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The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, and the Amazons are the property of MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended. The story however is mine. There are scenes of violence, and though not graphic in nature may upset those with a sensitive nature.
This is the third part of a story called That Road Once Trodden, that started out as something to keep me awake when on night duty and has turned into a personal quest.
Thank you once again to all those that have e-mailed me. I hope you enjoy this instalment.
XFLS:- if your out there I’ve lost you e-mail address please get in touch.
THAT ROAD ONCE TRODDEN -- Part Three
by Karen Surtees
Solari was loath to leave the cool shade of the Temple to join the Amazon warriors gathered at the bottom of the steps, but their work there was done. When she had first heard of their Queen’s predicament she had been eager to help. Getting the instructions for building a cell that could hold Xena, back to the village had not been a problem. That was until she had started thinking about it. Xena’s strength was legendary, she had come back from the dead, how did they expect to hold her in a cell? But she had been tasked with organising a work party to construct it, and that is what she had done.
The first problem had been finding a suitable room or cave to turn into a cell. Xena had said it should have only one small entrance, preferably be made from stone, be dark and cold. They had at first considered using the storage caves, but none of them had really been suitable, and it would have taken days, which they didn’t have to move the stores anyway. None of the Amazon huts were strong enough to hold the enraged Xena, and so the project had almost ground to a halt even before it had begun. Eventually the Priestess from the Temple had solved the problem by offering the use of the underground cellars. The next problem had been finding someone the same size a Xena, so that the chains and bindings that would hold her would be the right length. In the end they’d used the biggest Amazon in the camp and then guessed. The chains had been provided and fitted by the smith from the Centaur village, and two of the horsemen had managed to get into the cellars to test them. All the cell needed now was an occupant. Still Solari was unsure the cell would contain Xena for long.
Stepping into the heated sunlight Solari left the shelter of the Temple and made her way to the small gathering below.
"Any sign yet?" she asked as she joined the group.
"None of the scouts have reported back. They can’t be far off though if the left the day after you." Came the reply from a tall Auburn haired warrior. Kiaya was an Amazon from birth, standing just below six feet, she was a lithe muscular woman, Known for her lethal weapons skills and her arrogance. The only person she seemed to have any real respect for was Eponin and that was only because she had beaten her in combat; it was not that Eponin was any more skilful than Kiaya, just that she knew how to use it and didn't lose her temper and get careless in the middle of a fight. Kiaya had just returned from an apprenticeship with the northern clans and hadn't yet had the pleasure of meeting the new Queen or her partner. It was causing some of the more seasoned warriors some concern. Kiaya could be a little over confidant of her skill at times. Her challenge of Eponin at the age of sixteen had gone down in the history scrolls, though Kiaya had spent several weeks under the care of the healers as a result. She enjoyed challenging other warriors to sparring sessions and tag matches; she liked the fact that everybody knew she was better and more skilful than they were. The elder warriors just hoped she wouldn't take it into her head to challenge Xena, from what Solari had to say the Warrior Princess was likely to tear her limb from limb just for looking at her.
"Well let's get out of this sun. There's nothing more we can do until they arrive." The group broke up some heading for their huts, Solari and Kiaya for the dinning hut. The sound of galloping horses warned them of approaching riders before they burst into the Village Square in a cloud of dust. The two Amazon riders sat upon foam splattered horses, covered in dust and sweat from their hard ride. Solari recognised them as two of the outriders sent to protect the Queen. Grabbing hold of the reins she managed to calm the agitated horses, as the two riders slid to the ground.
"What's wrong?" Solari knew there was trouble, the outriders would never have left the queen unless something had happened.
"What's not wrong, would be a better question," replied the smaller of the two Amazons as she tried to catch her breath, " we ran into a raiding party last night. Xena took care of them; didn't return to camp for a while after. When she did get back she was a little tense, but was under control. So at first light we pack up," she paused and drank as a waterskin was pushed into her hand, 2 got to the border just after midday. Then all Tartarus broke loose. Temara and Della came down from the watchposts, but managed to spook Ephiny's horse as they landed. The damn thing reared and threw the Queen, knocked her out cold. Xena just went berserk." She looked around at the concerned faces of the gathering Amazons, then continued. "If Ephiny hadn't pulled everyone back it would have been a blood bath, Zeus, the woman isn't even armed, but both Temara and Della need the healers. The thing is it's turned into a standoff. Ephiny wants two of the healers and some archers sent out now. She asked for the healers to bring Soneral elixir." Solari gazed intently at the Amazon, thinking to herself before replying.
"Okay, you two go roust the healers, get them packed and ready to go. Kiaya, I want five more of the best archers we have. I think I know what Ephiny's planning but I want to get there quickly. We leave in half a candlemark.
Gabrielle had been in this position a few times before and found it oddly comforting. Waking up with a pounding head was preferable to not waking up at all. She knew she was lying on the ground because several twigs and rocks were poking into her back. She knew she was lying in the forest because of the coolness from the shadows and the odd patch o warmth where the sunlight had broken through the trees. What she couldn't figure out was why she was waking up with a pounding head lying on the forest floor, when they were in friendly territory. Surely the Amazons hadn't revolted during Ephiny's short absence? She quite clearly remembered getting to the border and two Amazons descending from the trees to greet them, but after that sadly everything was lacking. Well, she thought raising her hand to the bump on the back of her head, maybe she ought to open her eyes and see what was going on.
Ephiny was cursing herself for not having though ahead enough to recognise that Amazons descending from the trees with an already edgy Xena, was probably not a good idea. Admittedly nobody could have foreseen her horse spooking and throwing Gabrielle, but still. Now she stood with the other Amazons a fair distance from their fallen Queen, with probably the most dangerous fighter the Amazon nation had ever encountered in a blind rage, convinced that they had tried to kill her partner. As far as Ephiny could see the only reason Xena hadn't pursued them was because it would mean leaving Gabrielle, and it was only the knowledge that Xena honestly thought she was protecting the bard from attack that had prevented Ephiny from letting the outriders use their poison tipped arrows against her. Her retreat hadn't been quick enough to prevent injury though. Xena's lightening attack had felled the two descending Amazons within seconds, the only reason they weren't dead was because Xena had stopped to check Gabrielle once they'd fallen. Eponin had seen the danger immediately and pulled the unconscious Amazons from the reach of the enraged warrior. Ephiny had order everyone back then, but not before two of the outriders had fired their arrows at Xena. Fortunately or unfortunately, Ephiny hadn't quite decided which, the warrior had just plucked them from the air. Now they were at an impasse. Xena was quite obviously in a rage, but didn't seem able to move more than a couple of paces from the injured Gabrielle's side and Ephiny had no way of calming her down or moving her. Sending riders back to the village for help had been the only thing she could think of.
Ephiny, the weapons master realised was so deep in thought that she hadn't seen Gabrielle move so she gave her a quick jab in the ribs with her elbow. When she'd gotten her attention she nodded towards their young Queen.
"She's coming around." The hushed voice whispered into the Regents ear. "Xena hasn't noticed yet. Do you think she'll be okay?" Ephiny kept her voice low.
"Yeah, She seems to recognise her enough to want to protect her from us, so I think she'll be alright." All eyes flickered back to their Queen as she let out a small groan. Xena stopped pacing and fell to her knees next to the bard and gently brushed the blonde hair from her face. All the Amazons saw their young Queens eyes open and the smile that appeared on her face as she looked at the warrior above, and they all saw the warrior relax as the Queen spoke her name.
The world was a little blurred as she opened her eyes, but Gabrielle immediately recognised the concerned face of her partner. A smile crossed her face that slowly turned into a frown as she looked into Xena's eyes. Something was wrong.
"Xena?" Gabrielle saw some of the tension leave the warriors face, but that deadly edge still remained in those crystalline eyes. Carefully she took hold of Xena's arm and pulled herself into a sitting position, gently supported by her friend. Once the slight dizziness had left her she gazed around the small clearing. The Amazons she saw stood a good stones throw away from where they were sat, Gabrielle's frown deepened as she saw that two of them were injured. None of them including Ephiny and Eponin seemed eager to approach.
"Xena, why are all the Amazons stood over there? And how did those two get hurt?" Gabrielle's gaze stayed on the Amazons; she got no reply from the warrior.
"Xena?" She transferred her gaze back to the warrior seeing the anger building on her face. "Xena? What's wrong?" Still she got no answer, and Xena slowly rose to her feet. "Oh, Gods." Said Gabrielle aloud, knowing that something had really upset her partner this time.
Solari and her small band moved quickly through the treetops, they had left their mounts some distance back. Unsure of what they might find, Solari had felt more secure approaching on foot, crashing in on horses didn't seem a wise idea. She had split the group up so that they could surround the border clearing, Solari hoped that an all fronts attack would be enough to stop the warrior if it were required. She slowed her pace allowing the healers to come abreast of her as they neared the border.
Gabrielle scrambled quickly to her feet, forcing the wave of dizziness down, and putting herself between the Xena and the Amazons. Grabbing hold of each of her arms, she physically forced the warrior to a halt, stopping her from advancing towards the Amazons any further. Shaking her arms Gabrielle forced Xena to make eye contact with her.
"What happened?" she asked over her shoulder in a voice load enough to reach Ephiny but not enough to startle her friend.
"My horse spooked and threw you. And Xena, ... well I think she must have thought Temara and Della were attacking, cause she kinda lost it." A small movement to the rear of Xena caught the bard's attention. Refocusing she saw several Amazons slowly moving through the trees.
"Anybody else hurt?" The Amazons moved out of the trees and Gabrielle could see their bows notched and felt the tension rise in Xena as her senses picked up the new arrivals.
"No, no-one else get hurt, well apart from you. Temara and Della will be alright once they've seen the healers." Ephiny had also seen the Amazon re-enforcement's, then felt Solari's presence by her side. Quietly she spoke to her. "You bring the healers?"
"Yeah, and I've spread everyone else out. The arrows are coated in Soneral, the healer said it would take a few minutes to absorb through the skin, but it will work almost instantly if introduced into the blood."
"Is there a chance we might overdose her doing this?"
"They were a little vague on that."
"Great, just what I need, vague answers. Hopefully it won't come to that Gabrielle seems to be handling it at the moment." She returned her attention back to the Queen as she heard her voice.
"Ephiny, tell everyone to move back a couple of paces."
"Gabrielle I'm not sure that's a wise move."
"Don't argue with me Ephiny. She's upset enough as it is, they're only making it worse." Ephiny sighed but waved the warriors back. Gabrielle now refocused herself totally on her friend.
"Xena, nobody was attacking me. Ephiny's horse just spooked and threw me thats all. Okay?" Gabrielle was concentrating entirely on her friend and didn't see the Auburn haired Amazon to her side draw back on her bow. "Xena, I need you to calm down and relax a little. Everything's..." She knew the moment she failed, and would in the coming weeks wonder if she could have done something to prevent it. It was only a small change, a slight crease to her face, hardness to the eyes that warned her. She didn't have time to remove her hands before Xena shook her off and pushed her forcefully away. The warrior turned sharply ignoring the bards cry as she hit the ground, and snatched the quarrel that had been fired at her, from the air. Then launched herself at the attacking Amazon.
Ephiny had actually started to believe they were going to avert an all out confrontation, until she saw Kiaya fire the quarrel at Xena. She felt her heart sink as she saw the warrior throw the bard from her and catch the arrow. There would be no way now that Gabrielle would be able to talk her down, or prevent her from tearing Kiaya limb from limb, not that she didn't deserve it for disobeying orders. She took a deep breath, knowing that explaining to Gabrielle what she was about to do would be hard and gave the signal to fire.
Gabrielle watched with mounting horror as she realised that one of the Amazons had actually attacked Xena. The warrior had almost reached the auburn haired warrior before a rain of Amazon arrows flew towards her. Not bothering to try and catch them she just batted most of them to the ground. None of the arrows managed to embed themselves in the warrior, but she had several deep gashes. She actually got her hands around the Amazons throat before the Soneral took effect, and knocked her out. Gabrielle sat stunned watching as her partner fell unable to comprehend what had gone wrong.
Eponin waited until the warrior was completely down before pulling one of the healers with her to check on the warrior.
"Kiaya," she said as she approached. "Put your bow away and step back." The tall warrior grinned at the weapons master and did as she was told. "And wipe that grin off your face, before the Queen does." The grin disappeared. Eponin turned her attention back to the healer who was on her knees next to the fallen warrior. "She okay?" the healer shrugged.
"Hard to say. She's absorbed a lot, but she's still breathing." The weapons master looked over the healer's shoulder and nodded to Ephiny who was crouching next to the still sitting form of their Queen.
Ephiny braced herself for the hurt she knew she was going to see in Gabrielle's eyes. She was thankful for Eponin's nod of reassurance; at least they hadn't killed her.
"Gabrielle?" She knelt slowly down next to her young Queen and gently rested her hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle' she's okay, the arrows only had a sedative on them." Gabrielle looked her straight in the face and Ephiny saw the anger in the emerald eyes and winced.
"Only had a sedative on them. Hades bells, Ephiny." She hissed getting to her feet. "You just fired a full volley of arrows at my best friend for defending herself. You can try explaining that one to her when she wakes up." She let her eyes travel around the Amazon warriors then looked back at the Regent. "She's just gotten over some major injuries she didn't need any more. That and the fact that there was no need for it. I was calming her down. I can understand why Xena doesn't always trust my judgement." She began walking over to her fallen friend, Ephiny keeping pace on her shoulder. "But I expected a little more respect from you, at least where Xena's concerned."
"I know Gabrielle, I'm sorry. Kiaya wasn't supposed to fire unless the order was given. I don't."
"I'm not interested in excuses Ephiny. Lets just get her back to the village." Both the healers were now tending to the warrior. "How soon before we can move her?" She asked standing beside them, but looking at the Amazon warrior stood beside Eponin.
"It's just a matter of patching up these wounds. None of them are too serious, then we'll get a pallet built for her."
"No, she'll go back to the village on Argo with me. I'll not have her slung over some horse or dragged into the village like a piece of meat or some prize." She gave a hard look at the Amazons. "She has her dignity and I won't allow anyone to damage that any more than it needs to be. Understand? Good." She turned back to Ephiny. "Round up Argo for me and lets get going."
It was a sombre party that Eponin strode from the palace to meet. When she’d left earlier that afternoon the atmosphere had been one of simmering anger. Ephiny had in the end asked her to ride ahead and take Kiaya with her, just to help easy the tension. The looks the Amazon had been receiving from their Queen were not pleasant; if any one had been in the mood to ask Eponin would have sworn Xena had been giving her lessons in the intimidating look department. The sun was still high when the tired horses plodded into the village, Amazons appeared from the surrounding huts to tend to the mounts for their travel weary friends. Gabrielle sat amid the Amazons on Argo cradling the still unconscious warrior. Eponin watched as she leaned down to listen to the now dismounted Ephiny, and shook her head. The weapons master could see the Regents temper fraying around the edges, obviously upset with Gabrielle she raised her head to the sky and ran her hand through her blonde hair. Dropping her hand to her side she spoke again. This time Gabrielle just ignored her and prodded Argo into moving towards the Temple. Ephiny raised her hands in frustration, sighed, then followed her. Eponin decided she really ought to go and see what the problem was before open warfare broke out between the two of them. As she got nearer she realised that the argument must have been flowing for some time because they seemed to be going over the same ground.
"Ephiny I said no, and that’s exactly what I meant." Gabrielle pulled Argo to a halt at the bottom of the Temple steps
"But Gabrielle," Ephiny sighed in exasperation, " the healers said she’d be out for ages yet. There would be no danger in having them treat her wounds in the hut, they’ve got all the tools and herb’s over there, and their worried infection might set in if we put."
Ephiny which part of no don’t you understand? If Xena needs further treatment she gets it in the cell and that’s final!" she noticed Eponin walking towards them and nodded a greeting. "Now get some help. I want her secured soon."
"Hades bell’s Gabrielle she’s out cold what difference will a few candlemarks make?!" The Regent was about to launch into a full-blown rage at the Queens stubbornness when Eponin’s hand touched her arm. Twisting round she saw Eponin and yelled, "You talk some sense into her!" and stormed off.
"EPHINY!" The Regent had never heard that steely tone in Gabrielle’s voice before, it brought her to a halt and she looked over her shoulder. Several of the Royal Guard surrounded Argo and Gabrielle was carefully handing Xena down to them. Eponin held Argo’s reins as the bard slid slowly to the ground, legs buckling slightly from disuse. When she felt a little more secure on her feet she released her hold on Argo’s saddle and walked over to the Regent. "Look I’m right about this. Her body works at a much faster rate than ours does, you know that. A couple of candlemarks will make a difference."
"We’ll use restraints and put guards with her, at least the healers will be able to treat her properly."
"You really think restraints and guards would make a difference. Ephiny, Xena is not going to wake up the same Warrior Princess you all love to hate. I saw the change in her eyes Ephiny. I had one chance to pull her back and I lost it. Lost her. The last thing she’ll remember is an Amazon attacking her. If you really want the death of the healers and anyone else that gets in her way on your hands, then by all means go ahead, take her to the healing hut." Her gazed possessed a fiery glint and Ephiny hung her head.
"Are you sure Gabrielle?"
"I know that woman better than anyone else, better than myself; but I did not know the person who stood before me in those last few seconds."
"Okay, okay," Ephiny said with resignation. "You win."
"No, I didn’t," the bard said quietly as she turned walking towards the palace "I lost."
Solari dropped two wineskins, next to Ephiny’s arm and sat with an exhausted thud. The Regent slowly lifted her head from the table and gave her a weak smile.
"How’s it going?"
"Ask me again when I’ve finished both of the wineskins.," said Solari as she poured wine into her mug and took a hearty drink.
"That good, huh." Gabrielle had been right, thought Ephiny as she watched Solari relax after spending the last few candlemarks down at the cell. Not half a candlemark after Xena had been chained, she came around. Luckily for Cassandra one of the village healers, she had just left to get some more warm water. Had she been within reach of the warrior she would have most probably been killed. As it was all Xena had to attack were the chains holding her. Gabrielle hadn’t reappeared from her quarters, and Ephiny was hopping the exhausted girl was sleeping. So it had fallen to her to check on the warrior with Eponin. It hadn’t been pretty. After the initial outburst from the chained warrior everybody had thought she would have calmed down as she realised how securely she was restrained, she hadn’t. By time Ephiny and the weapons master had arrived, Xena had managed to rub her wrists, ankles, and neck bloody where the chains had abraded them. The pins holding the chains in place shook with the force exerted on them each time the warrior tried to rip herself free. Ephiny had left the cellars echoing to Xena’s howls of rage, leaving orders for the guards to be doubled and for the healers to prepare more arrows with Soneral. She privately ordered Eponin to prepare arrows with deadliest poison they had and to issue them to the royal guard. All that remained to be done was to discipline Kiaya, but that could wait for tomorrow. Solari had started the second wineskin when Ephiny shook herself from her thoughts.
"Has she slowed down at all?" She knew the Warrior Princess was strong, but the constant battering of the chains couldn’t go on much longer, either the chains would give or she would.
"Yeah, I think the cold is starting to get to her a little and she hasn’t eaten or drank for over a day. Cassandra and Eponin are going to try and dart her again in the next candlemark or so. Cassandra says, if she doesn’t change the bandages on the wounds they’ll get infected and I think she wants to pad the shackles."
"Gods I shudder to think how Gabrielle and Cyrene would have dealt with this alone."
"I’m glad she came to us for help."
"I’m not," replied the Regent. "It’s bad enough seeing her torn up like this. I don’t want to be the one to order the death of her bestfriend. She’s hardly talking to me as it is"
"Eph’ she’s tired to the bone and not thinking straight. She knows in her heart there was nothing you could have done. Kiaya disobeyed orders. You didn’t give the order to the rest of them until you had no choice. What are you going to do with Kiaya by the way?"
"I don’t know, I’ll worry about that tomorrow. Gods why does this have to be so hard, and why me?" Ephiny let her head drop back to the table.
"Hey, someone’s got to get the hard jobs, right?" Solari plonked a mug of wine in front of her friend with a grin; the Regent returned it with a sad smile before drinking.
Gabrielle had gone straight to her rooms in the palace just to get away from everybody> Her head was still pounding and she felt as though she’d been in a fight with a Cyclops in a bad mood, and lost. Her body ached from top to toe. She couldn’t believe the argument she’d had with Ephiny. It was ironic, normally she would have been arguing with the Regent for Xena to be taken to the healers hut. The Amazons still treated the Warrior Princess with a cool reserve. Gods talk about role reversal. Xena, Gabrielle knew would not have expected anything less from the bard. One of the conditions she had set for going along with this plan had been that Gabrielle not delude herself into thinking that this was something the warrior would just snap out of. She had said, it would be up to Gabrielle to ensure that she did no harm. She had made the bard swear an oath on their friendship that if that meant ordering her death she would do it. Gabrielle had viscously opposed that, but Xena had quietly pointed out that the Amazons were her responsibility. That she was putting them all in danger by insisting on this and it was her job to insure their safety. The bard could find no reply to her wisdom, and begrudgingly agreed. Still, it didn’t bring any relief to the depression she felt settling on her shoulders as she lay staring at the ceiling. She had truly not recognised her friend in that last instant in the clearing, not even when they had faced the horde, had those eyes shown so much darkness, it was almost palpable. Just thinking about it sent shivers down her spine. Could Xena ever fight her way back against that? Or would she rely on her bestfriend to end her struggle? Gabrielle didn’t know whether or not she was strong enough to do this, but if she didn’t it would fall to Ephiny and she wouldn’t lay that guilt on anybody else’s doorstep. The bard felt a wave of despair wash over her and tears began to fall from her eyes. Eventually her body succumbed to the exhaustion it felt and she slipped into a restless sleep tears still falling, longing for the comforting arms of the warrior to hold her.
The camp was not large, as army camps go, but it was well laid out and organised. The cooking and living areas were upwind of the latrines; the armies’ mounts were hitched to either side providing easy access for their riders. The sentries were well placed and disciplined. The only things that were slightly unusual were the two large tents at the centre of the camp. One obviously belonged to the warlord running the army, his mount was stabled just outside the entrance that his soldiers guarded and his lieutenants used frequently. The other was made completely from black material, which had an unusual texture to it that the men hated; it left their hands feeling unclean and spoiled. A permanent coldness seemed to emanate from it. The soldiers for the most kept their distance, not liking the implied evilness that enveloped it. To be fair though at this precise moment everybody was keeping away from the warlord’s tent as well. Raised voices usually meant swift retribution, it didn’t matter if you weren’t the cause of the problem, and you could still be on the reciting end of the punishment if you were near enough.
"What do you mean they didn’t get her?"
"Just that. We sent scouts out this morning when they were overdue." Alriss looked at his employer. The man was of average height and weight, greying in years, though he had a deceptively youthful face surrounding his deep mahogany eyes. The only thing that marred his beauty was the scar running from the left corner of his mouth to his earlobe. What made Alriss most uncomfortable though was that once he left the tent, if anyone asked him to describe him to them he would be hard pressed to remember any details; they just slipped from memory. Not even his clothes were memorable all he wore was black. Well at least he paid well and in advance too.
"Did they find anything?"
"Just a few mutilated bodies, it seems the Warrior Princess is not as incapacitated as we’d hoped."
"She would be if you’d gotten that bard away from her. Did your men at least manage to find out where they went?"
"Yes, just as you said they were heading to the Amazon village, but that’s all they could say. They couldn’t get onto the hunting grounds to confirm it, but that’s the only place they could have gone."
"Then that’s where we’re going too. When can we be ready to move?"
"If you want to go into the Amazon nation, I’m going to have to bring up the rest of my army. That will take two or three days. Three days to get to the hunting grounds. A day or so after that we could be in the village it depends on how much of a fight they put up." The black robed man stared intently at him and then closed his eyes standing perfectly still. An earie chill spread around him, Alriss took an uncertain step back. When he opened his eyes again no colour showed only black orbs.
"Very well you have eight days, but at the end of those eight days I want that village destroyed and I want that bard dead." He reached over his shoulders and pulled a black cowled hood over his head and left. Alriss let out the breath he didn’t even realise he’d been holding and called in his second.
In the last two days life at the Amazon village had quietly returned to some semblance of normality. Except for the regular change of guard within the Temple everything on the surface was fine. Gabrielle could have almost convinced herself that it was all a bad dream, that Xena was off somewhere battling a warlord or helping some friend. That was until Ephiny Eponin, Solari or even Cassandra came to give her one of their daily reports on her friend. At first they’d been afraid that her strength would be to much to handle, the day after she’d been chained they had been forced to sedate her so they could move the pins holding the chains she’d managed to move them that much. Slowly though the coldness of the cell had penetrated her body, lack of sleep food, water and just the sheer energy use, had slowed her down to an almost manageable level. The healers had been using blowpipe darts to administer Soneral twice a day to enable them to change her dressings and get some fluids into her. Unfortunately the constant use of the drug meant that Xena was becoming resistant to it, larger and larger quantities had to be used to knock her out for shorter periods of time. Gabrielle had not been to see her friend; she had no wish to see her chained like an animal. Instead she’d spent the two days with the Amazon Council sorting out business affairs, when she’d not been with them; she’d been with the scholars trying to find the cause of Xena’s ailment. When the outriders had searched the raiders that had attacked them, they had found several tokens and seals. A little research had shown them to belong to the warlord Alriss, and after sending out scouting parties, his growing army had been located with the help of informants in several villages, just over two days march away.
Gabrielle was sat in the council chambers studying several scrolls when Ephiny appeared a sense of urgency in her stride. Gabrielle looked up.
"Problem?" she asked.
"Yeah, could be." She said sliding into a seat near the bard.
"Alriss is on the move, in three days he’ll be on our borders. His army is about two hundred strong."
"Well that confirms it, at least we know he’s involved in all of this. Are we strong enough to hold him?" Ephiny shook her head
"I doubt it, I’ve sent runners to the other villages to get help, but they will outnumber us. One other piece of information though. One of the traders that have been into Alriss’ camp said they had some sort of priest with them. Apparently none of the soldiers would say much except that he was the one paying for this campaign."
"Which means," Gabrielle murmured thoughtfully, "that the Gods are somehow involved in this. Huh, and now it all starts to make sense. I wonder where Ares hand are in all this?" Ephiny saw a spark in Gabrielle’s eyes that she hadn’t seen for sometime. "It makes you wonder doesn’t it?" Ephiny just nodded as some of Gabrielle’s pent up anger exploded. Throwing the scroll she’d been reading onto the table, she stood, violently slamming her chair back.
"You know for once I just wish they’d stop there meddling. For nearly three years now all she’s done is good. She fights against her dark soul constantly. You’d think that for once, when we finally get the chance to rest they’d leave her alone. But oh, no they can’t quite find it in themselves to give her a little peace. Do they really get that much pleasure out of tormenting her?" She was pacing around the chamber now occasionally knocking a chair out of her way. A head peaked around the door as one of the Royal Guard checked on the commotion, Ephiny waved her away, it would do Gabrielle good to get rid of some of her anger. Gabrielle carried on her tirade.
"The one place people were starting to accept her as a person instead of some demon warlord was Amphipolis. So what do they do? Hey, just send a small army to wipe it out while she’s there. That’ll soon remind everybody of what she was, what she’s still capable of. Oh, how I’d love to get my hands on the God that pulled this one out of the bag. I wish for once, even if it was just for a day, everybody would leave her alone!"
The courtyard had a glowing radiance to it, that not even the brilliant sunshine could account for. In the centre next to a clear blue pool of water, sat a handsomely dark figure. Chuckling to himself he stood and stretched.
"Find something funny Ares?" The God of War turned and a genuine smile graced his face.
"Sis, long time no see. Actually I was just looking in on your neck of the woods."
"I know," the warrior Goddess sat down by the pool and gazed into it seeing Gabrielle her Amazon Queen storming around the council chambers of the village.
"Quite a little firecracker when she gets going, isn’t she?" asked Ares.
"And there was me thinking you didn’t care."
"Hey, what can I say? She grows on you. Well how goes it?"
"My priestess’s have mobilised the northern clans. Ephiny will find a few more Amazon warriors arrive than she expected. They will be able to hold and possibly defeat Alriss’s army providing he gets no outside assistance. But that’s your department brother, can you do it?"
"Hades has promised a legion of his best."
"We don’t need his best, we need yours. Can you find her?"
"I can break through to her, but only for a short period, about half a day. If it’s not over by then we’re in trouble."
"There’s no one else after Xena?"
"I have many chosen Artemis, but there is only one Warrior Princess."
"Have a day doesn’t leave them much time."
"It’s all I can offer." Said the God stroking his dark beard. "And remember she’s got to ask for it."
"Well it looks like a little pre-emptive strike is required."
"What are you going to do?"
"Me Ares? I’m going to meddle a little. I think it’s about time we let my Queen and your pesky bard into the game." With that she disappeared.
Gabrielle sat curled, wrapped in a soft blanket, in the large chair next to the fire in her outer chambers. Her head was back resting, eyes closed, her hands clasped tightly round a warm cup of mulled wine. It was the first time she’d had to herself since Ephiny had told her Alriss’s army was on the move. She was hoping a little quiet time would ease the tension she felt somewhat. Her mind though had other ideas. Alriss and his army would reach the border late tomorrow evening and Ephiny expected his attack the next day. Enforcement’s had been arriving from the other villages, but as Ephiny had said they would be out numbered. What Gabrielle would dearly have loved to be able to do was ask Xena for advice, without a doubt she would have been able to see a way out of this. A quiet knock roused her from her thoughts. She struggled upright in her chair.
"Come in." She called. The door opened and her Royal Guard announced Ephiny. The Regent walked in seeing her weary young Queen snuggled in her lounge chair; the guard closed the door behind her.
"Hi, how you doing?" She asked.
"Fine, I think. More problems?" She raised her eyebrows.
"No, nothing like that. It’s a request actually. Lissa the priestess at the Temple would like to see you."
"Me? Is this about Xena?"
"To be honest I don’t really know. She has been down to the cell on a few occasions but she didn’t really say why she wanted to see you."
"Right now?" Ephiny nodded. "Okay," she said uncurling from the chair, "let’s go."
Gabrielle didn’t notice that Ephiny was no longer with her until the acolyte showed her into a large dimly lit room. Looking around her she noticed that the walls were covered in pictures depicting various events in Amazon history. On closer examination she realised that the pictures were not drawn or painted, but made from hundreds of stones, gems and sands of different colours. Gabrielle marvelled at the workmanship, the time and patience it must have taken to produce such works of art. She walked slowly round the room studying each one carefully. Some she recognised from the various stories and legends she’d heard around the campfires. Others she didn’t recognise and she made a mental note to ask Ephiny about them. She stopped and stared at one in particular, finding it strangely familiar. It showed a lone warrior, not an Amazon, battling against a large force and at her feet lay the bodies of those she’d slain. Behind her were the trees and lands of the hunting grounds and alone Amazon warrior observed the carnage from the safety of the treetops.
"Beautiful aren’t they?" Gabrielle jumped at the sudden voice behind her. She spun to face the newcomer, seeing the woman dressed in Amazon leathers with a bow strapped to her back. She felt no danger, from the woman but still mentally kicked herself for not having heard her approach.
"Yes, yes they are." She said turning back to the picture. The women noticing her questioning gaze walked over to her side.
"You’ve picked an interesting one to study my Queen." Gabrielle glanced out of the corner of her eye at the chestnut haired woman, who was thankfully the same height as she was, she was getting fed up having to look up at just about everybody.
"It seems, sort of familiar. Is there a story to it?"
"Oh, yes." Replied the woman walking to the centre of the room; Gabrielle’s eyes followed her. "They all have stories to them. Each one is special to the Amazon nation for various reasons. The one you’re looking at is a favourite of mine."
"Well that one is a bit of an enigma: you see it doesn’t depict anything the Amazons have done, only what one of them witnessed. Would you like to hear the story Gabrielle?"
"Yes, please." Answered the bard not even noticing the familiar use of her name.
"Why don’t we sit then." She waved her hand towards a table and chairs that Gabrielle hadn’t seen as she entered the room. The Amazon sat and helped herself to the wine and fruit. "Would you like wine?"
"No thank you. What happened in the picture?" she asked eagerly.
"Well this story occurred recently in Amazon history, not more than nine years ago. For the Amazon nation at least it was a time of turmoil. The Queens mask had changed hands several times in quick succession due to illness and several viscous battles with invading warlords and the Centaurs. It was at this time that the nation came under threat from two different forces. One was the force of nature, a terrible disease had attacked the nation leaving many dead and those that did survive were ill and weak for many moons. The Amazons were unable to protect themselves from invading forces and because of this the hunting grounds were ripe for the taking. So as things go, a warlord and his army decided to try and take the land. The Amazons had a few scouts out so knew of the army and knowing that there was no possible way for them to defend their land and survive they left the village for the storage caves which are easier to defend, and waited for the invading army. It never arrived. One warrior volunteered to find out why the warlord had not attacked, she left the caves and searched the hunting grounds for signs of the army. Finding none she made her way to the border where she heard sounds of battle. Taking to the treetops the Amazon looked out over the approach to the forest. There stood a lone female warrior fighting the entire army. She seemed magical none of the army could touch her, but there were many reasoned the Amazon, and the warrior would tire and would make a mistake that would mean her death. So the Amazon ran as fast as she could back to the caves and told the Queen what was happening. The Queen gathered those that were able to fight and returned to the border. There was no battle to be found on their arrival only silence and dead bodies. As the Amazons left the protective embrace of the trees a lone rider sat on top of a pale horse appeared, saluted them and rode off. A lone unnamed warrior had saved the Amazon Nation. It quickly spread however that one of the most feared armies in Greece had been defeated by a handful of Amazons. Warlords and armies took care to avoid the nations hunting grounds giving the Amazons time to recover and rebuild."
"Wow," said Gabrielle who had sat enraptured throughout the story. "That was magnificent. Did they ever find out who the warrior was?"
"No one knows for sure, but many have their suspicions especially the scout who saw the battle."
"Who was the scout?"
"Why that young scout grew up to be one of the greatest weapons masters the Amazon nation has, actually she taught you the use of the staff."
"Eponin, it was Eponin who saw the battle?" the Amazon just grinned.
"Now, I’m afraid we need to talk on more pressing subjects. The Amazon nation is once again under threat from forces without. Not all of these forces are natural and no amount of Amazon warriors will be able to defeat them. There is only one warrior who can stand against this foe and have any hope of winning."
"Xena." Stated Gabrielle.
"Yes, Xena is the only one who is any threat to the priest travelling with Alriss’s army. The priest and his master know that. Xena must stand alongside the Amazons if you are to have any hope of defeating this army."
"But how can she stand by us? If we were to release her she’d tear the Amazon nation apart herself."
"Do you believe in your friend Gabrielle?"
"Of course I do, I trust her with my life!"
"I know you trust her but do you believe in her?"
"Then why haven’t you been to see her? Gabrielle hung her head searching for the answer. Why hadn’t she been to see her bestfriend? She had said it was because she didn’t want to see her chained and that was definitely part of it, but not all of it. She was scared she admitted to herself, scared of what she would see in her friend’s eyes. Scared that she would see that darkness in her eyes that would mean she would have to end her life. She looked the Amazon in the eye unable to voice her fears.
"It’s okay to be afraid Gabrielle, I can assure you Xena is."
"Don’t you think she’s just as scared. She knows exactly what’s going on. A tiny part of her still has reason, still understands. Believes she’s lost her bestfriend. She told you that either way she would lose you to this fight. Was she right?"
"I honestly don’t know. Yes I’m scared, but not of her. I’m scared that seeing the madness in her eyes I’ll know she can’t find a way back and if that’s true I have a promise to keep. That I’d rather not have to face."
"We all have our demons, Gabrielle. This is yours. Believe in her, trust in her, trust in yourself and your love for her and nobody will ever be able to defeat you. You’re her way out Gabrielle, it’s time you showed her the way." The Amazon rose and headed for the door. "There is evil walking the land my Queen, sometimes the only way to fight it is to walk the same road. Remember you are the keeper of her soul and all will be well." The bard watched in silence as the Amazon left. Gabrielle sat in the silence for nearly a candlemark, thinking over the Amazons words, before the door opened and Ephiny walked in, a young woman in the robes of a priestess followed her.
"Sorry we took so long one of the scouts came in with good news for a change, warriors from the northern clans have arrived, only the gods know how they knew they were needed. Anyway I’d like to introduce you to Lissa." Her hand rested on the young priestess’s shoulder.
"This is Lissa?" came the puzzled reply.
"Yes." Said Ephiny in almost as much puzzlement.
"Then who was the Amazon in here with me a minute ago?"
"Gabrielle, we’ve been outside the door the whole time, nobody has been in here with you."
"Well nobody from this plane anyway." The priestess smiled at Gabrielle. The bard was suddenly stunned at the thought that she’d been talking with Armetis herself and not even known She sat in thought for a few moments more before gazing up at Ephiny.
"I want to go and see Xena."
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