When Eponin saw the posts lowered into the holes, the Weapons-Master knew she had to do something. She'd a good idea of what was coming and was damned if she was just going to sit there and watch it happen.
Somehow she had to get free and as she began to formulate a plan, her eyes searched the area around her. She was a couple of meters from the tree securing their chains. Having watched one of the guards hand Meklan the key, she knew there was no help there. Shed just have to find something to pick the locks with.
Scanning the ground closest to her, she came up empty but as her eyes took in a wider search area, they came to rest on the top of one of General Andrus boots. She couldnt be certain, but it sure looked like the handle of a knife barley showing above the scuffed leather.
Now the problem was the guards. Shed have to distract them long enough to try to reach the knife. There was one soldier standing just in front of the pile of dead sentries, his back to her; there were two posted in the woods behind them, and a forth on the other side of the group of prisoners. The fifth had taken up his post directly in front of them.
Leaning forward, she got Jess attention and nodded towards the Generals body. The young girl looked puzzled until the Weapons-Master mouthed the words boot and knife. And then her head nodded in understanding. She quietly passed the word up the line of prisoners.
Eponin knew she was chained too close to the tree to be able to reach the knife herself, but if the whole string could shift over an arms length or so, Jess or the Andorian soldier in front of her might be able to reach it. Taking another careful look around, she noticed that one of the guards in the woods had apparently felt the call of nature, no longer at his post. Good! One down, four to go.
Giving the signal, the string of prisoners began to slowly edge closer to the pile of dead bodies but froze when the guard in front was joined by another soldier and he turned in their direction. Cursing the Gods under her breath, Eponin watched them talking, silently willing the guard facing them to turn away.
Glancing over her shoulder to see if the other guard had returned yet, she paused as her eyes searched the woods. Now the second soldier had disappeared. Even better.
Her attention was drawn back to the center of the clearing as she noticed the Metzovian troops beginning to gather there. She realized they were running out of time. So did the others.
The two soldiers in front turned to watch their comrades and the prisoners wasted no time in resuming the careful shifting of their bodies closer to the knife.
Now Eponin fixed her stare on the guard in front of the pile, focusing her attention on willing him to keep his back to them. But a slight movement in the bushes pressed up against the back of the tent distracted her as she noticed the breeze catch the fabric.
The voices from the center of the camp became louder and she turned to see General Meklan and a group of his soldiers heading for the Kings tent.
But by now, the Andorian soldier had managed to edge close enough to the Generals body to reach over and ease the knife out of Andrus boot. Straightening, he passed it off to Jess, who slipped it to Eponin.
The Amazon tucked it inside her own boot and grabbed at the chain at her neck, carefully starting to thread the links through the loops on her collar as she wiggled back towards the tree. Shed almost made it to the trunk when she was scared out of a years growth by a low voice growling in her ear.
Twisting her head around, she was face to face with two cold, blue eyes staring at her from beneath a layer of black mud.
"I said, where is she."
She was so startled by the sudden appearance that it took her a minute to register that it was Xena staring back at her. But they both turned when a cheer arose as Gabrielle was dragged from the tent along with the others.
She felt Xena stiffen beside her as they watched the women being led to the posts.
"Eponin, theres a pile of swords behind the tree. Start distributing them."
The Amazon turned in time to see Xena drop forward onto her stomach and start a fast crawl towards the tent beside them, the black of the mud blending in with the dark earth of the forest floor.
The guards had all moved around to stand in front of the prisoners in order to get a better view and Eponin wasted no time getting her back against the tree and reaching around behind it. Her hand closed over cold metal and she brought a sword around in front of her, keeping it as close to the ground as she could.
Jess and the others had watched the interchange in stunned silence but quickly shifted closer and began to distribute the weapons down the lines of prisoners. It was a tribute to General Andrus training that the Andorian troops maintained their control when Meklan tore open the Princess shirt.
And then Xena was back, her arms filled with another load of weapons.
"Where are the keys?" she hissed, her eyes now focused on Gabrielle as the General approached her.
Having watched Meklan hit Ephiny, the Weapons-Master eyes reflected cold fury as she spit out, "He has them."
Xenas hands were now tearing at the pack on her back as she stood up. Freeing her chakram, she flung it at the back of the Generals head as his hand began to roam over her partner.
Reaching back to grab her sword, she brought it around and wrapped both hands around the hilt as she raised it above her head, and with the power that her rage generated, she brought it down against the side of the tree. As two of the chains split in a shower of sparks, she dropped her sword point and freed a hand to catch the returning chakram before releasing it again.
Raising her sword back up over her head, she struck again, hesitating for a just a second to make sure her blow had done its job before breaking into a run towards Gabrielle.
As the shocked bard stared down at the pool of blood spreading out from the back of General Meklans head, she was suddenly aware of another high-pitched whine before she felt the strain on her arms release as the ropes dropped away.
Then Xena was flying over the heads of the soldiers surrounding her; the confused men scrambling to reach for their weapons as the warrior took up a defensive position in front of her.
"You all right?" Xena spared an anxious glance over her shoulder before meeting the attacking soldiers with her blade.
Gabrielle just stood there for a minute, unable to believe that Xena was right there in front of her.
As her mind dealt with this sudden turn of events, she became aware that fighting had also broken out at the end of the clearing. She realized that both the Amazons and the Andorian soldiers had somehow broken their chains and had found weapons.
The bard snapped out of it as Ephiny thrust a staff that shed just taken from a soldier into her hands. Glancing quickly around, Gabrielle watched Princess Cynara trip another one that was running by and grab the sword out of his hands before lifting a well placed knee and bringing him permanently down.
Now over the shock at suddenly seeing her partner, she didnt waste another second as she moved to stand with her back to Xena, deflecting a sword-blow aimed at the warriors head.
"What are you doing here? Are you all right?" the bard panted, swinging her staff up to block another strike before reversing the other end and catching the soldier in front of her in the gut. As he doubled-over, she dropped him with a blow to the head.
"Im fine," Xena shot back as she used her sword to twist the weapons out of the hands of four of the men facing her. "What about you? You okay?" She didnt try to hide the concern in her voice.
"I am now." The bard grinned as she ducked and brought her staff around again.
The fighting was intense. The Amazons and Andorians were outnumbered two to one but theyd caught the Metzovian soldiers totally unprepared. Xena, alone, had by now taken out almost a quarter of the enemy force and the victory that was theirs just a candlemark before was turning into a rout. With General Meklan the first to fall, the enemy soldiers had been quick to realize that the tide had turned, and some were just trying to stay alive long enough to escape into the surrounding woods.
Gabrielle had lost track of Xena and was now concentrating on keeping five of the soldiers away from Philana and Amara, who had lost their swords earlier. Forced up against the side of one of the tents, the two girls looked on helplessly as the bard stood between them and the soldiers, working hard to deflect the sword thrusts being directed at them.
Beginning to tire, Gabrielle dropped to one knee, once again swinging her staff in a low, wide arc and hoping to knock at least one of the soldiers off his feet. She felt a little thrill as the smooth wood connected and two of the soldiers went down. Unfortunately, Amara chose that moment to step forward and try to help, ending up tangling the end of the bards staff in her legs. Before Gabrielle could get it free and back up in the guard position, the blade of one of the other soldiers caught her a glancing blow on the side of the head and she felt a sharp pain and then nothing more.
Surrounded by the Metzovian soldiers, three deep, Xena hadnt seen Gabrielle fall but Ephiny and Princess Cynara had. In an instant, they were both standing over their friend as they combined forces to dispatch the attacking soldiers and then turned to help the two young Amazons kneeling by the bards side.
Xena finally managed to clear a break in the solid wall of men in front of her but her relief quickly changed to fear as she spotted the women kneeling by the side of the still figure lying on the ground.
She never did remember the details of what happened next. All she'd remember was that one moment she was surrounded by soldiers trying to kill her and the next, she was pushing Ephiny and the Princess out of the way as she dropped to her knees beside the bard.
"Gabrielle?" She gently turned the pale face towards her. Her heart was racing as she noticed her friends shallow breathing and saw the blood flowing in a steady stream down the side of the bards head.
"Oh, Gabrielle, please," Xena softly pleaded as she moved her fingers, gently examining the wound. Without taking her eyes off her partners face, she reached down, tore a wide strip off the bottom of the bards skirt, and pressed it to her head.
Ephiny, her sword held high, was still keeping guard over her fallen Queen, although it looked like the Metzovian soldiers, having had enough, had begun to throw down their swords in surrender. She watched as Amazons and Andorians disarmed the remaining troops.
Sparing an anxious look down, her voice was tense.
"How is she?"
Xena didnt waste any time as she tore off another strip and gently wrapped it around the bards head to hold the first one in place. She lifted and cradled the small body in her arms, pulling the bard close as she stood up and looked around.
Spotting the Kings tent, she headed off in that direction, focusing all of her attention on Gabrielle as she called over her shoulder, "It doesnt look too serious but I want to get her someplace more comfortable where I can get a better look."
Shoving aside the tent flap with her shoulder, she strode over to a cot and dropped to one knee as she gently laid the unconscious bard on the bed. She spotted a pitcher, a bowl and some cloths and quickly got up, pausing at the momentary tunneling of her vision before moving over and transferring the contents of the pitcher to the bowl before returning to the bards side.
She carefully unwrapped the makeshift bandage and lifted away the pad covering the wound. Dipping one of the clean cloths in the bowl of water, she gently began to clean away the blood.
By this time a small crowd had collected in the tent as Ephiny and Eponin were joined by other anxious Amazons.
Ephiny exchanged glances with the Weapons-Master before looking back down. "Xena, how is she?"
Xena didnt look up as she concentrated on her task. "She got whacked pretty hard. Shes going to need some stitches." Pausing as she gently lifted the bards eyelids, she took a moment to peer into each eye in turn, before adding, " I think we got lucky. She doesn't appear to have a concussion."
The tent flap was brushed aside as an ashen King Doraclyse entered and looked around. He moved as if in a daze to stand beside the woman who had come out of nowhere and turned his defeat into victory.
"They say youre a healer?"
Xena didnt look up as she fished in her kit for her needle and sewing gut. She wanted to get Gabrielles head sewn up before the bard came to.
The King let his tone of voice do his commanding for him. "Good, then youre needed outside."
Xena decided to ignore him as she concentrated on Gabrielle, her voice letting him know this conversation was at an end. "Im needed right here."
Not used to being argued with, King Doraclyses hand shot out and he dug his fingers into Xenas shoulder. "Somebody else can do that. I said I want you outside. Now."
The warrior was on her feet, the Kings wrist crushed in her grip as her blue eyes turned deadly. It took a moment for the roaring in her ears to clear and as it did, she became aware of Ephinys anxious voice pleading with her, as if from a great distance.
"Xena, let him go. He didnt mean anything. Hes not here to hurt her. Please, Xena, let go of his wrist."
As the room came back into focus, she was aware that Ephiny and Eponin were prying at her fingers as the man in front of her grabbed his arm in agony. Releasing her grip, she turned and sat back down on the side of the cot.
"Dont do that again."
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged worried looks as they watched Xena turn back and focus all of her attention on gently stitching the gash on the side of the bard's head. Turning to face the now angry King who was cradling his wrist and staring at the warrior with disbelief at her insubordination, Ephiny wasnt sure what to say.
"Im sorry, Doraclyse. Give her a chance to finish taking care of Gabrielle and Im sure well get this..."
The King angrily interrupted. "We dont have time, Ephiny. General Andrus is still alive but he wont be for long if we dont get him to a healer. And there are several others badly wounded, including one of your Amazons." Gesturing towards the seated woman, he demanded, "Is she a healer or not?"
"Yes, shes a healer!" The Regent shot back.
Looking down at Xena as she re-bandaged the wound on Gabrielles head, Ephiny could tell that the woman was no longer aware of any of them. She noted the hollow look in the warriors eyes and noticed the blood oozing from numerous spots beneath the dark layer of dirt covering her. She took a step forward as Xena began to weave back and forth but stopped when the warrior shook her head and straightened, oblivious to the now constant shaking of her body. Ephiny had no idea what was keeping the woman upright, but theyd better take advantage of it before they lost their opportunity.
"Clear everybody out of here and bring in some cots. Were making this the infirmary. Doraclyse, have the General and the others brought in here."
"What about her?" The King nodded towards Xena.
"You just get the seriously wounded in here. Ill worry about her."
Xena had tuned out what was going on around her and was concentrating on the pale face lying on the pillow. She noticed the bard looked a little thinner and the darkness under her eyes indicated she hadnt been getting enough sleep. As she watched the peaceful face, she noticed the bards eyelids flutter a little.
Leaning closer, she gently cupped her friends chin in her shaking palm and spoke softly.
"Gabrielle?" She waited a moment and tried again. "Gabrielle? C'mon now, I know youre in there."
She felt an immense relief wash over her as the bards eyelids fluttered open.
"Xena?" Gabrielles soft voice drifted up as her eyes stared blankly ahead.
"Yeah, its me. Just lie still, okay? You took a nasty hit on the head."
The bards eyes shifted over to Xenas face and she broke into a wan smile as she realized she wasnt dreaming. "Xena? It that really you? I wasnt imagining it? Youre really here?"
"Im here, Gabrielle. And Im not going anywhere. So just close your eyes and try to get some rest. Okay?"
The bards brain was still a bit rattled. "But, I dont understand. What about the soldiers? Ephiny and the Princess?" Gabrielle began to struggle to sit up.
Xenas hands quickly moved to her shoulders and she gently held the bard in place. "Easy Gabrielle. Theyre fine. Everyones fine. Its all over. Just get some rest."
The bards hand moved up to fasten tightly around the warriors arm. "You wont leave me?"
Xenas blue eyes locked with hers. "Im not going anywhere, Gabrielle. I promise. Ill be right here."
The bard shifted her hand down and pulled Xenas into her own, capturing the strong fingers, as she tucked it close to her chest. Her sleepy voice drifting up as she closed her eyes, "Okay. Maybe just a few minutes..."
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