She'd just exchanged her sweaty practice clothes for her basic Queens outfit, sparing time for a sponge bath in between, when a rustling at the entrance to her tent signaled the arrival of Amara.
She heard a soft voice inquire. "My Queen? Its Amara. May I come in?"
Gabrielle looked up and focused on the entrance to her tent. "Of course, Amara, come on in."
The young girl entered and stopped as she seemed to be in awe of her surroundings. Glancing around the tent, the girls eyes came to rest on Gabrielles smiling face. "If...if it please your majesty..." The young Amazon stammered.
Gabrielle cut her short. "Amara, remember? Call me Gabrielle. Please."
"Oh" she was a bit embarrassed. "Okay." Sparing a quick glance at the scraps of leather and metal piled on the bed, she returned her eyes to the bard. "Can I give you a hand?"
Gabrielle looked relieved. "If you can figure all this out, Id be really grateful."
Picking up a long, complicated looking arrangement of leather straps joined with a series of metal rings, the girl frowned. "Well, Im pretty sure it goes like this."
Looping the leather carefully around her hand, she hesitated briefly before lifting up the unresisting bards arm and slipping the loops around Gabrielles hand, letting the bard work her fingers into the small cylinders of leather before unraveling the rest up her arm.
"Yeah. Now just fasten this here..."
Within a few minutes, Gabrielle was looking every inch an Amazon Queen. Smiling at the pleased girl, she gathered up her mask and staff in one hand and motioned toward the entrance to the tent with the other. "Thank you, Amara. I couldnt have done it without your help."
"Um...your Majesty. Its none of my business, but do you really need that?"
Glancing down at the mask in her hand, Gabrielle shrugged as she smiled. "I guess youre right. After all, this is rather informal." The bard set both the mask and her staff back down on her bed as Amara preceded her out. Stopping at the doorway and taking a deep breath as she straightened to her full height, Gabrielle walked out of the tent as Queen of the Amazons.
King Doraclyse and Princess Cynara were already standing by the table. Gabrielle crossed to the center of the camp and joined them, noting the Amazons and soldiers were starting to gather as well.
"Hi" Gabrielle smiled as she approached the group.
Both the King and his daughter returned her smile as Ephiny moved to her side.
"You all set?" The Regent whispered in her ear.
"You bet." Gabrielle replied.
Moving her hands to the chair back, she waited for King Doraclyse to do the same before sitting. As her eyes scanned the group of people watching the ceremony, she suddenly felt a cold shiver run down her spine. Maybe it was the stillness of the surrounding forest or maybe it was the way her hair was standing up straight on her arms, but she knew, suddenly, that they were all in a lot of danger.
Her senses now on full alert, she peered intently into the underbrush, noticing that the others had picked it up too. She was aware of hands starting to slowly reach for weapons as eyes turned outward towards the surrounding trees. General Andrus was just shifting to stand beside his King when a voice rang out from the dense undergrowth.
"You are completely surrounded. I have archers trained on your leaders. Either you drop your weapons now and surrender, or we open fire."
The words froze those in the clearing as dozens of heavily armed soldiers silently emerged from the surrounding trees, crossbows trained on those in the clearing.
Both Amazons and Andorians grabbed for their weapons but froze again when one of the advancing soldiers raised a crossbow and fired. The bolt struck General Andrus in the chest, catching the soldier by surprise and dropping him to the ground, his hands clutched around the shaft.
A tall figure stepped forward and raised his voice. "Now everybody freeze. The next one goes into the Queen or the King. Depending on which one of you it is who moves. Got it?"
General Meklan took pride in his work. Hed worked hard to earn the position as temporary head of the armys elite tactical unit and figured this mission was his chance to be appointed to the position permanently. Nobody was going to mess this up for him.
As those in the center of the clearing hesitated, he raised his hand and all the crossbows were shifted to focus on those standing at the table. It was only a moment before the Amazon and Andorian weapons were reluctantly lowered.
With another gesture, General Meklan signaled his forces and those in the clearing were quickly surrounded and disarmed.
Amazons and Andorians were roughly herded together at the end of the clearing. Heavy sacks were deposited around the perimeter of the group and swords were pointed as heavy iron collars were removed from the bags and distributed to the prisoners.
Looking around at his comrades, one of the Andorian soldiers met the eyes of the man distributing the hinged collars, and with a defiant look, threw his down on the ground. He was immediately surrounded; his arms pinned behind him as he was dragged before the General. Without loosing a beat, the commander drew his dagger and plunged it into the surprised soldiers stomach, thrusting deeply before withdrawing his now bloody hand. The soldier sagged forward, his life dripping off the handle of the knife, blood beginning to pool on the grass below.
Raising his voice, General Meklan addressed the group. "Anyone else not want to put on the collar, just let one of my men know. Well be glad to oblige."
As the prisoners closed the thick rings around their necks, they noticed long chains being pulled from a set of sacks placed beside one of the trees. Hearts sank as the stout chains were locked around the trunk before being threaded through metal loops on the sides of each collar, effectively securing the strong metal bands around the necks of the prisoners.
With the chain allowing barely an arms length between them, they found themselves joined together in four lines, six prisoners to a chain, a mixture of Amazons and Andorian soldiers in each line. Ordered to sit, they struggled to lower themselves to the ground without being pulled off their feet by the actions of their neighbors.
General Andrus limp form was brought over and dumped next to last line of prisoners, along with the bodies of the four sentries that had been posted around the perimeter of the camp.
Eponin had ended up on the end of a chain closest to the trees a few meters from the dead guards. She felt a cold anger beginning as she recognized the bodies of the two Amazons. She noted grimly that their throats had been cut.
Eponin tried to shift her collar to a more comfortable position as she had a quick look around. They were being held at the far end of the camp, where the thick trees bordered the river. There were five guards posted around the perimeter of the circle of prisoners, but that was all that was needed, the collars and chains being very effective in securing their charges.
Continuing to let her eyes wander, the Amazon took a moment to examine the tent just off to the side, a short distance away. Shed been careful to note that their weapons had been stored inside; however, they might as well have been at the other end of the camp, the chains leaving no possibility of reaching them.
Letting her eyes continue their sweep, she took note of the guards posted around what had been the Kings tent, deciding that that was were Ephiny and Gabrielle as well as Doraclyse and his daughter had been taken.
She heard a soft moan off to her side and turned towards its source. She was surprised to see General Andrus chest slowly rising and falling. Eponin tried to edge a little closer, knowing there was very little she could do under the circumstances but determined to do what she could. Jess, who had ended up next to her in line, felt the tugging at her neck and noticed what the Weapons-Master was doing. She too shifted closer, making sure the guard standing just off to their right didnt notice.
Gabrielle, Ephiny, Doraclyse and Cynara had been separated from the rest, their hands bound behind their backs. Theyd been taken to the Kings tent where General Meklan now joined them.
"Well, Doraclyse, looks like youve got a problem."
The King glared at him but said nothing. General Meklan shrugged and walked over to stand before Princess Cynara. Moving his eyes suggestively over the young womans body, he moved his hand up to touch the girls cheek. She flinched but her eyes never left Meklans face.
"Touch her, you bastard, and Ill..."
Swinging around, he smiled at the angry King, now being restrained by two of his soldiers. "Youll do what, Doraclyse? You dont seem to realize the situation here. I give the orders, not you." He took a step closer. "Weve won. Without you and those two bitches over there to lead them, your people will be no match for our army. In a week or two, your two nations will be nothing but a mention in the historical scrolls."
"You wont get away with this Meklan." Ephiny stepped forward.
"Shut-up, bitch!" The General turned and backhanded the Regent, knocking her back into Gabrielle. "We just got away with it. The rest of the army will be here tomorrow. And theres nothing you or anyone else can do about it."
Gabrielle spoke up. "What are you going to do with us."
Meklan now turned his attention to the Amazon Queen. "I already have a buyer for the Amazons out there. Theres a merchant I know with a rather particular clientele. The soldiers will be sold as slaves. As for you, my dear," Gabrielles skin went cold at the look her gave her, "You, the Regent and the Princess here. Well, youre this afternoons entertainment for me and my men. And you might as well enjoy it, cause when we leave here tomorrow, youre not coming with us."
He smiled at the looks on their faces.
"We should be set up very shortly. Why dont you relax and get ready." With a laugh, he turned and left, the soldiers following him out.
Ephiny tried to give Gabrielle an encouraging smile. "I never though Id be saying this, but wheres Xena when you need her, huh!"
The clearing was dotted with the clusters of Kirilus advance force. Sentries were posted, the prisoners secured and now the soldiers were sitting around bragging about their part in the successfully completed mission. Most seemed to be filling their time waiting for the entertainment to begin. Theyd found the casks of wine put aside for the small celebration planned for that afternoon and had distributed the contents, more or less evenly, among the victorious troops.
It had been less than a candlemark since the prisoners had been collared and chained. A short time earlier, three tall wooden posts had been anchored deep in the ground in the center of the clearing. A chair had been set up facing the posts.
Gabrielle stared out at them now as she rested her head against the tent wall and looked out the small window. She shifted her shoulders, trying to stretch stiff muscles as she twisted her wrists in her bonds. She had a pretty good idea of what General Meklan had planned and, while she was trying awfully hard not to show it, she was really very scared right now.
She knew she should be able to think of something to get them all out of this. After all, Xena did it all the time. But, she wasnt Xena and try as she might, nothing she thought of had even the remotest hope of success.
Oh Gods, Xena. Where are you?
Feeling Ephiny come up behind her, she turned and looked into the Regents worried face.
"I think were in trouble, Eph."
The Regent had to agree. "Gabrielle, I want you to know that what ever happens this afternoon, Im glad Artemis brought us together."
Gabrielles voice caught in her throat. "Ephiny, you know I feel the same way about you. Youve taught me so much about myself and what it means to be a Queen." Gabrielle looked out the window for a long moment before looking back, determination on her face. "But, Eph., Im not giving up. Were going to get out of this somehow, I know it."
They stopped talking as General Meklan re-entered the tent with a group of soldiers.
As they began pushing their prisoners out of the tent, the General announced, "Well ladies, time for the fun to begin!"
The three women were roughly escorted to the center of the camp where their wrists were secured above their heads to the posts; Ephiny in the middle with Gabrielle and Princess Cynara on either side of her. King Doraclyse began to fight as he was dragged towards the chair facing his daughter and the other two women. He was quickly overpowered and tied down.
The soldiers had gathered around as Meklan walked over to stand in front of Princess Cynara.
"So, Doraclyse, what do you think? Start with her first, or save her for the end?"
The two soldiers standing behind the King held the violently struggling man down.
"I swear, Meklan, if you touch her..."
With a smile that never reached his eyes, the General lifted a hand and yanked at Cynaras shirt, tearing it open to the waist. Hoots and catcalls arose from the men surrounding the prisoners.
Looking over his shoulder, he noted the new look of fear on the Kings face. "Ill ask you again. Do you want me to start with her or not?"
When King Doraclyse didnt answer, he shrugged and turned back, grabbing Cynaras shirt in both hands.
The General turned and looked at the stricken Doraclyse.
"No, please..." The King stopped struggling and lowered his head in defeat.
"Okay, then well save her for last."
A disappointed growl arose from the surrounding soldiers.
Taking a few steps to the side, he now stood in front of Ephiny.
Grey eyes met his defiantly.
"And what about you, bitch? Whatll it be? Do you want to go first, or let your little friend warm the boys up?"
Ephiny let her contempt show as she spit in his face.
Quickly loosing his smile, the General backhanded the Regent again, who ignored the salty taste of blood and just glared at him.
"No. I think that would be just a little too noble for your last gesture."
As he started to move towards Gabrielle, Ephinys voice cut through the noise of the crowd as she renewed her struggle against the ropes. "Touch her and you die."
He paused as if surprised before he turned back to face the Regent. "You and what army?"
Ephiny stilled, as the deadly look in her eyes reflected the promise in her voice. "You touch our Queen and there is no place you can run that we wont find you."
The General just laughed. "Big talk for someone whos about to die."
Ephiny didnt take her eyes off him. "Its a promise."
Now ignoring the Regent, he turned to face the last one in line, tossing over his shoulder, "Im shakin in my boots."
He walked over to stand in front of Gabrielle.
The General was surprised to see the calmness in the green eyes that met his. Moving to capture Gabrielles chin with his hand, he leaned over and pressed his lips to the now struggling bards. Straightening, he smiled at the woman before him.
"You as good in bed as you are with that staff?"
Gabrielle tried to turn her head away but the General maintained his painful grip on her chin.
Looking into the mans eyes, she searched for some way to reach him. "You dont have to do this."
The Generals smile broadened. "Oh, sure I do. Ive never had an Amazon before."
Releasing her chin, his hand moved slowly down Gabrielles neck.
The bard closed her eyes as she tried to ignore the Generals hand sliding down across the fabric of her top. But she couldnt hold back the gasp of pain as his fingers closed over her right breast and he began to squeeze.
"Whats the matter, bitch? Dont like men?"
Gabrielle was scared but she wasnt going to show it. She could hear Ephiny struggling and swearing beside her but she kept her eyes closed as the General groped her, ignoring the hoots and catcalls and concentrating on trying to twist her hands loose from the ropes securing her to the post.
She thought she was imagining it when a high-pitched whine fill the clearing but her eyes snapped open when she heard the leering calls of the soldiers change to ones of alarm. Her eyes opened in time to look directly into the Generals as they widened in surprise. His hand had just begun to move from her breast to the back of his head when she watched him crumple at her feet.
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