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Love's Test by Wolfsword 

Chapter Six

"Gabrielle?" Xena headed into the campsite only to run into the back of Kaelin. "Kaelin, what's wrong with you?"

"Look." 

Xena did. Immediately, a small flare of panic erupted in the pit of her stomach. The camp was empty with Gabrielle's bedroll tossed aside and her staff lying close by the dead fire. There was soot everywhere, from someone kicking the dying embers. Xena calmed herself and cast an experienced eye over the sight. She read the events in the ground, playing out the struggle by the campfire in her mind. Several people had come into the clearing and dragged Gabrielle out of the bedroll. She had grabbed her staff and must have used it to strike the attacker holding her because there was a deep indent where the person had fallen. Two others had advanced on the Amazon Queen and one had kicked the fire, its ash spraying into Gabrielle's face and momentarily blinding her. They took that opportunity to knock the staff out of her hands where it now lay. Xena guessed that they had knocked her unconscious, her anger growing, since they had picked her up because there were no more of her tracks. She moved to the fire, dropping to one knee to study a footprint.

"Xena. I think I know who took her."

"So do I," replied Xena, dread filling her heart. She looked up at Kaelin who was holding a bright, red feather. "Amazons."

"Northern."

"What difference does it make, which tribe took her?" asked Xena, furiously.

"They're at war," Kaelin replied, softly, twirling the light object between her fingers absently, staring at it.

"What?" exclaimed Xena. "I know they've had their moments, but they would never have an all out war."

"Maybe not before, but they have a new leader now. One that believes... that... the Northern Amazons have to teach the Southern ones a lesson. "

"How do you know?"

"I'm an Amazon remember. Where do you think I've been living, if not in the South? I've had to listen to Litala speak about her plans for a few years now. I never thought she'd actually go through with it," said Kaelin, her gaze turning inwards.

"You were... with the Northern Amazons?" asked Xena, slightly stunned.

"Yes." Kaelin bit her lip. "I erm... went there after the battle with Cortese. It's been my anchor place these last ten years. I can come and go as I please." She glanced at Xena. "I wasn't there when you and Borias, you know, attacked," she said, carefully, aware that bringing up the past might hurt Xena. 

Xena shook herself, bringing them back to the present. "Why? What lesson is there to teach?"

"About four years ago, the Northern Amazons were under attack by two armies of men, the Gekkim and Beldan. They were advancing on two fronts, one from the East, the other from the West. The Amazons sent a messenger, asking for aid from their Southern kin, to send reinforcements or risk being exterminated. The reply we got wasn't the expected one." Kaelin sighed. "The... messenger, was sent back with a refusal signed by Melosa. With only her head left." Kaelin paused again. "We took it to mean they wanted us dead. We fought off the armies, alone and we took many casualties and fatalities, but we were victorious. Cyane, the past Queen, cut off all contact with the Southerners as the community was rebuilt. Then, there was an accident, involving the Royal Family." The pain on Kaelin's face was evident. "Litala, her sister, was given the Queen's Mask. She was bitter and her heart had hardened. Her bondmate had been killed in the battles and she believed that it was the Southerners' fault and she would not have died if they had helped. She talked always of repaying our 'enemies' in the south, and that as soon as we were strong enough, we would teach them was it meant to die an Amazon death."

"How come I never heard about this. Surely there would have been news of war between the two tribes."

"Oh yeah? I don't think they're about to go announcing to the world that the two strongest tribes of Amazons are about to slaughter each other. Can you imagine what would happen? It's basically telling everyone that their Nation's falling apart at the seams and the very Sisterhood they talk about, is a load of Centaur turd." 

"I still don't get it. Something's not right here, Kaelin. Tartarus, Gabrielle doesn't even know about this!"

Kaelin's brow furrowed. "That is strange. As Queen, she should have been told. Although you said you haven't been back there in a while. And I left the Northern tribe before they declared it. This is the first signal that I've seen that any of them have come this far south. As I see it, we have two choices. We could go after her ourselves. But I think we should go to the Southern Amazon Village and find out what's going on exactly."

"What are they going to do with her?" wondered Xena. "Ransom? Hostage?"

Kaelin drew a deep breath. "Most likely, hostage. Gabrielle is loved by her Amazons, even though she isn't there much. I had contact with a few Southern Amazons, they didn't know I had been with the Northerns of course, and they boasted about their Queen, like you'd never believe. Do you know, she was the reason I sought you out?" 

Xena looked at her curiously as they quickly packed the things they would need. "What do you mean?"

"Before I wouldn't have come near you. I thought you would kill me on sight. But then I heard from these Amazons, that their Queen had somehow tamed the famed Warrior Princess and that she had turned to helping people, instead of killing them. I thought then that it was time for me to show myself to you. 

"Wait, you said you sought me out?" asked Xena, confused. "We found you in the forest, fighting those.. Tulans."

Kaelin rubbed the back of her neck, obviously in an awkward position. "Yes, I went to our Temple in the village. I asked for Artemis' help. She didn't exactly answer it, but told me to go to Mount Akkas to... get something. I didn't know why, I actually thought maybe it would help me find you. I see now, that in some way, it was fated that I would run into you."

They mounted their horses. "What did she ask you to get?"

"This." Kaelin reached inside her shirt and pulled out a silver chain. On it, was small, clear gem. 

Xena looked at it closely. It seemed to have a tinge of blue to it that emanated a kind of power. "Nice." She looked hard at Kaelin. "I think we have a lot more catching up to do when this is over, Kae. But for now, we have to get Gabrielle. Let's go." They set off at a thunderous pace through the forest trail, leaping over fallen logs in a bid to reach the village as soon as possible. If anything happens to Gabrielle, I'll never forgive myself, they both thought.

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

"What do you mean she's gone?!"

"I mean just that. She's gone on a hunting expedition. She'll be back by sundown," explained Solari, getting increasingly impatient. "Now what in Artemis' name are you doing here? And who are you?"

Xena and Kaelin had almost ridden their mounts into the ground to get to the village before noon. They didn't even stop to acknowledge the scouts in the forest, who mistook them for enemies and began shooting arrows at them. Even so, they were riding much too fast for any of them to react fast enough and they raced through the open gates, sliding off their horses and dashing into the Regent's hut. When they found Ephiny not there, they ran outside, only to be met by a line of archers, all with bows drawn and ready to kill. The Amazons, already weary of Xena, didn't take to the new face of Kaelin. 

"Look, Gabrielle's been kidnapped. You better send someone out to find Ephiny now. And what is going on here? The gates are all open, the scouts are almost idle and where are your defences for the war?" Xena rushed.

"Huh?"

"Which part of Gabrielle kidnapped, find Ephiny and war defences did you not comprehend?" asked an irritated Kaelin.

Solari turned to the seething warrior, looking her up and down. "Just who do you think you are?"

"Does it matter? And can you stand those archers of yours down? I think they're arms are getting tired," replied Kaelin, her gray eyes flashing in the sun.

"What the Tartarus is going on?" came a gruff voice. 

"Eponin. Gabrielle's been kidnapped. We need to talk, now," Xena stated, leaving no room for argument.

"It's alright. Go back to your posts," Eponin ordered. "Solari, come with us." She led the three women back in the Regent's hut, closing the door behind them. 

Inside, Solari and Kaelin were throwing daggers at each other with their eyes as they found seats on opposite sides of the table. Xena remained standing next to Kaelin, while Eponin leaned against the door.

"Okay, is someone gonna explain what is going on?" Eponin asked in a low voice.

"Gabrielle was...."

"These two..."

Kaelin and Solari started explaining at the same time.

"One at a time!" exclaimed Eponin, sighing with frustration. She turned to the dark warrior. "Xena?"

"Gabrielle has been taken by, what looks like Northern Amazons." Eponin looked up sharply. "We found this on the ground," she said, taking out the red feather and giving it to the Weapons master. 

"Gods. Why are they so close to our border?" 

Kaelin and Xena exchanged worried glances. "We were hoping you could tell us. Kaelin seems to think that they've declared war on you."

It was Eponin and Solari's turn to look at each other. "We've had no messenger," began Eponin. 

"Is that a surprise?," wondered Kaelin, out loud.

"What's that supposed to mean?" bristled Solari.

"You know very well, what I mean," Kaelin shot back, standing up, her hands flat on the table.

"Calm down," ordered Xena and Eponin together. The two irate warriors glared at each other but said nothing.

Suddenly, there was a sharp knock on the door. "Come."

"Captain, there's a report from the North west. A large group of Northern Amazons have been spotted. They number, twenty or so. We haven't made contact as yet. The watch felt that they should ask what should be done."

Xena took a deep breath. "I suggest you send a out party to warn Ephiny and any other group out alone. They may run into them and find themselves out numbered." 

Eponin nodded. "Solari, organise and head up the search group for Ephiny. Tell Tamira to form another to find Colsa. She took out a group of youngsters this morning to help with their training." She met Solari's gaze as the Captain of the Guard stood. "Find them Sol, and find them quick. They're in great danger if what Kaelin says is true." Solari nodded her understanding and headed out the door, breaking into a run.

"Tali," Eponin said, addressing the Amazon at the door. "I need you see to the defences of the village. Bring all the children inside the compound and alert the watch to be on their guard. In fact, double the sentry watch, I don't wanna take any chances. Tell them not to engage them yet. Don't let on that we know, okay. No one is to be allowed out of this compound, not without permission. Close the gates, and be on alert for when Solari or Tamira come back. I want them back in as swiftly as possible. Tell all fully fledged Amazons to be prepared. And to sharpen their swords." Eponin looked up at the woman who was still standing at the door. "Was there something else?"

"May I ask, why we are increasing the defence Captain?"

Eponin turned to look at Kaelin and Xena, then back to the woman, only a few summers younger than herself. "War, my friend. War." Eponin turned back to face the two newcomers, as Tali ran off, shouting orders to the village. She looked suspiciously at Kaelin. "Why do you think they want war? How do we know this isn't some big ruse to trick us?"

"Why would I trick you? I would have nothing to gain," replied Kaelin, disliking being questioned about her trustworthiness, but understanding the Amazon's position.

"True." Eponin looked intently at Kaelin, her brows coming together slightly. "Have I met you before?"

Kaelin looked up, straining to remember if she had come across this particular Amazon before. "I don't think so. I would remember. Why?"

Eponin shook her head. "Never mind, you just seem familiar, that's all." 

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

"No, you must stay here, Xena."

"What? Ep, you can't stop me from going out there and finding her."

"No, but I can," said Kaelin quietly. Xena shot her a furious look, as Kaelin shrugged. "Eponin's right. You can't risk being seen by them. They'll be all over you in seconds, you know how they bear grudges. I don't think they've quite forgotten what your army did to them all those years ago." Kaelin sighed loudly. "Damn it Xena, you killed their Queen."

Xena stopped pacing the hut and ran a hand through her hair. "Then what do you want me to do?" she asked, a pained expression on her face. "Sit here, and wait for them to send her back to me in pieces?" Xena closed her eyes at the horrific image, then began shaking her head violently. "I can't just... do nothing!" 

Kaelin sat in quiet thought, while Xena started to pace the room again, feeling like a caged animal. "Maybe... maybe we can use it to our advantage."

Half a candlemark had gone by since they arrived in the village and already they had been getting more reports of sightings of their Northern kin. So far, there had been no confrontations, but sooner or later a fight was going to occur. Neither had any word been sent of Gabrielle and Xena was getting more and more worked up.

"What do you mean?" asked Xena, stopping and leaning against the wall.

"They... hate your guts. Tartarus, they hate all this lot's guts. Maybe we can force them into going where we want them to go. Corner them somewhere."

"There's no where to corner them. We're in the middle of a forest, if you hadn't noticed," commented Eponin.

"I know that," snapped Kaelin. The stress was getting to her as well. "I meant, we can goad them into running straight into traps."

Xena turned and studied her friend. "Traps?"

"Not anything that would harm them, just detain them. Erm.. nets, cages, whatever. Just so we can prevent any bloodshed."

"Hm, it's a good idea, but we'd have to plan it out meticulously. There's no room for error."

"It's a challenge," stated Kaelin, a spark flaring in her eyes. The tall warrior stood up, moving towards Xena. "We'll get her back, I promise you. Trust me, Xena. You always did. We can do this, yeah." She grabbed Xena's arm in a tight warrior's grip, looking her childhood friend intensely in her eyes. "Say it."

Xena took a breath, returning the gaze with equal ferocity. "We can do it."

"That's my girl," Kaelin smiled, pulling Xena close and thumping her on the back with her free hand. "Now come on, we've got work to do." Kaelin looked over her shoulder at Eponin, who was watching them curiously. "Are you coming?"

The Weapons master roused herself. "Of course."

"Good. Now where's the Strategy Hut?" Kaelin asked, following Xena out the door.

"Over there," Eponin replied, pointing to a distant hut, wondering how Kaelin knew that they had one.

They trekked over quickly, but Kaelin stopped halfway when they passed a large group of young girls, standing around chatting excitedly. "Hey kid, come here." A young Amazon, barely fourteen summers came running over to them, her blonde curls bouncing in the wind. "I want you and your friends to pair up and then go to each of the watch points. As soon as they know anything, anything at all, I want one of you to come as fast you can to the Strategy Hut and tell me. Got it?" 

"Yes, Captain," saluted the girl, pleased to be doing something for the village. It didn't matter that she had never seen this woman before, she knew a commander when she saw one and she wasn't about to disobey this warrior in a hurry. She ran off to her friends and seconds later the group had dispersed, pairs of young Amazons dashing away to the edge of the village.

Eponin and Xena raised an eyebrow, looking at Kaelin in surprise. "Why did you pick them?" asked Eponin, "You could have asked any of our older warriors. They're more experienced."

Kaelin looked at the Weapons master as they continued towards the hut. "Those Amazons would have been in the way. Young kids like that, they think they can do better than the 'older' warriors and this way it prevents them from doing anything that we don't know about." Kaelin seemed to be talking from experience. "Plus, we'll need the more experienced Amazons in case there's a fight. Anyhow, those kids have more energy," smirked Kaelin.

They reached the hut and went inside. It was much bigger than any of the others, and it housed a large table with maps of the land scattered about. "Where's the map of the North side?" asked Xena, slipping into Warlord mode.

Sifting through sheets of parchment, Eponin finally found a large piece and spread it over the table for them to see, holding down the corners with stones. "This is where we are," she said, pointing out a large clearing in the map. Suddenly there was a rap on the door. "Come," said Eponin.

A young Amazon, that they recognised from the group of girls entered, breathing slightly harder. "Captain. Report from the North-west. Two groups of Amazons of about twenty each, seen coming through the forest. Last spotted... " The girl moved inside the room and looked at the map. She pointed at two places on it. "...here and ...here." 

"Good work, Delia," said Eponin. The girl saluted, her fist over her heart before running out the door and back to her place. No sooner had the girl left, when another appeared at the door. "Come," said the Weapons master before she knocked. 

"Report from North-east. There are two groups entering the forest. At first they moved in together, but then they split and their paths are now separate. Each group contains about twenty-five Amazons."

"Do you know the routes that each group are on?" asked Xena.

"Er, no, Captain..."

"Yes, Captain we do," came another young voice from behind. "We just received word of where they seemed to be heading." The first girl saluted and started to run back to her position, leaving her partner to finish giving the report.

"Show me on the map, kid," Kaelin ordered.

Eponin and Xena were impressed by Kaelin's quick thinking of having runners send them information almost as soon as it happened.

"Hey, do we have a detailed map of the whole area surrounding the village?" asked Xena, turning to Eponin.

"Er, yeah, I think so," replied Eponin, searching the shelves. She pulled out a long rolled up parchment. "Why?"

"Pass it to me," said Xena, taking the map and hanging it on the wall by the door. She pinned it down so it was clear for all to see. "Kae, tell them just to come in and mark the routes, it'll be easier that way."

"Good thinking. Okay, so far, the reports are not as bad as I thought. They're still quite a long distance away, and judging from their slow movements through the forest, I'd say they'll arrive here this time tomorrow," said Kaelin.

"I agree. They're trying to avoid being spotted. Our watch may pick up two or three groups, but there could be many more," observed Xena.

Just then, another runner appeared at the door. Without turning around, Kaelin pointed over to the large map. "Mark where the groups are. Then write down the any information on that piece of parchment," she ordered. "When I left, they had about two hundred good, strong warriors, that they could call to arms. That was over a year ago," she remarked to the other two, staring at the map on the table.

"That means, they could have, maybe 200 to 250 warriors out there," noted Xena.

"Wait, what do you mean 'when you left'?" asked Eponin, glancing sharply at Kaelin.

Xena and Kaelin exchanged glances. "I lived with them for a while," said Kaelin, softly as another runner padded in and made marks on the map and scribbled notes on the parchment below.

"Lived with them? You mean you're one of them!" exclaimed Eponin, as the runner made a swift exit.

Xena looked up quickly. "Eponin, keep your voice down. Of course she's not one of them. She's helping you for the Gods' sake," Xena responded, defending her friend.

"I don't see why it should matter, anyway," growled Kaelin. "As far as I can see, you, me, the women inside this compound and outside are all Amazons."

"Well, you tell that to the Amazons that are intent on killing us."

"Can you blame them?" Kaelin asked, incredulously. "I was there at that battle. I was lucky to even come out of that nightmare alive."

"What nightmare?" asked Eponin, looking between Kaelin and Xena.

"Don't play dumb." Kaelin's voice trembled with suppressed anger. "Excuses I could tolerate, but downright denial is totally dishonourable in my eyes." Kaelin turned on her heel and stormed out of the hut without any further comment.

"Kaelin! Gods be damned," cursed Xena.

"Eponin? Xena? What's going on? Who was that?" Ephiny entered the room swiftly, closing the door behind her.

"That was the rudest and most impatient Amazon I have ever met," replied Eponin, still fuming.

"Really? Guess you understand one another then," teased Ephiny. She carried on quickly before the weapons master could retaliate. "Xena, I hear someone has declared war on us. Our Northern kin, so I hear."

"Yes. It seems as though they bear a grudge on this tribe," Xena explained. Her brow furrowed for a moment. "About four years ago, did Melosa receive a request from the Northern Amazons? A request for aid?"

"No, she didn't. She would have summoned us if something as important as that had been sent. Why?"

"Are you absolutely sure?" asked Xena, looking intently at the Regent.

"Wait Eph, four years ago, we didn't have these posts," Eponin reminded her friend.

"Who would have known about it?" asked Xena, a sense of urgency creeping into her voice.

"Queen Melosa, Princess Terreis, Shelti the Captain of the Guard and Liosa the Weapons master."

"Find Shelti or Liosa for me." Xena looked at the pensive features of Ephiny and Eponin. "What?"

"They're all... dead, Xena," Ephiny said, quietly.

"Shit, come on. There must be someone in the village who would remember whether a request like that came in or not." She took hold of Ephiny's shoulders, pleading with her. "Think!"

"Why is it so important? No aid was ever sent to Northern Amazons." 

"That's precisely the whole point. It's the main reason for this stupid war. Queen Cyane sent a call for help, from her sister Amazons. The messenger was killed and her head sent back along with a note of point blank refusal." She stared at both Amazons. "It was signed by Melosa's hand. The Northern Amazons want revenge and I need to find out whether what happened was true. And it could mean the difference between getting Gabrielle back alive, or dead," Xena said, seeing the shock register on the blonde woman's face. Xena released the Regent, slumping into a chair in defeat.

"Okay, okay. What about records? The.. the messenger reports are all recorded," Ephiny asked, racking her brain for any way, which they could find out the truth.

"Records can be changed, erased even. If Melosa did refuse and wanted to keep it from the tribe for some reason, then we would find nothing there and we'd be no better off." The low voice of Kaelin surprised the three women. Obviously she had been listening to their conversation from outside the hut. She was now leaning against an open door, her arms crossed and her face a mask of stone. Several young runners brushed past her, noting down their information and quickly scurrying away. Apparently, Kaelin had felt it necessary to let them finish their conversation without interruptions.

Eponin cast a cold look across the room at the gray-eyed warrior. Ephiny studied the newcomer with interest, observing the way that the woman held herself. Strange, she could almost pass as a Royal, she thought to herself. She realised she was staring as Kaelin shifted her gaze to her, feeling someone's eyes on her. The intensity she saw there startled her and she quickly looked away, slightly embarrassed to have been caught. 

"Lovers."

"Excuse me?" asked Ephiny, a little shocked.

"Lovers," said Kaelin again. "Did Melosa have many?" Kaelin's mind seemed to be in deep thought.

Eponin stood up, anger evident on her face. "I will not accept some young unknown coming into our village and insulting our dead Queen!"

"Ep, sit, please," came the quiet order of the Regent. Eponin sat back down again, slamming her hands on the table at the same time.

Ephiny looked hard at the intense warrior, judging her to be only a couple of summers younger than herself. "She's not trying to insult her, Ep. She means no harm," she said, addressing the weapons master but not breaking her gaze with Kaelin. "No," she replied. "Queen Melosa never had time to find a mate. She only had a few lovers in her lifetime. The Nation always came first."

Kaelin nodded, and Xena looked at her friend, wondering where she was leading with this. "A few years back, maybe four or five. Did she have anyone then?"

Ephiny's gaze turned inwards, thinking for a moment. "Yes actually. I think she did." She looked at Eponin for confirmation. "Avant, wasn't it?" Eponin nodded once, looking a bit uncomfortable.

"This, Avant. Can you describe her for me? Please?" Kaelin missed Xena's raised eyebrow. Where had Kaelin's manners come from? she wondered, idly.

"She was quite small, blonde, blue eyes I think. She was pretty, I'll give her that, but not someone who I would call, striking." The confusion on everyone's face in the room was unmistakable.

"Do you remember seeing a small scar, like a knife wound, on her left cheek?"

"Yes."

"Did she, by any chance, have a small, blue tattoo? It would be of a deer, on her right hip," Kaelin looked expectantly at Ephiny, a slight look of anxiousness hidden in her eyes.

Ephiny began shaking her head. "I wouldn't know...."

"Yes. Yes she did." Everyone's eyes turned instantly to Eponin, who was quietly tracing the whorls of wood in the table.

"How do you know?" queried Ephiny.

Eponin flicked her gaze up to her friend. "Do you have to ask?" Ephiny's cheeks glowed a darker shade. "The question is, how do you know?" Eponin asked, looking straight at Kaelin.

Kaelin rubbed her eyes with her hand, before moving to a chair and seating herself. She sighed shakily and Xena glanced at her worriedly. "What is it Kaelin?"

"Avant is... not Avant."

"Huh? Kaelin, you're not making sense."

"Avant is...not her name. Her real name is Tanva. She is... was.. a Northern Amazon. I... knew her, from my time in their village." Kaelin seemed to be thinking back to her past, her face disbelieving. "She was banished five years ago, from the village. I won't go into the details." Kaelin was silent for a few moments, obviously thinking very hard. "By the Gods, why didn't I see it before?"

"See what?!" exclaimed Xena, Eponin and Ephiny at the same time.

"When she was living here, did she often make visits to other towns? Often going out of the village?" Kaelin ignored their question.

"Yes, she said she was a traveller and she wanted to experience life in an Amazon village, so we allowed her to come and go as she pleased. She always said she wanted to visit her family."

"How close was she to Melosa?" Kaelin's voice was taking on a very nervous edge.

"Very. They were inseparable at times."

"What happened? Where is she? Did she leave?"

Ephiny nodded. "About a year and a half ago."

"Shit! There's no time to explain!" Kaelin made to stand, but was roughly pushed back into her seat by an irate Warrior Princess.

"Kaelin! Calm down. Tell us now. What's happened? Damn it, fours heads are better than one."

Kaelin collected herself. "Alright, you wanna hear what I think happened? Tanva, or Avant, whoever. Well, she was banished. As far as I see it, she left our village and came straight to yours, under a different name of course." Kaelin paused. "Avant," Kaelin laughed a mirthless laugh. 

"What's so funny?" asked Xena.

"Avant... it's Tanva backwards," said Kaelin, losing her smile, a look of disgust passing over her fine features. "Anyway, so she came here. She used the first year to get close to your Queen, and being able to come and go as she pleased. Well that would give her freedom to go where ever she wanted." Kaelin closed her eyes at a sudden thought. "She knew about it. Maybe even planned it," whispered Kaelin, more to herself than the others. The three other warriors waited for her to carry on. "A year passes and she aligns herself with the armies advancing on her old homeland, giving them information on scouts, patrols, watches, everything. Queen Cyane sends for help. The messenger gets intercepted. Killed." Kaelin swallowed hard. "She forges Queen Melosa's signature. It wouldn't be hard, not if they were as close as you say. She probably even could get hold of the royal seal. She sends the message back. Cyane interprets it in the only way she can. Her sisters have deserted her. They must stand alone, against two armies advancing on them like the pincers of the red crab. The traitor quietly waits for the news that the Northern Amazons have been crushed. Her revenge on them for her banishment would be complete. But no, it wasn't to be. We defeated both armies, yes, suffering along the way, but we won." 

The others were aware that Kaelin was lost in a sea of memories, of violence that must have been appalling to even the most seasoned of warriors. "Two years pass. We rebuild. Cyane is... lost and her sister, Litala received the Queen's Mask. Litala never forgot the pain that she believed was the Southern Amazons' fault and the pace of rebuilding our lost armies increased at an alarming pace. Then, as I was preparing to leave the village, what do I see? But Tanva. Tanva, standing by the side our Queen." Kaelin's face was a mixture of disgust and regret. "I should have known something was wrong. I should have stopped it then and there. But no, I didn't see the connection."

Xena was sitting down now, terror stamped on her features as if in stone, digesting all the information that Kaelin had just given her. "By the Gods," she whispered.

Ephiny was also standing in shock, while Eponin sat in quiet contemplation. 

"Do you understand, now?" Kaelin muttered, holding her head in her hands. "No, you will never fully understand," she whispered softly, so quietly that no one heard except Xena, who had to strain to make out her words. "It's all my fault."

"Why take Gabrielle?" Eponin asked, as quietly as she could. But that was all it took.

"Don't you fucking get it! Tanva's insane. She'll do anything for revenge. Even wait as long as she needs to have it, too! Don't you see what she's doing? She's tearing our Nation apart. Here we are, so called 'Sisters' and what are we doing? We're on the verge of killing each other! Totally annihilating each other! And why? Because of something that that harlot planned over four years ago!" Kaelin was shouting at the top of her voice now. "And now! We can't even discuss it, because the Northern Amazons distrust the Southern Amazons so much that they aren't even willing to send a peace talker in for fear that she'll be beheaded and they will be made to look like they're weak by trying to bring peace to our Nation!" Kaelin stopped her ranting for a moment to catch her breath. 

Xena didn't move to stop her. She was sitting as still as a statue, her insides screaming for Gabrielle to be returned to her safely.

"And do you know what's the worst part is?" Kaelin continued in a quieter voice. "Gabrielle is out there. With her. And she knows, she knows. She knows that Gabrielle is the Queen. The Queen! And what would make the Southern Amazons cry out for Northern blood? What could she do with the Queen, to make them want to kill every last one?" Kaelin sniffed, fighting to control her emotions.

"DON'T! Don't say it. Don't even... think it, Kaelin," spoke Xena, her voice trembling with fear and anger.

"Yes!" Kaelin cried, her voice pure anguish. "She's probably told the Northern Amazons that it's only right that they kill Gabrielle, their Queen!"

"NO!" screamed Xena. "I won't let it happen!" She stood up suddenly, her chair flying backwards almost smashing into the stunned figure of Ephiny. She lunged and grabbed Kaelin round the neck with one outstretched hand, propelling her against the hut wall with her force. "You promised me! We can do it, you said!" There were tears running freely down Xena's face now. "You promised me, Kae!"

Kaelin's eyes were glistening with unshed tears as she looked into Xena's ice blue eyes, realising that it wasn't just Gabrielle's life at stake. It was everyone's. Memories of her times with Xena and Lyceus, and the unshakable bond that the three of them had had, came rushing to the surface as she felt the pain of her friend. Against the power of Xena's grip, she managed to bow her head, a stray tear splashing to Xena's hand. It caused Xena to relax her hold slightly.

"We will do it," she whispered, hoarsely, gathering Xena into a fierce hug as the dark warrior finally released her death grip. They stayed like that for what seemed like eternity, but was in reality a couple of seconds.

"We'd better, because I don't know what would happen if we don't get her back alive," Xena said, through clenched teeth as she wiped her face with the back of her arm.

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

Continued... Chapter Seven

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