The camp was on the move at first light; the cool, early morning breeze giving everyone an incentive to get up and going. Stopping only long enough to break the fast with a cold meal, soldiers and Amazons soon had the tents struck and the supply horses re-packed. It was less than a candlemark after sunrise when they headed back out to the roadway, continuing their ride north.
Gabrielle spent most of the time at the head of the column, riding beside Ephiny. They spent the day travelling in the cool green of the Amazon forests, the horses and riders following the trail through the thick underbrush. It was late afternoon when they left the main path and headed down a cart rut. Following it for a while through the forest, they soon came upon a large clearing that bordered a raging river. As they emerged from the trees, Gabrielle was surprised to see several tents already set up; Andorian soldiers moving among them.
The Amazons peeled off and began to set up their own camp in a clear spot on the field. The Andorians continued on to the standing tents, arriving soldiers exchanging greetings with their comrades. The Princess and General Andrus dismounted and were met by a tall man just emerging from the largest of the tents.
Gabrielle, having dismounted herself, watched as he gathered the Princess in his arms and gave her a hug before turning to address both the young girl and the General. The bard noticed all three heads turn in her direction and watched as they started walking her way.
Sensing Ephiny as she came up to stand beside her, she turned to the Regent. "Is that Naras father?"
Nodding, Ephiny smiled as she met the bards raised eyebrow. "Yep, thats King Doraclyse."
Gabrielle was struck by the thick silver hair that framed the weathered face and fell over the collar of a fine brocade jacket, held in at his thick waist with a broad belt. The King carried himself like one born to the role, but the bard also noticed the warm looks he kept stealing at his daughter.
She started a little as the Kings voice boomed out. "Ephiny, welcome. I hope my daughter wasnt too hard on you."
Ephiny stepped forward as she extended her arm, returning his strong grip. "Not at all, Doraclyse. Although I can see where she gets her stubbornness from." She returned his smile. "I think youll be happy with what weve come up with." Pausing as she noticed the Kings gaze shift to Gabrielle, she continued. "King Doraclyse, may I present our Queen, Gabrielle."
The king looked surprised as he extended his hand, a sparkle in his eyes. "This is an honor. I didnt realize youd be joining us."
Charmed by the man, Gabrielle smiled back. "After all that Ephiny and your daughter have told me about you, I couldnt stay away."
Ephiny covered her smile with her hand, knowing how charming Gabrielle could be when she really turned it on.
Smiling back at the two women, the King wrapped an arm around his daughters shoulders before extending his other towards the large tent behind him. "Can I offer you ladies something cool to drink?"
The steady rhythm of hoof beats pounding in her ears, Xena knew she'd have to push harder if she was going to make it in time. She'd stopped frequently to rest the lathered mare, pressing Argo hard between breaks as she tried to ignore the knot of fear that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in her stomach.
She knew she had little time to get to the spot marked on the map if she was going have a chance to contain the advanced force in the pass itself. Once they reached this side of the mountains and moved out of the confines of the rocks, she'd never be able to stop that many troops by herself. And, right now, she was all that stood between them and Gabrielle.
And that was the source of her fear.
Because, there was a good chance she'd be able to stop or delay the main army by making the mountain pass impassible for their heavily burdened regular troops. That would force them to backtrack and pick up the main route, heading for the western pass and delaying them three or four days, eliminating any element of surprise and giving the Amazons and Andorians a chance to mount a mutual defense, possibly saving hundreds of lives.
But, it would mean shed be tied up in the pass. And that would give the advanced force enough of a lead to guarantee them time to reach Gabrielle and the others. She had to stop them before they left the pass and that meant she had to reach the mountains before the advanced force came through.
But, she knew it was a race. Feeling Argo straining hard beneath her, head down, hooves thundering on the packed earth, she felt the bunching and releasing of the mares muscles as they both put everything into in.
At least she knew this part of the country. Since it wasnt far from Amphipolis, she'd had it thoroughly mapped when she was setting up her defenses of the region. Gods that was another lifetime ago. She had a very good memory for detail, however, and if memory served her now, there was just one more river before the foothills started. It was going to be close, but if she could locate the entrance to the pass soon enough, she still stood a good chance of stopping the advance force.
Barely slowing as they crested the ridge of a hill, she finally saw the white peaks of the mountains, rising through the mist in the distance. The road they were on dropped into a valley and met up with a fast moving river, before turning and following the bank downstream.
This is where it got rough. Xenas path lay straight ahead, across the river and across the rough scrub of the rolling hills spreading before her. Ignoring the flecks of lather flying off the sweating mare and dotting her skin and leathers, she pressed her heels deeper into Argos sides as they tore down the side of the hill.
It was only when they reached the riverbank that she pulled the war-horse up. Quickly dismounting, she was careful not to let the sweating mare take in too much water as she stood on the bank, trying to judge the depth of the river. It was fast but it didnt seem particularly deep. Shifting her sword and chakram to Argos saddle, she led the war-horse into the swift current that quickly rose around her knees. The clear water was bitterly cold, bottom mostly loose gravel; they had to be careful, testing each step.
It didnt take them long to cross to the other side and climb the bank. Now all that lay before them were the foothills and then the mountains rising off into the distance. She unhooked her waterskins and filled them, returning them to Argos back before mounting and riding off.
While impatiently waiting for the skins to fill, she'd put her sword and chakram back in their usual places.
This was not good. She could feel her frustration reaching its limit.
It was starting to get dark and she was still at least a candlemark from where the map indicated the pass would be. The foothills had finally merged with the base of the mountains and the horse and rider were finding it rough going over the mixture of sharp stone and loose scree. The sun had disappeared behind the peaks a while ago and the shadows were deepening around her.
She knew they were on the right path. She and Argo had been following a trail for the past candlemark or so. It wasnt actually a trail, but more the memory of a trail. Hard packed earth, tamped down by the passage of countless generations of hooves and feet, had never recovered, although there had been no one this way for years.
It was this that Xena had been following. But the way was slow; rock slides and washouts forcing the horse and rider to continually find alternate routes. She'd finally paused to share a drink with Argo when her sharp ears picked up the muffled sound of hooves on rock. Glancing around, she spotted a small outcrop to the left, off the trail, offering cover to both herself and Argo from the approaching riders. Her jaw clenched tight as she realized this must be the advanced force, already through the pass and making its way towards its rendezvous with the other man from her mothers stable this morning.
She counted fifty soldiers as they silently passed by her, each leading a lightly equipped horse. As the last one passed, she debated going after them, but had to reluctantly admit to herself that there were just too many for her to take out alone.
And, the main army was still coming through the pass in the morning. She stood in the growing darkness as she watched the last of the men disappear around a bend, a cold desperation beginning to seep into her. She felt like she was being ripped in two. If she didnt stay here and try to stop the main army, a lot of Amazons and Andorians were going to die. But, if she didnt leave right now and beat the advance force to the Amazon camp, Gabrielle would die.
Staring sightlessly down the mountain path, her mind flashed back to a bunker, and a poison tipped arrow. Knowing how close shed come to losing Gabrielle that time, there was a part of her that was screaming at her to forget everything else and just ride as hard and as fast as she could for the camp. But another part, one that she couldnt ignore, as hard as she tried, told her that there was too much at stake here. She knew that the bard would insist she stay.
Cursing the Amazons, the Andorians and everyone else she could think of, she made her decision. Then, as she stood there on the side of the mountain, the night closing in around her, she began to shut down her emotions.
As the calm of the warrior in her took control, she took a moment to tuck that frustrated rage away in a corner of her mind. She may have missed this chance to stop the advance force but, somehow, someway, she'd prevent them from carrying out their plan. Shed failed Gabrielle once before. She wasnt going to let that ever happen again.
Not willing to risk Argo on the mountain path in the dark, Xena transferred what shed need to a pack, slinging it over her shoulder before turning the mare loose. She knew the war-horse wouldnt stray far.
She broke into a jog as she moved up the mountain. The hooves of the advanced party had cut a trail that was now easy to track in the bright starlight. She followed it into a deep gash that seemed to slice between the silhouettes of two tall mountains looming against the night sky overhead.
She didnt expect to encounter the main body of the troops, knowing their commander wouldnt want to risk bivouacking in the narrow confines of the pass. In fact, not expecting any trouble, the enemy Army had confined their sentries to their side of the pass, giving her the freedom she needed.
As she made her way through the twisting passage, dark cliffs rising steeply on either side, she could see why it had been abandoned. There was ample evidence that, until recently, it had been blocked by a series of rockslides. The moon had risen high enough now to highlight the deep gouges in the rock floor cut where large boulders had been dragged out of the way. A narrow path had been cleared that would barely allow clear passage for the war wagons she suspected were waiting on the other side.
It took her most of the night to scout the pass, but the bright moonlight helped and she soon spotted what she was looking for. She'd have preferred to get in and get out but she couldnt trust her plan to chance in the dark, so she resigned herself to waiting 'til first light.
Knowing she still had a couple of candlemarks left before daybreak, she made her way through to the other side of the pass, avoiding the Metzovian sentries as she picked a spot overlooking the valley below. She could see the dozens of campfires dotting the broad plane leading up to the pass. Crouching in the dark, she spent a long while assessing the enemys strength as she tried to keep her mind clear, focusing on the next couple of candlemarks, ignoring what came after that.
Gabrielle and Ephiny had spent the evening in the Kings tent, sharing supper and going over the treaty with Doraclyse and Princess Cynara. The monarch seemed pleased at how well his daughter had handled things, and said so, several times. Watching the two of them together, Gabrielle could see the obvious affection they held for each other.
Which brought to mind Xena, whom she was missing more than she thought was possible. She and Ephiny had briefly excused themselves early in the evening when a scout had finally ridden into camp, dusty and exhausted, to report that theyd tracked Xena to a cave, but shed already moved on. The warrior seemed to have resumed her course for Amphipolis. They hadnt caught up with her yet, but the Amazon scout had assured both women that it was only a matter of time before they did.
As they wrapped up in the Kings tent, Gabrielle said her good nights to Ephiny and the others and returned to her tent. Lying down on her cot, she went over what the scout had said, trying to fit the new information into the puzzle of why her partner had left.
She'd recognized the cave from the scouts description. Hurt and alone, she knew that Xenas instincts would be to go to ground; find some place to hole up 'til her wound healed. The cave made a lot of sense. But why hadnt she stayed there?
Thinking for a moment, a smile took over as she realized the warriors wound couldnt be that serious if Xena had decided to press on after only one night. Now, all she had to do was confirm that Amphipolis was the warriors final destination.
Felling better than she had in days, Gabrielle changed into her sleep shirt, intending to go to bed. She hadnt got a lot of sleep the past few nights, worrying about Xena, and she knew she should be trying to get some now.
But, she felt restless. Wandering over to her bag of scrolls, she picked it up and returned with it to her cot. Sitting down and opening it up, she picked one out, letting a grin light her face as she remembered the look on Xenas face when the warrior had first heard her tell her tales of their adventures in public.
Sorting through the bag, she pulled out several more scrolls before closing it up and laying it on the ground beside her bed. Stretching out on the cot, she unrolled one of the scrolls on the blanket beside her and began to read.
As Xena shifted in her spot, stretching protesting muscles, she finally detected the lightening of the sky to the east. Moving away from the pile of boulders where shed spent the past few candlemarks watching the enemys encampment, she slipped back past the sentries and returned to the spot shed picked out earlier on the trail.
A hundred meters straight up the almost sheer granite walls, a broad ledge supported the remains of an earlier, large rockslide. Several massive boulders had been caught on the outcrop and had gathered quit a collection of smaller boulders and other rocks around them. The pass was narrow enough here, that if she could just get them started, she knew their own momentum would do the rest. It would take days to clear a path through the resulting rubble.
Studying the pile of rocks in the warming light of dawn, she took a few minutes to figure out the force and angle shed need to have the desired affect. Standing on the trail, she unhooked her chakram from her waist, keeping her eyes on her intended target. Slowly pulling her right arm across her waist as she twisted her body, she lined the silver ring up and released her arm. The metal sparked as it ricocheted off several rocks in the pile before returning to the warriors grip.
She waited. Nothing happened.
Frustrated, the warrior shifted her position and released the spinning metal ring again. Still no effect.
Damn, that would have been too easy.
Not wasting time, she clipped her chakram back in place and moved over to the steep wall under the ledge. With one last glance up, she began to climb. By the time she reached the overhang, she was breathing heavily. She was just trying to catch her breath when the echo of hooves scraping rock echoed off the walls around her.
Pressing herself into the shadow of one of the boulders, she slowed her breathing and waited as a scouting party of four came around the bend from the direction of Metzovan. She could tell from the way the scouts sat in their saddles, and by the casual conversation drifting up, that they werent expecting to encounter anything more threatening than a mountain goat. They passed beneath her, oblivious to her presence.
Xenas problem now was how to release the rocks, without getting caught in their fall herself. As she scanned the sheer walls around her, her boots were the first to pick up the faint vibration caused by hundreds of horses and heavy equipment on the move. She knew the first of the regular army troops would reach her spot within minutes.
Out of time, Xena let loose with a "Aiyiyiyiyiyiyi" and backflipped onto the very top of the granite shards piled against the rockface. The sudden weight of her landing caused the platform beneath her feet to shift, which had a cascading effect on the rest of the stones. Slowly at first, with a low rumble starting deep in the mound, the whole pile began to slip over the edge of the ledge.
As the rock Xena was standing on began to move with the others, she bunched her legs beneath her and leapt straight up. Extending her arms as far as they would go, her fingers just managed to curl around the rough trunk of an old pine shed spotted that had wedged itself in a crack in the rock wall many years earlier and had established what she hoped was a firm foothold.
Now, hanging by her arms, suspended over a rising cloud of rock-dust, she surveyed the results. The slide had done its job better than shed expected. It would take horses and heavy equipment many days to clear away the debris.
Shifting to get a better grip on the gnarled pine she was hanging from, she swung back and forth several times to get some momentum, before releasing her hold and tucking into a flip. Landing in the dust cloud still settling, she moved her hand over her mouth and nose to try to block some of the choking rock particles powdering the air. As a silence descended around her, she set her lips in a grim line, taking off at a run back towards Argo.
Xena knew that at this moment the advance force was already moving into position to surround the Amazon camp and she was at least twelve candlemarks away. She knew in her mind that this race had been lost before she began; in her heart, however, she refused to admit defeat.
She held out one slim hopethat the enemys victory was swift and overwhelming.
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