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Love's Test by Wolfsword 

Chapter Thirteen

Kaelin stormed into her hut, slamming the door behind her and reaching for her lyre to throw it onto the pallet, where her swords were. She quickly realised it must have dropped from her belt, because she didn't have it. She stood for a few minutes, with her hands on her hips, thinking. Xena found her like that as she opened the door cautiously. She had knocked once already, but received no reply. The door slam had carried over to the Royal Hut, and Gabrielle had asked Xena to go over and see what was wrong. As much as she didn't want to leave the bard's side, she had seen Kaelin's posture as she swept past, and she knew she was the only one who could calm her down..

"Kae?" Kaelin spun round so fast, Xena thought she would spark a fire with her boots. She could see the smoldering fury, burning in her friend's eyes and she took a breath. "Up for some quarterstaff sparring?" Xena knew what the answer would be, as Kaelin pushed past her and out of the door towards the practice field. Nope, she hasn't changed, Xena thought as she followed her friend. 

Without a word, Kaelin grabbed two staffs from the pile and tossed one to Xena over her shoulder, not even looking back. Xena caught the precise throw with her right hand and flipped it around a few times to get the feel of it. As soon as she entered the sand pit, Kaelin attacked her, but Xena had been ready for it. She parried the swing and the next two that Kaelin fired in rapid succession at her. Out of the corner of her eye, Xena saw a ring of Amazons gathering to watch Xena, Champion to the Queen of the Southern Amazons and Kaelin, Queen of the Northern Amazons fight. Oh boy, this could get ugly, she thought, grimly. 

She leaped over a blow aimed at her midriff, landing and ducking just in time to avoid the other end of Kaelin's staff. She swept her own staff along the ground, aiming to trip the grey-eyed warrior, but Kaelin jumped out of range. Xena swung the staff up around her head as it didn't make contact with Kaelin and down again in a vertical position to crack against Kaelin's head. The angry fighter had brought her stick up horizontally though and the blow was deflected away. They circled each other warily now, as the crowd around them cheered them on, but neither warrior heard them. Kaelin attacked first, moving into Xena's circle of defence, feinting a left swing, then changing direction at the speed of lightening to land a blow against Xena's right ribs. She doubled over, winded but dived to the right and rolling, narrowly missing a swipe to the face. She stood up, breathing hard, trying to get oxygen back into her lungs. 

"So.. tell me Kae, what's eating you?" she wheezed, holding her ribs gingerly with one hand.

"Nothing," replied Kaelin, moving forwards, as Xena gripped her staff with both hands again.

"Don't give me that, I know you too well." Kaelin was mad, and Xena knew it. 

She charged, swinging left and right, but none of them able to get past Xena's guard. Suddenly, Kaelin's left foot slid slightly in the soft sand, sending her off balance. Xena saw her chance and smacked her staff into Kaelin's side. She connected with Kaelin's shoulder, as the woman turned to try and avoid the blow. Kaelin rolled in the sand, wincing as she was forced to go over on her smarting shoulder. She stayed down for a second longer, as she saw Xena aim just above her, where she thought that she would stand. The stick whistled over her and Kaelin kicked it away, standing up defensively. Xena almost lost her weapon as she was caught in surprise, but managed to hold on to it with one hand. 

"Yeah well, you only think you know me," said Kaelin, carrying on their conversation, as she ducked a swing only to reply with one of her own that Xena parried. 

"Yeah, yeah. Come on, I'm all ears." Xena didn't know the truth of her words as an unexpected move allowed Kaelin to tap her on the ear. They grinned at one another, the tension easing. 

They stilled for a second, as Kaelin noticed the crowd they had pulled for the first time. "I didn't realise we were on display," she commented. She felt, more than heard the staff coming towards her and she swayed, the end of the stick missing her nose by a hair's breadth. "Oo, now that was close," she mumbled, frowning jokingly at her friend. Xena shrugged, and attacked again. 

The Amazons watching were stunned by the lightening quick reactions that each of the warriors were displaying. They knew that if any of them were in the sand pit against any one of them, they would have been on their butts by now, nursing bruises. It was a testament to their skills, and both Northern and Southern Amazons looked on in awe at their most talented fighters. 

Xena and Kaelin were trading blows on their staffs in quick succession now, as each one had now warmed up. They leaped and ducked swings with inhuman speed, as they were lost in the heat of the fight. Suddenly, over Xena's shoulder, Kaelin saw a flash of blonde curls in the distance. In that split second, she misjudged Xena's blow, and didn't bring her staff up to block the swing in time. Before Xena could stop, her staff had smashed into the side of Kaelin's face with full force, spinning the woman off her feet and into the sand. Kaelin's weapon flew over to the edge of the sand pit and a hush fell over the amazed group watching. Xena dropped her own weapon and ran over to her friend. Kaelin was out cold, and Xena wondered what had distracted the normally focussed warrior. Unexpectedly, Ephiny appeared at her side, fear apparent in her eyes.

"What happened? Is she okay?" she rushed, gently stroking Kaelin's right cheek, where a bright red mark was showing. She knew from experience that Kaelin would have a very nice bruise for at least a couple of days.

Xena looked intently at the Regent's worried face, wondering if what she saw there was what she thought it was. "Yeah, she'll be alright. She's been in worse scrapes than this," she said, easing Ephiny's fears. She turned to her fallen comrade, and slapped her gently on her face to wake her up. She was taken aback by a hand that gripped her wrist, stilling her hand. She looked up, startled into Ephiny's angry eyes. "What?"

"You don't have to hit her again, Xena," she said, clearly irritated with her.

"I wasn't..." Xena gave up, knowing that Ephiny probably wouldn't listen to her. She looked down quickly as Kaelin started mumbling unintelligible words. Her head tossed from side to side, as if in a bad dream. The dark warrior frowned as she began to make out some of the words that her friend was saying.

"Cortese no... don't hurt me... I'm sorry... please.. no it's not true... Father!" Kaelin was moving more violently now, and Xena had seen enough. She grabbed her by the shoulders, and shook her hard. When she didn't wake, she scooped her friend into her arms, taking her swiftly over to the her own Hut. Ephiny hurried after her, as she dispersed the crowd and assured them that Kaelin would be alright, calling Jian over from the Healer's Hut.

Xena laid Kaelin gently on her pallet, as Jian came over to see what was wrong. "She won't wake up, but she's talking unconsciously," explained Xena, quickly.

"Uh huh," acknowledged the Healer, as she looked over her face. "How did she get like this?"

"I.. er.. We were sparring. She lost her concentration and I hit her," replied Xena, feeling a little guilty.

"Sparring? You call this sparring? Wait, I don't want to know." Jian held up her hand as Xena was about to explain that for them, sparring was going all out with one another. Jian stilled her hand that was examining Kaelin's face, as the Northern Amazon Queen began mumbling again. Her voice sounded quiet, almost childlike. 

"I wanna go home." There was a pause as though Kaelin was speaking to someone and listening to their reply. "NO! You're lying!... My mother loved me!" cried Kaelin, thrashing about on her bed. It took Xena and Ephiny together to hold her down in case she accidentally hurt herself or someone. Jian had moved out of the way, knowing there was virtually nothing that she could do. Kaelin was lost in past memories, reliving an obviously traumatic scene and nothing but herself could release her of the nightmare. She watched curiously, as Kaelin seemed to calm down enough for Ephiny to sit on the pallet, as the Regent stroked Kaelin's injured cheek. Xena also moved away slightly, watching the scene before her. 

"Kaelin," she whispered. "Come on, honey. You gotta wake up."

Kaelin's head seemed to turn slightly towards Ephiny's hand, her eyes moving rapidly underneath her eyelids. Not knowing what else to do, Ephiny reached down and lifted her head up, hugging her close to her chest. Kaelin breathed deeply, and seemed to revive a little as she took in the scent of pine trees. 

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Kaelin opened her eyes, only to be faced with sheer rock as she realised with horror that she had awoken hanging by her fingertips on the side of a mountain. The sharp rocks were cutting into her fingers as she held on for her life. Kaelin looked down below her, seeing the bottomless black pit yawning down. Her foot slipped slightly on the treacherous mountain face, scattering a bunch of rocks downwards. She didn't hear any echo that signalled there was even an end to the inky darkness. Returning her gaze above her, she saw a dark purple sky, lightening flashing across it. It was the only source of light in the place that she was in and she felt the beginnings of rain, splashing down onto her face. 

Suddenly, she saw a face emerging from the rock face to her right. It stretched until it was protruding an arm's length out of the cliff and then twisted to look at her. Kaelin gasped as she recognised the face of her tormentor, his steely rock grey eyes that mirrored her own glaring back at her.

"I wanna go home," she heard the voice of herself as a seven year old say.

"Oh, do you now?" The sarcasm in the reply was apparent. "Now, where would that be, child? You don't have one. You don't even know who your mother is, or where you were born, do you?" the voice taunted. "The truth is, she abandoned you. You belong nowhere!" 

"NO! You're lying! My mother loved me!" she heard her voice cry, as she lost her grip on the now slippery rock and felt herself plummeting towards her death. 

The cruel laughter resounded in her ears as she fell, and she was unable to prevent herself from falling downwards as she felt hands seizing her from all sides. Then, all of a sudden, a strip of sunlight poured through a crack in the walls, touching her face. Kaelin couldn't help but turn towards it, bathing in the warmth. She no longer felt like she was falling, but drifting, gently towards the top of a forest. She landed softly on sweet grass, the smell of the trees engulfing her aching body, washing her memories away. She felt soft lips upon her forehead and she knew she was safe, slipping into a dreamless sleep.

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Kaelin slowly opened her eyes, quickly adjusting to the bright sunlight, streaming through the window. She could tell it was close to sunset, as the light shone with a twinge of orange. She struggled to remember what had happened, recalling that she had been sparring with Xena just after dawn. Her forehead creased as she wondered if she had been sleeping the whole day. Kaelin tried to sit up, only to feel an arm around her waist shift and a head of blonde curls look up at her sleepily. The shock must have shown on her face, as Ephiny quickly blinked awake, removing herself from the grey-eyed warrior's side. A tinge of red showed at the tops of her cheeks, the only proof of her embarrassed state.

"I'll erm.. just go and fetch Jian." Before Kaelin could respond, Ephiny had walked out of the door. She sighed, as she leaned back on her pallet, taking in the lingering scent of pine trees and closing her eyes again.

She quickly opened them again, as the sound of the door opening startled her. She saw Xena walk in, followed by a recovering Gabrielle and Jian. Last of all, came the Regent, avoiding Kaelin's eyes. Kaelin turned her head as a shadow fell over her and she saw the form of her new Captain of the Guard, Kalla leaning on the window.

"Hello, my Queen. You gave us all quite a shock when you went over like that. A few of us wanted to go for Xena when she hit you, but the Regent over there, convinced us that it probably would have been suicidal." Kalla pointed to Ephiny as she smiled at Kaelin.

"Well, Kalla, she would have been right," she smirked at her Captain, wincing as she felt her jaw muscles pull. "Besides, there's no one to blame but myself. I shouldn't have dropped my guard like that," she shrugged, glancing briefly at the Amazon Regent.

Kaelin flinched as Jian prodded her cheek. "Hey, watch it!" she snapped, as the sudden pain coursed through her face.

"Look, I have to check if the swelling's going down. Now lie still," retorted the Healer. "Unless you want me to order you to," she added, knowing full well that a Healer could have that power over a Queen if she felt it was necessary.

Xena hid a smirk as Kaelin glared at the Healer, but did as she was told. 

"She'll be fine. But no more sparring with that one for at least a week," she ordered, pointing at Xena, after a few minutes of examination. Jian patted her cheek gently, causing Kaelin to flinch again, immediately sitting up. But Jian was already halfway out the door, laughter coming from the brown haired woman.

"I'm beginning to think that all Healers have some sort of mental problem," mumbled Kaelin as she looked at the three Amazons left in the Hut.

"Your Highness," came Kalla's voice from the window. "We were wondering, erm, how long are we intending to stay here?" Kaelin guessed that the Amazon was eager to get back to see her daughter, who had been left in Caledon along with all the other children. 

Kaelin looked at Gabrielle, wondering if she could bring up a wild plan that had been growing in her mind. "Kalla, let me get back to you on that one, okay? I promise I'll tell you soon."

"Of course, your Highness. I should be seeing to the tribe. Get well soon, my Queen." Kalla saluted and disappeared from view, as she sensed that Kaelin's other visitors had something important to talk about. Kaelin turned back to the others, who represented the nearest thing that came to a Royal Family in the Southern Amazon Tribe.

"So," started Kaelin. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" She brought her legs up and crossed them, allowing space for them to sit on the bed with her. There was a table in the hut, but she was feeling comfortable where she was, and didn't relish the thought of having to move. Xena grabbed a chair and reversed it, leaning on the back, next to the bed, while Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed and Ephiny remained standing. "What's the problem?" Kaelin asked, suddenly becoming anxious at the seriousness of their faces. 

Xena glanced at Gabrielle for consent. "Well, we have two things we need to discuss. The first being, what we're going to do with Tanva. We heard from a few Amazons that you told her she was going to have a trial. Is... that what you want? You know you have the right to execute her without one. I don't think anybody here would have a problem with that."

Kaelin was silent for a moment, as she thought. Finally she spoke. "I know that. And nothing would please me more than to give Tanva her punishment. But... I think the truth has been buried for too long, and it's time it was revealed to the whole of the tribe. They have to know and understand, clearly so that there can be no mistake as to what happened. It's vital for the peace, I think."

Gabrielle nodded, immediately regretting it as pain shot through her still sore head. "From what Xena and you have told me, it sounds like a complicated situation and even I have a little difficulty getting my head around the whole thing. I think a trial would sort everything out once and for all."

"So what was the other thing?"

As the three other women looked at one another, Kaelin began to feel apprehensive about what was obviously a delicate matter. "We were, um, talking about the, er, the..." Xena struggled for a better word than problem. "...challenge, of unifying the two tribes. We realise that, there are many difficulties that we have to overcome, such as the slight differences in tradition, festivals, you know. And then there's the distance. It'll be pretty hard keeping good relations if we're on the other side of Greece." Kaelin crossed her arms, raising an eyebrow at Xena's obvious discomfort. 

"Yeeah?" urged Kaelin.

"Well, we... we were thinking of, the er.. possibility of housing all the Amazons, Northern and Southern in one village." Xena finished quickly.

Kaelin was having a hard time keeping a straight face. She was quiet for a time, not trusting herself to speak in case she started laughing at her friend. Kaelin couldn't remember the last time she saw Xena so flustered. "Yeah, I was actually thinking the same thing. If we all moved into one village it would make things much easier." No one noticed the slight spark in Ephiny's eyes as she realised that Kaelin could be staying for good. "The only question is, which village will it be?" Kaelin, in fact, already had a preference of location but she wanted to see what they would say. It wasn't practical to build an entirely new village so it was a choice of Amazonia or Caladon.

"Well, obviously that is a major issue," replied Gabrielle, cautiously. "It probably would take a lot of discussion, meetings and votes. We'd have to weigh up the pros and cons of each place to see which one would suit us best."

Kaelin shook her head, and Gabrielle looked at Xena in alarm. She had literally ordered Xena to explain the idea to Kaelin, knowing that they were longtime friends, after the dark warrior had protested that she had very little in the way of tactfulness. If anyone could persuade her, she could. They knew the problems that the merging could cause, but Gabrielle's fears were put to rest as Kaelin carried on talking.

"There's no need for that. I know which one I would pick, and I feel most of my Amazons would agree with me. Not all of them would be happy, mind, but that's to be expected. They would be leaving their homeland, the place they had known from birth and it won't be easy for them." Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up as she realised that Kaelin was in favour of shifting the Northern Amazons to the village in the South. "But it feels right. The Southern Amazon Tribe is the oldest tribe, and to my knowledge, it was the first and all other tribes stemmed from this one. It would only be logical that we go back to our roots." 

"There's also the fact that the Amazonian Forest is much larger than the Caledonian one, and would be able to cope with the much larger community that we would be dealing with," commented Ephiny, eagerly pointing out the practicalities. "The water supply from the rivers are more than adequate to support the large numbers, and if need be, we can dig more wells. Also, there is an abundance of wildlife to sustain four times the current population. I'm sure we could manage."

Kaelin nodded her acknowledgment, with a slight twinkle in her eyes. The look was not lost on the very perceptive Gabrielle, who threw a questioning look at her love. Xena raised an eyebrow a little in reply, before saying anything. "Right then, so we've got that sorted. What do we do about the Queen?" 

Gabrielle's head shot up, as did Kaelin's in surprise, since neither of them had even thought about that. The idea of merging the tribes had been easy enough to accept, but now they were faced with the problem of creating another hierarchy that involved a mix of both tribes. 

"Well, we'll take that when we come to it," answered Gabrielle.

"Yeah, I think for the time being we'll manage our own tribes and sort that stuff out when we have to," said Kaelin, agreeing whole-heartedly.

Suddenly, there was a rap at the door. "Enter," stated Kaelin, as Eponin opened the door quickly, looking slightly flushed. She halted for a moment as she turned her head and stared at Kaelin.

"Eph, can you come with me? I er.. need to show you something." There was something about the way Eponin was standing that suggested something was wrong to Xena.

"What's wrong Ep?" she asked.

"Nothing," replied Eponin, a little too quickly. "I just need to... confirm something with Eph."

"Okay," said Xena, not convinced. She glanced at Gabrielle, who seemed to be falling asleep. "Er.. could you guys do me a favour? Can you take Queen Gabrielle back to her Hut before you do whatever it is you have to do? I want to speak with Kaelin for a while."

"Sure, your Highness." Eponin's words didn't sink in, until they had stood Gabrielle up, and were nearly out the door. 

"Wait, did you just call me, your Highness?" Xena queried, not believing her ears.

"Well, yes. Did I make a mistake?" asked Eponin, slightly worried that she had offended the Warrior Princess. "I just assumed, that you know, you were going to be Consort and all," explained the Weapons Master quickly.

"Oh," was all Xena could say, as they shut the door behind them. 

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Continued... Chapter Fourteen

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