If you hadn't already guessed, I am not a master strategist. War and battle plotting are not my strong suits, so if any of the points seem illogical and you find yourself thinking, "A real army commander wouldn't..." then it is probably my fault and I apologize. Suggestions are, of course, welcomed.
As of this chapter I will no longer put spoiler warnings for Deliverer,
Gabrielle's Hope, The Debt, or The Furies. I figure if you've read this
far, you don't mind the spoilers. I will continue to put spoiler warnings
for other episodes as necessary.
Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Small Spoilers: Been There, Done That
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Eight: No hash was slung during the production of this fanfic, despite Mimi's valiant attempts to start a food fight.
Outside the sturdy hut that served as a prison, Ephiny and Eponin were conferring quietly. Solari was speaking with one of the five Amazons guarding the door, all of whom looked tense and menacing. Anaira was nowhere to be seen.
"Ephiny," said Gabrielle as she approached, striving to throw off the confusion and tentative joy of her conversation with Xena. "What news?"
"No news, apparently," Ephiny replied, turning to include Gabrielle and Xena in the conversation. "Eponin and I were just going over what we know about the renegades. It's important not to let them see how much we know, or how much we don't."
"I've already spoken to the second captive," Eponin explained. "It's pretty clear that she's just a soldier, goes where she's told, fights when she's told. She doesn't know anything that can help us. It's this woman Korain who concerns us now."
"What's your strategy for the interrogation?" Xena asked quietly. Ephiny watched her carefully as she replied.
"It's simple enough: we give her an opportunity to talk, and if she doesn't, we yell and threaten, then give her another chance, and if she still doesn't, she can rot in there." She looked Xena up and down and added, "You can just stand there and look intimidating. I'm sure you know how."
"I'll manage," Xena said flippantly. Gabrielle marveled at her blank face and wished, not for the first time, that she could learn that trick.
"Let's go, then," Ephiny said, leading them toward the door. "The sooner we get this over with, the happier I'll be."
The guards moved aside and unbolted the door, and Ephiny, Eponin, Gabrielle, Xena and Solari went in. Xena and Solari took up guardian postures on either side of the door, while Ephiny and Eponin moved forward to confront the prisoner, and Gabrielle stayed behind and between them, observing.
The dark, musty, low-ceilinged room was empty except for a single chair, in which the prisoner was seated with her hands still bound in front of her, and a small table in front of that. Ephiny looked down on Korain and said coolly, "Korain, we'll make this real easy for you." She ticked off the points on her fingers. "Tell us how many you are, who your leaders are, and what their plan is, and we'll set you free. Otherwise," she gestured widely at the surroundings, "get real familiar with this."
Korain sneered at her. "I'll tell you nothing."
"Nothing is what you'll be when I get through-" Eponin began, but Ephiny put out a hand and she quieted.
"Be reasonable, Korain," Ephiny cajoled. "We know you're an important member of your tribe. We know there are more of us than of them, and we have you. What do they have?"
"The wisdom to see you for the doomed fools that you are," the prisoner retorted, "and the strength to reclaim the rightful heritage of the Amazon Nation!"
"Those are pretty words," Gabrielle said, speaking up unexpectedly over Ephiny's next sally. "But what do you really have to put behind them? You're in a prison cell with a dozen guards outside the door and your only hope for survival is to depend on the mercy of the women in this room. So who's really the fool?"
"Queen Gabrielle," Korain spat, as if she were swearing. "You dare speak to me of survival? These so-called Amazons degrade the name of our people by their very existence, and you call yourself their leader!"
"Enough," Ephiny said firmly, moving forward slightly, forcing Korain's attention back to her. "You get one last chance, Korain, and then you had better pray some god will have mercy on you, because by Artemis none of us will! Now tell us what we want to know!"
"May your death be slow and painful," the captive told her heatedly. Ephiny shrugged.
"So be it. We're wasting our time here. Let her rot." She turned to go, and the others followed suit.
As they approached the door, which Solari was reaching to open, the renegade's voice called them back, ringing through the small space.
"That woman who stands with you," she said, with an ugly note in her voice that made Gabrielle shiver. "The one called Anaira. She is no Amazon."
"Gabrielle was not born an Amazon, and now she is our Queen," Ephiny pointed out, her tone icily calm. "Anaira has undergone the rituals and is as much an Amazon as I am -- and more so than you!"
"Pah!" the renegade exclaimed in disgust. "If you only knew the truth about her!" Her lip curled in a snarl of nasty pleasure. "I could tell you things about her that would-" She broke off as Ephiny shook her head, chuckling with mock sympathy.
"Ah, you know so little of what it truly means to be an Amazon," the Queen-Regent clucked. "Obviously..." she glanced back at the renegade and her expression suddenly hardened, going from sarcasm to intense venom in the blink of an eye, "...you would never survive a day among us!" She whirled and stormed out of the prison, leaving the others to follow behind.
"We should just have her put to death and be done with it," Solari fumed as they emerged into the darkening evening. Gabrielle raised her eyebrows.
"That's probably just what she'd do to you, if it had been you captured by them," the bard pointed out. "Would you stoop to their level like that?" Solari looked at the ground, abashed. The others seemed surprised.
"Let's go back to the war room, I need another look at the map," Ephiny said. "But first, I want the guard here doubled. If they do try to break her out...."
"I'll take care of it and meet you there," Solari agreed. She turned to confer with the guards, and the others began walking back toward Ephiny's cabin.
"She was so full of hatred," Gabrielle mused aloud as they went. "What could make a person so angry with the Amazon Nation?"
"The death of her sister?" Eponin offered, seeming subdued. Gabrielle shook her head.
"But Anaira said she was already a renegade when that happened. What drives them to denounce the Nation and go to war like this?"
"If we knew that, we wouldn't be fighting this war," Xena said calmly. Gabrielle frowned, lost in thought.
Anaira was already in the cabin when they arrived, looking at the map. She looked up at their entrance and asked, "How did it go?"
"Not too well," Gabrielle replied. Ephiny merely grimaced and shook her head, going over to the table. Her hand lay casually on Anaira's shoulder as she looked down at the map. The others moved to join her, looking as well. In a moment Solari reappeared and Ephiny spoke.
"If they're going to stage a complete takeover of Centaur land, they'll need to take Balacia here on the other side of the mountain. They haven't attacked it yet because, next to this one, it's our largest town, and its positioning on the hillside is well-defended. But it seems safe to assume they're going to stage a major attack there."
"Or at least, that was their plan before this," Anaira put in. "With Korain in our custody, they may hold off on that."
"And what about Gabrielle?" Eponin added. "Do you think, because we routed them at Minisis, they'll give up on her for the moment?"
"I'm not assuming anything like that," Ephiny said. "For caution's sake let's continue to assume they want Korain back and Gabrielle dead." Gabrielle shuddered at the bald words, and Ephiny looked apologetically at her.
"More warriors are coming in every day," Solari said. To Gabrielle, she explained, "Before you got here, we sent word to the outlying Amazon tribes to the west and south, where there aren't any renegades, asking them to send us two or three warriors each. Our fighting force is strong."
"Which is why we're going to leave a small force at Minisis," Ephiny put in, "and of course here, but we're going to take most of our warriors to Balacia to defend it. After they attack there, assuming we can fend them off, we'll be positioned to retake the village of Gregoria, the one on the Centaur border that they currently hold."
"I don't know. It sounds dangerous," Gabrielle said anxiously. "What if they attack here while most of our warriors are at Balacia?"
Ephiny exchanged an uneasy look with Anaira. "We thought of that, Gabrielle. Which is why you're going to Balacia."
"What?" Xena moved forward slightly, eyes narrowing. "You can't-"
"I know, Xena, I don't much like it either," Ephiny cut in, "but think about it. It makes sense. If they think Gabrielle is there, they'll have even more reason to attack. And since we'll have the majority of our fighting force there anyway, we'll be able to protect her. Maybe even better than we could from here."
Xena scowled, but she backed off. "Then I'm going as well."
"Good, we can use you," Ephiny agreed quickly. Gabrielle felt her heart pound in her chest, excitement and fear warring for prominence.
"How soon do we leave?" she asked around a lump of anxiety in her throat.
"Morning," Ephiny said shortly. "I'm hoping they'll be less likely to attack during daylight, but it will let them see you. Besides, it's been a long day. We all need some rest."
"What about Korain?" Anaira asked uncomfortably. "You could take her to Balacia as well. Give them one more incentive there, one less reason to attack here."
Ephiny scowled. "I'd like to, but it makes me nervous. It would also be another incentive for them to attack us on the road."
"Yeah, I wouldn't advise it," Eponin agreed. "At least here, we can guard her and keep her in once place."
Xena had been watching Anaira carefully. Now she spoke up. "If it makes you that unhappy being around her, go to Balacia. I'll stay here." Gabrielle wanted to cry out No! -- she wanted Xena with her, wherever she was -- but she kept quiet. Anaira kept her face neutral, although her eyes seemed to glimmer with relief.
"You're sure," she said evenly. Xena nodded.
"If it's all right with Ephiny." Anaira looked up at her lover.
"Of course it is," Ephiny said. "The battle at Balacia is going to be big, anyway. We could probably use both of you there, but it would be nice to have one of you here just in case."
"Eponin can handle things here," Xena opined. Eponin started to protest, but Ephiny stopped her with a raised hand.
"I think most of us will feel better with Xena here. If we change our minds once we get to Balacia, we can send for her. All right?" There were various murmurings, but everyone nodded agreement.
"Good," Ephiny said. "That's settled, then. We ride at first light. Everyone be sure to get a good night's sleep."
But before anyone could sleep, there was one more matter to attend to. Shortly after the war council broke up, the entire village gathered in the clearing where the sparring exhibition had taken place -- was it only a few hours ago? Gabrielle could hardly believe it had been the same day. She felt her chest swell with an odd sense of pride and pleasure as she looked around the arena, taking in the assorted faces of the Amazons -- her Amazons. Their ranks had been swelled, as Solari had said, by the arrival of reinforcements who trickled in from the far villages, so not every face was familiar, but they were all precious.
Once everyone had arrived, the drums began to beat, a handful of Amazons chanted, and Daraia's casket was borne out and placed on the funeral pyre. Galia and Sepha, their faces wet with tears, stepped forward to set torches to the kindling, and then stepped back to hold each other as the flames consumed their friend.
As the fire reached its powerful fingers toward the sky and the drums beat their mournful rhythm, Xena sang her dirge and the gathered Amazons wept. Not until the fire had eaten itself to embers did everyone leave, turning somberly away to disappear into the huts and tents of the village.
Still trailed by the diligent Surya, Gabrielle made her moody way back to her cabin. Xena was waiting by the entrance, and she nodded a dismissal to the guard, who gratefully turned to find her own rest. The unsettled feeling from before returned to Gabrielle, and she felt her breathing speed up with apprehension as she preceded Xena into the cabin.
"Xena, you don't have to protect me all the time," she said quietly as she moved toward the bed, pulling wearily at her clothing. Silence stretched as she changed into a plain cotton shift from the pile on the bed. At last Xena's voice rumbled low through the room.
"Maybe not. But I still have a lot to atone for."
Too tired to think, Gabrielle felt a surge of irritation at the enigmatic words. "Xena. Come here."
Raising her eyebrows slightly, the warrior obeyed, moving forward to where the circle of light from the lone candle illuminated her. Gabrielle reached up and unclasped Xena's armor, letting it fall clanking to the floor. The warrior watched, saying nothing, her eyes revealing nothing.
"Xena," said Gabrielle when her friend was stripped to her shift. The bard lifted her hands to Xena's face and pulled it down toward her, reaching her mouth up to meet Xena's. They kissed slowly, without urgency, for a long moment, before Gabrielle pulled away, her eyes half-lidded, and looked up to meet Xena's eyes. "You said today that you love me. Maybe that doesn't mean anything to you, but it's everything to me. In the morning I'm going off to Balacia and you're staying behind, so let's just have one night of peace, all right?"
Xena's chin twitched slightly, as if she were trying not to smile. "All right, Gabrielle."
"Good. Now come to bed." Gabrielle moved around the side of the bed, tugging Xena after her by the hand. She flung back the coverlet and climbed into bed, pulling Xena along. The warrior lay down beside her, and Gabrielle fit herself cozily against the length of Xena's body, resting her head on Xena's shoulder, pulling the covers up over both of them. Xena's arm curved around her back and she closed her eyes, sighing with the pleasure of the moment.
Morning arrived too soon, and sunlight streaming in the window woke Gabrielle rudely. She groaned and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to hold on to the last shreds of sleep as they left her.
"Come on, sleepyhead," said an amused voice, which vibrated under Gabrielle's cheek. Reluctantly, she lifted her head and looked into Xena's eyes, bright blue and wide awake.
"Why are you always so cheerful in the mornings?" Gabrielle grumped. Xena shrugged the shoulder that wasn't doubling as Gabrielle's pillow.
"Better than the alternative," she said philosophically. Gabrielle grimaced and sat up.
"I guess so. Well, might as well get up." Suddenly she remembered that she had to leave Xena, to ride into battle as a human target without her friend and love at her back. She made an anguished face and lay back down. "On second thought, wake me when Tartarus freezes over."
"Nope, no such luck, Your Majesty," Xena said, sliding out from under her. Gabrielle moaned as the sweet warmth left her, and then yelped as Xena pulled the covers away and the chilly morning air bit at her flesh. "Hey!"
"You don't have to shine," Xena told her, handing over her clothing, "but you do have to rise." Then the humor left her, her face softened and she spoke with gentle sympathy. "Come on, Gabrielle. The sooner you go, the sooner it'll all be over."
"Yeah ... I hope so," Gabrielle said, getting up and beginning to dress. "Xena ... are we...."
"Uh-uh," Xena cautioned, fastening her leathers. Her expression was back to its usual blank. "You wanted peace, I'm giving you peace. We can deal with ... everything else ... when this is over."
"Okay," Gabrielle said uncertainly, although something in Xena's manner made her a little nervous. But she said nothing more as they finished dressing and proceeded to the dining area for breakfast.
"Sleep well?" Ephiny asked as they joined her at the Queens' table. Anaira was there as well, spooning oatmeal into Mimi's mouth. The child sat on her mother's lap, banging a small cup on the table with one chubby hand and a laden spoon with the other.
"Yes, thank you," Gabrielle replied, digging energetically into her food. "Everything's ready for our departure?"
"All ready," Ephiny confirmed as Eponin and Solari, as well as a few others, joined them as well. "As soon as you're done eating, we can get underway."
"Is there-" Xena began, but broke off as shouting could be heard from behind the first row of huts. Everyone looked around as the door to one of the larger buildings burst open and teenage Amazons scattered every which way.
"My Queen!" called a voice, and the trainer, Kyana, appeared, her hair rumpled and her expression grim. "We have another problem."
"Great," said Ephiny darkly. "What now?"
"It's Lirin, one of my youngsters," Kyana said. "She's gone missing."
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