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Love's Test by Wolfsword 

Chapter Eleven

"What's happening?" called Ephiny to Xena as they met at a fork in the path. They didn't miss a stride as each of their sections following them, merged together to form an even larger group.

"They've attacked the main village," shouted Xena, distress evident in her voice.

"Xena!" They turned their heads to another branch of the path, seeing Eponin running towards them, another large group of Amazons running behind her. "It's bad. We heard them ramming the gates down. I think they're in already," she panted, as she altered her course along the trail.

The Amazons coming after her, joined the ranks of women behind the three Captains. As they ate up the distance to the village, they picked up Solari along the way and by the time they had reached the smashed up gates, they had a colossal number of Amazons following in their wake. The Riders at the gate quickly scattered as they saw them approaching, making way for them or risk being trampled down by the onslaught. Their eyes widened as they saw their own Captains at the front of the enormous army, sprinting alongside the Southern Captains. Even more astonishing was the company behind them, as wave after wave of their own Northern Amazons and their enemies, the Southern Amazons came gushing into the village. Some nearly fell out of their saddles in shock as they saw many Southern Amazons helping the injured members of their own tribe enter the gates, all of them with treatable wounds at the rear of the company. It was a sight that none of them would forget. There had to have been around four hundred Amazons there all together in the compound and as one, all the women were still as four hundred pairs of eyes were now trained on the cloud of dust that was settling.

As their view of the battle became clearer, they saw bodies covering the ground and some even turned their heads away, not wanting to see the sight of the massacre before them. Their hearts screamed what they had only whispered before, that they could not fight their own sisters. It was like drawing their own blood and only now, they could taste the bitter feeling as they saw the dead bodies of Amazons strewn across the compound. On her horse, Callie, the girl who had been against the attack, suddenly threw her sword to the ground in total disgust. Rita stared at her best friend, then as if a light had been lit in her eyes, threw her own sword down. One by one, each Rider followed suit, their expressions determined as they sat, proudly on their mounts. It was deathly silent in the village, no one knowing what to do. 

Kaelin, had found a mount, and tapped her heels into its flanks. Xena, who had also mounted a horse, followed her friend. They rode slowly, as if in a dream, as they made their way towards the carnage. Their horses moved carefully, avoiding the treacherous rocks on the ground. Still, no one else moved. Kaelin turned her head, left and right, moving through the middle of the battle. Silent tears were streaming down her cheeks as she saw the corpses of young teenagers, cut down in the fight. She saw the bodies of the Northern Amazons, limbs hewn from their torsos. She closed her eyes, to try and block out the pictures, but her mind wouldn't release her, and she could still see them, in her mind's eye. The blood, the pain, the horror, the death. It was almost too much for her to bear. Suddenly, an image of Tanva's sneering face speared into Kaelin's mind and her eyes snapped open, determination clear in them. She searched with her eyes for Tanva's body, but she could not see it. Then she saw a movement in the corner of her eye. A young girl was on her hands and knees, attempting to stand, only to fall weakly back to the ground again. She saw another girl, this time on her knees, her hands over her eyes and weeping. Yet another was cradling her friend's dead body in her arms, rocking back and forth. 

Xena also could not believe her eyes. It was a totally different experience to see a battlefield full of dead soldiers and the sight of the lifeless bodies of the young women shook Xena to her core. Her eyes swept the ground for one person. The one closest to her heart. Her soulmate, her Gabrielle. Then she saw a still figure, her blonde hair covering her face, blood pooling around her and Xena knew it was her. Without even halting her mount, she vaulted off and ran at full speed towards her love. 

Kaelin wheeled her horse around and lifted her hand up to the company behind her. "Bring help! Some are alive! Quickly!" she shouted. As she yelled, it seemed to break the spell that hung over the army and she saw a group of Amazons come running over, some on horseback to aid the wounded. They slowed as they neared the bloodbath, their eyes taking in the gruesome detail up close. The sight was overwhelming, and many of them couldn't help but start crying at the pointless bloodshed. Still, they moved through the bodies, check each one for signs of life. Anguished cries could be heard from all of them, as they came across the young Amazons that they had known. Kaelin blocked them all out, as she continued her search for Tanva. 

In the corner of her vision, she spotted a figure, crawling behind a hut. She looked to the ground, seeing the trail of blood, indicating that she was wounded. Swinging into action, she galloped towards the hut, her anger burning in her eyes. She quickly saw the pathetic form of Tanva on her hands and knees, attempting to avoid being seen. Kaelin screamed as she sighted her, and kicked her horse into a faster gait. She swept the woman on to the front of her horse from the ground, her torso hanging over the saddle, as Kaelin turned, and started back towards the Amazons, who had been ordered to stay where they were by their Captains. 

Kaelin stopped a few lengths from the throng of Amazons. In an impossible display of strength, fuelled by her fury, she hauled Tanva's body out to the side of her horse, her legs dangling in mid air. The muscles in Kaelin's arms stood out in the blue moonlight. 

"This... is your enemy!" cried Kaelin, her voice carrying through the whole village. "She has wounded Litala... fatally!" 

A murmur of disquiet ran through the crowd. It was from the Northern Amazons, who were confused since they had been told by Tanva that Litala was dead, by the hands of the Southern Regent. 

"That's right... Right now, Litala lies dying from a wound inflicted by this... harlot!" Kaelin dropped Tanva to the ground in a heap, as if the mere touch of the woman made her sick. "Our sisters lie dead over there..." Kaelin swept her arm behind her at the remains of the battle. "... because of her!" Kaelin took a deep breath to calm herself. "I will tell you now.. the truth of why she was banished from our lands!" She paused again, looking over the faces of the Northern Amazons in the crowd. "She tried to murder Cyane! But because of an oath that the Queen had taken, she was bound to keep Tanva alive! Tanva was allowed to go free, but to keep away from us! It was a mistake, we all know that now, but we can't change the past." Kaelin looked down, ashamed.

"You... you pathetic piece of harpy droppings! You made do those things! You gave her the idea of banishing me! You drove me into the arms of those men! You made me kill Cyane, Dana and Kilda! You should have died as well!" shrieked Tanva, who was still cowering on the ground.

Kaelin stared at Tanva. "So... you admit that you were responsible for the Caledon Wars and the landslide that killed all but two of the Royals!" she exclaimed. 

Tanva's eyes burned with fury at the realisation that she had been tricked and had just condemned herself. "I hate you, Kaelin," she spat. "Litala deserved to die!" she added, knowing it would be useless to deny it any longer. 

Kaelin half drew one of her swords, and it looked for a second that she was going to kill Tanva there and then. But she didn't, and she shoved her sword back into its scabbard. "No, you won't get off that easily. You will be tried and found guilty, like you should have been done five years ago!" Kaelin stated, pointing a finger at the wretched woman. "Get this piece of offal out of my sight," she ordered. 

Two Amazons came and each took one arm, dragging the screaming woman towards the Prison. Kaelin noted that one was Northern and one was Southern and she wondered briefly if the tribes would emerge stronger than before, after this event. She glanced over the faces of the Amazons in front of her and sighed quietly to herself.

"I know, all of you will have many questions that you will want answering before this night has passed. But I ask you, wait a few hours until order is restored to this village." Kaelin turned her head to the night sky and back down to the crowd. "Besides, explanations and sorrows are usually reserved for the morning star, wouldn't you agree?" The Amazons knew that Kaelin was not really asking, but they answered anyway, a shout of a mixture of Yes Captain and Princess being heard. Kaelin nodded to herself as she turned to go once more to the battle ground and face the horror again. She saw the small group of Amazons bearing stretchers and taking the wounded into the Healer's Hut and the piling the dead to one side. Turning her head sideways, she spoke to her Captains. "Send another group to help them, Amazons with rational minds and stout hearts. Keep everyone else away from the scene, understand?" Kaelin knew that she could very well have another fight on her hands if any hot-headed Amazons couldn't take the sight.

"Princess?!" called a voice. Kaelin stopped and turned her head in the direction of the voice. "Princess, may I ask one question?" Kaelin nodded silently, looking into the face of the young girl, Callie. "Where is Queen Litala?" 

A moment passed before Kaelin answered the girl. "She's here and she is alive," she finally said. "But for how long, no one can say," she added as she pulled on the reins and galloped back the way she had come.

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Kaelin enter the long hut, immediately detecting the smell of blood inside the Healer's Hut. She closed her eyes briefly as the horrific images came flashing into her mind again. Gritting her teeth, she carried on walking down the middle of the hut, seeing rows of pallets lining the walls. In all, only thirteen of the forty teenagers had survived and all of the thirty or so Northern Amazons had perished in the battle. Kaelin wondered if that was a good thing, remembering that she had been told that it had been all of Raska's clique that had disobeyed Ranin's order to halt the attack. They had always caused friction in the tribe. Kaelin shook her head. No, even so, they still didn't deserve to die that way, she thought. Kaelin had spent the last candlemark organising the Northern and Southern Amazons into groups, mingling them together to perform tasks to keep them occupied. Most she had sent to clear up the forest of traps and some to repair the gates. She was slightly surprised at the willingness of all the Amazons to carry out her instructions. Kaelin had ordered several mass pyres built, and a mass grave be dug for the Northern Amazons. As far as she was concerned, they did not deserve access to the Amazon Land of the Dead. She stopped at the side of all the conscious patients, enquiring about them and gathering bits of information about what had occurred. Eventually, she got to the back of the hut, where a small section had been cordoned off for the two injured Queens. She took a deep breath, before brushing aside the curtains and stepping into the private area.

She saw the two beds, against the wall, atop each was a still figure of a blonde woman. Xena was sitting beside one, her head bowed and holding the hand of the Southern Amazon Queen. She looked up as Kaelin entered, and the grey-eyed warrior saw the red rims around her friend's eyes that showed she had been crying.

"How is she?" asked Kaelin, softly.

Xena looked back at Gabrielle, swallowing hard. "Not good," she replied, her voice breaking. "She won't take down any herbs, just spits it back out. She hasn't gained consciousness yet," Xena sighed. "She had several deep cuts and I think there may be internal damage in her head. But it's too early to tell."

Kaelin nodded as she came to sit by Litala, looking tenderly at her own Queen. She stoked Litala's hair, as the woman stirred uneasily in her sleep. Silence reigned for some time as the two warriors were lost in their own thoughts. Neither minded since it was probably the first time they had sat like that in a long time, finding comfort in each other's quiet company. Finally, Xena broke the silence.

"Kae, were you... close to Litala?"

"Yes, how could I not be?" Kaelin snorted softly. "I was family." Suddenly, Kaelin's face twisted in pain. "Everything I love dies because of me," she whispered.

"Don't think like that, Kaelin," replied Xena, as she caught the mumbled words. "This wasn't your fault. Nothing you could have done could have prevented this. It was just fate."

"No, I should have killed Tanva when I had the chance. But I let her go, twice. And now... now this," Kaelin couldn't finish.

"Kaelin, you listen to me. Don't blame yourself. This... was all Tanva's doing, and if you let her ruin your life, then she would have won, you get me Kaelin?"

Kaelin didn't answer, a tear making its way down her cheek as she caressed Litala's face. "I'm sorry I failed you," she breathed.

"Don't be... you didn't." came a faint voice. Kaelin looked into the soft brown eyes of the Queen. "Xena's right, you can't... let Tanva win. Be... strong... for the Nation."

Kaelin looked pleadingly into Litala's eyes. "I, I can't do this," she admitted.

"Yes you can... you must." Kaelin swallowed. "You... are the one to lead our Amazons... to... peace." Litala lapsed into silence again. Kaelin stared out the window at the approaching dawn, thinking about Litala's words. She looked down again as Litala began speaking again. "I... can see them. I can... see Mother, Cyane and Dana and Kilda. And.. Brali." Litala smiled as she stared through Kaelin, seeing the ghosts of her family. Kaelin bowed her head and wept, knowing that the time was close. "Kilda.. is saying something to.. you. She.. says... Never doubt your... love. You are...the music.. of my.. heart, Kaelin." The grey eyed warrior's head shot up, only to see Litala's life force depart from her eyes.

"NO!" shouted Kaelin, but she was too late. Queen Litala was dead. Kaelin turned her grief-filled eyes to the window, as the first rays of sunlight speared through, hitting the pallet Litala was lying on.

Kaelin felt a warm arms encircle her shoulders as she mourned the passing of her Queen and friend. She turned away from her dead body, burying her face in her chest of the person behind her, taking in the sweet scent of trees, whispering the word "No" over and over again as she fought for control. She felt herself being swayed gently, her hair being stroked tenderly as words of comfort were whispered into her ear. Images of her life went flashing through her mind. She stayed like that for a long time, feeling safe and secure like she had never felt before. Finally, she looked up into the face of her tender carer, only slightly surprised when she saw the caramel eyes of Ephiny looking back at her.

"Thank you," she whispered, feeling a strange sense of loss as she parted from their embrace.

"Anytime," came the reply.

They gazed into each other's eyes for a second longer, before Kaelin stood, a little embarrassed by her display of weakness. She glanced over at Xena and Gabrielle, laying a gentle hand on her friend's shoulder. "She'll pull through. She has to. We've had enough death today."

Xena reached up to grip Kaelin's hand and turned to look at her. "I'm sorry," she said.

Kaelin only nodded then turned to look at Ephiny. "Will you come with me? I promised them an explanation as the morning star appeared. I could use some support."

"Sure," she replied, walking towards the grieving warrior. They turned and walked through the curtains leaving Xena to watch over Gabrielle.

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In the harsh light of the morning sun, all the Amazons were gathered in the compound again, listening to Kaelin retell the whole tale, leaving nothing out. Ephiny stood by Kaelin's side, showing the unity of the tribes. When she finished, the quiet crowd had erupted into noise, as all of them turned to their friends to discuss the story. Kaelin held up her hands for quiet again.

"My Amazons, it is with sorrow, grief and heartache, that I must tell you now." Kaelin waited until she had utter silence, composing herself as well. "Queen Litala... is with her family now. She passed as the morning rays touched her face." Cries of hurt and disbelief could be heard as the news sunk in. Kaelin bowed her head in respect, listening to the silence interspersed with quiet sobs. After several moments a voice rung out.

"Princess Kaelin! Will you be taking you rightful place as Queen?"

Kaelin glanced up and searched the crowd for the owner of the voice, finally settling on her old friend Kalla. 

"If it is what the tribe wants," replied Kaelin.

"If I may be so bold, Princess, I spoke with Queen Litala before she... passed away. She expressed her dying wish, for you to take her Mask of Queen," Kalla said, making sure her voice was heard.

"I can vouch that. She said that also to me," agreed another voice, this time from near the back, belonging to Milika, the Weapons master.

"You cannot refuse the request of the dying Queen!" 

"You are the rightful heir!"

"The Queen's Mask is yours!"

Kaelin held up her hand again as the crowd erupt into sound again. "I will accept, only if the tribe agrees. " She looked over the Amazons. "Do you wish for me to take the Queen's Mask?" 

"YES!" came the roar of approval.

So be it, Kaelin thought to herself. She took a deep breath and began to speak again.

"The passing of our loved ones, our sisters, will mark the beginning of a new era for our tribes. One of harmony and peace. Together, we are a Nation, strong and proud, but apart, we will wither and die. The choice is yours, my sisters. You can choose to forget the past mistakes, the hurt that we have caused each other and join together to create a new tribe. Or you can choose to remain as we once were, fighting and killing, and eventually, one tribe will win out, annihilating the other. This is not a choice that any Council of Elders or your Queens can make, only yourselves. Unity, or Independence. But know this, our sisters deaths will have been in vain if nothing good comes of it. Think on it is all I ask." Kaelin and Ephiny turned to step off the dais, but they were stopped dead in their tracks by a voice crying out from the doorway of the Healers Hut. Kaelin stared at the figure of Gabrielle, leaning heavily on Xena. 

"Unity! Unity!" Immediately, the rest of the Amazons took up the chant. Ephiny looked in utter shock to Kaelin, who was scanning the crowd in disbelief. The chanting was getting louder, and the Amazons began punching the air with their fists in time.  Kaelin's eyes met Gabrielle's in understanding as the two Queens smiled at each other, as Xena steered Gabrielle back into the hut and back to the pallet. Kaelin turned to the still stunned Regent standing next to her, then in a moment of impulse, she grabbed her hand in her own, and lifted it high to the crowd. The throng of Amazons responded with an even louder roar, cheering and whooping, banishing the memories of the previous years into the corners of their minds. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xena listened to the shouts coming from outside through the window. Despite the horrors of the day, she felt better as she heard the beginnings of peace between the two tribes. She looked over at the still form of Litala, her body growing colder by the second and she felt the wave of sorrow wash over her. The price of peace? she wondered. She thought about the young Amazons, all of whom had not even earned their Warrior's Mask, and how they had died for a cause, nobler than many. She looked back to the now sleeping form of her love, relief sweeping through her again. 

After Kaelin and Ephiny had left, she had moved onto the pallet to be closer to the blonde haired woman, holding her close to her heart. The passing of Litala had been more of a reality for Xena, as she realised that Gabrielle could very well be next. She had kissed the bard's hot forehead, willing her to regain consciousness and look into her eyes again. Closing her eyes tightly, she had prayed that Gabrielle would be alright. She had known many soldiers that had died from a blow to the head, and many more who stayed sleeping for days, eventually dying and never to wake. Xena knew it was something to do with the brain not being able to repair the damage, and she felt powerless to do anything. 

Then, she had felt a warm hand on her cheek and she didn't dare open her eyes in case the dream faded and she would be left with the ghost of the touch. A tear had spilled from her eye as the hand began to caress her face gently. Gabrielle, please come back to me, she had pleaded. 

"Xena?" a soft voice had whispered. Xena had turned her face towards the soft flesh, kissing the palm of her hand.

"Gabrielle, is it you?" she had mumbled, not wanting the dream to end.

"Xena, open your eyes. Yes, its me, baby." Blue orbs had emerged from her closed eyes as her breath caught in her throat. Clear emerald eyes had gazed back at her, filled with love and adoration. 

"I love you so much. I need you to know that if ever... if ever anything happens," Xena had said, softly. 

"I love you more than life itself, Xena. I just never had the courage to tell you. I thought... I thought you didn't feel the same way. And I couldn't bear it if you left me," Gabrielle had admitted, not breaking their gaze.

"I was scared too. I wasn't willing to make the first move, because I thought you would hate me."

"How could I ever hate you?" Gabrielle had smiled, running her hand through Xena's hair. Xena had closed her eyes in bliss, loving the feelings that the Amazon Queen was creating in her. Her whole world was spinning and she had felt the gentle tug on the back of her head. Slowly, she had closed the small gap between them, and had claimed the lips of her Queen. Xena had felt herself melt into the warm mouth, sending shivers along her body to settle in between her legs. She had felt Gabrielle open her mouth slightly, inviting Xena to gently push her tongue inside. Slowly, she had explored every crevice of the Queen's mouth and she was pleasantly surprised as Gabrielle began to push back with her own tongue, forcing the play into Xena's mouth. They had broken apart, slightly breathless as they gazed into each other's eyes, expressing their love with their look. 

"How are you feeling?" Xena had asked, innocently, remembering that Gabrielle had only just woken from an unconscious state. 

That had resulted in Gabrielle laughing wholeheartedly, replying, "Hm, I think I have a fever raging, but otherwise I'm fine." Xena had laughed along with her love, relishing the moment.

Then they had heard Kaelin, talking about the unity of their tribes and Gabrielle had looked at Xena. "Help me up. I have to show my support." Xena had frowned, not liking the idea of Gabrielle moving around so soon after she had woken. "It's only for a short time," Gabrielle had argued, seeing the hesitancy on her partner's face. The denial had died on Xena's lips, as she had removed herself from Gabrielle's side and then had helped her to stand. They had made their way through the hut, seeing the faces of the others lying in their pallets light up at the sight of their Queen walking. They made it to the doorway, just as Kaelin was finishing her speech and Gabrielle couldn't help crying out her agreement. She didn't expect the reaction from the crowd that she got and as Kaelin smiled at her, she returned it with the knowledge that it had been the right thing to do.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Continued... Chapter Twelve

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