Xena watched as it grew steadily lighter.
Alyssia was asleep on the bed. Xena called her, "Alyssia?"
The woman woke, looked around her, suddenly remembering her houseguests.
Xena was standing, the bard in her arms. "Let`s get her dressed."
She sat Gabrielle on the bed, the bard was waking slowly. Her skin felt cool, her eyes seemed alert.
"How do you feel?" Xena said, bending and looking into the green eyes.
"Better." Gabrielle smiled up at her. "I have a bit of a headache, but I don`t feel so sick."
Xena quickly checked the arrow wound. It seemed ok. Then the lash marks. One was weeping, but not too badly. Alyssia handed the bard her top and Xena helped her into it. Then the skirt.
Once the bard was dressed Xena sat next to her on the bed and took one of her hands.
"Gabrielle, listen." As soon as she spoke those words Gabrielle got the idea she wasn`t going to like what was coming next.
"There`s a cellar beneath this cabin. I want you to hide there while I draw the hunting party away."
"Now listen to me. You don`t have the strength to run from them. I do. I can get them far from here, they won`t catch me."
"Don`t make this harder than it already is." Xena placed a hand on Gabrielles cheek, rubbing away a tear with her thumb.
"It`s me they want Xena, I won`t let you die because of that." She put her hand over Xena`s which was still pressed against her cheek. "If you go, I want you to go to the Amazons."
"Gabrielle, I`m not going to die. I have a good head start, they won`t catch me." Xena looked up at Alyssia, who nodded her head and went outside, leaving the two women alone.
"She`s a good woman Gabrielle, she`s taking quite a risk for us." Xena clasped Gabrielle`s hand.
"For me, you mean." Gabrielle looked down at their hands. "It seems you`re always taking a risk for me. Now someone else is in danger because of me."
Xena put a hand beneath Gabrielles chin and lifted her face so she could see into her eyes.
"Alyssia knows what she`s doing. Besides, I`ll make sure the hunting party comes no where near here."
"What do you mean, no?"
"I mean, no, I won`t let you do it." Gabrielle pulled her hand from Xena`s grasp and looked her defiantly in the eyes.
Xena smiled. "Ok my bard, have it your way."
Gabrielle shot her a surprised look.
"Come here." Xena pulled her into a kiss. Gabrielle`s hands circled the warriors neck, while Xena`s arms were around the bard`s back.
Gabrielle was so engrossed in Xena`s soft lips that she didn`t feel Xena`s right hand seeking out the pressure point on the bard`s neck. A quick jab and Gabrielle fell limp in her arms.
For a long moment Xena held her love, burying her face in the golden hair. Then she laid her back on the bed. The pinch wasn`t the same one that she used to get information, it would wear off in a candlemark or so.
Alyssia came back into the cabin to find Xena sheathing her sword and the bard seemingly asleep on the bed.
"Is she alright?" She said, putting a hand on the girl`s forehead.
"I had to put her out, she was being...." Xena searched for the right word, "difficult."
Picking Gabrielle up she said, "Right then, show me the cellar."
Alyssia went out of the cabin and round to the back, the warrior following closely. She pulled a circle of rope and the floor seemed to rise. It had been so seldom used that grass had grown on the trap door.
Xena put Gabrielle down and descended the ladder into the cellar. After a moment her head poked back up through the entrance. "It seems ok."
Picking Gabrielle up again she carefully descended the ladder again, setting the bard down on the floor. She laid her out carefully, wrapping her in the blanket that Alyssia threw down to her. Again she left the two women alone.
Xena took a small hand in her own and kissed the palm. Then holding the hand and rubbing a calloused thumb across the fingers she spoke to her soul-mate for what could be the last time.
"Gabrielle, I have to do this. I know you don`t like it, but you being safe is the only thing that matters to me now. I wish I could have told you goodbye. I wish I could have told you how much I love you. But I think you know that, don`t you." She brushed her own lips with the fingers of the bard. "If I can`t come back for you, know I`ll always be in your heart, and you`ll always be in mine." She bent and kissed the bard`s lips." Goodbye, my love."
She tucked Gabrielle`s hand inside the blanket and then quickly climbed the ladder. She didn`t look back, for if she had she would never have gotten out of that cellar.
Xena closed the trap door and turned to Alyssia.
"You`d know an Amazon if you saw one, wouldn`t you?" The warrior said.
"If any turn up, let them take her. Anyone else, deny all knowlege of her. Anyone, hear?"
"I won`t let anyone take her Xena."
Xena nodded and looked towards the forest. "Time I was going." This not much more than a whisper. She turned to Alyssia. "Tell her...." Xenas throat constricted.
"Xena, I`m sure she already knows all she needs to know. Just hurry back to her."
Xena nodded tightly and ran quickly towards the faint sound of baying hounds.
Mastacles had bellowed in fury when the hounds lost the scent at the edge of the river. The head tracker, trying to control a wildly pulling hound, shouted at him from the rivers edge.
"Looks like they crossed here." The hound was trying to pull him in the opposite direction.
"Damn you, you flea ridden excuse for a ........"
"What`s the matter with the beast?" Said Mastacles.
"I don`t know, probably picked up the scent of a squirrel." The tracker hit the dog with a short whip.
"No," yelled the warlord. "Let it track."
They let the dog lead them a small way from the river bank. The light was failing, but they could just make out the indentations of two bodies in the soft mud. Then one set of tracks, deep, as if carrying something, or someone, lead into the forest.
"They`re on foot." Said the tracker. "Look here, two sets of footprints. There were two people standing here. Then one picked the other up."
"So." Mastacles face twisted into a grin. "The Amazon Queen lives."
The head tracker peered into the forest, the dog straining at the leash. "We can`t go into this in the failing light."
Mastacles looked around him and realised that the townsfolk had given up and returned to Tarynth. He was now left with only three men.
Shaking his head he said to the tracker,"You`re right. It`s the same for Xena, and she has an extra burden. We`ll camp here and start out again at first light."
First light came quickly.
Ephiny knew Tarynth well. She had lead the main assault on the city, and it was her tactics that had ultimately brought about the downfall of the warlord, Mastacles.
When she recieved word from a very nervous young man that Mastacles had Gabrielle the terrible battle had replayed in her mind in one bright flash of horror. She wanted, there and then, to take the whole Amazon nation and reduce the city to ashes once more.
She`d lost a lot of good friends during those six awful days. Mastacles had been running a slave business. Amazons, it seemed were desirable material for the slave market. A raiding party had taken twelve Amazon warriors back to Tarynth.
Melosa had sent Ephiny with a small contingent of Amazons to give Mastacles an ultimatum. Release the Amazons or face a war.
Mastacles killed one of the youngest captives and hung her body from the gates to the city. The war started that day. It lasted six days. The whole Amazon nation taking part. Mastacles had underestimated the strength of the Amazon. "They`re just women!" He had told his people on the eve of the battle.
It was this battle, above anything else, that turned the Amazons into a reclusive, suspicious people. Untill, of course, Xena helped them find peace.
Ephiny read the note carefully. If Xena`s plan had worked she would have gotten Gabrielle out of the city. The note said two Amazons, who would she take?
She called Eponin and Solari to her.
"What is it?" Said a breathless Solari.
"Mastacles." She said, screwing up the parchment. "He`s kidnapped Gabrielle."
"Then we fight." Eponin turned to call the rest of the Amazons.
"No, Xena says just three of us should go. If she`s done what she wanted to she should have the Queen out of there by now. " She looked at the two warriors infront of her. "I need one of you to stay here."
Eponin and Solari glared at each other.
"Solari, you come with me, Eponin, you`re in charge." Ephiny cast on eye over the rest of the warriors.
"Raega, you come with us." The young warrior glowed with pride.
Ephiny put a hand on Eponin`s shoulder. "I`m sorry. I need someone here I can trust."
"I understand." Eponin shrugged, then gave Solari a brief hug. "Be careful."
Ephiny nodded and lead the two warriors that would accompany her to one of the huts.
The sound of the hounds was getting louder. The sun had been up for a few candlemarks.
Xena had backtracked away from the cabin, back towards the noise. She had to let the hounds get her scent and follow that, so she would have to get pretty close.
She had tried to banish all thoughts of the bard from her mind, so she could concentrate on the task at hand.
However, the bards face kept coming back to her minds eye, and, more than once, she had to stop when her eyesight became blurred with tears.
She stopped, and listened, they were close now. She would let them catch sight of her, then lead them in the opposite direction to her bard.
"Why Xena, fancy meeting you here."
Xena whirled to the sound of the familiar voice.
The God of War smiled at his one time prodigy. "Got yourself in a mess again, I see."
"Ares, I don`t have time for this." Xena turned her back on him, scanning the dense forest for signs of movement.
"So, where`s the brat?" The God sat on a fallen tree trunk.
Xena turned slowly to face him, then closed the distance between them until she was right in his face.
"Stay away from her, stay out of this."
"What do you mean?"
"I can`t pass up this opportunity. You`re in it up to here." Ares brought his hand up to his chin. "I`ll get you both out."
"In exchange for me." Xena shook her head and turned away from him again.
"You read my mind."
"No way, it`s not going to happen."
"You have no choice Xena. Either you come back to me and both live, or you both die. Simple." Xena turned to face him once more. "If I came back to you I`d lose her anyway. I can get us out of this. Just stay away from her."
Ares smiled. "That`s the problem Xena, I can`t stay out of it. I can`t resist you, you see."
With that the God of war waved his arm and Xena was thrown back into a tree with great force. The God winced when he heard her head crack against the tree trunk. He watched her slide down the tree and crouched by her side.
Xena was struggling against unconsciousness. The God of wars` face swam before her. "Dont hurt her," was all she managed before slipping into darkness.
"Now the fun starts Xena."
The God vanished just as two men almost fell over the prone body of the warrior. The first one started to approach the woman.
"No!" said the second. "It could be a trick."
He lifted a small horn to his lips and blew it.
Within moments Mastacles had appeared and looked down at the body before him.
"Is she alive?"
One of the men felt her neck for a pulse, he nodded.
"Well, looks like today is our lucky day."
Ephiny shivered. The last time she had been in these woods was just before the battle of Tarynth. She could hear the sounds of baying hounds, and gesturing to the two Amazons with her she started moving towards the sound.
Xena was standing. She didn`t know how she was standing, but she was sure she was upright. There was a pain. Where was it? She couldn`t pin it down. Ah, there. In the back of her head. Suddenly cold water was thrown in her face. Her eyes snapped open.
One eye glared back at her. Mastacles.
She had been tied, standing, to a tree. Thick rope was wound round her waist and shoulders, her hands pulled painfully behind the tree and secured with manacles and chain.
Her sword, armour and chakram had been removed, and lay out of reach. Mastacles paced in front of her, a long thin dagger in his hand.
"Xena, you`re back."
Xena stared at him, he slowly came into focus.
"Now then, you know what it is I want. Make this easy on yourself." He closed the space between them, the tip of the dagger raised her chin. "Where`s the girl."
Xena glared at the warlord, clenched her teeth and gave him a lopsided smile.
"Very well." He said.
He plunged the dagger into her left side. Not below her ribs, but to the side. So that when he ripped it sideways it left a bloody gash in her side.
Xena gasped at the pain, Mastacles stood back, enjoying the look on the warrior`s face.
"That won`t kill you. Not yet anyway, but you`ll bleed to death unless it`s treated."
A slap across the face.
"Where`s the Amazon?"
Again the silent gaze.
Another slap. Xena`s head bounced back off the tree. The wound on the back of her head opened and she felt warm blood running down her back.
A punch this time, on the dagger wound. The pain was awful. Mastacles fist was covered in blood. The blood also ran down her left side and onto her thigh.
She knew she was losing blood quickly. She was starting to get light headed. The thought occured to her that maybe she was losing blood quicker than Mastacles thought. Maybe she would die soon, and deprive him of his sport again. But if she could just hang on a while longer. Keep the warlord busy.
Maybe it would give Gabrielle enough time to get away.
Xena raised her head slowly just in time to see the fist heading for the side of her head.
Her head snapped sideways, she couldn`t ride the blow. A small cut opened above her left eyebrow. Again Mastacles punched her in the side, on the knife wound.
"Xena, you don`t want to die, here, like this. just tell me what I want to know." Mastacles lifted her face. With the last ounce of strength she had she spat in his face.
The warlord bellowed in rage. He lost any composure he had and beat the bound woman mercilessly. Taking his sword from the scabbard at his hip he raised it above his head.
He watched as Xena slowly raised her bruised and bleeding face to him, she said."I win."
"Die!" He screamed.
The sword didn`t descend, however.
The trackers looked from the woman to the warlord.
His sword was still held above his head, but he stood like a statue. Then they saw the arrow protruding from his neck. Mastacles slowly sank to the ground, dead before he hit the forest floor. Two more men fell, before the three Amazons jumped from the trees.
Very quickly Ephiny put her sword to the throat of the one remaining man.
"You`re from Tarynth?" She said.
The man nodded tightly.
"Then go back there. Tell the people Mastacles is dead. The Amazons don`t want war, but if the people still want it they shall have it. This time we`ll leave no-one to rebuild the city. You got that?"
The man nodded again and disappeared into the trees.
Ephiny turned back to Xena.
Solari was searching through Mastales` garments for the keys to the manacles, she found them and handed them to Ephiny.
Ephiny undid the manacles, then, as Solari and Raega held the warrior, cut the ropes.
The three Amazons slowly lowered the warrior to the floor.
Xena was barely conscious and in obvious pain.
"Solari, get something to hold over the wound, we have to stop the bleeding."
Solari went to one of the dead men and tore a strip from his clothing, she held it to the wound on Xenas side.
The blue eyes fluttered open.
"No Xena, it`s Ephiny."
The blue eyes began to drift shut again. Ephiny gently tapped Xenas face. "Xena, where is Gabrielle?"
"Yes Xena, where is she, is she safe?"
"Safe." Xena was slipping into uncosciousness.
"Where is she?"
"North......cabin....nice wo....woman. She looked.........after us."
Ephiny turned to the two Amazons.
"You go, find the cabin, take the Queen back to Amazonia. I`ll follow with Xena as soon as I can."
Solari didn`t move when the younger Amazon started to walk away. "You don`t think she`s got much longer, do you?"
Ephiny shook her head. "She`s dying. I`ll stay with her, find Gabrielle, take her home."
Solari nodded and followed Raega as they headed north.
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