Chapter 7: Moving
Two moons had come and gone over Poteidaia. Gabrielle and Lila strolled through the market getting supplies for the household. "Gabrielle would you like to get some parchment for your stories?"
Gabrielle looked at her sister and smiled. "No, I havent really been in the mood to write."
"I know Gabrielle and I find it strange. Before you left you were writing all the time about some imaginary adventure. You would accost strangers to try out a new story on them. Now you wont even tell a short one. Very odd for a girl whos life ambition was to be a bard." Lila nudged her sister in the ribs.
Gabrielle nodded then looked away. "Things change I guess." Lila noticed the hint of sadness that often tempered her sister voice. She pulled Gabrielle in with one arm giving her gentle squeeze. "Your friend she was very special to you huh?"
"Yes Lila . . . more than you could imagine." Gabrielle picked up her pace leaving her curious sister a half step behind.
On the way back to their house they had to pass the local inn. Outside two men were talking. It was obvious to Gabrielle that both had been traveling a great distance. They were speaking loud enough so that the approaching women could hear bits of their conversation. "...I had to travel through . . . Xenas army laid waste . . . shes fierce and has over two hundred men." Gabrielle rushed up to the man who had just spoken. Lila was shocked.
The man was unwashed but Gabrielle determined that he was no threat to her. "Did I just hear you mention the name Xena?" She tried to hide the excitement in her voice.
The traveler looked down on the attractive girl who had interjected in their conversation. "Aye, thats right Xena. I was just telling me friend here about her army. Laid siege to a couple of towns I passed through along the way."
"Pretty far from here luckily. So theres no immediate danger to this town. The Eastern coast of Greece better watch out though. Xenas ruthless and her armys the best around. Theres been some bloody clashes up there because other warlords come to challenge but soon their carcass is found alongside the road. I would stay away from the Eastern coast thats for sure." He smiled wryly noticing just how pretty this girl was. "How about you come in and Ill buy you a drink? Tell you more about me travels."
Gabrielle politely rejected the mans offer. Motioning to her sister, she continued to walk home. Lila quickly came up beside her. " What was all that about? Whos this Xena? Whats wrong you look like youre going to be sick?"
"No Im fine it must be the heat. Oh shoot, I forgot something at the market. You go ahead and Ill see you at home."
"Okay . . . are you sure youre all right."
"Yes, Im positive now go before Mother gets upset that she had to wait so long for dinners meat." Gabrielle turned back down the street. She waited until her sister was out of sight before she headed into the woods toward a hidden clearing she found several weeks earlier. There she sat reflecting on what she just heard. She had yearned for any news of Xena but soon found out that Poteidaia was a vacuum for information. News was scarce with bits and pieces coming from travelers and merchants. The bard realized that very little had changed in this sleepy village. This did not help her situation in the least. Now, there was news of Xena and it was what she had hoped against. Ares had kept his promise. She was alive with all the memories and Xena was a ruthless warlord once again. She doesnt even know who I am. Bending her head to weep she thought all the tears had been shed. She was wrong.
Xena and her lieutenants sat around the large wooden table in the command tent. Xena, dressed immaculately in her leathers and bronze armor, sat at the head. Dimitrius was on the right signaling that he was Xenas second. Xenas sword and scabbard lie to her left across the table. Further down on Xenas left was Raynos and the farthest down was Mercurio. Each sat in order of their significance. The men had their battle uniforms on. Each wore black, full chest armor. Directly over the heart was a small insignia. Its design was similar to Xenas own unique armor. The swirling pattern signified that they were under her command. Dimitrius was speaking. "We have little resistance down the coast. The villages are firmly under control and we are collecting plenty of dinar to expand the army."
Xena leaned forward studying the map that was laid out before them. "Yes, we have the eastern coast. However, the merchants are now shifting their trade routes North toward Thrace. We need to control these routes before Dorian can get to them."
"Dorian is insignificant . . . we could crush him easily." Xena looked up at Mercurio. Her eyebrow arched high as she snarled at the ugly man farthest down the table. Dimitrius had warned Xena about promoting him but she needed him. He was expendable and would easily do the work that she didnt want to send Dimitrius or Raynos to do. She walked down to him her strides smooth and certain. She stopped behind Mercurio who had remained seated. Damn he thought to himself. Why did he always make this warlord so angry? He sat still not sure of what was to come. She put her hands on the beefy shoulders and lowered her mouth just behind his ear.
"No Mercurio, you are insignificant and easily crushed." Her voice was cool and low. She pinched his shoulders rapidly finding a pressure point on each side. The pain caused Mercurio to stiffen, gritting his teeth at the obvious discomfort. "Dorian is an enemy thus, never insignificant." The warlord released the bumbling man who instantly rubbed his shoulders.
Dimitrius and Raynos looked at each other each shaking their head in disgust. Mercurio was a good fighter but not to bright when it came to Xena. Each understood what this fools role was and each was glad it wasnt he.
It was Raynos turn to speak. Although small in stature then most of Xenas soldiers, he had gained the respect of all of them. He was smart and a good tactician. "The North is Amazon territory. They control a good portion of Thrace out to the Black Sea. They also have many trade agreements with the surrounding villages. There is no way for Dorian to approach from the east. The Amazons have a natural barrier protecting that section of their land. Hell most likely come from the North. Even then it wont be easy. The Amazons have successfully defended their territory time and time again."
"Exactly, the Amazons have always defended successfully in part due to the terrain. There are natural barriers surrounding many parts of their territory. This is why we need it. We could reinforce the Northern parts of Greece effectively sealing it off from any overly ambitious warlord. I will have control of everything South of Thrace."
Dimitrius smiled at his commanders determination. "Yes, but how will we defeat the Amazons and stop Dorian?"
"Well we let the amazons take care of Dorian for now. We, however, will put a bit a pressure on some of the outer villages that the Amazons have alliances with." She waited for any more questions. All three faces seemed satisfied with this small portion of Xenas plan. "Good. Youre dismissed." She sat back in her chair and waited for the men to gather gear and make their way out of the tent. "Dimitrius I want you to stay." She motioned to her second to be seated again and waited for the other two to exit.
"What is it Xena?"
Xena looked at her second. He was a handsome man about Xenas age. He had been the one who had found her that day. It was after a battle and Xena had disappeared. He found her still astride Argo in a clearing not far from where she was last seen fighting. She was slumped in the saddle unconscious. Her vulnerability at that moment would have meant death if it were not for her second. Dimitrius had taken her back into camp hiding her condition from the rest of her men. She must have been hit on the head because her memory was fuzzy after she regained consciousness. He had seen Xena at her weakest and never used it to his advantage. A few weeks later he was promoted to her second displacing an angry Menecles after Xena had found him raping a young girl.
Menecles lack of remorse had forced Xena to take his life. She had no regrets for he had been causing problems before this incident. A once brilliant soldier had succumbed to the rigors of battle. It was more of a mercy killing then anything else. She hoped that this soldier would last longer than Menecles. "Dimitrius, I want you to keep an eye on Mercurio. I dont trust him . . . hes stupid but I have to keep him around to for a little while longer." Dimitrius nodded in agreement. "I also want you to send two scouts to the Northern territories. Give them a week to collect information then I want them back here with reports."
"Anything else Xena?" He looked into his warlords deep blue eyes while his own admiration was barely concealed. He would do anything for this woman who sat beside him. Dimitrius let her aloof gaze transfix him for a moment.
She nodded no then waved him to the door. " Wait Dimitrius there is one more thing." She waited for her second to turn around. "Gather up some men for me in the morning. I need to do some training drills and have them fully armored." Dimitrius nodded once again and was out through the flaps of the tent.
Outside the command tent a soldier lingered about. He had positioned himself just right so he was inconspicious but could still hear the conversation through the canvas. When has saw Dimitrius exit a wonderfully wicked smile flashed upon his goateed face. Ares was quite pleased on how things turned out.
Gabrielle was starting to feel very restless. Her time in Poteidaia had helped her begin to heal from her loss. Although, she still thought of Xena daily, her memory didnt cause the once too common torrent of tears. Her family had been very patient but was beginning to suffocate her. She realized just how much she had changed. To make matters worse Herodotus had been putting some pressure on her to wed a local merchants son. The man was nice enough and very handsome but he was not Xena. Gabrielle would only see him to placate her father but still couldnt think about being with anyone else. Besides men held no interest for her now.
Gabrielle had decided that she had been hiding in Poteidaia long enough. She would return to the Bards Academy in Athens. Perhaps that would reignite her desire to write and tell stories. She had to do something. Now, all she had to do is tell her family.
Gabrielle walked into her house and was shocked at the sight before her. "Hello my Queen." Ephiny spoke softly as she knelt to the entering Amazon. "Ephiny . . . wha . . . what are you doing here?" She pulled the kneeling amazon to her feet embracing her tightly.
"Who is this woman Gabrielle?" The bard was so shocked to see her Amazon friend she didnt even notice her mother in the corner. "Mother this is Ephiny a friend of mine from the Amazon nation. Ephiny this is my mother Hecuba." Ephiny bowed at the woman noticing that she did not make an effort at a handshake. Hecubas jaw went slack and she silently mouthed the words amazon. A look of amazement indisputably displayed on her face. When did her daughter befriend Amazons?
Ephiny once again turned her attention to Gabrielle. "We need to talk." Gabrielle nodded her head. "Of course . . . where is the royal guard I didnt see them outside? "Theyre hidden, no need to announce to everyone that the Amazons had arrived in Poteidaia." She then put her head closer to the bard ear. "Theyve actually been here for days." Gabrielle looked surprised. Ephiny continued. "When we found out where you were and that you were alone I sent a small band of guards. You are still the Queen." Ephiny then looked concern and took the queens hand in hers. "Im sorry for the loss of your friend I wish I could have met her."
Gabrielle looked up at the statuesque Amazon. Of course, she was still the queen by right of caste. Ares had not changed that but how she became the Queen was obviously a different story to the rest of the Amazons. She would have to get the details, subtly, from Ephiny later. "Lets go outside I know of a spot where we can talk."
"Gabrielle wait . . . " Hecuba had finally come out of her daze. "She called you queen?"
"Mother Ill explain later. I need to talk with Ephiny." She guided her Amazon friend out the door quickly before her mother had a chance to argue.
She lead Ephiny to her small clearing. Two Royal Guard amazons appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to accompany the two women. "This is nice" Ephiny stated as she sat herself upon a log.
Gabrielle smiled. She had just realized how much she had missed her Amazon sisters. "I come here often. Nobody seems to really know about this place so its nice when I need some peace. Ephiny Im sorry I didnt send word about what happened. I just wasnt sure . . . " Gabrielle wasnt sure if the Amazons would even know who she was.
"No need to apologize. I know what it is like to lose a dear friend, having lost so many in battle. Im just thankful that you are all right."
"Thanks . . . physically Im okay but I still hurt inside. Im not sure if it will ever go away."
Ephiny took her Queens hand in a loving embrace. "Gabrielle the Amazon nation needs you."
"What has happened?"
"In our Northern territories near Thrace some of our alliances with the villages are threatened. They are just villagers Gabrielle, we could enforce our will but thats not going to do us any good. I dont want any blood shed. We need a diplomat . . . we need your skills."
"What about you Ephiny youve ruled brilliantly-"
"Yes, but Im a warrior. Im not very good at compromise." She smiled as Gabrielle returned a nod of agreement.
"Fine well leave in the morning. The Thracian territories are a good weeks ride. Ill ready myself as well as explain this to my family." Her eyes rolled at the task.
Ephiny laughed at the gesture. "I would think your family would be glad to know that there was royalty in their midst."
"Obviously, you dont know my family." She took the taller Amazons hand and led her back to her house. The royal guard faithfully in the background.
Chapter 8: Decisions
"No Gabrielle I dont understand!"Herodotus barked at his daughter. "What in the Seven levels of Tartarus is going on here? You arrive home almost dead. You stay depressed and despondent for over a moon and now you tell me that youre really an Amazon Queen. You *and* your friends are off your rockers."
Gabrielle felt Ephiny stiffen behind her. She could almost smile. It was similar to the way Xena reacted when someone angered her. She moved into the Amazon almost touching Ephiny with her back expressing a silent plea for understanding. "Father its the truth and I have an obligation to the Amazons as their queen."
"An obligation!" He looked at Hecuba who was sitting there remarkably quiet. "What about your obligation to your family . . . what about Jonas son. He wants to marry you. I will not allow you to go off on your silly adventures again. Being out there." He gestured outside with his hand. "...no place for a woman. Youll stay here."
Gabrielle straightened and squared her shoulders to her father. She could not and would not stay here no matter what her family thought. Her life had become so much more than this. "Im sorry father but that is not your choice to make. I will be leaving with the Ephiny in the morning . . . unless you would like me to leave tonight." She looked directly into his eyes. Ephiny beamed inwardly with pride. This girl had definitely grown.
"What in the bloody-" He moved toward his daughter his face red with anger. Ephiny moved quickly. With a shrill bird cry three royal guards had entered the house surrounding their queens with amazing speed. Nobody was allowed to hurt their Queen. Not even her father. Herodotus stopped quickly, shocked by the display. He eyed the menacing women now staring at him fiercely. His anger diffused and he now felt ashamed at his earlier intent.
"Gabrielle Im . . . sorry."
Gabrielle moved out from the protective covering of the guard. "Father Ill be leaving in the morning I hope you understand." She shot a reassuring glance at her mother and sister. Both looked relieved that the discussion was over. "Ill see you in the morning." She walked toward the door stopping to grab her staff which had been leaning idly in the corner for months. "Ill be in the stable with my friends if you need me." She moved out the door into the black night.
The next morning they left early. Again, Gabrielle said goodbye to her family. Herodotus, although still upset, realized the futility of trying to make her stay. They did not know when she would come back if at all. They only knew that she would not stay.
They traveled to the Thracian territories efficiently. They stayed in the woods or on roads less traveled. Normally, both queens would not be away from the main village but Ephiny thought it important that she retrieved Gabrielle. She left Eponin in charge. The Royal Guards, considering this fact, tried to lessen contact with travelers. They moved in three groups. One set of guards would scout ahead by one day. Behind them were Ephiny, Gabrielle and six more guards. Bringing up the rear was another group of Amazons making sure that they were not being followed. Gabrielle pitied the fool who would mess with such a procession.
The bard could feel the last two days of travel in her legs. Months of disuse made them sore at night. They had brought a horse for her but she refused, of course. Ephiny smiled when she remembered the Queens dislike for riding. She looked over at Gabrielle who was walking strongly beside her. "You know you shouldnt push yourself so much. Ill understand if you need to take more breaks."
Gabrielle glanced at the blonde Amazon. "Nope, I learned a long time ago that its better just to do it and get it over with when it comes to conditioning. Ill be better off being sore for a couple of days then taking it slow. Im already feeling stronger. Probably look a lot better too. All that farm food can put a couple of pounds on." She brought her hand up to pat her stomach.
Ephiny looked at the Queens bare midriff. Despite her depreciating remarks her stomach was taut with muscles. "Yes Gabrielle, you look wonderful." Ephiny shot the bard an appreciative smile.
Gabrielle blushed at Ephinys comment. Where did that come from, she mused.
"Gabrielle you said you learned a long time ago about conditioning. Who taught you?" Ephiny questioned her blushing Queen.
Gabrielle smiled at the thought of reliving some of her more pleasant memories. "My friend . . . Cera taught me that."
"Is that the friend that died?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, when I first met her she was in excellent shape. She didnt have much patience to wait around for a chunky farm girl." She laughed thinking about what Xena must have thought way back then. "I just about collapsed the first day trying to keep up with her and she was walking not riding Argo."
"Argo? I assume thats her horse."
"Oh yeah, Argo was her horse." She cringed that she let that slip. Well there could be more than one Argo.
Ephiny continued. "It sounds like it was a tough initiation. I hope she softened up on you after a while."
"Yes, she did. However, by that time I could keep up." Both women laughed continuing their conversation down the road.
By fifth day they were on the edge of Amazon land. The first group had reached the village the day before and told them of their Queens impending arrival. After that was done, they doubled back to meet up with the second group again. Ephiny heard the faint dove call warning them of their arrival. "The first group is coming back. We arent that far from Amazon lands. We should be at the village before nightfall."
Gabrielle could barely contain her excitement. She considered the village her true home. The Amazons had embraced their new Queen and showed it each time she had visited. "Great, I cant wait to see Eponin and Solari. Im going to have Eponin give me some lessons on my staff again. Ive gotten a bit rusty with it. Havent really practiced much since Ive been in Poteidaia."
Ephiny smirked as the bard began to chatter. I remember that she does this when shes excited. Luckily she didnt mind. Gabrielle was very endearing to her and to all the Amazons. Not to mention shes really cute when she does that. Ephiny smiled brightly at the last thought.
The group heard a high shriek imitating a hawk. The Royal Guard moved around the two queens forming a protective barrier. Another group moved up into the trees. "What is it Ephiny?" Gabrielle grasped the other Amazons strong arm.
"Someone is approaching." She reached over to pat the bards hand reassuringly. "Could just be a merchant. Well wait here until they pass."
Gabrielle nodded gripping her staff tighter.
They heard approaching hoof beats. Ephiny determined from the sound that there was probably ten horsemen traveling at a high rate of speed. She moved herself and Gabrielle further to the side of the road. The Royal Guard moving with them.
The men approached and could see the group of women waiting patiently by the side allowing them to pass. Upon closer inspection they could see a group of eight women all heavily armed and scantily clad much to their delight. Six of the women wore some sort of blue top signifying that they were part of a group. They surrounded the two women in the middle. Both were blonde although the shorter one had more red in her hair. Both were beautiful. The leader of the group decided that a quick stop wouldnt hurt. They could still get back to camp before nightfall. Upon reaching the group he halted his horse and his men.
"Well hello ladies. Out for a stroll?" He leered at the two in the middle.
Gabrielle squinted up at the man. He was heavily armored with a sword resting on his hip. A small insignia could be seen over his chest. It looked familiar but the Queen had no time to ponder its significance. She noticed that when he put his hand up the rest of the men stopped instantly. He was in charge and his intent was clear. Gabrielle had seen this many times before with Xena. She stepped forward causing the guard to part slightly. "No, we arent out for a stroll. We are traveling and would kindly appreciate it if you would move on and clear the road so we might continue." Her voice was kind but demanding.
The men laughed and the leader once again addressed Gabrielle. "Surely you can spare a few moments for a group of tired men. It looks like you could use the company." He turned to look at his men with an obvious smirk on his face. "Women need the company of men." He slid of his horse and was now standing a few feet in front of Gabrielle.
The Amazon guards tensed at this mans disrespect. Gabrielle sensing this commanded them to stay put. Ephiny moved up closer behind Gabrielle her own body tensing at a possible conflict. The man seeing the display was surprised but saw it as nothing he and his men couldnt handle. Gabrielle spoke once again. Her voice was now firm and the kindness was gone. "Look we dont need or want your company. Amazons dont really appreciate the*prolonged* company of men. I urge you to move along."
"Amazons huh? Always wanted to come across some of you. Teach you a lesson or two about what a real man could do." He stepped forward quickly pushing one of the Amazon guards back. He grabbed for his sword by his waist. "We just wanna have a little fun."
"Attack!" Ephiny yelled loudly from behind Gabrielle. She immediately grabbed the Queens arm thrusting her back behind her. Grabbing the hilt of her sword, she moved toward the rushing man. Gabrielle looked around noticing rest of the men had begun to attack. The Amazons in the trees descended upon them like blackness in the night. Soon all the men were forced off their mounts and engaged in combat with the fierce women.
Gabrielle spun around when she heard the clash of metal. Ephinys sword had blocked a strike by the leader. Effortlessly, she moved around the man dragging her sword slightly behind her. The steel blade slashed a clean line along his rib-cage. He winced in pain instantly clutching his side. A moment later he fell to the ground an arrow stuck cleanly in his chest. The Royal Guard had once again dispatched a threat to one of their Queens. Gabrielle stared wordlessly at the display. Ephinys fluid movements brought memories back of similar battles. Gabrielle was not staring at the Amazon anymore. Instead, she was seeing a raven- haired warrior with piercing blue eyes. Her teeth bared and strong hands wrapped around cold metal.
"Gabrielle behind you!" The scream shocked her back to reality. She spun around, her staff up and ready. The man approached sword swinging down in a deadly arc. Gabrielle brought her staff up catching the mans sword hand. The swing had enough force that if made the attacker drop his blade. She then brought the staff down and spun it in a circle switching her hand position in the process. She brought the staff up between the man s legs making contact with this groin. He gasped and the pain brought him down to his knees. His head jerked to the right and his eyes rolled back into his head. He was knocked cold by the force of the bards staff along side his head.
"My Queen are you all right?" Zeritha the commander of the Guard asked as she rushed to Gabrielles side. Her worry and anger at this attack was evident. The bard was panting with exertion and adrenaline but other than that she was fine. She nodded gratefully to Zeritha. "Yes, Ill be okay." She looked around and noticed that most of the men were either unconscious or dead. The other Amazons were now busy checking each others wounds making sure that nobody was hurt seriously.
She walked over to Ephiny who was sitting serenely on rock by the side of the road. She looked up when she heard Gabrielle approaching. "Why, my friend, must men act so foolish?" Her sword was still displayed in her hand.
The Queen stopped to look at her friend. She leaned up against her staff her other hand on her hip. "That is a very good question. Im not sure if it could ever be answered. Although, Ive also seen my share of foolish acts performed by women. I think that it is just part of human . . . nature."
Ephiny shrugged and stood up brushing herself off. She returned her sword to the scabbard on her back. "Perhaps your right." She smiled at Gabrielle. "We are a very foolish indeed. By the way....I dont think Eponin needs to give you that staff refresher."
"My Queens." It was Zeritha. "We should be going now in case they have more friends somewhere else. Eponin will also be expecting you."
Gabrielle acknowledged with an agreeable nod. She looked at Ephiny. The Amazon held out her hand in a after you motion. Gabrielle bowed and walked ahead down the road. She was lost in thought immediately. Her life felt almost normal once again.
The warlords camp lie upon a bluff overlooking the Aegean Sea. It was well protected and open. Hard for anybody to attack without being noticed for miles. It was also far off any well traveled routes. The beauty of the sea was breathtaking. The violent waves crushing the shore beneath. Its low rumble almost comforted the fidgety warlord.
Xena stood slightly outside of the main camp. On the edge of the bluff she stared out over the water. The blue liquid perfectly matching her warrior gaze. The wind was warm as it whipped ebony locks around the sculpted face. Xena let her senses find some solace in this environment. She drank in the energy that was provided by the sea; it provided her comfort. A moment later she walked over to her tent. Relaxed as a busy warlord could get.
Xena always liked to have her tent away from the rest as she preferred her privacy. Of course, Dimitrius inevitably tried to urge the warlord to place her tent in the center. He argued that it offered more protection. She argued that she didnt need protection. She noticed, however, that each time camp was set Dimitrius always made sure that his tent was never far from that of his leader. A situation that Xena didnt mind from time to time.
"What?" Xena did not bother to turn away from Argo who she was brushing with care. It had been a while since she paid this much attention to her horse and she was starting to feel guilty. It was not an emotion that she felt often but then her horse was always her soft spot.
The young soldier continued to speak to a well muscled back. "Some men from the tribute squad you sent out....theyre back."
Xena shrugged still facing towards Argo. "So, whats your point?" She let some of her irritation come out in her voice. "Send them to Raynos he knows what to do with the dinar."
The man cleared his throat trying to get up the courage to spit out the next sentence. Nobody liked to bring the warlord bad news. Sensing the hesitation in the messenger Xena dropped her brush and casually looked over her shoulder. She noticed that the soldier had beads of sweat on his upper lip. "What is it?" Her voice was low and commanding.
"The group was attacked. The leader was killed as well as five others. The survivors are with Dimitrius in the healers tent."
Xena shot an eyebrow up. "Attacked?" She hissed. Her eyes focused in the direction of the healers tent. Walking past the soldier she thrust Argos brush in his chest easily knocking him off his feet. "Finish grooming my horse." The soldier nodded mutely rubbing his chest as he struggled to his feet.
The warlord quickly covered the distance between Argo and the healers tent. Her men, upon seeing her determined strides and stern look, practically fell over each other making sure that they did not get in her way. She entered the tent forcefully closing the flaps behind her. "What happened!" She yelled to no one in particular. Xena surveyed the tent and her steel blue eyes narrowed on a man prone on a pallet. His arm was in a sling and he had a patch on his eye. Dimitrius stood over him. Both jerked their heads toward Xena when they heard her rough question.
"I...I..." The hurt man started to stammer.
Mercifully, Dimitrius interrupted his nervous stammering. He bowed before speaking. "It seems that the leader of the tribute squad decided to make a short stop on the way back to camp."
"What kind of stop?" Xena asked raising an eyebrow in annoyance.
"According to our friend here.." He gestured to the soldier who was staring at the warlord with one wide eye. "...they came across a group of women. They stopped to ask the women if they wanted any company."
"Company huh?" The sarcasm was evident in the warriors voice.
The hurt man nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, thats all just company."
Xena looked back up to her second. She motioned for him to continue. "Well, apparently these women didnt want any new friends. It seems that this collection squad failed to recognize that they were Amazons."
The warrior almost laughed at the squads stupidity. "Where did these men come from?" She asked incredulously.
"They are under Mercurios command."
Xena sneered. "Figures. Did the Amazons take any of the dinar?" She looked down at the hurt soldier. He nodded no. "Where did you run across them?" The man replied telling her that they were on the road from Isios. Xena recognized that this was just outside the southwestern border of Amazon lands. "Its lucky that your squad leader died before I could kill him myself. You are no longer allowed to be in my camp gather youre things and go?"
"But I cant move . . . "
Xena spun on him her face inches from his own. He could smell her sweet breath. "Let me explain it to you more clearly. If you want to be alive by morning, I suggest you leave. The injuries you have now will seem like a playful slap compared to what Ill do to you if you dare speak again. Understand?" She waited for him to fearfully nod yes. She looked around the healers tent. "That goes for the other survivors too. Dimitrius gather Raynos and Mercurio. Ill be in my tent."
Chapter 9: Amazons
Gabrielle wondered around the Amazon village. Her first night in the village had been spectacular. Eponin and Solari had organized an elaborate welcoming banquet. It was obvious that the returning Queen was well liked and respected. Suddenly, in what seemed like a very long time, Gabrielle felt happy. The hurt of the past months became a sad memory and not a constant pressure in her chest. However, when Ephiny led her to the Queens hut later that evening she had to brace herself upon entering. The sight and smell forced imprinted memories of her and Xenas last stay to come rushing to the surface. Ephiny had noticed the sharp intake of air and looked at the returning Amazon with concern. Gabrielle managed to attribute the reaction to wine and a lack of sleep. Ephiny accepted the explanation and left the queen to rest. Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed but instead of crying she smiled.
Now, Gabrielle had been back for more than a week and was beginning to feel more comfortable with her surroundings. She had replaced her usual attire for traditional Amazon leathers. Her body was tan from the summer sun and any muscle she had lost while in Poteidaia had come back. She earned admiring looks from the other women. Some of which were down right lusty and that fact never failed to surprise the Queen. She walked toward Ephinys hut with the Royal Guard discretely following behind her. Gabrielle didnt know if she would ever get used to being Queen. Having the biggest, strongest, and baddest Amazons following you around all day was a bit unnerving. She was also uncomfortable with the ceremony of being Queen. She was much too modest for the attention that was lavished upon her. The bard finally convinced the other Amazons to stop kneeling in front of her every time she stopped to talk with them.
She knocked on Ephinys hut. The door opened revealing a smiling Amazon who instantly ran an appraising eye up and down the Queen. "Gabrielle . . . come in." Ephiny holding the door motioned for the bard to enter. Gabrielle entered noticing the huge spread of breakfast foods laid out on a table. She turned and smiled at Ephiny.
Ephiny shrugged. "Well it is a breakfast meeting and your appetite is legendary." She laughed when she saw Gabrielle move instantly toward the table grabbing a huge piece of cinnamon bread.
Once satiated, the bard leaned back in her chair and tenderly rubbed her stomach. It had now become a habit. "Okay Ephiny. Ive been here for more than a week and you still havent given me all the details of this problem with the villages. Dont you think its time that you filled me in? Its nothing to do with the Centaurs I hope."
Ephiny held up her hand. "No, our pact with the Centaurs is still very strong. Its some of the villages around our southwestern border." She stood up to move toward a cabinet. She opened it and pulled out a rolled piece of parchment. She brought it over to the table and laid it out. It was a map of the Amazon territories. Gabrielle could see that it encompassed most of Thrace. " We havent had any troubles with anything over here." She moved her finger indicating areas near the Black Sea. "In the North weve been bothered once or twice by this pesky warlord Dorian. Hes nothing to worry about though. The terrain is to rough and we have a very strong border patrol stationed up there. Our biggest problems are coming from the villages along the upper eastern coast . . . along the Aegean Sea. Weve always had good relations with them as far as trading goes. Weve been able to pass through them without incident but now . . . "
Gabrielle looked up from the map. "So what do you think is going on?"
Ephiny shook her head. "I think theyre afraid."
"Afraid of us?"
"No . . . of Xena."
Ephiny turned, curious of the bards shocked tone. Gabrielle tried to calm herself. "What do you mean . . . Xena?"
"Her army has gained control of most of the eastern coast of Greece . . . Amphipolis, territories in Thessaly . . . she has stopped just short of the villages near our border." Ephinys eyes narrowed. "Shes up to something."
Gabrielles breathing had steadied. " Thats why we took the route farthest from the coast when we walked from Poteidaia. So you think shes forcing the villages to choose sides? You dont think shes planning on attacking Amazon territory . . . do you?"
"Gabrielle she has been vicious in her attacks. An Amazon hunting party came upon some refugees trying to hide on our lands. They said Xena and her army burned their town when they refused her commands. Most everyone died except women and children. At least she still has some humanity left." Ephiny motioned her head in disgust. "Of course the survivors were left homeless and unable to fend for themselves. Honestly, I dont blame those villages for breaking our alliances. Shes cruel and cold Gabrielle."
Gabrielles eyes dimmed at the synopsis Ephiny provided her. She still couldnt believe that this warlord could be Xena. At Gabrielles urging, the warrior had sometimes tried to convey to her bard just how dark her past was. Although some of the stories were painful, she knew that Xena was not that person anymore. Her love had always been unwavering. "Ephiny you didnt answer my second question. Do you think shes after Amazon territory?"
"Yes . . . I do."
The Queen turned her back to Ephiny. She tried to understand what was happening. Xena was after Amazon lands and as Queen it was her responsibility to protect and rule her sisters. She knew what she had to do no matter what her heart felt. Her shoulders sagged and she leaned forward on the table.
"Gabrielle are you all right." Ephiny moved to put her hand on the bards shoulder.
Gabrielle nodded then straightened her back. Forcefully she looked into Ephinys eyes. "Xena must not take these lands. How important are those villages?"
"They are important for trade. Especially Isios due to its port. However, we are mainly self-sufficient..we dont really need those alliances. What Im concerned with is the principle of it all. Xenas basically knocking on our front door and testing our borders. Shes challenging us."
"Ephiny it sounds like you have something personal against her. She may be challenging us but that doesnt . . . "
"Look Gabrielle, I dont know what youve heard about this warlord but she nearly destroyed our Nation once before. So yes, I guess I do have something personal against her and you should as well." Gabrielle looked stunned at the Queen Regents passion. "Xena only understands one thing and thats power. She respects it. That is why we need to stand strong with these villages. Perhaps we can intimidate her by showing strength making her think twice before assaulting our lands." Ephiny softened knowing that her speech had just about won the bard over. The last part would play on Gabrielles, well known, compassion. "Besides those villages dont deserve what Xena will bring them. Theyve been good neighbors never once trespassing on our land. We owe them a chance at protection."
Smiling Gabrielle couldnt help but compare the two warriors that meant most to her. Ephiny was a lot like Xena in how she tried to handle the bard; firm and with kindness. Of course, Ephiny would eventually win out with logic while a frustrated Xena would just command it. "Ephiny your right. We need to consult with Eponin and Solari about what were going to do."
Ephiny smiled brightly showing her perfect teeth. "Of course my Queen." She mockingly bowed bending deep at the waist.
Gabrielle gave her a playful slap on the back. "Funny Ephiny.. watch out or Ill show you what being Queen is all about." She pinched Ephinys rear as she rushed out the door to find the other two Amazon leaders.
"Hey!" Ephiny jerked up grasping the cheek that had been offended. "Promises . . . promises." She mumbled under her breath as she looked at Gabrielles delightful saunter retreating out into the village.
The four Amazons sat comfortably in the Queens hut. Eponin, Solari and Ephiny had each finished their evening meal long ago. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was still enjoying the savory dishes that had been prepared for the powerful quartet. "By the gods Gabrielle where do you put all that?" Eponin couldnt help teasing the Queen.
The bard looked at the amused warrior still chewing her last mouthful. " I guess that trying to come up with a plan to thwart the most feared warlord in all of Greece makes me hungrier than normal." She smiled and swallowed at the same time.
"Well its a good thing that you train as hard as you do or might have to roll you into battle." Chimed in Ephiny barely controlling a chuckle. Solari also had to stop herself from laughing or surely the wine that had just passed over her lips would make an unfortunate exit out her nose.
Gabrielle lifted one eyebrow in her best warrior princess imitation. "Ha ha . . . now if you are all done discussing my dining habits . . . I think we should turn our attention to the task at hand." Grimly the other three women nodded in agreement. Ephinys intake of breath signaled that she was about to speak. "Youre right Gabrielle. We need to prepare . . . Xenas definitely got something planned." Eponin stood and walked over to the window letting the cool night air give her relief against the warmth of the hut. "Shes very smart. Our best chance is to try to stay one step ahead of her."
Solari snorted out her response. "If we can."
Gabrielle knew that they were all right. Xena was highly skilled at the art of war. It was her trade and she mastered it. There was nobody better. The warlords objective were clear; win at all costs. She studied her targets, understood weakness and made her own actions unpredictable. "Gods" Gabrielle sighed. When did her world become so surreal? In all her imaginings she could have never predicted this. Circumstances beyond their control forcing two lovers to become enemies. Gabrielle leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling. "What am I going to do?" She sadly whispered forgetting that she was not alone. Ephiny went to stand next to the bard. She placed her hand on the tight shoulder giving it a reassuring squeeze. "What are *we* going to do?" Gabrielle looked up at the comforting gaze of her friend. Instinctually, she placed her own hand over Ephinys.
Solari spoke once again. "We need to make contact with the villages."
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes youre right. Lets set up a meeting with the town elders. Perhaps, with our help, we can encourage the villages to organize militias. Stopping Xena outside our borders has to be our main strategy. Ephiny said we needed a show of strength. Shes right. I dont want this fight to come onto these lands. Not on Artemis sacred grounds."
After some further strategizing Eponin and Solari left to prepare for the next day. Ephiny stayed behind at Gabrielles request. The bard sat on the edge of her bed weary, mentally and physically, from the days activities. She looked over at the strong Amazon sitting at the table resting her head in her hands. "Ephiny . . . " her voice was soft. "....Im not a warrior." Ephiny lifted her head as Gabrielle continued to speak. "Im a bard . . . a story teller. What am I doing? How can I lead a Nation of Warriors?" The bards own self doubts had begun to manifest itself in barely controlled tears.
Ephiny felt the slight tug at her heart. Somewhere along the way she knew she had started to fall for the young queen. She gracefully moved to kneel directly in front of Gabrielle resting her hands on the bards knees. "My Queen ever since you received the right of caste from Terries you have been proving yourself worthy of the Queens mask every day. When Velasca challenged . . . you found the strength to fight back. You fought for us..your Amazons."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Yea, but I had help and without . . . without . . . " She let the sentence fade into the air.
"Without what Gabrielle? There was only you. You banished her to the lava. *You* a warrior and our Queen." Ephiny was now unconsciously stroking the skin of Gabrielles outer thighs. It was meant to be a comforting gesture but it was starting to make the Queen slightly uncomfortable. "You know we cant really choose who we become. Its our experiences in life which dictates that. We can either accept it or try to change our path. Gabrielle in your heart you are kind and gentle. In your mind you are wise beyond your years but in your soul you are a warrior and you dont have to shed blood to prove it. You have always fought for what you believe in." Ephiny reached up to stroke the bards face. "Gabrielle . . . do you believe in the Amazon Nation?"
"Ephiny you know I do." She did not hesitate to answer. "My loyalty . . . my heart lies with my sisters." Ephiny smiled. "Then that is how you will lead a Nation of warriors. With loyalty and love."
Gabrielle couldnt believe the solace that she was finding in Ephinys hazel eyes. "Will you help me?"
"Of course I will . . . I wouldnt miss it for the world." She grabbed Gabrielles hands and placed a small kiss in the right palm.
It must have been the months void of intimate contact but Gabrielle felt a heat course throughout her body she was sure she would never feel again. Before she had time to suppress it a small shiver ran over her. She hoped Ephiny didnt notice. However, it was soon apparent that she did. Ephiny had raised herself eye level with the Queen. Slowly she leaned forward and placed a delicate kiss upon the lips of the bard. Gabrielle found herself reaching around Ephinys neck pulling her in and deepening the kiss at the same time. Her response was automatic and void of any cognitive thought. Ephiny could smell the sweet scent of her queen. The intoxicant lured her in tighter. She pressed into the bard her waist separating Gabrielles legs as she settled in.
The bard caught her breath as she felt the Amazons bare midriff come into contact with the soft skin of her inner thighs. A moan escaped her as Ephinys tongue slipped into her waiting mouth. Moons of loneliness urged her to return her friends passion. Gabrielle ran her gentle hands over the amazons shoulders tracing a sensuous pattern down her chest. She stopped resting her hands lightly on the swell of heaving breasts. "Gabrielle I want you . . . let me make love to you." Ephinys voice, barely above a whisper, was rough with excitement.
The bards mind was reeling while the Amazons desire rolled over her clouding all logical thought. She needed to be loved. "Yes Ephiny . . . I would like . . . " Before she finished Ephiny kissed her again letting the Queen feel the full force of her arousal. Gabrielle shut her eyes tight. The pressure of the beautiful Amazon on top of her sent her into a delirium. I brought back sweet memories for the long-suffering bard. Suddenly her mind was filled with flashes of raven hair, bronze skin, full lips and piercing blue eyes. Inwardly she screamed for Xena. It was Xena whom the bard wished for. She wanted *her* kisses and *her* caresses. No, she couldnt do this. She wouldnt make love to Ephiny while her body and mind yearned for the dark warrior. She struggled to sit up pushing the Amazon back forcefully. "Ephiny no . . . I cant."
Ephiny sat up shocked at the flushed Queens statement. "Im sorry..I thought . . . I thought you wanted this." She stood up straightening her clothing. "If I have offended you . . . "
"No!" Gabrielle shot up instantly grabbing her friends hands. "Its not you . . . I do want you but I cant."
The Amazon pulled her hands away letting her frustration get the best of her. "I dont understand. If this is what you want then why? Why did you stop?" The moment she said it she regretted it. Never before has she seen a sadder expression than that of the Queens. "Gabrielle what is it?"
Gabrielle looked up at the taller woman her eyes clouded with tears. "My heart is not my own . . . I cant give it to you." Ephiny couldnt help but smile at such an innocent declaration. The bard continued. "My friend that died . . . Cera. She was more than my friend. She was my lover . . . my soul." Ephiny shook her head. "Im so sorry. I didnt realize."
"How could you? I never told you. Ephiny as much as I want this Im not ready."
"Of course, I understand. Your love Cera . . . she must have been really something to capture your heart. How is it that the Amazons never had the pleasure of meeting her?"
Gabrielle gave Ephiny a small lopsided grin. "We have..I mean we had a very complicated relationship. She had a lot of commitments to keep. So when she needed to do those things well . . . I just came here." She turned away moving toward the window. " I also regret that you never met her."
"Perhaps, one day, you would like to tell me about her."
"Perhaps, one day far from this one. It still hurts too much." It was obvious by the way Ephiny looked at Gabrielle that she cared very much for the heartbroken Queen. Gabrielle blushed at the adoration in the Amazons eyes. She wished that she could just let go . . . let Xena go. It was impossible. The warrior was etched into her being. There would be no respite for the bard.
"My Queen please dont be embarrassed I understand. After Phantes died, I felt very much the same way. It takes time." She pulled the bard into a fierce hug. "Ill wait Gabrielle." She released her and walked toward the door. "Now get some sleep we have a big day tomorrow."
The warlord pulled hard on the tan warhorses reigns. Argo came to a complete stop from almost a dead run. Soil and rock took flight as the horse dug all four hooves in. Xena easily controlled the snorting beast prancing underneath her. She tugged right turning her mount to face the direction they had just come from. Across the green valley her army was approaching. Three hundred of the best soldiers all in formation and all on horseback. Archers in front, swordsmen and catapult riggers behind. On the outside rode four squads of scouts that were ready to break away at a moments notice. When the warlord commanded, it was a matter of how fast not when. Several paces back was the camp help that was protected by two squads of swordsmen. Leading the pack was her two lieutenants Raynos and Dimitrius. Bringing up the rear, where he seemed to spend much of his time, was Mercurio.
She let herself smile at the sight. The warlord realized that this was a well-organized implement of destruction. She could almost understand the fear that others felt at the sight. She raised her arm signaling them to halt then raised two fingers hailing her second in command. Dimitrius was at her side in moments. His black steed shoulder to shoulder with Argo. Xena spoke without eye contact, something she did often. "Well set up camp here. Post sentries on the ridges surrounding camp. Im going to ride up there." She pointed at the farthest ridge to the North. "Ill be back soon . . . gather Mercurio and Raynos Ill want to go over my plans when I get back." Dimitrius nodded.
Xena reigned the warhorse to the North, her purple and gold cape whipping behind her. "Yah!" Argo leaped forward striding up the sloping ground. The warlords cool blue eyes were focused on a site that would provide the perfect view. Dimitrius watched the magnificent form retreat in the setting sun. Silently he hoped that his commander would ask him to her tent tonight and not to discuss battle plans. He shook his head in disappointment. Unfortunately, Xena only allowed that after battle. Well then I hope we have one very soon. Dimitrius smiled and turned his horse back to the waiting army. He felt very fortunate to have become the object of Xenas battlelust. Very fortunate indeed.
It was almost dark when Xena reached her vantage point. She dismounted Argo and walked toward the crest of the ridge. The view that awaited her would have awed any mortal. However, Xena was unimpressed. Her sole purpose was to get a glimpse of the village below. The port town of Isios lie toward the other end of the valley below. Beyond the town border and behind undulating hills lie the start of Amazon lands. Her eyes narrowed as if trying to see into the forested lands that the tribe of women inhabit. Her hand came up to wipe away the sable lock of hair that was thrown into her face from the sea breeze. To the south was the Aegean Sea and from her lookout she could just make out the sandy shores of the coastline. Xena smirked as her stratagem came into focus. Within days she planned to have the Amazon Nation at its knees and control of their beloved lands.
Chapter 10: Meetings
The tips of the wooden staffs meet high in the air. The force of the impact caused both Amazons to stumble back slightly. Eponin quickly recovered and spun her weapon around her head hoping to confuse her shorter opponent. In a powerful move she dropped the staff toward the blonde head. Gabrielle could see the move coming, after all it was Xena who taught Eponin this particular maneuver, deftly she slid to the right letting the staff move down past her shoulder. Eponin was now off balance and the opening was secured. With graceful speed Gabrielle brought her own staff up bracing on end on her hip. Her hands guided the other end right toward Eponins exposed ribs.
"Hmmph" Eponin gasped as she felt wood make contact with the leather at her waist. She fell to one knee ceding defeat. "Enough my Queen . . . Ive had enough." She then rolled over flopping onto her back into the dust of the training grounds. "I cant take any more from such a fierce bard." Her eyes twinkled at the tease.
Gabrielle smiled and decided to play along. She placed a booted foot onto the prone warriors stomach raising her staff in triumph. In her best warrior voice she boomed. "Let this be a warning that on this day . . . a righteous bard from Poteidaia kicked Amazon butt! Now, I shall take my victory lap." She then ran around the training grounds thrusting her staff into the air.
Ephiny and the rest of the Amazons who were observing this mockery of victory couldnt help but laugh at the jubilant Queen. All joking aside she had indeed bested one of her most skilled warriors. It was no small feat. They now had another reason to be proud of their Queen.
"Ephiny" Solari strode toward the blonde Amazon. "Ive got some . . . what is going on?" Solari had just noticed Gabrielle and Eponins antics.
"What Solari dont you recognize a victory lap when you see it?" Solari was now truly confused. Ephiny placed a hand on her friends shoulder. "Ill explain later, now, what is your news."
"Ive got news from the villages. They want a meeting."
Moments later the four Amazons and several Royal Guards were seating in the Council hut. Solari spoke. "The villages want to meet but they insist that both Gabrielle and Ephiny be present." The Queen and the Regent looked surprised for it was customary that one stay in the village. Solari continued. "They trust Ephiny due to past negotiations but they want the Queen.." She looked at Gabrielle. "... so they know that they are being taken seriously."
Gabrielle nodded. "Fine well both go."
"I dont think thats a good idea." Eponin spoke. "Its not safe to have both of you going into an unknown situation." Zeritha commander of the guards nodded in agreement.
"Shes right Gabrielle." Ephiny stood up to get a glass of water. "This could be a very volatile time. We dont know what could happen. I should go alone to talk with the villagers."
"Thats ridiculous Ephiny. You brought me here for my negotiation skills. Besides they requested the Queen." It was the first time Gabrielle pulled rank and she wasnt very comfortable with it but it needed to be done. "I will go . . . this meeting it too important not to."
Ephiny threw her hands up in frustration and was about to speak when Solari interrupted. "The points moot, they want both and they were very clear about it. Ephiny and Gabrielle or no meeting. The meeting is to be in Isios tomorrow evening."
"What is it with these people . . . dont they know we are trying to help them? Why are they giving us commands? We dont owe them this." Ephiny spoke with more frustration than anger.
Gabrielle came to rest a hand on her friends waist. "Eph theyre scared. They want some reassurance thats all . . . can you blame them?"
The Amazon shook her head. " No, Im scared too. Its settled then. Gabrielle and I will go." Ephiny turned and looked to Eponin. "I give you my Right of Caste if anything should happen."
Eponin bowed her head in acceptance then spoke gently. "I will not be needing it. Both of you will return safe and we have no reason to think otherwise."
Ephiny smiled. "Of course. We need to pull some warriors down from the eastern village. Well need to send a runner up there as soon as possible-" Solari was out the door before Ephiny could finish. "Why does she always do that?"
Eponin grinned. "She has a lot of nervous energy. How about you two? We are going to have to send most of the Royal Guard with you plus a good number of warriors. I suggest we send some out tonight to set up perimeters around Isios. Zeritha prepare most of the guard to accompany the Queens. I guess I have to stay here so only leave two with me." Zeritha nodded and she was gone almost as fast as Solari.
Solari stepped back into the hut her task completed. "I just sent the fastest runner . . . we should have more warriors down here by the morning."
Gabrielle nodded. "Im going to leave you all to the arrangements. I need to prepare for the negotiations. Ill be ready early." She turned to walk out the hut.
"Gabrielle." It was Ephiny.
"Your negotiation skills are not the only reason we brought you back here."
The bard smiled. "Thanks"
Dawn came early for the Queen. She had been up most of the night looking at treaties and preparing for the evening meeting. She was concerned on how she was to convince these villages to pick up arms against a warlord. Especially a warlord such as Xena. Destroyer of Nations. Gabrielle closed her eyes at the thought. How could she see her love like this? How could she believe that this cruel person commanding hundreds of men was once the woman who brought her back from the dead? Xena ready to harm her Amazon sisters?
She wasnt sure that she could convince herself . The words of Ephiny replayed in her mind over and over again. She knew in her heart that Xena had truly become the warlord she had fought hard to control. It left her sad and fearful. She hoped that this show of strength would turn the warlord from Amazon lands. The bard had no interest in going to war against the women she loved . . . or once loved. Gabrielle wasnt sure of her feelings anymore. She knew she still loved her Xena. The one that held her at night, protected her, cared for her, made love to her. Was that person still inside of Xena? Gabrielle shook her head in frustration. Of course, she was always a part of Xena . . . it was just a matter of how far she was buried in the warlord. It didnt matter. Gabrielle had a responsibility. She had to do what was right no matter what her heart ached for. Besides she had a promise to keep and that meant trying to stay away from Xena and Xena staying away from Amazon lands.
There was a knock at her door. "Come in"
Ephiny stepped into the hut. Gabrielle noticed that she looked very rested. "Well I see someone slept good last night."
"Yes, and I see someone didnt." Ephiny walked over to the table where the bard sat. It was littered with maps, treaties and unrolled scrolls. "I thought I told you before I left last night to get some rest."
"I did . . . just not very much." The Queen looked down sheepishly knowing that she should have heeded the other Amazons advice.
Ephiny gave her a frustrated look. "We are leaving for Isios in a few candlemarks, I suggest you try to get some sleep until then." She moved behind the bard lifting her gently from her chair and moving her toward the bed.
"Eph . . . I cant sleep I still have too much work to do." Her mouth protested but her body was now lying gently in the blankets Ephiny had just tucked around her.
"Shhh, it wont do to have our Queen looking horrid. Sleep now and Ill send someone to wake you in time for you to get ready."
Gabrielle gave Ephiny an endearing smile. Her green eyes heavy and in need of sleep conveying to the other Amazon a silent thank you. Ephiny bent down to kiss her Queen gently on the lips but stopped herself remembering the other night.
"Its okay." The bard urged softly.
Ephiny let out a light sigh and slowly descended to place a loving kiss upon the weary queen. "Ill see you in a couple of candlemarks. Try to rest." She got up and made her way out of the hut.
Gabrielle watched the strong Amazon leave her hut. Silently she wished that she could fully return her friends love. Perhaps one day she could. She let herself go to Morpheus. Her dreams filled with Amazons and raven-haired warriors.
The Amazon procession rode up to the edge of Isios. They stood upon the hill overlooking the port city. Gabrielle noticed how peaceful it looked in the fading daylight. Ephiny was beside her but did not have the same impression that Gabrielle did. They were both mounted on white Amazon horses. Only the Queens were allowed white horses. Each decorated in full Amazon regalia. On either side of them twenty of the royal guard also sat mounted. Behind them were fifty of the best Amazon warriors. They made quite an impression as they rode into the sleepy seaside village.
Inside the council house several men and a few women had started to gather. They were elders and councilors from the surrounding villages. All had been summoned to this meeting with the Amazons. They were hopeful that some kind of protection agreement could be made. They had already her stories of Xena and were certain she was making her way up here. In fact, she had already claimed two towns just west of Isios. The gathering had begun to discuss this and the conversation began to get heated as disagreements had come up already. The group was obviously divided on their trust and knowledge of the Amazons. "How much do we really know about these women?" An older man from the village Chias spoke out. "For the gods sake . . . they are only women. What can they do? I say give Xena tribute and be done with it!"
"I dont think that would be a wise decision." A gentle voice crossed the room startling all the occupants. Looking for its owner, all eyes widened in awe. At the door stood a woman dressed in brown leathers. Her midriff was bare and the muscles of her stomach flexed with each movement. Her skirt was short showing off the definition of her tanned legs. At her right shoulder was an elaborate set of armor. The gauntlet appeared to be a birds claw made of bronze. In her hand was a staff which she gripped lightly. Although her stature was short, she appeared to be very powerful. Her face was obscured by a finely detailed mask. A fact that many of them regretted. They could tell that her hair was reddish-blonde, however, and her green eyes could be seen and they seemed to be very kind. The room let out a collective sigh.
"Hello, Im Gabrielle . . . Queen of the Amazons." She stepped forward followed by Ephiny and twenty of the Royal Guard. Stationed outside were the fifty warriors. "Im sure you have met the Queen Regent Ephiny." Ephiny came around Gabrielle pulling her mask up. Several of the elders recognized her and nodded in greeting.
"Hello Queen Gabrielle. " an older gentleman stepped out from the crowd. "Im Persius village elder of Isios. Let me apologize for Rudnick.." He pointed at the man whose earlier comment the Queen had spoken to. "Hes the councilor in Chias. Theyve already been visited by Xena once."
Gabrielle pulled her mask up and smiled radiantly. Ephiny caught herself staring. She had only seen Gabrielle in full Queen mode once before. At a funeral? She couldnt really remember. Being Queen really does become her. She smiled inwardly before focusing on the proceedings. Gabrielle spoke. "Its all right. I understand your concerns but I hope that by the end of this meeting we can all come to some amicable arrangement."
On the ridge south of Isios Xena and her lieutenants watched the scene below. Crouched down low in the grass they didnt want to take the chance of being seen. "This is perfect." Xena hissed. She motioned them to return over the ridge crest where they left their horses and her army.
Xena reached Argo bounding upon the mare in agitated grace. "All right listen up. Mercurio when we attack take your men over to the trees. I want to stop any retreat the Amazons might be planning. Raynos you will wait up here. When you see me riding back, you will take most of the army and head south toward Amphipolis. Well meet up back there. Youre going to be my decoy. Dimitrius youll ride into Isios with me you know what to do then."
A sly grin crept onto the warlords face. This was going to be too easy. She moved Argo to the top of the ridge. She waited for the men to get settled behind her. Isios and the Amazons had no chance. After the battle she would only be taking a hundred swordsmen. She wanted to keep her group small so she could move swiftly. The rest would stay with Raynos. Mercurio would take fifty near the trees on the southern hills where she saw the Amazon women travel from. Dimitrius would ride with her. He would be the clean up making sure her retreat would not be followed. Looking toward Isios the sun was beginning its descent. Her eyes narrowed as she raised her arm. She smiled. "ATTACK!" Argo was in a dead run down the hill leaving all others behind. The warlord urged the mare faster leaning forward legs suspending her over the saddle. She loved this part.
"My Queens!" An Amazon warrior burst through the council doors. Ephiny stood up quickly. "An army coming down from the South ridge . . . fast."
Ephiny clenched her jaw. "Heras tits! Ready yourself where under attack."
Gabrielle spun around to Persius. "Do you have a militia?"
The mans face was white. "Y...Yes, but . . . "
Gabrielle interrupted. "Then I suggest you get them because your gonna need em." With that she ran out following Ephinys heals. Zeritha was running toward them she didnt look happy.
"Theres more than a hundred of them charging down the hill. They dont look friendly."
"Whats the color of the banner?" Ephiny had a sinking feeling in her gut.
Solari joined them. "Theyre splitting; several men are heading for the trees trying to block our passage." Gabrielle could see the men of the militia scrambling toward their weapons.
"We need to stay and help these men fight." The bard gripped Ephinys arm. "Its Xena."
Ephiny frowned. "I know . . . Solari gather the archers put them out in front. We need to slow the charge. Pull the rest of the Amazons from the trees . . . half as perimeter protection and half at the battle front." For once Ephiny was glad she over prepared by hiding thirty warriors in the trees. "Gabrielle..please stay out of the fray. Zeritha nobody gets near Gabrielle . . . understand."
Zeritha nodded. "Of course."
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle. "Lets go . . . we need to position ourselves." They ran down the street to the southern border of Isios. The attacking army began to descend upon them. Gabrielle heard Solari let out a shrill bird cry. From the trees thirty women descended half of them rushing past them toward the battle front while the others stayed behind to face Mercurios men.
Gabrielle followed Ephinys lead pulling down her mask to cover her face. She gripped her staff tight ready for the first onslaught. She saw the Amazon archers positioned at the edge of town. Bows pulled and arrows waiting for release. Careening toward them more than a hundred men. Ephiny waited until they were in range. "Archers . . . ATTACK!" Gabrielle heard the snap of release then the whoosh as arrows earned the right to fly. Ephiny yelled again pulling her sword out if its scabbard slicing through the arm of a soldier on horseback. He thought he could scoop the woman up. He was wrong. Ephiny was a skilled swordswoman who wielded her blade with deadly mirth. She ran into the rush of soldiers swinging and thrusting. Soon she was joined by her sisters all fighting with the same intensity. The sound of clashing metal echoed through the village.
The Isios militia joined the melee but it was soon apparent that they were outclassed by the well-trained soldiers. Gabrielle noticed that the soldiers all had the same black armor she had seen from the group that attacked them on their way from Poteidaia. "Of course" she muttered to herself. Xena had been close the whole time. Lying in wait. Her men were now slaughtering the militia. "Zeritha!" The guard commander jerked her head toward the queen. "We need to help the militia . . . send some of the guard over there." She pointed several yards in front. Several of the militia had been separated and now were severely out numbered.
"No!" The tall Amazon shook her head furiously. She would not spare some of her guard. Her job was to protect the Queen. She ducked letting a sword swing over her head. She thrust into her attacker with the breast dagger in her left hand. The man looked shocked then slumped forward into Zerithas arms. She threw him into the dirt before looking back at her Queen. Gabrielle had moved closer to the men her staff connecting with a few heads on the way. "Gabrielle NO!" The bard ignored her. She couldnt let those men get slaughtered. The Royal Guard tightened around Gabrielle battling to keep the soldiers away from their queen. The battle intensified and screams became louder. One after one they fell. Xenas trained killers slashing through the resistance.
Ephiny had just dispatched another horseman. With sweat dripping into her eyes, she turned to look for Gabrielle. She spotted her queen. She was right in the middle of it. Zeritha was still with her but only a few of the royal guard remained standing. She started to run over to the group but then she heard a terrifying battle cry ring out over the battle field. Gabrielle heard it also. They both stared at the dark woman on horseback. Suddenly, Xena appeared out from the raging dust. Her eyes were a wild pale blue and her sword was raised high over her head. Her ebony hair was drenched with sweat her face splattered with blood. The setting sun caste an orange hue on her skin. It was as if she came out of Tartarus herself a horrifying messenger for Hades. She swung her blade cutting the throat of one of the militia. Her teeth bared white in a twisted smile.
"Xena." Gabrielle muttered her eyes wide with emotion. Fear, love and anger swelled up inside of her. It was her. For more than three months she hadnt laid eyes on the warrior and now she was here. It was abhorrent. A dark warrior killing with joy. Soaking up the power of the dead almost feeding off of it. Gabrielle shivered and her knees became weak. In all the danger she had faced before, she had never been more terrified. She was not staring at her Xena she was looking at a nightmare. Her legs locked in place all she could do was stand there frozen focused on the warlord who once was her love.
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny screamed seeing the Queens shocked state. She ran, her only thought was getting to Gabrielle.
Xena whipped her head around to see who had just screamed that name. Her sensitive hearing picked it up over the noise of battle. She saw a masked Amazon running toward another. The woman apparently frozen in fear. She recognized the mask and shoulder armor which signified the queen. Perfect. She whipped Argo toward Gabrielle keeping an eye on the other woman also running toward her Queen.
Ephiny saw Xena too. She knew instantly what was happening. It was a trap. She yelled in desperation. "Zeritha!" She was running hard now trying to outpace the powerful warhorse coming from her right. "Zeritha get Gabrielle out of here!"
Zeritha spun on her heels. She saw it all. Ephiny running hard from the left and the warlord pushing her horse from the right. "Gods, my Queen run." Gabrielle did not move. "Gabrielle!" Zeritha grabbed the bards shoulders. There was no response. The green eyes glazed with shock. "Shit, listen to me you have to move!" She shook the queen hard.
"Who..what?" Gabrielle focused on Zeritha. Her eyes widened at the sight behind her. "By the gods its Xena!!"
Zeritha pushed the bard toward the village. "I know run . . . Ill be right behind you." She turned around when she saw her queen retreating into the village with the remaining Royal Guard. She was met with a boot in the chest. Instinctively she grabbed hold not letting the blow force her to the ground. Xena was almost surprised but had learned to expect anything from these warrior women.
"Well thats original." The warlord taunted the woman who had latched onto her boot. Zeritha looked up and saw two blue eyes daring her. Never one to back down she obliged. With all the strength she could muster she brought one hand up to grasp Xenas gauntlets pulling hard and fast digging her heals underneath the horse. It worked and the warlord was thrown off Argo. Zeritha screamed in triumph. It would be her last.
Gabrielle stopped she had to see what was happening. She saw that Zeritha had managed to dismount Xena. She saw Ephiny approaching fast from behind. Her sword was raised. Shes going to kill her. A reflex prompted the bard to run a few steps toward the scene. Before she realized it, she screamed. "Ephiny NO!"
Ephiny froze for a split second the queens voice breaking her concentration. Xena heard it too. Immediately, her hand went to her chakram aiming it directly at Ephiny. Zeritha charged the warlord throwing herself at her and unbalancing the throw. The chakram skidded by Ephinys ribs creating a deep and painful, but not fatal, wound. Xena growled. "Ive had enough of you Amazon." She pulled out her breast dagger ramming it into the Guard commanders chest. Zerithas eyes clouded with the recognition of defeat. She closed her eyes, to Xenas smile, not wanting it to be the last thing she saw before death. It was. Xena flipped onto Argo. She could not waste time killing the other Amazon.
Gods what have I done. Gabrielle was stunned from the scene. She had saved Xenas life only to have her take one of her own and wound Ephiny. She heard it again. Xenas battle cry. She focused on the warlord coming full force at her. Argos chest muscles rippling with each stride. Dust and blood clinging to the tan color. Xena was there. Crouched down low her blue eyes narrowed, focusing on a goal. Her hands tightening on the warhorses reigns so Gabrielle could see the whiteness of her knuckles. Shes after me . . . shes going to kill me.
A calmness came over the bard as she accepted her fate. She could not fight Xena so she would die today. She looked over at her guard. "This is a command by your Queen . . . leave me and help Ephiny." The women looked at each other reluctant to go. "GO! I demand it." The guard, still reluctant, knew that they could not refuse a command. It was apparent to them that Gabrielle was about to sacrifice her life. They moved from Gabrielle and the oncoming warlord.
Xena watched the display as she approached. So the Queen is sacrificing herself for her Amazons . . . touching. She crouched down lower on Argo bracing herself against the saddlehorn. Still, the Queen did not move.
Gabrielle watched Xena approach. When is she going to draw her sword? Please let it be quick. She could hear Argo and feel the horses hot breath. She closed her eyes expecting to feel the coldness of steel. "Ughhh" Gabrielle groaned as she felt herself being uprooted from the ground. Xenas strong arms lifting her up onto the front of the saddle then wrapping around her tightly. She started to struggle but soon heard a cold voice next to her ear. It made the hair stand up on the back of her neck with excitement and fear.
"Dont do anything stupid Amazon or Ill be forced to use my dagger again." Xena rode past Zerithas dead body for effect. She was pleased when she felt Gabrielle cringe. The warlord rode out of battle yelling for her men to regroup. Dimitrius was at her side quickly. His blonde hair the only thing not completely covered in the aftermath of battle. They rode to the base of the ridge line and waited.
The remaining Amazons gathered around Ephiny. It was now dark and torches were lit to count the survivors. Only sixty warriors remained and two royal guard. Solari rushed toward them. She had been in control of the battle with Mercurios men. She knelt by Ephiny helping her friend stand. Ephiny spoke her breath catching at each word. "How did it go?"
Solari gripped Ephiny tighter putting the womans arm around her shoulder letting one support the weight of the other. "Brutal . . . lost a bunch Eph but we got our licks in." Ephiny smiled but inwardly mourned for her fallen sisters. Solari scanned the group for Gabrielle. "Ephiny, wheres Gabrielle?"
Ephiny let her head drop. "I dont know I passed out. Zerithas dead." Just then one of the surviving Amazons yelled. "Theyre coming back!"
"Oh, for the love of Artemis . . . Eph I need to get you out of here." Solari wanted to move the Queen Regent to safety then find Gabrielle.
Ephinys eyes focused on the approaching group. It was Xena. Her men held torches illuminating the triumphant warlord. She could see Xena and she had someone with her. "Wait Solari..I think we just found out what happened to Gabrielle." Her voice was a whisper deathly afraid for her Queen. The Amazons stood there waiting for the group to reach them. The militia had been wiped out and the towns people were now shut in their homes fearful of retribution. Xenas ambush had worked. Now there was only the Amazons and the warlord.
Xena approached the group. Her breast dagger was now plainly seen at Gabrielles throat. She stopped Argo in front of the Ephiny and Solari. With a look Dimitrius had dismounted with his sword held ready. He pulled Gabrielle down from Argo holding his sword to her back. Xena dismounted almost lazily sliding off of her horse. She strolled in front of Ephiny. Her blue eyes twinkling at her acquisition. "Hello Ephiny . . . its been a long time."
Ephiny stood straighter but still remained supported by Solari. Her arm wrapped around her side protecting her gaping wound. "It hasnt been long enough." She spit out her greeting through clenched teeth. She looked at Gabrielle. Her mask was still on so she couldnt see her face. Her green eyes uncharacteristically emotionless. She could tell, however, that she was trying to be brave by the way she held her shoulders up. "I see you have something we want."
Xena smirked and tossed a sideways glance at Gabrielle. "Oh, you must mean her." She walked over to the bard. "Kind of small for a queen." She smiled at the tightening she sensed in Ephiny as well as the other Amazons. "I was touched to see how loyal you are to your Queen. Sorry I had to kill most of the Royal Guard but they were slowing me down." Xena drawled letting a bored look come over her face.
"Yes, Xena we are very loyal and we dont forgive or forget harm that comes to our Queen." Ephiny winced as a sharp pain raced up from her side.
Xena was done taunting the Amazons she had things to do. She pulled up Gabrielles mask looking at the Queen for the first time. Green eyes met blue and a flash of recognition shot through the warlord. Why did this Amazon stop Ephiny from taking her life? The battle scene quickly played in Xenas mind. It was as if she were protecting her. It halted her momentarily but was gone quickly. Gabrielle saw it and her heart stopped for a second. Xena shook her head as if she had just been hit. She moved to cover her reaction quickly. "Shes very pretty . . . wouldnt want anything to happen to that beautiful face." She ran her finger down the bards face. Gabrielle, as frightened as she was, couldnt stop the flood of memories that touch created. Her knees were weak from the closeness of her. Gods help her but Gabrielle still thought Xena was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
"What do you want Xena?!" Ephiny was angry and she did nothing to hide it now.
Xena turned quickly her eyes shooting daggers at Ephiny. "You have ten days to give up Amazon land to me . . . or the Queen dies."
Ephiny went pale. "What?"
Gabrielle heard and spoke quickly, her duty as Queen not forgotten.. "No! Amazons will not give up their land not for me or anyone else."
"Shut up!" Xenas vicious backhand connected with Gabrielles jaw and sent the bard tumbling to the ground. Solari moved forward letting Ephiny support herself. She was stopped by Xenas sword pointing at her neck. "Step back Amazon," Xena hissed the warning. Solari moved back to Ephiny. The warlord turned around and lifted Gabrielle up off the ground. Her hand forcefully controlling the Queen by the neck.
"Ephiny look at your precious queen." She thrust Gabrielle forward letting the Amazon see the blood which was trickling out of the bards mouth. Gabrielle locked eyes with Ephiny willing her thoughts to be heard. No Ephiny you cant do it. Imperceptible to everyone else but Ephiny the bard shook her head no. She wasnt about to let Xena use her to destroy her sisters.
Ephiny almost broke at the sight of her Queen being abused by Xena but then she saw the strength in Gabrielles eyes. In that gut wrenching moment she knew that Gabrielle was right. Amazons could not give up their lands . . . no matter what the costs. Looking directly into Xenas eyes, her voice was level as she spoke. "Xena..as Queen Regent I now proclaim you an enemy of all the Amazon Nation. Once you leave here you will be hunted down and brought to justice for your crimes. If you leave here with the Queen, you will be hunted period."
Xena gave Ephiny a crooked smile raising her left eyebrow at the same time sending shivers down the Amazons spine. "Foolish Ephiny.." She hit Gabrielle in the stomach sending the bard down to her knees gasping for air. "You do not control anything here. Im giving you ten days. We can do it the easy way or the hard way. You give up lands and I return the queen alive. You dont give up lands then I return the Queen dead and I take your lands killing most if not all of you. Your choice."
"No Xena, there is no choice. Amazons will not give up Artemis sacred ground. You are now a hunted woman." Ephiny stood firm but her insides felt like jelly. She would have done anything at that moment to have saved Gabrielle but her duty would not allow it. Damn you Xena.
Xena spun around her cape spiraling behind. She effortlessly vaulted onto Argo her strong legs resting in the stirrups. She motioned for Dimitrius to bring the hurting Queen to her. She pulled Gabrielle up roughly by the arm eliciting a slight whimper from the Amazon. She stopped instantly. "Dimitrius help her up." Her second was confused but did as he was told. The gesture was small but it was the first time he had seen the warlord stop her action due to a whimper.
Xena secured the bard in her arms and a dagger was once again poised at her neck. "Ten days Ephiny or you will have a dead Queen and a dead nation." She turned Argo toward the hill at a full gallop. Dimitrius mounted his steed and sneered at the women. He knew that they were too outnumbered to follow so he motioned for his men to go. He noticed Mercurio was there and his men were few. He always did get the worst of it. With a wave of his arm the men followed the warlord up and over the ridge.
Ephiny collapsed to the ground. The pain from the wound and her denial to Xena was too much. She blacked out thinking of Gabrielle.
Continued in Part 3
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