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Love's Test by Wolfsword 

Chapter Eight

"Where are they?"

"Patience, my Queen. They will come. They will be curious as to why you're here. Remember, they know nothing of our plan so far. Ephiny will think that you want to open contact with them again." Tanva finished tethering the horses to a tree and came to stand just behind Litala.

"They must suspect something. I knew I shouldn't have sent Raska to shoot the note. Her hatred of the Southerners is deep and it clouds her mind. Because of that shot, things might not go according to plan." 

Litala glanced at her captive, doubt surfacing again in her mind. Was she doing the right thing? Could she really be responsible for wiping out an entire tribe? Of course, they let our sisters die at the hands of those men. They deserve their punishment, said a voice in her head. Her features hardened and her resolve steadied. Suddenly, the sound of hoof beats echoed through the silent forest. Her trained ears told her that two horses were approaching at a fast pace and would be on the other side of the bank in a few minutes. Sure enough, two shadowy riders soon came into Litala's view and they dismounted swiftly, coming to stand on the edge of the bridge, which spanned the dark waters of the river. It was wide enough for three horses to cross abreast and made of wood, but some of the sides had been worn through, although the bridge itself could hold a large amount of weight.

"Queen Litala," called a voice in greeting

"Regent Ephiny," replied Litala. "I'm glad you could meet me. Is this not a fine night?"

"Yes, it is. Tell me, Queen Litala. Why did you ask me to meet you here and not in our village itself? It would have made it much more agreeable for you, I'm sure." Ephiny couldn't provoke Litala for fear that she would not give them a chance to talk, before she did something to Gabrielle. As it was, Ephiny could not even see through the darkness across the bridge, let alone where her Queen was.

"I think I find outdoors a much nicer sight than the insides of your village," she replied, a cold tone entering her voice. "Tell me, Regent. Have you seen your Queen Gabrielle recently."

Ephiny paused for a second and than replied. "No, I have not."

"Well that is good. Because this is a reunion then, between Regent and Queen." As she spoke, Gabrielle was pushed in front of Litala by an unseen force. The Queen came to stand close to Gabrielle, putting her arm around her shoulders to mock Ephiny. 

"Gabrielle!" cried Ephiny. Her Queen couldn't reply, because of a white cloth that had been tied around her mouth to gag her and her hands were now tied behind her back.

"Say Hello to your mighty Sovereign," Litala taunted as she drew her dagger and flipped it around in her hand. She was getting the desired response from the Regent as Ephiny could not prevent herself from shouting abuse at Litala.

Now, the figure who had been standing in the darker shadows beside the Regent spoke. "Litala!" Kaelin called. Her voice rang true and clear over the running water, startling Litala so much that she nearly dropped her dagger. "Listen to me Litala!"

"Kaelin?! Is that you? What are you doing...? You have betrayed us!"

"NO! I am not the traitor here! There is one such, though. If you would let me explain this to you, you will see that our past judgements of these people have been wrong!"

"Kaelin! You would believe these harlots over your own experience? Do you not remember the war? All the ones who died, fighting for our homeland? Do they mean nothing to you?!"

"How can you say that to me?!" Kaelin calmed herself and then spoke again. "Listen, my friend. You know I am no liar! I would never betray you to anyone. I speak the truth, if truth is what you want to hear! Come, we will talk on the bridge." Kaelin saw Litala turn her head as if listening to someone in the trees, then bow her head in thought. 

"Speak then, Kaelin. I will hear it!" 

Kaelin walked swiftly to the middle of the bridge. Litala watched, making sure that no one else followed. She slammed her elbow into Gabrielle's face, the bard crumpling to the floor and walked to meet Kaelin on the bridge. She heard the anguish cry from Ephiny, but ignored it.

"Five summers ago, the day after the summer solstice, do you remember the day?"

"I do."

"Tell me, what happened on that day."

"Tanva, our healer was banished from our home."

"Yes. Do you remember what for?"

"She apparently told soldiers our passwords. She always maintained that she had done no such thing though."

"That is because that was true. That story was told to everyone to keep the real truth hidden. I and your sister, Cyane are two of five people who knew why she had been banished. She tried to kill Cyane, Litala. She committed treason and the only punishment for that crime, was death." Kaelin paused to let the information sink in.

"Why?" came the question Kaelin dreaded.

Kaelin took a deep breath and began to explain. "It is a long tale but I will try to answer the question. It is enough to say that Cyane made a promise to your mother to keep Tanva safe. She did not count on the fact that Tanva would fall in love with her. The healer's love was not returned and one day, I walked into her hut, only to smell the scent of Hemlock being mixed into a drink. I said nothing, but asked who was to drink that and Tanva replied it was for the Queen's headache. I let her take it over, but I followed her to see if Tanva was really trying to kill Cyane. I prevented Tanva from succeeding, but the promise that your sister made to your mother forced her to act differently. We covered up the crime, and made up another so she would be banished and not executed."

"Who else knew about this? Who were the five? Why did you not tell me about this?!"

"I, Cyane, Tanva, Kilda and Dana."

"You told them, but not me?" The hurt in Litala's voice was apparent.

"We had no choice. Dana was Cyane's bondmate to be. How could she not tell her? Your youngest sister walked into the hut as I overturned the cup Tanva was holding." Kaelin looked into the river. "That was really the reason why Kilda gave me her Right of Caste. She felt that it was right, and then after the war she used the battle as the reason why I should have it. No one questioned it and we all thought it was buried in the past." 

"I do not see what this has to do with the war we had with those men."

"I am coming to that, Lit. After Tanva was banished, she came straight here, to the Southern Amazons." Kaelin saw Litala's confused features. "That's right. She knew she could, because they would accept a traveller into their village, especially a healer. Can you imagine how much she would want revenge on us? The two armies advanced on us exactly a year and one day after we banished her. Do you remember how we thought it strange that the men could find their way around so easily in forest trails that they had never seen before? Well, if someone were giving them information on us, then it would not be very hard."

"Are you saying that it was Tanva who started the armies' invasion on us?"

"Yes. It may even have been her who told them to invade us. Then there were those supposed conversations of soldiers, about a scarred warrior woman that were overheard. It all makes sense."

Litala shook her head. "Even if all this is true, the Southerners still refused to help us. For that they deserve death."

"Do they? Who are we to deal out death so easily? We have no control over life, why should we control death?" Kaelin pointed out. "It's not true about our Southern kin not helping us. They never received the message. How do they respond to help if they didn't know we were under attack?"

"What do you mean? You saw Pivan ride out with the request. And, you were the one who brought her into the Royal Hut, at least what was left of her. How can you say we didn't send for help?"

"I didn't say that. I said they never got the message. Someone intercepted Pivan on her errand and made it look like she had been killed by our Southern sisters. Even Melosa's reply and signature were forged. So began our feud with the Southern Amazons and none of us ever spoke to them about it, so how could we find out the truth? After we defeated the armies of men, we burned for revenge but as the years passed, it was gradually pushed into the backs of our minds. Until that day." Kaelin stopped, and turned to face the side of the bridge, resting her arms on the edge.

"Cyane's accident?" asked Litala, her voice quieter as she began to understand. Kaelin nodded. "It wasn't an accident, was it?"

"No. I always believed it wasn't an accident and now I am sure it was Tanva's doing."

"How?"

"When Cyane said that she was going to go herself and talk with the Southern Amazons, you know how some people reacted. People like Raska. They were furious, and I have a feeling that they have been keeping in contact with Tanva for the last five years. They must have told her about the trip. It was a perfect chance for her, to kill everyone who knew about the cover-up." Kaelin sighed loudly. "That valley had been secured, and our best scouts had been up there to check the safety. There was no reason why it happened. Only three escaped that landslide out of the forty that set out. Myself, Ranin, and Kalla, and only because we had been riding as the rearguard." Kaelin moved swiftly off the topic, as she remembered the painful memories of that day. "It did not matter, Tanva's doing or not, she had succeeded in ridding herself of all but one of her adversaries. And I was not staying for much longer."

"So you are telling me that Tanva first tried to murder my sister then tried to get revenge on the Northern Amazons by helping the armies of men. Then when that failed, she saw an opportunity and killed Cyane, Dana and Kilda?"

"Yes," replied Kaelin, flinching slightly at the mention of her dead friends.

"I don't believe it," said Litala, giving Kaelin a sideways glance, trying to tell whether she was lying or not.

"It's logical, Lit. Look at what you're doing now. What are you doing? You're about to go to war with fellow Amazons. Surely you can see that it's wrong." Litala looked down at her hands, not knowing why, but feeling ashamed. She looked over to the dark trees where she knew Tanva was waiting, wondering if Kaelin's words were true. "Where is Tanva, Litala? She's dangerous," warned Kaelin.

"She's..." 

Suddenly, Litala took off towards Gabrielle, who was still lying down on the ground. She launched herself into a dark figure that had been approaching the prone Southern Amazon Queen. A sickening scream sounded as she grappled with the unseen foe and Kaelin stood in shock, not knowing what had just occurred. Quickly, she ran across the bridge, realising that Ephiny was now beside her. They reached the two fallen women, Ephiny darting to Gabrielle's side and Kaelin gently rolling Litala over and on to her back. What she saw, made her gasp. A knife was imbedded in the stomach of her friend. Short breaths were coming from the woman, and Kaelin sat down, pulling her head on to her lap, stroking her hair. She looked up swiftly as her heard the faint rustling of someone running away through the forest.

"Litala, my friend. You're going to be okay. Don't worry."

"No... Kae. I'm... dying... you don't have... to pretend."

"Shush, save your energy."

"No... I have to.. " Litala turned her head with great effort to look at Gabrielle. "She's... a good one. I... saw it in her... like Brali..." she whispered. The injured woman smiled, closing her eyes. Kaelin smiled sadly with her friend as she remembered Litala's bondmate, killed in the war with the men.

Litala opened her eyes again, struggling to form words. "Stop them.. Kae. The Amazons..."

"I understand, my friend."

But Litala wasn't finished. "You... Queen." Kaelin shook her head violently. "Yes...must join... tribes... Kaelin." 

"Don't say that! You're not going to die on me. Hang on, Lit. I'll get you to the village, and maybe the Healer can do something, anything," Kaelin closed her eyes tightly and held her friend close.

"Hm, maybe," Litala whispered, but both of them knew the truth. Stomach wounds were virtually untreatable, but the dying person could last for hours before they finally died from the internal bleeding. Litala closed her eyes and Kaelin knew she had passed out.

Kaelin looked up to see two pairs of eyes staring at her, silently. Sighing shakily, she glanced up at the trees, wondering why there were no Northern Amazon scouts in the branches above. "She got away," she murmured to herself. She stood silently, carrying the body of Queen Litala and crossed the bridge, placing the body on the horse and vaulting up behind. She waited in silent thought as Ephiny helped Gabrielle, who had a nasty gash on her forehead as she had crumpled to the ground, over the bridge and up onto her horse, then mounting herself behind her Queen. "They're coming," the grieved warrior said softly, looking into the trees across the bridge. Kaelin rode off at a gentle pace, so as not to disturb the mortally wounded Queen any more than she had to, the events of the night weighing heavily on her.

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

Tanva crashed through the underbrush of the forest, running as fast as she could away from the scene. She didn't even stop to check if anyone was following, in case they caught her. Suddenly, three Amazons appeared from nowhere to stand in her path. She ran straight into them and the Amazon in the middle grabbed the struggling woman.

"Tanva?"

"Yes, yes," she cried.

"Tanva! Calm yourself. Where is the Queen?" asked a worried voice.

Tanva finally stopped struggling, realising that she had run into an advance party of Northern Amazons. "She um... " Tanva thought swiftly. "She's dead. They killed her. We tried to reason with them, but they ambushed us and I only just escaped," she rushed out. "We should attack them now, while they think they have the upper hand. We have to avenge the Queen!"

The tall Amazon looked at her in shock, while another looked into the distance trying to see any sign of pursuit. The woman holding her turned to one of her comrades. They had all heard the primal scream, and they had moved out to investigate.

"Send word to the divisions to tell them that we are not waiting for dawn. We strike now." 

"Yes, Captain Kalla."

She turned to the other warrior. "Take Tanva to our main force in the cave. Tell them to advance when you get there. The attack will go ahead as planned." She looked hard at Tanva, as if trying to read the woman. "Go now. These so called Amazons have done enough to us, without murdering our Queen. Litala will be avenged!"  

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

Eponin looked up at the moon, halfway through its journey in the sky, and sighed. Everything was in place and there was nothing for it, but to wait until word came that the divisions of Northern Amazons were on the move. Only then, could she send her Amazons out, and she prayed that Kaelin and Ephiny would make it back before then, with Gabrielle alive. She walked across the village and headed towards the Strategy Hut to look over the plans a fifth time. As she passed the Royal Hut, she spied a candle light burning through the window and she halted outside the door, unsure of whether she should attempt to talk to the dark warrior. After all, there was a very good chance that Xena would end up killing her, but she decided to take that chance. She knocked. There were sounds of movement in the room, before the door was yanked open by an expectant warrior.

"Gabrielle?" she blurted out, anxiously.

"Erm, no. I'm sorry Xena. I was just on my way to the Strategy Hut. I saw a light on and I just wanted to see if you wanted to accompany me or something. I'll go if you want."

Xena let out a long breath. "No, it's okay Eponin. I was going to go to look over the plans again anyway, so I'll go with you." Xena stepped out of the hut and down the few steps that led to the door.

Eponin glanced at the strained expression in Xena's eyes and plucked up her courage to try and ease her pain. It wasn't that talking was something Eponin was not good at, but it was the tactfulness that she lacked. She usually left these situations to Ephiny or Solari, but since Ephiny was attempting to retrieve their Queen, and Solari was still sorting out plans with her section, the job was left with her.

"Xena?" Xena turned her head to look at Eponin. The Weapons master suddenly saw just how tired Xena looked, as though her normally sharp eyes had dimmed somehow. Maybe it's the dark, she thought to herself. But she didn't believe it. "Erm, I know we've had our differences before. But I thought we could forget the past." Xena raised an eyebrow. "I know you must be going through Tartarus now, but I want you to know that the Nation is here for you, whatever happens. As much as you dislike it, you're a part of us now and we look after our own." Eponin broke the gaze turned her eyes downwards.

"Thank you," said Xena quietly after a few seconds, surprising the Amazon.

"That's okay," Eponin mumbled, embarrassed and looked up as Xena was about to push the door to the hut open. Suddenly, there was a commotion at the gates and shouting could be heard. Eponin and Xena glanced at each other and then broke into a run to see what was wrong. A few Amazon guards were hurriedly unbarring the gates and as soon as the opening was wide enough, a jet black war horse came surging through. By now, Xena and Eponin had reached the gates and Xena's heart jumped into her throat as she saw what looked like a blonde woman, cradled in one of Kaelin's arms. She's dead! her mind screamed.

"Gabrielle!" screamed Xena in agony, sprinting to her childhood friend, who had dismounted and was now gently taking the body from the horse and into her arms. Behind Kaelin, came another smaller, chestnut horse, carrying two riders. 

"Xena!" came the voice that Xena knew so well and had prayed to every God she knew to hear that voice again.

"Gabrielle!" shouted Xena again as she ran past Kaelin, pausing briefly to lay a hand on her friend's shoulder. The two riders had dismounted already, one supporting the other.

"Be careful Xena, she's hurt," warned Ephiny before she jogged over to Kaelin who was walking towards the Healer's Hut, carrying her burden.

But Xena wasn't listening. She scooped the Amazon Queen into a tight hug, Gabrielle returning the embrace just as fiercely. Suddenly, the rest of the world had slipped away and the only people left standing were them. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I'm so sorry," she whispered against the smaller woman's ear.

"You're sorry? You have nothing to be sorry for, Xena."

"Yes I do. I should have been there for you. I should have prevented them from taking you, from hurting you. I should have protected you..." Xena rambled on. 

Gabrielle looked up and placed a her finger on Xena's lips to quiet her. Time seemed to stand still as blue eyes looked into emerald and silent words of love and understanding passed unspoken between them. Xena took hold of Gabrielle's hand with her own, removing her finger from her lips, never breaking their gaze. Gabrielle's arms came to encircle Xena's neck as she gently drew the warrior's lips to her own. Xena had never in her life, experienced the feelings that this woman was stirring in her now. As their lips touched, the small flame that had been burning in her soul was suddenly all-consuming and she felt all control leave her as their tongues danced a dance of love. It was a slow exploration of a new tale that had begun for the two of them. When they were finally forced to part, they stood, foreheads touching, their eyes locked onto one another, each of them conveying the love they had found in each other.

"I love you, Xena," whispered Gabrielle.

"I love you, Gabrielle," replied Xena.  

Suddenly, a horn sounded throughout the village three times, startling Xena and Gabrielle. They broke their embrace as Eponin came running towards them. 

"It's started. They're on the move. Take your group down to your section. Quick!" the brunette shouted at Xena, as she took off in another direction. Scores of Amazon were arranging themselves in their groups, waiting to be issued orders from their Captains.

Xena turned to face Gabrielle, the anguish written all over her features. "Gabrielle, you must stay here. The children and elders need your strength. I must go. We have to stop them," she rushed.

Gabrielle grabbed hold of Xena's hands. "No, Xena. We can't go to war with them. Whatever happens, they are still our sisters," cried Gabrielle.

"I know." Xena looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "Please trust us. Trust me." A second passed, before Gabrielle nodded and Xena pulled the blonde woman into a hug and kissed her on the forehead. "We'll be back soon. I love you." She turned and sprinted after Eponin, who was now standing with Ephiny, Kaelin and Solari. After the briefest of moments, the small huddle parted ways, each running to a crowd of Amazons, yelling orders and within minutes they were dashing out of the gates and into the dark forest, leaving Gabrielle alone in the village square.

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

Continued... Chapter Nine

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