For general Disclaimers see Part 1 .
Feedback welcome at email@example.com. My apologies for the delay, but life intruded. Enjoy!
“Are we there yet?” Gabrielle couldn't help but ask the question again with a playful smirk.
Ephiny shot the bard an annoyed glare. “Would you stop asking me that? You know exactly where we are, Gabrielle.” She motioned towards the trees just ahead. “That's the border to our land.”
“I do know where we are, Eph, but it's fun to see the look on your face…” Gabrielle stopped to sniff the air. “Do you smell that?”
“I don't smell anything,” Ephiny answered.
“I smell smoke,” Gabrielle added, as she sniffed the air again and shrugged.
“Probably just someone burning off the chaff from their fields,” Ephiny explained. “The locals do that after they harvest the grain.”
“Smells more like wood burning to me,” Gabrielle said. “The breeze is coming from the south. It could just be a campfire down by that creek Eponin likes to hunt near. Xena's better at figuring out that kinda thing than I am. I usually can't smell anything until we're almost right upon it.”
“Does her acute sense of smell go along with her superhuman warrior skills, her ability to fly like a bird and the supersensitive hearing that allows her to detect the sound of a fly buzzing twenty paces away?” Ephiny's tone was mildly sarcastic. “And how many times has she conquered death? Is there anything Xena can't do?”
“Cook,” Gabrielle replied drolly. “She burns water. What's up with you? Did Xena do something to you before we left? Because your sarcasm is more than a little noticeable, Eph.”
Ephiny rolled her eyes. “Two days, Gabrielle,” she shot back. “We've been traveling for two days and all you've done is talk about how great Xena is. Can't you give it a rest for a while? Talk about the weather. Or, better yet, talk about what it was like for you to grow up as a shepherd's kids. Just talk about something else besides Xena and her extraordinary abilities. After all, she's a human being like the rest of us.”
“I…” Gabrielle swallowed to hide the pain Ephiny's words caused. “I know she's human, Ephiny. No one knows that more than I do. I'm sorry. I just…I miss her.”
Ephiny's expression softened. “I know.”
“I…keep seeing that look on her face when I left,” Gabrielle managed. “She wanted to come, but…”
“You wanted to do this on your own,” Ephiny nodded. “I'm sure she understands, Gabrielle. Xena's a smart woman,” she smirked at the admission. “Add that trait to all her other amazing abilities and you have Xena, Warrior Superhero. They should erect a statue or something.”
They both chuckled.
“I'll try not to talk about her so much. I promise,” Gabrielle said finally. “I just feel more connected to her when I tell those stories. It's like I can see her in my mind, like a piece of her is here with me.” She touched a fist to her chest, above her heart.
Ephiny put a hand on the bard's shoulder. “You have it soooo bad, my friend.” She squeezed the bard's shoulder affectionately.
“That obvious?” Gabrielle glanced sideways at the blond.
“As the nose on your face, my friend,” Ephiny grinned and patted Gabrielle's shoulder. She lowered her hand and put her senses on alert as they stepped into the woods. “It's really quiet today.” She issued a loud bird call to the trees and listened intently.
“What is it you're not hearing?” Gabrielle said as she lifted her staff to a defensive position. “Is something wrong, Eph?”
“Something's definitely not right,” Ephiny continued on more cautiously. “There should be two guards nearby to answer that call.”
Gabrielle looked around the nearly-silent woods. Sunlight streamed through the canopy above and touched random places on the ground. She could also hear a few birds singing nearby. She glanced up into the branches above and winced.
“Please do not tell me we have to climb up into those trees, Ephiny,” Gabrielle said.
“Not yet,” Ephiny answered and then glanced at her companion. “Why?”
“Nothing,” Gabrielle shook off her trepidation and pushed the fear to the back of her mind. “I'm not really a fan of tree climbing.”
Ephiny shot her a raised-brow look. “You're kidding, right?”
“Nope,” Gabrielle answered. “You don't want to know what'll happen if you make me get up there.”
Ephiny suddenly stopped with her hands on her hips. “You became an Amazon and you won't climb trees?”
Gabrielle stopped and leaned on her staff. “Not all Amazons fight…” She pointed up into the canopy above. “Melosa didn't. And, if memory serves, Terreis was shot on the ground, not in a tree.”
“Haven't you noticed that trees are our best defense?” Ephiny argued. “We didn't choose to build our village right smack dab in the middle of a forest for the view it affords us, Gab.”
“Are we just going to stand here arguing about the importance of tree fighting? Or are we going get to the village and find out what happened to the sentries who are supposed to be stationed here?” Gabrielle raised a hand. “I vote for the latter, by the way.”
Ephiny just shook her head and looked over to find Gabrielle already heading up the path. The regent followed after Gabrielle and caught up to her in a few paces.
“Sorry,” Ephiny apologized to the woman silently striding next to her. “I've just never heard of an Amazon who was afraid of trees. Guess we'll have to work on that. Add it to the list of things you need to improve on over the next few moons.”
Gabrielle glanced at her friend and noticed Ephiny wasn't smiling. “There's a list?”
“The elders are keeping track,” Ephiny said. “It's one of the reasons I needed you to come back with me. Ignesia and her cohorts are creating strong dissension in the council with a list of your inadequacies as queen. They're using my position as regent to keep me out of their sessions. They say that my loyalty to you has blinded me to your weaknesses and made me ineffectual as a regent.”
“Has it?” Gabrielle glared at Ephiny.
“No,” Ephiny answered with assurance. “I know you better than any of those old coots know you. I also know what you're capable of doing when you put your mind to it. You're a good leader, Gabrielle. There isn't a born Amazon I'd trust to guard my back like I trust you.” She put a finger to her lips and smirked. “Shh! Don't tell Eponin I said that. She'd kill me.”
Gabrielle chuckled at the woman's insolent remark, but smiled. “Thanks, Ephiny. I appreciate that you care enough to feed me a line of complete crap. We both know I haven't been around enough to give the elders a reason to believe in my abilities. I'm not agreeing with Ignesia's methods, but maybe she has a point.”
“Not a line of crap, Gabrielle,” Ephiny said in all seriousness. “And please don't side with Ignesia. She has enough support without adding you to the ranks. Xena trusts you and so do I. Give yourself a break and believe that you're capable of being a great leader of the Amazon Nation. Until you do, there isn't an Amazon in our tribe who will back you when things get really ugly. And when that happens, I don't want to be the only one standing beside you.”
“You won't be, Eph,” Gabrielle smirked.
“Okay, so now that we've had our sensitive chat,” Ephiny continued. “Wanna tell me why you haven't slept well for the last two nights?”
“Dreams,” Gabrielle answered curtly.
“That's it? Just dreams?” Ephiny glared skeptically at her. “Not nightmares or the fact that Xena's not here to keep you toasty warm?”
“Weird dreams,” Gabrielle answered. “Really weird dreams.”
“Weird stuff,” Gabrielle answered cryptically. “Nothing that I can really remember, or want to remember for that matter.”
Ephiny eyed her with open skepticism. “Why do I get the feeling you're just not going to tell me?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “Because you're a good judge of character? That's why I made you my regent. That, and the fact that I trust you to do what's best for the Amazons, no matter how hard a decision that might entail.”
Ephiny shrugged off the compliment. “I just do what I do, that's all.”
“You do more than those crotchety old biddies give you credit for, Eph,” Gabrielle smiled genuinely. “You're a great leader and a better queen than I will ever be.”
Ephiny stopped and waited for Gabrielle to stop, as well. Gabrielle leaned on her staff as she faced the regent. Twilight was casting the trees in deep shadow and she didn't really enjoy being in the eerily quiet forest longer than was necessary. But she knew Ephiny wouldn't stop for no reason. So, she waited. She didn't have long to wait.
“Please tell me that wasn't a ploy to get me to accept your right of caste again,” the regent said in all seriousness, as she crossed her arms over her chest. “Because I won't accept it. You're our queen and that's that. As long as you're alive I'll continue to act as your regent. But as long as you live that's all I want to be. You either fight them for the honor of keeping your mask or…”
“Or what, Eph?”
The regent looked away for several long moments. “Please don't give them the excuse to say they were right about you, Gabrielle. I've supported you through all of it, but I don't know how much longer I can continue to do so. You don't know what it's like when you and Xena walk or ride out of here and leave Eponin, Chilapa and me to face the dissenters without you.”
Gabrielle approached her friend and looked her in the eye. “I'm sorry, Ephiny. I didn't know.”
“You couldn't know,” Ephiny smirked and lifted a hand to touch Gabrielle's cheek affectionately. “I'm not accusing you of being insensitive or anything. I'm just…”
“I know,” Gabrielle took Ephiny's hand in hers and squeezed it. “You've been one of my best friends over the years, Eph. I'm really glad to count you among the few people in the world who actually knows me as more than just Xena's sidekick or as Queen of the Amazons.”
“Please don't take this the wrong way, because I don't want to die at Xena's hand,” Ephiny pulled Gabrielle in for a hug. “But I really love you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle returned the hug. “I love you, too, Ephiny.”
They stepped back from each other until the levity passed, then they both chuckled. Gabrielle was the first to recover. She put an arm around Ephiny's waist and started them walking again. Ephiny just put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and went with her.
“If I had met you before I met Xena…” Gabrielle began.
“We would never have met, let me tell you,” Ephiny chuckled. “There's no way I'd be caught dead in a shepherd's village, much less let some shepherd's kid attach herself to me. No way.”
“Okaaaay,” Gabrielle glanced over to see the smirk on the woman's face. “What were we talking about before all this?”
“Dreams,” Ephiny answered.
“Oh,” Gabrielle's mood sobered instantly.
“So, I'm guessing those dreams of yours have something to do with Xena,” Ephiny turned her attention to the path ahead. “Am I right?”
“Possibly,” Gabrielle was glad the regent's attention wasn't on the blush that suffused her cheeks. “Maybe a little.”
“When you're ready to talk, I'm a good listener,” Ephiny offered.
“Thanks, Eph,” Gabrielle said. “I appreciate that.”
“That's what friends are for,” Ephiny said and patted the bard's shoulder.
They continued on through the quiet forest in companionable silence for another candlemark. Each woman was lost in her own thoughts and they were both comfortable just travelling together. It almost reminded Gabrielle of her travels with Xena, except that she and Ephiny could look eye-to-eye and her occasional glances in the regent's direction showed her more than a shoulder.
The sun had set and the sky was glowing orange and purple with the last vestiges of the dying sunset when Gabrielle and Ephiny finally reached the northern gate to the village. They exchanged a quick confused glance when they were greeted by six masked women. The women immediately recognized the two travelers and bowed low.
“What's going on?” Ephiny asked the tallest of the six armed women.
“My Queen,” the woman lifted her mask to reveal the young warrior, Chalinda. “Eponin ordered the border guards to return to the village. She also ordered that we triple the guard at each gate after the attack two days ago.”
“The village was attacked?” Gabrielle stepped up next to Ephiny. “By whom?”
Another masked Amazon lifted her mask to reveal T'laia, a sentry who was usually out on patrol near the border.
“An army burned a path to our southern border,” the athletic T'laia answered. “Three sentries were killed and two were severely injured. Daeria managed to return to the village in time to sound the alarm before she died of her injuries.” T'laia swallowed back the tears that threatened at the mention of her friend. “The army had a catapult that launched Greek fire into our midst before anyone knew what was happening. They overran the village proper and managed to kidnap several of the youngsters before the warriors could muster arms and drive them back.”
Intelligent dark-brown eyes wide-set in a chiseled face made her look more like a young boy than a woman of twenty summers. Short-cropped auburn hair with henna-bleached spikes gave her an even more masculine look. Ephiny knew that, next to Eponin, there wasn't a more capable warrior and sentry in the village.
Fortunately, T'laia hadn't been one of the warriors sent on the mission to waylay Athena's army. As a matter of fact, she'd been one of those who had adamantly opposed the mission. She was also bonded to one of the young artisans, Eustine. Their joining would be part of the spring festival, when Eustine was of age and was accepted as a full tribal member.
“What took the warriors so long?” Ephiny asked. “Never mind,” she quickly amended with a quick shake of her head. “T'laia, I want a gathering of the tribe in the village center in one candlemark.” She looked to Gabrielle. “We need to meet with Eponin and Chilapa and find out what's going on.”
“The last I saw they were in the council chambers, My Queen,” T'laia said. “They were arguing with the council about the best course of action to get the captives back from those bastards.”
“Thank you, T'laia,” Ephiny acknowledged the woman with a nod. “Please spread the word about the gathering.”
“Yes, My Queen,” T'laia answered with a quick bow, before she took off at a trot towards the village center.
“Another army?” Gabrielle pondered this latest turn. “It's probably that commander those guys were talking about.”
“Which commander? Which guys?” Ephiny asked as they made their way toward the large hut where the council met.
“Xena and I ran into some soldiers who tried to kill us,” Gabrielle replied. “She managed to get four of them to tell us who placed the bounty on our heads and why. It seems Athena's army general had a brother who is out for revenge against those responsible for the death of his brother.”
“Oh, great,” Ephiny rolled her eyes. “Another nutcase bent on revenge. And now he has hostages.”
They reached the large round hut and weren't surprised that the door was guarded by four masked Amazons. The two closest to the door bore spears that they held crossed over the doorway. When the guards saw the two queens approach, they immediately stiffened to attention and the spears were pulled away from the door.
Ephiny didn't hesitate as she pushed through the door and entered the chamber. Torches blazed around the room filled with a cacophony of raised voices and angry murmurs. Silence descended on the large room almost instantly when Ephiny and Gabrielle walked into the center of the room.
Amazons fell to a knee and all heads bowed at the return of their monarchs. The hush was deafening in comparison to the chaos of just a few moments ago.
“Eponin and Chilapa?” Ephiny's voice carried over the crowd of bowing women. Two heads suddenly popped up in unison. “The rest of you are dismissed. Make your way to the village center for a gathering of the tribe.” A collective uproar broke out as the women rose to their feet and several shouted angrily to be heard above the din. “ SILENCE!!! ” Ephiny shouted over the upraised voices and was satisfied when the noise level instantly dropped to a low murmur. “Queen Gabrielle and I will address the village as a whole in one candlemark. You may address your concerns at that time. DISMISSED!” She shouted and nodded to several guards, who stepped forward to herd the women out of the building.
“I am soooo glad you're back, Eph,” Eponin breathed a sigh of relief, once the room was empty. The weapons master launched herself into the regents arms and hugged her, until she realized what she was doing. She pulled back and glanced around with an embarrassed flush. “Uh, guess this isn't the time…um…” She shook off her embarrassment and put her warrior's mask in place. “Didn't think you'd make it back in time to get those elders the Hades off my back.” She looked at Gabrielle and smirked. “And I see you brought her nibs with you. Hey, Gabrielle.”
“Hello, Eponin,” Gabrielle replied. “Chilapa.”
“Queen Gabrielle,” Chilapa stepped forward and acknowledged them with a nod. “I'm very glad to have you back. You, too, Queen Ephiny.”
“Okay, now that the pleasantries are over,” Ephiny frowned at the weapons master. “Wanna fill us in on what's going on around here?”
“We were attacked two nights ago,” Eponin answered. “Damned army came blazing in here tossing Greek fireballs all over the place. In the confusion we…um…” She blushed and turned her gaze down to her feet. “We kinda got caught with our leathers down.”
“How so?” Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest and glowered. “There certainly weren't any festivals scheduled to take place during my absence.”
“There was…um…we…um…” Eponin stammered.
“Ignesia called a meeting of the council to discuss…um…our current situation,” Chilapa said when it looked like Eponin wasn't going to get the words out. “She didn't bother to let Eponin and me in on the meeting.”
“Current situation?” Gabrielle's brows quirked. “Would that have anything to do with me being queen and Ephiny being my regent? Or is it that Ephiny left you two in charge while she went to Amphipolis to get me?”
“Um…kinda both,” Eponin shrugged. “Ignesia's been shootin' her big mouth off about the decisions that're being made in the absence of—as she puts it—any real leadership. She says…well...um…”
“She says you don't deserve to be queen,” Chilapa looked Gabrielle in the eye. “She wants you gone. Permanently.”
Gabrielle considered that for a moment. “Okay, not our main concern right now,” she said. “I want to know which Amazons were taken and where you think their kidnappers were headed.”
“The reports that we've managed to decipher so far, Your Majesty,” Chilapa answered, “lead us to believe…”
“It was the kids,” Eponin blurted with an annoyed frown. “They took a bunch of the girls who were hiding together in the main eating hut. We hide ‘em there since it's in the center of the village and we thought they'd be relatively safe.” She glanced at Chilapa. “Guess we were wrong.”
“Did anyone see the kidnappers?” Ephiny asked. “Were they soldiers? Raiders? Slavers? Who were they?”
“Aristellis tried to stop ‘em and managed to take one down with her,” Eponin said. “Aristellis wasn't real coherent when I talked to her, but she did say they looked like soldiers—but different.”
“And no one else saw them take the girls?” Gabrielle interceded.
“Not that we know of,” Eponin shrugged. “There was a lot going on at the time and no one was really payin' much attention. Like I said, we thought they'd be safe. The kidnappers got past our guard and just…”
“Disappeared,” Chilapa put in. “They disappeared without a trace. It's like they just vanished into thin air.”
Both Ephiny and Gabrielle looked at the brunette Amazon for more information than that and, when she didn't immediately oblige; they turned questioning gazes on Eponin.
“We don't know,” Eponin shrugged. “It's like Chilapa says, they just up and… poof! ”
“Show me,” Gabrielle started for the door to the hut and didn't wait for anyone to follow.
Three Amazons scrambled after the smaller woman soon after Gabrielle left the council hut. They caught up to her just as she reached the square building where many of the Amazons shared the communal meal. The building was as plain and nondescript as the others, except for a telltale stream of smoke rising from a chimney in the back.
Gabrielle stopped at the entrance to the building and examined the ground.
“So, why do you say they just vanished?” Gabrielle rounded on the trio.
“We don't know where they went,” Eponin squatted down and pointed at the ground. “There should be prints or something that indicate there were men in the village. We found the ones leading in, but we couldn't find the ones leading out, except for those the army soldiers made.”
Gabrielle got down at Eponin's level and examined the ground, but couldn't see anything in the darkness. “Chilapa, can you bring a torch over here?”
“Yes, My Queen,” the woman said as she quickly ducked inside the hut and emerged with a torch in her hands. “Here you go.”
Gabrielle took the torch and held it near the entrance to the hut. She examined the ground carefully until she found what she was looking for. With torch and staff in each hand, she stood up and slowly made her way around the side of the building. She then followed her instincts as she continued on toward a small group of huts a short distance away.
“Who lives in those huts?” Gabrielle asked the three women silently following her. “Or what are they for?”
Ephiny glanced from Eponin to Chilapa. Neither woman had a clue and only shrugged.
“Not sure, Gabrielle,” Ephiny answered. “They're probably storage huts used by the cooks.” She did a quick 360 and realized she'd never really been in that part of the village very much.
Gabrielle continued on without pausing near any of the huts. They were so small, anyway, that the bard just figured Ephiny's guess was probably right. When she reached the edge of a wooded area she held the torch up high and scanned the darkness, then turned on the three women behind her.
“They escaped through there,” Gabrielle said.
“Wait just a minute, yer maj,” Eponin stepped forward with her arms crossed over her chest. “I had one of our best trackers look for footprints back at the meal hut, and she came up empty. How'd you…”
“Xena,” Gabrielle stated flatly. “She taught me to look for things besides the obvious.” She lowered the torch to the ground near their feet. “Those prints you see there,” she looked up to see if they were paying attention and smirked when they were. “Those are our young Amazons. They were marched through here in a single-file line, so you wouldn't notice how many there are.” She then knelt and held the torch to a spot at the very edge of the clearing. “This print here,” she pointed to an indention in the dirt, “was made by a woman wearing boots that weren't made by the hands of an Amazon.” She stood up and faced the three. “Our kidnappers are women—or at least three of them are.”
“What?!?” Eponin exclaimed. “You're saying a bunch of women came in here and took our kids?”
“I'm saying three women came and took our sisters,” Gabrielle answered with a wry smirk. She glanced at Ephiny and realized the regent was silently nodding with a smirk of her own. “They escaped through these woods and probably had a group of soldiers waiting for them on the other side.”
“Wait, I'm confused,” Eponin scratched her head as she knelt down to examine the print that Gabrielle had indicated. “How do you know there are three? And how do you know they're women?”
“The size and shape of the boot prints indicates they're women, as does the shallower indentation than those made by men,” Gabrielle answered. “And there are three because I found three distinct sets of prints at the meal hut. None of those prints were made by anyone in this village, and they certainly weren't made by the boots of soldiers.”
Eponin stood up and turned to face Gabrielle with renewed respect. “Huh!” She looked directly at Ephiny. “Did you know she could do that?”
Ephiny smirked. “I'm finding out that Gabrielle is a woman of many talents.”
“We need to send out a rescue party immediately,” Gabrielle said to hide the blush elicited by Ephiny's words. “Can we spare a small band of armed warriors, Eponin?”
Eponin scratched her head as she thought about her answer. “We have more than twenty warriors who are pregnant, another twenty who were injured during the attack…”
“I just need ten good warriors,” Gabrielle said. “And we need to send a messenger back to Amphipolis and let Xena know what's happened. She'll know how to handle the army.”
“I'll take care of the messenger, My Queen,” Chilapa spoke up. “I may just go myself.”
“Take a couple able bodies with you, Chilapa,” Gabrielle said. “We don't know if the army is still out there or where they are. Ephiny and I may have just slipped past them without their knowledge. You might not be so lucky.”
“Yes, My Queen,” Chilapa gave them a quick head bow and left them.
“There's somethin' yer not tellin' us, Gabrielle,” Eponin dropped the formality and gazed expectantly at the bard.
“I didn't want to mention it in front of Chilapa,” Gabrielle said, as they walked slowly back toward the more populated center of the village. “I'm a little concerned that something else is going on here, besides just the attack and the kidnappings.”
“What?” Ephiny turned concerned hazel eyes on her friend.
“Xena has a hunch that the gods are involved somehow,” Gabrielle blurted.
“What?” Ephiny rounded on the bard and stopped Gabrielle in her tracks. “You're kidding, right?”
“Nope,” Gabrielle answered. “I wish I were.”
“And what makes you think there are gods involved?” Eponin added.
“We were attacked near Amphipolis,” Gabrielle replied. “Xena killed several of the guys who attacked us and we left their bodies where they fell. We sent someone the next morning to pick them up for burial, but Cletus came back and told us the bodies were gone. He also said there was no trace that anyone had been there. Xena and I went and checked it out ourselves. He was right. There were no footprints, except the ones we'd made while we were having our picnic. Xena was able to find a few minute traces that those guys had been there. She said, unless you were really looking for something specific, those traces would be overlooked.”
“Leave it to Xena to find a needle in a haystack,” Eponin snorted.
“Now you know who I learned my rudimentary tracking skills from,” Gabrielle smirked proudly.
Eponin made an elaborate show of bowing low to Gabrielle. “I bow before Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons and the best tracker this village has seen in ages. She is…” Ephiny slapped the weapons master's bare shoulder. “Ouch! Wadjya do that for, Eph?”
“Come on, kids, we have a village gathering to attend,” Ephiny said, as she continued on toward the gathered throng waiting anxiously for their queens.
“Show off,” Eponin said under her breath to Gabrielle.
“Jealous much, Pony?” Gabrielle handed the torch over to the weapons master, who took it without a word. “Maybe you and Xena should have a little competition to see which of you is the better warrior.”
“And get my butt kicked? No way,” Eponin answered. “I've seen her in action and I like my head right where it is. Besides, she's your champion for a reason.”
They made it to the village center in time to hear someone shouting loudly to the gathered throng. Gabrielle couldn't see who was doing all the shouting, but she had a pretty good idea. Her hunch was confirmed by Eponin's next words.
“Oh, that's just great,” the weapons master growled. “Ignesia's on her pickle barrel again.”
The trio approached the center of the village and made their way through the crowd to a raised wooden platform that served as their dais. Gabrielle hopped onto the dais first and pounded her staff on the floor until she had everyone's attention. She was flanked by Ephiny and Eponin, who stood silent sentinel behind her.
“Ah, our esteemed queen has graced us, once again, with her austere presence!” Ignesia's words fairly oozed sarcasm, as she stepped to the front of the crowd with her arms crossed in front of her. “Nice to see you alive and well, Queen Gabrielle. Did you come to offer words of wisdom? Or were you just passing through?”
Gabrielle ignored the sarcasm and glanced around at the gathered throng. Her eyes took in the elders to one side of the crowd and she could see the women were watching her warily. Eponin's and Ephiny's words came back to her, and she realized she had her work cut out for her if she was going to retain the queen's mask. As she continued to silently gauge her audience, Gabrielle suddenly wondered if it was even worth it. Did she really want to remain queen of a bunch of women who didn't really want her as their queen in the first place?
“I'm here,” Gabrielle said in an even tone. “And we have a situation to deal with. Eponin and Chilapa appraised me of the situation, and I…”
“ Baaaaaaaaa!!!! ” A loud bleat from the back of the crowd cut Gabrielle's words off in mid-sentence.
All heads turned and the crowd parted. But instead of an Amazon, the opening revealed a black and white goat chewing absently on its lead rope. The goat walked purposefully toward the dais and stopped. It looked up at Gabrielle and bleated again.
“Aww, the queen has a pet,” Ignesia's words continued to drip sarcasm. “Isn't that cute?”
Gabrielle just glared at the goat. “What do you want from me, Blackie? Why in the world would you follow me all the way here?”
“ Baaaaaaa!!! ” The goat answered.
The crowd snickered and chuckled at the unexpected exchange between their queen and the goat. Gabrielle stepped off the dais and made a grab for the goat's lead, but Blackie sidestepped out of reach. She made another grab, but the elusive goat ducked under her outstretched arm and took off into the crowd.
“Damned goat!” Gabrielle let the goat go and returned to the platform. She glanced at Ephiny and shrugged. “What can I say? We have a history.”
“Whatever you say, My Queen,” Ephiny answered with a barely-controlled grin. “I think he likes you,” she added for Gabrielle's ears only.
Gabrielle ignored the regent's last remark, as she returned her attention to the gathered crowd. “Where was I?” She muttered. “Oh, yeah,” she nodded. “Eponin and Chilapa apprised me of the situation with the girls who were taken. I'll be leading a rescue party to go after them, just as soon as I have enough warriors to accompany me.”
“Why should anyone do anything you say, My Queen?” Ignesia spoke up. She stepped forward and held her hands out as she turned to face the crowd. “This woman has done nothing to earn our respect and devotion. She's only here for brief visits before she's off traveling with Xena. She is no more our queen than the Warrior Princess herself.”
“Silence, Ignesia!” Ephiny stepped forward. “Gabrielle is our queen and I stand by her.”
“Me, too,” Eponin stepped up on Gabrielle's other side. “You got a problem with our queen, you take it up with me or you issue a challenge. Otherwise,” she glared daggers at the woman, “shut your Tartarus-be-damned trap!”
“Down, Pony,” Gabrielle stepped between the weapons master and Ignesia. “I'm perfectly capable of speaking for myself.” She turned her attention to the woman who stood a step below her and met her glare-for-glare. There was no question that Ignesia was a good head taller than the bard. “I'm not ordering anyone to do anything. I'm asking for volunteers.” Her gaze held Ignesia's for a moment longer and then she looked over the woman's head to the gathered Amazons. “This isn't about my ability to lead the Amazons in battle, and it's not about being queen. This is about those girls out there who need our help. They're counting on us to come to their rescue, and I intend to be there for them. Now, who's with me?”
Silence reigned for several long moments. Gabrielle glanced at Ignesia and found the woman staring at her with a satisfied smirk. Gabrielle tried not to let Ignesia's attitude get to her, but the truth was she was annoyed at the woman—really annoyed.
“I'll go with you, My Queen,” T'laia stepped forward and crossed her arms over her chest. “Eustine was one of those who were taken and I'll not stand idly by while some kidnapper puts his dirty hands all over her.”
“I'll go, too,” another Amazon—Selene—stepped forward. “As a member of the Queen's Guard, it's my duty to protect you, Queen Gabrielle.” She glanced over and saw that Ignesia was glaring at her. “No matter what some people might say about you.”
“I volunteer, too,” Charila, the weaver's apprentice stepped forward. “I may not be a warrior like the others, but I can certainly be of use in a fight.”
Chalinda stepped forward and glanced at Charila. “If she goes, I go,” she said with a smirk. “Someone's gotta make sure the weavers don't lose a valuable member of their group.”
“I'd also like to be included,” M'Lina stepped forward. “Aestia was one of the girls taken. She's my sister and I want to help bring her back.”
“I'd also like to go with you, Queen Gabrielle,” Solari stepped forward with a mischievous grin. “I'm more than capable of keeping this group of misfits in line for you.”
“And I, as well, your majesty,” Draia, the scout, stepped up next to Solari. “You'll need someone to scout ahead and make sure those guys don't get the drop on us.”
Gabrielle smiled warmly at the group of seven volunteers. “We leave in one candlemark, Amazons,” she said. “M'Lina, can you make sure we all have horses?” She received a quick nod from the stable master. “And, Eponin, please make sure Charila has a weapon she's familiar with.”
“Yes, My Queen,” Eponin said with a glance at the young weaver.
“The rest of you need to be prepared in case the army shows up again,” Gabrielle addressed the crowd. “I don't think they'll use Greek fire again, but you never know. Queen Ephiny is once again in charge during my absence.” She looked pointedly at Ignesia. “I expect her orders to be carried out to the letter. That is all.”
Gabrielle summarily turned her back on the crowd, especially on Ignesia. She didn't know what the game was that the tall Amazon was playing, but knew eventually it would come to a head. She just didn't want to give the woman the satisfaction of seeing any weakness from her.
“Ephiny, Eponin, you're with me,” Gabrielle said as she stepped off the dais and continued on toward the Queen's hut.
“So, whatdya think, Xena?” Cletus asked, as he unwrapped a leather satchel that contained two shiny silver sais .
Xena lifted one sai and looked it over with a critical eye. She then twirled the weapon around her hand several times in a blur of movement that Cletus could barely see. When she brought the blade around until her hand was once again on the hilt, she held it up to the light from the glowing embers in the forge.
“Very nice,” she said and picked up the other weapon. “Expert craftsmanship, perfect balance, sharp…” She pricked her finger on a tip and watched with satisfaction as a drop of blood appeared. “You do excellent work, my friend.”
Cletus beamed with pride at her words. “Had to shorten the prongs on either side in order to extend the blades enough to have a flatter surface here,” he pointed to where the blades met the prongs. “If I'd left the blades as truncheons, like in the original design, there wouldn't be a need. But since you wanted blades rather than truncheons, there has to be a place where she can grab the prongs and hold on to use the hilts as clubs. She'll need to learn exactly how to turn the blades, so she doesn't slice her arms every time she wants to knock someone in the head or chest. I noticed she doesn't wear bracers. You might want to consider finding her a pair that will protect her wrists. Otherwise she'll be cutting herself every time she uses ‘em.”
Xena spun the weapons on the palms of her hands until the tips of the blades were pointed back at her. She noticed how sharp the edges were. But she also noticed that her leather bracers kept the blades from actually touching her skin.
“I think the silver bracers I got her will be just the thing,” Xena said. “They have upraised ridges on either end and should do the trick nicely.”
Cletus nodded. “They're a couple of the finest pieces I've ever created.”
“You did a great job, my friend,” Xena said as she pulled a small leather pouch from her waist and handed it over to him. “I know we didn't discuss price, but I think you'll find this more than covers it.”
Cletus weighed the tied sack in his hand and nodded. “I trust you, Xena.”
She patted his bare shoulder and extended her arm to him. “Thank you, my friend.”
He shook her arm and watched as she put the sais in the leather satchel, then tied it with a thong and tucked it under her arm.
“It was a pleasure doing business with you,” she said as she ducked back outside into the starry night.
“Pleasure was mine, Xena!” He called after her.
Xena made her way back to her mother's inn with the package tucked securely under her arm. A pang of regret suddenly hit her when she thought of Gabrielle. She paused briefly on the porch of the inn and glanced up at the stars overhead. She wondered if the bard had been able to resolve the latest problem plaguing the Amazons.
“You miss her, don't you?” Cyrene said, as she opened the door and stepped out onto the porch next to her daughter.
Xena nodded. “I should have gone with her.”
“And why didn't you?” Cyrene raised a questioning brow. “There isn't that much more to do around here that the rest of them couldn't do without you, Xena.”
Xena turned toward her mother. “She wanted it this way.”
Cyrene frowned in confusion. “I don't understand. Are you saying it was Gabrielle's decision not to have you with her?” She put a comforting hand on her daughter's bare arm. “Is everything okay between you?”
“Everything's fine, Mom,” Xena smiled reassuringly. “We're fine. She just wanted to solve this particular problem on her own…without my interference.”
“Oh,” Cyrene absently brushed a stray piece of lint off her blue sleeve. “I have a special treat for you after you eat your dinner.”
Xena glanced at the shorter woman. “A treat?”
“I had Aris bake up some of those special cakes you like,” Cyrene said. “You know, the ones with the cinnamon and nuts all wrapped up in a sticky, sweet, gooey mess that gets all over your hands.”
Xena raised her nose and sniffed the air. “I thought I smelled cinnamon,” she smirked.
“I figured it would be nice to share our meal together, for old time's sake,” Cyrene added. “It's been a while since I had you all to myself. And, since there's no entertainment planned for this evening, many of the patrons are over at Trediak's, enjoying his famous venison and mushroom stew. I swear the man adds an entire barrel of ale to just one pot of stew.”
“So, you're saying it'll be quiet around here tonight?” Xena asked.
“I'll be lucky if anyone actually stays the night,” Cyrene said. “Come on,” she put an arm through her daughter's. “Let's go inside and enjoy it while it lasts.”
“Okay,” Xena replied as she guided the shorter woman inside ahead of her. “Wanna eat in the kitchen? Or at one of the tables out here?”
“Kitchen's fine with me,” Cyrene shrugged. “Then I won't have to make a fire in the fireplace out here. I can save a little on wood chopping.”
“I really hate riding by myself,” Gabrielle groused as she adjusted her seat in the uncomfortable saddle of the large black gelding. “Did M'Lina have to choose a monster for me to ride? No offense, big fella,” she finished the last with an affectionate pat to the gelding's sleek neck.
She glanced over and found a smirking Ephiny watching her intently. The regent was standing with her hands on her hips as she watched Gabrielle adjust her staff tucked beneath her leg again.
“You're the one who decided to lead this mission,” Ephiny said. “I didn't force you into it. And don't blame me if your followers are trying to impress you with the biggest and best horseflesh we have to offer.”
“My followers?” Gabrielle readjusted her staff in it leather cradle beneath her leg again and wondered if it wouldn't just be better to carry the stupid weapon. “What are you talking about, Ephiny?”
Ephiny tried to hide a chuckle behind her hand. “Don't you know?”
“If I did, why would I be asking?”
“Those women didn't just volunteer because they want to save the girls,” Ephiny explained. “I'd say at least a third of them are in love with you.”
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open. “What?”
“Yeah,” Ephiny snorted. “My sentiments exactly.”
“They know I only have eyes for Xena, right?” Gabrielle recovered enough to say. “There's no way…Xena and I are…Ugh!!!”
Ephiny grinned from ear-to-ear. “A tongue-tied bard. I like it.”
“Ephiny, it's not funny,” Gabrielle chided.
“It is sooooo funny, Gabrielle,” Ephiny shot back. “Can't wait til Xena shows up.”
“Why?” Gabrielle asked hesitantly.
“The other third are in love with her,” Ephiny answered with a snicker. “They'd do anything for just one glance from those baby-blues of hers.”
“And the third third?”
“Oh,” Ephiny sobered. “They're the ones Ignesia has in her corner. They basically hate you both for, as they put it, turning the Amazons into a bunch of weaklings with your treaties and your lack of effective leadership. Her words, not mine.” Ephiny rolled her eyes. “I'm looking forward to Xena's arrival just so I don't have to listen to the woman's constant blathering.”
“We really need to nip that one in the bud,” Gabrielle nodded sagely. “Like Velasca, Ignesia isn't going to stop until she finally has enough support to mount a rebellion.”
“She won't do it while you and Xena are here,” Ephiny said. “She's too much a coward for that. Unlike Velasca, she'll wait until you leave and then try something sneaky and underhanded.”
“Not gonna happen,” Gabrielle said. “I've learned a thing or two in my travels with Xena. You can't let people like her continue to create dissension. They'll just keep spreading their lies and garnering more and more support until things get out of hand. But we have other, more pressing matters to take care of right now.” She took up the reins of the big black gelding and adjusted her seat again. “Time to get this show on the road.”
“Be careful, Gabrielle,” Ephiny moved closer and looked up at the younger woman. “Please don't make me have to tell Xena that we sent you out on a rescue mission, only to have something bad happen.”
“Don't worry, I'm not taking chances,” Gabrielle reassured. “I have too much to look forward to.”
Ephiny patted Gabrielle's booted calf. “I'm holding you to that, kiddo.”
Gabrielle shot the regent an irritated glare, before nudging the gelding forward towards the gate where the others were patiently waiting. She neared Solari, who was watching her expectantly.
“Let's go, Sol,” Gabrielle said.
“Yes, My Queen,” the scout leader nodded to the others around her as their queen passed on the large, black gelding.
“I'm heading out at first light,” Xena said, as she used a chunk of dark bread to sop up the last of the gravy in her trencher.
Cyrene 's head snapped around at the unexpected comment. “You're leaving so soon?”
“I'm gonna do some scouting around the Amazon border, make sure things are quiet and no one's causing trouble,” Xena answered through a mouthful of bread. “I also want to get a feel for how the surrounding villages are adapting to the new treaties.”
“You want to see what solution Gabrielle came up with to that Amazon problem,” Cyrene eyed her daughter knowingly.
Xena glanced sidelong at her mother. “That obvious?”
“Like the nose on your face, Xena,” Cyrene answered with a nod.
“Let me guess, a mother's instincts?” Xena quipped.
“Something like that,” Cyrene answered. “You want me to pack you something to eat on the road? If I know you, you'll ride all day without stopping. I can put together a few things that you can eat in the saddle. Maybe those pocket sandwiches you like so much?”
Xena smirked. “That would be great, Mom.” She pushed her empty trencher away and sipped the sweet mead her mother had tapped just for their dinner together. “I'm thinking of asking Gabrielle.”
“Asking her what, dear?” Cyrene replied.
“To…um…let the Amazons throw us a joining ceremony,” Xena finished with her face in her mug.
Cyrene 's eyes widened and a grin played at the corners of her mouth. She clapped her hands together in front of her and then suddenly realized something. “Wait! You're going to have the ceremony with the Amazons? You don't want to do it here?”
“Mom,” Xena turned to face the woman seated next to her. “We can still have a celebration here. It's not like Gabrielle and I won't return here after we've settled things with the Amazons.”
Cyrene 's face relaxed. “Okay,” she said. “Can you at least send word when you're ready to come home, so I can make plans and get things ready? Celebrations take time to plan properly.”
Xena frowned and rolled her eyes like a petulant child. “Moooother!”
“Xena,” Cyrene pointed a motherly finger at the taller woman, but her expression softened. “Please?”
“Okay, fine,” Xena conceded. She kissed her mother on the cheek. “We'll let you know when we're ready to come back, and then we'll take a few extra days to get here in order to give you time to put something small together.”
“Small?” Cyrene slapped her daughter's bare arm. “Xena…”
“Don't Xena me, Mother,” Xena groused. “I know you. You'll throw a celebration to rival that festival Amphipolis throws every year at harvest to honor the gods for their generous bounty.”
“It's not that big a deal,” Cyrene scoffed. “Just a nice bonfire in the village center and some games, lots of food, plenty of drink…”
“You roasted two boar, eight suckling pigs and six whole stags last year,” Xena argued. “Autolycus came through here and said there was enough food to feed the entire Athenian army for a week.”
“Oh, he's such a sweet boy,” Cyrene chuckled. “Okay, I'll keep the celebration to a minimum, Xena.” She held up her hand, “On my honor.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “Speaking of Autolycus and the rest of your friends, I really need to send messengers to deliver invitations. You should have as many of your friends around you as possible to celebrate this wonderful occasion.”
Xena groaned. “Mother, please…”
“Nope,” she shook her head to stave off any further protest. “I insist, Xena. The two of you need to start your life as a…What exactly will you be to each other after this joining ceremony?”
“We're already partners for life, Mom,” Xena answered.
“Yes, but there has to be more to it once you go through this Amazon ceremony,” Cyrene looked at her daughter expectantly.
“I'll be Gabrielle's…um…her consort, at least in the eyes of the Amazons,” Xena answered. “We'll be just like any other married couple, except that the ceremony will be performed by an Amazon priestess, instead of a priest of the gods.”
“Aren't the Amazons followers of Artemis?”
“Yes,” Xena nodded, not sure where this was leading.
“Then your joining will be performed by a priestess of Artemis,” Cyrene confirmed with a satisfied nod.
Xena gave her mother a raised-browed look. “And that's important, why?”
“Because I want to be sure my daughters are properly joined in the eyes of the gods,” Cyrene said. “Is it too much to ask that you do this the right way, Xena? After all, didn't Gabrielle have a proper ceremony when she married that young man…What was his name again?”
“Perdicus,” Xena said his name like she was sucking on a sour lemon. “But I don't know what he has to do with…”
“It's simple,” Cyrene interrupted. “A proper joining will ensure the gods won't send you to separate…um…”
Xena eyed her mother when the woman didn't immediately continue. “What are you talking about, Mom?”
Cyrene took her daughter's hands into hers and looked her in the eye. “Xena, right now as things stand, Gabrielle is still married to Perdicus in the eyes of the gods. If she dies…”
“She goes to the Amazon land of the dead,” Xena cut her off. “I already had this discussion with Ares.”
“Are you sure?” Cyrene looked confused. “It's my understanding that once a person is married their soul is joined with the soul of their spouse.”
“Gabrielle and Perdicus never…um…” Xena shrugged. “Gabrielle told me they never consummated the marriage.”
A dark brow hiked into Cyrene 's hairline. “They didn't? But I thought…”
“They shared a night together, but all they did was talk,” Xena said, as she felt a telltale blush creep into her cheeks. “They never…um…you know…”
“Lay with each other,” Cyrene finished when it looked like Xena wasn't going to. “So that's why Gabrielle will spend eternity in the Amazon land of the dead? Because she didn't consummate her marriage to Perdicus?”
“No,” Xena continued. “She's Queen of the Amazons. When she dies—and I really hope that doesn't happen anytime soon—she goes where the Amazons go.”
“And where does that leave you?” Cyrene eyed her daughter.
Xena considered the question for a moment. “If I want to go where she goes? Then I have to become an Amazon, I guess,” she finished with a shrug. “I'm willing to go wherever she goes. It's as simple as that.”
“Even if it means you'll spend eternity with a bunch of sparsely-clad, cycling women?” Cyrene added.
“An eternity with Gabrielle is worth any price,” Xena said with conviction. “I don't care if we spend that eternity in Tartarus—although I'd certainly rather avoid that particular route. Been there, done that. Didn't like it a bit.”
Cyrene smiled. “Okay, then. That's all I wanted to know.” She patted Xena's hands in hers. “You still need to be sure your joining is blessed by a priestess of Artemis, though. Don't take any chances, Xena.” She put a hand to her daughter's cheek and stroked it with a thumb. “I'll miss having you in the Fields with me, but I'll spend eternity at peace knowing you'll be happy together.”
“Thanks…I think,” Xena put a hand on her mother's and smiled wryly. “Like I said, I hope we both stay around long enough to enjoy a happy life together.”
Cyrene pulled back and raised her own mug of mead. “Here's to a happy and long life together for my two daughters.”
“Here, here,” Xena raised her own mug and tapped against her mother's, before draining its contents. “Well, guess that's my cue to get off to bed, then.” She rose from her chair at the center island in the kitchen and kissed her mother's cheek. “Goodnight, Mom. And thanks again.”
“Tell me you're not going to sleep in the stables tonight, Xena,” Cyrene shot after her daughter's retreating figure.
Xena stopped at the kitchen door and turned back to face her mother. “That's the plan.”
“Are you sure you don't want to sleep in a nice warm bed tonight?” Cyrene asked.
“No,” Xena answered with a shake of her head. “That hay loft is starting to grow on me, now that the goat's been locked away in that cellar.”
“Oh, didn't I tell you?” Cyrene added.
“What?” Xena poked her head back in.
“The goat is missing,” Cyrene said. “Draes went to check on him this morning and he'd somehow managed to escape the cellar. I asked around the village and no one's seen Blackie all day. It's like he just—disappeared.”
A frown marred Xena's brow at the news. “You sure one of the kids just didn't spring him and hide him somewhere else?”
Cyrene shrugged. “Anything's possible with that stupid goat, Xena. For all I know he may have chewed his way out of that cellar of his and made a break for it all by himself. I've never seen a goat with such single-minded determination before.”
“And what's that supposed to mean?”
“Before you and Gabrielle showed up that goat was as normal as any other animal around here,” Cyrene explained. “But he seems to have developed a special…um…attachment to Gabrielle that strikes me as a bit strange.”
Xena's brow furrowed, as she continued to stand with her head in the doorway. “Are you saying the goat has a thing for Gabrielle?”
“I'm saying the goat is unusually attached to her,” Cyrene replied. “Does she have that effect on animals?”
“Animals don't generally take to Gabrielle,” Xena shook her head and then shrugged. “Oh, well. He's gone. That's all that matters.”
“Go get some sleep, Xena,” Cyrene shooed her from the room with a wave of her hand. “I'm sure the goat will turn up eventually.”
“'Night, Mom,” Xena said, as she ducked out of sight.
“Goodnight, daughter,” Cyrene muttered with a tired sigh. “Time to get this place cleaned up for tomorrow.”
Xena was just settling down in the bed of hay that she had shared with her partner only a few nights prior, when she suddenly felt like she was being watched. She opened her eyes and glanced around the dark loft, until she saw a shadow lurking nearby.
In a heartbeat she had her sword in hand and was on her feet. “Show yourself.” She growled. “Better make it quick or you'll feel the prick of my sword.”
“Relax, warrior babe,” Aphrodite strolled forward and waved a hand to re-light the lamp hanging on the wall. “It's just li'l ol' me.”
“What are you doing here, Aphrodite?” Xena asked in irritation as she lowered her sword and dropped it on top of the bed. “Gabrielle's not here.”
“I know,” Aphrodite said with a mock pout. “I noticed the two of you weren't…um…well, you know.”
“You've been spying on us?” Xena's hackles were up.
“Weeeeellll,” the goddess took a step back out of pure instinct as she caught the look of irritation in Xena's eyes. “It's not exactly like I hang out here while you two…you know. I just pop in, make sure things are ducky and pop right back out again. No harm, no foul.”
“Still,” Xena dropped her chin and glared at the blond goddess.
“I'm not here to talk about your rockin' sex life, ya know?” Aphrodite waved a negligible hand in the air. “Although, I will say the two of you are just…sendin' massive waves through the cosmos with…”
“Will you just get to the point of this unannounced invasion of my privacy, Aphrodite?” Xena gave the goddess her best glare. “I really need to get some sleep. I have a lot of leagues to cover tomorrow.”
“Oh, chill, Xena,” the goddess shot the warrior a glare of her own. “And you can drop the intimidation-times-ten glare. I'm a goddess, remember?”
“And I'm sick and tired…”
“Yeahyeahyeah, whatever,” Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “I came to tell you to watch out for Ares. He's up to something and it involves Gabrielle.”
“What's he up to now?” Xena cocked a brow and stood with her hands on her hips. “I thought Zeus told him to stay away from us.”
“He did,” Aphrodite said. “And I don't have a clue what he's cookin' up. Ares is impossible to read on a good day, but lately…” She sighed heavily. “He's being waaaay too cryptic for my tastes. I cornered him on Mt. O and all he did was sidestep around my questions. I couldn't get anywhere with him. All I know is he's got his eye on the Gabster this time around.”
“Gabrielle's not his type,” Xena deadpanned. “She's not a warrior and she's certainly too smart to fall for his ‘Join me and we'll rule the world together' BS.”
Aphrodite shrugged. “I have no idea. All I know is he was talking nonsense about offspring and not disguising himself the same way Daddy does when he visits his favorite mortals.” Xena's head shot up and her eyes practically shot sparks at the goddess. “What?”
“Are you saying he's gonna visit Gabrielle in a disguise?” Xena asked.
“He said that's not what he's planning,” Aphrodite took another step backward. “Why?”
Xena looked away as she rubbed a hand against her forehead. “That's gotta be it,” she muttered absently. “The goat!” She looked up into the bewildered face of the Goddess of Love. “He's using the goat to disguise himself, so he can get close enough to Gabrielle to…Dammit!”
Xena grabbed her sword and armor, donning both in a blur of motion. She didn't say another word as she flipped down from the loft and landed near Argo's stall.
“Hey, girl, time to go,” she said as she threw open the stall door and threw the mare's saddle on.
“Xena!” Aphrodite blinked out and reappeared next to the stall. “Where are you going in such a rush?”
“To warn Gabrielle,” Xena said as she completed the last adjustments to the mare's tack in record time. “Thanks for your help, Aphrodite.”
Xena led the mare out into the clear, crisp night and mounted. In seconds, horse and rider were galloping down the road leading out of town. Aphrodite just huffed in irritation, stomped a foot and disappeared in a shower of pink and red hearts.
They were hiding in the bushes that edged the woods, where the small army of well-armed soldiers was camped. Eight pairs of eyes watched the men meander through the camp and lounge around blazing campfires. A pair of bright green eyes watched the largest tent in the encampment and then tracked to the alert gaze of the woman next to her.
“I want to get closer to their command tent,” Gabrielle whispered to Solari.
The scout took in the guards posted at strategic points around the encampment. They'd already passed three sentries with relative ease, but she wasn't sure about the rest. The encampment looked fairly relaxed, like the men weren't expecting anyone to spy on them, especially within a few paces of the clearing they'd chosen.
“I'm not sure that's a good idea, My Queen,” Solari answered in the same hushed tone. “They'll be much more alert than the last army was.”
“I just want to find out where they took the girls,” Gabrielle said, as she quietly moved back into the bushes and skirted the perimeter.
The sound of a stick cracking nearby pulled Gabrielle up short and she immediately dropped to a crouch and remained frozen in place. She scanned the trees for any sign of what had caused the noise and watched in relief as a soldier moved back toward the encampment. He retied the drawstring of his pants and adjusted himself as he made his way back toward one of the campfires.
“Eh! Brewster!” The man called loudly in a gruff voice. “Ye got anymore o' that ale?”
“Not enough to satisfy yer thirst, Argus,” Brewster called back with a loud chuckle.
“There ain't enough ale in all of Thrace to satisfy his thirst!” Another man shouted, to the answering guffaws of the rest of the men around the campfire.
“No, but I bet I know what would satisfy you, Praesus,” Argus slapped the dark-haired man on the back. “Them sweeties what left ‘ere at dusk, eh?”
Gabrielle's attention was suddenly wholeheartedly on the conversation around the campfire. She shifted positions enough to hear the men better. It wasn't long before she was joined by Solari, who crouched low next to her. Gabrielle held a finger up to her lips and motioned toward the men.
“'Twas a sorry shame the commander let ‘em go off with them slavers,” Praesus shook his head. “We coulda had some real fun with them younguns. Sorry, sorry shame, it was.”
“Ye think that bastard, Salmoneus, will get good coin for ‘em?” Another man asked. “Those girls were awfully young.”
Gabrielle and Solari exchanged a glance, as they returned their attention to the men.
“Man was a weasel in sheep's clothin', if'n ye ask me,” Praesus commented, as he downed the rest of his ale. “Slavers make me sick.”
“Probably not above samplin' the wares, lucky bastard,” Brewster spat into the fire, sending a shower of sparks into the still night air.
“Amazons ain't worth the effort,” Praesus said. “From what I heard about ‘em, they're more interested in stickin' with their own kind. Ain't a man around what could give ‘em what they want. ‘Sides, them girls was just girls. Not worth the effort.”
Brewster stood up and grabbed his crotch. “Ain't a woman alive what could resist this package!”
The men roared with laughter. Gabrielle took that opportunity to slip back into the darkness and return to the group of waiting women. She waited long enough for Solari to rejoin them and then moved even farther into the trees. When she knew they were far enough away from the encampment, Gabrielle straightened and turned to face the others.
“Your majesty?” T'laia spoke up softly, once they were all away from the encampment.
“I got what we needed,” Gabrielle said. “I know who took the girls.”
“You know this Salmoneus?” Solari spoke up.
They were surrounded by trees that hid them from prying eyes, but Gabrielle knew they weren't quite out of the woods. There were still sentries patrolling the woods surrounding the army's encampment. She motioned for the women to keep their voices down.
“I know Salmoneus,” Gabrielle whispered just loud enough for them to hear her. “Let's get back to the horses and I'll fill you in on what I know.”
Seven shadowy heads nodded, as the women made their way through the trees in the darkness. They had gone no more than fifty paces when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by shadowed figures.
“Halt!” A man's voice pierced the darkness. “Who goes there?”
Gabrielle immediately ducked into her fighter's crouch, as the Amazons quickly armed themselves for battle. She had her staff with her and immediately swung it in the direction of the voice. A satisfied smirk played on her lips as the sound of wood connecting with bone rang through the woods. All Hades broke loose at that moment as shadowy figures suddenly erupted in utter chaos around her.
“I've got your back, My Queen,” Solari's calm, cool voice sounded behind her.
Gabrielle took comfort in the presence of the scout at her back, but wished that it was another, more-seasoned warrior, instead. She especially wished Xena was there when it looked as if the skirmish would be won by the men in their midst.
Gabrielle jabbed her staff into the midsection of a tall shadow in front of her and was relieved when it was a man's exhale that greeted her ears. She raised the staff and brought it down as hard as she could on the man's head. Her hands easily absorbed the impact, as a loud crack rang out in the woods. When he dropped at her feet in a crumpled heap, she shifted sideways to meet the downward arc of a sword aimed at her head.
The sounds of wood and steel reverberated loudly through the woods, as Gabrielle thrust upward with her staff and followed the move with a quick sideswipe to her opponent's exposed chest. The man just managed to dodge her maneuver, however. Gabrielle could just make out his shadow in the darkness and swung her staff low in an effort to take out his legs.
She connected with something and was just about to put everything into taking him down. Unfortunately, she wasn't prepared to have Solari slam into her from behind. The Amazon knocked her off-balance enough that Gabrielle merely dealt her opponent a glancing blow off his boot. She heard Solari cry out in pain, but didn't have time to find out what happened.
Her opponent thrust his sword towards her with an angry grunt, and Gabrielle was barely able to recover her balance enough to spin away from the blade. Xena's advice rang clearly in her mind, as she lifted her shoulder and came around with a quick blow that connected with his head. She heard the loud crack and an oof amidst the rest of the fighting around her. She was sure he was down for good, especially when he slammed into a nearby tree and slid to the ground in an unmoving heap.
She turned to see how the rest of the group was faring and noticed that only women were still standing around her. She smiled and nodded in satisfaction, but quickly sobered when she remembered Solari.
“Status,” Gabrielle said to the woman closest to her.
“I think we're all okay, My Queen,” the woman—Selene—said breathlessly. “Just a few scratches and some bruises.”
“Solari?” Gabrielle called quietly into the gathered group.
“Here, My Queen,” the scout stepped forward holding her arm.
“Are you okay?” Gabrielle asked with concern.
“It's just a scratch, My Queen. I'm fine,” Solari said as she pulled something from the belt at her waist and quickly wrapped it around her arm.
“Let's get back to the horses, then,” Gabrielle said. “That noise is not going to go unnoticed by the soldiers back there—no matter how drunk they are.”
They silently continued on through the darkness, careful to stay close to the trees and keep to the shadows as the sounds of pursuit suddenly pierced the silence behind them. The small group continued on until they spotted several large shadows and heard a horse snort nervously ahead.
“Easy, boy,” Gabrielle said as she gingerly approached the largest of the beasts and quickly mounted the black gelding.
She patiently waited for the others to mount up before she nudged the gelding into a walk. They patiently made their way through the remainder of the woods, allowing the horses to pick their path in the inky darkness. The sounds of pursuit receded, as they finally emerged from the woods into the faint glow of a small sliver of moonlight.
Gabrielle kicked the gelding into a fast trot in order to put as much distance between them and the soldiers as possible. When she was sure they were a safe distance from the army, Gabrielle pulled her mount to a halt in a small clearing just off the road.
“So?” Solari waited expectantly for Gabrielle to speak.
“Salmoneus is a friend of mine,” Gabrielle responded when she finally caught her breath. “He won't sell the girls as slaves. If anything, he'll take them someplace safe until he can figure out what to do with them.” She smirked. “He certainly won't sell them on the auction block, if he knows what's good for him.”
“So you trust this person, My Queen?” M'Lina asked.
“Let's just say, he's not the most honest businessman Xena and I have run across in our travels,” Gabrielle answered. “But he does have certain scruples. He won't sell a bunch of girls into slavery, no matter how much profit he could gain off the deal. Salmoneus is many things, but a slaver is not among them.”
“So how do we get the girls back?” Solari asked. “How do we find this Salmoneus?”
“Don't worry, he'll find us,” Gabrielle answered. “Xena and I always seem to run into him at just the right moment.”
“If you say so, My Queen,” M'Lina's tone reflected her skepticism. “I'd really like to know that Aestia is all right, though.”
“She'll be fine,” Gabrielle put a smile in her tone to reassure the woman. “Let's get back to the village…”
“Not so fast, Amazon!!” A dozen men on horseback suddenly emerged from the trees and surrounded Gabrielle's smaller group.
Gabrielle knew Amazons were great fighters on the ground and in the trees, but they didn't have quite the same skill level on horseback. She decided to err on the side of caution and raised her hands in surrender.
“Stand down, Amazons!” She shouted, when they all went for the swords at their backs. “Let's see what these guys have to say, first.” She turned toward the man who had addressed her. “What do you want?”
The man glanced at the man next to him with a knowing grin. “Do you lead these women?”
“I do,” Gabrielle answered as she eyed the man cautiously. “Why?”
“I bring a message from Thadeus Salmoneus,” he yanked a piece of parchment from beneath his armor and reached toward her.
Gabrielle nudged her mount forward to within reach of the man's outstretched hand. A prickle of warning raced up her back at the look in the man's eyes, but she ignored it. Her first concern was for the girls who had been taken. She hoped Salmoneus was taking good care of them. She also hoped he wasn't somehow mixed up in the whole mess with Athena's army and this latest army. Then again, Salmoneus was probably right in the thick of it and had somehow gotten in over his head—again.
“My Queen,” Solari hissed a warning.
Gabrielle realized her mistake too late, when the man's other arm appeared from behind his back to reveal a small crossbow aimed at her chest. She merely straightened in the saddle and waited for his next move.
“Queen?” He quirked a brow at her. “I am truly honored, then. It seems my patience has paid off. I would presume I am in the esteemed presence of Gabrielle, Queen of the Thracian Amazons?”
“Who are you?” Gabrielle glared at the man.
“Let's just say I'm an avid admirer,” he smirked at her and motioned for one of his men to take the reins of her horse. “Cooperate and no one dies—including you,” he said, as several additional mounted men emerged from the trees with crossbows aimed at the Amazons. “Drop your weapons, ladies.”
The Amazons all pulled their swords from the scabbards at their backs and threw them unceremoniously into a pile on the ground. A soldier quickly dismounted and collected the weapons, which he placed in a large leather pouch that he tied to his horse. Once he was mounted again, the leader nodded to his men to precede him with the Amazons. He waited until the last soldier and Amazon were clear and then turned his attention back to Gabrielle.
“Toss me your staff,” he ordered and Gabrielle did so. “Now, shall we?” He motioned for the soldier holding Gabrielle's reins to follow the others, which he did.
Gabrielle sighed inwardly at her obvious stupidity, while outwardly she remained calm and indifferent to the men around them. She knew Xena would rub her nose in this latest fiasco and wasn't looking forward to the lecture she would eventually have to listen to when the warrior finally showed up to rescue them—if she showed up at all. After all, Xena had no idea what Gabrielle had gotten herself into this time around. That thought sent a shiver up her spine.
Continued in Part 6
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