To Rescue A Friend: Part Four

by Katelin B.

--See Part One for disclaimers and warnings.

--okay everyone, this is it.... the final part of the first book in Death Of A
Nation.  I hope everyone has enjoyed this journey, and please let me know
if I should continue with this extremely time consuming story  *laugh*  I’m
currently working on a separate story of the Uber variety, so if you don’t
want the rest of this... you’re liable to get that... but I’ll try to finish it
before I post it... enough of this kidnapping stuff!!!  I love my computer,
but I really don’t enjoy being chained to it! *grin*

.....and awa-a-a-a-a-y we go!!


..... from Part Three.....

	“You expect trouble, Majesty?” the guard asked, feeling a little
more confident.

	“Of course,” Metreus replied, turning around to smile at the guard,
“Do you really think this little Queen what’s-her-name, will let her Regent
and the great warrior princess sit in my dungeon, without trying to rescue

	“No, Sire,” the guard said automatically.

	“Good, I didn’t think you were that stupid.  Double the guards after
our guests arrive.  I don’t want them to think I’m afraid of those Amazons. 
And make sure the prisoners are in leg irons when they are brought up to
the Great Hall.  I don’t want any mistakes.  Those two have already killed
two guards.  I don’t think you want to see what they’ll do to you if they get
away.”  Metreus paused to glare at the trembling guard.  “And you really
don’t want to see what I’ll do to you if they get away.”

	“Yes, Sire!” the guard barked loyally, and spun around, nearly
running from the room to carry out the King’s orders.

	Metreus watched him go, chuckling to himself before turning back
to the mirror and resuming his primping.  He thought about the wooden
beams he had the men put up in the center of the Hall and smiled,
imagining Regent Ephiny and Xena tied between them for the duration of
the feast.  It’s going to be a wonderful party, he thought, and whistled a
little tune as he finished preparing for the arrival of his guests.  “Yes,
indeed,” he murmured aloud, “A wonderful party.”

	The guards outside the King’s chambers spared a glance at each
other as they heard the roaring laughter drift through the heavy oak door.

.....and now..... the Conclusion.....

	When Ephiny woke, she was disoriented from the head wound and
blinked rapidly to clear her vision.  She had no idea how long she had slept,
until she glanced up at the barred window, and saw the dusky color of the
sky.  “Sunset,” she murmured, stretching and rolling her neck as much as
possible, working out the stiffness from too many candlemarks leaning
against cold stone.

	The Regent looked down at Xena, still cradled in her aching arms
and frowned.  Worry cleared her sleep fogged mind and she lifted a
tingling hand to the warrior’s forehead.  Her face showed deep concern at
the increase in temperature she detected.

	Reaching for the water bucket and the rag within, Ephiny tried to
get Xena to open her eyes just long enough to drink something.  There
were no herbal remedies in sight, but Ephiny knew the constant sweating
was dehydrating the warrior.  “Xena,” the Regent whispered, shaking her a
little, “Come on, Xena.  Open your eyes.”

	When she received no answer, Ephiny shook her harder and spoke a
little more forcefully, ordering the warrior princess to wake up.  Still seeing
no reaction, the blonde Amazon resorted to desperate measures.

	“Xena!” she snapped, jostling her roughly, “Wake up!” She was
aware from the discoloration that the dark haired warrior’s arm was broken,
and from the way she had winced and whimpered earlier, possibly her ribs
as well, but all of that was secondary to death from dehydration.  “Damn
you to Tartarus, Xena!” she barked, slapping the unconscious woman
across the face, “Don’t you make me tell Gabrielle that I let you die!”

	Tears sprung to the Regent’s eyes as the hopelessness of the entire
situation hit her.  She was just about to give up and lower the warrior to the
floor of their cell when she heart it.  A soft moan, barely audible over
Ephiny’s own sniffling, reached her ears.  So low was the weak sound, that
at first, the Amazon thought she had imagined it, and held her breath,

	“... gab... rielle...”

	The broken, whispered word was music to Ephiny’s ears, and the
tears rolled down her cheeks.  Not in despair, but in relief that the warrior
was still alive.  Even if she has only holding on by a thread.  Atropos,
Ephiny pleaded silently to the old crone of the three Fates, hold off your
shears a while longer.  Don’t snip this life short, for she still has much more
to do.”

	“Xena?” she said out loud, smoothing the wisps of hair off the
warrior’s sweaty forehead, “Can you hear me?”

	A long moment later, Xena’s lips parted slowly, though her eyes
remained shut.  “Gabrielle,” she whispered, the mere thought of the bard
giving her the strength to respond.

	For her part, Ephiny decided to give the warrior some added
incentive and took the role of pretending to be the little bard.  “Yes, Xena,”
she spoke softly as she had seen Gabrielle do when soothing the injured,
“It’s me.”

	A slight smile appeared on Xena’s face at the words, her fevered
mind noticing nothing, save the voice and the gentle arms cradling her. 
“Gabrielle,” she said again, though her voice was much clearer than before.

	The strength alone in the warrior’s voice amazed Ephiny, knowing
how weak she really was, but she tried not to let it come through in her
voice.  “Xena,” she ventured again, brushing a soothing hand over the
warrior’s high cheekbone, another gesture she had picked up from the bard,
“You need to drink something, okay?  I have water here.”  She noticed the
slight movement in Xena’s eyebrows, drawing them closer together in a
frown and added quickly; “Please try.  For me?”  The frown vanished just
as quickly as it had appeared, and Ephiny breathed a sigh of relief.

	Lifting the soaking rag out of the bucket, the Regent clenched it in
her fist to squeeze out most of the water before bringing it to Xena’s lips. 
“Here we go, Xena,” she encouraged gently, squeezing the rag again and
watching the trickle of water pass the warrior’s parted lips, “Just a little at a
time, okay?”

	Ephiny watched Xena’s throat contract as she swallowed, the action
getting quicker and more fluid each time.  She studied the warrior’s
expression as she resoaked the rag, wanting to gauge when she could drink
no more.  Her soft smile widened the third time she had to refresh the rag,
seeing Xena’s mouth, open and waiting for more.

	Xena hadn’t realized, in her fevered state, just how thirsty she was
until the cool water passed her lips.  She gladly accepted every drop she
was given, her throat ceasing to burn after the third swallow, and she drank

	When the rag had been squeezed dry for the third time, Ephiny
decided it was enough for now and told Xena so, as she dropped the
blanket corner back into the bucket.  The Regent smiled a little when she
saw that tiny frown emerge again and tried to soothe the warrior with her
voice.  “I’m sorry, Xena,” she spoke softly, brushing her fingers across that
fevered cheek again, “I don’t want you to over do it, and get sick.  You can
have more in a little while, okay?”  Ephiny was relieved to see the frown
fade again, and this time, a slow nod of acceptance.

	“I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” Xena’s weak voice broke the momentary
silence, a pained look crossing her flushed face.

	“For what, Xena?” was Ephiny’s reply, trying to use Gabrielle’s
inflections.  Even though Xena was fevered and near hallucination, the
Regent wasn’t going to take any unnecessary chances just to satisfy her
peaking curiosity at the warrior’s statement.

	“Not getting us out of here,” Xena replied so softly that Ephiny had
to strain her hearing to catch it all.

	“Xena, I know you did everything you could,” Ephiny said, trying
to soothe the injured woman as she hugged her gently.

	“Not enough,” she rasped, chastising herself even in her weakened
state, “Gabrielle, I...”  She trailed off.

	“What is it, Xena?” Ephiny prodded gently, “You know you can
tell me anything.”

	The warrior’s brow creased again and Ephiny thought she had been
found out.  “I love you, Gabrielle,” the reply finally came, shocking the
blonde Amazon enough that her eyes felt like they were going to pop right
out of her head.

	Finally Ephiny regained her composure long enough to gently
whisper what she was sure the warrior needed to hear. “I love you too,
Xena,” she said, and impulsively leaned over to place a soft kiss on the
sweaty forehead.

	Xena smiled a little in relief, her features then relaxing along with
her body, as she began dropping off to sleep again.  The Regent listened as
the warrior’s breathing evened out and deepened, rocking her until she was
sure Xena was asleep.  Ephiny was reaching for the rag again, to bathe the
warrior’s fevered skin, when the sound of creaking hinges reached her ears.

	Knowing that the guards were returning, Ephiny disentangled
herself from Xena and stood over her, putting her own body protectively
between the injured warrior and the door of their cell.  She had no idea why
they would come back after what happened to the last two guards, but
tensed her body for a fight, never the less.

	“Remember to make sure the cuffs are secure,” a young guard was
instructing the two who followed, “If they get loose, King Metreus will
flay us all in the courtyard.”  He stopped speaking when he reached the
door of the cell, fixing the blonde Amazon with a steely glare.

	Ephiny returned the look and tried not to show her surprise when
the guard failed to react to the deadly expression.  She held her position,
not backing away when he unlocked and flung open the door.  The Regent
clenched her fists, ready to fight when they approached her, but made no
move until the nearest guard tried to go around her to get to Xena.

	Ephiny stepped in front of him, arms raised and snarled.  “Leave
her alone,” she ordered, trying to look more confident than she felt, “Take
me instead.”

	The burly guard hesitated for only a moment before lashing out
with a powerful backhand.  She tried to block it, bringing up an arm to
protect her face, but the blow was so strong that she was knocked off
balance and pinwheeled her arms so she wouldn’t fall.

	Before Ephiny could right herself, hands wrenched her arms down
and she could feel the cold touch of iron shackles circling her wrists. 
Looking down at her bound hands, the Regent strained to free herself as the
chains were attached to ankle cuffs that were swiftly locked on as well.

	“A noble effort, Amazon,” her captor spat as she watched her
previous attacker lock similar restraints on Xena, “But King Metreus wants
you both on display for his dinner guests.”  A hand seized her hair and half
dragged her out of the cell, not pausing even when the Regent’s feet
tangled in the chains, causing her to stumble.

	Ephiny grunted as her hair was yanked roughly, and scrambled to
get her feet back under her body.  Looking back over her shoulder, the
Regent watched helplessly, as she was hauled along, the remaining two
guards drag Xena’s unconscious body out of the cell, her feet scraping
across the floor.

	Knowing there was nothing she could say to change their minds,
Ephiny remained silent, refusing to shame herself by begging.  They
paused to unlock the dungeon door, and the blonde Amazon bowed her
head, mentally preparing for what was to come.  Artemis, please give me
the courage to die well, she prayed reverently, squeezing her eyes shut.

	The Regent remained like that until a large hand in the middle of
her back shoved her forward.  Ephiny regained her footing and took a deep
breath, holding her head high with true Amazon bravery.  Keeping her
mind on her fallen sisters, she strode forward, not seeing the stunned
expression of the guard who had been roughly escorting her.  Her proud
stature was something he had not expected, and it took him a moment to
lose the dumb stare on his face.

	Entering the main hall, Ephiny noticed the servants preparing for the
feast, setting the many tables with silver dishes.  She ignored it when they
all stopped, looking up at her with a mixture of awe and wonder on their
faces, and focused on remaining proud and unshakable.  It was something
she had been taught in her warrior training when she was a girl.  Never let
the enemy know you’re afraid, even when you’re seeing them from the
sharp end of their blades.

	She shocked the gawking crowd again but moving of her own will
to the center of the room where four wooden posts had been driven into the
floor, standing calmly between two of them.  Ephiny knew what they were
for, and kept her stony expression as her captor unlocked and reshackled
each of her limbs to the posts, chaining her spread eagle to the posts.  When
the guard stepped back to admire his handiwork, the Regent couldn’t
contain her anger any longer.  She spit in his face, causing him to jerk
away, cursing softly.

	Ephiny heard his fellow guards laughing at him, and set her face
into a stony warrior mask, betraying none of her emotions.  She tried to
appear disinterested when he stepped back up to her, wiping the spittle
from his face and painfully gripping her chin, forcing her to look in his
eyes.  “When this feast is over, you and I are going to have some fun,
whore,” he hissed, kissing her roughly before backing away.

	Unable to stay impartial after that insult, the Regent growled, her
upper lip curling.  “Be sure to take a bath first, big man,” she snarled,
flexing her arms to show off her healthy biceps, “I don’t want my hands to
slip on the grime when I break your neck.”

	Ephiny watched his face turn red with fury, but was mildly shocked
when he didn’t hit her.  She had expected it, and had even mentally
prepared for it.  Slowly she came to realize that he did want to hit her, but
something held him back.  The Regent guessed that Metreus had told them
not to beat herself or Xena, and decided she was right as he turned and
stormed away.  Only when he was out of eyesight did she relax, but only a
fraction.  The blonde Amazon wanted to be ready for anything, whether it
be a beating or a rescue, she couldn’t afford not to pay attention to even the
smallest of details.

	For some time, Ephiny watched silently as the servants puttered
about the room, setting tables and arranging trays.  She didn’t know how
long she stood there, chained spread eagle to the wooden posts, but her
arms were going numb from being held over her head for too long.  The
Regent hated waiting even when she was in the village, but this was worse. 
Several glances over at Xena told her that the warrior princess wasn’t any
more aware of where she was than she had been when the guards shackled
her.  Gods, I hope she’s still alive, Ephiny thought grimly, noticing how
still the dark woman really was.  Knowing there was nothing she could do,
the blonde Amazon bowed her head and tried to rest.  Something told her
that she was going to need it.


	As afternoon progressed to evening, Gabrielle tried to find things to
occupy herself.  When staring at the fire had begun to bother her eyes, the
young Queen took up her fighting staff, twirling it expertly.  After
exhausting herself, Gabrielle busied her hands by caring for Argo.  She
spent nearly a full candlemark brushing her down, after fastening on a nose
bag full of grain.

	Gabrielle had never understood why Xena talked to the golden
steed so often.  Now she knew.  It was comforting.  Being near Argo,
brought Gabrielle closer to Xena.  With each gentle pass of the brush, the
bard’s soft voice sounded, making the war-horse’s ears twitch.  The little
bard could tell Argo her fears and secrets, never having to worry that
anyone else would find out, and receive some measure of comfort from the
noble steed.

	Jayla had remained by the fire since their meal, watching the Queen
protectively.  She poked at the burning logs with a stick, making it crackle
and pop, while her eyes left Gabrielle for only a moment to scan the tree
line for danger.  Her ears perked up at the sound of a snapping twig, and a
cautious hand came to rest on the hilt of her belt dagger.  If given a clear
shot, Jayla could impale a butterfly from fifty paces with her throw, and
often had in her training as a young girl.

	Several moments passed and not a sound was heard, but the
Amazon guard stayed ready.  If there was someone approaching, they
could have seen her gesture and were trying to wait her out.  But Jayla was
infinitely patient in these matters, and made it look like she was
disinterested, still poking at the fire.  Her hawk like eyes darted from the
trees to her Queen, wanting her closer in case of attack, but knowing there
was no way to get her attention without alerting whoever might be in the

	Reaching for another log to throw on the fire, Jayla froze for only a
moment at the sound of leaves rustling.  There was no breeze on this day,
and leaves did not move on their own.  To her credit, the Amazon
recovered quickly, and closed her hand around a rather large piece of
wood, waiting for the sound again.  When it came, Jayla focused on it
quickly and pinpointed the attacker’s position, her entire body tensing.

	Without warning, she rolled sideways off the log she was sitting on
and threw the makeshift weapon like a dagger.  The strength she put into
the throw was enough to send the heavy piece of wood end over end into
the surrounding forest, as if it were as light as one of her knives.  She heard
it connect with a solid thump and then the muffled cursing that followed it.

	Jayla paused for a moment, kicking Tirin and Valeris awake with
more force than necessary, once she had rolled back to her feet.  When she
heard the voice of the man she had hit, and recognized it, she cursed as
well.  Loudly.  “Hera’s left tit!!” she shouted, storming forward to the edge
of the clearing, “Kraylor, that better not be you!”

	A soft grunt of pain reached her hears and then a clear voice. “What
if it is, Amazon?” he grumped, not in the best of moods all of a sudden. 
He was trying to be quiet, as Tyldus had ordered, and what did he get for
his trouble?  A log hurtled at his forehead.

	Jayla tried to keep calm, but the seriousness of the situation was
making her temper boil.  “Kraylor, what are you doing sneaking around
our camp?” she barked, fists clenched at her sides.

	“Enough, Jayla.”  Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder and
squeezed gently in reassurance.  She had turned when her Amazon guard
launched herself into the roll, and snatched up her staff, preparing for a
fight.  The bard had seen everything, opting to stay back until she noticed
how angry Jayla was at the centaur’s innocent mistake.  She was more than
a little relieved when the young Amazon obeyed her order and backed off. 
“Kraylor, come out here,” she said sternly, leaning on her staff.

	The centaur slowly emerged from the forest, a sheepish look on his
face.  “Hello Queen Gabrielle,” he said softly, rubbing the, already
forming, welt above his right eye.

	“Hello Kraylor,” she returned, trying to smile a little, “I hope you
learned your lesson about sneaking up on Amazons.”

	He said nothing, but nodded vigorously, wincing at the pain in his
head.  He walked further into the clearing once he decided that Jayla
wasn’t going to pounce on him for startling her.  She still wore a look that
spoke volumes about his pain if he ever did that to her again, and he looked
away quickly, not wanting to make things any worse.  Kraylor knew
everyone was tense from the war, and fighting amongst themselves wasn’t
going to get it won.

	“Where are the others?” Gabrielle asked, reaching up to tend the

	“Waiting by the north gate for your command,” he answered,
wincing again, but biting his tongue to keep from complaining.  The young
centaur knew it had been his own fault, and wanted to let the matter drop
before all of his friends were told about how he messed up.  “Tyldus sent
me to let you know that we met up with about thirty of your warriors on
the way here.  Something big is happening in the castle tonight.  There are
a lot of important looking men arriving.  He thought you should know,” he
added, realizing by the shocked expression on the bard’s face that she had
not known her Amazons were approaching, “And I’m supposed to bring
the message back of when to attack.”

	Gabrielle thought hard for a moment, anger warring with relief that
her sisters had come to her aid.  She didn’t want the Amazons fighting for
revenge, as they seemed to be doing.  That was the reason they had been at
war with the centaurs for so long before she and Xena had fixed things. 
But on the other hand, feeling the burning rage in her heart from knowing
her warrior was in danger...  How could she presume to teach her people
forgiveness when she, herself, wanted Metreus’ head on a pike.

	Finally looking up at the young centaur, Gabrielle forced the
worried frown off her face.  “Attack at full dark,” she ordered, looking up
quickly at the sky, “There’s a crescent moon tonight, so you’ll have the
advantage.  No heroics, just distract them.”

	Kraylor nodded solemnly and stamped his forefoot unconsciously. 
“What about you, Queen Gabrielle?” he asked, “What will you four be

	A darkness fell on the bard’s features as she stared at him, her eyes
boring into his so intently that he flinched.  Her hand tightened on her staff
until her knuckles were white with strain and her lips curled back into a
snarl.  “I’m going to get Xena back,” she growled through teeth clenched
so hard that he could see her jaw muscles working.

	More than a little worried at the sudden change in the Queen’s
temperament, Kraylor bit back anything he was going to say and simply
nodded.  Another quick look at the fierceness in her eyes and he departed
with his message, kicking up the loose dirt as he sprang into a canter.

	Jayla watched him go, and strained her ears to hear the sounds of
his hoof beats as he rushed away.  Only when her keen hearing could no
longer distinguish those noises from the natural ones of the forest, did she
turn and head back to the fire, keeping one protective eye on her Queen. 
Resuming her meticulous poking of the fire with the stick she had dropped,
Jayla thought about Gabrielle’s actions in the last few moments and
wondered.  She had never seen the Queen so angry, and she was startled to
discover that it frightened her a little.  She had only seen rage of that
magnitude in one other person.  And that was the woman that Gabrielle was
going to rescue.

	The Amazon guard looked up as the Queen took her previously
abandoned place across from her at the fire and breathed an almost silent
sigh of relief that her face had resumed it’s somewhat normal worried
expression.  But there was something else there as well.  It took Jayla a few
moments to pin it down, but when she did, it surprised her more than the
rage had.  Guilt.  Her Queen looked as though she felt guilty for her

	Jayla noticed the twitch in Gabrielle’s neck muscles, signaling that
she was about to lift her head and quickly focused on the fire again before
the Queen could lock gazes with her.  It wasn’t her place to question the
Queen’s actions, and she didn’t want it to be taken that way.  She knew that
if Gabrielle wanted to tell her something, she would.  And it would do no
good to hold her breath until that happened.  Sometimes the bard talked to
her, and sometimes she didn’t.  After a few moments of silence, she
realized that this was one of the times when she wouldn’t and concentrated
on the fire, watching the sparks float into the air from broken coals.

	“We’ll have to leave in a candlemark,” Gabrielle muttered quietly,
her voice betraying her guilt and worry.

	“Yes, my Queen,” Jayla responded with a slight nod, never
breaking her gaze with the dancing orange flames.  She knew Tirin and
Valeris had also heard the redhead’s words and nodded as well, though
they remained silent.  Jayla checked the tint of the sky to set the time and
went back to studying the fire, her mind racing with backup plans, and the
image of Gabrielle’s rage filled eyes.

	In the main dining hall, situated on a raised dais, high ranking
members sat at the cloth covered table, looking down at the lesser men,
joining in the feast.  In the center of the table, Metreus raised his glass, a
smug smile on his face, as his military officers cheered and toasted him yet
again.  He bore it all with amused tolerance, knowing that his men felt the
need to honor him for defeating the Amazons.

	His eyes shifted once again to the center pieces of his feast,
grinning widely at the humiliation he knew the Regent Queen must be
feeling.  Chunks of bread and fruits of various size and weight lay scattered
at her bound feet, having landed there after bouncing, sometimes painfully,
off her body.  Her head was hung low in defeat, and she stared at the floor,
barely flinching at the food being pelted at her.  Despite the fact that Xena
hadn’t moved since being brought up from the dungeon, and seemed to be
either unconscious or dead, Metreus was fairly pleased with the admiration
he was shown for capturing the two leaders.

	The self made King chuckled slightly at the recent memory of his
guests’ reactions when they entered the hall, seeing the mighty Amazon
Queen and Warrior Princess trussed up on display.  The warlords and
generals had been so impressed, that Metreus couldn’t bring himself to
admit that the blonde was only the Regent Queen.  Let them think what
they want, he had mused with a grin, his chest swelling with pride at every
congratulatory handshake or slap on the back he was given by his allies.

	Metreus knew he had succeeded where even the best had failed. 
He had defeated the Amazons in battle.  No sneaking around like with his
other enemies;  they had fallen under the sheer force of his army.  Not even
the Centaurs had been able to capture their Queen.  Metreus smiled and
sipped his wine again, an idea forming in his twisted mind.

	“Sire,” a soft voice whispered in his ear, and he turned to see one of
the courtyard men leaning toward him, “We have a problem.”

	“Take care of it,” Metreus hissed back, smiling for the benefit of his

	“But, Majesty,” the guard protested, his voice an urgent whisper in
the King’s ear, “It’s the Amazons...”

	Metreus cut him off with a wave.  “I said, take care of it,” he
grumbled, a promise of punishment in his eyes if the guard didn’t stop
bothering him.

	“Yes Sire,” he muttered and hopped down off the dais, hurrying
away with one quick glance over at the Regent Queen.  He didn’t want to
be strung up in the dungeon for being the bearer of bad news, and even
though he wasn’t sure he could handle the problem on his own, he wasn’t
going to press the issue with the King.  Many men in his troop alone had
met with an untimely end simply for saying ‘But Sire’ too many times.  He
seriously doubted that he would survive the fighting that was sure to come
with the Amazons having teamed up with the Centaurs, so he no longer had
to worry about getting on the King’s bad side.  He knew their only chance
was to reinforce the north guard, and he rushed to tell his commander just

	Metreus watched the guard scurry away like the vermin he was and
turned back to the festivities.  His bad mood forgotten when he thought he
saw the Warrior Princess move her head ever so slightly.  The King
excused himself from the table and left the dais, slowly walking around the
food on the floor to where Xena and Ephiny were bound, his wine goblet in
his hand.

	Raising his hand for silence, Metreus felt another swell of posture
as it was instantly obeyed, and looked about the room, lowering that same
hand to Xena’s sagging head and twining his fingers in her limp sweaty
hair.  “Behold how the mighty have fallen!” he bellowed, his voice echoing
of the stone walls as he yanked back on Xena’s hair, pulling her head up. 
The echoes of his voice were drowned out immediately by the rowdy
cheers of his men and he gazed toward the dais were his allies were seated. 
They each raised a glass to him and he mimicked the movement, a silent
thank you for their help in making the victory possible.

	Chuckling softly, Metreus looked once at Xena’s pale face, and let
it fall, tossing the rest of his wine in her unconscious face before walking
away.  As he regained his place at the high table, he wondered what he had
done to please the Gods so much that they would do this to reward him. 
Metreus had his goblet refilled and took a sip, knowing that life couldn’t
get much better than this.


	Gabrielle crouched in the bushes near the castle’s south wall with
Jayla and the others, silently watching the guards on the parapets march
back and forth.  She could hear the battle cries and ring of clashing swords
beginning on the north side, and felt her heart lurch in anticipation.  It was
all she could do to stay still and not fidget.

	Jayla could sense her Queen’s anxiousness and placed a reassuring
hand on her shoulder, squeezing slightly.  Though Gabrielle was a full
winter older than the guard, she now seemed no more than a frightened
child, needing comfort.  She pulled her hand away after a moment, feeling
the Queen’s eyes fall on her, but didn’t look away from the moving castle

	Several moments passed and nothing changed.  Gabrielle was just
beginning to think Metreus hadn’t been fooled when there was a frantic
shout and all four of the perimeter guards moved out of sight, heading for
the north wall.  “Now,” she whispered and began to get up from her

	“No, my Queen,” Jayla said, a restraining arm clasped on her
shoulder, holding her back, “Wait.”

	Gabrielle pinned her with a fierce look and opened her mouth to
command the Amazon to move when Valeris broke into her thoughts with a
hoarse whisper.  “Look!”

	Gabrielle jerked her head up and followed the young Amazon’s
pointed finger, her eyes widening when she saw one of the guards
reappear.  He grabbed the pike he had forgotten behind and took one last
look down at the surrounding trees before disappearing again.  The bard
turned her gaze back to Jayla with a new sense of amazement, but could
get nothing out before she harshly whispered for them to move quickly.

	Gabrielle darted from the bushes, staff in hand, and sprinted across
the open field to the south wall, Jayla in front, Tirin and Valeris following. 
She was breathing hard from the short run when she crouched against the
cold stone but energized, feeling so close to rescuing her warrior.  Artemis,
protect us, she prayed silently, Hold on, Xena-love, I’m coming.

	Jayla reached the storm drain first, examining it for a moment
before motioning Tirin forward.  The fair haired Amazon began working on
the lock, her nimble fingers manipulating the thin dagger back and forth in
the keyhole until she heard a soft click and the latch sprang open.  With a
snort of disgust that it had been so easy to pick, Tirin tossed the lock away
and eased the gate open, bowing her head to the Queen.

	“Well done,” Gabrielle whispered her praise and allowed Jayla to
precede her before crawling into the musty tunnel.

	“Stay close,” Jayla’s voice sounded, as they moved slowly through
the sludge.  The little redhead guard swallowed reflexively at the horrid
stench that made her stomach threaten to release its meager content of
berries and salt pork.  Brushing a lock of curly hair out of her bright green
eyes, Jayla scanned along the dim tunnel for light patterns, indicating there
might be an opening to the dungeon close by.

	Every four paces, Jayla could hear a soft grunt as Gabrielle lugged
the sections of her staff along beside her, but made no offer to help.  Twice
she had offered to assist her Queen with her labors since leaving the village,
and been snapped at both times.  She knew the bard was not angry at her,
but worried about the warrior princess, and it was wearing on her nerves,
so the guard vowed to leave her alone.  She’ll ask for help if she wants it,
Jayla had reasoned silently while they were waiting in the bushes for their
opening, and reminded herself of that yet again.

	“Hold,” she called softly as she spotted a flickering in the muck
ahead of them.  Jayla scurried forward once the others had stopped and
craned her neck up to look through the grate over her head.  A damp
mustiness filled her senses, seeming cleaner merely because of the stench
she had been exposed to in the drainage tunnel.  The dungeon, she guessed
correctly, and maneuvered slowly into a crouch under it.

	Jayla pulled one of her daggers and searched for a lock on the
grate, but, finding none, took a deep breath and steeled herself for the
action to come.  She hated killing people, but knew the upcoming death of
the guard likely to be there, was necessary in order for them to save Ephiny
and Xena.

	With a muffled grunt, Jayla forced the grate open and stood
straight, pivoting on her heel in the ankle high sludge when she heard a man
curse behind her.  A flick of her wrist and the dagger went flying, burying
itself to the hilt in the hapless guard’s throat, and cutting off any warning he
might have wanted to sound.  A quick look around for any more guards
and Jayla settled her eyes on the man, watching him claw at his throat for a
moment as blood poured from the wound and his mouth before falling
heavily to the stone floor unmoving.

	The Amazon guard heaved herself out of the drainage tunnel and
crouched down on the floor, reaching back down the help the Queen up. 
She was a little surprised that the little bard accepted her help, but masked
it quickly, as Tirin climbed out next and in turn helped Valeris.  The last
Amazon out closed the grate while Tirin checked the guard’s pockets and
then motioned Valeris to help her drag him out of sight.  They wanted to
cover their entry as much as possible, though they knew there was nothing
they could do about the muck they had tracked over the floor when they
climbed up.

	Jayla raced to the door of the dungeon, noting quickly that it was
locked and watched for any guards that might be coming as the others
worked.  She had told the Queen to stay put while they did their job, and
was once again stunned that Gabrielle did as she was told, assembling her
staff quietly, now that there was enough room to maneuver the pieces.

	Valeris stretched her back once the guard was hidden, quietly
grumbling at how heavy men were, but immediately silenced herself when
Tirin held up a hand.  When the taller Amazon pointed, Valeris followed
her finger to the last cell in the row of three, nearly black with darkness,
being the furthest away from the single torch.  But every few moments, the
flames would flicker a certain way, and the light would catch on someone
huddled in the corner, resting on a filthy pile of straw.

	Retrieving the keys she had found in the guard’s vest, Tirin fumbled
through them until she found one that fit the lock, and turned it, wincing at
the screech of rusty metal as she pulled the door open.  Valeris stepped
inside warily, her sword drawn, and peered down that the figure that only
she could see.  “Merciful Artemis,” she choked out, stumbling backwards
and losing her balance, only to be caught by Tirin’s strong arms.

	“Val?” she whispered, her face showing her shock at her sister’s
reaction as Valeris shrugged out of her grasp and doubled over, retching
into the straw, “Who is it?”  She knelt down next to her stricken friend and
squeezed her shoulder, waiting for her to regain some form of control.

	“It’s.... oh Gods..... it’s Ipona,” Valeris gasped after her stomach
finished emptying.  When Tirin moved like she was thinking about seeing
for herself, she clamped a vise like hand on her forearm, brown eyes boring
into light blue.  “Don’t.”  Only one word, but coupled with the look in the
brunette’s eyes, it was more than enough to tell Tirin that she didn’t want to
see what the guards had done to the child.

	Gabrielle saw Valeris retching inside the door of the cell they had
opened, and jumped to her feet, her fear for Xena’s life suddenly coming to
the fore.  “Xena?” Gabrielle whispered, moving forward slowly, her staff
forgotten on the floor, “Xena!”  She lunged frantically through the cell
door, only to be caught and held by Tirin.

	“No, my Queen,” Tirin said calmly, easily overpowering the bard
and keeping her in place, “It’s not Xena.  She’s not here.”  The tall blonde
breathed a sigh of relief when the little Queen ceased her struggles, and met
her gaze.  She had no desire to hurt the little bard, but she would have done
anything to keep her from the sight that had made Valeris break down in
such a fashion.

	“Who?” was all Gabrielle asked, her tone demanding an answer.

	“Ipona,” Valeris answered before Tirin could even open her mouth,
finally on her feet again, stone mask once more firmly in place, though
something in her brown eyes had changed.  They glimmered with rage and
reminded the bard of the looks that she saw at times on Xena’s face. 
“Please, my Queen,” she said softly, and Gabrielle could see the pain flash
in her eyes, “Don’t go in there.”

	After a long moment of thought, the bard nodded slowly and
backed up, allowing them to leave the cell.  Valeris closed the door slowly,
pausing for a moment before clicking the lock shut, and bowing her head. 
“Artemis guide you to the Fields, Ipona,” she murmured so softly that Tirin
nearly didn’t hear the words.  But the taller Amazon chose to ignore it,
knowing Valeris tried to keep up the tough reputation, and didn’t feel
comfortable expressing emotions.

	Gabrielle ignored the two women, and looked around at the empty
cells.  “Where would she be?” the bard muttered quietly, tapping her foot.

	“My Queen?” Tirin asked with a frown, wondering why the
redhead was talking to herself.

	“If Xena and Ephiny aren’t here,” Gabrielle explained quickly,
trying not to sound too impatient, “Then Metreus must have moved them.
He couldn’t have known that we were coming, or there would have been
more guards waiting for us.  So he moved them for some other reason.  But

	Valeris frowned in thought and Tirin did the same, both trying to
come up with an idea of where to look for their missing Regent and the
warrior princess.  Gabrielle joined them, though she didn’t know much
about this King, she had traveled with Xena long enough to know what
corrupt rulers were like, and how they reacted to capturing a fierce enemy. 
He’d want to show off his prize, she guessed, remembering what Kraylor
had told her about the arrival earlier of important looking men.

	Gabrielle’s thoughts were shattered suddenly when Jayla’s voice
reached her ears.  “Guard,” she whispered, then tucked herself into the
corner so the heavy oak door would hide her when it opened.  Tirin was the
one who reacted, dragging Gabrielle into the shadows with a muted
“Forgive me, Majesty.”  Valeris followed quickly, the three of them
crammed together against the bard of Ipona’s cell, each trying not to look
through the shadows at her still form.

	The dead Amazon was forgotten, however, the moment the rusty
hinges screeched as the solid dungeon door was unlocked and pushed open. 
“Hades’ balls,” Gabrielle muttered angrily at herself when she realized that
her forgotten staff was still lying on the floor in full view of the entering

	“Darius?” the new guard called, peering into the shadows that the
single torch wasn’t large enough to dispel, “Hades, man.  Where are you?”

	Beside Gabrielle, Tirin issued a muffled grunt when she saw the
guard reaching for his sword.  The little bard started at the sound,
wondering why it had been made, until she saw the guard relax, his hand
falling back to his side.  “Darius, come out of that cell,” he called,
assuming that his friend was simply having fun with the young Amazon
traitor, “You can have your fun when your relief gets here.”

	Gabrielle tensed, knowing that Tirin would give no answer that
wouldn’t raise the guard’s suspicions.  Thankfully, he still hadn’t seen the
bard’s staff, though he was almost on top of it.  The guard was more intent
on the shadows than he was at the floor, but one more step, Gabrielle knew,
and he would discover it quickly when he tripped over it.

	Getting an idea, the bard attracted Tirin’s attention and used
Amazon hand signals to convey that she wanted him taken alive.  He had
the shoulder patch of a higher ranking officer than the one Jayla had killed,
and must know where Metreus had taken Xena.  She saw Tirin and Valeris
both nod in the darkness, and Tirin then relay the gesture to Jayla, who was
creeping up silently behind the unknowing guard.

	There was a feral glint in Jayla’s eyes that Gabrielle could see
plainly when she acknowledged the command and quietly sheathed her
dagger.  They watched anxiously, and the bard’s breathing caught, as the
little Amazon took two more steps before launching herself at him, a silent
snarl on her face.

	The two bodies went down heavily, the guard emitting a muffled
grunt before Jayla’s forearm was in his neck, her other, pinning his sword
arm painfully behind his back.  “Another sound and I’ll break your neck,”
she hissed savagely, not knowing that he had heard the same words from
the Amazon Regent only a candlemark earlier.  He tried to move, only to
have more pressure applied to his arm, making him wince.

	The guard fell motionless, biding his time, knowing that his captor
was deadly serious, and waiting to see what she had planned for him. 
What he didn’t expect though, was the three Amazons who came out of
their hiding place in the shadows, all wearing identical expressions of rage
on their faces.  Prognius, he said silently to himself, you’re a dead man.

	Gabrielle emerged from the shadows, trying to control her anger as
she bent to retrieve her staff.  She said nothing, knowing that her Amazons
would follow her lead in trying to intimidate their prisoner during the
interrogation.  The little bard assumed a regal stance, and furrowed her
brow with determination, conveying to her sisters that she was to be
obeyed, no matter what happened.

	“Stand him up,” she clipped, her tone the Queenly one she reserved
for important meetings with outsiders.  She bit back a smile as Jayla
jumped to do as she ordered, and with Tirin’s help, hauling the silent guard
to his feet.  A slight toss of her head and he was pinned to the bars, Tirin
holding one arm and Jayla handing off his other limb to Valeris, who was
much bigger, and could hold more weight.

	Gabrielle approached him, staring up into his wide eyes, her own
narrowed nearly to slits.  “What’s your name?” she asked, her voice the
same cool tone.

	His eyes narrowed to match hers, but he remained silent.  Gabrielle
gave him a moment to think about his answer, but when she got none, her
temper flared again, right in tune with her portrayal as a savage Queen.

	Gabrielle fingered her staff for a moment, as if thinking over her
next move, and suddenly lunged at him, jamming the end of her fighting
stick under his chin and ramming his head into the bars.  The steel gave a
dull bong that echoed in the room, accompanied by his groan of pain. 
“Now,” the little Queen said softly, her calmly quiet tones frightening not
only the guard, but also her Amazon sisters, “Once again.  What is your

	She kept her staff under his jaw, so that when he finally did speak,
it was forced out and sounded very uncomfortable.  “Prognius,” he
answered, and took a deep breath when the staff was pulled away.

	A feral grin appeared on the bard’s face at the minor victory and she
pressed on.  “Well Prognius,” she spoke, her voice dropping in pitch,
nearly to a growl, “Nice to meet you.  I suppose I should introduce myself. 
I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons.”  She noticed his eyes widen again
in recognition and felt relief flood over her.  Good, she thought silently, at
least he’s heard enough about Amazon ways that he won’t be so cocky

	Out loud, she continued talking, barely missing a beat.  “I can see I
wasn’t expected,” she remarked, looking around the dungeon, before her
eyes focused on him again, “But that’s all right, Prognius.  As
compensation for such rudeness, I’ll just ask that you tell me where you’re
King has taken my Regent Ephiny and The Warrior Princess.”

	Prognius opened his mouth as if to reply, but after a moment’s
hesitation, snapped it shut again, his eyes boring into her angrily.  Jayla
wanted desperately to make the man before her show some respect for their
Queen, but she didn’t dare disobey Gabrielle’s orders.  So she stood
silently behind the little bard, looking as intimidating as possible.

	Gabrielle sighed quietly and shook her head, knowing she’d have to
resort to force, though she really didn’t want to.  “Prognius, let me explain
something,” she continued after a moment, “I’m having a very bad day. 
But I’m willing to give you the opportunity to make a choice.  You can tell
me what you know, or I can break every bone in your body until you do. 
Now, I will ask you again, where has Metreus taken Ephiny and Xena? 
Think hard before you answer.  For every time you don’t answer, or you
give me an answer I don’t like, I’ll break a bone.”

	Prognius was silent for a moment, contemplating whether to tell her
the truth or a well crafted lie.  As he thought of a believable, but false,
story, Gabrielle grew impatient, and knew that she would have to prove to
him that she wasn’t all talk.  The only problem was that she didn’t know if
she could go through with it or not.  Taking a deep breath, and steeling
herself for what was to come, Gabrielle tightened her grip on the staff she
carried and pulled it back, preparing for a swing.

	The guard realized that he had taken too much time when a flash of
motion caught his attention, followed by a blinding pain in his shin that
made him cry out.  A sound that was muffled by the sudden appearance of
a filthy rag being jammed into his mouth.  Strong fingers tugged on his chin
to make him look into the fierce eyes of the little Amazon Queen.  “I really
don’t enjoy doing that, Prognius,” she ground out through clenched teeth,
her green eyes boring into his, “But don’t test my resolve.  I will do it
again, and again until I get the answers I want from your lips, or Celesta
lays her hand on you.  I will stop for nothing less.”

	Through the pain filled haze of vision, Prognius looked deeply into
the redhead’s eyes, and jerked back, startled by what he saw.  Something
that he never wanted to see again in another soul’s eyes.  His death.  It was
at that moment, he realized his only chance was to tell them what he knew.

	Jayla had acted quickly to stop the guard’s cries, but she didn’t
know how long the rag would keep them muffled if Gabrielle continued
with her interrogation.  She struggled to keep the angry glare on her face,
even when Prognius wasn’t looking at her, knowing it was the only thing
holding the shock at bay.  The young Amazon had never seen her Queen
act this way and it was a little frightening.

	Jayla had always thought that of the famous pair, Xena was the
dark, and Gabrielle was the light.  But now, seeing this, she realized there
was more darkness to the little redhead than most people would have

	“Prognius, I don’t like repeating myself.”

	Gabrielle’s voice snapped Jayla out of her thoughts, and she
focused once again on their prisoner.  The bard’s warning tones sent a chill
down her spine as she watched the Queen draw her staff back for another
strike, trying to look impassive at the situation.

	“Wait!” Prognius blurted suddenly around the improvised gag,
sounding more like a wounded pig than a man.  Which isn’t far from the
truth, Jayla mused silently.  She reached forward and yanked the filthy rag
out of his mouth, a little startled at the stream of words that came out as
well.  “I beg you, don’t kill me,” he stammered, nearly blubbering, “I’ll tell
you what you want to know.”

	“Then tell us pig!” Tirin growled, jerking his arm a little with her
words, “Don’t make our Queen beat it out of you!”  She had been playing
a role in the beginning, never believing that the gentle bard that was their
ruler, would ever intentionally hurt a helpless person.  Her shock at seeing
Gabrielle break the man’s leg had been so great that she nearly blurted out
several curses at the sight.  Fortunately she had managed to hold her
tongue, or the guard may have suspected something and not told them what
they wanted to know so soon.  And time was critical.

	“King Metreus had them taken to the Main Hall,” he confessed,
hanging his head in defeat.

	Gabrielle reached up and grabbed his hair, lifting his eyes to see
her.  “Why?”  Only one word, but the anger and lust for revenge in the tone
spoke enough of her emotions to fill the Academy of Bards in Athens.

	“He wanted them on display for the feast tonight,” he choked out,
barely noticing when he lost control of his bladder, “As trophies.”

	Gabrielle felt her temper rise at the thought of her Xena as a trophy,
and smiled savagely at Prognius.  “Thank you for all your help,” she
hissed, letting go of his hair and watching as his head slumped again, “Oh
and one more thing.”

	Prognius looked up, wondering what more the Amazon Queen
could want from him when he caught her small, but powerful fist rapidly
approaching his face.  He grunted in pain as it connected, and the guard
heard the dull crack of bone as his nose broke, then blessed darkness closed
in, and he slumped, unconscious to the floor, both Tirin and Valeris letting
him fall freely.

	Gabrielle looked down at the crumpled form, rubbing her aching
fist absently.  “That was for Ipona,” she whispered, and turned away,
finally letting her guard down, enough that Jayla could see the pain in her
eyes.  Until that moment, the little Amazon guard hadn’t realized just how
hard it had been for her Queen to do what she did.

	“Let’s go,” Jayla spoke softly, placing a strong hand on Gabrielle’s
shoulder, much like Xena did.  It gave the bard enough strength to move
on, knowing that she was so close to her warrior, and what she had to look
forward to, no matter how rough things got inside the castle walls.

	Gabrielle took her staff from Jayla’s outstretched hand and trotted
to the door of the dungeon, peering down the corridor each way before
motioning to them that it was safe to continue.  The three Amazons
followed their little Queen, each wondering at the powerful woman
underneath the exterior of the gentle bard.


	Just outside the castle walls, the battle raged on.  Tyldus shouted
commands to centaur and Amazon alike, driving their enemy into the
ground.  Even though the Amazon’s were at less than half strength, they
were still fierce fighters, and teamed with nearly a hundred centaurs, they
proved to be unstoppable as the make shift army cut through Metreus’
forces like a hot dagger through butter.

	Perched atop the centaur leader, Solari held on for dear life,
swinging her sword with one hand and clutching Tyldus’ vest with the
other, protecting his back just like many of her sisters.  Screaming a war
cry when Tyldus charged a group of retreating soldiers, she matched him
swing for swing, tearing mercilessly into the men with savage pleasure,
laughing and screaming at the same time.  The battle rage had taken her
when she thought of Ephiny, and the knowledge that she would be free if
only they fought a little harder.

	All along, Tyldus had planned to disobey Gabrielle, and command
his centaurs to plow through the army before them.  A distraction might
have been enough, but not the revenge he felt they needed for so many
Amazons killed in a war they didn’t ask for.  He had nearly called the
charge before the appointed time when Solari told him of the raids and
ambushes that Metreus had commanded his men to perform.  This King
was not a man of honor, he was a bloodthirsty warlord with too much
power.  And he had to be stopped.

Solari noticed the wounded soldiers hobbling, or crawling back to the main gate, and shouted over the battle sounds to Tyldus, her arm pointing past his face. She knew someone would have to raise the steel gate for them to get back inside, and that was the perfect time to charge. Tyldus shouted at a handful of men to join him, and fought off the surrounding soldiers while Kraylor and two others fought through the masses to get to their leader.

Solari kept an eye out for approaching soldiers while Tyldus hastily explained his quickly devised plan, cutting down one or two when they tried to get too close. She scanned the battle, noting with some relief that only two of her sisters had fallen thus far in the battle, most of them high enough on the backs of centaurs that the soldiers couldn’t strike a death blow. She smiled briefly, but her distraction cost her. A sharp pain in her leg made her cry out, and she struck the soldier over the head with the flat of her sword before she could even think about it.

Tyldus craned his neck back. “Solari?” he shouted, as she curled over to grasp at the long slice across the top of her thigh, “Is it bad?”

“No!” she shouted quickly, ripping off her head band and retying it around the wound, “Just go! They’re opening the gate!”

Tyldus shouted a warning for her to hold on, just before he launched his body into a full gallop, Kraylor and the others less than a length behind him. The aging centaur raised his sword high and bellowed wordlessly, hearing the others follow suit.

The small group barreled through the gate, trampling an unlucky few that were too stunned or gravely injured to get out of their way. There were shouts of, ‘Kill the centaurs!’ and ‘Close the gate! Lock them in!’

Solari heard the latter very clearly as they forced their way across the courtyard, swords sinking into flesh and bone, and men crying out as they fell. “Tyldus!” she yelled over the shouting of the soldiers, “We can’t let them get the gate down!”

The aging centaur nodded and slashed open the chest of another attacker, the arching of his blade sending droplets of blood over them both. “Lor!” he bellowed, and the young warrior looked up after slaying his own opponent, “Jam the winch! Make sure that gate stays open or we’re all dead!” Tyldus immediately focused on the fight, knowing that the young centaur would follow his orders instantly and to the very letter.

“There!” Solari shouted, pointing to the huge doors at the front of the King’s royal home, “Let’s crash their little party!”

Tyldus impaled another hapless soldier through the neck and watched him flail for a moment before falling off the blade. He looked up at Solari’s voice and laughed at her words, taking off at a full gallop again, forgetting to warn the Amazon on his back.

“Whoa!!” Solari teetered for a moment before grabbing two fistfuls of the centaur’s vest and righting herself. The flat of her blade slapped against his shoulder, but he paid it no mind as he ran for the bronze studded door, plowing through the soldiers, his strong forelegs knocking them out of his way.

His hooves make clopping sounds on the stone stairs as he finally reached the heavy double doors, a fierce commotion at his back making him turn around. What he saw made a smile appear on his face. Kraylor had succeeded in keeping the gate open, and his centaurs were pouring in by the dozen, cutting down any soldier who got in the way. Perched on his back, Solari took in the same vision and held her sword high overhead, shouting a triumphant war cry to them.

Tyldus also held his sword high in tribute to his comrades, then craned his neck to the dark haired Amazon. “Shall we let Metreus know we’ve arrived?” he asked, a huge smile on his face.

“We shall, indeed,” Solari answered, a feral glint in her eye. She wanted to run him through herself for daring to take Ephiny away from her. Leaning over, keeping one hand on Tyldus’ shoulder for balance, she pushed one side of the great door open and then the other. “After you,” she said politely, with an exaggerated hand signal.

Tyldus bowed his head briefly. “Thank you,” he replied and suddenly the humor was gone from their eyes, replaced by anger and rage as they thundered through the door, followed quickly by several centaurs, many of them with Amazon warrior’s still on their backs.


Seated back at his place on the dais, Metreus felt a hand on his arm and looked over to one of the Generals that had assisted him in the battle. “Do you hear that, King Metreus?” he asked, gesturing to the door with his chin, “Sounds like a storm is brewing.”

Metreus craned his neck and perked up his ears, catching the distant thundering, and wondering for a moment why it sounded familiar. “Probably a storm,” he agreed, dismissing anything else. There were too many guards in the courtyard, he reassured himself, no one would ever get through.

The General nodded slightly and went back to his meal. Metreus gazed at him through the corner of his eye for a moment, and smirked, realizing that he didn’t even remember the idiot’s name. He chuckled slightly to himself and took a healthy pull from his goblet, letting the wine dribble from the corners of his mouth and down his chin.

Most of the wine came back out immediately though, sprayed across the table in surprise when the doors burst open and centaurs came flooding in, shouting war cries and curses at the tops of their lungs. Half the men didn’t even have a chance to draw their swords before they were gutted, not only by centaurs, the self made King realized, but also by the Amazon’s riding their backs.

Ephiny jerked her head up at the sound of splintering wood, and nearly burst into tears when she saw the centaurs enter, bringing a wave of death to anyone who got in the way. But her weary eyes focused on one thing in the sea of swords and stomping hooves. Leading the pack of avenging warriors, was Tyldus, and on his back, the most welcome sight she had ever seen. Solari.

Her heart swelled at the vision of the dark haired warrior slashing away at soldiers, and the flood of tears began. “Solari!” she cried in relief, standing straighter, knowing her rescue was at hand. Her body had nearly reached it’s physical limit, her legs barely supporting her, but Ephiny pulled herself up by her chains, and stayed there, feeling stronger at least in her mind, if not her body, with every soldier that fell.

Astride the mighty centaur leader, Solari beheaded another attacker with a savageness she had never felt before and quickly scanned the huge room for it’s layout. When her brown eyes fell on the Regent, chained in the center of the ring of tables, Solari’s vision clouded everything with a red haze, as her temper flared. “Ephiny!” she bellowed, forgetting for a moment that she rode a centaur and not a horse, kicking Tyldus harshly in the sides.

“Ow!” Tyldus shouted, pulling his sword from the chest of another soldier, but when he saw what the Amazon was looking at, broke into a run, leaping over the table in his way. He landed hard, twisting one of his forelegs slightly, but paid no attention to the sting, barreling through the men, shouting curses.

Nearly skidding to a stop, Tyldus took up a defensive stance, protecting Ephiny while Solari hopped down and began working on the locks with her dagger. “Hold on, love” Solari murmured to the Regent while she worked, not even realizing what she had let slip, “You’ll be free in a moment.” She didn’t notice Ephiny’s look, first of surprise, then of infinite happiness, too intent was she on freeing the woman she loved. The woman that she was so sure, could never return that love.

Solari had managed to open one lock and free Ephiny’s left arm when something captured her attention. She was reaching for the Regent’s right arm when a loud splintering filled her ears. Turning for a moment, she saw Gabrielle and her group emerging from the kitchens, slashing at the men they could reach. Xena’s battle cry sounded through the hall, echoing off the stone, and the dark haired Amazon jerked her head over to see the warrior princess, still slumped and unconscious in her chains. Then where? Solari thought, until she heard it again, and realized that it was her Queen.

Jayla had kicked open the door, barely managing to get ahead of her Queen. In her training, she had been taught that if someone in your group was going to die, it was usually the first one through the door. The little Amazon guard barely avoided being skewered by a soldier that had seen the door fly open, but caught him under the chin with her dagger, forcing it into his brain.

Gabrielle was right behind her, screaming the battle cry of the warrior princess as she swung her staff with expert precision, taking down one after another in her rage. When her keen eyes found Xena, her destination changed, and with a growl, plowed through the soldiers in her way. “XENA!!!” Her voice nearly shook the rafters with the force she put into it, and several soldiers stopped what they were doing, so startled that they didn’t feel the death blows from their centaur or Amazon opponents.

“My Queen!” Jayla shouted, cutting down the man she fought, and making her way toward the bard, terrified for her life. She had made the little redhead promise to stay close for her own safety, and when she realized they had been separated, nearly panicked.

Metreus was screaming at his men to call reinforcements, knowing that the centaurs had the upper hand on them by being more skilled in battle, when he heard Jayla’s shouting. He watched for a moment, eyeing the little redhead that batted his men around like they were rag dolls, before finally deciding to take matters into his own hands.

Metreus leapt down from the dais, silently cursing the other idiot leaders who simple watched the fight or were too busy running for their lives. Snatching up the first sword he could reach, which just happened to be sticking out of it’s owner’s chest, the self made King lunged across the open floor, toward the same destination as the true Amazon Queen. The bloodthirsty man rejoiced silently when he managed to cut off the redhead’s approach, swinging his sword menacingly.

Gabrielle drew up short at the obstruction, a deadly fire in her eyes. “Out of my way,” she snarled, raising her staff menacingly, “I’m taking Xena, and we’re leaving.”

Metreus only laughed. “Don’t tell me that the Amazon leader is no more than a naive little girl,” he spat, not liking the look of the staff she wielded, and wanting to taunt her into making a mistake, “Do you really think I would risk moving the famed Destroyer of Nations from that cell if she were still alive?” He laughed again, and her control snapped.

Gabrielle lunged at Metreus, screaming curses at his bloodline, and their weapons collided. The bard had felt her rage swell and boil over at the mere thought that Xena was dead, and she vowed to be the one that sent the evil King straight into Hades’ arms, blood innocence be damned. She spun her war staff with such speed, that the King had trouble seeing it half the time, but he held his own, blocking every mad attack she threw at him.

Biding his time, Metreus looked for an opening in her attacks, knowing that sooner or later, her anger would make her sloppy. But that damned staff was twirling so fast that he couldn’t find one. She seemed like a demon, possessed by an avenging spirit, come to kill him for his sins against the Gods. Metreus shook that thought away as quickly as it appeared and strengthened his resolve, putting every ounce of skill and knowledge of sword play into the battle, determined to be the winner.

At the sound of metal striking wood, Solari turned her head, shocked to see the bard in fierce combat with the leader of their enemy. She swallowed her fear for the Queen’s safety, remembering that Xena had taught her everything she knew about staff work, and tore her eyes away, determined to free Ephiny from the chains. Her head was in her throat as the lock sprang open and the Regent slumped into her arms, no longer able to stay upright now that her arms had nothing to hold onto.

“Tyldus!” she cried to the centaur’s back, impatiently waiting for him to dispatch the soldier he was fighting. “Hold her!” she snapped when he turned around, and began working on the leg restraints once she was sure Ephiny wasn’t going to collapse.

“I can’t carry both of them and you out of here!” he shouted down at the dark haired Amazon, cradling the Regent in one arm, his sword engaging another opponent.

“Then I’ll walk!” Solari responded finally, then let out a yip of triumph when the last chain fell away. She helped Tyldus maneuver Ephiny onto his broad back, making sure the blonde Regent was lucid enough to hold on without someone behind her.

“You can’t get out of here with that leg!” the aging centaur argued, fighting with one his arms, so Ephiny wouldn’t be jostled too much.

“I’m not leaving Xena behind!” Solari bellowed, fire in her eyes. She had seen the effect losing the warrior princess had on Gabrielle once, and she refused to be the cause for such pain in her Queen again. The Amazon warrior crouched down again, working on Xena’s ankle restraints after a final command to the stubborn centaur. “Get out of here!”

Tyldus hesitated for a moment, then began fighting his way to the door, stopping once to look back at Solari’s unprotected form. “Ares’ left nut,” he cursed and make a quick decision. “Kraylor!” he shouted, seeing the young warrior fighting nearby.

Kraylor looked up briefly and dispatched the soldier he had been playing with, bounding over to his leader. “Aye, Tyldus?” he replied, trying to hide his joy at seeing the Regent, Ephiny, perched weakly on his back.

“Protect Solari,” Tyldus commanded, pointing over to where the Amazon was now working on Xena’s left wrist, “And get them out of there when Xena’s free.”

Kraylor nodded briskly and leapt over the, now broken, table, not even looking back at his leader as he raced for Solari. He noticed briefly, Gabrielle fighting with King Metreus himself, but made no move to help her. The little Amazon Queen was quite capable of taking care of herself and they seemed pretty evenly matched, but Solari was in no position to defend herself or Xena from the two soldiers that he saw approaching them.

Screaming a battle cry, Kraylor caught the attention of the two soldiers and engaged them. Though he was an excellent fighter, the young warrior was nearly exhausted, and reached into his reserves, barely holding his own against the seasoned men. I’m going to die, Kraylor realized, more than a little shocked that it didn’t bother him as much as it should. he felt a burning in his left arm as one of the soldiers found an opening and quickly made his peace with the Gods, thinking these to be his last moments on earth.

Suddenly, an Amazon blade joined his, and Kraylor spared a glance to his right. Jayla smiled briefly at him and they continued fighting, the Amazon’s smile transforming to a savage snarl as she met her opponent head on. With the evened odds, Kraylor was able to focus on his man, and nearly beheaded him, then watched as Jayla impaled the other only moments later.

The young centaur opened his mouth to thank her when a shout drew his attention. Kraylor turned his head and nearly cursed out several creative phrases when he saw Solari almost carrying Xena towards him.

“Go!” Jayla shouted, giving him a shove, “I’ve got to get the Queen!”

Kraylor nodded and darted one way, while Jayla went the other, circling around the two fighters until she saw the opportunity to step up beside Gabrielle. Her blade, stained red with enemy blood, pointed dangerously at the leader of the men she had killed. “My Queen!” Jayla shouted, trying to shield the bard with her own body, as she had been trained to do, “You must flee! Solari has Xena! Go!”

“Yes, Amazon,” Metreus sneered, trying to control his ragged breathing at the strenuous work out he was getting after so long being without it, “Run away. Like the coward you are.” The taunting didn’t seem to phase Gabrielle as she turned her back on the evil King and watched Kraylor working his way to the door, Solari cradling Xena on his back.

“Yes, run home, scared little Amazon,” Metreus continued, giggling with mad delight, like a victorious warlord even though his army was being decimated before his very eyes, “I will come for you. I will build a new army, stronger than this one, and wipe you from the face of the earth. Metreus will be revered as the man who destroyed the Amazons.” He cackled insanely, swinging his blade in lazy patterns around his body.

Though she wanted desperately to be with Xena, Gabrielle couldn’t walk away and let this man go free. She turned around slowly, momentarily calmed that her warrior was still alive, but a large part of her wanted to finish the fight. Needed to take him back to the village for trial. Maybe it was the revenge that she worked so hard to cut out of Xena, making her want to beat Metreus into unconsciousness. For whatever reason, she gave in to her desires, and raised her staff again.

“Why are you doing this, Metreus?” she asked, tightening her grip on the wood until her knuckles were white, “What do you want from us?”

Metreus smiled then, a sinister expression that chilled Gabrielle to her bones. “I want your blood, Amazon,” he hissed, and swung his sword.

Only to have it blocked, by Jayla’s blade. The little guard shoved him back, watching him stumble and fall over the body of one of his own soldiers. She had barely managed to lower her arm before Gabrielle seized it in a vise-like grip and spun her around.

“What are you doing?” she snapped, giving the guard’s arm a tug for emphasis, “I didn’t ask you to interfere!”

Jayla yanked her arm away and send a silent prayer to Artemis, asking forgiveness for what she was about to say. “You didn’t ask me to swear that I would protect you with my very life, either!” she yelled, fixing Gabrielle with a steely glare, “So don’t ask me to tell Xena that she hung on to this existence just to out live you!”

Gabrielle stood motionless, staring at Jayla with a look of stunned shock on her face. The Amazon guard was seething by this point, and gave her Queen a shove to get her moving again. “Get out of here!” Jayla bellowed, her tone booking no tolerance if Gabrielle didn’t obey, her eyes promising that the bard would be slung over her shoulder if she didn’t leave immediately, “Xena needs you, more than you need to fight him!”

The mention that Xena needed her was more than enough for Gabrielle. She lowered her staff and nodded to Jayla, taking one last look at the completely shocked Metreus before turning to leave. Scanning around for a moment, Gabrielle found Kraylor and his precious cargo. The bard set off across the battle ground, clubbing aside the soldiers that got in her way.

Rapidly decreasing in number, most of Metreus’ army stayed out of her way, instead choosing to run, dropping their weapons where they stood, and scampering for the doors. Those engaged in battle, began surrendering when they saw how hopeless the battle had become.

Metreus swung once at Gabrielle’s back, enraged that she would leave in the middle of a fight. Jayla blocked the attack neatly, bringing herself toe to toe with the threat to her Queen and her people. “You want to fight and Amazon so much, pig?” she snarled, forcing him back a step, “Then fight me.” Metreus glared at her and raised his sword for another strike.

Across the room, Kraylor had managed to force his way to the door when Queen Gabrielle finally reached him. The young centaur nodded once, briefly acknowledging her, and continued out into the courtyard. Gabrielle stayed by his left side, batting a few determined soldiers away from them, her only thought to protect Xena.

Kraylor saw Tyldus ahead of them, waiting at the main gate with Argo, already hooked up to a wagon. I wonder how they did that, he thought, remembering how temperamental Xena’s steed was with people other than herself and Gabrielle. Shaking his head to clear it of such errant thoughts, Kraylor took a deep breath and continued across the courtyard.

Kraylor wondered why he couldn’t see Ephiny with Tyldus. Even though the crescent moon was setting, the vast number of torches lit the courtyard and main entrance to nearly the brilliance of day. When he reached the wagon, he understood. On a mound of pillows and furs, stolen from the castle, the Regent lay, already fast asleep, thoroughly exhausted from her ordeal.

None of them spoke as Tyldus and Kraylor gently lowered Xena’s unconscious form down beside Ephiny, being careful of her broken arm. Gabrielle winced as she saw it for the first time, so horribly bruised that it was almost black. The bard climbed over the driver’s seat and into the wagon bed, ignoring the muscles that were screaming at her.

“Slide her forward, she said softly, and remained still as Xena’s head was cradled in her lap. It was then, when she lovingly caressed the warrior’s cheek, that she noticed the raging fever and the infected shoulder wound that had caused it. “She’s burning up,” Gabrielle whispered more to herself than any of the others, and began tucking spare furs around her. “Tyldus,” Gabrielle said louder, not bothering to look up at the centaur, instead, carefully peeling filthy rags away from the puss filled wound, “There should be a healer’s kit in Argo’s saddle bags. I need it and the water skin.”

Tyldus stopped in mid sentence, holding up a hand to Kraylor. He retrieved the requested items from a very skittish Argo and quickly handed them to Gabrielle. Both he and the young centaur watched silently as Gabrielle cleaned the wound, their conversation forgotten. But Solari was not satisfied with merely being a spectator and pushed by the centaurs with one of Xena’s shifts, having retrieved it from Argo’s pack.

“I hope this one isn’t her favorite,” Solari muttered as she tore the shift into bandages, then placing them on the wagon bed within reach of the bard. To Tyldus she said; “The sooner we get moving the better. It’s a full day back to the village.”

Gabrielle looked up from her intent, yet gentle, work on Xena’s wound, and fixed them with a steely glare of determination. “Xena can’t travel that far,” she said calmly, but the quiver in her voice betrayed her fear, “She needs a healer fast. I’m doing what I can, but...” She trailed off, not wanting to say the words out loud.

Before any of them could respond, a triumphant yell sounded across the courtyard. They all craned their necks and squinted to see Tirin supporting a very smug looking, if somewhat injured, Jayla, as they hobbled slowly away from the battered castle doors.

Tyldus waited until the Amazon guards reached them before inquiring as to the state of the battle. He smiled when Tirin beamingly told him that the conflict was over, and only a dozen centaurs and Amazons had crossed to Elysia. Including Valeris, who had died instantly from a crossbow bolt intended for Tirin. “And Metreus?” he inquired finally, anxious to know what had become of the self made King.

Jayla drew her thumb across her throat, noticing her Queen look up at the name. “He won’t have to worry about his crown not fitting any more,” she said seriously, still bothered that she had been forced to kill him. The insane man just hadn’t accepted defeat, and couldn’t stay down, no matter how many times Jayla tried to make him drop his sword.

Tirin helped the little Amazon into the wagon, sitting down beside her. The sturdy wood frame creaked a little as they settled themselves and Tirin took up the reigns, then again as Solari squeezed into the bed, cradling Ephiny the same way Gabrielle held Xena.

“Head south, we should be there by dawn,” the bard said and the wagon lurched into motion.

Tyldus and Kraylor took up positions walking on either side of the bed, the elder centaur yelling to a nearby warrior that they were going to the nearest town to see the healer. A thought occurred to him that he didn’t know where Gabrielle had directed them and looked down at the little bard. She was bathing Xena’s face and neck with rags cooled in water from the skin he had retrieved, having finished treating the infected wound to the best of her ability and wrapped it in fresh bandages. “Where are we going, Gabrielle?” he asked softly, and watched her gaze lift to meet his, her eyes full of pain and fear for the warrior princess.

“Potedeia,” was all she said.

The End.

To Be Continued in Book II.... mebbe.

--- Well that’s all she wrote folks! I hope you enjoyed this little trip into my twisted mind. I’m working away on a plot for Book II (still don’t have a title for it) and if you want to see this tale continue... please let me know. I thrive on the feedback! (it makes me write faster *grin*)

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