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The small detail traveled for nearly half the day and had turned east toward Amazonia before Diomedes had insisted they stop for a short time and rest. He didnít want to push Gabrielle any harder than absolutely necessary. He had heard from some of the other men of how the young bard had faced two Horde warriors and almost won. He had also heard how close she had come to dying, Xena saving her life at the last possible moment. Diomedes had been horrified to think of Gabrielle at the mercy of the Horde and found that he did indeed care for the fair haired young woman. His pledge to protect her with his life had come from those feelings.
Gabrielle had said little since their departure from Corinth. It was taking all the energy she had to simply stay upright in the saddle, you she did not complain. The bard was acutely aware of just how many lives depended upon her reaching the Amazons as quickly as possible and convincing them to send a force to the besieged city. Xenaís life depended on her.
Gabrielle had insisted that Xena remove her bandages before she left late that morning, arguing that it wouldnít help their cause to have the Amazon Queen ride into the village looking like the walking wounded, never mind the fact that it was the truth. But now, after several hours of steady traveling, Gabrielle was beginning to tire and was grateful to Diomedes for insisting on the rest. The little company stopped beneath a quiet grove of trees to enjoy a light meal of trail rations.
Gabrielle really didnít have much of an appetite, but forced herself to eat something. She was tired, sore, and hot but mostly she was afraid. Afraid she would not be able to rally the Amazons in time, afraid that they might stumble on a Horde patrol. Afraid that she may be leading the Amazons into almost certain death at the hands of the Horde. Afraid that none of them would live to see the end of this.
Diomedes retrieved his rations from his saddlebags and then walked to where Gabrielle sat leaning up against a tree.
"Do you mind if I join you?" He asked hesitantly.
Gabrielle squinted up at the young soldier, "Please, have a seat." She replied.
Diomedes carefully lowered himself to the ground and concentrated for the moment on his meal, stealing glances every now and then at the woman seated next to him. Gabrielle could sense his eyes on her, but said nothing. Diomedes finally broke the silence.
"How are you feeling? You seem a little tired." He asked, a concerned look on his face.
"Oh, Iím ok, really. I am a bit tired, but Iíll be fine. Donít worry about me, Diomedes." Gabrielle said, and then a thought dawned on her. "Xena told you to look after me, didnít she?"
The question was more of a statement of fact, and Diomedes decided it wouldnít be a good idea to lie to the young woman, especially since she would probably be able to see right through him anyway.
"Yes." Diomedes replied quietly. "I donít think she wants you to know, though."
Gabrielle chuckled softly. No changing her. Sheíll probably always be looking out for me. Hades. Yeah, we are going to have a long talk when I get back, Warrior Princess. The bard turned to look the Athenian in the eyes, and was a little surprised at what she saw there. Worry, to be sure, but also the beginnings of an affection that she didnít quite know how to react to. For now she decided not to say anything at all.
They continued their meal in silence before Diomedes spoke again.
"I really enjoyed your story about Theseus and the Minotaur. I wish that I could tell stories that well. Maybe you could give me some pointers sometime?" He asked hopefully.
"When this is all over we can discuss storytelling for as long as you like, ok?" Gabrielle replied. The bardís attention was then drawn to Pelias, who had risen to his feet and was now signaling to Diomedes.
"Come on, letís get moving. I want to be at the edge of the Amazon hunting grounds by nightfall."
"Yes, Sergeant." Diomedes replied, climbing reluctantly to his feet. He extended his hand to Gabrielle, and helped her to stand.
"Are you sure youíre ready to move on?" He asked, gazing at her intently as the young bard slowly righted herself.
"Oh sure. Iíll be fine." Gabrielle said, flashing Diomedes what she hoped would be a reassuring smile. She didnít think she was completely successful. "Those people back in Corinth are counting on us, on me. Weíd better get going."
"Ok. Wait here. Iíll go get your mount. Be right back." Diomedes said as he moved off in the direction of the tethered horses.
Gabrielle nodded and bent to retrieve her staff and traveling bag. As she raised herself back up, a wave of dizziness washed over her and she leaned against the tree for support. Whoa. Gotta remember to take it a little slower. Gabrielle said to herself, taking several long deep breaths as she waited for the dizziness to pass. She was still leaning against the tree when Diomedes returned with her horse.
"Hey, are you ok?" He asked, concern tingeing his voice. "You look a little pale."
Gabrielle pushed herself away from the tree slightly. "No, really, Iím fine." She said as she eyed her horse, and itís height. "Just give me a boost." Diomedes regarded her skeptically, but decided not to push the issue, resolving to keep an even closer watch over the young woman. He reached down and grasped Gabrielleís leg, lifting her easily into the saddle.
Pelias waited impatiently in his own saddle. The Amazons made him nervous, always had. Just the idea of a whole race of women living without men, it wasnít natural. He would be glad when this was over and they were back in Corinth. The Sergeant watched as Diomedes mounted and then spurred his horse into a brisk canter toward the Amazon lands.
As the day wore on and began nearing dusk, the heat of the afternoon sun lay upon the small company like a heavy cloak, stifling and oppressive. It was all Gabrielle could do to stay focused on the road ahead and try not to fall from the saddle. Sweat ran freely down the young bardís face, stinging her eyes and darkening her short top.
They had been traveling at this pace for most of the afternoon and were now at the outskirts of Amazonia. Pelias and Pylades rode ahead a short distance to search for a suitable campsite for the evening. Diomedes rode abreast of Gabrielle, casting worried looks her direction every few minutes. He would be relieved when they were able to stop for the night. He didnít like the pallor of Gabrielleís skin, she was too pale and she needed food and sleep.
As they rounded a short corner, they found that Pelias had discovered a clear, dry place to stop and had already begun to set up the camp. Gabrielle was too exhausted to give much thought to their location, she was simply happy to be able to get down off this gods cursed horse. She brought the animal to a smooth stop at the edge of the small clearing and caught Diomedes out of the corner of her eye dismounting next to her. She had noticed his furtive looks and glances throughout the day, but had been too hot, too tired to comment on them.
Diomedes had landed cleanly on his feet from the saddle and was now turning to help Gabrielle down. The bard made no sounds of protest as the Athenian grasped her waist and eased her to the ground. She hadnít realized just how fatigued she was until her feet hit the ground and her knees gave way beneath her. If not for Diomedes still securely holding onto her, she would have gone down in a heap.
Diomedes reacted instinctively, pulling the young woman further into his body to support her. "Hey," He started. "Iíve got you." Gabrielle leaned heavily in his arms, grateful for the strong arms now wrapped securely around her waist.
"Iím sorry," She began. "I guess Iím more tired than I thought." Gabrielle said, giving Diomedes a wan smile.
"Here, come sit down by the fire. Iíll take care of your horse, you just rest for a while, ok?" Diomedes said as he led her within the campsite and sat her down near the fire. He removed his waterskin from his saddlehorn and handed it to her.
"Here, try to drink something. Itíll make you feel better."
Gabrielle accepted the skin wordlessly, taking a long draught before setting it aside. Satisfied that she was comfortable, Diomedes left the bard to tend to the horses and help set up camp. As he approached the mounts, Pylades shot him a concerned look.
"Hey, Diomedes, is she gonna be ok?" He asked, jerking his head in Gabrielleís direction.
"Yeah, I think so. I think sheís just tired, but she did have a pretty nasty head wound..." Diomedes trailed off as he looked over his shoulder at Gabrielle, now leaning against a stout tree, her eyes half closed.
"Yeah, well, weíd better keep a close eye on her tomorrow. Iíd hate to see anything else happen to her. Have you heard her tell stories?" Pylades asked.
"Yes. Yes I have." Diomedes replied thoughtfully.
"Me too. We were on the wall and heard about this great bard telling stories to the wounded, so a bunch of us decided to go down and listen to him, only it turned out to be her. She was amazing! Thatís why I volunteered for this detail. We all wanted to be sure she would make it ok."
"Yeah Pylades. I know just how you feel." Diomedes said as he finished removing the tack and saddle from his mount and moved on to Gabrielleís.
"Me and the boys were talking after we heard about the call for volunteers for this little trip. They feel same as me. No way could we let her go without one of us with her. Why, itíd be like sending my kid sister out into the world by herself. Just canít do that, no matter how good she fights." Pylades paused. "And besides, I was hoping to hear more of her stories on this trip." He commented with a grin. "But it looks like the storytelling will fall to you tonight. I donít think sheís up to it." Pylades commented as he finished cooling down his horse and moved off toward the fire.
"Yeah." Diomedes whispered under his breath. "Sheís not up to it." Worry still tugging at the corner of his mind, he had promised to protect the young bard, and he intended to do just that. Even if it meant protecting her from herself.
Within an hour Pylades, the ever skillful archer, had secured two rabbits for supper and they were spitted and roasting over the fire, the grease sizzling as it dripped into the flames. Gabrielle could barely keep her eyes open, so complete was her exhaustion. She didnít think she had ever been this tired in her life. Not even the smell of a hot meal could draw her from Morpheusí realm. She was a little startled when a gentle touch on her shoulder awoke her to find that the sun had sunk beneath the horizon.
"Hmm?" She said sleepily as she forced her eyes open.
"Here," Diomedes said, thrusting a plate into her hands. "Your dinner."
"What? Oh, thanks." Gabrielle said as she reluctantly began to eat. She didnít even feel that she had the energy to chew, but knew that if she was to regain her strength, she needed to eat.
Diomedes lowered himself to the ground next to her and began to consume his own meal. Diomedes noticed Gabrielleís lack of appetite, "Is there something wrong with your dinner?"
"No, Iím just not that hungry. Itís fine." Gabrielle replied, forcing herself to eat at least a bit more to appease the young soldier. She surprised herself by finishing the plate.
"Here, Iíll take that for you. Why donít you turn in. You look like you could use the rest."
"Thanks, Diomedes. I am pretty tired." Gabrielle said as she gathered up her bedroll, spreading it out next to her, she stretched out, cradling her head on her forearm.
"Good night, Gabrielle. Sleep well." Diomedes said quietly.
"Good night, Diomedes." Gabrielle replied. As she settled in, something seemed to be tickling at the back of her mind, making the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. It was almost as if she was being watched.
Camouflaged seamlessly in the trees surrounding the small camp, they watched and listened. Only four in number, they had followed the Chosen One since her departure from the city that morning. They had been selected because they were the swiftest among all the Horde warriors, able to cover great distances with the greatest of speed and little rest. And they were the most skilled at stealth and cunning. They had no trouble hiding themselves from the Greeks within the city, especially when those fools didnít even know what to look for.
Telmark had made their purpose quite clear. They were to observe and report back only. They had originally been five, but one had been sent back to their leader once it was determined the general direction in which she traveled. They were quite easy to track, not bothering to hide their trail or disguise their movements. The small tracking party had arrived outside the city walls just as the small Greek company was leaving, the Chosen One among them. Mishemo was among the four pursuing the Chosen One, eager to regain his honor, he had quickly volunteered for this detail. He had recognized the Chosen One immediately and they had set off after her.
Telmark was still unsure as to whether or not he wanted to force the prophecy. Tampering with such things could be dangerous, both for him and his people. So now the patrol waited for the dawn, and word from the messenger they had sent. Then they would resume their journey tracking the Chosen One.
The morning dawned clear and bright, and the little company was up with the sun. Pelias was eager to be off, and had roused the other men at first light, but he left waking Gabrielle to Diomedes. He didnít want to wake the young woman and have her startled by the unfamiliar face leaning over her. Besides, she and Diomedes seemed to be friends.
Gabrielle felt the hand lightly shaking her and journeyed through the layers of her dream like a swimmer making her way to the surface, and wakefulness. She slowly opened her eyes to see Diomedes smiling face gazing intently into her own and felt a small pang of regret. In her dream, it had been Xena leaning over her, and now that she was awake and remembered that Xena was still in Corinth, she felt something akin to homesickness. Trying not to let her disappointment show, Gabrielle pushed herself up on one elbow to face the young Athenian.
"Good morning." She said sleepily.
"Good morning to you too. Breakfastís ready. Come on, Sergeant Pelias wants to get moving soon."
Gabrielle sat up the rest of the way and saw that the camp had already been broken down and the other men were saddling their horses in preparation to leave.
"Why didnít you wake me sooner? I wouldíve helped..." Gabrielle said.
"Well, you looked a little wiped out yesterday, so I thought you could do with a little more sleep." Diomedes replied, a sheepish grin on his face. "Anyway, we can handle the camp, you just get us all through the Amazon lands without them killing us, ok? Iíve heard they donít take too well to strange men on their hunting grounds."
"Well, you are right there, they donít much like trespassers. Ok, Iíll be there in a minute, just let me pack up my things here."
Gabrielle came to her feet slowly, remembering her dizziness from the day before. She stood up carefully and was a little shaky at first, but the food and rest the night before seemed to have helped, and this morning she felt stronger. She could still sense that unsettling feeling that she was being watched, but quickly dismissed it. Who could be watching me out here? The birds? She said to herself.
Gabrielle packed her belongings quickly and efficiently and then joined Diomedes as he saddled their horses.
"Would you like some help?" The bard offered.
"No, thatís all right. Iíve got it. Why donít you grab some breakfast? I saved some fruit and biscuits for you. Theyíre over by the fire." Diomedes replied.
"Ok, thanks. I am a little hungry this morning."
Gabrielle ate alone as the others continued their preparations to leave, and by the time she had finished, they were ready to depart.
Diomedes helped Gabrielle into her saddle and then mounted his own horse, the other two soldiers also mounting up. Pelias turned to the young Amazon.
"Any last minute instructions before we cross over into their territory?"
"Well, donít make any moves toward your weapons when we do meet up with one of their patrols, they tend to shoot first and ask questions later. And when we do see them, the proper greeting is like this." Gabrielle said, clasping her hands above her head. "This way they know you donít have any weapons in your hands, ok?" She asked, looking at each man in turn. The men nodded in response.
"All right." Pelias said. "Well, from here on this is all new territory to me, so weíll need you to guide us through. After you."
Gabrielle nodded and spurred her horse to the head of the small column, followed by Pelias, then Diomedes with Pylades bringing up the rear.
They had not traveled far when Gabrielle first heard the signals of the Amazon patrol, their distinctive birdcalls alerting the rest of their group to the presence of armed men within the lands. Then she heard a shrill cry that had become very familiar to her during her last stay with the Amazons, the royal signal. It was then that she decided to bring the company to a halt.
"What? What is it?" Pelias asked, his eyes darting about nervously.
"Shh. No sudden moves. They are very close now." Gabrielle replied. As if responding to her words, five masked Amazon warriors suddenly burst through the canopy of trees above them, landing easily on their feet in front of Gabrielleís horse, causing him to shy a bit. Gabrielle and the soldiers behind her immediately dropped their reins and clasped their hands over their heads as she had shown them.
The Amazons stood tall and proud, drawing their swords from the scabbards on their backs and holding them upraised in front of their bodies in the traditional Amazon salute. One of their number stepped forward toward Gabrielle, and the young Queen could sense the men behind her tense, ready in case this warrior woman proved to be a threat. Gabrielle dropped her arms and swiveled to face the men behind her.
"Itís all right. They wonít harm us." She said reassuringly as she turned back to face the Amazon who was now standing at her side. The warrior woman reached up and pushed back her mask to reveal the smiling face beneath.
"Selari." Gabrielle said, returning her smile. "Itís good to see you again."
"My Queen." Selari replied, bowing her head ever so slightly in respect. "What brings you home?"
Gabrielleís expression turned dark and serious at the question. "Thereís trouble in Corinth. The Horde has mounted an army. We were driven out of the plains to the north and into the city. I must speak with Ephiny and the council immediately."
"We have heard the stories about the Horde. Come, if we get moving we should be back in the village by nightfall." Selari said as she signaled to the rest of her patrol and they effortlessly glided back into the trees.
"Iím sorry I donít have the warriors available to give you a proper royal escort."
"Itís all right Selari. Itís not like I announced I was coming. Would you like to ride up here with me?"
"I would be honored, my Queen." Selari replied formally, vaulting easily to sit behind the young woman.
They journeyed on for several more hours before finally stopping briefly to eat and rest their horses. Selari noticed that Gabrielle seemed to tire quickly in the heat of the afternoon sun and was concerned for her Queen.
As they ate, the men kept their distance from the two women. None of them had ever seen a true Amazon warrior before, and were frankly a bit intimidated. Gabrielle, however, was grateful for the time alone with Selari to catch up on what was happening in the village.
"How have things been with the Centaurs?" The Queen asked.
"As good as can be expected. We tend to just stay away from each other. But Ephiny does go to their village to visit her son on a pretty regular basis." Selari paused, suddenly aware of how pale Gabrielle was, and decided to say something. "My Queen..." Selari began, but the young woman cut her off.
"Please, just Gabrielle. Weíve known each other for a while now, and besides, itís just us here."
"All right, Gabrielle." Selari said with a smile. "Are you ok? You seem a little tired."
"Oh yeah, Iím fine. Just had a small mishap, but Iím fine now, really."
"Iím sure. Come on, we should probably get moving if we want to be in the village by dark."
Selari nodded solemnly, not sure she really believed the young Queenís assurances. She surreptitiously moved closer to Diomedes, deciding to see if he knew any more about this "mishap" Gabrielle had mentioned.
"You there. Athenian."
Diomedes swiveled his head sharply at the sound of Selariís voice. "Yes, what can I do for you?" He said, trying to be casual.
"I need to ask you something."
"Ok, go ahead, ask your question." Diomedes answered, his eyes narrowing.
"What happened to Queen Gabrielle? Was she injured in the battle with the Horde?"
"Injured? Yeah, you could say that. During the battle, she and a Metoan soldier were attacked by a patrol of Horde warriors. What I heard from the men who were there, she held off three or four of them after the Metoan was nearly killed. I heard tell that she was taken down be one of those Horde savages. Would have killed her too, if not for Xena."
Selariís eyes widened at the tale and she found herself feeling a new respect for the young Queen. "Three or four? Itís amazing she wasnít killed..."
"Yeah well, sheís got quite a bump on the head to prove it." Diomedes said sincerely.
"She has a head wound?" Selari asked incredulously, then appeared slightly confused. "When did all of this happen?"
Diomedes raised his eyes to regard Selari frankly. "Yesterday."
Selariís mouth dropped open slightly in surprise, as she turned to watch Gabrielle pack up the remainders of her lunch and make her way toward her horse. A wave of anxiety washed over the tall Amazon when she imagined her Queen taking on four Horde warriors, alone, and then picturing her wounded and at their mercy.
"Thank you for telling me." Selari said as she moved to help Gabrielle back onto her horse. The Queen had not told her the whole story for a reason, probably because she didnít want the warrior woman to worry. But now that she knew, Selari wanted to look out for the weakened young woman herself, for as long as was necessary.
"My Qu...er, Gabrielle. Why donít you let me ride up front for a while." Selari offered.
"Thatís ok, really. I donít mind driving." Gabrielle said, a small grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"No please. I insist. I feel that I would be remiss in my duties as a member of the Royal Guard if I didnít take on the responsibility of your personal safety and well being. That includes giving you a break from handling this horse. Itís a matter of honor."
"Well, when you put it that way. Ok, heís all yours."
Selari nodded and mounted the horse, reaching down to help Gabrielle into the saddle behind her.
They set off toward the Amazon village, travelling at a pace that would get them to the outskirts of the village before darkness fell. Gabrielle settled into the calming rhythm of the horsesí movements and found herself dozing in the heat of the afternoon.
Selari could feel Gabrielleís arms relaxing around her waist and knew that the Queen must indeed be more tired than she let on. The warrior was worried for the young woman, pushing herself harder than she should so soon after her injury. She knew that even though Gabrielle would not want the whole village to know what had happened, she would at least inform Ephiny. The interim Queen had to know.
Suddenly Selari felt Gabrielleís head fall forward into her back, and was immediately alarmed, turning slightly to look upon the Queen. She breathed a sigh of relief when she realized that Gabrielle was merely asleep, and attempted to ease the horseís gait into a smooth motion to allow her to rest.
When Diomedes had first told her of what had happened, she had been first concerned for the young Queen, and then angry with Xena for sending her on such a mission so soon afterward. But upon reflection, she knew that Xena would never do anything to put Gabrielle at risk, and assumed she had sent the young woman away for good reason, to keep her safe. Well, Xena, you sent her to us. And I will be sure to keep her under my personal protection. No harm will come to her while Iím on watch. Selari vowed silently.
The remainder of their trip to the Amazon village was uneventful. Gabrielle awakened a bit disoriented and slightly ashamed that she had fallen asleep. She knew that she was worn out form the events of the last couple of days, but she hadnít realized just how tired she had become. The young Queen raised her head from where it had come to rest between Selariís shoulders and cautiously opened her eyes, blinking in the afternoon sun. The Amazon warrior felt the Queen stirring behind her and turned her head sideways to look at her.
"Did I fall asleep? Iím sorry." Gabrielle said, trying to shake off the lingering exhaustion she still felt.
"Itís all right, you probably needed the rest. Besides, weíre almost to the village. We should be there very soon." Selari replied. "Iíve already seen some of the perimeter scouts."
Gabrielle found herself gazing intently at the trees, but could not make out anything that shouldnít be there. The continued in silence for several minutes before Gabrielle made out the familiar calls of the patrols, alerting those within the village walls that friends approached. As they broke through the ring of trees surrounding the town, the Queen could see that a royal guard had been assembled and Ephiny stood waiting at the gates.
Gabrielle allowed a feeling of warmth and security wash over her as she gazed upon the familiar faces of the Amazons arrayed before her. Ever since she had assumed the throne, she had felt at home here. These people had offered her a home when she had nowhere else to turn, they would always hold a special place in her heart.
Selari drew their mount to a halt in front of Ephiny and the Royal guard and swung down out of the saddle, turning to help Gabrielle down as well. The young Amazon accepted the proffered hand without argument, still acutely aware of how weak and tired she was, and it didnít seem like the proper time to collapse in a heap in front of the entire village. As she landed on her feet beside her horse, Gabrielle could see Ephiny striding purposefully toward her. The bard allowed herself to be drawn into a deep hug, which she returned with enthusiasm.
"Ephiny. Itís good to see you."
"Gabrielle, what brings you to us? And where is Xena?"
Ephiny noticed the guarded expression that came over Gabrielleís eyes at the mention of the Warrior Princess, and grew immediately concerned.
"Gabrielle, is everything ok?"
"Ephiny, we need to talk. And I need you to convene the Council of Elders. There is great danger, and it must be faced quickly or all may be lost."
"Of course. Come, letís get you cleaned up. Supper is nearly ready, and Iím sure you could use a hot meal." Ephiny said as she all at once noticed the rest of Gabrielleís entourage. "Gabrielle, who are these men with you?"
"Oh, Xena sent them with me, just to make sure I got here all right. I know that Amazon law forbids men to stay in the village, so could you arrange for someone to take them to the Centaurs?"
Diomedes had been silent up until now, not daring to speak lest he raise the anger of these warrior women, but the thought of being sent so far from Gabrielle made him uneasy. Xena had tasked him with keeping her safe, and he couldnít do that from the Centaur village.
"Gabrielle, are you sure thatís a good idea?" Diomedes began, "We could camp just outside the village walls, couldnít we?"
Gabrielle looked to Ephiny, "That would be acceptable, wouldnít it?"
"I think we can arrange that, if thatís what you want, Gabrielle. Iíll send word to all the sentries and patrols that they are friends of the Queen, and are not to be disturbed." Ephiny turned to look at Diomedes. "Ok?"
The Athenian nodded slightly, "Thatís acceptable. You know where to find us if you need us, Gabrielle."
"Thanks Diomedes. But donít worry, Iím sure Iíll be quite safe here." Gabrielle replied as she turned to toward the village.
Ephiny had begun to walk beside the young Queen, when Selari caught her eye, and she paused to allow the warrior to catch up with her.
"What is it Selari?"
"I need to speak with you, alone. Itís about Gabrielle."
Ephiny was taken aback by the concern she saw in the eyes that now coolly regarded her. "All right, as soon as I get her settled in for a meal and a bath, Iíll send for you, ok?"
"Iíll be waiting." Selari said as she moved off in the direction of her hut.
Ephiny hurried to catch up with Gabrielle and escorted her to the Royal quarters where she ordered a bath to be drawn and a meal laid out for the weary traveler. Gabrielle entered the quarters and laid down her bag and staff, sinking wearily into the nearest chair.
"So, Gabrielle whatís happened? Is there danger to the Amazon Nation we havenít heard about?"
"Yes, there is. YouĎve heard of the Horde?" Gabrielle paused to gauge Ephinyís reaction. "I can see that you have. Theyíve organized a large army, and have already driven an enormous army of Corinthians, Athenians, Metoans, and Thessalonians off the plain north of Corinth. Ephiny, it was terrible, so many killed and wounded." Gabrielle took a long shuddering breath, trying to quell the memories of that bloody battle and all that she had seen. "Xena sent me here to persuade the Amazons and the Centaurs to send as many warriors as can be spared to help battle the Horde."
"Where is the army now?"
"Well, the allies are safe within the walls of Corinth, for now. And the Horde, last I knew, was at least two days march from there. They should have reached the city by now. Please, Ephiny, you must help me convince the council of the urgency here. If the Horde is not defeated at Corinth, there is nothing to stop them from wiping out all of us. Only a united army could possibly defeat them."
Ephiny could hear the anguish in Gabrielleís voice, see it in her eyes. She had left her best friend behind in Corinth, knowing that if she failed, the young Queen would never see her alive again.
"Gabrielle, you know Iím behind you, but it will take some convincing to get the Council to act. Corinth seems so far away, and the danger not immediate. At least not for us."
"I know, Ephiny, thatís why I need your help. You know the Council better than I do. I know we can convince them, together. We must."
Ephiny suddenly became aware of the pallor of Gabrielleís skin and the weariness that seemed to permeate her every move. "Here, why donít you get cleaned up. Thereís a bath ready for you in the next room. And after youíve bathed and eaten, weíll go talk to the Council. Iíll be sure to have them ready to meet with you in two hours, ok?"
"That sounds great, thanks." Gabrielle said, giving her a small smile.
Once she had Gabrielle safely into the bath, Ephiny sent for Selari. The warrior had arrived a few scant minutes later, and she and Ephiny talked in hushed tones just outside the door to the hut.
"What is it Selari?"
"I know she doesnít want us to know, but one of the soldiers traveling with Queen Gabrielle told me what happened during the battle with the Horde." Selari paused, unsure how to proceed.
"What?" Ephiny said, becoming impatient.
"She was attacked by four Horde warriors, held off three of them before she was wounded."
"What...she was wounded?" Ephiny said incredulously.
Selari nodded, "A head wound from what he said, would have been killed if not for Xena."
Ephinyís mouth dropped open slightly at the news. "How did she seem on the way here?"
"Sheís tired and weak, and sheís trying not to let it show. I thought that you would want to know."
"Thank you, Selari, I do need to know. Go on, get yourself something to eat and a hot bath, you deserve it."
Selari smiled and saluted, leaving as quietly as she had come. Ephiny took a few moments to allow what she had heard to sink into her mind. She had always known Gabrielle to be exceptionally strong willed and brave, but that kind of courage, no. It was amazing that she was even here, she should be planning her funeral pyre, not sitting down to dinner with the young Queen. As she reentered the hut, Gabrielle was emerging from the baths, her hair still dripping.
"Feel better?" Ephiny asked.
"Oh yes, much better, thanks."
"The Council has been notified that you wish to meet with them. Theyíll be ready."
"Good, we need to move quickly, if we are to have any chance at all." Gabrielle walked over to where she had dropped her bag and reached inside, drawing out a small folded parchment. "Here, Xena wanted me to give this to you." She said, extending the parcel. Ephiny accepted it, unfolding it and reading the contents. It mainly dealt with the warrioressí need for the Amazons and Centaurs to join them in the fight against the Horde, but it was the last paragraph that caught Ephinyís attention.
Ephiny, Gabrielle was wounded in the battle
with the Horde, and I donít want to put her
in that kind of danger again. Please, as a
favor to me, keep her there if you can. She
needs time to recover, and I donít want her
to have to see anymore of this. I canít bear
to see her hurt again. You know me, I donít
often let my feelings show, but this time it
seemed necessary. Keep her safe, Iím counting
Ephiny read and reread the passage, finally coming to realize just how much Xena cared for the young woman before her. Up until now, Ephiny had not seen how deep those feelings had run, now it seemed that Xena felt there was nothing more she could do for Gabrielle, and she had sent her to the only people she knew could keep her safe. She wondered if even Gabrielle knew how much she was loved.
Gabrielle watched Ephinyís reactions carefully as she read the message. The bard had an idea what it said, but wasnít sure until she saw the look on the Amazonís face.
"She asked you to keep me here, didnít she." It wasnít a question, but more like a statement of fact. When Ephiny didnít respond, Gabrielle nodded slightly. "I had a feeling she would do something like that."
"Gabrielle, she was only worried about you. Why didnít you tell me you had been wounded?"
The young woman shrugged. "It didnít seem important, getting help to the army at Corinth is. You donít think that youíll be able to keep me here, do you?"
"Ephiny, sheís convinced sheís going to die. Iíve seen that look from her before. And Iíll be condemned to Tartarus if Iím going to let you keep me away from her now. I wonít let her die alone, even if it means Iíll die along with her. Iím not going to abandon her now, not after all weíve been through together."
"Gabrielle, sheíll kill me herself if I let you leave here, you know that."
"Yeah, well since when can anyone keep me from doing something I want, hmm? I left home to follow the Warrior Princess half way across Greece, didnít I? And Iíll do this too. Iíll find a way. You can try to stop me, but I donít think youíll have too much luck, what do you think?" Gabrielle said defiantly, daring Ephiny to contradict her.
Ephiny sighed in defeat, with these two there was just no way to win. "All right, if you are insisting on going back, at least let me provide an escort for you, ok? At least that would make me feel a little better."
"Gods Gabrielle, if you get yourself hurt, or...well, Iíll kill you myself, you hear me?"
Gabrielle gave the Amazon a crooked smile, "I hear you, I hear you. Come on, letís eat. We donít want to keep the Council waiting, now do we?"
An hour later, Gabrielle found herself standing before the Council of Elders, Ephiny at her right hand, her pain and fatigue forgotten, only the pressing need to get reinforcements to the beleaguered city of Corinth foremost in her mind.
The Council was made up of the most respected members of the Amazon community as a counterbalance to the power of the Queen. All matters of utmost importance had to be approved by them. Gabrielle now addressed them, facing the leader of the Council of Elders, seated in the middle of a long table, flanked on either side by her fellow council members.
"Honored warriors of the Council, I, Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons request your audience."
"We recognize you, Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons. Come forward and state your case."
"I come to you on behalf of our neighbors in Corinth. There is a great enemy that threatens us, and we must ride out to meet it. The Horde has mounted an army and is now poised to attack an allied army of Athenians, Corinthians, Thessilians, and Metoans in the city of Corinth. If we do not send help soon, I fear that the enemy may defeat this army and march on the Amazon Nation next. If that happens, we will not be able to turn them back, they will destroy us."
"You say that there are four city-states already engaged with the Horde at Corinth?"
"Then how is it that they are not enough to defeat them? It is well known that the Horde does not attack in large numbers." The council leader questioned.
"In the past, that may have been true, but not now. The army that I faced in the valleys north of Corinth was at least 30,000 strong. That many Horde warriors fighting together is nearly unstoppable, unless we send them the reinforcements they need to defeat this enemy."
"Iím sorry, Queen Gabrielle, but we just do not see how this affects the Amazon Nation. We have never before had any encounters with the Horde, and frankly the danger you propose seems rather remote."
"Let me assure you, this danger is very real, and very close. If the Horde is not defeated at Corinth, then there will be nothing to stop them from marching over all of Greece, destroying all in their path. Eventually they will find their way here. And we will not be strong enough to stop them. No, the time is now. We must act, and quickly if they are to be stopped." Gabrielle looked deeply into the eyes of the council members, and could see the faintest traces of fear there. That fear could only work to her advantage, she only hoped that it would be enough.
"The Horde is coming, make no mistake about that. And they will wipe us out if we donít defeat them here and now. There is no tomorrow." Gabrielle concluded passionately.
"Ephiny, how do you see the situation?" The Council leader asked.
"I agree with Queen Gabrielle, we must help to defeat the Horde, or it could be the death of us all."
"We will consider your petition. We will summon you when we have reached a decision." The Council members rose from their chairs and retired to an anteroom to debate their involvement in this war. All Gabrielle could do now was wait, and hope.
Ephiny tugged gently on the young Queenís arm. "Come on, youíve had a rough few days. Letís go back to the Royal hut where you can get some rest. Itíll be morning before we hear anything."
Gabrielle nodded, "Ok. I am a little tired."
Ephiny gave her a slight smile and led her back to the Queenís quarters. The night air wrapped them both in cool arms that Gabrielle found comforting, but also filled her with a sense of unease. Time was slipping away from her. By now the Horde had reached Corinth, and she still needed to travel to the Centaurs and convince them of the danger and the urgent need to send help. Hang on Xena, Iím coming just as fast as I can. Youíve just got to hang on.
Once inside the hut, Gabrielle laid down on the cot provided for her and nearly at once fell into a fitful sleep, her fears and anxieties following her to Morpheusí realm. Ephiny watched over the sleeping bard for a while, concerned that she was pushing herself too hard, but knowing that there was little she could do to keep her from it. She finally retired to her own room within the Royal hut, leaving word that as soon as the Council reached a decision, she was to be awakened.
Word came shortly after dawn, the Council had reached its decision. Ephiny stole quietly into Gabrielleís room, gently shaking the young Queen to wake her.
"Gabrielle." She called softly. "Gabrielle wake up."
The bard came awake slowly, at first unsure of where she was. "What...uh..."
"Gabrielle, come on, we need to go. The Councilís made its decision. Theyíre waiting for us."
Ephinyís words brought the young woman to complete wakefulness, and she sat up a little too quickly, her head swimming dizzily. Ephiny noticed the odd look on Gabrielleís face and was immediately concerned.
"Hey, are you ok?"
"Yeah, I think I just sat up too fast. Iím all right, really. Come on. Iím ready to meet the Council now."
"Are you sure?"
"Ephiny, trust me. Iím fine, and I donít have any time to waste. Letís go." Gabrielle said, swinging her legs off the side of the bed and onto the cold floor.
The two women dressed hurriedly and made their way to the Council chambers where they found the Council members waiting rather impatiently for them.
"Queen Gabrielle, Ephiny. Come, we have much to discuss."
Gabrielle sighed inwardly they really didnít have time for this.
"Please, tell me, will you send the reinforcements?" Gabrielle asked, trying to hide her growing sense of exasperation.
"Since you seem to be in such a hurry, yes. Yes we will send what help we can. But we will not leave the village undefended. A regiment will stay behind, just in case the army at Corinth is not successful."
Gabrielle breathed an audible sigh of relief. "Thank you. I know that whatever assistance we send will be appreciated."
"But know this, Queen Gabrielle, it has come to our attention that you intend to solicit the help of the Centaurs also in this war. We will not stand for our warriors fighting alongside them."
"But, please, we need all the help we can get. Without them, all may still be lost. Surely we can work out some sort of compromise."
"In this there can be no compromise. The decision of the Council is final."
"What if I were to assure you that our warriors and the Centaurs would be assigned to separate parts of the battlefield. Would that satisfy you?"
The Council deliberated shortly over the proposal made by Gabrielle, and when they had finished, the leader turned to face her once again.
"If you can assure us they will not fight beside them, we will agree to allow you to enlist the help of the Centaurs. But they must not fight together. We were enemies for far too long, and the temptation for those Centaur ruffians to turn their weapons on our Amazon sisters may be too great for them to resist. We will not put our warriors in such jeopardy unnecessarily."
"I understand, and it will be done." Gabrielle replied, already turning to head out the door, Ephiny in tow. Once they were outside the Council chambers, Ephiny took a couple of long strides to catch up to the fast moving Queen.
"Iíve never seen anyone get them to agree to something like that before. You really have a flair for diplomacy, you know."
Gabrielle flashed a quick smile over her shoulder at the Amazon. "Well, I do my best. Now for the Centaurs."
"When do we leave?" Ephiny asked.
"Just as soon as you and I have eaten. I want to be in the Centaur village as soon as possible. Tell your warriors to be ready to march to Corinth by tomorrow morning. That should give them enough time to gather their supplies. Even if we arenít back from the Centaurs yet, they are to leave without us. Weíll catch up to them."
"Ok, Iíll make sure everyoneís ready. Listen, Iím not trying to mother you or anything, but are you sure youíre really up to all of this. You seem a little pale..."
Gabrielle stopped and turned to face the warrior. "Ephiny, Iím fine. And Iíll be better when we get the Centaurs to agree to send help and we are all on our way to Corinth."
"All right." Ephiny said, but still was not convinced. "Listen, I have some things I need to attend to. Iíll meet you in the Royal quarters in say a candlemark, and weíll leave to see Tyldus and the Centaurs."
"Iíll be ready." Gabrielle replied, determination coloring her voice. The Amazons were with her, now all she needed was the Centaurs and she could return to Corinth with hopefully enough warriors to turn the tide of battle in their favor. The only question now was, would they get there in time.