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Editor's Choice Award

Of Amazons, Warriors, and Revenge

Part 1 of 2

by baermer

Disclaimer 1: the Xena: Warrior Princess oeuvre is owned by MCA/Renaissance as are the major characters in this story. No copyright infringement is intended, I just borrowed the characters 'cause they're such fun.

Disclaimer 2: VIOLENCE WARNING. This is not one of those happy-go-lucky Xena stories. There is a great deal of violence, though I hope none of it gratuitous, and it gets gruesome. Parts of this story may be difficult and disturbing to read. If that doesn't sit well with you, please do not read this story. (I'm one of those people who can't handle violence in movies. When I forget and go anyway, I always regret it, so please take my word for it.) As you read this you may wonder if it has a happy ending. Well, that's the great thing about FanFic--unlike the TV show--you don't know!

Disclaimer 3: SEX WARNING. My read on these characters is that they do love each other and they can show it occasionally. This story contains scenes of love between two consenting same-sex adults. If this offends you, please do not read any further.

Disclaimer 4: Use of the term "bardly" does creep into this story. The author acknowledges that the word it is not technically a member of the English language but since the rules of grammar are actually defined through a culture's mutable use of language and lexicographers actively study such mutations, I have no doubt that 'bardly' will soon be in a dictionary near you. Consider its usage here as "experimental."

PART 1 (of 2)

"But you heard what they said!" Gabrielle grabbed the warrior just above the knee--the handiest bit of flesh to grab on to while she walked and Xena rode--and shook her in an emphatic embellishment. "They said you were a fraud, that you were a bit...!"

"I heard them," interrupted Xena. "You need to learn to think before you talk back." Xena spoke in an even, unemotional tone, just the sort Gabrielle recognized as barely controlled anger.

"I did think! I thought they needed to hear the truth!"

Xena simply said, "Well, you didn't think clearly enough."

"Fine, next time I'll just walk away. Next time we're in a tavern and someone sullies your reputation, I'll leave it be." Gabrielle dropped back a few paces. "Look, I didn't mean to start a fight." She waited for Xena to say she understood, that it was all right. "You know they were wrong to say those things." She drifted farther back so she was walking several paces behind Xena and Argo, and continued that way for the rest of the morning feeling utterly ignored.

For her part Xena was not ignoring the bard. She kept careful track of Gabrielle: the length of her strides, her breathing, the thump of her staff hitting the dusty ground in counterpoint to her light steps. Xena was not mad that Gabrielle had spoken up, in fact it was a point of pride with her that the bard would take insults hurled at the Warrior Princess so personally. No, it was that once again Gabrielle had no idea how close she had come to getting herself killed. The sword Xena was able to deflect at the last moment was destined for Gabrielle's heart and Gabrielle hadn't even realized what was happening, her attention diverted by a mug of ale slung onto her back. It was more fright than anger that the warrior was dealing with as she rode along in silence.

Gabrielle read Xena's stiff posture as smoldering fury. She wanted to apologize, to say she would indeed watch her tongue in the future but she knew that to Xena, actions spoke louder than words. The only way to apologize would be to run into a similar situation in the future and keep her mouth shut. Until then, there was no way to convince Xena of her sincerity.

Xena reined in Argo suddenly and Gabrielle almost walked into the horse's rump before she noticed they had stopped. Xena was scanning the woods ahead, a sign that she had heard or smelled or seen something. Gabrielle waited quietly, fearing anything she did to distract Xena now would only open the flood gates for Xena's temper to descend on her in full force.

"Get up here," Xena cried tersely, reaching down to pull Gabrielle up behind her without bothering to make eye contact. As soon as she felt Gabrielle settle, Xena brought Argo up to a full gallop along the path, around a sharp turn and into an open meadow.

What was once a hamlet lay in ruins before them. The few buildings left standing were still smoking and a bitter, acrid odor permeated the air. The closer they got, the more it was overpowered by the stench of recent death.

Several bodies littered the streets around a crumbling fountain. Three townsfolk were trying their best to help the others, but they were clearly without sufficient supplies or the necessary expertise. Xena jumped off Argo, Gabrielle right after her, trying to keep up.

Gabrielle knelt by a woman cradling a young child. "My name is Gabrielle. Let me help." The woman rocked back and forth without responding. "Can you build a fire? We need to heat water to help her." Gabrielle brushed back the child's hair to reveal pale skin marring a once beautiful face. "Is she your daughter?" The woman nodded almost imperceptibly, never taking her eyes off the little girl. "Please, we need a fire." Gabrielle pleaded with the woman if only to provide her with a temporary distraction from the horrors around her.

"I'll do it." Another woman stepped forward.

The bard smiled at her gratefully. "We'll need cloth for bandages, too." The woman scurried away happy for a small task.

"Gabrielle!" Xena called to her. She had stumbled across a small boy, perhaps six or seven summers old, whimpering behind a watering trough. His arm was broken and he lay not far from the body a young woman, most likely his mother. Gabrielle shuddered at the sight. "Talk to him for a minute, would you?"

Gabrielle understood immediately and sat down in front of the boy drawing his gaze from the dead woman. "Hi, my name's Gabrielle. What's yours?" The boy cowered back from Gabrielle until she lay a gentle hand on his shoulder and smiled. "It's okay, really. We're here to help."

"Zethus," the lad whispered.

"Zethus? Your name is Zethus?" He nodded. "Well, Zethus, why don't you come with me. I'll get you some water and something to eat." Gabrielle coaxed him up, mindful of his arm, and gingerly steered him to the fountain in the middle of town.

Injured villagers collected around the fountain. Only a handful had escaped with minor wounds, the number of dead and dying was staggering. Whoever attacked the town had done a remarkably thorough job.

Gabrielle wished there was shelter available for them, but no useable buildings were left. Both Xena and Gabrielle had little time to think about anything but binding gaping wounds and comforting strangers, boiling used rags and burying bodies.

As the light of day began to wane, Gabrielle forced herself to take a break. She ducked back behind a crumpling wall and slid to her knees, burying her head in her blood-stained hands, singed grass raking against her bare legs. No matter how many times she witnessed death, she never became inured to it. It still affected her just as it had the first time, though she was now able to stem the waves of nausea until she could steal herself away to privacy. She waited for the inevitable, feeling her stomach cramping, begging for release.

Familiar hands came to help her through the worst of it, to give her water, to hold her while she cried.

"Thanks, Xena," Gabrielle managed

The warrior loosened her grip a little. "Feeling better?"

"Yeah, a little." Gabrielle settled into Xena's shoulder, comforted by the arms encasing her. "How is it that you always know?"

Xena chuckled. "I always have at least one eye on you." She gave the bard a little squeeze before realizing she may have said too luch. "And besides, there's no mistaking that shade of green you were getting."

They were interrupted by the sound of a horse galloping into town. Xena was on her feet, sword drawn, before Gabrielle could blink. A man with long, wild hair blowing behind him rode furiously toward them. Xena positioned herself between the rider and the wounded at the fountain but as soon as the stranger dismounted one of the women ran to his arms. He hugged her quickly and turned to face the warrior still with sword ready.

"Who are you?" he barked at Xena. The man was clad in mismatched leathers, tattered and well-worn, his scabbard hung on his right side indicating a rare left-handed swordsman. The deep baritone voice belied a fuming rage, not unwarranted but nevertheless unwelcome.

"I'm just here to help," she replied, not sure if revealing her identity was prudent.

The woman who had hugged the man corroborated Xena's claim, "She and her friend Gabrielle have been amazing. I don't know what we would have done without them." Her praise was soon replaced by an urgent question to the man, "Did you find them?"

"No!" he bellowed in frustration. Shoving her aside brusquely, he waded through the wounded, obviously searching for someone. He found the young boy Zethus, now proudly wearing a splint and sling, and gathered him into his arms.

"You're Zethus' father?" Xena asked gently, coming up behind him.

"No. Yes. Well, I am now." A sadness etched his features. "Uncle."

Xena understood. Zethus' father, this man's brother, must have perished in the attack. She reassured him, "He'll be fine. Just a broken arm."

The man gently seated the boy with his back against a wall and tousled his hair. Then he composed himself, stood, and turned to the warrior. "My name is Amythaon." He extended his arm in a warrior's handshake.

"Xena." She watched his eyes as she met his proffered arm with her own.

"I've heard of you. Seems what they say is true," a hint of irony crept into his speech.

But when Amythaon smiled at her, Xena relaxed. She would be accepted as a reformed warlord without question, not one on a rampage through the spoils of someone else's battle. She felt Gabrielle at her shoulder. "Amythaon, this is my friend Gabrielle." They exchanged greetings, but Amythaon seemed to know not to offer her the same handshake. Xena was anxious for information, "Can you tell me what happened?"

Amythaon looked about him and decided not to replay the horrors for the people around him. He motioned with his head toward a spot off to the side and the trio walked a few paces away from the others. "Another Amazon attack."

Gabrielle gasped first from the outlandish statement and then from Xena's vice-like grip on her wrist. Xena spoke, "Amazons? Are you sure? I didn't think they did such things."

"We were surprised too when this all started a few weeks ago. First they destroyed Temesa. It's a town two valleys away." When Amythaon turned to point in the direction of Temesa, Xena glared at Gabrielle and put a finger to her lips to keep her quiet. Gabrielle swallowed hard and nodded. "Then they went on to Neritum and Rheithron. We guessed they would come here eventually. I was out scouting when the attack started. I didn't make it back until they were already leaving, their work finished..."

"If you had been here, nothing would have been different. You would have been killed as well." Xena reminded him of the cold truth.

Gabrielle put a hand on his shoulder. "You can help them now, though." He shrugged off the bard's touch.

"Amythaon," Xena returned to plying him for information, "tell me everything you can about these amazons. I've never known them to attack neighboring towns without provocation."

"So we thought, as well, and no, we gave them no reason to attack us. For years we've lived two days ride from their border." Amythaon laughed a dark, cynical punctuation, "We used to feel protected by them in a way. No one ever bothered us. Until now." A cold fury danced in his eyes. "They are deadly with the bow. They are so quiet you can't hear them until they're on top of you. They seem to communicate with each other in whistles and hand signals."

Xena recognized those as amazon tactics. "How many were there?"

"Hard to tell. Maybe twenty, maybe forty. They always moved in pairs. They wore those weird feathered masks, so I never got a good look at any of them. Not that I'd be able to tell them apart, anyway. All amazons are tall, dark, and secretive," he spat, a fire returning to his features.

Xena caught Gabrielle rolling her eyes but made her kept quiet. Amythaon' hands began to ball into fists, the hurt and anger manifesting itself more openly now. "Those bitches had no reason to do this! I swear vengeance on the Amazon Nation. I am going to hunt them down and kill every last amazon."

Xena tried to reason with him, "I understand how you must feel, but I'm not sure that would be the best thing to do. It's possible these woman acted on their own without the approval of the Amazon Council."

"I don't care! I'm going to get revenge for what they've done to my brother, my friends, wife!" He stormed away, Xena holding Gabrielle back from following him.

"No, let him go," Xena cautioned.

"What's going on?" Gabrielle's voice quivered with fear, resentment, and confusion. "Ephiny would never..."

"I know, Gabrielle." Xena softened her tone. "There is an explanation and we'll find out what it is. But until then," she growled, "don't say anything!"

"I won't, Xena. I'd hate to imagine what they'd do if they knew I was..." Xena's hand clamped over her mouth before she could finish.

Quietly Xena whispered, "You never know who might be listening." She released the bard then added, "I know this is hard. We'll stay the night and leave first thing in the morning."

Gabrielle nodded in agreement before they both returned to deal with the carnage. While Gabrielle changed bandages and doled out willow bark tea, Xena and Amythaon built a temporary shelter. They scavenged pieces of gutted buildings, finding wood for a skimpy roof and just enough scaffolding to hold it up. They managed to scrounge several palettes so the egregiously wounded needn't spend the night in the dirt. The shelter wouldn't protect them from much, but at least the injured wouldn't have to spend another day under the blazing sun.

It was quite late before everyone had been moved into the shelter. The bard was long past being tired. She was so weary, she performed the necessary tasks numbly, not wasting the effort to accompany them with thought. Changing bandages, checking for fevers, mumbling words of encouragement, all on automatic.

Someone handed Gabrielle a bowl of broth. She took a sip, instantly reminded of how little she'd eaten, how little she'd rested. Finding a vacant spot in the shadows of the far corner built against one of the only standing walls remaining, she sat down to finish her meager meal, flopping her head back against a post.

All around her were palettes of moaning people watched over by loved ones. Gabrielle noticed Zethus sleeping not far from her, Amythaon sitting beside him, their hands entwined. She was happy to see he seemed to have calmed down, or perhaps was just too worn out to vent anymore. She unsuccessfully scanned the room for Xena and figured the warrior was out with Argo. Gabrielle allowed herself a few moments to close her eyes and relax, knowing she wouldn't be getting any significant sleep that night.

"You're Gabrielle, aren't you?"

The bard's eyes popped open. An elderly woman stood near her. "Yes," replied Gabrielle. The woman scooted a chair close and plopped down, "My son tells me it was the amazons again. Those stinkers! You'd think they'd do a better job."

Gabrielle shook her head, certain she'd heard the woman wrong. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."

"Didn't give it. No one uses it anyway. They just say 'hey you,' or 'old woman,' when they want my attention. And my attention is what they get! I keep all the little ones in check, I do." The woman's head was bandaged but she bore no other visible injuries.

"You're a teacher?" asked Gabrielle, not really wanting to engage in conversation, but reluctantly playing her part.

"No, no. My you're a funny one. A teacher. I spit on them." She provided a demonstration of her fluid technique, surprising Gabrielle. "No, I waddle around all day and give 'em a piece of my mind, that's all. Those amazons could have solved a lot of problems. Up in Neritum they murdered my husband. Tried to thank 'em, I did, then one conked me good with a big stick. Right here in the noggin'." The woman pointed to a spot not covered by the bandage. "Those amazons are my favorite murderers!"

"Amazons are not murderers," Gabrielle stated flatly. Once again, she rested her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. They flew open when Gabrielle smelled stale breath inches from her face.

"They are murderers!" The old woman laughed and sat back. "Murderers, thieves, rapists, plunderers, whores..."

"No they're not," snapped Gabrielle. "They're not like that."

"Oh but they are, you just don't know them!" the woman cackled.

"I do know them!" countered Gabrielle.

"You what?" Amythaon yelled as he spun toward her, his sword unleashed.

Gabrielle gulped, "I, ah, said I didn't think amazons were like that."

"No, bitch, you said you knew them! You're in cahoots with them, aren't you. You and that Warrior Princess!"

Gabrielle got to her feet in an effort to defend herself, but had no staff to wield against him. She pushed the old woman out of her seat and held the chair up in front of her, inching toward the front of the structure where she could escape.

Amythaon blocked her way. He brought his sword up high and swung it down vertically, smashing the chair Gabrielle held, leaving her fingering splintered sticks. His teeth bared, a venomous grin creeping across his lips, Amythaon tormented the bard with a few shallow jabs, his left-handed attacks slowing her, before pulling his elbow back for another wicked thrust. He aimed at her heart and was surprised by her sudden quickness. She kicked his wrist, deflecting the blow.

Amythaon adjusted. He tried the same maneuver again but veered off at the last moment when she again tried to kick his hand away, slicing a neat gash through the outside of Gabrielle's right thigh. As she grabbed for her leg he ran the hilt of his sword into her chin sending her reeling to the ground.

Not content with sword play, Amythaon wanted to wrap his fingers around the little amazon-friendly neck. He wanted to squeeze the last vestiges of life out of her, to watch the color drain from her face as her heart stopped pumping blood through her veins. He pounced on her, rabid with anger, only to be dragged off by an irate Warrior Princess. She held him by the collar of his shirt and demanded, "What are you doing?"

"She's an amazon!" He announced loudly, getting his message across to all of the villagers. People gathered to witness the exchange, some growing restless with the accusation that there was an amazon in their midst.

The old woman, who had very much enjoyed the show added, "She just said she knew some. Wheee, this is great, isn't it."

A moan from behind her caught Xena's attention. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Gabrielle curled into a tight ball, blood pooling at her legs. Xena glared back at Amythaon, this time noticing blood on his pants--she realized it was Gabrielle's blood he wore. Forcefully tossing him back into the crowd, Xena went to Gabrielle and gently turned her towards her. A momentary flash of fear at seeing the long gash on Gabrielle's thigh was replaced almost instantly by a black rage. She calmed herself quickly though, knowing it was not yet the proper time to vent her feelings.

"Someone get me some bandages." No one moved. Xena looked at the people milling about incredulously. "Bandages!" Finally Zethus retrieved some rags and threw them at Xena. Amythaon responded by slapping the boy hard, splitting his cheek. Zethus, shocked that his new protector--new father--would treat him that way, ran from the shelter into the darkness beyond. Xena noted that Amythaon made no move to follow the boy.

She leaned over Gabrielle and worked to stem the bleeding as best she could. Xena knew they didn't have long before the shock value of the scene wore off. Then it was anyone's guess how the people might react. Chances were good, though, that they would rally behind one of their own, Amythaon, and see the two strangers as the enemy. Xena knew they had to beat a hasty retreat now.

Gabrielle shook off the effects of taking the hit to her chin. "Xena?"

"It's okay, Gabrielle. I'm here. Just lie still." The warrior's words meant to soothe, but Gabrielle heard the disappointment in them. Once again, she had failed to do even the simplest task Xena asked of her: not to say anything to get her in trouble.


Xena finished wadding some rags over the gash and binding it as tightly as she dared. She stood and faced Amythaon. "You didn't have to do that."

"She's an amazon!" Amythaon had lost all control. He was beet red, the tendons in his neck tightly corded, his arms flapping at his side. "You two have probably been laughing at us all day. Feigning do-gooder, gaining our trust. When did you plan to make your move?"

"I'm sorry you have judged us your enemy. I assure you, we intend to find out what's going on and put a stop to it." Xena whistled for Argo, picked up Gabrielle, and strode past Amythaon, the crowd parting easily for her.

Argo waited for Xena to put Gabrielle in the saddle, then for her mistress to hop up behind the bard, holding her, before she galloped off into the safety of the open road. Xena kept going for some time, wanting to be sure that once she stopped, they wouldn't be disturbed. Knowing they needed to talk with Ephiny, she headed directly for the Amazon border.

Gabrielle slumped back into Xena. She had no strength in her legs to hold on and had to rely on Xena to keep her in the saddle. Each step Argo landed sent searing jolts of pain through her leg until she thought she couldn't take it anymore.

Twice Xena had to loosen the bard's fingers grabbing her arm. It was disconcerting to know Gabrielle was conscious through the torturous ride but there was nothing she could do about it.

A sheltered grove near a small stream was a welcome find. Xena helped Gabrielle down and lay her gently on the ground. "I need to get a fire going. I'll get everything set up, you stay here."

"Wasn't planning to do anything else," answered Gabrielle weakly.

Xena worked quickly gathering dry kindling and starting a small fire, tossing in a few rocks to heat, then laying out their bedrolls and moving Gabrielle over to them. She reached for her pouch and remembered that most of her herbs had been used back at that town. Inwardly she swore at the townsfolk, believing Gabrielle deserved her help more than they had. Still, as she rifled through the supplies, she saw enough of what she needed. She grabbed the empty water bags and then put the pouch down by Gabrielle, "I'll be right back. I'm going to get water." Xena ran her hand over Gabrielle's forehead and down her cheek. She got a smile out of the bard.

She returned to a crackling fire. Xena added a few more pieces of wood, kicked the hot rocks out of the flames then set a water bag on them to heat. Taking a moment to calm herself, she looked up to see the bard's face glowing in the firelight. Xena watched her, allowing herself to acknowledge her deeply hidden feelings for an instant before steeling herself for the coming ordeal.

The bard's eyes were closed, every muscle in her body tensed. "Gabrielle?" The answer came as little more than a soft groan. "I need to stitch it."

"Now?" Another groan, but one that held no real protest.

"Yes, now." Xena removed the soiled bandages and carefully washed the cut, fully aware of each time Gabrielle tried to suppress a moan or curb a wince. She took her time making perfect tiny sutures, allow the bard to relax a tad between each pass of the needle through her skin. At last happy with her work, she lay a clean, dry cloth on the newly stitched thigh, not yet wanting to deprive it of fresh air. While they were in camp it would be fine, but once they got on the move the next day, she'd be forced to bind it again.

"All done. Want some water?" Xena put the bag with night-cooled stream water to Gabrielle's lips while she took a few sips. Then she wet a rag with the cool water and pressed it gently to a small bruise on Gabrielle's chin. Finally, knowing Gabrielle needed sleep, she covered her with a blanket and bent to kiss her forehead.

"Thanks." Gabrielle looked up at Xena, they held each other's eyes for a moment. Gabrielle didn't take the time to read the warrior's look carefully, so certainwas she that Xena was mad at her.

In actuality, Xena was once again proud of Gabrielle. She knew what it took not to complain about their wild ride, about the washing, or even the stitches. But she was also angry. Angry at Amythaon, at the villagers, and whatever amazons had initiated the whole scene. As was often the case, the anger bested her and before she realized it she was admonishing Gabrielle, "Why can't you be more careful?"

"I'm sorry, Xena. I don't know what happened. I didn't think I said anything. I guess I was tired."

"That's no excuse. You have to be on your guard all the time, Gabrielle! Especially in a situation as volatile as that one." Xena kicked herself for saying those things, but she didn't know how to stop without saying other things she might regret like how much it hurt her to see Gabrielle in pain, or what it would mean to her if she lost Gabrielle. Rather than make matters worse, she stomped away beyond the reach of the moon's glow.

Gabrielle lay back. Her thigh ached but it was nothing compared to how her heart felt. She let Xena down again. Again! Gabrielle was certain that someday Xena would leave her, too much of a pest, a bother, a hindrance. And she knew that would be the worst day in her life for she had come to see Xena as her true family. Someone she couldn't bare to be apart from, someone she loved. Someone she loved more than as a friend. That little secret she had to keep carefully hidden, though. No sense in driving the warrior away for that. 'Well, I'll just have to *improve*,' she said to herself sarcastically, bemoaning over and over again the conversation she'd had with that crazy woman.

Suddenly Xena was back, sword drawn. She placed herself between Gabrielle and approaching riders, waiting for them to show themselves. Three amazons appeared from between the trees and lightly dismounted. Still Xena did not lower her sword.

"Xena," one spoke. "We've been sent to find you and Gabrielle."

"So you did," Xena retorted coldly, no friendship offered.

"I'm Tyro, Eponin sent us." The trio of amazons raised their hands in the traditional gesture of peace.

"Why Eponin?" curiosity edging into Xena's thoughts.

"Ephiny is missing," Tyro admitted.

>From behind Xena, Gabrielle joined in, "Missing? How? When? And what's going on anyway?"

"My Queen," Tyro and her two friends bowed on their knees, Xena smirked back at Gabrielle, the bard rolled her eyes.

"Please get up and call me Gabrielle."

Xena added, "And answer her questions." The warrior lowered her sword but did not re-sheath it. Tryo understood the gesture and showed no surprise. That alone answered some questions for Xena: these amazons knew of the attacks on the neighboring towns and expected not to be openly trusted.

Xena invited them to the fire and offered the water skin around the circle. Gabrielle braced herself up on her elbows to get a better view, deciding not to test the stitches in her thigh just yet by sitting up fully.

Tyro furtively looked for a signal from her friends, they nodded to her, encouraging her to begin. "Two days ago Ephiny left for a short hunting trip. She took four guards and a...companion with her. They were to have been gone only for the day, as much out for the ride as the pursuit of fresh game for our table. They did not return at nightfall when expected. Yesterday at first light we sent out several parties in search of them. What they found was shocking."

Tyro paused until Gabrielle encouraged her to continue with a weak smile. "All of the guards had been killed: first by arrow, then by sword." Gabrielle cringed, thinking if they were already dead from an arrow...

"Ephiny's companion was hung from a tree. Ephiny was nowhere to be found." Tyro choked back a sob. "Eponin commanded us to find you as soon as possible and now," she spoke directly to Gabrielle, "we ask you to return with us."

Xena spoke for them, "We were on our way to see you. We came across a town..."

Tyro whispered, "Yes, we know of them."

"Do you know who's been doing this?" Xena asked.

"No, not really. No one has laid claim to the abominations, there has been no word about Ephiny. Eponin desires your counsel on this matter."

"Odd," mused Xena, "you'd think they'd be asking for something if they took Ephiny."

"You can see our quandary. We need for you to come with us immediately," Tryo urged.

"We'll leave at first light. You can sleep over there." Xena pointed to a spot away from Gabrielle.

"No, Xena. We need to go now. If we travel straight through we can make it back by tomorrow night."

Xena looked to Gabrielle then back to Tryo. "Gabrielle is not able to travel just yet. There was a misunderstanding," Gabrielle cringed at her words, "at a town this evening and she carries a little reminder. We were forced to leave quickly and only just got to this campsite. She's had no rest since the incident."

"My Queen, I didn't know. I'm sorry." Tyro offered, now making sense of Gabrielle's reluctance to join them by the fire.

"No, I can travel. It'll be fine." Gabrielle felt the responsibility of her position squarely on her shoulders. "I can ride with Xena and we can leave now."

Xena warned her, "Gabrielle, I don't think it's a good idea."

"There's really no choice, Xena. We need to go now." Gabrielle reached a hand up to the warrior. "Help me up, would you?"

"Wait. Let me wrap it first. I wasn't expecting us to have to go anywhere tonight. Again." Xena grumbled as she worked, Gabrielle enjoyed the small victory.

Xena removed the wad of cloth laying against the wound. Gabrielle studied her leg. "Nice stitches, Xena. You always make them so straight," she tried to lighten the warrior's mood.

"Let's just hope I don't have to do them a second time. They'll won't be so straight, I can tell you that much." Gabrielle knew, however, that they would be. Xena's pride never let her do a job any less than perfectly. "Okay, let's go." Xena pulled her up and wrapped an arm around the bard's waist, holding her there for a moment.

Gabrielle told herself she wouldn't complain. She couldn't give Xena any more ammunition, any more reasons to be upset with her. But standing suddenly left her a little dizzy, she closed her eyes and let Xena support her weight until her head cleared. Xena deftly lifted Gabrielle up on Argo and mounted behind her, pulling the bard's head back against her shoulder. "Sleep if you can," she whispered in her ear.

There would be no rest for the bard. Both she and Xena carried worried thoughts, tossing them about so that sleep eluded Gabrielle and threatened never again to come to Xena. Xena was most bothered by the lack of communication from whomever took Ephiny. It made no sense to commit such a daring act without demanding something in return. Perhaps a message to the amazons was delayed, arriving after Tryo and her two companions had left on their mission. Too many unanswered questions with no assurance the answers awaited them at the end of their ride. Xena's stomach churned, her jaw remained clenched tight through the night.

As the first rays of dawn peeked through the trees, the five woman stopped for a break. After helping Gabrielle to a comfortable spot, Xena fed Argo and poured water into a depression in a nearby rock so her steed could drink. She caressed her companion of many years as the horse greedily drank the water, promising to take better care of her that night. Next, Xena changed Gabrielle's bandages.

"How's it look?" Gabrielle asked expectantly.

"You tell me, you're the one feeling it," Xena snapped back.

Gabrielle sighed, "It's fine, Xena." They spoke no more.

The amazon escorts left plenty of space between them and the two squabbling women. They knew better to intrude even though such harsh words spoken to their queen would normally have driven them to challenge Xena. The trio passed questioning glances among each other but none dared even to utter a whisper, the Warrior Princess' legendary hearing curbing their tongues.

It was mid-afternoon before they took another break and Gabrielle fell fast asleep as soon as Xena lay her down under a shady tree. While the three amazons took advantage of their respite, Xena paced the area. She took each horse to a nearby stream to drink, tending to each one individually. When she left with the third horse, the amazons couldn't keep from whispering among themselves.

"Tryo, why is she doing that?"

"I don't know, Loggera," Tyro shrugged. "Wasting time?"

"It is so strange for her to avoid talking to the queen and yet they ride together so closely."

The third amazon offered an opinion, "It's obvious they're not the friends everyone thought they were."

Tyro chuckled, "Perhaps it is more..."

"What? You think Xena and the queen..."

"Ah, Pontonous, I think I've said too much already. Let's leave it at that." Tyro rested her back against a tree. "When Xena is ready to leave, we'll continue. I suspect she dawdles to let the queen sleep."

They lingered as long as they could until Tyro had to suggest it was time to move on. They would already need to ride into the night before they arrived. Xena agreed without the usual tart retort and began the laborious process of rousting Gabrielle from an afternoon nap. Under the best of circumstances it took time to bring her out of a drowsy stupor, but since that nap served as the previous night's sleep, Xena knew it would be difficult.

Gabrielle surprised her, however, by waking on the first try. She sat up and ran her fingers through her hair, the highlights glowing red in the late afternoon sun. Xena merely raised an eyebrow before saddling Argo.

Tryo rummaged through their pouches for a snack and found a few morsels of cheese and some apples. She offered some to the bard, "My Queen...Gabrielle," she corrected herself, "would you like something eat before we continue?"

Giving her a feeble smile, Gabrielle said, "No thanks, I'm not really very hungry."

Xena turned on her heels, "What?" She couldn't believe Gabrielle refused food, this whole thing must be bothering her more than she let on.

Again, Gabrielle saw only anger and frustration behind Xena's reaction, so she decided it was better to force herself to eat than to have another encounter with the warrior. Short or not, their spats were taking their toll on her appetite, her disposition, and any hope for her future with Xena. "On second thought, Tyro. I would like something. I guess I'm just not really awake yet." She took the apple but refused any more, chewing tiny bites near the front of her mouth. "It's late. We should go." Tyro nodded but said nothing more, leaving everything up to Xena. When Xena came to help her on Argo, Gabrielle asked, "Why'd you let me sleep so long?"

"You needed it," the only reply.

Finally Gabrielle muttered, "Thank you," under her breath.

Soon they were riding, nearing the outskirts of Amazon territory. Gabrielle relaxed a little knowing their destination lay not far ahead. The amazons, however, became ever more vigilant in their watch. They didn't feel safer in their home turf, no amazon did after Ephiny was abducted and her party killed under the aegis of their own land.

As they passed into Amazon territory, Xena wondered where the border patrols were. Normally everyone who entered, royalty or not, was stopped or at least greeted by the patrols. On this trip, there was a deafening silence in the forest around them. It made Xena even more uncomfortable than she had been.

Their arrival, though at a late hour, was met with excitement and relief by the amazons. As Xena and Gabrielle rode into the center of the Amazon Village, several women were there to welcome them, though not as many as usual, lead by Eponin and Solari. To Xena, the village looked half-deserted.

Eponin grew concerned when Xena helped Gabrielle off Argo, "Gabrielle, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Eponin, nothing to worry about." The bard gratefully leaned against Xena's hand, inconspicuously placed on the small of her back. "We have much to talk about."

Eponin agreed, "Let's go someplace you can sit." Eponin called to an woman near her, "Have food and drink brought to the queen's hut."

Xena reached out to scoop up Gabrielle, but the bard stopped her. Quietly Gabrielle asked, "Please, Xena."

Xena acquiesced but not without a bitter retort, "Go ahead and walk, my Queen." Still the warrior kept her hand on Gabrielle as she gingerly limped to the hut.

Gabrielle was furious. Furious at Xena and at herself. She knew it would look terrible to have the queen carried when she was there to provide stability and leadership in Ephiny's absence. Xena should have realized it, too. How she hated having to choose between the needs of the Amazon Nation and Xena. For now, the needs of the many had to take precedence.

Gabrielle sat in the first chair she came to in the hut, Xena didn't even give her a second look as she strode in farther and sat at the table. Eponin joined the warrior, easing her tired frame into a chair.

"Thank you for coming so quickly," Eponin started. "Are you sure you're all right, Gabrielle."

The bard was pale, dark rings under eyes standing out in contrast to her skin. "I told you I was fine, Eponin."

Eponin registered shock at Gabrielle's gruffness but shrugged it off for more important matters. "I don't know how much Tyro told you."

"Not much," said Xena, "Just the barest details of the attack. Have you heard any new news?"

"Nothing. We've had scouts out but don't dare send them in small numbers. With so few groups, they can cover only limited territory."

Xena understood, "That's why the border patrols didn't stop us and there were only a handful people here when we arrived."

"We've had to thin out some areas to strengthen others. They knew you were coming Xena, but couldn't take the time to escort you here." Eponin answered a soft knock at the door and took a tray from one of the guards. "Here, you must be hungry. Eat while I tell you what I can."

Xena spied the nutbread and took some to Gabrielle. She perked up a bit at the kind gesture, both from Xena and the amazon cooks who were well aware of her favorite foods. Xena sipped wine and snitched at the tray in front of her as Eponin filled them in.

"There's been tension among some of the more remote groups of amazons. We began to hear about spats along the northern border some months back, but they died down. Then a few weeks ago word reached us of nearby towns being plundered and that the aggressors were amazons. We were shocked, to say the least. Ephiny sent out a delegation to talk to the other amazons to see if she could find out who really attacked the towns and why they would do it." Eponin sipped her wine. "You know we've had good relations with all our neighbors lately." Eponin stressed the word 'all,' referring to their peace with the centaurs. "The delegation never returned. No one had seen them, they hadn't made it to any other groups. They just disappeared."

Xena asked, "You couldn't track them?"

"No, whoever is behind this is very, very good."

Knowingly, Xena concluded, "That alone should give you a clue."

"It does, Xena. Ephiny thinks Eriphyle is masterminding all this."

"Eriphyle?" asked Gabrielle. "Who's she?"

Xena and Eponin eyed each other before Xena answered, "She's Valesca's cousin."

"Oh," said Gabrielle. Valesca, the maniacal amazon--now goddess--who wanted to kill Gabrielle and take the throne after Melosa's death. Valesca, or a member of her family, was not someone she wanted to encounter again.

"Do you think she has Ephiny?"

"I don't know, Xena. It's only a hunch. There is no proof, no ransom, no clue!" Eponin's frustration leaked through.

"Eponin, tomorrow I want you to take me to where Ephiny was last seen. We should go as soon as we can, I fear a storm is on the way and I don't want to lose any chance at following the trail."

Eponin stood to go, "I'll come for you first thing in the morning."

"Eponin, let me see to the queen, then I have a few more questions," Xena said.

"I'll be in my hut, Xena, whenever you're ready." Eponin slid out the door quietly.

An incensed Gabrielle raised her voice, "What's that supposed to mean? Going off again without me?"

Xena glared at her and pointed to her leg. Blood seeped through the cloth in moist, pink splotches, she was bleeding again. "Was your image worth that?" Xena unwrapped the bard's thigh, her gentle touch abandoned.

"Ouch, hey! Take it easy!"

"Well, the stitches held," Xena told her, "but it's oozing. A great way to get an infection, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle was too tired to fight, too tired to try explain that she had indeed thought it through and decided it was more important to walk to her hut than to let Xena carry her.

"You're staying in bed tomorrow, got it?"

Gabrielle cringed at the brusque command. Quietly, she spoke up, "I want to go with you tomorrow, Xena."

"No!" It was spoken in a manner sufficient to end all arguing.

The bard's shoulder's slumped, she dropped her head and waited for Xena to finish wiping away the blood, applying a salve, and re-bandaging her wound. Before she could stop her, Xena picked her up and took her to the bed. Still holding her in her arms, Xena scolded her, "If I say you need to be carried, then you need to be carried. Understand?" Gabrielle looked away, their faces too close. "Gabrielle, it's not going to do anyone any good if you don't take care of yourself." Xena sat her down on the edge of the bed and began unlacing her boots.

"I can do that," muttered Gabrielle, the lure of a real bed reminding her how long she had been exhausted. Xena ignored her, finished taking off her boots and gently lifted her, putting her on the bed so she could lie down. "Xena, I need to know about Ephiny. I want to come with you."

"No." Xena softened her tone a little, "We're all worried about her, but right now your place is here. Besides, it will be safer for you in the village. You're the queen, remember? Now, I'm going to talk with Eponin for awhile, you get some sleep."

"What about you," asked Gabrielle.

"I'll be fine. You sleep." Xena pointed an accusing finger at her, but Gabrielle had already closed her eyes. A sigh escaped the warrior's lips. 'My little bard,' she thought, 'do you have any idea how you worry me sometimes? Watching over you is a full-time job.' Now that they had finally reached the Amazon Village, maybe they could get to the bottom of the whole mess and eventually get their lives back in order. Whatever that was. Xena chuckled to herself as she crossed the courtyard to Eponin's hut.

Gabrielle tossed and turned dreaming of a sword. She could see it in the distance as it slowly, inexorably came towards her, the image growing larger and larger until all she could see was the tip of the sword. She tried to dodge it but no matter what direction she moved it followed her, matching her movements exactly. She gasped as it plunged into her belly, slowly running into her to its hilt. She clutched it, blood flowing freely between her fingers, yet she felt no pain. Then Xena's laugh rang in her ears. She was before her, smiling broadly, her blue eyes twinkling in delight. "See, I told you you'd get in trouble," Xena said. Xena put her own hands over Gabrielle's, and while Gabrielle's were stained by her blood, Xena's remained clean, as if the curse of death could not mar her perfect skin. Instead of pulling out the sword, Xena twisted it, boring a hole right through her.

She jerked awake trying to catch her breath. Half-asleep, Xena whispered, "Just a dream, Gabrielle. It's okay." Gabrielle rolled over on her side and as she drifted back to sleep, she felt Xena's arm move around her, a strong hand softly stroking hers.

In the morning she woke up slowly, gingerly testing protesting muscles. No Xena. Had she been there last night next to her in bed? She thought so, hazy memories of an unpleasant dream just out of reach.

She got up and washed her face but an uncomfortable heaviness invaded her. A premonition? She'd never had them before. She shrugged it off, got dressed, and ventured out only to be met by a guard who insisted on escorting her to the food hut. She wondered if Xena understood that leaving her here meant being under a sort of house arrest. No doubt she did, having planned it from the start.

Xena, Eponin, Solari, and six guards rode off just before dawn. It was mid-day before they reached the meadow where Ephiny was taken and the rest of her party murdered. Xena had learned only a little more from Eponin after leaving Gabrielle to sleep the night before. Eriphyle idolized her cousin Valesca and that since Valesca's death--if tossing a goddess into a lava flow could be called that--she had shunned the company of most other amazons. She was known as a skilled fighter, regularly besting even the most accomplished amazons, she was deadly accurate with the bow, clever with herbs and healing, and carried grudges for a long time. When Eriphyle was five summers old, an older sibling stole her prized owl feather. Eriphyle hunted for it for two days, finally locating it under her sister's bed. When she met her sister at the door, she told her she vowed revenge, but her older sister laughed for she was nine summers old, much bigger and stronger. For six years, Eriphyle studied and practiced with the traditional weapons. As she grew, she was able to spar with her older sister, at first losing every time, then eventually drawing even with her sister's skills. One day, when they were practicing with their staffs, Eriphyle knocked her sister down, and held her staff at her sibling's throat, clearly beating her. When she acknowledged the feat her sister expected to be released, instead Eriphyle brought her staff down on her sister's arm hard enough to break it. She explained it as payment exacted for an old debt.

While the profile fit, there still was no evidence that Eriphyle had anything to do with the raids on the towns or with Ephiny's disappearance. Xena wanted proof and a clear trail to follow by the end of the day.

They rode to the edge of the clearing and waited for their guards to circle around and stand ready. Then Eponin and Solari led Xena through the meadow pointing out where each body had been found. Xena noted the red-stained earth and grasses. The women had bled profusely before they died and it looked like they hadn't been able to put up much of a fight. The blades of grass around them were mostly untrampled.

Xena climbed the tree where Ephiny's friend was found hanging. Rope burns disfigured the crotch of the tree, obviously she had struggled before succumbing to a horrific death. Xena hoped Ephiny was spared the scene, but she doubted it.

>From her vantage high in the tree, Xena scanned the ground around her. She imagined the placement of the guards and the archers, the strategy unfolding in her imagination. It had been a swift and deadly attack. Just as she was about to climb down, she caught the reflection off a piece of metal in a tree across the clearing. "Eponin," she called down, "something's in that tree over there."

Solari beat her to it and climbed up, hunting around the branches and leaves. Xena joined her and Solari asked, "What am I looking for?"

"Not sure. Shiny, metallic...the sun reflected off it. Ah, here it is." Xena's fingers found the tip of an arrow in the bark. It wasn't deeply embedded but that shaft had been sliced off neatly at the base making it tricky for her fingers to find purchase. Xena pried it loose and jumped down to look at it with Eponin.

"Looks amazon. It could be one of ours," said Eponin as she examined it.

Xena countered, "But someone severed the shaft, not wanting it found. Why do that if it was an arrow from one of the royal guards?"

"I don't know. It seems everything they've done is meant to confuse us," muttered Eponin.

Solari added, "Either to lead us down the wrong path or no path at all."

"And only an enemy who knows us very well could do that," stated Eponin flatly.

The three of them stood quietly immersed in their own thoughts until Solari broke the silence, "Let's have something to eat. Maybe we can think better on a full stomach."

Xena thought about how much Solari was like Gabrielle. There for Eponin whenever she needed her, thinking about food... A grin worked its way onto Xena's lips until she recalled Gabrielle's nightmare of the night before. She'd tried her best to comfort her without waking her fully, using the excuse to wrap herself around the smaller girl, wishing for better reasons to do that more often. She wondered how Gabrielle was faring knowing she was being treated as a queen. 'Something I do all too rarely,' mused Xena. 'I'll make it up to her," she promised herself.

Snapping back to the present, Xena scanned the meadow once more. Carefully planned, perfectly executed, no trail to follow... "Eponin, Solari, will you indulge me and tell me once more everything you know."

Solari spoke up, "Sure, Xena. What do you want to hear first?"

"We know whoever did this is either an amazon or trained very well to mimic one," began Xena. "Someone would have to go to a lot of trouble if it was the latter, so let's assume amazon."

"Sure, and probably Eriphyle." Eponin swallowed a bite of bread. "I know you want evidence, though. Just assuming they're amazon doesn't prove it was Eriphyle or even sort out why all this is happening."

"True, but I think if we knew 'why,' we'd better be able to prove 'who,'" Xena reasoned. "There's been no ransom, no message, no demands."

"Maybe they don't want anything from us." Solari lay back into the tall grass and closed her eyes.

Xena chewed her lower lip, "It's possible that you've been giving them what they want already. What if they wanted the border patrols reduced? Then they've already succeeded."

"That hardly seems a reason to kidnap Ephiny," Eponin commented.

Xena agreed than asked, "Tell me everything you've done since you found out Ephiny was missing."

"Let's see," Eponin began, "Megara came to tell me what they'd found, she was the leader of the scouting party that found this place. We discussed it in detail with the Council then called a meeting of everyone in the village. Next, I sent word to the outlying amazon groups to let them know what happened and asked them to send help. Most of them went out with our border patrol and search parties. We also sent out scouts to look for you and Gabrielle."

Xena bolted up, "Gabrielle... She's after Gabrielle!" Xena ran for Argo, catapulted over the horses' rump, landing in the saddle, and raced back to the village. She rode hard, oblivious to Argo's labored breathing. The war horse was pushed to the limit taking only a third of the time to get back as it had to ride out that morning. Still, it was long enough for Xena to re-play every encounter with Gabrielle since they ran into the burning town two days ago.

It seemed every word out of her mouth had hurt Gabrielle when all she wanted to do was keep her safe. Everything she did kept her emotionally detached from the bard just to protect her own fragile warrior's soul. All that at a time when Gabrielle needed her to comfort her and be strong. And all Gabrielle had asked was to be with her. She had said no.

Foolishly Xena thought the Amazon Village was safe for Gabrielle. Foolishly she left Gabrielle there with a depleted cadre of sentries. With her heart in her throat, Xena flew into the village, her worst fears manifesting themselves before her eyes. Several amazons lay dead in the center quad, a few were helping some of the injured. Xena rode past them, heedless of their pleas for help, stopping only at the door to the queen's hut. It swung uselessly on one hinge.

Jumping over a dead guard, she ran in--no Gabrielle. Furniture had been tossed around, the table was overturned and food and wine splattered the walls. Unmistakable blood stains marred the sheets of the bed. Gabrielle's staff stood propped up in the corner, she hadn't been able to defend herself.

Xena heard a moan. She flipped around and found Tyro behind the door, grievously wounded. Xena shook her, "Gabrielle, where is Gabrielle?"

Tyro coughed trying to answer. Reaching for the wine carafe with shaking hands, Xena poured her a drink, spilling more than made it into the cup. The amazon sipped it and mumbled a thank you.

Xena tried again, more gently. "Tyro, what happened? Where's Gabrielle?"

"Men..." she wheezed.

Xena's brow furrowed, confusion in her eyes, "Men? What men?"

" from the towns attacked us. They took...the queen. We tried to keep them...away from her." She coughed again, blood licking the corners of her lips. Xena knew she had little time left to live.

"I know you did your best," Xena consoled Tyro not believing her own words.

"The queen...I'm sorry." Tyro's shoulders fell and she coughed once more before dying.

Xena froze in place. Who was her enemy? Eriphyle? The townsmen, the fates? Though she was turned away from the scene, her thoughts were fixed on the bed, bloody sheets, a scuffle, inept guards trying to protect Gabrielle. Their queen, her Gabrielle.

Eponin poked her head in. "Xena?" she called softly.

The warrior rose with a fierce determination, "I'm going after them."

Eponin nodded, "They left a trail a blind man could follow. I've rounded up as many as I can. Solari and I will come with you as well, but you call the shots."

The significance of that gesture was not lost on Xena. Eponin, Acting Queen of the Amazon Nation, had given Xena command. "Thank you," she said sincerely.

Stepping out of the hut, Xena more carefully observed the surroundings. None of the buildings had been damaged, nothing vandalized. It had been a personal mission: they were bent on getting the queen. Something didn't sit right, though. How could they have known Gabrielle was the queen? Someone must have told them, someone must have goaded them into such a brash act. Someone was ensuring the amazons were heading toward a war with their neighbors. Eriphyle.

Xena knew they had to be careful, to do everything they could to avoid war. Fortunately Eponin would never order an all-out counter-attack. It would be up to Xena to sneak in and release Gabrielle from wherever they were holding her. Maybe she could stop the cycle of madness right there. In fact, maybe Gabrielle was talking her way out of this right now--if she was able. If she was in any condition to.

Fourteen amazons set out behind Xena to track the men. Eponin was correct in her assessment of their trail. They might as well have left bread crumbs. Hoof prints spread across a wide swatch, no riding in single file to hide their numbers and dilute the trail. Wagon ruts ground into soft dirt; broken branches, bent shrubs, and horse manure led their way. Xena was anxious to catch up to them before they reached their homes. Gabrielle's rescue would be easier to implement on the open road than in the security of a walled town. She set a brisk pace.

Not long into their trek, an uneasy agitation grew in Xena. She called over her shoulder to Eponin, "Something's wrong." Listening carefully, she sniffed the air. "Up ahead--look!"

Overturned wagons, dead horses, and piles of dead men littered the path. The kidnappers had been massacred. Xena, Eponin, and Solari all saw the clues simultaneously. Arrows. Arrows shot with deadly accuracy through the hearts of men and horses.

Solari stated the obvious, "It seems Eriphyle is at it again."

Xena spoke quietly, "And now she has made sure our attention will be divided. The men will be back, and in greater numbers. They'll be out for revenge thinking you did this and that you destroyed their homes."

Eponin remained stoic, she knew Xena was right. "Eriphyle is smart. She used these men to do her dirty work, sending them to kidnap Gabrielle thereby making sure none of her band would be seen or caught."

"She has set this up from the beginning," Xena confirmed, "using you to get us here, using them to get to Gabrielle, using you to pick a fight with your neighbors. It is a dangerous game she plays but the stakes are very high."

"The Queen's Mask," whispered Solari.

"Eponin, you have to go back. How many can you spare to come with me?"

"I can spare none, Xena," Eponin sighed, "but we're talking about Ephiny and Gabrielle. Leave one to escort me back and take the rest."

Solari coaxed her horse next to Eponin's and spoke in a private whisper. "I want to go with Xena."

"I want you to as well, Solari. Be my eyes and my ears. Carry my heart." The rest was left unsaid though clearly understood.

Xena was already looking for a trail. She knew the next leg of her tracking would be considerably more difficult than the first. No one had been able to follow Eriphyle before but no one had had Xena's determination. She glanced to the sky's black clouds and willed herself to find something to follow before they opened onto them, washing away any chance of following their trail.

A bent twig, one tuft of grass lifted, a drop of blood were the clues she found. Still Xena was certain she was on the right track. Her drive to find Gabrielle fueled her already uncanny perception as she picked her way along their path. Solari rode behind her, watching in awe as Xena dismounted, bent to the ground, got up and rode some more.

Occasionally there were signs even Solari could see: sandy dirt rubbed too clean by branches along a creek where they had taken a break to let their horses drink. But mostly it was Xena discovering clues no one else could have seen. Eriphyle's army hid their tracks well, even in their haste, but not well enough to keep Xena off their trail.

Evening grew. With the light of day fading, Xena hurried them. Somehow she knew they were close. Somehow she would make sure Gabrielle did not spend the night with them. With Eriphyle. A woman who would murder her sister amazons, abduct amazon royalty, wreak havoc on neighboring towns, and incite a war was not someone she could trust to handle her prisoners with common sense.

The land began to slope up gently, soon revealing a ridge of craggy hills. Solari rode parallel to Xena. "That's it," she told her. "That's where they are."

Xena stopped them. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. There are caves. Actually lots of caves in there. Although..."

A voice spoke up from behind them. "Xena, these are sacred caves. No one is allowed into them unless on the spiritual quest."

Xena looked at the young woman who spoke to her. "You've been here?"

"Yes." she stammered, "m...more than once..."

Solari eyed her carefully before saying, "It's all right, Pero. Right now we could use a guide."

Pero dropped her voice, "I know it was wrong to go, but the caves are so beautiful. I came here often several summers ago." She added, "I haven't been here lately, though."

Solari accepted this as an admission of guilt and also one of reformation. "Can you still find your way around?"

"The caves are one big labyrinth, but I think I can get us in and out."

Xena added, "So there are many places to hide."

"For them and for us." Pero dropped to a knee in the path and picked up a stick to draw a crude map. Xena and Solari joined her. "The entrance here leads to the sacred cave," she drew an elongated circle. "Most have only gone that far but there is a passageway leading back to the maze." She drew three more large circles. "There are openings to the sky near the center of each of these areas, a place it would be easier to stay without relying solely on torches. This one is quite dangerous. There were lots of cave-ins when I was there last." She pointed to the other circles she'd etched in the soil. "Either of these would make a strategic hiding place."

"So we just waltz in there?" asked Solari.

"There are lots of crevices and secret rooms. We could stay hidden from them if we're careful."

Xena decided, "A small party only. We can't easily stay hidden if all of us go. Pero, how 'bout you and me?"

Xena flashed her a smile that made the young amazon beam. "I know a back entrance. I doubt they'd know to guard it."

Solari stood, "Okay, Xena. I'll keep everyone else here at the front door. We'll be ready if you flush them."

Xena looked up to the angry sky, "And if you stay just inside the cave, you can keep dry." Xena silently thanked whatever gods would still listen to her for holding back the rain this long. "We'll need a good supply of torches."

"I'll take care of that, you gather everything else you'll need." Solari spoke with a few of the other women who set out gathering the proper-sized branches and tying rags onto their tips.

Xena packed a pouch with water bottles, extra rags and her flint for the torches, as well as her herb bundle--just in case. Though they all worked quickly, it was well past dark when Xena and Pero left Solari's party in the cave. A light rain fell, soaking them before Pero brought them around the back of the cliffs to the secret entrance.

After only a few steps into the first cave, a jog to the left, then another to the right, Xena began to wonder the wisdom of this course. If anything happened to Pero, she would have a difficult time finding her way out again. Pero walked with the confidence of one who knows the way blindfolded. Xena laughed at her own image realizing that was exactly how it would seem if the torches ran out. She did not relish the possibility of navigating in total darkness.

Sweat dripped down their backs. Though the air in the cave wasn't warm it was stifling. They walked more and more quietly, fearing any sound would echo around the walls, giving away their presence, Pero slowing now and then to check her bearings.

"We're getting close to the first opening," Pero whispered to Xena.

Xena nodded, she already knew they were close because she could smell the rain, and she extinguished her torch. She drew her sword and let Pero's single torch guide her steps. Before they rounded the last bend, Pero dipped her torch into the dirt, letting the flames die. Xena placed her hand on Pero's shoulder and let her lead them around the cold wall.

The clearing was magnificent. It was as if a bowl had been carved out of the hills from above. Lightning strokes lit the area in brief flashes but they provided enough illumination for Xena to see several passageways leading into the crater. The walls were a mixture of highly textured arches and smooth partitions. In another time and place, Xena would have loved to explore, to climb the walls, to stand upon the rim of this crater. Another bolt of lightning reminded her of their purpose. It also showed her that no one else had been there, certainly not in many, many seasons.

Pero whispered to her again, "Do you mind getting wet again? It'll be much faster to cut across."

"Right behind you."

The women scampered to one of the openings on the far side, then stopped to light the torches. They sputtered to life slowly, providing the pair once again with a ghostly artificial light to walk the stone labyrinth.

Pero was much more conservative in her gait now. Xena had not re-sheathed her sword, her sixth sense telling her the time for battle was near. A faint sound caught her attention and she thrust both torches into the dirt before pulling Pero into a little nook. She clamped her hand over Pero's mouth until the young amazon reached up to remove it, putting it to her cheek and nodding to indicate she understood silence was necessary. Voices wafted to their ears, too soft for clarity, too close for comfort. Neither Xena nor Pero moved a muscle until long after the voices had died away, the trail of echoes swallowed by the enormity of silence.

Pero reached for Xena's hand and put it on her torch. Xena dug for her flint and lit it, though she made no motion to light her own. In the dim light they looked at each other closely. A small smile reached across Xena's lips, Pero returned it. They made a good team.

Three times they extinguished the torch and jumped away from voices. Never did the voices carry audible speech to them, only the proof that they were not alone. Shortly after the third time they resumed their walking, Pero stopped them and indicated a short pattern of turns to Xena with her hands. They were very close to the next opening. Xena pulled Pero behind her and cautioned her to stay out of the way, then she doused the torch and began to trace the pattern Pero gave her, creeping to the last turn before the opening.

She could feel the night air, it smelled of recent rain and the skies were clearing a bit, sending shadows back to touch her toes. Xena waited and listened. Soon she heard women, perhaps four or five of them, enter the clearing. At last they were close enough to overhear the conversation, and she didn't like what she heard.

"Of course they're there by now."

"So how long do we have to wait here?"

"Until they come back or someone sends word to bring her."

"Don't worry, Eriphyle has it all planned! It's brilliant."

"But what if they find us?"

"Not likely, besides Plataea and Phormia are guarding the way. They can handle anything, or anyone."

Convinced that these were her only immediate foes besides Plataea and Phormia, Xena launched herself into the middle of the crater, announcing her entry with her battle cry. Five startled amazons lurched for their swords, fully aware that their opponent was Xena.

The quintet circled Xena, spreading themselves out evenly so Xena wouldn't be able to reach more than one of them at a time. Like spokes of a wheel, the amazons cycled around her, waiting for the triggering movement. Xena laughed and hurtled herself over the circle, landing, twisting, and running her sword through the back of one of them. The remaining four charged simultaneously. She jumped and kicked two hard in their faces, avoiding a third. The fourth's blade met Xena's evenly, both pushing the other out of the way.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the amazons slump and then another, but was distracted by the movements of the other two. They came as one, both swords viciously slung at her head. Xena ducked and rolled, thrusting up with her sword as she passed under them. One left, thought Xena. Pero was at her side, a bloody dagger in her hand, and the two smiled at their now out-numbered opponent. The woman dropped her sword and cried out as Xena hit her pressure points.

"You know this routine, don't you?"

The woman groaned, "Yes."

"Where are Ephiny and Gabrielle?"

She struggled to talk, "In there..." and tried to point over her shoulder. A huge door blocked the entrance to one of the passages. Pero ran over to it and tried to pull it open but it wouldn't budge.

"Keys?" Xena asked smugly.

"," pointing to one of her colleagues felled by Xena's sword. Pero dug through pouches and belts and produced a large metal key.

Xena brought her face very close to the amazon's "If you've done anything to hurt them..."

The amazon sputtered, "I...I didn't do it."

An urgency in her questioning, Xena demanded, "Do what?"

"I didn't kill her...I swear...Eriphyle...did it."

"Kill who?" Xena grabbed the agonized woman and shook her. "Kill who?"


"What? You're telling me she's dead?" shrieked Xena.


Xena jumped back in horror, not bothering to release the woman from her torment. She didn't notice the convulsions before the amazon died. She didn't notice Pero standing at her shoulder, waiting, wondering what to say or do. The warrior just stood there. She didn't cry, she didn't scream, she didn't move.

Pero whispered softly, "Ephiny..."

Straight-backed, Xena turned and put one foot in front of the other, taking herself to the door. Pero placed the key in lock and rotated it until she heard a click. She planted her feet and pulled the door open, straining against the weight. Xena didn't offer to help but when the opening was wide enough, she stepped through.

They were in a very large and very dark room. Pero worked a flint for the torch and even when it was lit, the recesses of the room remained in shadow. With no circulation ever passing through, the air reeked of age and death. Pero brought the torch toward the back of the room until the light passed over a lump on some old straw.

"Xena, over here!" Pero knelt by the still form, almost afraid to touch her. Xena's hand reached down and ripped back the worn blanket. "Ephiny..." Pero rolled her onto her back, a small moan escaping Ephiny's throat.

Xena held up Ephiny's head and put a water bag to her dry, cracked lips. She sipped and rested, then sipped some more. Pero pulled out some of the extra rags, wetting them and wiping Ephiny's face. She was pale and gaunt. It looked to the young amazon that she'd had no food and little water in days.

"Xena," a raspy whisper was almost to soft to hear.

"It's okay, Ephiny. Just relax. Are you hurt anywhere?"

Ephiny shook her head. "Not bad." Ephiny looked directly at Xena, her face not hiding anything. "Xena, Eriphyle told me..."

"I know." Xena cut her off and studied something over her shoulder.

Pero sat through an uncomfortable silence then changed the subject. "Ephiny, do you know where Eriphyle is now? There were only five guards here."

Ephiny drew her attention away from Xena slowly, "No...don't know where she is...don't know how many."

"We need to get you out of here." Pero slipped an arm under Ephiny's shoulder and helped her sit up. She gave her more water. "Can you walk?"

"Not sure." Ephiny gamely held out her hands, suggesting they help her up.

Xena and Pero brought her up slowly, supporting almost all of her weight. Ephiny wobbled and it was clear she wouldn't be able to travel under her own power. Xena and Pero each pulled one of her arms over their shoulders, supporting her at her waist, and with small steps they walked her out into the clearing. Pero lit a torch and juggled with it until Ephiny shifted her weight toward her. That way, Ephiny's arm stayed draped over Pero's shoulder, leaving the younger woman's hand free to carry the torch.

Ephiny tried to stay with them but didn't have the strength to move her legs. They ended up pulling her along between them, Ephiny's feet dragging across the ground behind her.

"Xena, the main way out is wide enough for us, but I'm worried about running into the other two guards."

"Just take care of Ephiny, I'll handle them," quipped Xena. She would have liked the opportunity to handle all of them, exacting some measure of revenge. Then the familiar voice filled her head and she knew she would only kill when it was absolutely necessary.

Though this passageway was roomier it guided them down just as wayward a path, occasionally almost turning back on itself before allowing a short straight spurt. Ephiny had long since passed out and the two women struggled to carry her along quickly, still ready to draw their weapons at any moment.

Corridor after corridor they passed and once again, Xena was grateful for Pero's intimate knowledge of the caves. She couldn't imagine traversing the maze without the experienced woman at the lead, but she did her best to memorize their path, just in case.

Pero slowed, Xena matching her steps. "We're almost out. Where are those other two?"

Xena shrugged. "I don't know, but I'll be happy if we get out without meeting them."

"Yeah, let's just get it over with." Pero re-positioned Ephiny's arm, bringing her in close and taking almost all of her weight. Soon Pero stopped again. "Xena, the Sacred Cave is just ahead, but I don't hear anything."

"Maybe they're just being quiet." Xena smirked but she knew it wasn't a good sign. "Stay here, I'll go check it out."

Xena inched forward, quiet as an owl. The passageway dumped into the cave behind a large boulder, so she was able to slink into the cave without being seen. Peeking around the boulder, she saw one woman in silhouette, sitting at the mouth of the cave. "Solari?"

"Xena, is that you? Oh thank the gods." Solari ran to the back of the cave. "Do you have..."

"Pero has Ephiny. She needs to get to a healer."

Solari stopped short of Xena, too afraid to ask. Xena lowered her eyes, then turned to lead Solari back to Pero and Ephiny.

When Solari saw Ephiny, she rushed passed Xena, leaving the warrior to retreat in peace.

"Pero, how is she?" Solari ran her hands over Ephiny searching for broken bones, relieved not to encounter any.

"Very weak," replied Pero. "I don't think they gave her any food or water."

"How dare they..." Solari propped her hands on her hips. Looking behind her quickly, she noted Xena had slipped away. She gently shifted her gaze to Pero and asked very quietly, "Gabrielle?"

Pero's lip quivered slightly, fatigue and stress taking its toll. "Eriphyle killed her."

Solari took a deep breath. "Did...did Xena find her?"

"No, one of the guards told her when Xena was using her neck pinch technique on her. We didn't...find the queen."

Solari took in the information solemnly, then wrapped her arm around Ephiny's waist, "Come, let's get out of here."

Xena stood at the mouth of the cave. She could hear Pero and Solari's conversation as they approached her. "Where is everybody?" Pero asked Solari.

"We ran into Eriphyle's army, there were at least 200. How did she ever get so many?" Solari's voice trailed off until she remembered she needed to continue her story. "They were heading to take on our village. We didn't make much of a dent in them, so I ordered a retreat. Eriphyle seemed happy to just continue on and I sent everyone after her at a safe distance."

"But you stayed, Solari. Why?"

"I had to." Xena heard the edge in Solari's voice. "For Ephiny." And Xena knew exactly what she meant. She'd do anything for Ephiny, just as Xena would have done anything for Gabrielle. But it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough.

Solari and Pero lay Ephiny down, Pero sitting beside her with a thump, exhausted. "Ephiny looks terrible," Pero announced dejectedly.

"Well, we can't very well take her back to the village. We'd have to go through Eriphyle's army to get her there." Solari brushed back the blonde locks from Ephiny's face.

Without turning to look at them Xena said, "We can go to the centaurs. It's not far from here."

"Someone's going to have to get word to Eponin." Pero cleared her throat, "Oh, I guess that will be me."

"Xena, I can't get her to the centaurs by myself..." Solari pleaded.

A half-turn of her face, Xena nodded so Solari could catch it in profile. Solari said, "We'll leave at first light, rest while you can. Dawn will be here soon." Solari knew Pero would take her advice and feared Xena would not. She was right.

Ephiny woke for awhile and drank more water before they left, her color looked a little better, perhaps now two steps from Hades' door. She thanked Pero before the young woman embarked on her duty and instructed her to mind her own safety. "It's not important they know where I am if it means anything happening to you."

"I will take care, Ephiny." She reached for the elder's hand and squeezed it before standing to go. After a hug with Solari, she strode to Xena's side.

When Xena met her eyes, Pero was forced to drop her own. It felt as if she was violating some private realm by looking in those blue pools. There was a hollowness that was too intense to bear, she knew she couldn't look up again. With no other recourse, Pero just nodded and walked passed Xena stopping when she heard Xena mutter, "Thank you for guiding me." Pero always wondered if that was meant for her or if it wasn't really a message to Gabrielle.

Solari held Ephiny as they rode, Xena taking on the role of scout. Though they made slow progress, holding back their pace in deference to Ephiny's condition, it was a short journey to the Centaur border. They were met by sentries and escorted the rest of the way to the camp of Kaleipus.

As their healer worked on Ephiny, Solari stayed by her side, Kaleipus stood, arms crossed, trying to watch everyone and everything going on while Xena lurked in the shadows. Kaleipus' tail swished nervously, irritating Xena. Even under the best of circumstances, it was hard for Xena to be in the home of Kaleipus. Solon lived with him and Kaleipus treated him as his own son, though the boy lived with only half-knowledge of his heritage. Xena both hoped and feared for the day he would come to know her as his mother.

The healer finished with Ephiny and motioned for them all to leave the room. "She needs sleep more than anything," the healer told them. "Get some broth down her before trying solid food. I think she'll be fine but it'll take awhile for her to get her strength back. I'll come back this evening but call for me before then if you need to."

Solari showed visible signs of relief and thanked the healer. Kaleipus escorted the healer out then returned and offered Solari and Xena some tea.

"So, now can you tell me what's going on?" asked Kaleipus cautiously, placing steaming mugs before the two women. They were seated at a large wooden table, no doubt the place of many fine dinners as well as meetings and family gatherings. There were chairs, not too common for a centaur's home, but this home had a young boy living in it.

"It's a long story, Kaleipus, but you need to hear it." Solari beckoned him to slide between her and Xena. As Xena made no motion to start the tale, Solari told it as best she could beginning with Eriphyle's attacks on neighboring towns, the abduction of Ephiny, then of Gabrielle by the men of the towns, their slaughter by Eriphyle, Xena's tracking, the trip through the caves, Ephiny's rescue, and their journey to the centaurs. It was an incomplete story, leaving out any further mention of Gabrielle. Kaleipus noticed the omission but said nothing. He watched Xena carefully as she kept her head down, hands folded neatly in her lap during Solari's tale. He could confirm his suspicions later.

Solari excused herself to check on Ephiny, taking some tea in for her in case she was awake and felt up to it. That left Kaleipus with Xena at the table. He scooted closer to her. "Solon is on a hunting trip today. Will you stay to see him tonight?"

She took her time in answering. "There is something I need to do."

"You don't need to tell me Xena, but you can." He put his hand on the table, it was there for the taking if she wanted it.

She did not reach for it. "Tell me about him," she asked instead.

How neatly she changed the subject. "He's growing tall, but that shouldn't be a surprise. He has a wild streak in him tempered by a gentle soul. He's curious and adventurous...You'd be proud of him, Xena."

Finally her eyes met his. The intensity of her gaze surprised him for a moment until he saw the torment she tried to conceal. Kaleipus knew better than to ask, "Perhaps I should leave you alone. I will see if Solari will remain with Ephiny, though I doubt she had any other plans." He paused, giving her the chance to ask him to stay, then padded into the other room to see if Solari and Ephiny needed anything.

Solari was just finishing a sponge bath for Ephiny. Though the stouthearted amazon leader still showed the worst signs of her captivity, a small grin danced on her face. "Feels good?" Kaleipus asked.

"Better than that," rasped Ephiny, eliciting a chuckle from Solari.

"Tomorrow, I'll wash your hair. This will have to do for now." Solari lifted the pail from the floor and put it by the door to be emptied later.

Ephiny looked to Kaleipus and then to Solari. "Xena?"

The question needed no further elaboration. Solari sat on the bed and took one of Ephiny's hands in her own. "I'm worried about her, but I don't know what to do."

"I figured out the gist of it, but would someone mind filling me in on the specifics?" Kaleipus leaned his long body back against the wall, his posture indicating that he was not particularly anxious to hear his question answered.

"Eriphyle killed Gabrielle," Solari stated it flatly.

"So I gathered," responded Kaleipus. "How?"

Solari shrugged "I don't know. Pero told me they heard about it when Xena put the pinch on one of Eriphyle's guards. They didn't get details."

"I did," said Ephiny quietly, "and Xena should know them, though she won't like it. Go get her."

"Now?" asked Solari. "Are you sure you feel up to it?"

Ephiny merely said, "How long do you think she's going to stick around here?"

"She'll be going after Eriphyle," remarked Kaleipus as he moved toward the door.

He was stopped by Solari, "No, I'll do it." She brushed passed him purposefully.

Xena was no longer at the table. Solari considered the possibilities and headed for the stable where she found the warrior brushing Argo. Keeping her distance, she called to her, "Xena?" The brush stopped but the warrior did not verbally acknowledge Solari. "Ephiny would like to speak with you. She said it's something you should know."

Xena carefully placed the brush in a saddle bag then ran her palm down Argo's head, squeezing ever so gently before she let go. "Okay," was all she managed to say.

Kaleipus and Solari stayed at Ephiny's request, she didn't want to have to say it more than once. Xena declined an offer to sit, preferring her rigid posture to the temptation of slinking down in a chair.

"Xena, I know you won't like this, but I also know you well enough that you always demand the truth. All of it." Ephiny drew herself up on her pillows a little, angling her head to see Xena better. "Eriphyle is cruel, she is mad with the notion of revenge, and I fear there's no stopping her. She told me about her plans to pit us against our neighbors. Solari said she seems to have done a good job. Eriphyle wanted an opportunity to step in and bring all of the amazon groups together in a united front. Unfortunately, she meant that to be a warring front as well.

"For the first day she had me, I wasn't too concerned. Eriphyle didn't let anyone touch me, though they taunted me incessantly. When I asked for water she just laughed at me. Later, when I grew tired she wouldn't let me sleep. For four days, they didn't let me sleep, splashing water on me to keep me awake. That was all the water I ever got, what I could lick from my lips.

"Then she came to tell me about Gabrielle. I was so tired by then, I'd hoped I was hallucinating... She told me she had abducted the queen and murdered her by driving a sword into her belly." Ephiny closed her eyes against the mental picture, then continued in a breathless whisper, "She told me she twisted the sword and bore a hole through her body big enough to plunge her fist through."

No one moved, no one said a word. Xena asked very softly, "Did you see her, Ephiny?"

"No, Xena. I didn't."

More silent moments passed, "I need to." Xena swallowed, "I need to take her home."

It was Ephiny's turn to speak softly, "I understand."

Xena turned to leave, put her hand on the door and said, "Thanks for telling me, Ephiny," then she was gone.

Solari rested a cool, damp cloth on Ephiny's forehead. "You need to sleep." But Ephiny's eyes had already closed.

Kaleipus put a hand on Solari's shoulder, "Stay until we both know she's well enough to travel." Solari was glad it would be two against one. Ephiny would want to return long before she was well enough. "I'll be nearby if you need anything."

"Thank you, Kaleipus. It's friends like you..."

"Who give amazons a good name." His eyes twinkled and tail swished wildly.

* * *

Pero crept near the perimeter of her village, her home, and was sickened by the sight. The village was surrounded, they were under siege. Soldiers dotted the landscape in a circle around their walled village, a smattering of fires were lit where men gathered, sentries stood posted every few lengths. She could smell the smoky fires, smell the unwashed bodies, smell the bitter, potent alcohol. It was a pollution she'd been unfamiliar with but now would not soon forget.

She climbed a tree and hid behind a verdant cloak of leaves, waiting for the cover of darkness.

Only men? She thought it curious and wondered where Eriphyle's army was. But from her vantage, she could see only townsmen, young and old, experienced and green. At least they would be easier to sneak through than a cadre of her amazon sisters. She kept wondering where they were. Solari said there were 200 of them...

She waited long into the night until the waxing moon was about to slip over the horizon before she began her stealthful journey through the troops. Pero chose a rather long route, preferring to slink between two older, snoozing men than young excitable ones. At its end lay a wall to scale, or perhaps some boards loosened in years past. She chuckled to herself to think she was trying to re-enter her home in the same furtive manner of several summers back when she had sneaked out to tour those caves. She'd always been careful to replace the boards so no one would suspect they were loose unless they leaned up against them. Perhaps no one had repaired them in all those intervening years.

Crouching then crawling, she slipped through the grasses. Something about the absurdity of the situation gave her the courage to move unimpeded by a pounding heart, her breathing remained controllable and steady. There would be time for letting go later, when the reality of the whole thing hit her, but she hoped that would be after it was all over and she was safely in her own bed.

The dozing men gave her no trouble. On another night she might be tempted to see how close she could get to them without their noticing her, she convinced herself she could pick their pockets like an invisible wraith. Her confidence grew, she kept it in check, no time to get cocky, she thought.

Voices coming closer. Three, no four, laughing then yelling. Someone was checking up on their troops. She'd made it inside their circle, all she needed to do was keep quiet and motionless. Her snoozing companions came to life briefly then settled back to their business. She continued.

The wall. Here she could be seen, the light of the fires casting dim shadows, but enough to sense movement. Flat on her belly, she stretched for the old boards. A comforting wiggle. Slowly, ever so slowly, she moved the bottom of the board to the right. Then she grabbed the board to its left and inched it the other way. Crawling through the small hole, she pulled in both feet then straightened the boards behind her.

A sword was at her throat and it felt good. "It's Pero. I have news of Ephiny," she said quickly. A strong hand lifted her to her feet, she focused on a big grin.

They sat in Eponin's hut, six women come to hear news of their friend and leader. Only one candle providing the dim illumination, it sent soft shadows to dance across Eponin's tired face. Pero finished the mug of wine and waited. Loggera slipped in still wearing her sleeping shift.

"Good. Now Pero, please begin." Eponin smiled at her, but her mouth was creased by the strain of the last few days, weeks, and months of tension.

"Ephiny is okay." Pero felt everyone relax a little. "Solari and Xena took her to the centaurs to recover. She's weak, they hadn't treated her very well." Nervous shifting behind her. "Eriphyle was hiding deep behind the Sacred Cave. She has 200 with her."

Eponin interjected, "Had. Perhaps only half now." She caught Pero's inquisitive glance. "Go on, I'll speak after you."

Pero knew what she had to tell them next. She played with a ragged corner of her skirt trying to string together the words to do it. The strain of everything, her lack of sleep, the heinous acts committed, she fought back tears for the first time.

Eponin rose and came to her, kneeling before her and taking a hand in each of hers. She felt the trembling. "We need to know, Pero." A nod, shoulders shaking. "It's Gabrielle?" A nod, tears streaming down her cheeks. Eponin gave an unspoken command, her guests left to pass on the news to their sisters.

"Pero, you call tell me the rest later." Her hand brushed back the tears from the young amazon's face but left her own untouched. She went to the table and refilled two mugs of wine, handing one to Pero. "Eriphyle came at dawn," Eponin began her own story. "They stormed the north gate and almost took us. It was a preposterous move on her part. She knew our archers were in a much better position than hers, but she almost succeeded! We depleted her numbers," Eponin sipped, "and she ours. Then she withdrew."

The acting queen lowered herself onto the edge of her bed. "Next the men came. They were well directed and set up the blockade quickly. We wondered how they were able to pull it off, then we saw the reason. Otus. They'd hooked up with Otus and his army, no doubt he believed he could run with the spoils..." She pounded a fist on her bed, "Eriphyle must be behind this, too. They'd never have agreed to join with a warlord on their own. She must be sitting back, watching this whole thing and laughing at us."

"Eponin," Pero said, forcing hope to color her words, "we will get through this."

"Yes, I know. But at what cost?" Both knew it was already too high.

* * *

Xena headed back toward the caves. The mare treaded lightly, sensing her master's mood. She rode Argo without really feeling the horse under her, hardly aware of the anything around her, only the unrelenting regrets in her mind. Xena tried not to imagine the scene Ephiny had described. The more she tried, the more vivid the images came to her. To die a barbarous death at the hands of a cruel monster. There was a time in Xena's life when she believed her days might end that way, but never for Gabrielle. Never for Gabrielle.

She didn't hear the arrow drawn from the quiver, the bowstring pulled taut, the arrow set free to sail toward her. When it imbedded deep in her back she was surprised. Her first instinct was to turn toward its point of origin, to run headlong into the person who dared to have shot it, but she knew she was in no condition to fight. She couldn't move her left arm, sticky blood was working its way down her leathers and her back burned like it never had before. Instead, she drove Argo forward, urging her into her swiftest gallop and looked for a place she could hide while she tried to tend to her own wound. It would be difficult to reach the arrow but she would have to find a way to get it out and stop the bleeding. Before she figured out she wasn't woozy just from the loss of blood, she slipped off Argo and collapsed in the dirt.

Eriphyle was not far behind her, waiting for the drug to take effect. She rode a magnificent black horse, half a hand taller than Argo. Her brown hair hung loosely about her shoulders framing an angular face. "Come on Malana, help me get her on my horse. I never thought it would be this easy!" Eriphyle laughed.

Malana, a tall amazon sporting a muscular frame, lifted Xena up to Eriphyle. "It was easy, wasn't it. Must have been distracted by something." Teeth flashing, she joined her leader in a hearty chuckle. They proudly rode back to their hideout with their prize.

* * *

It was late at night when Solari heard the anxious voices. She made sure Ephiny was still sleeping soundly before running out to see what was going on. Kaleipus stood with three other centaurs, anxiously shuffling their hooves.

"Ah Solari, good you're here. There's trouble brewing."

Another centaur addressed her, "I'm Chromius. I live near the border. We have word that your village is under siege."

"Eriphyle," muttered Solari angrily.

"No," countered Chromius, "Otus has gathered people from the towns that had been attacked to join with his army. There are many hundreds and they are well supplied." He shuffled closer, "There is more. They have come to us and demanded we join with them."

"You can't," pleaded Solari.

"No, and we won't," broke in Kaleipus. "We made a deal with them and I hope you see the wisdom in it."

Solari eyed him carefully. "What deal?" she said with more than a hint of challenge.

"We keep Ephiny here and they leave us alone."

"What? You can't make decisions like that about Ephiny! Her place is with her sisters! How dare you presume the leader of the Amazon Nation..."

Kaleipus cut her off, "First of all, Solari, Ephiny is in no condition to travel and won't be for some time," he tried to reason with her. "Secondly, we have much to protect here."

Solari interrupted him angrily, "So you'd protect your own at our expense? I guess I'm not surprised."

"Yes, we protect our own and as you know Ephiny is one of us. Phantes was my friend." Ephiny's centaur husband killed in a battle far from there just before their son was born. "I would lay down my life for her, just as she would for me."

Solari acknowledged that with a nod, "As I would for her."

"So she is safer here, but not completely safe. I know Otus well enough," Kaleipus spat. "He'll find time to come after her."

"So you offer to keep her here even though you can't protect her?"

"No one can absolutely guarantee the protection of anyone else." They eyed each other with unspoken connections. Kaleipus softened his tone, "But we can surely try."

Chromius spoke, "There's a cave not far from here. We can take Ephiny there. I know she isn't up much for traveling, but I think it is worth the risk."

"Hopefully, if they come looking for her they won't think to hunt so close by." Kaleipus put a hand on Solari's shoulder. "But, we need to make sure. We want you to be a decoy."

"A decoy?"

"No doubt we are being watched even now. We want you to ride to one of our southern camps, drawing a litter behind you. We'll make it look like Ephiny is on the litter."

"You're asking me to leave Ephiny? I can't do that! Who would take care of her?" anger rising, Solari challenged them.

Kaleipus smiled, "I have someone in mind, a certain young boy who would then also be out of harm's way."

"Solon." Solari relaxed.

"Solari, if Otus hears you've taken Ephiny to the south, it will be unlikely he'll spare the time and the men to go that far. I think you'll be able slip away once you get there," Chromius offered, "but you won't be able to come back here."

Solari fought the urge to say no. It was a workable plan, but she didn't like her role in it and she wasn't sure Ephiny would be happy about hers either. Still, Ephiny's safety was foremost among her responsibilities and she didn't have a better idea. "Okay, I agree to this. I can't say I'd have come up with it myself," she held up her hands in defeat, "still I appreciate all you've done and I thank you."

"You should leave right away. It'll look like we've had this little talk and convinced you to go immediately."

Soon, a litter was attached to the back of her horse. On it, under a blanket, straw was tied into the shape of a body, rags stripped thinly fashioned into the wild, curly locks so endearing on Ephiny. Solari mounted, thanked the centaurs once again, and hoped her terse explanation to an enraged Ephiny would be enough.

* * *

Slowly Xena regained consciousness. She felt weak and dizzy, her stomach rolled in waves. She tested the idea of moving only to discover she was securely bound. Too securely: ropes were wrapped around her legs as if she were a mummy, her hands and arms were bound tightly and then more cord held them firmly to her torso. Someone was very serious about this, she thought.

"Oh Xena, I know you're in there," that someone teased. "Let's see those famous eyes. Come on, I want to see recognition of defeat in there."

Xena made sure she didn't get her wish, and planted a look of utter confidence before opening her eyes to stare at her captor. "Hello Eriphyle," she tried to say, but the words cracked in her dry mouth. She was in the clearing in the caves, she noticed.

Eriphyle leaned over Xena and placed a fingertip on the corner of her lips, slowly drawing it across to the other side. Xena jerked her head to avoid the nauseating touch only to have Eriphyle grab her by the chin and wrench her back. "No, no. You do only what I want. You feel only what I let you. You are mine now, Xena, and I will ruin your life just as you did mine. I will make you feel things you never believed you could."

Eriphyle let her go noting the red marks on her skin from the pressure of her fingers. Her breath caught at the glory of having this woman so completely under her control. Closing her eyes and letting her lips extend into a feral smile, she whispered very slowly, "I am enjoying this." The amazon indulged the luster for a long moment then she popped out of her reverie and asked harshly, "So I guess you heard about Gabrielle? She suffered, Xena. She begged and screamed and pleaded for mercy. She called for you over and over. How does that make you feel?"

Xena shut her eyes tightly and fought the urge to lash out. She knew she'd be playing into Eriphyle's hands. Then fingers rested on her waist.

"Did you hear how I did it, Xena? Right here." The pressure increased on her stomach. "I ran my blade through her here. At first it made a little indentation in her soft skin. Then the skin broke and drops of blood pooled by the metal." She kept pressing harder on Xena's stomach. "Then I pushed a bit more and her blood ran in thick streams. Then I thrust it in farther and farther." Eriphyle pulled her hand away quickly and looked at Xena's face. "My, my, the Warrior Princess cries. Listen well, Xena. I could care less about your little friend. I did this all for your benefit. Gabrielle was no hindrance to me, she was always out tagging along behind you like a little dog. She'd never have gotten in my way of bringing the amazons back in line with their true heritage. Gabrielle was a weak-minded fool, gaga for you of all people. No, I did this all for you, Xena. You're the one I want. And I'm going to break you before I kill you." She laughed. "So far, so good."

Xena rolled away from that voice. Sobbing uncontrollably, unable to fight her emotions now, she gave into them, letting them wash over her, hoping she could drown in them, finding some sort of release. What had she made Gabrielle go through? If only she'd let her come with her the other day and not forced her to stay behind in the Amazon Village. If only they'd avoided that town. If only she'd never been followed out of Poteidaia by the little bard.

When that which you fear most, which you have kept so buried, which you have fought with every weapon available to you comes true, it is possible to die from it.

Of Amazons, Warriors, and Revenge PART 2

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