2) There are some explict words uses, Gabby is alluded to have done some un-Bardly things in the past and Subtext abounds. If those sort of things make you ill of stomach, mind or temper, then leave. Shoo. Go Away.
3) This is a sequel to the story "Well Worn Path", read it so you can understand some of what's going on.
4) The lyrics used to open this story are still the property of their original owners, see above for the lowdown on Copyright infringement and everything else.
5) Opinions and criticisms (constructive) can be sent to the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gabrielle's head bobbed bonelessly in time with the horse's lazy gait. The villagers that she had liberated from the yoke of the warlord, Alcmaeon, were more than generous with their food and wine. She had turned down the offer of a hut to sleep everything off, because the local garrison would be sending troops out to see if the words about a woman who fought with the skill of the missing and presumed dead Conqueror were true. It wasn't the first time that her world was turned upside down by a string of tragedies. In the border of her consciousness, a bitter memory whispered to her of worse times.
"My Queen, you must eat. At least have this piece of fruit," Ephiny said in what sounded like the 'I am the Regent and I know what's good for you' voice she used whenever she spoke to the mourning Queen. Gabrielle gave the platter of food a bland look, then turned back to the window that she had been staring out. "Well, if you're not going to eat, then at least read over this treaty that Amycus had drawn up to end the war."
Gabrielle waved a hand over her shoulder. "Set it on the table on your way out. I'll look at it in the morning."
Ephiny took a step forward, trying to keep her voice in an authoritative tone. "May I have my Queen's permission to speak freely?"
Gabrielle nodded, never facing her loyal subject.
"Your Amazons need you now. Xena doesn't need you anymore. Forgive me if I sound harsh, but circumstances dictate this, not me." She put a hand on her shoulder. "Let go. You've mourned her enough. Now honor her memory by leading the Amazon Nation through this trying time. Heal, my good and precious Queen -- heal and be strong."
Gabrielle's gazelowered from the window, where the moon looked down upon the pair. It was a full moon; the face of Artemis was bright in the evening sky. Ephiny's hand trailed slowly down her shoulder until it caught itself on the crook of her elbow. Gabrielle looked down at the hand, letting her dark honey hair mask her face.
"Ephiny, I want to ask a favor of you," she said in carefully measured tones. It was no large secret that Ephiny had a strong attraction for her Queen, but she was always careful to keep a respectful distance, especially when Xena was around. Ephiny withdrew her hand as if Gabrielle's arm had become a snake.
"Whatever the Queen wishes, it shall be done."
Gabrielle turned around to face her loyal subject. Her eyes were red and puffy from days of crying. Her skin was almost sand white and drawn around her cheekbones. No more did she look innocent and angelic -- she was old before her time. Gabrielle swallowed thickly as she prepared to speak.
"I want you to lie next to me as I sleep," she said as formally as she could.
Ephiny blinked. "My Queen?"
"I have gotten. . . used to having someone next to me in my bedroll and I find myself sleeping much easier at night when there is someone there," Gabrielle explained as carefully as she could. Although she was well within her rights to take a new Consort, to have the Regent in the role would raise eyebrows.
"Umm. . . my Queen, wouldn't it be better if you had the Royal Guard? If you fear for your life, then I should--"
Gabrielle's face began to crease and her mouth turned up in a smile -- a break in the gloom. "I only want someone to lay next to me for the night, not stand over my body. I would sleep better if it were you, Ephiny."
She bowed her head. "I live to serve the Queen in all things."
Gabrielle's smile brightened. "Good, I will summon you before I retire. Will two candlemarks be good enough for you?"
"At your leisure, my Queen. I should go back to my hut and see that everything is ready. If you would excuse me." She left when Gabrielle nodded.
Gabrielle became alert when the horse nickered. She put one hand on the hilt of her sword and gathered the reins in the other. Craning her head around, she tried to see what was around her. The woods were silent, no birds chirped, no insects clicked.
She looked over her right shoulder and saw a single stone pedestal in the distance. Carved on it was a stag rearing back on its hind legs. Over it was a crescent, with the points raised skyward. It was a marker for the Amazonian border. It was the last thing that Gabrielle really wanted to see this day. It meant she was on the wrong side of a nation that wanted to see her dead as a traitor. She cursed under her breath as she wheeled around and kicked her horse to a gallop. So far, no one had challenged her being in the land.
By the gods, I might get out of here with my skin intact! she grinned at the idea of flirting with discovery twice in a week. The last of her cobwebs were being chased away by the rush of panic as she scanned the trees for an ambush. The leaves and limbs hid no archers from her as the obelisk continued to surge into her view. She fought down the urge to scream a scornful phrase to her attackers. Freedom was only half a league away. Kicking her steed to speed it onward, Gabrielle chanced a look back.
Something whizzed by her head, followed by several others. She looked around wildly. Where were those damned archers? she hugged herself tightly to the horse. There was a solid thunk behind her. The horse stumbled, then reared. Gabrielle spilled off the saddle, bearing the brunt of the fall on her arm. Her horse, suddenly unburdened, galloped down the trail. She saw that there was no arrow sticking out of the horse's flank, which meant that they were using bird-hunting arrows -- arrows with a thick wood tip made to stun rather than pierce. Gabrielle felt one slam into the elbow of her sword arm. Yelping, she dropped her sword and raced for the cover of the trees. Behind a thick oak, she flexed her arm slowly. Nothing was broken, the archers just scored a lucky hit. Gabrielle drew herself up along the length of the tree. She was too far away to run straight to the border without exposing herself to arrow fire.
They're not trying to kill me. They want me alive, she realized. She didn't know if that idea should give her hope or make her fall on her sword, if she had it. Gabrielle took a deep breath to nerve herself, then picked out her next tree to hide behind. She was going to have to leapfrog from cover to cover, avoiding the hail of arrows. There was a stout tree forty-five paces away from her location. A distance that she could easily cover in a straight run.
Here we go. . . keep moving and keep your head down. Ready? One. . . two. . .THREE! she sprinted to the tree as arrows whirled by her head. Birdcalls peppered the forest -- some were actual birds, startled by the sudden activity, but there were some that Gabrielle recognized as signals for danger or a call to arms. The Amazons were calling for reinforcements in a big hurry. It was either get out now or stay and fight. If it came to fight. . . she wasn't going to think about that option.
She scouted out for another hiding spot. Slowly and surely, she was going to make it to the border. Gabrielle would decide what to do from there; but for now, her only goal was escape. A boulder was close enough for her to make it without exposing herself to more arrows. She gathered her legs under her, getting into a runner's stance. Pumping her legs furiously, she darted to the boulder, ignoring the whizzing around her head.
Suddenly, she saw one streak by out of the corner of her eye and impale itself in a tree. Gabrielle scampered away from her course to dive behind a fallen log. More arrows, a healthy mix of sharp stag hunting arrows and the dull bird-hunting arrows, stuttered into wood. Gabrielle swore to herself. She was being herded deeper into the forest, away from freedom. It was a tactic that she would have applauded several years ago. Now on the other side of the battle, she realized how obnoxious it was. No weapons were around, save some fallen tree limbs that could be used as clubs. Grabbing one, she hefted it in her hands. Bursting out from behind her cover, she started for a small cluster of trees. Arrows thickened the air, some of them cutting close enough to snip await loose strings of her honey-gold hair. She dove, rolling behind a tree and clutching her club. Her breath was heavy, but controlled.
A scream of the purest rage split Gabrielle's ears. An Amazon, complete with the mask of the Royal Guard, came bursting out of the bushes. Gabrielle had enough time to snap to her feet before the hardened point of a spear buried itself in the space once occupied by her head. A kick to the midsection, followed by swinging elbow to the jaw put the guard on the ground. Not wasting a moment, Gabrielle spun around to find the Royal Guard's vine. She figured that she could make better time in the trees, or at least she could cut down the number of archers firing on her.
Something hard and wooden struck her on the forehead. The sun exploded in her vision as she staggered back a step. More hard objects struck her in the kidney, back and stomach. She tried to push her way out of the crowd, but each step was dogged with screaming soldiers. Finally, her consciousness was plunged into blackness as something yelled above the cries of the soldiers.
"WE HAVE HER!"
Ephiny ran out into the village square. She had heard the cries of triumph and was reluctantly grateful for the chance to escape the drudgery of paperwork -- spy reports, treaties and the other documents that seemed to multiply over night by either magic or by some cruel god's design. She vowed that when she finally died and stood before Hades to be judged on her life, she was going to find the god responsible for paper and make him suffer for as long as she could.
Two of the Royal Guards parted the crowd, but it soon formed an eager wall between Ephiny and the object of the crowds attention. One of the guards tugged on the rope, bringing whatever was on the other end of the rope stumbling before her. The person collapsed to the dirt, fresh bruises and blood covering most of the woman's face.
Ephiny's heart stopped when she heard the grunt and saw the flash of blond hair. She stepped forward, hoping that it was an illusion. Maybe it was one of the Conqueror's soldiers that happened to look similar to the Queen. If that was the case, Ephiny would have her blindfolded and ridden out of the village. If it was the only other thing it could possibly be, the village would tear itself apart. Ephiny tried to cool her own emotions. She needed to show everyone that she was still the Regent, that she was still in charge.
"Woman, you have been found trespassing on Amazon territory." Ephiny hoped her voice sounded as strong as she wished it was. "What is your name?"
The face lifted up and verdant eyes locked with Ephiny's brown ones. The eyes that Ephiny once knew so well looked back at her. Her heart shriveled in her chest as she heard the voice, cracked and raw, say the one name that she never wanted to hear again.
"I am Gabrielle, Qu--." The other Amazons screamed her down, some of them hurling things at her.
"SILENCE!" Ephiny roared above the crowd. Another bellow finally resulted in the mob falling into a sulking silence. Ephiny took a step forward, balling her fists to keep from backhanding Gabrielle. There were so many things she wanted to do -- scream, kick, cry, beg and kill, but she was the Regent. She had to exemplify all the Amazon virtues: courage, faith, pride. . . and mercy.
"Say it again." Ephiny's eyes flickered to the crowd, challenging them to speak out of turn again.
"I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons. My Consort was Xena of Amphipolis and I demand that I be untied." Her voice, even when it was scratchy, still held the timbre of command that she had learned long ago.
"You are Gabrielle, but you hold no rights to be Queen. The day you betrayed your sisters was the day that you forsaken any claims of caste." Ephiny's voice started to slip and betray her emotions.
"All my sisters? Or just one?" Gabrielle retorted in a low voice.
The crowd stirred like tall grass in a wind storm. Ephiny held up her hand to still the crowd. "To betray one is to betray us all."
"I'll keep that in mind," she muttered half to herself. "So, let's get the execution over with, I have things to do."
Ephiny smiled, not one of honest mirth but one of smug superiority. "We don't execute our criminals -- we're better than you in that one respect." She nodded to the guards. "Take her to the cage. We'll decide what to do with our new guest in the morning." As the guards dragged their former monarch to her feet and took her to a hanging cage, Ephiny stared down everyone else in the crowd. "No one touches her without my personal consent, so says the Regent!"
"Hail the Regent," everyone chanted back.
"Get the healer for her wounds," Ephiny said as she turned and walked back to her hut. She could hear the crowd reluctantly dispersing as the guards began moving Gabrielle to the cage. Artemis, please tell me that I'm doing the right thing, she silently prayed. Footsteps were heard fast behind her, causing Ephiny to look over her shoulder. "Not now, Ritsa."
Ritsa stepped around the Regent. "Yes now, Regent. We have the Queen in our village! How much longer before her troops come pouring in here looking for her? You have decreed death to everyone here!" Ritsa grabbed Ephiny's arm. "Don't tell me that you're still in love with her?"
Ephiny snapped Ritsa' grasp and shoved the stocky Amazon back a step. "You ever mention a thing like that again and I will have you banished. I am only interested in justice!"
Ritsa tugged on a braid of her own straight black hair, with a single leather cord braided into it. "See this? This is the only thing I have to remember Cleo by, so don't you dare tell me that her life," she pointed to Gabrielle as she was being tended to by the healer, "is more important than either Cleo's memory or justice!" Tears leaked out of her hazel eyes.
Ephiny kept her face impassive. "My decision is final. We don't have to worry about her armies coming through because they think she's dead. No one is looking for her and no one will miss her."
"Save you," Ritsa muttered.
"Do you have anything else to do with your time? If not, I have soldiers that need drilling, treaties to be read and signed, and reports to be filed." Ephiny narrowed her eyes as Ritsa looked elsewhere. "And since you have the time to criticize, you have the time to work. Go drill the students in hand-to-hand and remember where your allegiance lies."
"Yes, Regent." Ritsa bowed stiffly and marched away to the practice field. Ephiny made her way back to the tent with no other obstacles. Once behind the door, she sagged against a wall. She made one deep sigh as she pulled herself up to take her seat behind the desk.
Why is she here? What gods have I offended to merit this? Damn it, Gabrielle, everything was fine when you were holed up in your palace. I was here and we hated each other. We both worked eagerly for each others' destruction, but neither of us thought that we would be on the victor's pedestal. Now you're here. Everyone wants you dead and you're hanging in the cage unprotected. Sure, there are guards, but how many of those guards are widows or grieving mothers?
"Damn it, Gabrielle. Why did you have to turn up?" she muttered to herself. Picking up a report, she tried to read it carefully. After reading the same paragraph several times with shaking hands, she let it drift out of her clutch. Ephiny stood up and walked quickly out of the door. She had to know, or she was never going to forgive herself.
The cage hung by a thick braided cord, swinging gently in the breeze. When Gabrielle first ascended the throne, there was no need for a cage. The village was well mannered and the most serious offense was dereliction of duty, which would only merit a night in the punishment hut at the most. When Gabrielle began her campaign, and downward spiral as some would say, the new influx of women and girls were all angry and restless. Gabrielle's being drunk did little to set the proper example. Thus, thanks to a trade agreement with a local village, the cage was made to hold three people with a minimum of comfort.
Ephiny watched as the rope was secured around a tree. She almost felt sorry for Gabrielle. Ultimately, none of this was her fault. Fate had cruelly taken away Xena and left the woman lost and alone in the world. The Amazons tried their best to console her. When it came to dealing with the grief of losing someone close, the Amazons had years of bitter experience. It was experience that Gabrielle couldn't, or wouldn't, access for her benefit. The grieving went on for months. The rest of the nation had moved on and survived but Gabrielle hadn't, letting her suffering twist and turn her sorrow into a poisonous rage. A rage that drove her to this point.
"I somehow remember my hut being less airy and more. . . on the ground," Gabrielle said, gently touching the bars that surrounded her.
"What are you doing here?" Ephiny asked. "If it's suicide you're after, go elsewhere."
"It was a mistake, Ephiny. I nodded off while on my horse and ended up across the border. We both know that I wouldn't be as stupid as to come here alone." Gabrielle looked sullenly out to the forest.
Ephiny crossed her arms. "How do I know that isn't another attempt to find allies? Did you think you could fool us Amazons into backing you again? Since your old cronies believe you're dead and are dividing up the land, you think you could ride in once again with your once-loyal subjects on your heels? I will keep you in that cage until you rot."
"Let's hear it for the Amazon spy network. True, a few moons ago, I was the recipient of a successful coup, but beyond that -- I've been doing the random odd job here. Defeating a warlord here, saving a village there--"
"Invading sovereign space? Sounds very familiar."
Gabrielle's eyes darkened. "Is there a point that I should be paying attention to?"
"I think that you're too busy trying to recap--"
"You shut your gods damned mouth!" She lunged forward, her words a savage snarl. "You have no right to even draw the breath to insinuate her name. She stood by your side when Amycus threatened to wipe us out." Her eyes threatened to drip with quicksilver tears. "She died for this Nation."
"No, she died for you. She paid a price that anyone of us would have gleefully accepted once, long ago. And how do you reward her memory? How do you honor the woman? By being everything she hated about herself. I hope that your bitterness can keep you company, because little else will." Ephiny turned her back to the cage and started to walk away. She watched as someone dressed in the green and silver robes of an acolyte race out of the temple to Artemis. The girl paused only long enough to scan the area for someone, then made a beeline for Ephiny.
"REGENT! REGENT! IT'S KYNTHIA! COME TO THE TEMPLE!" The shrieks of the young priestess brought a small crowd of curious onlookers from their huts. Ephiny sprinted to meet her halfway across the courtyard. "Something's wrong with Kynthia! She's -- she's --"
The ring of people ignored the arrival of the Regent. Ephiny elbowed her way into the center of the room. "What's going on?" She looked to where one of the priestesses was pointing with a trembling finger. The Regent stepped carefully forward, but a brace of gentle arms held her back.
Kynthia was a war orphan from Gabrielle's first series of attacks on Amycus. She was as narrow as a willow switch, with hair more gold than anything that ever came out of Hephaestus' forge. Her eyes, robin's egg blue with flecks of green, stared at Ephiny with the bore of authority behind her. She stood straighter, flexing what little muscle she had like she was still getting used to the feel of her own body. Her face looked foreign -- the gently rounded features were hard and impassioned. This was not the Kynthia that Ephiny took from a lonely village to raise. This was an imposter in Kynthia's body.
"What is this?" she asked. The Kynthia-thing swivelled its head bird like for a second, then focused back on the Regent.
"Regent, bring me your Queen." This voice wasn't soft, but was the voice of someone who was used to having their orders carried out with no delay. Two of the other priestesses began to step forward.
"Kynthia, this is no time for games." Ephiny swallowed. Even her own words sounded hollow to her. Kynthia wasn't much of a prankster. Even if she were, she would never let her humor bleed into her calling as a priestess.
"I only inhabit the body of my chosen daughter. Know that I am your Sovereign Goddess and Patron." The Kynthia-thing looked at each woman in turn. "I have heard your cries for justice and I have delivered to you a Champion. Bring me the Queen. Now."
The priestesses scurried off as the rest of the crowd, Ephiny included, knelt in homage to their Goddess Artemis. There was a scuffling of feet behind the crowd, with growls and muttered commands among the shuffling. A flesh-on-flesh slap was followed by the whuffing of a blow to the stomach. Out of the corner of her eye, Ephiny saw Gabrielle doubled over on her knees, holding her abdomen and gritting her teeth.
"Is this how you treat your Queen?" Kynthia-Artemis asked with a shade of anger to her voice.
"My Goddess, she has betrayed the Nation and sent her sisters into slavery," the temple hierophant whispered.
Kynthia-Artemis turned her head slowly. "Do you think me a fool? Did I not just say that I had heard your prayers and sent you a Champion?"
"N-no, my Goddess, but. . . but her? She is--" the priestess tried to stammer her way out of the wrath of her Goddess. Kynthia-Artemis' eyes glowed with rage that no human could fathom. Ephiny stood up quickly, and placed herself between the immortal and the very mortal.
"My Goddess, what I believe your servant is trying to say is that the Champion seems to be unlikely. We are confused that out of all the Amazons that pay you homage, you would pick the one person who is the object of our deepest hate." Ephiny hoped that if she were going to be smote, it was going to be quick and painless. Kynthia-Artemis smiled.
"When this woman was given the caste of Queen, she chose someone who was deemed unworthy for the title not only of Champion, but of Consort. She worked endlessly to prove to all that she was indeed the right choice. Eventually, all accepted her as the Amazon Champion. Some," Kynthia-Artemis' gaze was piercing Ephiny deeper than any swords could, "even grew to accept her as the Queen's Consort. Once more the Amazon Nation is in danger and needs someone who has been forged and tested true. That someone is your Queen." She looked down at the huddled woman beneath her. "Rise, Queen Gabrielle and look upon the face of your goddess."
"I cannot. I am unworthy to be recognized by your greatness." Gabrielle's voice was soft, almost regretful.
Kynthia-Artemis leaned down and raised up Gabrielle's chin. "You are my Chosen and the Favored of my brother. Your worthiness has never been questioned by me. Now, rise my Chosen and receive my commands." She smiled gently as Gabrielle stood up. A wave of the hand erased Gabrielle's wounds like a chalk on a slate. "Amazons, leave us alone. We have matters to discuss."
"No, I will not leave Kynthia alone here with her." Ephiny dared to take a step forward. The priestesses that had gathered around clucked nervously. Kynthia-Artemis focused glowing blue eyes on the Regent. Most people would have crumbled under the attention, but Ephiny did nothing more than swallow hard and held her stance. "I am her aunt and I swore to you that I would protect her against any threats, including the Queen. I will not violate that oath."
"And you believe that your niece is not safe in my temple and in my very presence?"
"I believe that the Conqueror can do more harm with words than she could do with an army behind her."
Kynthia-Artemis nodded. "Yes, my brother does tend to dole out the gifts heavily. If you could accept the word of your own niece, would you leave the temple?"
Ephiny's glance shifted from the Goddess to Gabrielle and back to the Goddess. "I would if I were allowed to stand outside the door with the Royal Guard."
"Agreed." Kynthia's face became slack as her eyes rolled back once, then snapped back to their original look -- warm, loving and seemingly innocent to the horrors beyond the village. "Aunt Ephiny? The Goddess will protect me here and now, as she always has. Trust her." She placed a cool hand on Ephiny's shoulder. Ephiny nodded slowly and turned to walk out. A wave her hand carried the other people behind her, leaving the Conqueror and the priestess alone.
"Oh, I'm being rude." Kynthia bowed slightly. "I am Kynthia, a novice priestess. It's a . . . pleasure to meet you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle arched her eyebrow. "You didn't call me Queen or Conqueror. Why?"
"They seem to make you uncomfortable. The Goddess says that I should not deny myself the rare opportunities to learn about others when they arise. Can I ask you something?"
Gabrielle nodded. She braced herself for the inevitable question, the one that she sometimes asked herself: Why did you do it?
"What was traveling with the Cons--umm... Xena like?"
The Conqueror relaxed with a sigh. "It was interesting to say the least. I learned a lot with her on the road."
"Do you miss those times?"
Gabrielle's gaze diffused for a minute, reveling in the memory. "Yes. I miss her more than the traveling, especially at night. When everything would get quiet, I used to wake up in the middle of the night and listen to her breathe. I felt safe in that sound. I don't know if I ever woke her up doing that, but it was nice to hear. It's the little things that I miss -- her breathing at night, the creak of her leather, the way she'd look at me when we were alone."
"Is that why you drank?" It was a direct question, not an accusation.
"I keep forgetting that the Amazons don't teach much in the ways of politeness, but yes, it was. At first it was just to get through the night, then it was to get through the battles. Before I realized it, it became the only way I could get through life. It's nothing that I am proud of doing; and the things that I did while I was drunk, I will be performing penance for them for the rest of my life." Gabrielle's eyes became hard again.
Kynthia looked away for a minute, as if hearing a voice over her shoulder. "The Goddess will speak to you, now." Kynthia's body went rigid, then relaxed for a second. Her head dropped to her chest, then came up slowly. Her eyes were glowing brightly once again. "Queen Gabrielle, I choose you as Champion for the Amazons upon the completion of this task."
Gabrielle listened very closely to what the Goddess had to say.
Ephiny paced nervously outside. Seven of the Royal Guard stood outside, spears and swords at the ready. If there was a scream, a whimper -- so much as a sneeze, they would storm the temple and Ephiny wouldn't stand in their way. She clenched her fists in impatience. The Goddess had been alone with the Queen for half a candlemark. What is so important that I can't hear it? she wiped her mouth once as she shot a look at the priestesses. They appeared to be as befuddled as she was.
The priestesses were the first to stir when Kynthia-Artemis escorted Gabrielle out the temple. They knelt quickly, followed by the rest of the villagers who had collected around the building. Ephiny looked carefully at the pair. Gabrielle seemed to walk a little straighter, while Kynthia was absolutely inscrutable.
"I am your Goddess and Patron. I have heard your cries and I have delivered to you a champion, but the title is to be earned. Gabrielle, my Chosen, will be granted the caste of Champion if she is able to perform the quest that I have given her. She is to rescue her sisters from Maramis and bring them back safely." Kynthia-Artemis' voice carried through the still air. No other voice dared to make itself known as the Goddess spoke. "Once this is done, she is to be welcomed back among you." Kynthia-Artemis looked directly at Ephiny. "This is my word. This is your law."
"Your word, our law. Hail the Goddess." The crowd -- Gabrielle included -- chanted in a low voice. Kynthia's head nodded as her legs threatened to unhinge. Gabrielle swooped in to grab the young priestess, cradling her gently to the ground. Ephiny and the Guards moved forward, hands going their swords. Gabrielle gave the mob a threatening look.
"She'll be fine. Go send for water," she said, smoothing out a lock of hair from Kynthia's eyes. Ephiny nodded. Two Amazons broke from the crowd, running to one of the rain barrels nearby. Gabrielle looked up at Ephiny, scanning her rigid face. "I know that look, Regent. If you wish to discuss this, we should do it in private. The last thing either of us need is a lynch mob."
"One of you take Kynthia back to my hut and lay her down. The rest come with me and the Conqueror." Ephiny watched the woman pick up Kynthia as gently as she would pick up a sleeping toddler. The remaining soldiers gathered around Ephiny, giving Gabrielle a cold look.
This must be Xena went through when we first came to the Amazons. All this time, I took it for granted that because I was named Princess, and then Queen, they all forgave her and accepted her as my Champion and Consort. Gabrielle walked beside Ephiny, with a wall of Amazons between the pair. They marched outside of the village and into a copse of trees with a small spring bubbling up into a pool. Gabrielle remembered the area after a minute of study.
"We used to come here at night, just the two of us to swim, among other things." Gabrielle smiled at the memory. "First Xena and I, then you and I." She sat down on a rock, letting her hand trace the currents in the crystalline eddies.
"Guards, give us a moment of privacy." Ephiny turned her attention to Gabrielle as the Guards melted into the treeline. She tried to get her nerves to stop shaking. From the reappearance of Gabrielle to Kynthia's possession by Artemis, this was a day that would not be soon forgotten. "Well. . . ." There were so many things to say that she had no idea where to begin.
Gabrielle looked up. "Well?"
Ephiny drew a deep breath. "Con -- Gabrielle. . . dammit all, what happened? Why? What did we do?" She came a step closer. "What did I do?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Ephiny, don't blame yourself for what I did. There was nothing that you, or the Nation could have done. I. . . I just got. . . lost. I was hurting and I wanted everyone else to hurt because of it. I guess that's as good as an explanation that I can give."
Ephiny sat down next to Gabrielle. She had longed to be this close a long time ago. Now that the chance was presenting itself, she realized that the spark kindled years ago still smouldered dimly. She was both fascinated and disgusted by that dawning fact. "Well, I'm sure your explanation will ease the hearts of all the grieving widows, mothers and aunts throughout the lands. The phrase 'I just got lost' will dry up many a tear in this village."
Gabrielle jumped up, her sorrow turning to a vindictive rage. "What do you want? You want me to wave a magic wand and turn back time? If I could, I would have turned down that damned mask and left this whole group to their own damned devices! Believe me, if I had that power, I wouldn't be here." She turned away and stalked away towards the village. "If you need me, I'll be swinging myself to sleep in the cage. I have a busy day tomorrow."
Ephiny sat there, looking into the water, wondering if what she had done was the right thing at all.
The morning came too quickly for Gabrielle. The sleep was less than comfortable and the morning meal -- a hunk of half-hard bread, some spare roots and a cup of murky water -- could only be accused of being half-way nutritional. When she was lowered and released, Gabrielle was immediately flanked by guards on either side. She was used to the feeling of being hemmed into a wall of flesh. However the last time this happened, the guards were charged with defending her life from assassins, not grudgingly protecting her from those who would carry out their own rough justice. Out of habit, she walked in perfect pace with the guards to where the Regent stood in the middle of the square. The Royal Guard stood on either side of her on the dias. Gabrielle's crowd of guards stopped, then bowed to the Regent. They dispersed to join their comrades ringing the village populace.
"We have been charged by our Patron, the Goddess Artemis, to give Gabrielle a chance to redeem herself in the eyes of her former sisters." Ephiny hoped the word former would be heard by everyone present. "And as we are all servants to the Goddess, we must obey. So, Gabrielle, I will release you to perform Artemis' will. Bring back the sisters that you have unlawfully imprisoned and you be welcomed back." Ephiny took two steps down to look directly into her eyes. "But if you betray our trust, then there will be no safe place for you to hide."
Gabrielle's gaze never wavered. "As the Goddess commands." She leaned closer to Ephiny, "As a sister, Ephiny."
"Just get them back." Her voice was hard.
Gabrielle spun around on her heel, catching Kynthia's eye. "What do you want?"
"I am to join you in your quest," she said, as if the answer were all she needed.
"No, you're not. I don't have time to babysit," Gabrielle said, brushing past Kynthia.
Ephiny shook her head. "I agree with Gabrielle. You should stay here. A prison is no place for a priestess, especially one as young as you are."
"I am a woman and by Amazon law I have--"
Gabrielle stopped and spun around on her heel. "Listen. You're not going. That's final and I will not waste anymore time debating it. The Regent has the final say in all arbitrations, if you want to get legal about it. Good-bye, good luck and good day." Gabrielle picked up her walking pace.
"Aunt Ephiny, the Amazons are going to need a healer and I am one of the best in the village. Besides, what's going to happen if the Conqueror shows up in Maramis prison yelling 'I am here to free the Amazons'? Once they are out of the prison, they're going to rend her limb from limb, and somehow I don't believe that's what the Goddess wanted." Kynthia looked from Ephiny to Gabrielle. "Well?"
Ephiny swallowed. "You have proven your point. You may go with Gabrielle--"
"WHAT? Are you out of your mind?!" Gabrielle's voice jumped an octave.
"PROVIDED. . . provided that she has an escort to keep her safe." Ephiny looked into the crowd. "Who will safeguard Kynthia?"
Only one woman stepped out of the crowd. "I will." She was smaller than Gabrielle, but rather than being fine-boned and gangly like Kynthia, she was thick and powerful. Her hair was short, cut to fit her blocky face and was as black as a nighttime storm cloud. Hanging on her wide hip was a dagger. She looked to the Regent and bowed, then focused her steel grey eyes on Gabrielle. Gabrielle steeled herself under that gaze. It was the gaze that Xena had when she sized up an opponent.
"I will guard your niece," she said quickly.
"And you are?" Gabrielle studied the woman in front of her.
"Enyo. I am a hunter and I have volunteered to protect Kynthia."
Gabrielle looked from Enyo to Ephiny, who was walking towards the hunter with a grim look on her face.
"Enyo, you realize I am asking you to protect the one thing that is dearest to me?"
Enyo nodded. "Only my death will keep me from my task."
"That's how it usually works," Gabrielle muttered under her breath as she looked at Enyo. "Regent, this is madness. I am going to be infiltrating the most heavily defended prisons in m-- the Empire. I do not have the time to play babysitter for these two!"
Enyo jumped in between Gabrielle and Ephiny. "Let me remind you that you've got no friends here. . . or anywhere! You'd better take what you can gods-damned well find!"
Gabrielle shoved her back. "You'd better learn to hold your tongue, hunter. Soldiers are harder to kill than a rabbit."
Enyo unslung her dagger and brought it up. "I've seen battle before."
Gabrielle shot a questioning look at Ephiny. Ephiny shrugged her shoulders. "They're your charges now. Make the best out of them."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Fine. Get me some horses and we can be off." Three horses were led to her. Gabrielle hopped on one and waited for the others to mount up. Kynthia did so with great delicacy and a constant muttered apology to the horse. Enyo looked at the horse with no small amount of disdain.
"Enyo, mount up," Gabrielle commanded.
"I'll run," she said, crossing her arms.
Gabrielle nudged her horse over to the small girl. She leaned down. "I have no time for this. Mount on that horse or I will drag you by your hair."
"Enyo! It would be better if you rode with me since you have to protect me anyway. " Kynthia managed to move her horse over. Enyo hopped up, holding her arms around Kynthia's slender waist. She gave Gabrielle a satisfied look before Kynthia gently turned her horse to face Gabrielle. There was a second of understanding that passed between the hunter and the warrior. Gabrielle's mouth twisted sourly as she turned her horse around.
"If we ride hard, we might be able to trim a day from our trip. Let's go!" Gabrielle dug her heels into the horse's flank. Her mount surged forward, followed by Kynthia's steed only a moment later. Ephiny watched the horses disappear into the woods. She couldn't shake the feeling that her niece was riding into disaster.
"Have some of the Guard follow them until they are beyond our borders, then have our spies alerted. I want to know what is going on at all times with Kynthia." Ephiny walked down the steps towards her hut. "And I don't want to be disturbed by anything save those reports." She acknowledged the murmurs of allegiance with a nod. Goddess, please watch over Kynthia and Enyo. Help them in their time of crisis, she prayed silently.
The trio only stopped once during their ride. "Let me ride the horse," Enyo snarled. "Your constant apologies to it are beginning to grind on my ears." Kynthia slid off the horse uncomfortably, only to flounder in getting back on behind the hunter. Picking up the pace, the trio managed -- as Gabrielle had predicted -- to cut a day off their trip. Maramis was only a day away through a mountain pass. As the sun lowered itself gently, Gabrielle halted their progress to rest the horses and themselves. Enyo unsheathed her dagger and bow to go gather food. Kynthia and Gabrielle stayed behind to care for the horses.
Gabrielle found herself staring at Kynthia as she carefully brushed the horse's back. There was something familiar about the novice priestess, something in the way her hair curled around her ear and the slope of the nose. It was almost aristocratic, as was her entire being. There was a nobility to her that shone through the humility of her station. Gabrielle frowned as the memory tugged and pulled for attention.
"What about the war orphans?" Ephiny asked.
"What about them?" Gabrielle's tongue was beginning to thicken with wine.
"We can't just leave them to their own devices, and our village is almost over run with them."
Gabrielle shrugged listlessly. "Don't know. Maybe the best thing is to leave them where they are." She rubbed her head, wincing. "I have a headache. Leave me be for the night."
Ephiny muttered something to herself.
"What was that?"
"Nothing, my Queen. The matter of the orphans has to be resolved soon."
Gabrielle hissed impatiently. "Can't the Amazons take more than one, for gods' sake?"
Ephiny's back straightened. "We have more than we can handle, my Queen."
"Have you taken a niece or a nephew?"
Ephiny nodded gravely. "I have taken a niece."
Gabrielle poured another cup of wine and offered it to Ephiny. She shook her head. Gabrielle shrugged again and downed it with a single gulp. "So why not take another? Have a houseful of little rug rats running about."
"I would, but this child deserves special attention. She was the daughter of a nobleman and needs time to get used to our way of life."
"Who's daughter was she?"
Ephiny fell silent. . .
"You're Amycus' daughter," Gabrielle said breathlessly.
"Hm?" Kynthia looked over at the woman with an expression of curiosity.
"You're the daughter of Amycus," Gabrielle repeated. "You. . . you must hate me."
Kynthia smiled and stopped brushing the horse. "That's what I thought you said. Yes, for a while when I was growing up in the village, I hated you. It was all could I think or talk about. Very few people would even associate with me because I was so fixated on revenge. I became soldier, and a very good one -- that is, if ruthlessness is a good trait -- while I was training under Solari. I was determined to find you and strike you down like you had done to my father.
"Then, one day when I was out on exercises, Artemis came to me. She said that she had heard my prayers for revenge and wanted to show me something. She lead me to a clearing and pointed at you, just standing there with your back to me. 'Look,' she said. 'Now is your chance.'
"And I took it. I screamed and charged at you, swinging my blade with every dram of anger I could find in my body. In one stroke, I severed your head clean from your body, another separated your torso from the rest of your body. I never stopped hacking and slashing until you were an unrecognizable lump of bloody flesh -- the way you left my father all those years ago." She held up a hand when Gabrielle tried to interrupt. "No, I need to say this.
"When I was done, Artemis looked around. 'I don't see your father alive anywhere, maybe you should kill the Conqueror again.' And another one of you appeared. I went after it, and another and another. When I was too tired to move, the clearing looked like a battlefield. Body parts were everywhere and blood was dripping from the tree leaves. I was exhausted and didn't want anything more to do with fighting.
"I sat down and started to cry. Artemis knelt next to me. 'My child, you've learned a painful lesson. Vengeance never solves anything. Your parents are dead and there is nothing that I, you, or anyone else short of Hades can do to bring them back. Grieve for them, then move on. If you continue this quest, you will be as dead as your family, but it will be a walking death, not the life I want for one of my daughters. After that, I hung up my sword and joined the temple. I've had no regrets." Kynthia resumed brushing the horse. "I don't hate you anymore for what you did. I'm more curious than anything else."
"So am I," Gabrielle muttered half to herself. She opened her mouth to say something then closed it with a click. As she reached for her blade, she raised her hand to silence Kynthia. The priestess' eyes grew wide with panic when Gabrielle handed her a dagger. She shook her head and tried to give it back. Gabrielle shoved it back scowling, pointing to the tree line. Kynthia crossed her arms, shaking her head once as she pointed to the sky.
Gabrielle turned her back on the priestess, raising her sword and looking around the tree line. She knew that her soldiers would be patrolling the area. She hoped that her gambit would work. Maramis was isolated from the rest of the Empire -- meaning that they would greet their Conqueror with open, if not terrified, arms rather than with naked steel. Once inside, she would walk down to the Amazon block and let them free. Ephiny would give Gabrielle standing within the village and all would be right. Everything rested on Maramis' isolation.
Whoever was moving on the outer edge of the copse was beginning to circle around to out-flank Gabrielle. She turned to keep the person in her sight. Kynthia came closer, guiding the horse beside her. Gabrielle took a step forward, trying to seek out the intruder. The person stopped and Gabrielle took a deep breath to steady herself. The leaves whispered a betrayal of movement. She raced forward, grabbing something in the bushes. Gabrielle hauled her arm back and the mysterious interloper was dragged out by a knot of cloth, kicking and flailing. She held something in one of her hands, while the other held a bloody dagger. Gabrielle raised her sword high, a killing glint was in her eyes.
Enyo flung the rabbit bodies into Gabrielle's face. In the split second that the Conqueror raised her arm instinctively, Enyo scrambled to her feet. She held her dagger in an offensive posture. Gabrielle flicked a bit of blood and gore off her arm. "This is no fight for you, hunter."
"It is when it involves my sisters, slaver." A quick, back-handed slice was followed by a furious stab. Gabrielle stepped away from the first attack. She blocked the stab with her blade, then stepped in and connected with a fist to Enyo's nose. The hunter stumbled over her own heels, clutching her bloody nose. Before she could regain her footing or senses, Gabrielle drove the pommel of her sword into Enyo's stomach. Enyo fell over backwards, the wind knocked painfully out of her. The Conqueror knelt down, straddling the girl. She placed the point of her blade against Enyo's throat.
"You ever come at me like that again and I'll--"
"Drop your sword in the name of the Conqueror!" The voice was proceeded by Kynthia's quickly strangled cry. Gabrielle shot to her feet, raising her sword. Two men, dressed in the brown and greens of her foresters, stood in the center of the clearing. One of them had Kynthia in his arms, one hand over her mouth and the other clutching a dagger to the throat of the young priestess. The other had a crossbow aimed squarely at Gabrielle's heart.
"I am the Conqueror, you idiot!" Gabrielle roared, letting her anger at being surprised fuel her voice. "Lower your weapons and explain to me why the two of you failed to intercept these Amazon bitches in my forest, unless your pockets are lined with their silver?" Gabrielle took four hasty steps forward, raising her sword arm to hack the forester down.
The forester dropped to one knee. "Conqueror, we. . . we didn't know you were coming with prisoners."
"I shouldn't be coming with them at all, but they were stupid enough to think that they could outfight me. Now pick that one up and carry her with us." Gabrielle thrust her sword point at Enyo. She turned a smoky gaze in Kynthia's direction. "This one comes with me to my private chambers. Once she has been taught manners, she could easily find a place in my court." She grabbed Kynthia roughly. "Hopefully, you won't just lay there like the last one."
Kynthia swallowed. "It won't be love. You'll never have that from me."
"If I wanted love, I would have bought you," she snorted. "Tie her hands and mount her on my horse. Oh, and priestess -- two things. One, don't think that your vow of purity means a thing to me, ss don't insult me by begging on those grounds. Two, my forester will set you on my charger, so put any thoughts of escape out of your head. You so much as sweat wrong between here and Maramis; your friend and twenty other Amazons go either on the block in Athens or under the arches in Rome."
Kynthia's hands were being lashed together as Gabrielle pretended to walk around and admire the view. In her mind, she was trying to remember everything she could about the mountain prison. Whenever she visited it before the coup, she was drunk enough to forget that she had people in here that she once called sisters. Now, she fought to reclaim every hazy memory.
I do have private chambers, I know that. . . What was the warden's name? Is that important? Dammit! I am not prepared for this! Relax! Calm down and think. What's the plan? We go in, I make an excuse to go to the Amazon block. With Enyo unconscious, I'm going to have to rely on Kynthia to make sure the prisoners don't flay me alive when they're released. I also need to have Enyo awake when we go down to the block, just to have another sword arm. All right, those two can come with me -- getting them in will be simple The challenge comes when I open those gates and the Amazons are running running for freedom, assuming that everyone believes me and these two say that I am actually here to rescue them. I might just have the advantage in sheer numbers. . .
"Forester, how many guards are at the prison?"
The forester stood up from tying Enyo's feet together. "Umm. . . we are somewhat understaffed, Conqueror. We could get you to safety in the rare event there was a riot, but beyond--"
"Understaffed is not a number, forester. I want a number. How many guards and how many prisoners?" Gabrielle swooped towards him like a falcon speeding for a kill.
"Twenty-five guards and almost one hundred prisoners, seventy-five of them are Amazons." The forester paled under his ruddy tan.
"Four to one? How do you keep such a large population under control?"
The forester smiled. "We have trustees to move among the general population, keeping the various groups at each other's throats. The Amazons are kept in a separate area, away from the others. No one trusts the Amazons and the Amazons trust no one else. It's a tidy arrangement."
"Maybe I should visit the warden. He sounds like a forward thinking man." Gabrielle mounted her horse, bracing Kynthia with her arms as she gathered the reins. She leaned forward slightly, her breath tickling Kynthia's ear. "Get ready. You must be perfect from here on out."
If she heard, Kynthia didn't let on. The horse surged forward under Gabrielle's cry, sending Kynthia back against her captor's battled-hardened body. She watched the dark greens and browns blur as the pair thundered ahead through the woods at dusk. Most people would have stayed the night in the clearing and traveled when the light was good, but Gabrielle was trailing behind the foresters through the woods at a suicidal speed. The sooner she made it to the prison, the sooner she could work her plan and the sooner she could go back to her nomadic life.
"CONQUEROR! Whoa!" The foresters reined in their horses as their Conquerer shot ahead. Gabrielle stopped a few paces later, then wheeled her horse around.
"Why are we stopping? We need to get to the keep before the light dies," she asked, giving them the most hateful look she could muster.
"We will, Conqueror. Follow us, please." The pair turned to the left and led their horses down a trail that Gabrielle would have missed if it wasn't for the foresters riding through it. It was wide enough for the horses to travel single file, but hidden so that only those very wood-wise, like the Conqueror's foresters, could pick it out. The trail was straight and carried them to a rough hewn tunnel.
A small spark of wondrous fear lit in Gabrielle's mind. If they did this in between visits, could this mean that they are better exposed to the outside world and news? She shook her head slightly. "How long did this tunnel take to build?"
"Ten seasons after you commissioned Maramis. We dug this tunnel with the slave labor. It would have taken longer but the warden was determined to have this done quickly as a surprise to you, Conqueror. On the other side of this tunnel is Maramis itself. The travel time has been cut down from a day to a few candle marks. After all, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Come with us." The forester clicked his tongue and guided the horse down the dark shaft. Gabrielle looked after him, then turned in her saddle.
"Who else knows about this?" she asked.
"Just the warden and the foresters. When the tunnel was completed and deemed safe by two miners, they were executed." The other forester ushered Gabrielle into the tunnel. Lanterns, hanging ghost-like down the path, lighted the way.
Gabrielle felt Kynthia shudder as they trotted inside. "What was the work force comprised of?"
"No Amazons to be sure. We tried using them at first, but we had too many damned escapes, so we ended up dipping into the general populace."
The wind keened through the opening, making a wrathful cry. Gabrielle clutched the reins tighter and urged her horse on faster. How many ghosts are here looking for vengeance? She felt Kynthia shudder slightly again as a damp breeze blew around her. In the distance, the tunnel mouth was a small, inviting dot.
This is insane. Maramis has changed too much. Ephiny wanted me to do this because it's a suicide mission. As far as I know, this tunnel is rigged to cave in at the warden's request, Gabrielle swallowed as the dot ahead of her grew. She could see the gate to Maramis almost clearly -- a series of black, fuzzy bars striping the dying light. The walls seemed to be getting narrower. Gabrielle was struck with the notion that the darkness was beginning to squeeze her in -- claiming one of its own. A face came out of the blackness of her peripheral vision, its mouth working out words that could only be a rightful condemnation of her soul
"Go faster you damned horse!" she hissed. She had never been this afraid in all her life. Combat was one thing, the person in front of her trying to kill her was as mortal as she was. The frights that awaited her after her last breath was taken feared nothing. They had already moved past the reaping by Celeste and dodged the final verdict of Hades. Gabrielle didn't fear dying. It was what lay beyond that often times kept her awake in spite of the jugs that littered her palatial floor.
Another breeze, this one head on, grabbed and teased Gabrielle's hair. This wind was warmer and gentler. It had no final judgments in its currents, just playful chiding and the scent of leather. A scent that coaxed a tear from Gabrielle's eye. Hades will never judge you guilty, a stray thought of blue eyes came to her mind. You just worry about the world above, I'll handle the world below.
Gabrielle's smile was brighter than the bonfires that lit up the outer yard of Maramis when she came out the other side. Built as a prison to hold the likes of the infamous Jett and Autolycus, the years were harsher to the keep than the denizens were to each other. Grey stone walls were hewn into the twin mountains, making a siege almost impossible. The towers, one at each corner and two on either side of the gate, were manned by three guards with crossbows. Warnings were seldom, if ever, called from the men in the towers. Peeking above the walls were two buildings. There were no windows in the buildings, nothing but gray stone and hopelessness.
"Goddess save us," Kynthia whispered in awe.
"Stick to the plan or you'll be seeing more of this place than you want." Gabrielle looked around, examining the area for escape routes and aids to escape. There was only one, the front door.
"Ho! How as the patrol?" a voice called out from gate tower. Gabrielle only saw the crossbows, dangling from the shoulder of the guard who called out to the foresters.
"Ho! The walk was well and we have guests! The Conqueror and two new Amazons for the block!"
The guards came alive. "Clear the yard and open the gates! The crown! The crown!"
Gabrielle moved her horse forward as the gates, four times as tall as she was and half as wide, were pulled open by some of the guards on the ground. Gabrielle took a deep breath to fully assume the mantle of the Conqueror. This role had to be perfect. The slightest hint of betrayal and she would find herself being thrown into the Amazon block to the amusement of the warden. She looked behind her as carefully as she could. Enyo was still unconscious, her body dangling with the dignity of a sack of wheat. Stable boys ran up to the horse, holding it steady.
"Brace yourself," she whispered to Kynthia, then roughly shoved her off the horse. Some of the guards laughed cruelly as the young girl picked herself up with as much dignity as her bruises would allow. Gabrielle slipped off and watched the horse being guided toward the stables that seemed too far away. She looked around the yard again, trying to gauge running speed against the reaction time. There was a booming crash behind her. Kynthia squeaked once, looking to the gate as the bolt, a bar of oak that was little more than a rough hewn tree, grated into place to lock the doors. A jowly man in a flowing dark robe came jogging out, flanked by two guards. As he neared Gabrielle, he slowed down, then knelt on one clumsy knee.
"Great Conqueror, let me welcome you to Maramis. I am the warden Arvalis and we--"
"Guards." She looked behind her as Enyo was dragged off of the horse and onto the ground. "Have someone wake it up. I want to show my new pet." Gabrielle pinched Kynthia hard enough to sprout a new bruise. "What is going to await her if she suddenly decides to get cold feet on this special night." She chuckled. "Well, it's going to be special for one of us."
"Umm, Conqueror, you must be tired from your trip and I am sure that you would want to freshen up from the road. Let me escort you to your chambers." The warden snapped his fingers impatiently. A small boy came running, holding a cup and a wine skin. He skidded to a stop and poured the wine into the cup.
Gabrielle looked into the wine cup. One cup won't hurt anyone. By Tarterus, everyone is going to expect you to drink, a silky voice whispered from the back of her mind, you said it yourself, the performance must be flawless.
She threw the wine into Arvalis' face, then smashed the wooden cup over his head. He sputtered, flailing his arms as nervous guards wiped away the liquid. Gabrielle grabbed the warden and dragged him to her face. Her snarl and steely gaze hypnotized Arvalis, like a cobra hypnotizing its prey.
"Maybe I need to reintroduce myself. I am the Conqueror, the Sovereign Lady of the realms of Greece, Rome, Chin and the Steppes. My wish is your law and my desires are the sole purpose of your pathetic existence. Right now, my wish is to have the captive on the ground awakened and readied to walk with me down to the Amazon block so that the toy." She pinched her again. "Will know what will befall her if she suddenly feels like what I am doing to her is a violation of some sort. Now, unless you want me to have you arrested for high treason and crimes against the Empire, then have you punished by stripping you naked and tossing you into the aforementioned Amazon block, you're going to do damn well what I have bid. Understand, maggot?"
"I-I-I will personally give you the tour myself, Conqueror. Guards! Wake the woman up and make her ready to walk! If you will follow me, please." Arvalis turned around quickly. The guards struck Enyo in the face, then dragged her to her feet. Enyo blinked painfully, holding out her bound arms in a feeble attempt to keep her swaying sense of balance. Kynthia started to move to the hunter, but Gabrielle shoved her forward with a snarl and a threatening raised hand. Two more guards fell in behind their ruler, dragging the semi-conscious Enyo. Gabrielle rubbed her thumbs nervously as they walked towards the smaller of the two buildings. As she drew closer to the doors, she thought that she could hear screaming. As they climbed the steps up, the cries became louder. The hate was a living thing, striking at the group with brute-blind force.
"Do they always scream like that?" Gabrielle asked trying to sound as if she were complaining about an off-key singer.
"Hmm? What? Oh, yes. After a lunar cycle, you get used to it. I hardly hear it now." He put on a phony smile as the doors opened. What was a trickle of sound became a full-fledged wave. Gabrielle could feel Kynthia's panicked tremors under her hold as they crossed over into the cell block.
The cell block was composed of five cages lined up against either wall. Each cage held roughly fifteen women. All of them were pressed in against each other, struggling for a chance to grasp at the Conqueror. Harsh epithets were screamed as the bars were rattled and food bowls were emptied at the group outside. Gabrielle tried to close off the sound by trying to remember a rhyme her mother had taught her, or a story that she had told Xena long ago, but the cacophony managed to obliterate any thought than the one desire to silence that sound. She gave Kynthia's arm a signaling squeeze. The priestess subtly flexed her arm muscle once, then tried to catch Enyo's eye. When Enyo squinted curiously, Kynthia let a corner of her mouth twitch.
Gabrielle let herself be led to the center of the room. She met the eyes of those on the other side of the bars. She smiled vainly and let her hand settle on the hilt of her sword. She looked at Kynthia. A knowing wink came back to her.
It was now or never.
"Get these moon mad women to shut up. I have a message for them." Gabrielle had to yell into the ear of the warden to get him to hear. His jowl-lumped face nodded, then he motioned to the guards. The guards went to the cells, striking the bars with the flat of their blades and yelling for the woman to be silent. After what seemed to Gabrielle to be an eternity of screeching on both sides, the roar was dulled to the point where she could be heard. She took a half-step forward, keeping two of the guards in the corner of her vision.
At least I would have died for something right if it happened today, she thought as she drew in a breath to speak.
What came out was a whistle that drilled through whatever noise was left in the room: a long whistle that brought back memories for every Amazon in the room. It was the whistle of combat.
Gabrielle snatched her sword from her sheath, driving it in a tight arc behind her. She felt the satisfying and brief resistance of bone as the warden's mouth caught the full brunt of the blow. He crumpled to the ground, holding his mouth and whining in a gargling falsetto. The guards stood frozen for a half second before they realized what was happening. Gabrielle vaulted over the huddled mass of the warden, landing gracefully and parrying a strike that would have taken her head from her shoulders had it connected. A wrist flick turned the sword away, then she straight-armed it into his neck. She twisted into a crouch, swinging her sword solely out of honed instinct. Again, she felt the razor edge catch on something soft, then pull through. When her eyes connected with the flashing path of the sword, she saw one of the guards stumble away, dropping his blade and clutching an open gash on his leg. When he looked up to see how close he was to the cage, he had only time to hiss a curse before hands clawed at him. They hauled him closer, banging his head against the steel bars or trying to rip out his throat. After a frenzied few seconds, a hand reached down and tugged at the key hanging on his hip.
Gabrielle looked behind her. Enyo had the right idea. She had slammed one of the guards into the bars and was wrestling with the other one. Gabrielle began to run, impressed with the woman's badger-like tenacity in tackling an opponent that was almost twice her size. Suddenly, her view was sent pin wheeling as something grabbed her by the arm and pulled her around. In her dizzying view, she saw cage doors being opened and Amazons, spurred on by blood, rushing for her.
A flash of blonde hair centered her sight. Kynthia held up her hands and let out a single word that, by what could only be called divine providence, every Amazon heard and heeded.
"WWWAAIITTT!!" Kynthia shifted around Gabrielle's body and repeated the word, which Enyo picked up and parroted back to the other Amazons.
"What do you mean, wait?! The monster that locked up your sisters is right here, and you want us to wait?! For what?! An invitation?!" One of the women in the front lunged forward, grabbing a sword and pointing it at Gabrielle.
"YES! She's here to set you free! Listen to me! Sisters never lie to each other! She has renounced her ways!" Kynthia was holding the crowd back by the force of her personality, but her hold was weakening quickly. "I am a priestess of our Patron. I would never lie, not even under a threat of death. Believe me!"
"LIAR!" the Amazon cried and raised her sword to rally the others. The crowd moved forward like a rushing tide. Gabrielle grasped Kynthia by the arm and slung her behind her. She lowered herself into a fighting stance. Something else rushed by her and she saw Enyo adopt Kynthia's earlier pose.
"What she says is true! This woman is here by the word of the Goddess Artemis and the command of the Regent! Listen! LISTEN!" Enyo matched the volume of the nay-sayers. "If she wasn't here to rescue you, why would she kill the warden, fight the guards and let you get the keys to the door. Why would she even let the two of us get free? Why would she even be here? For Artemis' sake, use you heads!"
Mutters and glances were exchanged. "So what do we do now? Once we leave this building, the guards will know what is happening and shoot us down from the towers."
"Better to die on your feet than live on your knees. Besides, it's night outside and I can take the hunter with me to release the other prisoners. There are only twenty-five or so guards in the prison and there are one hundred prisoners. The odds are greater if more escape than just the Amazons," Gabrielle said, lowering her sword.
"How do we know that you're actually going to free the other prisoners and not just leave us to die?"
"Good point." Gabrielle looked into the crowd. "You." She pointed to a face in the crowd. "Come with me as a show of faith."
The woman, grimy and disheveled, took the sword from the Amazon that challenged Gabrielle. "And how do you know that I'm not going to kill you when we get outside those doors."
"If you do, no one will leave here alive. Kill me in here and nothing much changes. A guard will get curious that the warden hasn't come back and investigate. If he is missed, the guards will assume the worst and lock the doors from the outside, leaving you to starve. If I'm killed by your hand outside, the guards will see it and raise an alarm. Your choice. What's your name?"
"Well, Amata. You, Enyo and I are going to let the other prisoners out of the other cell block, then we're all going to run to freedom. Kynthia, give us a count of eighty, then everyone run for the gates." Gabrielle sheathed her sword. "Let's go." She turned around and moved slowly towards the door, waiting for the stunning pain of a blade being run through her back. After tortuous seconds passed, she looked behind her. Amata had sheathed her sword and was following. Enyo was at the rear, picking up a dagger from the body of a dead guard.
The trio passed through the path that was formed soundlessly by the crowd. Gabrielle alighted the steps leading to the door. She looked out to the crowd gathering below her. Kynthia seemed to stand out from the crowd like a dove among crows. Gabrielle's lips peeled back in a genuine and rare smile. Kynthia returned it with a nod of respect, her lips moving almost imperceptibly. The doors were before them. Gabrielle grabbed the handles and pulled quickly, wishing to get this all over with quickly.
The guards snapped to attention as she stepped out into the cool night air. She reached back and shoved Enyo forward. "Since you think that the Amazon block is too good for you, perhaps the real criminals will accept you!"
Enyo started to rush forward, but one of the guards caught her before she could connect with a swing. He raised his dagger to slit her throat. Gabrielle swiped at him with her sword, slitting his wrist. His dagger fell with a ringing clatter. She wrestled Enyo and the guard apart. "You will walk with her! Whatever else you do, do it on your own time! Now all of you move!"
The group trotted quickly to the other, more imposing building. Gabrielle stood impatiently as the guards saluted and started to open the door. Once the door was opened wide, she shoved both Amazons in, yelling to the prisoners below to enjoy their new toys. She motioned for the doors to be closed again. She watched the guards shift nervously in their uniforms. She knew that she had to act quickly. The count was getting close to eighty and she had no way to tell if the Enyo and Amata were successful. Going into the room would jeopardize the entire plan. Gabrielle had to trust Enyo, in spite of every instinct telling her otherwise.
. . . 77. . . 78. . .79. . .80
The roar a hair's breadth before the doors flew open in both buildings was the only warning that Gabrielle had before the flood of people shoved her aside. She joined in the periphery, hoping that everyone was too busy focusing on freedom to look too closely and discover that their jailer was running along beside them. Guards began to raise the alarm and let loose their bolts. Gabrielle heard screams peppered around her, but she knew that the soldiers weren't going to kill all the escapees before they got to the gate. Another alarm was raised, this one from the prisoners as some of the guards on the ground began to join in the melee.
The rush of people continued towards the gate, trampling down anyone or anything that got in their way. One person, running beside her, collapsed as if he ran out of every last bit of energy, a black and maroon shaft stuck out of his chest. Gabrielle put that out of her mind and focused on the gate.
The gang crushed themselves against the gate before organizing themselves enough to pull back the bolt back. Amazons formed a ring around the work gang, keeping the soldiers at bay. Cries and bellows of encouragement and threats and promises to deities far above them thickened the night air. Gabrielle pushed and elbowed her way to the gate. She found an opening at the bolt and pushed. She heard a familiar grunting behind her. Chancing a look over her shoulder, she saw the Amazon who challenged her earlier. She gave the Amazon a wide grin. When the Amazon returned it, Gabrielle felt a little bit of the darkness that she had been riding with lighten.
"PUSH! PUT YOUR GODS' DAMNED, WORTHLESS BACKS INTO IT!" one of the other inmates yelled above all the others. "ONE! TWO! THREE!" Gabrielle felt the bolt slide a handspan forward.
Every muscle stamped and whined for rest. Gabrielle groaned and pushed harder, determined to free the bolt or die trying. The bolt slid some more, then began to pick up speed. It tumbled to the ground with a resounding thud. As eager hands rolled it away, others pulled the door open. Those in the front clamored forward for the tunnel.
"KNOCK OUT THE LANTERNS! HOLD HANDS! HOLD HANDS!" Gabrielle grabbed the hand of someone next to her. The ones ahead of her apparently heard her because the lights began to wink out ahead of her. Behind her, she heard someone -- sounded like Enyo -- yelling to hold the mouth. Gabrielle focused on the movement ahead of her, squeezing her unknown partner's hand in fear of those ghosts that menaced her beforehand.
Xena? Be here, please for gods' sake be here. . .
She no longer felt any sensation of pain, only a crushing feeling of joy in her chest as she broke out the tunnel and into the night air. Letting go of the person's hand and making sure that her face was hidden in the shadows, she whistled for the Amazons to take to the trees. Limbs shook and rattled as if a hurricane's wind came through the forest. Those that were left on the ground scattered into the woods, following the sporadic bird cries and mimicking them. Gabrielle hunkered down by a tree stump and waited for Enyo and Kynthia. She wasn't going to come back without either them or their bodies. She forced herself to breathe normally, quashing the feelings of euphoria until she heard two familiar cries. She whistled back once, then moved away from the trunk. Her whistle was repeated above her head. Gabrielle scampered up the tree, coming face to face with four pairs of glittering eyes.
"Kynthia?" she whispered.
"Yes, Enyo and I made it out." Kynthia carefully stepped forward. "Are you injured?"
Gabrielle patted herself quickly. "No." She suppressed a mad giggle. "I'm fine."
"Let's go," Enyo said quickly. "The guards will be organizing and soon will be tearing this forest apart."
The Amazons continued their trek through the forest for almost a day, stopping only briefly to rest and hunt for berries and edible roots. Gabrielle, Enyo and Kynthia stayed together as they neared the Amazon lands.
"One thing. Why did you attack me earlier?" Gabrielle grabbed Enyo's arm.
She thought she saw a grin on Enyo's normally stern face. "Because while you two were chattering like grackles, I heard the foresters coming and I saw the opportunity to get us in."
"So. . . you--" Gabrielle started.
"Don't mistake what I did for charity. It was duty. As far as I am concerned, you haven't begun to pay back the Nation." Enyo's voice came back as cold as it did back in the village.
"Good. I'm glad that there will be no mistakes in the future," Gabrielle said. She was thankful that no one could see her face, or its marring frown. For a brief second, she had entertained the notion that she was forgiven. She felt her breath beginning to hitch.
I'm tired, that's all. The day is finally beginning to sink in, she thought as she started to run along the tree limbs, swinging on a vine that was in reach. Behind her, Kynthia swung quietly, pausing only one to touch Gabrielle lightly on the shoulder. The older woman jerked as if bitten by a snake. When she looked behind her, all she saw were a pair of luminous blue eyes. Eyes that were hauntingly familiar.
"Time is on your side. Remember your heart, sister," Kynthia whispered once, then raced ahead at the sight of the familiar tree-vines of home. Gabrielle sat for a minute, watching Kynthia and Enyo growing distant in the darkness. She looked up at the sky and the stars that shimmered distantly above her. A tear dripped off her chin, into the forest below.
This is a hell of a first step, Xena. I hope you're happy and in my dreams tonight for a change, because I could certainly use the company, Gabrielle thought as she swung away from her perch, buoyed by the trace odor of leather.
When she arrived at the village a weary day later, she was taken to a private hut, then given a worn, but comfortable shift to wear. The bed was broken in and thin, but Gabrielle could care less. She had a dream date and she didn't want to keep anyone waiting. Sleep came a heartbeat later as her legs began to pulse with fatigue.
Morning was sudden and late coming. The Royal Guard woke up Gabrielle with little more than a knock and a command from the Regent to dress quickly for an audience. As Gabrielle worked the last strap of her leather jerkin, two Royal Guards came in and stood on either side of the door. Ephiny came in a beat later and closed the door. Gabrielle looked up, rubbing her eyes as she bowed with respect. "Regent."
"Gabrielle." She returned the bow. "I didn't think you would do it, but you've returned the Amazons to us. How many were in the prison originally?"
"Seventy to seventy-five. How are the casualties?"
Ephiny frowned. "Twenty lost last night, some will pass on today, but for the most part." She tried to keep her voice cold and matter-of-fact. "The losses were acceptable."
Gabrielle nodded. "The story of my life -- acceptable losses. How are Kynthia and Enyo?"
"Artemis be praised, the two of them weren't injured. Enyo is sleeping soundly and Kynthia is in the temple, offering prayers to the dead. She's not going to be doing much else for a while." Ephiny shuffled nervously on her feet. "I have some other business to take care of, so I'm just going to give you this with the reluctant thanks of the Nation. A compromise between our past and the dictates of our Goddess." She pressed a leather pouch into Gabrielle's hands. "And this." She stepped close, holding her tightly. "We have some supplies waiting for you at the southern border. There are few troops there, so it would be best for you just to lay low for a while, but don't be a stranger, agreed?"
Gabrielle smiled and squeezed the back of Ephiny's neck gently. "Just promise to use only the bird hunting arrows on me next time." The two of them parted, then caught each others eyes. They were ripe with further feelings, ones best shared completely alone, but that time was not now.
"Farewell, Gabrielle." Ephiny smiled and walked out quickly. Gabrielle watched her walk out.
"Farewell, Ephiny," she said softly. Looking down at her hands, she opened the leather pouch.
In it was a necklace of beads in Artemis' colors -- silver, green and brown -- and in the middle was a small silver plate. Etched into it was the upturned crescent and rearing stag. As Gabrielle rubbed the silver, she noticed two red beads on either side of the silver tab. She sniffled once, then slipped the necklace on over her head. This necklace was more payment than she felt she deserved and she was going to live up to the honor.
She wore the necklace of the Amazon cousin. Not a full-blooded Amazon, but one that was as trusted and respected as any other Amazon villager. Gabrielle rolled one of the red beads between her thumb and forefinger. She whispered thanks to whomever was listening.
Red was the hero's color.