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Love's Test by Wolfsword 

Chapter Nine

It was deathly silent in the forest. No creature moved for fear of disturbing the quiet. In the dark branches of the trees, Eponin waited silently, her lithe body spread along a long branch overhanging a forest trail. She turned her head slowly, aware that the smallest of noises could alert someone to her presence in the trees. She looked down the wide path, squinting in the darkness for any sign of approach. She twisted her head the other way, looking to the other side of the trail, where the path led into a large circular clearing. Suddenly, she was aware of slow movement in the corner of her eye and turned her head again to see a large group of Northern Amazons creeping through underbrush in two single files along the sides of the path. The gamble that the Northern Amazons would prefer moving along the ground for the cover instead of the trees had paid off, and Eponin almost breathed a sigh of relief that all of her section were hidden in the trees. She knew that there were at least twenty women in the group and as she watched the group approach, she acknowledged the almost invisible way in which the whole group moved. To any one it would seem like a gentle wind, rustling a few leaves, but to the Weapons master's trained ears, the sounds were unmistakable. As they moved closer, she ran through the plan in her head swiftly, praying to Artemis for luck. When they were a few paces away, she took a deep breath and rolled off her branch, landing lightly in full view of the Northern Amazons.

"It's pointless to..." In the first moment of their shock, Eponin tried to explain that fighting was not necessary, but when an arrow whizzed past her ear, she gave up trying to talk and began sprinting for the clearing, weaving along the path to dodge the arrows being fired at her. As one of the fasters sprinters in her tribe, there wasn't much chance of one hitting her in the darkness, but still, a lucky shot could have blown their plans to shreds if Eponin had been hit. She ran into the clearing and then slowed as she listened for the quiet thumps of the Amazons pursuing her. She ran to the other side of the clearing, hiding behind a large oak and taking a out a small shard of mirror, from a pouch in her belt. She peeked around the tree trunk, watching as one after the other, the Northern Amazons filled the clearing, looking left and right, trying to see any signs of their prey.

Not yet, not yet, not... yet, she thought to herself. Patience under pressure was something that had been gifted to her at birth. After all, it did take her mother a full three days to eventually give birth to the stubborn baby. She smiled to herself at the thought. She looked around the tree again, seeing the last of the Amazons enter the clearing. Now. She tilted the mirror piece to catch what little moonlight there was, and waved it around quickly. As soon as she did, the Northern Amazons in the clearing saw it, and realised their mistake too late, as the sound of four knifes slashed into rope. They looked up, as a large cage, made of sturdy wood, came crashing down from the pitch black sky. The ones standing on the outside of the group leaped away from the danger, falling to the ground as a thick pile of dust from the earth was lifted from the impact of the cage. Immediately, Southern Amazons dropped from the trees surrounding the clearing, working to secure the cage, tying it using ropes attached to the top of the cage to four trees on the edge of the clearing so that it could not be lifted again. Some materialised from the trees to round up the few that escaped the cage and disarm them. A couple tried to fight, but were rewarded with arrows to the leg, preventing them from doing any harm. Others came to stand in a circle around the cage, holding crossbows aimed at the captured women. The Northern Amazons, realised their situation was futile and sheathed their weapons, staring defiantly at their captors. 

Well, that went well, Eponin thought wryly as she listened to the still silence.

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Kalla moved slowly and cautiously through the underbrush. Covertness was the key she knew, and the Northern Amazon had every intention of keeping her division safe. She had sent two scouts ahead, to check for traps in the path, and so far, they had not returned. She looked up suddenly as she thought she heard a faint whisper of breath nearby. A small feeling of concern settled in her stomach, and she called a halt to the division. She made the sign for her second in command, who was bringing up the rear and seconds later, the Amazon was beside her Captain. Swiftly, she signed that a small scouting party was to be formed, and that she wanted her to move ahead with her group, to look out for the two scouts and traps. The message was sent down the line quickly and soon a group of ten Amazons had been formed and the new leader was moving in front already. Kalla waited for a short time, to give them sufficient time to be warned if there was a trap. She knew it was heartless to send a group out in front, on the sole purpose of springing a trap, but she had to think about majority of her division. They set off again, moving ever closer to the village, where she had been told that those 'lazy' Amazons would be sleeping. How wrong her information was.

Five minutes later, the Captain had felt a small tremor beneath their feet. The thick layer of leaves that littered the ground seemed to start to vibrate and before she knew what was happening, the earth had opened up under her and she felt herself falling. For one second, Kalla believed that she was about to die, Gaia having played some twisted joke of fate with her. But her fall was short, and she landed in the dirt, feeling the impact on her buttocks and she knew she would have a large bruise if she ever survived. Shit, she thought to herself. Quickly, she realised that they had been caught in a fall-trap, and she cursed herself for not seeing it sooner. She looked around and saw the twenty-five strong section of her division, standing up and brushing off the dirt and mud from their clothes and weapons. None seemed to be injured, but in the almost total darkness, she couldn't tell. Looking upwards, she saw a black silhouette of a face appear over the edge of the deep trench. Gods, we'll be slaughtered, she thought grimly. She knew these types of traps well, having used them many times in the event of an enemy invading their home. Kalla closed her eyes and waited for the rain of arrows or oil that should have fallen on them. She was surprised when she heard a voice calling down to them. 

"Is everyone alright?" Kalla's brows knit together in confusion, and she saw her feelings reflected in the faces of those next to her. "Hello?" the voice called again.

"Erm, yes," Kalla was hesitant about what to do. They had never been taught how to act when faced with enemies who asked about their health.

"Good. Look, there's been a misunderstanding. Just sit tight and you'll be out of there soon, when we've secured your other groups. Don't try anything. There's a section of guards here armed with crossbows." Kalla didn't reply and the face disappeared. "Watch your heads," called the voice.

As soon as she spoke, few torches were thrown into the pit from above, one almost landing on Kalla's head. They lit them, and stuck them in the ground to illuminate their dreary surroundings. One of her section came up to her.

"What do we do now, Captain?"

Kalla shrugged. "Sit tight, I guess." Kalla wondered about the group she had sent on, and what had become of them. Maybe they'll carry out the job for us, she thought, but she knew it was an impossibility.

Up above, the Southern Amazons were clapping each other on the backs for their stroke of genius. Fell-traps weren't easy to pull off, especially in the dark and the slightest miscommunication could have sent the plan skywards instead of downwards. Solari looked around at her section, seeing the pride shining in their muddy faces. They had been lying of the sides of the path, under the cover of leaves for almost a candlemark, waiting for the Northern Amazons to come through. Solari had seen the group coming and was getting ready to signal to spring the trap, when someone had coughed and the group had halted. She had been fuming under her leaf cover, and when she saw the Captain split the group, she had been almost livid. Solari's temper wasn't known for it's length. She had been faced with the choice of springing the trap for the ten or so scout team, and allowing the rest to escape or letting the first group pass and capturing the second, larger group. Fortunately, she was a pessimist, and as a result always thought about the worst outcomes and was able to plan for them. She allowed the ten Northern Amazons to pass, in the hope that the rest of her group, which she had left further up the trail would be able to bring them down, without anyone getting hurt. After making her decision, she waited until all of the second group were in between the markers, and then gave the signal. The ropes that were holding the planks of wood beneath the path that the group were walking on, were severed and the ground gave way under their weight. The preparation for the trap was difficult and gruelling, since they had to dig a trench almost three body lengths deep and ten lengths long, but when it worked, it worked beautifully. 

Solari looked up as an Amazon came running down the path towards them. All the Amazons froze, and then relaxed as they saw it was one of their own. 

"Captain, we have them. There's ten of them. A few have arrow injuries to the legs because they fought back, but other than that, no fatalities," the young Amazon reported.

Solari smiled, feeling a sense of satisfaction at the efficiency of her group. "Good work. Bring them here. It'll be easier to watch them."

"Yes, Captain." Solari watched the girl jog back down the path she had come from. "You can all take a breather, but keep your wits about. There were reports of only thirty of them around here, but you never know," she warned. Amazons tend to appear out of nowhere, she thought to herself.

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Ephiny waited with six others from her group. They lay at the side of a path, watching for the group of Northern Amazons they were expecting. After a while, they spotted shadowy figures advancing towards them, and the Regent looked to each person in her crew, seeing the determination there. She lifted her right hand so all could see, and pointed towards the path. They moved as one, coming to stand, totally unarmed in the middle of the trail. They waited until the group had seen them, and had begun to run towards them, before they turned and ran the other way down the path. They ran at top speed, and they quickly came to a bend in the trail. As they turned the corner, arrows shot past their heads, slamming into the trunks in front of them. Swiftly, they scaled the trees at the edge of the path and became as still as statues. Ahead of them, Ephiny could see the dark clearing and they waited for the group of Northern Amazons to follow them around the corner and into the clearing. 

The yells and shouts preceded them, and Amazons in the trees watched as they came hurtling around the corner, swords drawn and ready for battle. They swept past the trees, and tore into the clearing, expecting to find their enemies. They didn't get what they expected. As they ran into the clearing, the first ten Amazons lost their balance and went skidding across, almost seeming to skate, before collapsing in a heap. The next five behind them, seeing their comrades falling, checked their pace, but the rest of them behind could not see ahead through the darkness and crashed straight into them, sending all of them sprawling into the middle of the clearing. 

The seven Amazons in the trees leapt from their places and went running to the edge, careful not to enter the grease covered floor, just in time to see the rest of their group throwing more buckets of oil, mixed with grease into the clearing. Most of the Northern Amazons in the middle had lost grip on their weapons and a few were trying to stand, only to fall back down again when they lost their footing. Two of them were trying to help each other to stand, and they nearly made it, if not for another, who came sliding over and bowled them over. Ephiny found it hard not to laugh at the comical sight of the twenty grease covered Amazons, but her comrades beside her were laughing so hard that their stomachs hurt. She didn't stop them. After all, the Northern Amazons aren't going anywhere in a hurry, she thought light-heartedly.

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Xena watched the red feathered Northern Amazons enter the glade. They looked around for enemies, then began to cross as quickly as possible. Here goes, she thought. She somersaulted down in in the middle of their division, as they got halfway across. As soon as she touched the ground, a member of her group touched a torch flame to the ground. The Northern Amazons watched in horror as a blazing trail of fire swept around them, encircling the edge of the glade and penning them in. Through the chest-high flames, they could see the flickering figures of Xena's group, armed with crossbows and swords standing around the circle, ready to deal with anyone who should escape the ring of fire. As they got over their shock, they realised that Xena was among them, and they immediately attacked. This warrior, who had murdered one of their previous Queens and was now holding them prisoner should at least deserve death. Xena blocked a slash to her head, and shoved the Amazon back hard, sending her flying into the bodies of her sisters behind her. Then she dropped into a crouching position, narrowly avoiding a cut to her head from behind and swinging her leg around, catching the leg of her attacker and two more that were nearby. She stood quickly and looked around, ready for any attack.

"Listen to me..." she began, as she parried a thrust, flicking her wrist and causing the sword of her opponent to fly up into the air. She caught it with her left hand and twirled both swords in her hands. "Stop it. Fighting is useless. You've all been misled." A few of the Amazons faltered, but one charged, only to be kicked through the air, landing hard on the ground. "The Southern Amazons are not to be blamed for your war with the men and what happened. They didn't receive the message because it was intercepted..." Xena was interrupted by another Amazon, who ran at her. Xena swatted her sword blade aside and elbowed her in the face. "... and the reply was forged from Melosa," she carried on. "Stop attacking me and listen for once!"

A taller Amazon pushed her way to the front. "Everyone, sheath your weapons," she ordered. 

"But Captain Kristal..."

"Put away your weapons," she ordered again, her brown eyes flashing in the firelight. The sound of twenty-four swords being sheathed was heard, and then she turned to the dark warrior. "Xena, you have a lot of nerve to put yourself in this position. Especially given the fact that you have done us very wrong in the past. That alone makes me want to believe you, but I am having a hard time doing it." The Captain looked hard at the blue-eyed warrior. "What proof can you give me now to show me that you speak the truth?"

"None. Only my word. And the obvious fact that these Southern Amazons have gone to great measures to try and prevent any bloodshed between your tribes."

Kristal looked around at their unique prison walls, then back at Xena. She nodded once in acknowledgement. "What do you plan to do with us now?"

"Nothing," replied Xena. "You will be free to go soon, on two conditions. First you give us your solemn oath that you will shed no blood in battle in this forest. The second, that you come to the village to learn the truth." 

Kristal seemed to think it over for a second, before saluting Xena. "I swear upon my life and my honour that I will spill no blood in this woodland. My oath includes all that are under my command. We will honour your conditions."

Xena looked into the Captain's eyes. "That is good enough for me." With that, she turned and vaulted over the still roaring flames to wait with her own command.

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Kaelin walked slowly down the middle of a forest path, in the darkness. She sighed to herself, her insides still in turmoil from Litala's impending death. Yes, she was an Amazon Princess. But as the fourth in line, after Cyane, Litala and Kilda, she had never thought that the Queen's Mask would actually come to her. Now, she had no choice but to accept her place. If there's a tribe to go back to, she thought. She knew that if things did not go according to plan, many of the Northern Amazons would perish. It was total madness and she knew she had to stop it. She halted abruptly, as her keen hearing picked up the soft footfalls of an Amazon division ahead of her. She waited on the path patiently, and soon, the vague forms of Amazons came into Kaelin's night vision and she swallowed, hoping that they would recognise her in time before she got stuck full of arrows. Just then, the clouds were blown away in a strong gust of wind, and for a second, Kaelin was illuminated, bathed in silver moonlight. The footsteps ceased their movement immediately, the shapes melting into the gloom of the forest and Kaelin realised that she had to speak now.

"Sisters, listen to me! It is I, Kaelin!" She was forced to duck swiftly as she heard the whisper of an arrow flying through the air, only to land harmlessly behind her. Still she stood her ground, refusing to give up. "The Caledon Wars! I was there, remember! I tell the truth!" This time, a group of shafts were sent hurtling towards the tall warrior, from somewhere in the forest up ahead on the left, as if she had angered them by bringing up those times. She somersaulted high into the air, the arrows flying by under her. "Look, I carry no weapon! Let me explain!" she called in desperation, holding the flats of her hands outwards. Silence replied her, as if they were thinking on what she had said. Then a figure appeared from the side of the path to stand opposite Kaelin, some ten paces away.

"If it is really Kaelin, then what are you doing here?" challenged the Amazon, brandishing her sword in her hand.

"Milika? Is that you?" Kaelin saw the Amazon's sword dip slightly in surprise. "I told you that I had gone on a quest, and it brought me to this village," she explained.

"So, you have deceived us and are now helping the enemy, is that it?" the Amazon accused. Her grip on her sword tightened again, shocked that her friend would do such a thing.

"No, they are not the enemy, Mili. They are our sisters..."

"Don't say that!" interrupted Milika, using her sword to point at Kaelin. "They killed Cyane, Dana and Kilda, as well as thirty-four true Amazons. They almost let us perish and now, they have killed Litala!" 

"Litala is not yet dead! And she was not wounded by them!" shouted Kaelin, the scene a few candlemarks ago resurfacing in her mind. "Listen. Tanva is behind all of this. She manipulated Litala into going through with this attack. When she met with us at the crossing, I explained what had occurred. Tanva tried to kill Gabrielle, the Southern Amazon Queen, but Litala took the dagger herself! I was there, and I saw it all! As we speak, Litala lies dying from a fatal stomach wound! Tanva is your traitor and your enemy!" 

"Tanva said that the Regent killed our Queen and you just stood by and watched!" Milika replied, fury colouring her voice.

"Is that so?" answered Kaelin in a quieter voice. "Then where did this come from?" Kaelin unhooked a small brown pouch at her belt and held it up for her to see. 

"What is it?" called Milika, curiously. 

"See for yourself," replied Kaelin, tossing the bag over to land at the feet of the Amazon. 

Milika stared at the pouch for a second, wondering if it was some sort of trick. Quickly, she picked it up and untied the strings and reached in with her hand. She recoiled instantly as she felt the cold touch of metal, almost dropping the pouch. She rubbed her fingers together, feeling the sticky liquid on her hand and then brought it up to her nose, immediately detecting the coppery smell of blood. She reached in again, and pulled out the small ornate dagger, its blade covered in dark red.

"Recognise it?" came the voice of Kaelin.

Milika swallowed, as she inspected it, feeling the truth of Kaelin's words. "Yes. It was the dagger that Tanva's mother gave her when she received her Warrior's Mask." The Amazon clenched her jaw and dropped the ghastly object back into the pouch, quickly drawing the strings together again. She looked up at Kaelin, when it suddenly occurred to her that Kaelin was royalty and if what Kaelin said was true, she would soon be Queen. She sheathed her sword and saluted. "I apologise, my Princess for doubting your words. Amazons! Show yourselves and acknowledge your Royal!"

Kaelin's jaw dropped slightly, as thirty Amazons materialised behind Milika, and bowed before her. "Princess Kaelin," they shouted in unison.

"We are yours to command, your Highness," called Milika, bowing as well.

Suddenly, behind Kaelin, appeared forty warriors, looking curiously at Kaelin and the other Amazons who were paying homage. Immediately, the Northern Amazons drew their weapons in ready for attack, causing the Southern Amazons to do the same.

"No!" ordered Kaelin. "They mean you no harm!" Kaelin wondered to herself, which group of Amazons she was referring to, as she stood between the two groups. Silence hung in the air for a second before Milika sheathed her sword, her division slowly followed suit. Seeing this, the Southern Amazons scabbarded their own, and both sets looked expectantly at their leader.

"Come, we are going back to the village, where everything will be explained." She looked at Milika. "Together." 

Milika stood uncertain for a moment, but then made up her mind. She had followed this woman unquestioningly before, and now that there was a possibility that she would be Queen, she felt that she could not disobey her. "We go where you go, my Princess." Then a thought flashed into her mind. "Your Highness?" Milika looked uncomfortable.

"Mili, we've been friends for a long time. You don't need to call me that. What is it?"

"Is your... their village defended?" Kaelin's eyebrow rose, in silent question. "We have four divisions such as these. They are the advance parties. We all had orders to attack the village and kill everyone in it." 

"We know. They are being taken care of. Hopefully, no harm will come to them," assured Kaelin.

"No, you don't understand. We have four advance parties, but we have one main division of seventy or so warriors. Their orders were to wait for one candlemark for us to get as close to your village as we could and maybe draw out all the warriors from the village. Then they were to use the main forest path and lead a crushing attack into the village. They have a section on horseback. No one was to be spared, not even children." Milika hung her head in shame. 

Kaelin's face drained of colour. "Hanal! Go find Xena's group and send word to the others about the main division!" she shouted to a young Amazon nearby. "We have to get back there now!" she yelled to everyone else, as she began to take off towards the village. She stopped abruptly, her head cocked to one side, listening intently. "Sweet Artemis," she breathed, as she felt the tremble of hoof beats in the ground, which resounded in Kaelin's ears like a violent waterfall. She took off again, the Amazons from both tribes quickly following her. We'll never make it, she thought frantically.

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Continued... Chapter Ten

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