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Love's Test by Wolfsword 

Chapter Ten

Gabrielle sat by the pallet, looking at the pale face of the Northern Amazon Queen. She felt the burden of shame that she had been the cause for the woman's condition, and she lowered her head in a sign of respect.

"Queen Gabrielle?" Gabrielle looked up again and into the face of the young Amazon, Tamzin.

"Hey kid, how are you holding up?"

Tamzin looked into the normally cheerful face of her Queen, seeing the slightly haunted look in her clear, green eyes. "Fine, your Highness. Thank you for asking. Are you ok? I heard from Ephiny that you had a head injury. I hope those Northern scum didn't hurt you too bad."

"Yes, thank you. Jian told me there wasn't any permanent damage, just a little swelling. She bandaged it up nicely, see?" 

Gabrielle looked down again at the unconscious woman, wondering how to explain the situation to the teenager. She looked around the food hut. After the warriors had left, Gabrielle had seen to it that the gates had been barred and small watch teams set up from the Amazons who had nearly completed their training. Then she had brought everyone who was left in the compound into the largest hut they had, to keep them all together; the Food Hut. The injured had all been brought into a corner, the healers seeing to each patient individually. The few elderly Amazons that were still alive were sitting at tables, scores of younger children around them, listening to tales of their youth and stories of valiant battles. Gabrielle smiled to herself at the sight of the two generations, one learning all they could from the other, and one reliving their youth once again through the eyes of the children. She turned back to the young blonde headed girl. 

"Have you all been told what has happened?" Gabrielle inquired.

"Um, only that the Northern Amazons have decided to attack us. The Captains and Regent Ephiny didn't really explain much," replied the girl, quietly. "I think they were too busy getting the traps prepared."

"Oh. I see," said Gabrielle, slightly worried that the mistrust between the two tribes might spill over into the next generation and create more problems. She had to nip this in the bud. "Tamzin, you have to know that the Northern Amazons aren't to blame for all this."

The girl's grey eyes focussed curiously on Gabrielle. "They kidnapped you and tried to kill you. Your tribe is out there, doing their best not to kill anyone, while they are moving in on us with every intention of killing us. How can you say that it's not their fault?"

Gabrielle was slightly stunned at the ferocity of this young Amazon, but she did not show it. "There's always two sides to a story, if we care to learn it. Almost always, in any dispute, each side thinks that they are in the right. It's just the same here." Gabrielle paused. "So far, they are the only ones to have taken any casualties," she said, quietly. 

Gabrielle looked at the young Queen, not much older than herself, lying motionless on the pallet. She didn't quite understand why Litala did what she did, but the look of anguish on Kaelin's face told her that the Princess had been close to the Queen and she knew in her heart that it should be her lying on that pallet  right now instead of Litala. The Northern Amazon Queen had described to her the Caledon Wars as it was later called, after the forest, which was the battleground. Litala had spoken in great detail, of the suffering, pain and brutality of the battles against the armies of the Gekkim and the Beldan. She had learnt of the way in which the exposed Amazons had been refused aid by the Southern Amazons and left to the mercy of Artemis. Litala had spoken of her bondmate, Bralia, and how she had been cut down before the, then Princess' very eyes, the day before the Amazons had turned the tide and won through. Litala had made sure that Gabrielle knew exactly why they had so much hate for the Southern Amazons. Gabrielle had never believed that Melosa would do such a thing, especially to a sister tribe, but neither did she believe that Litala was lying. She had come to the conclusion that someone had set up the Southern Amazons and tricked the Northern Amazons into hating them. Gabrielle recalled snippets of the conversation that Litala and Kaelin had had on the bridge and finally things began to make sense.

Gabrielle was brought out of her reverie by Tamzin's voice. "Maybe, but I don't see how they could ever have the right to hate us," responded Tamzin. 

Gabrielle sighed and wondered how to make the girl see the Northern Amazons' point of view. If she couldn't get through to her that they had been tricked as well, she knew she would have an even harder time convincing the other teenagers in the village. Gabrielle knew that having Tamzin understand would make a whole lot of difference, because most of the girls seemed to follow and respect this sharp, quick-witted girl.

"Tamzin, I know this will be hard for you, but I want you to remember what you felt when you learnt of your mother and sister's death."

Gabrielle saw the slight flinch as the she turned her head away from her and tightening of her jaw. "Why?" came the small voice and the bard knew that Tamzin was feeling the pain and the hurt.

"Can you imagine, if all your friends, all the warriors you know, all the Captains, had all been killed in a war?" She knew she was putting the girl through a tough test, but she had to. She saw Tamzin look at her with solemn grey eyes, powerful emotion swirling in them. "That's what happened to the Northern Amazons. There were probably many kids like you, maybe even younger, who lost their loved ones in a war they believed could have been over quickly, without so much death, had we gone to help them.." She watched as the girl's gaze turn inwards, thinking about her Queen's words, her brow furrowing slightly. 

After a while, the slim girl spoke. "So, they blame us? They want to take their revenge on us? For something that we didn't know about?" asked Tamzin.

"I'm not sure about all the details, but one thing is for sure. They sent for help, and somehow, Melosa never got the message."

"Maybe Captain Kaelin knows," said the girl, surprising Gabrielle.

"What makes you say that about Captain Kaelin?" asked the Amazon Queen, wondering at the willingness of the girl to call the grey-eyed warrior Captain.

Tamzin shrugged. "She's a Northern Amazon," she stated.

Gabrielle's eyebrows shot upwards. "How did you know? Did she tell everyone that?" Gabrielle thought that would not have been very wise, seeing as apparently, the Northern Amazons wanted to kill them.

"No. I was stabling her horse, when I saw a tattoo that looked like a crescent moon on the back leg of the mount. I remembered seeing it on another horse, in a village not far from here where we were on a trading mission. The owner told me that he had stolen it from a Northern Amazon. He boasted that the Amazon had been royalty, but I just ignored him. I'm thinking now, that maybe he wasn't lying after all."

"What makes you say that?" 

"That." Gabrielle looked to where the girl was pointing. On Litala's right shoulder was a small tattoo of a crescent moon.

Gabrielle couldn't help showing her surprise at the girl's talented perceptiveness, then she smiled at her. "Maybe your Captain has a few more surprises up her sleeve for us in the future. But we'll see." Tamzin smiled back, her youthful face emphasized. 

"Kaelin... was always a challenge to... figure out," said a weak voice, laughing a little, only to start violently coughing. Tamzin and Gabrielle looked to Litala worriedly, as she calmed down. "Shrouded in mystery," she whispered, her eyes still closed. She slowly opened them, focusing on Gabrielle. "Brali?" she breathed, her eyes going wide and she reached up feebly, laying a hand on Gabrielle's arm.

"No," said the blonde woman said gently. "It's me, Gabrielle."

"Oh," replied the woman, releasing her arm in disappointment and closed her eyes again. "Gabrielle, yes. I remember. It's just... you... look so much... like her."

Gabrielle couldn't help it, and she took the frail woman's hand in her own. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. "For everything. All the pain you had to bear, I'm... sorry." Gabrielle could think of no other words to express her feelings.

"Forgiven... all.. forgiven," responded Litala in a quiet voice. "I'll... be with her... soon."

Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "You saved my life. You.. didn't have to," she said, a look of sorrow passing over her face.

"Yes.. I did. I... couldn't let her... kill you. It wouldn't have been.. right." Litala's face scrunched up, as a spasm of pain racked her body. 

Gabrielle smoothed down the woman's sweat soaked hair. "Thank you," she said, the words barely audible as Litala fell into a deep sleep again.

"She was a true Amazon in every way," spoke Tamzin, who had witnessed the whole scene and was now making sense of it in her own head.

"Yes, she was," Gabrielle replied, tears threatening to spill from her eyes. She wondered again at the insight that this girl had.

Suddenly, their conversation was interrupted by one of the young watchers that was on shift. She came running into the food hut, calling for the Queen. Both Tamzin and Gabrielle stood up and waved her over.

"Delia! What's wrong?" asked Tamzin, concerned for her friend and moving towards her as she came rushing towards them.

"The... the... Northern Amazons! They're..." she was cut off abruptly by a horrendous crash that echoed around the village. "They've got a tree trunk, and they're ramming the gates down. We counted around fifty, but there were more approaching from behind, so it's more like seventy. Most are on horseback!" Delia managed to finish.

At this point, the Food Hut was in turmoil, the youngest members of the tribe trying to run outside to see what the fuss was about and the older generation trying in vain to grab them and keep them inside. Gabrielle looked around in alarm as the hut seemed to turn to chaos in a matter of seconds. She did the only thing she could, and jumped onto a table and whistled for everyone's attention. Everyone turned to stare at their Queen, seeking guidance. In that moment, she realised that these people needed a leader. She took a deep breath and began shouting orders.

"I want everyone to over turn the tables, we're going to create a barricade around the middle of this hut. Quickly! Bring the injured into the middle of the floor gently! You!" she said, pointing at a group of girls standing nearest to the door. "Run and get the sacks of bows, arrows and swords from the Weapons hut, and bring them here. Go now!" She didn't watch them as they sprinted out the door, but knelt down to where Tamzin was tugging at her skirt. 

"Let my group have our sections. There's forty of us. We've trained for this sort of thing before, and we can wield our weapons almost as good as any experienced Amazon," pleaded the young girl. 

A flicker of doubt passed over the Queen's face. She couldn't send out mere children to face those hardened warriors, especially since they were on horses. They'd be butchered before they knew it. She opened her mouth to deny the request, but before she could say anything, Tamzin spoke again.

"Please, Queen Gabrielle. We are your last line of defence. If we stay here, we'll be slaughtered anyway. At least let us try!" Tamzin's intense gaze bored into Gabrielle's green eyes, as another tremendous roar came from the gates. Gabrielle jumped off the table as two girls grabbed the edges to overturn it and add it to the makeshift fortifications inside the hut. She made up her mind, and put her hand on Tamzin's shoulder as the group of girls carrying the weapon sacks came running in.

"Okay. Take them and the weapons. Leave the bows and arrows for here. But be careful, Tamzin. I'll be out there soon." The girl reached up and squeezed Gabrielle's hand in reassurance then turned and shot off to the doorway, shouting for various members of her group. In turn, they yelled for their own people and soon the hut was half empty.  Gabrielle let out a long breath and ran over to the sack of bows and crossbows. Quickly, she called the twenty or so elders over, who had now finished putting the children into the barricade. To each she gave a bow and several arrows and ordered them to bar the doors after her.

"Defend them with your lives," she stated needlessly, as she tore out of the door, towards the Royal Hut, to retrieve her staff she knew would be in there, as another crash sounded. 

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Ranin closed her eyes as the third crash reverberated around the forest, feeling her horse trembling at the sound. She was supervising the Amazons on the ground, using the large tree trunk as a battering ram.

"Back!" she ordered, as she saw the Amazons heaved the trunk backwards. When it was drawn back a body length, she gave the signal to ram again, the Amazons charging forward with all their might. Still the gates held, but a thin crack could now be seen in the solid wood.

"Change over!" she yelled, as ten others came running to replace their tired comrades. They repeated the process again.

Ranin looked back over her command. Scores of Amazons wound their way along the forest path, and Ranin again felt the heavy burden of shame weigh down on her shoulders. Could she really do this? she wondered. Was it right? She looked to her left at the slightly hunched figure of Tanva, sitting a top her mount, looking distinctly uncomfortable and wondered again why she had come back and been allowed back into the village. She was hated by most, but Queen Litala had seemed to listen to what the woman said to her. Ranin didn't want to think about the possibility that Tanva had put this thought into Litala's mind and the situation that she was in now was because of that traitor. She was shaken out of her thoughts as the groaning gates finally gave way and toppled into the village. It was accompanied by whoops and cries from the Northern Amazons. Ranin sat silently, staring at the silent, empty compound. As Captain, it was her right to cross the village perimeter first and lead the attack, but suddenly, she found herself frozen and unable to move.

"Hey," hissed a voice to her left, and she turned her head to meet Tanva's fiery gaze. "What are you waiting for?"

Ranin shook herself and drew her sword and tapped her mounts flanks, breaking into a canter. The Amazons roared and as one they charged into the empty compound. The whole place was eerily still and the horses jittered around uneasily under their riders. The Amazons had expected to be met with some sort of resistance, but as it was, nothing stirred. Ranin, turned her horse in circles, looking this way and that for signs of life. Suddenly, about ten paces in front of her, she spotted a line of Amazons. In the distant background, she saw a long rectanglular hut, a few older looking Amazons peeking out of small windows, crossbows in hand. In the middle, and a little in front of the line, stood the small, blonde woman that Ranin remembered from the cave. Queen Gabrielle. Ranin lifted her arm to stop an attack of her warriors, as she looked at them. They just seemed to be standing there, not moving towards them, or running away. She looked closer, and immediately realised that the ten Amazons standing behind the Queen were not even of age. They were kids! In that instant, she made her decision and shoved her sword back into her scabbard. She turned her horse around to face her Amazons.

"There's been a change of plan! Sheath your weapons, my sisters. The time for blood has not yet come! Let..." Ranin was not allowed to finish as Tanva let out a primal scream.

"NO! I will have my vengeance! Come, my faithful sisters, we will finish this ourselves!" she yelled, drawing a short sword and stabbing the air.

The rest of the Amazons looked to each other in momentary confusion, as some thirty riders pushed their way to the front to follow Tanva, who had begun to charge towards the distant line of young Amazons. The hatred that each of them had, twisted their faces into masks of fury. 

"Stop!"

All the Northern Amazons waiting inside the gates turned in surprise as they saw their Weapons master and Princess charging down the forest trail towards them at lightening speed, many other Amazons following them. Ranin was shocked to see that they were a mixture of both tribes, all running along side one another. Kaelin, followed swiftly by Milika, ran between the ranks of the Amazon Riders, coming to stand beside the Captain of the Guard, who looked down questioningly at her Princess. 

"Don't... Don't let them attack!" she gasped, reaching out to steady herself against the mount's flanks. "Mistake..." She looked up and her smoke grey eyes had filled with desperation.

Ranin raked her gaze over the Amazons still looking uncertain of what to do, making eye contact with the front few and sending a silent word that they were not to attack. Ranin pulled on her reins, turning her horse about to follow the renegade Amazons and try and stop them. She got halfway across the compound before she saw the group of horses in front of her pitch to the ground, throwing their riders. She dragged on her reins to halt her mount, just in time to see the ground littered with small, round pebbles. The stones had caught the riders ahead, off guard and the horses had been galloping at full speed, not seeing the uneven ground before it was too late. Ranin looked up, as she heard a cry of attack come from the surrounding buildings and her face registered her shock, as groups of teenagers came pouring into the compound, intent on defending their village. Suddenly, the peaceful stillness of the ground in front of her, was shattered by the sounds of battle as the renegade Amazons stood and drew their swords, while the youngsters charged towards them. Ranin sat in shock, unable to prevent the two sets of Amazons from fighting. Clouds of dust filled the air so thickly that the Amazon Captain had to cover her mouth to keep from choking. Her vision of the battle was obscured totally, as she realised that in her heart, she was screaming for the children to cut down her own Amazons.

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Artemis, help us, Gabrielle thought, she she watched the gates being destroyed. Their swiftly devised plan of defence had taken only a few minutes to set up, and Gabrielle could feel the rising panic in her chest. She quelled it, knowing that she had to remain strong for the young Amazons around her. She looked to her left and right, seeing the frightened faces of the youngest girls standing in a line. Twisting her head, she spotted the elder Amazons, holding their cross bows through the windows, ready to kill any Northern Amazons who got past the defence and nodded at them in approval. Turning back to the gates, she wiped her forehead with her arm as the gates finally gave in to the punishing abuse and crashed into the ground. She gripped her staff tightly, smiling grimly at Tamzin, who was hidden with a few others beside a building in front. Gabrielle felt her heartbeat pick up as she saw the huge, overwhelming numbers of Northern Amazons on horseback swarm into the village. All of them easily fitted into the compound, as she saw the Captain search the village with her eyes for them and then spotting them. Time seemed to stand still as the Queen and Captain locked gazes. Then, she saw the brown haired Amazon sheath her sword and turn to face her army. All the young Amazons turned to Gabrielle, confusion clear in their eyes, but just then a group broke free of the main army and came charging towards them, at full speed. We're going to have a battle after all, Gabrielle thought grimly. 

As the riders came closer, Gabrielle lifted her staff high in the air, judging the distance. Then, in one smooth motion, she brought the end of it down into the ground. At the signal, a two volleys of pebbles swept into the air, one from the left and one from the right, meeting in the middle, right into the path of the oncoming horses. At the speed they were travelling at, the riders could not control the horses and all of them came crashing to the ground in a heap. Quickly, she gave the signal to charge, and Tamzin's small militia came streaming out of the buildings at the side, Gabrielle and her section following suit. The Northern Amazons had, by now, risen and had formed a tight circle and were ready for the attack. Thick puffs of dust swirled around them, and Gabrielle was aware of the clashing of swords from all around her. All the Amazons were now fighting all over the compound, the circle of Northern Amazons having been broken. There were screams of pain, and she saw many patches of blood soaking into the ground. It was all surreal to the Queen, and her body seemed to have disconnected from her body, fighting with her staff in a dazed frenzy. 

A tall Amazon came rushing towards her, hacking and slashing. She parried with the end of her staff and brought the other side up to crack against the side of her attacker's head. She brought her staff around again, sweeping the Amazon's legs out from under her. Turning her head, she saw another one behind her. She waited until the last possible moment, before swiftly side-stepping and bringing her staff out trip the Amazon. The red-headed Amazon went flying to the ground, her sword accidentally piercing the body of the first Amazon that Gabrielle had felled. The Queen had no time to think it over, as another large Amazon advanced towards her. She blocked the first two strikes from her, but she could not move out of the way quickly enough and a fist went crashing into her jaw, spinning her to the floor. Her staff went flying out of her hands, landing a few paces away and out of her reach. She looked up quickly, seeing that the Amazon was about to finish her off. Just as Gabrielle thought she was going to die, a lithe body came soaring through the air, grabbing the Amazon around the waist and throwing them both to the ground next to Gabrielle. The Queen rolled away, picking up her staff and standing, then moving quickly towards Tamzin, who was still grappling with the much larger woman on the ground. The heavier woman had pinned the girl to the floor and Gabrielle swept the end of the staff down on the big Amazon's head as hard as she could, hearing a sickening crack, as something broke. She collapsed instantly on top of the girl, who shoved her off, disgustedly. As the woman rolled over, Gabrielle recognised her as the woman who had slapped her, back in the cave. Tamzin stood, sweeping up her weapon and running back into the fray, looking back quickly, a look of thanks passing between the two. 

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Continued... Chapter Eleven

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