Before I met Gabrielle, life was ordered and predictable – like the manoeuvres of opposing armies on a battlefield. I was master of my own destiny – certain of what I believed and what I did not. Yet, when this enthralling young woman entered my life, she completely confounded my world until the very foundations of my beliefs crumbled. What was left was the certainty of only two things: my love for Gabrielle and her love for me. The rest lay in the hands of Fate.
The sound of hoof beats pounding on soil and stone could not keep cadence with my pounding heart. Gabrielle had been kidnapped and time was of the essence. It was past midday already, which meant I only had eight hours of sunlight to pick up the kidnappers' trail and find Gabrielle. The most logical place to start my search was from the Amazon encampment.
Thoughts of the last time I was at the camp thundered through my mind as I rode. What a fool I was. How righteous in my beliefs – beliefs that mocked me with every urgent stride.
I believed that I could keep my relationship with Gabrielle secret.
That I could will the truth into silence was arrogant.
I believed that if the relationship became public, Gabrielle would be in danger.
Hiding the truth did nothing to keep her safe.
I believed that the guilty would suffer greatly for hurting Gabrielle.
Vengeance was the one immutable truth I could still rely upon.
I believed that I was going to get Gabrielle back.
The truth was even if I rescued her she might not take me back.
I tried to clear my mind and focus, but guilt kept gnawing away at me like a wolf on a stag's carcass. If only we had not had that ridiculous argument. If only I had not walked away and left her at the Amazon camp. If only I swallowed my pride, instead of jugs of wine, and went back the next day to bring her home. If only… Maybe Darnell was right, I thought, and Gabrielle was my weakness. Or maybe Gabrielle was right, and it was my pride and need to control that was the chink in my armour.
"He-ya!" I pressed Argo to go faster and faster still. The clasp from my cloak clawed my throat as the heavy cloth whipped in the wind behind me. What did I care about a scratch when I would swim the fiery lakes of Tartarus to get her back?
Nearing the Amazons' camp, I slowed Argo to an easy lope so I could assess my surroundings. My keen senses could pick up even the slightest whiff of nervous perspiration from ambushers lying in wait; however nothing but the scent of myrtle and cypress filled my nostrils. This didn't relieve my guardedness. I knew first hand of the Amazons' legendary stealth in the forest. It was in fact the great Amazon Queen of the Northern Steppes, the Great Cyane, who taught me to skim across the treetops unseen.
Cyane…I had very few regrets in my life; killing Cyane was one. That was many years ago and I was a different person then – unbridled, unscrupulous, and utterly lacking the control and the vision necessary to become ruler of the known world. And as well as Gabrielle thinks she knows me, she knows nothing about my past with the Amazons – there wasn't a living soul who did. I saw to it.
Suddenly, from my left, I heard a bird call that I recognised as the Amazon signal for 'rider approaching', not 'intruder'. Why no alarm? I wondered. Surely if they saw me coming they would have signalled 'intruder'. I did not exactly leave on the friendliest terms the last time I was at their camp.
I nudged my horse forward again, but proceeded with caution, my senses remaining alert for even the slightest movement. I approached the outer perimeter of the camp without being challenged. Through the low-lying branches I could see Amazon warriors going about their normal activities as though they were oblivious to my presence.
I was just about to announce myself when out of the corner of my eye I saw Ephiny preparing to mount Gabrielle's horse. What would Ephiny be doing on Gabrielle's horse? Unless…unless the owner had no further need of it!
A red haze descended as reason gave way to rage. I let out my war cry, drew my sword, and kicked Argo into a charge. Warriors grabbed for their weapons and started rushing towards me.
The first Amazon to brave challenging me received a hard kick in the chest that sent her flying backwards a good twenty feet. When I reached the centre of camp, I pulled hard on the reins and somersaulted over my horse's head as it came to an abrupt stop.
"Where is she? Where's Gabrielle?" I snarled.
Four warriors armed with staffs surrounded me, but they were no threat. The Amazon directly in front of me was short and stocky. I easily vaulted over her and kicked her in the back as I passed overhead. She tumbled forward into the crowd and the circle became a tangled mass of arms and legs.
I squared my feet and looked around for other challengers. The well-muscled warrior named Solari drew her sword and charged forward. I admired her bravery, if not her foolhardiness. With two hands on her sword, Solari took a swing at me, which I easily sidestepped well out of reach of her blade. Before she could regroup, I moved in, grabbed her weapon wrist and bent it back, forcing the sword from her hand.
Knowing it was better to disable an enemy than to disarm them, I twisted her arm until it locked straight and brought the pommel of my sword down hard on her elbow. A sickening crunch pierced the air, and the brown-haired Amazon crumbled to her knees with an agonised cry.
Solari had been no match for me, but I was not feeling merciful. Revenge had washed away all reason, and I was out for blood. I gripped my sword and was about to plunge it into the injured Amazon's chest when a fighting staff blocked its forward momentum.
Who dares to deny me the kill? I thought. I looked hard into the face of my next Amazon challenger and immediately recognised the tall, dark blonde, curly-haired Amazon that had pushed her way between Solari and me. It was Ephiny, Queen Terreis' capable second-in-command, which was the only reason I had not killed her on the spot.
"Stop! Gabrielle isn't here! She left for Corinth with Queen Terreis a couple of hours ago!" Ephiny shouted to get through to me. "The Queen went to sign your treaty!"
"You are lying!" I snarled. "You have got Gabrielle and I want her back."
I slammed my sword down on the middle of her staff and broke it in two. Ephiny hastily improvised the two pieces as rough 'chobos', as the Amazon fighting sticks were called, holding them crossed in front of her chest.
"I told you she is not here!" Her hazel-brown eyes were almost pleading with me to believe her. "Gabrielle and Terreis should have arrived at the palace by now. You must've just missed them."
I knew when someone was lying to me by the subtle clues that even a successful liar cannot control, like the slight dilation of their pupils when they lie. I was beginning to think Ephiny was telling me the truth.
"And I am telling you they never made it. I received this ransom demand no more than an hour ago." I took it out of my shirt and waved it in front of her face.
"A what?" I could tell by the baffled look on Ephiny's face that this was the first she had heard of it. "Are you telling me that Gabrielle has been kidnapped?"
"Yes!" I declared, relieved that Ephiny finally understood.
"And you came here thinking we did it?" Ephiny asked disbelievingly. Then it dawned on her. "Wait. If Gabrielle... then... Terreis! What about Terreis?"
"I do not know. The note did not mention—"
Ignoring me, Ephiny called for her lieutenant, "Eponin!"
The buxom Amazon with long brown hair came running over to where we stood, with a sword in each hand. Their healer, N'Gila, followed close behind. The older woman knelt down beside Solari to examine the Amazon's injured arm.
Ephiny dropped the chobos on the ground, took her sword from Eponin, and strapped it around her waist. Still ignoring me, Ephiny continued barking out orders to the warriors gathering around us. "N'Gila, you're in charge here. Take care of Solari and the other wounded. Eponin—you, Magdelus–" She glanced around and pointed to two other Amazons on the perimeter of the group. I recognised one of them as the one I had kicked in the back. "–Lithia, and Dorvis," – you four are with me," Ephiny continued. "Queen Terreis and Gabrielle were headed towards Corinth along the path south of the main road. We will start there."
Finally Ephiny turned back to me. "And you," speaking to me as if I was just another warrior under her command, "head straight back to the palace and see if there is any more news."
Who does she think she is ordering me about? I thought. Am I not Empress of this land? I was not about to take orders from this impudent Amazon. "I am going to find Gabrielle. You may join me, but do not get in my way."
"And I am going to find Queen Terreis, so don't get in my way!"
"Look," Eponin said, "Why don't we work together and find them both, shall we?"
"Fine, but I am leading the party. I am the best tracker around here," I replied.
Ephiny snorted. "You may be the best around here, but we're not from around here."
"Then you will need my local knowledge."
"Hurry up! There's no time to lose!" Eponin yelled.
I did not appreciate being told off by Eponin and neither did Ephiny. We both stood our ground and glared at the bold Amazon.
Eponin, who had already started up the path, turned and scolded us, "This is not a pissing contest!" Her eyes narrowed, reflecting the stupidity of our bickering. "Queen Terreis and Gabrielle are missing, or have you forgotten?"
As one, Ephiny and I said, "Come on, let's go find them."
Our search party started from the Amazon encampment and followed Gabrielle and Terreis' tracks due west until we came upon a fork in the road. I led the group to the right along a little used walking path that cut back towards the main road. I knew these woods well from my warlord days. This was an old track that meandered farther north on its way towards the harbour. It was wide enough for a horse drawn cart laden with weapons in its day, but now it was narrow and overgrown in places – barely wide enough for two people side by side.
I stopped to examine some low-hanging branches that were bent but not broken. Ephiny came up beside me and pointed out some scuffmarks in the dirt. Terreis and Gabrielle's tracks continued on the main path, but it was plain to see that they were not alone.
While we were searching for more tracks in the undergrowth, Ephiny broke the silence. "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
I could have simply said 'yes' or told her to 'mind her own business'; however, in view of my error in thinking the Amazons had anything to do with Gabrielle's kidnapping, I was inclined to indulge her. "No," I said simply.
"What do you see in Gabrielle, anyway?" Ephiny asked.
I bristled a bit at her impertinence but held my tongue since I had invited the enquiry.
The Amazon warrior had the good sense to rephrase her query a little more diplomatically. "Uh, I mean, what drew you to her in the first place?"
I bent down to investigate another boot mark in the dirt. As I pointed it out to Ephiny, I pondered her question. Besides her outward beauty and charm, Gabrielle possesses an inner strength unlike anyone I had ever known; she is brave, bold, and imaginative, and she challenges me to be a better person, a better ruler. The answer came easily to me, but I was not going to be that candid with the Amazon warrior.
"She is...'different'," I answered.
"You mean she's annoying," the blonde Amazon bantered.
Given the situation, I was in no mood for jokes about the woman I loved. I grabbed Ephiny by the collar of her leather chest protector and got right up into her face. "Do not talk about Gabrielle like that – ever."
"Stop it you two!"
Instinctively, Ephiny and I turned our heads like two squabbling siblings heeding their mother's stern warning.
"There's more pressing business at hand," Eponin chided.
The brown-haired Amazon was right and there was no time to waste. We shrugged it off and continued our search.
We stopped again where the trail crossed a dry creek bed. Eponin crossed over to pick up Gabrielle & Terreis' tracks. Ephiny took the opportunity to clarify what she meant to say before about Gabrielle.
"About before, what I meant to say was 'she is annoying', that is why you like her. She does everything her way and not yours. She follows a different set of rules, a different code of honour, but gets the results you want – or at least the results she tells you that you want, and you find yourself agreeing with her."
I cast a sideways glance at Ephiny. There was something about the tone of her voice and the faraway look on her face. "You are not just talking about Gabrielle are you?"
"Terreis is the same," she said quietly.
Ah, now I was beginning to understand what was behind her line of questioning. Ephiny was obviously worried about Terreis and needed to talk about it. I stopped tracking for a moment and gave her my full attention.
"When Queen Melosa died, Terreis became our leader," the Amazon warrior explained. "Her ideas about how to strengthen our tribe were radically different. She believed that we could protect our borders more effectively if we made treaties with our enemies. At first she was met with opposition and disapproval from those who stubbornly held to our traditions, but in time we came to see that her ideas worked. We had peace and prosperity without constantly having to fight to preserve it."
Ephiny looked away as if she were afraid of making eye contact. "Terreis was the only one who believed this treaty you proposed was genuine and could work. That is why we came. We believe in her. She hasn't let us down yet."
"And she is not going to," I reassured her. "We will find her."
"We will find both of them," Ephiny reassured me.
This sort of intimate conversation was uncomfortable for both us. There was so much common ground between us, yet up until now it had seemed as if we were seeking the differences. It was easier for warriors like us to be confrontational than companionable.
Eponin was ready to tell us to hurry up again, but we did not give her the chance. We got back to tracking.
"This way," I said and the party continued along the trail. We weren't more than fifty paces along when I abruptly stopped.
"Blood!" I announced.
"Where?" Ephiny looked around. "I don't see any."
I sniffed the air. "I can smell it."
"You really are good," Ephiny offered.
I didn't stop to gloat; instead I hurried onwards.
About another thirty paces or so and we found evidence that a struggle had taken place. Blood was spattered about in quantities that worried me. By then the rest of the Amazons in our search party had caught up with us.
We all looked for the source of the blood. "There!" I pointed. Behind Ephiny, a piece of dark leather in the brush had caught my attention.
Ephiny turned to see where I was pointing, fell to her knees, and frantically cleared the undergrowth to reveal a boot and the leg that wore it. For a heartbeat, I hoped it would be Gabrielle; then I hoped it was not.
"Terreis!" Ephiny cradled the unconscious woman's head in her lap. "Terreis! Terreis! Wake up!"
The Amazon Queen was unconscious, and judging by the state of her injuries, she was the source of the blood trail – no other blood trail was evident. For that I was thankful, if only because it meant Gabrielle had not been injured when the kidnappers took her. Why would the kidnappers leave Terreis to die? I pondered. The idiots probably had no idea that she was Queen of the Amazons. If they had known, they could have ransomed her as well. Or they did know, but Terreis put up such a fight the kidnappers left her to die.
Either way, none of it mattered at that moment. What mattered was getting Terreis some medical attention and continuing the search for Gabrielle.
As though she had heard my thoughts, Eponin started running in the direction we had just come from and yelled over her shoulder, "N'Gila, I'm going to get N'Gila!"
"No, come back!" I called after her.
Eponin came to a skidding halt and returned to the group.
"We are closer to the palace. Take Terreis there. My physician will treat her."
Eponin organised the others to make a litter to transport their queen to the palace.
Just as they were getting Terreis settled on the litter, the Amazon Queen opened her eyes.
"Terreis!" cried Ephiny as she kneeled beside her queen. "Can you hear me?"
"Ephiny," Terreis croaked.
"I'm here. You're safe."
"I... I want..." Terreis grimaced with pain.
"Shush, don't try and talk."
The Amazon Queen regarded her Second with urgency. "I want you to take my Right of Caste."
I knew what it meant for an Amazon to bestow their Right of Caste; it meant that Terreis was bequeathing all her possessions and her position to Ephiny. It also meant she was dying.
"No," said Ephiny shaking her head. "You're not dying. You hear me?" She looked up at Eponin who was standing beside her. "Help me carry her to the palace."
Terreis grabbed Ephiny's arm. "Say…will…take." She struggled to talk.
"Okay, I will take it. But you have to promise me you will not give up."
"I prom…" Terreis sank back and slowly closed her eyes. The warriors surrounding her held their collective breath, fearing that their queen was passing over to the Amazon Land of the Dead. They were greatly relieved when Terreis opened her eyes again.
The Amazon Queen looked around until she spotted me standing off to the side. She waved me over and with a frail voice said, "Gab…ri…elle–"
I held my hand up to save her the effort. "Yes, we know. Gabrielle has been kidnapped."
Terreis' swollen eyes blinked slowly as she took it in. The red-haired woman fixed her gaze on Ephiny and said, "Help Xena find Gabrielle."
"My place is with you," Ephiny insisted.
"There is nothing more you can do for me." Terreis coughed up blood. "Promise…me...find Gabrielle."
The Amazon Queen waited for Ephiny's promise, but the blonde haired warrior remained stubbornly silent.
Terreis grasped Ephiny's forearm. "Promise me!"
Agonised worry showed on Ephiny's brow. "I promise," she replied.
Terreis smiled weakly, and then slowly her arm fell to her side as she drifted into unconsciousness. At that instant, Ephiny became Regent and spoke for the Amazon Nation.
I checked Terreis' pulse. She was still alive, but who knew for how much longer. "Get her to the palace – quickly," I said to Eponin. "If any of my guards try to stop you, show them this." I removed my imperial ring and handed it to her. "When you get there, ask for Commander Galates. Give him the ring. He will see to your needs."
Eponin acknowledged me with a nod and took the ring. The two thick set Amazons, Lithia and Dorvis, picked up the litter. Ephiny immediately wrested one end of the litter away.
Ephiny's able lieutenant spoke up. "You are Regent, so it is your prerogative. But, you promised our Queen."
"I know what I promised, but I'm not leaving Terreis," Ephiny asserted.
A silent battle of wills ensued, but in the end Ephiny knew Eponin was right and dipped her head in agreement. Eponin signalled for Dorvis to take the litter, but Terreis' Regent was still reluctant to relinquish the litter's handles.
The dark-haired Amazon touched Ephiny's arm and said, "Go – help the Empress. You are the best tracker in our tribe. The Queen will be in good hands."
Ephiny started to object, but Eponin cut her off. "Amazon pride is at stake. Find the men who did this to our Queen and help the Empress find Gabrielle."
That seemed to jolt Ephiny into relinquishing the litter, and she stepped aside to let them take Terreis.
Eponin and the two carrying the litter moved off in the direction of the palace, leaving me with Ephiny and Magdelus, a tall, wiry warrior whose face that gave nothing away, unlike Ephiny who did little to mask her fury and frustration. Still we wasted no time in studying the evidence left by the ones who had attacked Terreis and Gabrielle.
"It looks like two men," I said pointing at two sets of footprints leading away from the scene of the attack.
"Obviously," Ephiny condescended. The blonde Amazon then crouched down and inspected the boot prints more closely. "Carrying something about the same weight as Gabrielle."
"Obviously," I patronised.
Unlike Eponin, who was not shy about keeping our egos in check, Magdelus said nothing. She merely glowered at the two of us. It was enough to get us back to the task at hand without further comment or boasting.
We stopped again when I spotted a piece of torn cloth tangled in some nettles. I recognised it was the same olive colour as the tunic Gabrielle wore the night of the Amazon feast.
Spurred on by the discovery, we continued tracking for several more paces until Ephiny found more olive-coloured threads on a low-lying branch of a pine tree.
"The kidnappers must have been wearing leather," said Ephiny. "The only threads caught in the needles belong to Gabrielle."
"Uh, huh." I acknowledged Ephiny, however, I was more interested in the trunk than the branch. I examined a mark where some of its bark was scraped off.
"The one on the right is left handed," I concluded.
Ephiny paused and looked at me dubiously. "What? And I suppose you can tell the colour of his eyes, and that he's got a scar on his cheek."
I ignored her sarcasm and pointed at the place about waist high where the mark was. "Look. That is where the hilt of his sword caught it. It is on his right so he is left handed."
"Romans wear their sword on the right," Ephiny noted confidently.
"True," I said, "but a Roman sword will leave a different mark, and there is damage to the undergrowth lower down. A Roman sword is too short to cause that."
"Impressive," the blonde warrior allowed.
After that, we worked more in concert than in competition, easily following the trail as it took us due north and west. The clues led us to a crossroads where the main road into Corinth met the bypass road leading directly to the harbour. It was there that the trail ran cold. Too many people, horses, and carts travel the road to Corinth.
"They wouldn't go west, towards the city," Magdelus observed.
"And they wouldn't head east. That would take them past our camp," Ephiny added.
Having ruled out east, west, and south, there was only one direction that the kidnappers could have gone. "The ransom note wanted the money paid at the harbour, they probably crossed the road here and continued there." I pointed to the wooded hillside across the road. "There is an old Dorian shrine on top of that hill and a path that leads down to the harbour." As I said those words it hit me. "Of course! No one uses that shrine anymore. That must be where they are holding Gabrielle. Follow me!"
After crossing the main road, we started up the hill and picked up the kidnappers' tracks again. We had not gone far when I heard the distinct cadence of soldiers coming from behind us. By my reckoning there were at least ten to twelve armed men heading our way. Ever cautious, the Amazons immediately took up defensive positions, but I already knew there was no need.
I immediately recognised the uniforms and the officer in charge. It was Lieutenant Glaphyra, a female soldier of average height and superior build, leading a squad of Palace Guards.
After catching her breath, the Lieutenant said, "My Liege, some Amazons turned up at the palace with the injured Amazon Queen and your Imperial ring. Commander Galates took them in and ordered us to find you."
"Yes, yes." I silenced her with a raised hand. I would have expected nothing less from the able Commander of my Imperial Guards.
"How was the Queen when you left?" Ephiny asked anxiously.
"I'm afraid I don't know," Glaphyra replied. "I heard she was in pretty bad shape when they arriv—"
"That can wait," I said tersely. I knew Terreis' second-in-command was tortured not knowing the condition of her queen, but there was no time to waste on the dying when Gabrielle was still out there.
"What are your orders?" the Lieutenant asked.
"We are on the kidnapper's trail," I told her. "I believe they are holding Gabrielle at the old Dorian shrine to Poseidon on the next hill. Do you know the path from the harbour to the old Dorian shrine?"
The Lieutenant did not answer immediately. As I recalled, Glaphyra had joined my army in Thrace, so she might not have been as familiar with the locations of old ruins around Corinth. Fortunately Sergeant Briarus, a native of Corinth, knew the path well.
"Good. Sergeant Briarus, you take half the squad, start at the harbour and follow that path to the shrine. Lieutenant Glaphyra, you and the other half of the squad are with me. We will take the direct route up there. We may flush the kidnappers out and they might try to flee to the harbour. If you see anyone on that path, Sergeant, arrest them. We can worry about their guilt or innocence later."
"Yes, My Liege," Briarus saluted and took charge of his unit.
Ephiny matched my earlier impatience. "Can we get on with it? We are wasting time and light."
"Fine," I replied. "Let's go."
Near the top of the hill I raised my hand up to signal a stop and then silence. My keen hearing had captured a faint sound that was not of the forest. I held my breath and listened even more intently.
Ephiny came forward. "What is it?" she whispered.
"Listen," I replied in a low voice.
The Amazon Regent frowned as she strained to hear.
With my index finger I beckoned her to listen more carefully. Her brow relaxed when she too heard the distant sound of clashing metal echoing off the tall trees.
"I make out two combatants," Ephiny observed.
"I think we may have found our kidnappers," I replied hopefully.
Ephiny waved the others forward, and I laid out a plan. "About two hundred paces ahead there is a clearing where the two footpaths come together." I explained. "I believe that is where we will find the kidnappers – and hopefully Gabrielle. Regardless, we do not want whoever is up there to see us coming, so this is what we are going to do."
I wiped away some leaves to reveal a patch of earth, picked up a twig, and started drawing a map.
"Did you notice the deer trail a few paces back that intersected this footpath?" I asked, pointing with the stick.
Ephiny, Magdelus, and Glaphyra confirmed with a nod.
"Good. We will split up and follow the smaller trail to the clearing so we will not be detected. Ephiny, you and Magdelus will go right, come around their flank, and ambush them from behind. In the mean time, Glaphyra and I will follow the trail to the left." I demonstrated with X's and lines on the impromptu map.
"I will create a diversion. Ephiny, as soon as you and Magdelus are in position, take them down. Lieutenant, you and your men will act as reinforcements and secure the perimeter." I looked up at Ephiny. "Any questions?"
"No," Ephiny affirmed. With that, Ephiny and Magdelus doubled back, disappearing into the dense greenery as they followed the deer trail heading due northeast.
"Glaphyra, you are with me."
We followed the deer trail to the northwest in stealthy pursuit of our quarry until we came to the place where the Harbour-Shrine footpath joined the footpath we were on. As we crossed the road, I noticed two different sets of footprints than the ones I had been tracking earlier. I crouched down to get a closer look at the footprints, and what I saw surprised me.
"Something wrong, Highness?" Glaphyra whispered.
I showed the young Lieutenant the two separate footprints on the path and explained the story they were telling me. "See here, and here. Clearly these two footprints do not belong to the kidnappers, because neither one looks like he is carrying a load – a load the size of Gabrielle, that is. These are two different men – one continued on towards the shrine while the other veered off on the same trail we are following. Come on!"
When we neared the edge of the clearing, the situation became more discernable. There were three people – two males and one female – about fifteen paces ahead. The two men were definitely fighting each other.
We crept up as close as we dared without giving away our position. "Lieutenant, you and your men stay here, out of sight. Don't reveal yourselves until you see Ephiny and Magdelus attack. Understood?"
Suddenly a familiar female voice cried out. It was Gabrielle's voice! I pushed hard through the underbrush to get to her as swiftly as possible. Alas, I was too late by just a few strides.
I burst into the clearing just as Gabrielle took a staff-sized stick and hit Darnell in the head, knocking the General out cold.
I shouted, but it was too late. Darnell crumpled to the ground. I called to Gabrielle, but she stood there frozen in place, unable to recognise the danger she was still in.
"Gabrielle, look out!"
Darphus took advantage of the confusion. Before anyone could react, he had got up, grabbed Gabrielle, and used her as a shield. The traitorous swine drew a dagger from his boot and held it to her throat.
When Gabrielle could not break free of his hold, she cried out, "Xena, help me!"
My veins instantly filled with fire and my muscles felt as taut as a bow. I suppressed the urge to rush to save her, lest she get hurt in the attempt. Instead, I coolly took a step towards them.
"One more step and she dies, Xena," Darphus warned, mocking Gabrielle's use of my name. "Oh, you don't mind if I call you 'Xena', do you? After all, you can consider this my resignation."
My hand went to my right side and found my chakram.
"Don't even think about using it," he warned. "You may be fast, but she'll be dead before you throw it." To emphasise the point, he twitched the blade against her throat, drawing blood.
I had confidence in my skills and knew the chakram would split his head in two before he could make good on that threat, but not without the possibility of injuring Gabrielle. I was not willing to risk it. Slowly, I raised my hand away.
"Good! Now throw your weapons over there," he demanded.
Reluctantly, I tossed my weapons to where Darphus had pointed – well out of reach. "What now?" I asked.
"Now you give me fifty thousand dinars and a fast ship."
I had no intention of giving in to his demands, but I knew I had to keep him talking to give Ephiny and Magdelus time to get into place. "Okay, but only if you release Gabrielle immediately and unharmed."
"Nice try, but no. She is my insurance that I won't be followed. Once I get to my destination, I will send you instructions on how much more you need to pay to get her back."
"More? The ransom note said 'fifty thousand dinars'," I said.
"For a start," Darphus added.
Naturally, I thought. "Come on Darphus, you know you cannot win," I replied. "You know you will not leave this clearing alive unless you release Gabrielle right now."
"I am the one calling the shots, Xena," the traitorous snake replied. "I've got your precious little pornos. You will do what I want."
You will pay for that insult, you son of a Bacchae, I silently fumed. No one calls Gabrielle a 'whore' and gets away with it.
He punctuated his contempt by groping Gabrielle's breast.
As much as I sorely wanted to snap his neck like a twig, I knew I had to remain calm and keep him talking until he let down his guard. "You were one of my most trusted lieutenants."
"Oh, Xena, I know how little you think of me. You have overlooked me for promotion countless times. Then you had me work for your pet peasant girl."
I did not heed Darphus' continued posturing and threats. I was focussed instead on the dagger he held at Gabrielle's throat and searching for signs of Ephiny and Magdelus on the other side of the clearing.
He coiled Gabrielle more tightly in his grasp and pushed the blade edge in a little deeper. "Well you won't do it any longer, Xena!"
I cursed the fear in Gabrielle's eyes as she looked to me to save her. I tried to offer Gabrielle reassuring glances even as I continued to pacify Darphus. "We can talk about it. Just put down the dagger."
Amazons are experts at ambush, blending with their environs like a chameleon. Having lived with Cyane's tribe for a time, I had learned how to spot movement in the trees that to the unaware would seem no more than the rustle of wind through leaves. I kept my eye out for such subtle signs.
There! I saw it – an almost imperceptible dip of a branch told me that Ephiny and Magdelus were silently manoeuvring into position in a tree nearest to Darphus and Gabrielle.
Unaware of the snare closing in around him, Darphus kept issuing ultimatums. "Well, Xena what will it be, the fifty thousand dinars and a fast ship or a dead girlfriend?"
With the Amazons at the ready, it was time to end this. "I thought you were smarter than this, Darphus," I said. "You may be desperate, but you are not stupid. Your life is forfeit, as well you know. What you do next determines how you will die. Release Gabrielle unharmed and I will make it quick and painless. Hurt her, and I promise when I am through with you, you will beg for Death to come, but Celesta will not heed your call. I know a hundred ways to guarantee you suffer exquisite pain indefinitely."
"You always were arrogant, Xena. Just remember I'm the one holding the—"
With the stealth of a panther, Ephiny and Magdelus pounced from the tree branch and landed directly behind Darphus. Ephiny immediately yanked the arm holding the dagger away from Gabrielle's throat. That gave me the opening I needed. With split second timing, I reached across and grabbed Gabrielle's arm, pulling her out of harm's way. Glaphyra and her men immediately formed a defensive circle around Gabrielle and me for protection against further attack.
Darphus flailed about trying to slash and muscle his way out of capture, but it did him no good. Magdelus punched him hard in the kidneys. That took the fight out of him and allowed Ephiny to disarm Darphus. She twisted his wrist behind his back until he dropped the dagger, and then forced him to his knees. Magdelus cut a piece of strong vine coiled around a nearby tree and used it to bind the traitor's hands behind his back.
Once she realised her ordeal was well and truly over, Gabrielle could no longer hold back the tempest of emotions. She clung to me for dear life and wept. I wanted to hold her close and kiss her tears away; instead I wrapped my arms around her gently, afraid that if I held as tight as I wanted she would break.
Rather than consoling her, it seemed to have the opposite effect: Gabrielle buried her head in my chest and sobbed. "Please hold me, just hold me."
I held Gabrielle until the tears stopped, and then I let her go and took a step back to assess her injuries. It was the first time I really noticed her overall condition: her tunic and trousers were torn and dirty, her arms were covered in bramble scratches, fresh blood was trickling down her neck from where the dagger had cut into the skin. But it was her face that disturbed me the most. Her lip was split, her eyes swollen and bruised.
Relief turned to white-hot rage and I wanted to interrogate Darphus in a very slow and agonising way. I ordered Glaphyra to stay with Gabrielle and I turned to go and have a word or two with our prisoner. That is when I saw Ephiny standing over Darphus, who was gagged and kneeling in front of her, his head lowered. She started to raise her sword above her head, execution style.
I was not going to be denied the satisfaction of killing him, so I had to act fast. In the blink of an eye, I did a front flip to cover the ground and grabbed for the blonde Amazon's arm just as she had started her downward thrust.
"Killing him is my job," I warned through gritted teeth.
"Amazon Justice demands his death for his crimes against our Queen!" protested the Amazon Regent.
"Not to worry," I affirmed. "Amazon Justice will have been served tenfold when I am through with his stinking carcass."
"Our Queen is near death because of this man, and I now speak for the Amazons," Ephiny argued. "We have the greater claim, and I will decide how Amazon Justice will be served."
"His crimes were aimed at Gabrielle and at me," I countered, "Queen Terreis, unfortunately, was collateral damage."
"Collateral damage?" Ephiny exclaimed incredulously. "If it weren't for you and Gabrielle and that stupid treaty, we wouldn't be in this gods-forsaken place, and Terreis would not be clinging to life by a very thin thread!"
"Well, what idiot allowed Terreis and Gabrielle to leave the Amazon camp unescorted and walk back to the palace to begin with?" I shot back.
"Stop!" Gabrielle approached us, with Lieutenant Glaphyra following close behind, and confronted both of us. "Neither one of you is killing Darphus. He must stand trial."
"A trial?" Ephiny and I chorused in bemusement.
"Yes," Gabrielle insisted. "Summary execution without a trial is not justice, and if justice is to mean anything in this empire, then even the guilty deserve their day in court."
As much as I would have granted Gabrielle anything, my pride in front of the Amazons was at stake. Then I recalled what happened the last time my pride took precedence.
I turned to Ephiny and gave her a determined look. "You heard her. He is going to stand trial."
I half-expected the Amazon warrior to challenge me further. Instead, Ephiny sheathed her sword and said, "Fine, put him on trial; but whatever the verdict, he will still face Amazon justice."
To emphasise her point, Ephiny grabbed the vine rope and jerked Darphus up off the ground, wrapping the tether around her hand as if to claim possession for the Amazons. I was not about to let that happen.
"Lieutenant, take charge of the prisoner," I ordered.
"As you command, Empress," Glaphyra said.
Ephiny begrudgingly relinquished control of the prisoner over to my soldiers. "All right, we found Gabrielle. Now take me to Terreis."
Gabrielle looked like she wanted to ask a thousand questions; however, Gabrielle's immediate concern was Terreis.
"Is she, is she—?" Uncomfortable silence and Ephiny's drooped shoulders answered Gabrielle's enquiry.
"Terreis is alive," I assured her, "but seriously injured."
"How serious?" she asked anxiously.
"We don't know," Ephiny replied. "She was in pretty bad shape when we found her."
I offered Gabrielle a bit of hope. "My physician will make sure she is given the best treatment possible."
"No offence to your physician," Ephiny said, "but I want our own healer treating our Queen." She turned to Magdelus, who was keeping an eye on Darphus. "Magdelus, go back to camp, bring the others and the Empress' horses to the palace right away, and tell N'Gila to bring her medicine bag. Hurry."
Magdelus nodded her head in a differential way towards Ephiny – a sign of respect I had only seen offered to the Amazon Queen – never between warriors. Magdelus then turned to leave on the path that lead downhill. She ran past General Darnell, who had regained consciousness and was getting to his feet, trying to shake off the effects of a mild concussion.
"You swing a staff with some force, little girl," he grumbled.
Gabrielle went to him. "Oh, General." She looked at Darnell who was holding the side of his head. "I thought you... I am so sorry."
When he took his hand away, there was considerable blood.
"Oh, you're bleeding!" Gabrielle said, trying to examine his injury more closely.
"Don't fuss," Darnell said with a slight smile. "It's just a scratch. I've been hurt worse kissing a farmer's wife."
While it was good to see Gabrielle and Darnell joking together; however, my instincts were telling me the danger had not passed. After all, we had tracked two different sets of footprints.
Gabrielle's smile disappeared when she saw the pensive look on my face. "What is it?" she asked.
"Darphus was not working alone," I explained. "Do you know who the other kidnapper is?"
"There were two men."
"Did you recognise them?"
"Only one." There was a long, telling pause before Gabrielle answered me. "Lucon."
"Lucon, I should have known – that snivelling weasel," I muttered. "Do you know where he is now?"
Gabrielle did not answer me right away. She had such a tortured look on her face. I hated to press her, but every second counted if we were going to capture him.
"Gabrielle," I gently prompted.
"What? He what?" I asked impatiently.
"He's at the ruins of the old Dorian Shrine."
Without waiting to hear the rest, I turned to Lieutenant Glaphyra and barked out orders. "Take this path to the Dorian Shrine and find Lucon. I want Lucon! Go, and bring him to the palace."
"At once, Empress." Lieutenant Glaphyra handed over the prisoner over to two soldiers and gestured to three other soldiers to follow her.
"Preferably alive," I cautioned her.
Glaphyra gave a confident nod. "Don't worry, we will bring the bastard to justice."
In all the ado, I had not realised that Gabrielle was trying to tell me something until she screamed 'No!' at the top of her lungs.
Everyone stopped dead in their tracks and gave her their full attention, including me.
"Gabrielle, what is it?" I asked.
"Lucon," she replied in an anguished whisper.
"Yes, what about him?"
It took her a moment to steel her courage to explain that Lucon was dead.
I must admit it was disappointing to learn I would be denied the satisfaction of making him suffer. "Dead? How?"
Gabrielle could barely look at me. "I–I killed him."
I felt like I had just been sucker punched. I was not prepared for Gabrielle's confession. "You what?"
"I had to. He was going to…" She could not bring herself to finish.
She did not have to. I knew the rest. I hated making her relive the trauma; still I pressed her to tell me what had happened.
"He tried, but I fought him off. I tried to get away, but he came at me again and the look in his eyes…I was certain he was going to kill me." Her gaze was drawn to a jagged stone that rested on the ground near her feet. "I picked up a rock and hit him and hit him and hit him until he didn't get up."
As she described her ordeal, I focussed on Gabrielle's reaction, and what I saw worried me. She wore the same vacant expression that as a petty warlord I had seen on the faces of war-ravaged villagers after my army had finished pillaging. It never occurred to me to see the brutality from the victim's standpoint. Seeing it now in the shattered eyes of the woman I loved, I suffered an unquenchable pain I had not felt since my brother Lyceus was killed – a searing rage no exacted revenge could ever satisfy.
Thoughts of avenging Gabrielle's suffering were pushed aside. My arms ached to hold her until her trembling ceased; however, Amazons and soldiers surrounded us – all eyes upon us. I hesitated, cursed my pride again, and drew her to me – but not too close.
As inadequate as it was, I offered her reassurance. "You are safe now and nothing like that will ever happen to you ever again. I swear it."
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