obviously left there for her.
Although Gabrielle had done an excellent job of covering her tracks, Xena would have to remind her friend that if you are being pursued, you should alter your general direction from time to time. The bard’s one mistake, Xena pondered as she jogged through the woods, was that she was definitely going in a continuous southwestern direction. This telescoped her location to Xena. She knew there was a small stream not more than a few hours south of her current location. Confident that she would pick up Gabrielle’s trail there, Xena increased her pace.
Ephiny and the rest of her search party found the bodies of three of their sisters by late afternoon. Each had their throats sliced open. From the boot marks along the path, she could tell that they had put up a valiant struggle, but were defeated by overwhelming odds.
Solari walked up to her friend. "I would guess 40 to 50 men from these tracks. Who would invade our territory like this Ephiny?"
"I don’t know, but get a message back to the village now. I want everyone on full alert. These tracks head southwest along the border of our land. For all we know, this army, whoever they are, could just be passing through. But someone’s going to pay for this butchery. We’ll continue to follow along from the rear, but I want a fully prepared assault readied at once." Looking out to the south, Ephiny turned to Solari. "Any word on Gabrielle or Xena?"
"No, but we did pick up Xena’s trail. She’s not hiding it, so we at least know where she’s headed. But she’s traveling awfully fast, and I doubt we can catch up with her. I just hope she’s caught up with Gabrielle."
Gabrielle was sure the men could hear her heart pounding. Perched in the treetop, the bard watched as the 10 man search party decided to take a break directly under the tree she had picked to climb. She tried to listen to their conversation, but so far all they had talked about was their frustration over losing her and what they were going to do with her once they found her. It shocked her to hear that she apparently matched the description of someone they were looking for. Her only hope was that no one looked up.
As Xena reached the stream, her light mood suddenly changed as she could feel something was wrong. All her senses seemed to go into overdrive as she cautiously approached the waterbed. Her heart lurched from her chest as she saw a body lying along the distant waterfront.
"Gabrielle??? Oh gods no..."
Running towards the water, Xena realized that the body was not that of her companion. Breathing a sigh of relief, the warrior quickly assessed the condition of the Amazon’s corpse. Sitting back on her heels, Xena carefully looked over the surrounding area. She studied the tracks in the dirt as well as the foliage around the waterbed. She saw tracks leading north, obviously Gabrielle’s, then saw numerous larger footprints - probably men from the size of them. Xena visualized Gabrielle comforting the dead woman, then being pursued into the dense forest by a large number of men...maybe 8 to 10 from the track marks. Knowing that Gabrielle was in trouble, Xena ran deeper into the woods with a hardened determination. She had to find her friend before these men did.
Ephiny sat calmly with her injured Amazon sister, comforting her as best she could. It was hard for the acting queen to sit idly by while the butchers who murdered her Amazon brethren were still on their land. Looking down at the injured sentry, Ephiny’s anger continued to fester. She had remained with the woman while the other two searchers in her party went back to the village for help. Whatever immediate first aid could be given had already been administered, so Ephiny sat and gently reassured the Amazon that she would be all right.
Ephiny’s soft reassurances to the injured Amazon seemed to calm the woman, but they also lessened the acting queen’s ability to hear anyone approach. By the time she sensed someone near, it was too late. As the Amazon turned towards the noise, the back of her head exploded, and her world faded to black.
Gabrielle was overjoyed when the soldiers finally got up and continued their search for her. Knowing she was still in serious danger, the bard decided to stay put until evening and try to get back to the village under the cover of darkness.
Still hoping Xena would catch up with her soon, Gabrielle tried to relax some and sort out what she knew thus far. Obviously a larger group of soldiers was nearby. She surmised it would have to be a fairly substantial number if they could send 10 men after her alone. At first, she thought that the men were getting ready to attack the Amazon Nation, but then changed her mind. If that were the case, they wouldn’t be bothering with her. It just made no sense.
Surely the woman who was killed had to have been missed by now. Ephiny and the rest of the Amazons were probably searching for her right now. And if that were the case, they were probably looking for her too. All she had to do was stay out of harm’s way for a short time more. She had no doubts that Xena and the Amazons would soon be there.
It was only a short time later that Gabrielle heard the men coming back. Afraid she had somehow led them towards her location, the bard prepared herself to swing out of the treetop and run. Looking down, she saw that this group of soldiers were not the same men. To her horror she also saw that one of the larger warriors was carrying a bound woman over his shoulder. "Ephiny!" she silently yelled.
This changed everything. Gabrielle realized that she couldn’t just go back to the village. She knew that she had to follow these man who held her friend and see where they were taking her. Waiting until she felt it was safe, Gabrielle swung herself out of the tree and slowly began to follow the soldiers holding her dear friend prisoner.
Ephiny woke up as someone splashed cold water on her face. Trying to focus in on her surroundings, she saw that she was in some sort of constructed cage, situated near a far corner of a large campsite. Her arms and legs were bound securely behind her.
Her attention was brought back to her captor as he shouted out, "Amazon! I have a few questions."
Ephiny glared back at the warlord. "Who are you and why did you invade our lands?"
"The name’s Talmadeus...Lord Talmadeus to you. I suggest, seeing your circumstances, that you show a bit of respect." Smiling at his prisoner, he continued. "Actually we have no fight with your people. I’m here because I understand Xena and that little blonde she travels with are here. Turn them over to me and we’ll leave here peacefully."
"Peacefully! You’ve killed at least three women you scum! How can you even think..."
"Quiet! Now...just tell me where to find Xena and her friend."
"I don’t know any Xena or this friend you talk about."
"Lying’s such a bad habit to get into. I suppose I can take it upon myself to break you of it."
It was near dusk when Gabrielle slowly approached the large camp area, finally settling down behind a fallen tree for cover. She spied out over the site, finding Ephiny, locked in a cage at the far end of the makeshift compound. She seemed to be arguing with someone. Intent on trying to hear and see what was happening in front of her, Gabrielle never heard a thing as a lone figure approached her from the rear. A hand quickly clamped down over her mouth as a strong arm grabbed the bard to stop her from struggling.
"What in Hades name are you doing here?" A beautifully familiar angry voice whispered into her ear. "You should’ve stayed in the tree Gabrielle, you were safe there!"
Gabrielle turned as the arm around her loosened and the hand released its grip on her mouth. "Xena! Thank the gods...I...wait a minute. You knew where I was?"
"Yes, and I guess it was too much to hope that you’d stay put. After I saw that the soldiers weren’t going to find you, I scouted ahead and ended up here. I just circled back around when I saw you come up."
"Xena, they killed..." Tears welled in Gabrielle’s eyes.
"I know..." the warrior said, pulling her friend into an embrace. "We can’t think about that now. We’ve got to get to Ephiny. They have too many guards on that side of the camp to make a move without a distraction."
Both women watched as the distant warlord turned away from the cage and strutted towards his men surrounding the camp bonfire. Once there, his facial features came into the light so that Xena and Gabrielle could see him clearly.
"I don’t like this Gabrielle."
"Wasn’t he locked up somewhere near Thebes?"
"Obviously not anymore. And why do I suddenly get the feeling that this has nothing to do with the Amazons?"
"You think he’s here because of us?"
Xena looked at her friend. "Well there’s one way to find out, but we need help. Gabrielle...I want you to make your way north. There have to be search parties out by now, especially with you and Ephiny both missing. Find one and get them back here. I’ll stay just in case I see an opening to help Ephiny." As the bard slowly backed herself away from the compound, Xena whispered out, "You be careful...I mean it!"
It didn’t take Gabrielle long to run into a group of Amazon warriors. Explaining Xena’s instructions, the group, led by Solari, quietly approached the campsite. The Amazon warrior crawled up to Xena and took in the sights of the compound in front of her. Xena then brought all the women up to date.
"Talmadeus has gone over to Ephiny a couple of times and seemed to have some heated discussions. So far that’s all they’ve done, but he looks like he’s getting impatient. We need to know what he wants." Looking over to Solari, Xena asked, "You wouldn’t happen to have my weapons with you, would you?"
Gabrielle looked quizzically at the two women and realized in all the excitement that she hadn’t noticed Xena only carried a small sword with her. Her sword, chakram, and whip were missing. Seeing Gabrielle looking at her, Xena remarked,
"It’s a long story..."
Solari crawled back to one of her soldiers and reappeared with Xena’s weapons and a smile. "We were hoping to catch up with you."
As Xena secured her weapons, she looked out again at the campsite. "Solari, they have to know they’ve been spotted by now. I think he’s waiting for someone to make contact. We need a volunteer to find out."
Shaking her head in agreement, Solari stood up and put her sword into its sleeve. "I’ll go." Turning towards her warriors, she issued orders. "Your first duty is to protect Queen Gabrielle, is that understood?" Seeing their nods, she continued. "When the remaining warriors get here, have them take their orders from Xena." Turning to the Warrior Princess, Solari smiled, "It’s the least I can do." Xena smiled back at the Amazon as she circled away from her companions, then stepped out into the open.
Talmadeus sat casually near the fire waiting for someone to make contact. Although the Amazon woman he held refused to give any information, from the description of the mask she had when captured, he was certain she held some high position in the female society. Someone would eventually come...it was only a matter of time. Finally he heard some shouting and looked over to his far left as some of his men escorted an Amazon towards him. They pushed the woman warrior in front of him, then stood back, swords drawn ready to strike.
Solari wasted no time. "You’ve invaded our lands. Release your prisoner and leave."
Turning his head towards his men, Talmadeus laughed. "So much for hospitality." He turned his full attention back to Solari. "As I’ve explained to your friend over there, I have no qualms with you Amazons. I have a debt to pay to a certain Warrior Princess and her traveling companion. Give them to me and I release my prisoner and leave. It’s as simple as that.’
"I want to talk to your prisoner."
"By all means, but make one move to release her and you both die."
Solari was escorted across the camp to the cage where Ephiny was still tied. Talmadeus followed close behind her.
"Are you all right?" Solari inquired.
"Fine. I’ve already told this...man...that we don’t know Xena or her friend. Seems he doesn’t believe me."
Talmadeus grabbed Solari. Spinning her around to face him, he interjected. "You go back and tell your warriors that my men are prepared to fight. And as for your friend here, well, if Xena’s not here by midday, she dies a very slow, painful death. Oh, and my men also have a number of other Amazons we’ve been capturing along the way. I’ll start with your friend here, but after that, one dies after another until I have Xena...clear?
Solari turned and was escorted out of the camp, barely able to contain her anger. She circled around the forested outskirts of the encampment for quite a while before she was certain she wasn’t being followed. Sure she was alone, she made her way back to Xena.
A larger party of Amazons had made their way to Xena’s location while Solari was with Talmadeus. Placed strategically around the encampment, they awaited Xena’s instructions. Although they outnumbered Talmadeus’ men, if a battle had to be fought on open ground, a lot of people would die here. Xena was going to try her hardest not to let that happen.
Finally, the Warrior Princess saw Solari approach. "Don’t tell me, he’s here for Gabrielle and myself."
Solari looked at Xena with surprise. "Yeah, he, uh, he says if both of you don’t surrender by midday, he’ll kill Ephiny." Looking out at the camp, Solari saw another 10 Amazons thrown into Ephiny’s cage. "He said he’d keep killing them one by one until you give up."
Gabrielle spoke up. "Xena...we can’t let..."
Solari turned to her queen. "You’re not going anywhere. You’re our queen...we’ll all sacrifice ourselves before we allow you give yourself up. Xena, you can make your own decisions, but Gabrielle’s not a bargaining chip here - that’s final."
Gabrielle tried to speak up but was cut off by Xena. "I don’t intend to sacrifice anyone Solari. But we need a plan and soon, or Ephiny and the others are dead.
Xena repositioned the Amazons around Talmadeus’ campsite making sure that the best archers were situated near the cage holding Ephiny and the other prisoners. Although it had taken until dawn, the Amazons were ready to do battle.
The Warrior Princess then took Solari and three of her best warriors and left their hiding place. Obviously Talmadeus still had roving bands of his men out in the woods scouting for additional prisoners. From the counts that the women had come up with through the night, this number was substantial. Xena hoped that between her, Solari, and the other warriors, they could eliminate this threat, and better their chances in the upcoming fight.
At Solari’s insistence, Eponin, clearly one of their best overall warriors, was left with Queen Gabrielle for protection. Gabrielle was upset that Xena had agreed to exclude her in this part of the rescue plan, but also realized that she had no choice. Solari and the other Amazons were clearly unwilling to even discuss their queen’s taking an active role in Ephiny’s rescue. Gabrielle had looked over to Xena and been given a look of reassurance that she was not forgetting her, but was not willing to fight the issue with the Amazons at this point.
Knowing their time was short, Xena and the others set out with one objective. Armed with swords, bows, arrows, and rope, they were to eliminate as many of Talmadeus’ men as possible before the deadline was reached. Splitting up, the two teams of warriors circled around the campsite, finally meeting up at the far end of the compound. All in all, half of Talmadeus’ men were either dead, injured, or unconscious and secured somewhere in the surrounding woods. The odds were clearly now on the side of the Amazons.
The women made their way back to their original hiding place to decide what to do next. Although the odds of their winning this battle were clearly favorable, their fellow Amazons were sitting ducks in the cage, and their time was almost up.
Gabrielle greedily hugged Xena when she returned. The other Amazons smiled at this public display of affection, one that they knew embarrassed the Warrior Princess. To their surprise, Xena hugged her friend back without reservation.
Sitting down and grabbing some water, Xena looked out into the compound. "Well, we’re out of time. Unless anyone has any suggestions..." Looking around, she was met with blank stares. "...here’s the plan. I give myself up and while..."
"NO!" Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s arm. "No...no, no, no...Xena, that’s unacceptable. And if you or *any* of you think I’m just going to sit by while you risk your lives...well, you’re wrong!"
"Look Gabrielle, if Talmadeus wants me...I think it’s time to let him have me."
"Don’t you mean us? I clearly remember he said US! Look, you’re a better fighter than all of us here. Why turn yourself in? I should be the bait."
Xena shook her head. "No, now *that’s* unacceptable! I will NOT stand by while you give yourself over to that maniac!"
Solari cleared her throat. "Um...ladies. While you two have been arguing the finer points of who’s the better hostage..." The Amazon’s head nodded to Talmadeus’ camp.
Everyone’s attention was drawn to the compound as Talmadeus had Ephiny removed from the cage and dragged to the center of his camp. On her knees, the acting queen glared up at her captor. She saw him take out his sword and hold it up in the air.
Talmadeus gloated. "Xena, I think you better come out now..."
Xena shook her head. "Okay, we need to buy some time. Here’s what we do. Solari, go out and say that your people have just found me and that they’re bringing me here now. Make something up to explain the delay. DO IT!" As the Amazon stood up and made her way out of the foliage, Xena continued. "Gabrielle, quickly sneak around towards the cage. Do you still have my breast dagger?" Seeing her nod her head, the warrior continued. "Okay, while we distract him, you get to the cage and release the other women. GO!" Xena saw that Eponin and Gabrielle quickly made their way towards the far end of the campsite. Knowing there were not sentries to worry about, they could move without a fear of capture. Turning to one of the remaining Amazons Xena removed her sword, chakram and whip, then held out her hands. "Tie my hands in front of me."
Seeing everyone in place, Solari slowly made her way towards Talmadeus. It took all her will not to lash out at him as she neared Ephiny. But she saw the remaining men in Talmadeus’ army looking out from their positions in the campsite, and knew she could only get Ephiny and herself killed if she tried anything alone.
"We have Xena and we’re bringing her here now. Let the women go."
The warlord smiled. "When I have Xena. Oh, and what about her little friend? That’s the bargain."
"Your men killed Gabrielle earlier this morning. The only reason we could subdue Xena was that she was distracted over her friend’s death. Trust me, she’s not in a good mood."
Ephiny looked at Solari. She could not believe what she was hearing. Gabrielle dead? "Solari...Gabrielle’s dead? And you’re bargaining with this scum?"
Their conversation was interrupted by a commotion to the left of the compound. Four Amazon warriors physically escorted Xena towards Talmadeus. The warlord’s eyes glistened as he saw the woman he hated, bound and defenseless being brought before him. The Amazons stopped in the middle of his encampment looking to Solari for instructions.
Gabrielle had crawled over to the cage holding her Amazon sisters and was diligently working on the lock with Xena’s breast dagger. Archers were guarding their queen as she worked, but all of Talmadeus’ men were too busy watching the other end of the encampment where Xena was being brought in to see what was happening with their prisoners. Finally the lock gave way and all the Amazons in the cage were released. Silently running into the woods, Gabrielle saw that everyone except Solari, Ephiny, Xena, and her ‘captors’ were out of immediate danger.
Talmadeus looked over at Xena. "It’s been a while hasn’t it Xena? Sorry about your friend, but it does save me the trouble." Bending down, the warlord lifted Ephiny up and cut through the bindings around her ankles. "Bring Xena to me, and I let her walk..."
Solari nodded to her Amazons and they pushed Xena towards Talmadeus. Once they were within 10 meters, two of the warlord’s men came forward to get the warrior. The four Amazons then retreated back into the woods away from the compound. Seeing that the women were in fact turning Xena over, Talmadeus turned towards his prisoner. "Start walking. I have three men with arrows pointed your way...don’t do anything stupid." Turning towards the men holding Xena, he issued orders. "Take her to my tent. And make sure she stays there!"
Gabrielle watched the scene in front of her with a growing sense of fear. Normally Xena had more time to think up plans. This one was not exactly well thought out. As a matter of fact, there was no plan after releasing Ephiny and the rest of the Amazons. She continued to watch as the men roughly pushed Xena inside one of the tents near her position. She knew she couldn’t just sit by and hope that her friend got out of this mess on her own.
With no time to lose, Gabrielle quickly made her way around the side of the compound to the back of Talmadeus’ tent. Eponin, silently protesting, crawled closely behind her as she slowly slithered her way under the tent cover and quickly looked to see Xena being tied to the center pole. Watching the men retreat, Gabrielle crawled the rest of the way into the tent and made her way to her friend. Xena turned and smiled, giving one of her patented eyebrow looks to her friend as she felt the ropes behind her being cut. Turning towards Gabrielle, she held out her hands and let the bard cut the bindings there.
"I had a feeling I’d see you." Xena placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder and continued. " We need to get out of here now. When Talmadeus sees the cage..."
Realizing it was too late, Xena heard the commotion outside. "Kill them now!!!" Talmadeus had obviously seen that his prisoners were gone.
Seeing that only she and Ephiny were out in the open, Solari yelled out for her Amazon warriors to begin fighting. Archers rained arrows down on the encampment as Ephiny and her friend ran for cover. Unfortunately the acting queen, whose arms were still tied behind her back, did not make it to the woods before an arrow embedded itself in her shoulder. Falling into Solari’s arms, Ephiny passed out cold. Her second in command, dragged her friend into the camouflaging woods, and then turned to fight.
Talmadeus ran into his tent, sword drawn, ready to kill the Warrior Princess. He could not believe his bad luck as he tripped over something as he came through the opening of his tent, landing flat on his face. Turning around to see what made him fall, he saw Gabrielle looking down at him, grinning from ear to ear. "Oops...sorry about that. You should watch where you’re going."
Xena grabbed the warlord and took his sword from his hand. "End this now Talmadeus. You’re outnumbered at least four to one, and these women are not exactly pleased with you or your men. Save whatever soldiers are left. Surrender now."
Xena walked out of the tent, holding Talmadeus by the throat with his sword at the ready. The warlord yelled out ordering his men to stop fighting. Those who were left immediately stopped. The arrows from the surrounding woods also ceased as the men in Talmadeus’ army surrendered. Looking around, Xena saw too many bodies laying still on the ground. She angrily shook her head as Eponin came up and took Talmadeus from her grasp, tying his hands behind him.
Gabrielle ran into the woods only to see Solari standing over Ephiny’s body. "Xena! Get over here now!"
Xena ran over to Gabrielle and saw her kneeling down cradling her friend’s head. "Do something...please..."
The Warrior Princess quickly looked at Ephiny’s shoulder and the arrow in her back. Knowing her injury was not fatal, she smiled up at her friend. "Gabrielle, she’s going to be all right. But we need to get that arrow out of her." Turning to Solari Xena began issuing orders. "Get me some clean cloth for bandages. Gabrielle, do you still have my breast dagger?"
The bard handed Xena the knife and watched as her friend slowly cut through the shaft of the arrow embedded in Ephiny’s shoulder. The movement of the weapon brought Ephiny back to a painful consciousness. She looked up at Xena who was busily cutting the shaft of the arrow. "Um...Xena..." The wounded Amazon then looked back over her shoulder. "Great...just great..."
Xena finally cut off the arrow’s shaft. "Ephiny, I have to push this through your shoulder. Hold on, it’s going to hurt a bit. Ready?"
Not waiting for a response, Xena put the palm of her hand against the end of the arrow and pushed hard, forcing the arrow head out the front of Ephiny’s shoulder. The acting queen silently passed out again. Xena then pulled the arrow all the way out her friend’s shoulder and quickly wrapped clean bandages around the wound.
"This needs to be cauterized. Let’s get her back to the village."
Gabrielle, relieved that the fighting was over, and knowing that Ephiny was in good hands, remembered her place and began issuing orders. "Solari, you and your soldiers make sure Talmadeus and his men are secured. Eponin, let’s get a stretcher made for Ephiny.
It was late that day when things began to settle down around the Amazon village. Luckily, only Ephiny was wounded in the earlier battle. All in all, four Amazons were killed and two wounded in Talmadeus’ attempt to kill Xena and Gabrielle. As for his men, most were either wounded or had fled the area, unlikely ever to return. The village jail was filled with the remaining mercenaries. Gabrielle was still unclear as to what to do with these men, but the fate of their leader was set. Amazon law required that he be executed for the deaths of the four Amazon’s killed over the past few days. By the time Ephiny got well enough to preside over the trial, Gabrielle and Xena would be gone.
The two travelers were in Ephiny’s hut sitting with their wounded friend. She had been in and out of consciousness most of the afternoon, but seemed to be doing better as evening fell. Waiting for her to come around, Gabrielle turned to her best friend.
"Xena, why didn’t you have any weapons with you when you were chasing me? Was that part of the ritual?"
Not knowing how to answer her friend, Xena looked down and saw Ephiny staring up at her. "Um, yeah, that was part of the ritual." Smiling down at Ephiny, Xena asked how she was doing.
"I’ve been better. But I think I’ll be just fine. Gabrielle, do you think I could get something to eat and some water?"
The bard quickly got up and left to get Ephiny some food. With her gone, the acting queen turned back to Xena and asked, "You’re not going to tell her?"
"Tell her what?"
Ephiny smiled at the Warrior Princess. "You know, if you’re not careful, you’ll ruin that reputation of yours. I expected...well, I...I don’t know *what* I expected. But this certainly isn’t it."
Xena smiled at the Amazon. "It’s good to keep people guessing...right? But Ephiny, try anything like that again..."
Ephiny recognized that ‘smile’. "You have my word. Never again."
It had been two days since Xena and Gabrielle left the Amazon village. They had waited until Ephiny was well enough to resume her role as acting queen before getting back on the road. Once she was up and about, and the mourning period for the slain Amazons was completed, the women resumed their wanderings.
Instead of their normal banter on the road with Gabrielle telling stories and Xena being quietly stoic, the warrior had taken the opportunity to explain how she tracked her friend in the woods.
"Okay," Gabrielle said, trying to sum up Xena’s explanation. "So you’re saying that if I hadn’t gone in the same direction, you wouldn’t have been able to find me?"
"Uh, no, I probably would’ve found you anyway, but it would’ve been harder." Seeing that her friend became a bit upset by her remark, Xena added. "Gabrielle, remember, the men chasing you had trouble tracking you. As a matter of fact, they never did find you, right? So, don’t be so down on yourself. I have a knack for these things, that’s all."
"Come on...lighten up. I was very impressed with all you did...really. By the way, I loved the carving in the tree. Very nice touch."
That made Gabrielle smile. "Well, I knew you’d eventually get there. I just wanted to leave you something to say hi...let you know I was thinking about you."
Xena smiled as they continued to make their way south. Her mind wandered back to the tree in the woods. If anyone ever decided to climb that particular tree again, and made their way to the same limb that had housed Gabrielle for one night, they would see a carving on the trunk that was slightly different than the one left by the bard. Now, a small ‘X’ was superimposed over the ‘G’, with both letters surrounded by a heart.
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