Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Major Spoilers: Previous story "Apotheosis", and HTLJ "Prodigal Sister"
Minor Spoilers: "Is There a Doctor...."
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Two: No trees were harmed during the production of this fanfic, although Xena's chakram is suffering a severe case of whiplash.
The morning dawned bright and somewhat hazy, a heavy feeling in the air indicating that it would be quite hot by midday. The four women awoke early, and Gabrielle insisted on helping in the kitchen while Xena hauled wood for the ovens, fed the livestock, repaired a broken barn door, and fetched several heavy kegs of ale from the basement. When at last the chores were done and the travelers prepared to depart, Cyrene saw them off bravely, hiding her disappointment.
"Safe travel," she wished them fervently as she delivered strong hugs to both Xena and Gabrielle. "Please try to be safe. And write me once in a while."
"I will. I promise," Gabrielle told her sincerely. Xena, fidgeting with Argo's reins, merely nodded.
At last they were off, Xena taking the lead with Argo while Gabrielle and Solari trailed behind, talking.
"What news of Ephiny and her son?" Gabrielle asked with forced cheer, although her interest was honest. "And what about Anaira and Mimi? How are they doing? Are you still with Eponin?"
"Eponin is fine," Solari said mechanically, watching Xena's back with a small troubled frown. "Ephiny and her son are fine. Anaira and her daughter are fine."
"Solari, I'm getting the feeling there's something you don't want to tell me," Gabrielle observed uneasily. "Something more than whatever conflict the Amazons are involved in. What is it? Talk to me."
"I ... I really shouldn't gossip," the warrior demurred, her body language evasive. "Like I said, you'll find out everything soon enough."
"Well, I-" Gabrielle stopped talking as she noticed Xena, who had tensed and slowed her pace. They were nearly to the river's edge where Xena had planned to part with them. As Gabrielle and Solari drew within earshot, the warrior turned and shook her head slightly at them, her expression tight with apprehension.
"What is it?" Solari asked anxiously, looking around. Xena suddenly whirled; her hand shot out faster than the eye could track, and plucked a feathered arrow from midair, inches from Gabrielle's head.
"Down!" Xena yelled, whirling around again, reaching for her sword as shrill battle cries filled the air and masked, leather-clad figures began dropping from the trees. Solari had already drawn her own sword and launched into battle with the nearest attacker, while Gabrielle, her mind racing, readied her staff and leapt to join in as well.
Xena was spinning furiously now, delivering kicks and punches designed mainly to hold her attackers off rather than disable them as her darting hands continued catching arrows, most of which were aimed directly at Gabrielle. As soon as a momentary break occurred in the action, Xena whipped her chakram from her side and hurled it toward the trees, where it connected not once but twice, felling the two archers from their posts before caroming off a few trees and returning to Xena's hand.
Seeing their source of cover fire removed, the other attackers quickly aborted the fight and took off, disappearing into the trees as invisibly as they had appeared. The three travelers were left panting and staring after them, blood and adrenaline still pounding in their veins. The entire encounter had lasted no more than a few minutes.
"Solari!" Gabrielle exclaimed, seeing the Amazon clutch with a grimace at her left shoulder. Bright blood seeped between her fingers and stained her leathers. Her sword lay at her feet where she had dropped it.
Xena came over as Gabrielle was prying Solari's reluctant fingers away and inspecting the wound. A sword had cut deeply into the flesh of the upper arm, exposing muscle. Gabrielle sucked in her breath with concern as she looked.
"This is bad. We need to get it wrapped, and tightly, and fast," the bard judged, pressing the edges of the wound together to stem the flow of blood. "Xena-"
"Here," replied the warrior, who had already fetched some clean cloths and an herbal ointment from Argo's saddlebags. As the two of them tended the wound, the Amazon grimacing but controlling herself, Xena bit out an angry question.
"Why were Amazons attacking us? They obviously knew who we are."
"Renegades," Solari grunted through gritted teeth. "They have no respect for the Queen, for Artemis ... for anything, but their own stupid ideas of glory and power."
"Renegade Amazons," Gabrielle repeated in near-astonishment, looking to Xena automatically. "Didn't Hercules mention something-"
"Yes, he had an encounter with them not long ago," Xena confirmed grimly, pulling the bandage tight around Solari's arm. "Apparently their plans for conquering all of Greece include murdering their own Queen."
"Mur-" Gabrielle stopped short, blinking. The fact that she had so clearly been the object of the attack hadn't fully sunk in. Now a pulsing fear of her own mortality took over, stealing the breath from her lungs and making her dart nervous glances in every direction. "Do you really think they were ... By the Gods...."
"Too tight?" Xena asked, tying off the last end of the bandage. Solari shook her head no.
"Thank you, Xena. We'll be all right." She bent to retrieve her sword.
"What?" Xena looked taken aback, and slightly outraged. "If you think I'm leaving you two now, you're crazy."
"Xena, it was agreed," Solari began, but Gabrielle stopped her.
"Solari, don't be stupid. You can't defend yourself and me from that many attackers with a bad arm."
"It's not my sword arm," the Amazon protested weakly, but it was just for show. She and Xena both grimaced with displeasure at the change of plans, but neither voiced another objection.
"This way," Solari said with forced calm, turning back to the road. "It's probably safer if we stick to the main ways as long as possible."
A long, tense few hours later, the three finally arrived at the Amazon village, weary and irritable from having spent the entire journey on alert. Whether influenced by Xena's presence or not, the unseen renegades had not attacked again, but it was with intense relief that Solari escorted Xena and Gabrielle to Ephiny's home and then went off in search of the healer.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny said warmly, stepping forward to hug her friend. "Xena. Thank you both for coming so quickly."
"Your summons made it sound urgent," Gabrielle said with concern, glancing distractedly around the small cabin. It was furnished mostly with an eye to functionality, although the occasional small toy or crudely painted parchment hanging on the walls testified that a child lived there as well. The living space was one large room, with a table and several chairs for conducting business or socializing; a door in the back led to a small kitchen area. A curtain in one corner could be drawn to shelter the bed, but at the moment it was opened and the bed stood with rumpled covers and ... Gabrielle paused and looked again ... two pairs of sheepskin slippers tucked underneath. She glanced at Xena, who had not moved from the doorway. The warrior's expression was, as usual, carefully controlled.
"Yes," Ephiny replied solemnly. "There's serious trouble brewing."
"We got a taste of that trouble on the road," Xena said almost nastily, as if she blamed Ephiny personally for the attack. "A band of your renegades attacked us."
"Oh?" Ephiny looked alarmed. "But you're all right?"
"Solari took a slash to the arm," Gabrielle said, "but she should be okay. What we want to know is, why? Who are they? What do they want?"
Ephiny sighed. "I wish I could answer all that in a few words," she said. "We don't know a lot about their actual intent, except what we hear in rumors and hearsay."
"Eph, where did you hide the blackroot?" called a voice from the small kitchen, and Anaira emerged, holding two mugs. She started at the sight of the others and gave a wry smile. "Xena. Gabrielle. I didn't realize you were here."
"Anaira," Gabrielle said with some surprise ... but not much. At least this explained some things: Solari's reticence, the extra set of slippers. "You're looking well."
"I'm doing very well ... thanks to you," the other warrior replied, setting down the mugs and coming forward to hug Gabrielle. "I can never repay you for helping me join the Nation."
"No, it's the Amazons who owe you thanks for that," said Ephiny with a fond smile. "Anaira has been amazing with our younger warriors, teaching them to defend themselves and everything. She's a fantastic teacher."
"I'll bet," Xena said wryly. Gabrielle turned to look at her friend, suddenly painfully conscious of the tension emanating from her.
"Listen, Xena, now that I'm safely here, you can be on your way like we planned," she said softly. Ephiny and Anaira both looked surprised. Xena looked uncomfortable.
"I don't think so," she denied. "No, I'd rather stick around, at least until I hear Ephiny's explanation. It looks like this is more serious than I realized."
"It is serious, but if you have somewhere else to be...." Ephiny said uncertainly. Xena shook her head.
Ephiny glanced from Xena to Gabrielle and back again, and shrugged. "All right. We'll certainly be glad to have your input." She gestured to the table. "Shall we sit?"
"What about that tea?" Anaira offered, moving back toward the kitchen. "I can dig out two more mugs. Gabrielle?"
"No, thank you," Gabrielle demurred, and Xena shook her head. Anaira shrugged and leaned against the door jamb, adopting a casual but intensely watchful posture so like Xena that Gabrielle blinked, disconcerted. Focusing her attention on Ephiny, Gabrielle moved to the table and pulled out a chair, sitting down. Ephiny did the same, and looked up at Xena, but the warrior moved to lean against a wall herself, opposite Anaira. Gabrielle was struck suddenly by the absurdity of the scene, as if she and Ephiny were wary leaders of two warring factions, sitting down to negotiate a treaty with their respective bodyguards on hand.
To defuse the situation, she began with an innocuous question. "So how's Xenon?"
Ephiny smiled in reply. "He's fine. Thrilled to have met the legendary Hercules last month. He'll be just as excited to meet Xena. He already loves to boast that it was she who delivered him."
"He and Mimi get along wonderfully," Anaira put in from her post. Gabrielle smiled over Ephiny's shoulder at her.
"That's great. I can't wait to see both of them." She turned her attention back to Ephiny, growing serious. Before she could speak, Ephiny began.
"It all started after Melosa died, really, although there have been renegade Amazons around since I was a child. They'd always been content, it seemed, just laying low and staging the occasional raid on nearby villages -- we heard that they often stole girl children to enlarge their numbers, and sometimes killed boy children, but it was all second- or third-hand, and we never knew how to find them or what to do. But recently they've become more aggressive than ever, and now they're attacking actual Amazons, not just the villages."
"You said you don't really know what they want," Gabrielle prompted.
"Well, not in any concrete sense. I mean, just from observing their tactics, it's clear that they disagree with the way the Nation is run these days -- they don't think we should treaty with the Centaurs and the other kingdoms run by men. They think we should conquer and kill, rather than making peace. And they're willing to kill us to enforce their vision.
"Three days ago," Ephiny went on grimly, "they attacked the Amazon village in the kingdom of Gregor, over the hills, right on the edge of Centaur land. Our Amazons fought well, but a lot of them were killed or injured, and they couldn't keep the village. They fled here, and the renegades have taken over the village. They're using it as a base, and it's pretty clear they plan to attack the Centaurs." Her expression was worried. "It's not just my son I'm worried about, although he is with his father's family among the Centaurs now. The Centaurs, and most of the lords and kings in this area, realize that these are renegades. They're not going to blame us for the attacks, thank the gods, but we have to stop them before they go too far. Pretty soon they'll be taking lands farther away, where people don't know the difference, and the Amazon Nation's reputation will be damaged."
"I see," Gabrielle said seriously, shuddering slightly as she contemplated the implications. "So what can we do? What can I do?"
"Gabrielle, I know you're not experienced in diplomacy -- or in making war," Ephiny said, with a glance at Xena that held no malice. "And this situation probably isn't the best for you to try your hand at being the Queen ... but the fact is that you are the queen, and I thought it would be good for morale if you were here, to help with the planning and the discussions and, if necessary, the fighting. Besides," and she glanced again at Xena, this time somewhat ruefully, "I wanted you here where I could keep an eye on you. The renegades' obvious first step would be to eliminate the Amazon Queen."
"Yeah, they already tried that once today," Xena drawled, her casual tone and posture belying her utter concentration on the matter at hand. "But I take it you haven't had any direct attacks here yet?"
"No, not yet," Ephiny replied, "but I don't want us getting cocky. We've got scouts going out daily -- almost hourly, actually -- to gather information on the renegades' position and to try to figure out what they're planning, what they want, how many they are, and so forth. We heard that Hercules killed one of their most powerful leaders recently, so we're hoping this might be the time to act."
"I'm happy to do anything to help, of course," Gabrielle told her friend. "I'll mingle with the others here, talk to them, let them know I'm part of this effort. But when it comes to dictating policy...."
"You let me take care of that," Ephiny assured her. "I want you to be at all the meetings, and to give your input on everything ... but if you don't feel comfortable making the actual decisions, I'll help you out."
"Great," Gabrielle said with evident relief. Ephiny gave her a sympathetic smile.
"I know this is a lot to take in all at once. You look tired too; you must have had a long journey. Why don't you and Xena go find something to eat and relax for a bit? We can discuss strategies later."
"I'm not hungry," Xena said firmly. "Why don't you tell me all about your weapons reserves and your fighting power."
"You two talk shop," said Anaira, pushing away from her wall. "I'll take Gabrielle to the mess hall and make sure she knows her way around."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said, getting up from her chair. Xena and Ephiny also gave Anaira two different looks of gratitude, neither of which Gabrielle fully understood. Rolling her head from side to side to loosen the tension in her neck, she followed Anaira out the door.
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