The woman turned her head quickly as the impossibly tall shadow darkened the parchment she'd been studying intently on the desk in front of her. "Sweet Artemis, you startled me."
The figure moved out of the doorway, and the ruddy glow from the fire that had so recently caused the shadows briefly lit the inside of the hut until the door closed and the dim candlelight remained. A low voice queried, "Any word?"
Blonde curls bounced as she shook her head in annoyance, "I don't understand it. We should have found them by now." A brief pause, "I know they've had time to learn the lay of the land..." she couldn't quite meet the gaze of the other woman "I should never have decreased the frequency of patrols, even to get ready for the festival coming up" and jumped slightly as a warm and comforting hand touched her shoulder and then moved away, "but even the new women in the village know this land like the back of their hand already."
"They knew we were coming and where we would be. That means they had help from someone and probably know a lot about this area already." Her mind ran over the tiny snippets of conversation she'd heard from the men searching for her body as she was drifting down the river and slipping into unconsciousness, "...be damned. We already have what Archeus wants so... ...Amazons will be expecting them tonight... ...pick it up and be there by next eve." Time was running out. "Show me the places you found tracks."
The regent didn't hesitate. She moved a feathered mask to anchor down one edge of the map on the desk and then slid a wooden carving of Artemis to hold down the other side before seating herself again. "Here and here." she said, pointing out two separate locations on the map. "The tracks were pretty washed out but it looks as though they're heading to the closest border. They've obviously got very good trackers, it's very difficult to hide from us..."
An arched eyebrow raised slightly and hooded eyes slid toward the other woman as chakram and sword were carefully laid down.
She caught the glance and agreed with a touch of chagrin and a nod, "All right. MOST people find it difficult to hide from us."
"Thank you for getting these to me so quickly." Another nod acknowledged the gratitude and they both continued to study the map for several minutes more, taking in the detail and the notes already made.
Long hair, a sheet of darkened silk against the back light of the candles, brushed the map and a finger tapped a spot to the west of the village, fairly close to the one of the sites where tracks were found. "What's this?"
"Pretty much all swamp. We almost lost a couple of our own in this area a few months back when a group followed a wild boar in there. Kids really but three of them fell into quicksand. If the other two with them hadn't acted quickly, we'd have been praying to Artemis to guide their journey."
"Did you have scouts search the area?"
"Of course. They searched everything in this area," a hand poised over the map to show the specifics, "from the cliffs down to the boundary of Amazon land. I couldn't send them too far into the swamp, all the rain lately has made it even more treacherous."
"And the rest?"
"We have teams out in the northern section now, finishing at the base of the mountains over here." Again, a hand reached out and indicated the region in question. "The eastern and southern regions have been checked."
"Since many of the paths up the mountain frequently wash out in weather as bad as this, we pulled the workers out about a week ago and left a few guards in the area. Don't get your hopes up, I got word a couple of days ago that mud and rock slides had cut off access to several of the mines completely and made the mountain path impassable." Noticing the clenched fist and jaw of the other woman, the regent felt the need to continue "They must still be on Amazon land. We have scouts patrolling the borders constantly and reporting in to others. We will find them, I swear it."
Worry clouded the pale eyes as they regarded the other woman seriously, "You don't have to do this, you know. I will get her back."
The hint of a smile touched the regent's lips and she looked up into the proud and determined face, "If anyone could, it would be you but there's no question of our participation in this. You know that." She swiveled the rest of her body to face the other woman, "Look, I know this waiting is driving you crazy but we WILL get her back. You getting yourself hurt or worse for her, especially when you could have had help, will not go over well as you know." Seeing no change in the set jaw and narrowed eyes, she stood, moving a step closer to try and push her point, "It's going to be bad enough when she finds out you've been out searching when injured."
"A nothing that left you unconscious and half drowned. If you hadn't been incredibly lucky..." At her friend's response, in the form of an annoyed shake of her head, the regent gave up on that line of discussion with a sigh and moved the topic to something somewhat safer as the rain began to patter on the roof of the hut. "Let's get something to eat before it pours. She'll never forgive me if you starve to death, you know."
A barely heard and somewhat muffled snort was the only reply.
Ephiny glanced over, flickering candles cast an odd haunted shade to the other woman's skin, "Come on, let's get out of here. I'll leave word so that any messages will find us in the mess hall and a break might help us function a bit better."
Half hearted nibbles of a meal later, the two donned cloaks to protect them from the heavy downfall that assaulted the area. Rivulets of water ran through the compound, the hardened ground was already turning muddy from the latest onslaught. Cloaks and boots were quickly coated with brown splatter marks. It was inevitable that both minds turned to the tracks being washed away.
A hand grasped the regent's arm and held her back, she turned quickly.
"I can't do this. I can't wait here. Not when they could be getting out of our reach at any minute. I have to go, I'm sorry."
"Wait!" Blonde curls swung into her face as she caught up to the retreating figure and she brushed them away with a bit of irritation. "Wait! What do you..." She positioned her body in the other woman's path, heedless of the determined stride. Though shadows covered most of the other woman's features her expressive eyes reflected both the physical and mental pain she was in and the regent winced internally. "You're right. It'll be dawn soon, let's go."
A blink, followed by another. "It might be better if you stay..." Any further response was cut off by the other's sharp hand gesture.
"I'll round up some others to come with us and we'll meet you in the stables."
Watching as the regent walked away, her expression couldn't help but gentle at the loyalty being shown by all of the Amazons. They'd tirelessly searched for the kidnappers since the attack was discovered, 'Thank the gods they did or she wouldn't have a chance.' and reported any potential findings as quickly as possible. Anyone would be impressed with the efficiency being shown, 'How will I ever repay them?' That thought caused considerable musing on they way to the stable until a tiny waterfall, cascading down several small rocks forming pools and clefts, caught her eye. The covered torchlight touched the water in various glistening locations and the woman stood mesmerized for a few moments tracking the water's various paths before she continued on the muddy path to the stables.
Argo nickered a greeting.
"Hey girl. Let's go get her back." When Argo gently pushed at her arm, the tired woman let her head fall to the horse's neck and leaned into the welcoming warmth.
It wasn't much later when Ephiny entered the stables with six other cloaked Amazons in tow. Three of the women were new to the village and had to be introduced, one had returned from several days on patrol scant hours earlier but insisted on being included anyway. Once introductions were finished and all given a few minutes to prepare, the regent looked everyone over. "Looks like we're ready. I thought we'd head towards the places we searched first, any problems with that?"
One of the new Amazons, a redhead, responded and looked at her leader in question, "I was with the first group. We headed directly east and finished at the cliffs near Silverveil Falls."
"Then that's where we'll go." The stable door was opened and each woman mounted her horse in turn prior to moving out into the rain to follow the palomino.
A very grey dawn had passed and the rain had started to let up when Ephiny moved in closer to the Amazon she considered her right hand. "Solari, why don't you scout ahead to the river and see what it looks like." Turning from watching dark haired woman leave, the regent looked back over the bedraggled group and her eyes rested on one figure with a frown. After several minutes she dropped back until she was level with Argo and asked, "Are you all right?"
A headache pounded, ribs ached terribly and worry formed a cold knot in her stomach but the response was short, "Fine." A long moment was spent gazing somewhere between Argo's ears, unable to meet her friend's eyes, "Ephiny...I.."
"Not now." Ephiny said kindly, stopping the difficult words. "We have someone to find."
Any further attempt at speech was stopped by Solari's return. She wiped water and mud from her face and shook her hand before giving her report. "The bad news is that the river's raging, it's going to be very hard to find a safe place to cross. Even if we do find a safe place, the river by the Falls is always much worse than this one. The good news is that, even with this rain, a party of more than a couple would definitely leave noticeable tracks but I didn't see anything. Maybe if we split and search both directions?"
"Probably a good idea." the regent agreed and set about dividing the party.
Pale eyes narrowed as something in her mind flitted just beyond reach, "I thought the riverbed by these cliffs was dry?"
"Normally it is, but when there's been a lot of rain the lake above floods over the cliffs to make the Falls and river."
Fingertips tapped on Argo's saddle as the Amazons waited expectantly, "The tracks that were found, they led west as if they're heading to the border. There's no doubt that it was them?"
Solari spoke up, "I talked with one of the group that found the first set of tracks. The rain had washed out most of the tracks, but you said there were at least six or eight men and horses and that's what they found. Plus, there's no way another group that size could've gotten that deep into our land without us knowing about it."
"She's right." Her regent agreed. "Even as complacent as we were in believing the men who attacked you were leaving our land for good, we still knew where they were until they attacked the outpost yesterday." She swallowed back a bitter pill of pain and anger at the memory of the two covered bodies being brought back to the village and added quietly, "They'll pay for that too."
'Work it out. Think! You're missing something.' Nervous fingers now played with a piece of leather from a belt.
Thankfully, the rain had now stopped and although the group was quite soggy the brightening sky boded well for the rest of the day. However, that potential good news didn't stop the Amazons from looking at each other with varying amounts of confusion evident on their faces as they waited.
'Okay, Archeus doesn't want her dead - yet. They'd need to get back to him quickly but it's at least five days from here, how...' Her mind travelled over the territory in front of her. Unfortunately, there hadn't been time enough to intimately familiarize herself with the entire region. 'The Falls, cliffs, lake...' Frustration began and she forced herself to run over the conversation she'd overheard again when the men were searching for her body. There was an almost audible click in her mind as part of the puzzle fell into place. 'Please give me this.' "Is it Silver Lake that floods over the cliffs?"
"It's at least four or five days to go all the way around to Archeus' domain. If they had help or knew the area and were able to get up to the lake, how long would it take?"
"With a fast boat and the right wind, a few candlemarks at the most but there's a reason we don't need regular patrols there, the cliffs are absolutely deadly. By the falls, the ground above is too loose to anchor anything substantial to and the force of the water shifts even the largest boulders about." With a shrug of her uncomprehending shoulders she continued, "Even if you could find a way to climb down, getting back up would be impossible even with help."
"And the pass?"
"The rock is sheer, no handholds to speak of. Plus, even when it's blocked there's always a look out there."
One of the other Amazons, a lanky blonde, looked thoughtful and piped up, "What about the old path from the pass?"
"The old path?"
"One of the elders showed me so I could include it on the new maps I've been doing. It's a rough climb and they'd need to know the area very well to find their way but it can be done in a day. Of course, it's pretty deadly up there and the lake is some distance but..."
"But the lake is full and a boat could get much closer?"
Ephiny shook her head slightly, still trying to shrug off the uncomfortable thoughts of a traitor in their midst, "Even if... it doesn't matter, the pass has been blocked for days so they couldn't get there."
The woman who had just come back from patrol frowned and wondered if she shouldn't mention a fact the rest of them might not know.
The regent saw the hesitation out of the corner of her eye and, not willing to give up even the slightest lead, glanced over, "What?"
"Well...the merchant train that crossed the border before I came back to the village. They came through the pass, would've been yesterday morning."
"What merchant train? I didn't have a report of that?" Ephiny said sharply as the rest of the party listened.
Uncomfortable at suddenly being the object of everyone's attention, the woman ducked her head. "It was in the reports I brought back with me from patrol. You wouldn't have had time to read them all and since we've traded with Talor many times I didn't think it was that important."
"But tha..." Ephiny stopped speaking and shook her head, her face fell slightly but she couldn't help but notice the bright flame of hope flaring in expressive eyes as they regarded her intently. "All right, the outpost isn't far from here. Let's go."
It didn't take a close inspection to be able to see the fury radiating from the dark haired Amazon as she rode back to the group, "It's not blocked and the outpost is empty."
Ephiny let loose a long stream of curses but unfortunately missed the appreciative glances for her inventiveness as she swung to face Solari, "Wasn't Kitra paired with Sarin on patrol?" The regent fairly hummed with rage at Solari's return nod. "Sarin was one of those killed and Kitra reported the pass blocked." Ephiny reported flatly.
Less then a candlemark later they had found their quarry. Eight men, one soon to be ex-Amazon, several horses and a hopefully alive but trussed up body flung over a horse. Plans were quickly but quietly made and everyone got into position for the attack. In a move that reflected an eerie dance rehearsal, all of the women turned to regard their leader for the sign to begin. A few moments later a staff was raised and the battle joined.
The Amazons had most of the men well in hand when Ephiny noticed the person she was looking for try to slip away. Deliberately side-stepping an attack, leaving the man for Solari, she glanced up and quickly lost herself in the trees. It didn't take long for the regent to catch up to the traitor and put herself far enough ahead to be able to drop from a limb, grab hold of it with her hands and swing down. She let her arms fall to the side and looked hard at the other woman, "Why?"
Kitra stood shocked for a moment at the sight of an Amazon on the other side of the clearing then, to Ephiny's surprise, she smiled slightly. "Which answer would you prefer? Money, revenge or because I could?"
The regent shook her head and frowned never taking her eyes off the other woman, "You've killed other Amazons, were involved in a plot that almost killed our Queen and in kidnapping. There's enough money for that? For your life?"
"You're assuming an awful lot, Ephiny. I'm not going to die today but watching you die will definitely be a bonus. Because you're interested, though, Archeus was really looking forward to play time with his new captive and was quite willing to pay a high price for that dubious honor. So yes, it's been worth it."
They both raised the short swords they'd drawn.
"Give yourself up, it'll be less painf..."
"Yeah, yeah. Don't even bother." They circled each other slowly, then Kitra spat, " I'll give you a hint, regent. Moras was my mother, she would've been Velasca's right hand and instead she died screaming of the wounds inflicted when you and your friends attacked our rightful Queen. Oh, and my sister, Mela. Do you remember her, Ephiny? At least she died quickly in the fiasco you caused."
It came together quickly for Ephiny, Moras and her daughter had come from another village about the same time that Velasca started causing problems. She didn't remember hearing about another daughter but that certainly wasn't unusual. 'Artemis' Arrows, will there never be an end?' She was about to respond when she heard Solari calling for her.
Back at the main fight, an amazed look was quickly followed by a dazed one as one of the men regarded his slight attacker and slid to the ground, unconscious after being on the receiving end of a staff to the head. Slipping the sword from where it was still clenched in his hand, his attacker held her breath and approached the motionless figure that was still draped over a horse. She was clearly startled and drew in a surprised but joyous breath when a blue eye opened to look at her. Quickly cutting the ropes that bound her friend she moved to the other side of the horse to assist in the dismount.
Realizing she was out of time and options, Kitra stepped across the short distance and the two women began to fight in earnest.
It didn't take long before the traitorous Amazon started to become winded. Ephiny noticed and couldn't help but idly wonder if the training regime for new recruits needed to be stepped up. Her momentary inattention was punished by Kitra slicing through and giving Ephiny's leathers a new place for air to flow through on a warm day. 'Hades!' she thought as she brought her mind back into line and struck back and then quickly reversed her swing.
As the blade bit into Kitra's upper right arm, she tried to keep a grasp on her sword but felt it slipping from her grasp. She brought her left hand up to steady her grasp but missed Ephiny's fist as it connected with her temple and dropped the injured woman to her knees. She looked up at the curly haired blonde in a slight daze.
"Drop the sword, Kitra."
Kitra blinked a few times and shook her head to try and clear it as she gathered herself together. She began to speak quietly, increasing her volume with each word, "Why don' t you...act like the Queen you'll never be and finish it?" As she ended her question, she launched herself towards Ephiny, sword first.
Ephiny grimaced as warm blood soaked her leathers and the light died from the traitor's eyes as they stared up towards the sky. She'd been prepared for an attack and had swiftly pushed aside Kitra's injured arm with one hand and impaled her body on the sword with the other. "A quick death was more than you deserved." she said quietly as she slid the body off her sword and to the ground, sparing it one last look before turning to walk back.
As the warrior's legs touched the ground, they trembled slightly from the abuse they'd taken. 'Hade's Balls, you will work!' she chided her appendages and tried not to wince from the apparent concussion that was ripping through her head in the form of a massive headache. She allowed herself to be assisted to a close by rock and sat gratefully, even as her eyes surveyed the battle or rather the clean up and then back to the person in front of her.
"Are you all right?" An anxious voice asked.
"I..I" the dark haired woman cleared her throat "am now." She gazed into pale, worried eyes as gentle hands checked her wounds. "They thought you were dead but I wouldn't believe it." A tiny smile appeared and disappeared as quickly. "I would've kno..." she trailed off, cupping her fingers around her friend's hands and looking her over for any apparent injuries. The bruises on the bard's ribs and head were noted but Gabrielle brushed away her attempts to check them. 'Later, she needs to see you're okay.' "Anyway, when I heard all of you out there, I knew you were fine."
"Well, someone had to stick around to rescue you. Right?"
"Right." Xena smiled slightly and looked again at her friend. "And I couldn't have picked a better person, Gabrielle. Thank you."
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