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Love's Test by Wolfsword 

Chapter Seven

Gabrielle came to, slowly opening her eyes against the harsh sunlight that entered through the cave mouth. She was lying on her back and as she looked up at the sharp stalactites pointing down at her, she quickly, she sat up, only to find her hands tied in front of her and legs bound, added to which she had a thumping headache. The past morning's events came rushing back to her, remembering her shock at being hauled out of her bedroll, by Amazons. She had tried reasoning with them, but the fight that had ensued ended abruptly with her sustaining a blow to the head. She looked around at her dismal surroundings from the back of the cave, spotting several camp fires dotted around inside, a large ring of Amazons around each. The noise inside the cave was horrendous, especially to Gabrielle's fragile head. 

"Excuse me!" she shouted over the din. No one paid her any attention. "Hello! Would you untie me, please!" she tried again.

For the next quarter candlemark, she hollered and yelled to be freed, until at last, one heavy-set woman stood up and came over to her. It went deathly silent in the cave and Gabrielle watched the Amazon approach with a growing apprehension that was quickly rising from her stomach to her throat.

"Shut the fuck up, you sorry excuse for an Amazon," said the woman, pointing a finger at her.

"You'll have to kill me to do that," Gabrielle spat at her captor, straining against the ropes binding her hands.

"Oh trust me, you might get your wish soon," snarled the Amazon, grabbing her by the hair. 

"Raska! Litala might not take kindly to you spoiling her goods!" came another voice. 

"Oh, she's going to kill her anyway!" Raska backhanded her across the face. A few drops of blood sprayed onto the floor next to Gabrielle, as the force of the blow caused the blonde to fall into the dirt again, face-first. The sound of laughter echoed through the cave from Raska's group as the Amazon resumed her place by a fire and the clamour of voices grew higher again. Gabrielle pushed herself back into a sitting position and leaned back against the cave wall, spitting the blood that pooled in her mouth out. Slowly, she became aware of snippets of conversation from around the fires. Concentrating, she honed in on one particular one close by.

"It's gonna be wild," one red headed Amazon was saying, excitedly to her companions.

"I know what you mean. I can't believe we're actually here!" replied one of her friends. "I can't believe Queen Litala is letting us fight!"

"Yeah, it's great that we're about to battle against our fellow sisters," came a grim voice from the other side.

"Oh, put a centaur's hoof in it Callie," retorted the first girl. "We're getting to prove ourselves in battle."

"That doesn't mean we have to do it fighting other Amazons," Callie said, determined to put her point across.

"My mother was killed because of them!" cried the red head, her face scrunching up in pain. "As far as I'm concerned, they are not our sisters. They all deserve to go to Tartarus!"

"Rita's right. They don't deserve to be called Amazons. Not after what they did. I lost a lot of friends in that cursed war," agreed another Amazon, who looked about sixteen.

"I know, but didn't we all lose people we love?" replied Callie, remembering her older sister. "But we can't blame them all though. The Queen may be, but what about the other girls? The ones younger than us. Innocent ones. Are we gonna kill them too?" She looked around the fire, her accusing gaze searching the faces of her comrades.

Rita sighed and looked at her friend. "Look we can't disobey our orders, even if we disagreed with them, Cal. Our Queen and Captain want us to march in there and leave no one alive, well, that's their decision. We can't argue, so what's the point in discussing it?"

"We could do something about it. It's just not right," said Cal, defiantly. "And you know, this all started when that harlot came back. If it wasn't for Tanva, Litala would never had gone through with this."

"Yeah, I don't know what in the world the Queen was thinking when she burned Tanva's banishment parchment and allowed her to come back," agreed an older looking warrior, her blue eyes glinting from old memories. Gabrielle recognised her as the one who had spoken up for her. "She was a traitor and traitors never change their ways. Just like hydras. They'll come back at you with twice the power, and hungry for revenge for the head you cut off."

The younger amazons were quiet as they thought over what she had said. Then Rita spoke up. "Just like Kaelin, eh Rani," she said quietly.

Rani looked up at her furiously. "Don't you dare talk about the Princess that way," she stormed, her eyes taking on a hard edge. Then her eyes softened as she thought. "Kaelin would never betray us," she said, in a gentler tone.

"Then how do you explain her being with her," Rita ventured, jerking her head in the direction of Gabrielle. The bard quickly closed her eyes as a few of them turned to look at her.

"It's only a rumour," Gabrielle heard Rani say, a hint of defensiveness creeping into her voice.

"No, no it isn't," replied the girl, her voice growing quieter. "I was in the trees. I saw her and Xena fighting in the clearing."

"Well, there you have it then," the older Amazon stated. "She was fighting them."

Gabrielle cracked an eye open to watch them. "It didn't look like proper fighting to me. Looked like sparring," persisted the redhead.

"What were they using?"

"Swords."

"Were they blunted?

"No."

"Were they fighting all out? Or checking themselves as they fought?"

"No, they were fighting all out. No holds barred," replied the girl, her tone resigned.

"There you go then. Did you stay to watch the end? Kaelin might even have taken Xena out of the equation for us."

"No, I left quickly in case they heard me. Artemis knows I wouldn't want the wrath of either of those two warriors on me," replied the girl, her fear of the tall warriors evident.

"Hm. True. Well, we'll still have to be wary of the Warrior Princess then." She flicked her eyes over to the bard, who swiftly shut her eye again. "The rumours are definitely true about the protectiveness that she has for the Southern Queen. To be honest, I can see why," she said, appreciating the beauty of the Amazon Queen.

The girl shook her head, and stared moodily into the fire. "I still reckon Kaelin's got mixed up in this," she said, unwillingly to let go of her notion.

"Rita, give it a rest." It was Callie's turn to quiet her friend. "Maybe it's part of some big plan that the Queen has and we just don't know about it. Could be that Queen Litala asked Princess Kaelin to infiltrate their camp and find out information from the inside. Who knows?"

"That very well could be," said Rani. "But what I do know is, that Kaelin will give her life for the Northern Amazon tribe. We've seen it before, haven't we? Hades' balls, she saved the Queen's life more than once. There's absolutely no way she would turn on us. So if I hear one more slight on her name from any of you, I tell you now. I'll give you such a good whipping, that you won't be able to sit for the next moon," warned the Amazon, her tone signalling the end of that topic.

The other young Amazons looked at each other nervously, knowing that as their superior, Ranin would carry out her threat if need be. As the Amazon spoke, Gabrielle began to cough. The first time, she had choked upon hearing this stunning information about Kaelin but now, her dry throat wouldn't allow her to stop. The blue-eyed Amazon grabbed a waterskin and stepped over to Gabrielle, seating herself on a nearby, flat rock. She held it out for Gabrielle to take, forgetting that her hands were bound. She realised her mistake, and with an embarrassed smile she uncapped the waterskin and held it to the bard's mouth, tilting it a little.

"Thank you," smiled Gabrielle, when she was finished.

Ranin just nodded her head, thinking back to the young Callie's words about 'Innocent ones'. As she looked at the small blonde she wondered briefly at how innocent this Queen was. She guessed she was only a season older than herself, and yet, she was apparently the ruler of one of the largest tribes of Amazons. Ranin shook herself and went back to her place by the fire. Still the thought plagued her that something was amiss. What was Kaelin doing out here? She had told them that she was going on a quest that Artemis had asked her to fulfill, to Mount Akkas but that was miles away, she thought worriedly. She trusted Kaelin beyond a doubt, but she couldn't help wondering about her actions.

Gabrielle on the other hand was beside herself with worry. Her heart was torn as she learned of the impending battle between her tribe and the Northerners and she quickly realised she was in a very dangerous position. She wondered what they would do with her. She had heard nothing concerning Kaelin and the Northern Amazons before and now she was hearing that not only was Kaelin trusted immensely by this tribe, but she was a Princess. Gabrielle considered the possibility that Kaelin was giving information to these Amazons as very likely. Her troubled thoughts were broken into by the sound of a loud voice calling for silence in the cave. All the Amazons swiftly ceased their chatter and turned as one towards the mouth of the cave in silent respect. Gabrielle squinted, trying to see who it was. A tall, slim woman was standing with her hand on the hilt of her sword, making sure she had the complete attention of the women. The bard couldn't make out any features since the woman was standing with her back to the sun as it was setting, but the regality of her stance immediately signalled to Gabrielle that Litala was making her presence known.

"Listen up everyone," Litala called. "Your sisters should be well on their way towards the village by now and it's not long now before you yourselves will have the chance to honour your tribe in battle." The Queen paused for a second, letting the information wash over her charges. "I expect the divisions to be arriving at their designated places as Helios rides down, anytime now. Until I receive the word, we will remained camped here You would do well to sharpen your swords and daggers, and oil your bows so that they do not let you down when you ride forth tonight. I am aware that some of you have not yet earned your Warrior's Mask, but I think, no, I know that by the end of this retribution, all of you will have proved your worth to yourselves, your fellow Amazons, your Queen and most of all, to your Nation. It is the dawn of a new era in Amazon history, and each and everyone of you will be part of that legend." 

The Queen's proud tone was not lost on the Amazons listening to her speech, who felt a swell of honour and respect in their hearts. As one, they stood and saluted their Queen, their right fist over their hearts. Gabrielle watched silently, admiring the young Queen, not unlike herself, as she realised that Litala's company would ride to the very depths of Tartarus for their Sovereign. As the warriors began to sit down again, Gabrielle spotted another woman, dressed not in the fashion of Amazonian Warriors, but in the long robe of a healers garb. She came up behind the Queen and whispered something to her, the Queen nodding her approval. She held up her hand for silence again, which she received within a matter of seconds.

"My Warriors, our time is nearly at hand. In one candlemark, Captain Ranin will lead you into the expanse of forest that I am ashamed to call our Southern sisters' homeland. You are privileged to be in the Company which will be the crushing force of our victory. Now, prepare yourselves as I will, and I will see you in battle. May your blood run hot and your steel be the kiss of death for our enemies. For our Nation!" 

"FOR OUR NATION!" called the warriors together.

Immediately, everything was in controlled chaos as the Amazons moved around, preparing to move out. Gabrielle was left at the back of the cave, still straining against her bonds when she saw a shadow fall over her. She looked up only to meet eyes as green as her own in the face of Queen Litala. Her face was a mask as she studied the woman before her. The healer next to her gently tapped her Queen on the shoulder, bringing her out of her thoughts.

"My Queen, we should go now. We have to do this quickly," she said, urgency in her voice.

"Yes, I know," Litala said softly, her perceptive gaze not leaving Gabrielle's face. Suddenly, she drew a dagger from her belt and cut through the bonds on her legs and hauled her up from the floor. "Come with me."

Gabrielle had no choice but to go with Litala and her healer. She stumbled as she made her way out of the cave, her legs still weak from the tight bindings. The healer grabbed her other arm with her left hand and together the Queen and the healer took Gabrielle from the dark place. The bard wondered where they were taking her, as she was lead outside and ordered to mount a large horse. Litala swung up behind her, taking hold of the reins and bringing the animal under control. Next to them, the healer had mounted her own horse, a strange glint in her eyes.

"Your Highness, time is of the essence."

"I know, I know. Let's go then, and finish this." Litala tapped the horse the back of her feet and it moved off. 

"Yes, Highness. Let's go and finish this," the healer repeated, whispering, her features twisting into a snarl as the Queen rode ahead. She reached up to absently stroke a thin, white scar that ran from just under her left eye, down to her chin before kicking her heels into the mount and galloping after Litala and Gabrielle.

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

Kaelin and Eponin sat down heavily in their seats, mud flaking off their skin to settle on the hut floor. A few seconds later, Xena and Ephiny followed, their bodies just as dirty and muddy as the other two. Every able body in the village had been working around the clock from midday until now, working on the defences and battle plans that they prayed they wouldn't have to use. They had worked in different groups, each one working on a different area of the forest around the village and only now they had a chance to regroup and discuss issues.

"Regent! Captains!" 

Xena, Kaelin, Ephiny and Eponin looked up sharply as a runner came bursting into the Strategy Hut door, almost crashing into the table, throwing a rolled up piece of parchment on it.

"Tamzin? What's wrong?" asked Ephiny, alarmed as the blonde headed girl tried to catch her breath. Xena picked up the scroll, looking it over and seeing a red wax stamp sealing it. She recognised it immediately as that of the Northern Tribe and broke open the seal and began reading.

"One of... of...," the girl stammered, as she tried to explain and take in oxygen at the same time.

"Put your hands on your head, kid, and breathe. You're no good to us if you collapse from lack of air," Kaelin ordered, the girl doing as she was told.

"One of the scouts, Jasila, was making her way back to the compound, when a red feathered arrow was shot at her. She took the hit in her left arm." The four women glanced at each other, worriedly, as the girl continued. "She made it to a watch and sent me here straight away. She had a note, which had been attached to the arrow." Tamzin pointed to the scroll that Xena was now looking at.

"What does it say, Xena?" asked Kaelin, anxiously.

Slowly, Xena brought the note down and set it on the table for all to see. It was clear. In flowing red script was a message from Queen Litala herself.

This is Litala, Queen of the Amazons, daughter of Cyane. I call on you, Ephiny, Regent of your tribe to present yourself to me. I will be on the Northern bank of the River Gailas by the crossing, as the transition of day to night commences. You may bring one to accompany you. I wish to offer something to you and your tribe, a gift of a debt still yet to be paid. I will say no more, save that should you not appear, our gift to you will be delivered still. 

Litala, Queen of the Amazons

Kaelin looked up from the scroll, her face unreadable, but Ephiny thought she saw a spark of anger glitter in her gray eyes. The Regent herself was silent as she read the note over Kaelin's shoulder. Xena had not looked up from the parchment, but seemed to stare at it, her features as stoic as usual as she thought. Eponin on the other hand, stood up violently, and began voicing her opinions. The young runner was stunned at the string of foul words that came rushing out of her Weapon master, usually level headed in stressful situations.

Ephiny shook herself into action. "Tamzin. Is Captain Solari finished with her section?" she asked the blonde girl.

"Yes, Regent. They're completing the last of the preparations just now."

"Good. How are they holding up? I know Captain Solari's group have been working for the past seven candlemarks." Even if they have had some help from our own sections, Sol's section will be the most exhausted, she thought.

"The mood is grim, but we will do whatever it takes to ensure our survival," stated the young warrior, with knowledge beyond her years.

"That's good to hear, Tamzin. Spread the word that when this is over, a celebration is in order." Ephiny smiled at the fourteen year old, knowing that she needed to boost morale in the ranks.

"Yes, Regent," replied the girl, returning the smile, then running straight out the door and nearly crashing into Solari, who jumped out of the girl's way just in time.

"Kids these days," grumbled the Captain of the Guard, as she trudged into the hut. Her whole face was covered in muck so thick, it looked to Ephiny like she had grown a new layer of skin. She came to stand behind the still angry Eponin, who had sat back down and was now deep in thought. 

"Everything's ready at the North West section," she reported as she spied a twig in her friend's brown hair.

"Alright then. We've done all we can. We'll just have to pray that it all goes according to plan for us," Ephiny stated. "If not, and we have made a great error, then we'll be defenceless." 

"This is the only way we could do it," pointed out Solari, as she quickly pulled out the errant twig, causing Eponin to twist and look up at her, the irritation evident on her face. She waved the small twig at her to explain herself.

"Well, we have a more urgent problem to deal with now," came Xena's voice from across the table. The dark warrior shoved the parchment over for the Captain to see.

"Shit," Solari breathed, as she quickly scanned the paper. "It's nearly dusk now. What are we going to do?" She looked at the other women in the room.

"We haven't had a chance to talk about it. It only just came in," answered the Regent.

"There's nothing to talk about," growled Xena. She looked hard at Ephiny. "You and me are going there now."

"Wait. It's obviously a trap. They'll kill you both," started Eponin.

"Well, that's a chance I'm willing to take," replied Xena, abruptly. "She'll kill Gabrielle if we don't show."

"I don't think that Litala will kill Ephiny, not yet anyway." Kaelin, who had been silent for a long time suddenly spoke. "Gabrielle, on the other hand, she meant to kill from the beginning," she added quietly.

"Kaelin's right. She's counting on the fact that we'll fight once everyone knows what she..." Ephiny didn't finish. She didn't need to. There was silence for a few seconds.

"Come on. The longer we wait, the less time we have to do anything about this," Xena pressed, heading towards the door.

"Xena." The dark warrior halted a pace from the doorway and turned her head to look at Kaelin. "Come back. You're not going. I am."

"What?" Xena looked at her friend, incredulously. The three Amazons present all felt the tension in the hut increase ten-fold. "I have to be there!"

"Xena, the moment they see you, they might panic and then there'll be no chance for Gabrielle!"

"I have to go. I... I have to...to save Gabrielle," Xena finished softly.

Kaelin gazed sadly at the grief-stricken warrior and shook her head slowly. "No. I must go, Xena. I know you want to help Gabrielle, but the best way you can do that by letting me go. I know Litala and... she trusts me. There's no way you can do anything. Not where she wants to meet us. Across the river, Xena. Can you fly? Because if you can't, you can't stop Litala or Tanva from hurting Gabrielle before you get to her."

Xena drew a deep breath, staring intently at the floor. She knew there was no other way across the river except for that crossing for miles around and that the Northern Amazon scouts were probably camped in the trees near the river, watching it for the enemy. She looked up and met Kaelin's gray eyes for what seemed like an age, then pointed a long finger at her childhood friend. 

"You remember your promise, Kae." With that, she stalked out of the door and into the fading light of the day.

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

Continued... Chapter Eight

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