The small detail traveled for nearly half the day and had turned east toward Amazonia before Diomedes had insisted they stop for a short time and rest. He didn't want to push Gabrielle any harder than absolutely necessary. He had heard from some of the other men of how the young bard had faced two Horde warriors and almost won. He had also heard how close she had come to dying, Xena saving her life at the last possible moment. Diomedes had been horrified to think of Gabrielle at the mercy of the Horde and found that he did indeed care for the fair haired young woman. His pledge to protect her with his life had come from those feelings.
Gabrielle had said little since their departure from Corinth. It was taking all the energy she had to simply stay upright in the saddle, you she did not complain. The bard was acutely aware of just how many lives depended upon her reaching the Amazons as quickly as possible and convincing them to send a force to the besieged city. Xena's life depended on her.
Gabrielle had insisted that Xena remove her bandages before she left late that morning, arguing that it wouldn't help their cause to have the Amazon Queen ride into the village looking like the walking wounded, never mind the fact that it was the truth. But now, after several hours of steady traveling, Gabrielle was beginning to tire and was grateful to Diomedes for insisting on the rest. The little company stopped beneath a quiet grove of trees to enjoy a light meal of trail rations.
Gabrielle really didn't have much of an appetite, but forced herself to eat something. She was tired, sore, and hot but mostly she was afraid. Afraid she would not be able to rally the Amazons in time, afraid that they might stumble on a Horde patrol. Afraid that she may be leading the Amazons into almost certain death at the hands of the Horde. Afraid that none of them would live to see the end of this.
Diomedes retrieved his rations from his saddlebags and then walked to where Gabrielle sat leaning up against a tree.
"Do you mind if I join you?" He asked hesitantly.
Gabrielle squinted up at the young soldier, "Please, have a seat." She replied.
Diomedes carefully lowered himself to the ground and concentrated for the moment on his meal, stealing glances every now and then at the woman seated next to him. Gabrielle could sense his eyes on her, but said nothing. Diomedes finally broke the silence.
"How are you feeling? You seem a little tired." He asked, a concerned look on his face.
"Oh, I'm ok, really. I am a bit tired, but I'll be fine. Don't worry about me, Diomedes." Gabrielle said, and then a thought dawned on her. "Xena told you to look after me, didn't she?"
The question was more of a statement of fact, and Diomedes decided it wouldn't be a good idea to lie to the young woman, especially since she would probably be able to see right through him anyway.
"Yes." Diomedes replied quietly. "I don't think she wants you to know, though."
Gabrielle chuckled softly. No changing her. She'll probably always be looking out for me. Hades. Yeah, we are going to have a long talk when I get back, Warrior Princess. The bard turned to look the Athenian in the eyes, and was a little surprised at what she saw there. Worry, to be sure, but also the beginnings of an affection that she didn't quite know how to react to. For now she decided not to say anything at all.
They continued their meal in silence before Diomedes spoke again.
"I really enjoyed your story about Theseus and the Minotaur. I wish that I could tell stories that well. Maybe you could give me some pointers sometime?" He asked hopefully.
"When this is all over we can discuss storytelling for as long as you like, ok?" Gabrielle replied. The bard's attention was then drawn to Pelias, who had risen to his feet and was now signaling to Diomedes.
"Come on, let's get moving. I want to be at the edge of the Amazon hunting grounds by nightfall."
"Yes, Sergeant." Diomedes replied, climbing reluctantly to his feet. He extended his hand to Gabrielle, and helped her to stand.
"Are you sure you're ready to move on?" He asked, gazing at her intently as the young bard slowly righted herself.
"Oh sure. I'll be fine." Gabrielle said, flashing Diomedes what she hoped would be a reassuring smile. She didn't think she was completely successful. "Those people back in Corinth are counting on us, on me. We'd better get going."
"Ok. Wait here. I'll go get your mount. Be right back." Diomedes said as he moved off in the direction of the tethered horses.
Gabrielle nodded and bent to retrieve her staff and traveling bag. As she raised herself back up, a wave of dizziness washed over her and she leaned against the tree for support. Whoa. Gotta remember to take it a little slower. Gabrielle said to herself, taking several long deep breaths as she waited for the dizziness to pass. She was still leaning against the tree when Diomedes returned with her horse.
"Hey, are you ok?" He asked, concern tingeing his voice. "You look a little pale."
Gabrielle pushed herself away from the tree slightly. "No, really, I'm fine." She said as she eyed her horse, and it's height. "Just give me a boost." Diomedes regarded her skeptically, but decided not to push the issue, resolving to keep an even closer watch over the young woman. He reached down and grasped Gabrielle's leg, lifting her easily into the saddle.
Pelias waited impatiently in his own saddle. The Amazons made him nervous, always had. Just the idea of a whole race of women living without men, it wasn't natural. He would be glad when this was over and they were back in Corinth. The Sergeant watched as Diomedes mounted and then spurred his horse into a brisk canter toward the Amazon lands.
As the day wore on and began nearing dusk, the heat of the afternoon sun lay upon the small company like a heavy cloak, stifling and oppressive. It was all Gabrielle could do to stay focused on the road ahead and try not to fall from the saddle. Sweat ran freely down the young bard's face, stinging her eyes and darkening her short top.
They had been traveling at this pace for most of the afternoon and were now at the outskirts of Amazonia. Pelias and Pylades rode ahead a short distance to search for a suitable campsite for the evening. Diomedes rode abreast of Gabrielle, casting worried looks her direction every few minutes. He would be relieved when they were able to stop for the night. He didn't like the pallor of Gabrielle's skin, she was too pale and she needed food and sleep.
As they rounded a short corner, they found that Pelias had discovered a clear, dry place to stop and had already begun to set up the camp. Gabrielle was too exhausted to give much thought to their location, she was simply happy to be able to get down off this gods cursed horse. She brought the animal to a smooth stop at the edge of the small clearing and caught Diomedes out of the corner of her eye dismounting next to her. She had noticed his furtive looks and glances throughout the day, but had been too hot, too tired to comment on them.
Diomedes had landed cleanly on his feet from the saddle and was now turning to help Gabrielle down. The bard made no sounds of protest as the Athenian grasped her waist and eased her to the ground. She hadn't realized just how fatigued she was until her feet hit the ground and her knees gave way beneath her. If not for Diomedes still securely holding onto her, she would have gone down in a heap.
Diomedes reacted instinctively, pulling the young woman further into his body to support her. "Hey," He started. "I've got you." Gabrielle leaned heavily in his arms, grateful for the strong arms now wrapped securely around her waist.
"I'm sorry," She began. "I guess I'm more tired than I thought." Gabrielle said, giving Diomedes a wan smile.
"Here, come sit down by the fire. I'll take care of your horse, you just rest for a while, ok?" Diomedes said as he led her within the campsite and sat her down near the fire. He removed his waterskin from his saddlehorn and handed it to her.
"Here, try to drink something. It'll make you feel better."
Gabrielle accepted the skin wordlessly, taking a long draught before setting it aside. Satisfied that she was comfortable, Diomedes left the bard to tend to the horses and help set up camp. As he approached the mounts, Pylades shot him a concerned look.
"Hey, Diomedes, is she gonna be ok?" He asked, jerking his head in Gabrielle's direction.
"Yeah, I think so. I think she's just tired, but she did have a pretty nasty head wound…" Diomedes trailed off as he looked over his shoulder at Gabrielle, now leaning against a stout tree, her eyes half closed.
"Yeah, well, we'd better keep a close eye on her tomorrow. I'd hate to see anything else happen to her. Have you heard her tell stories?" Pylades asked.
"Yes. Yes I have." Diomedes replied thoughtfully.
"Me too. We were on the wall and heard about this great bard telling stories to the wounded, so a bunch of us decided to go down and listen to him, only it turned out to be her. She was amazing! That's why I volunteered for this detail. We all wanted to be sure she would make it ok."
"Yeah Pylades. I know just how you feel." Diomedes said as he finished removing the tack and saddle from his mount and moved on to Gabrielle's.
"Me and the boys were talking after we heard about the call for volunteers for this little trip. They feel same as me. No way could we let her go without one of us with her. Why, it'd be like sending my kid sister out into the world by herself. Just can't do that, no matter how good she fights." Pylades paused. "And besides, I was hoping to hear more of her stories on this trip." He commented with a grin. "But it looks like the storytelling will fall to you tonight. I don't think she's up to it." Pylades commented as he finished cooling down his horse and moved off toward the fire.
"Yeah." Diomedes whispered under his breath. "She's not up to it." Worry still tugging at the corner of his mind, he had promised to protect the young bard, and he intended to do just that. Even if it meant protecting her from herself.
Within an hour Pylades, the ever skillful archer, had secured two rabbits for supper and they were spitted and roasting over the fire, the grease sizzling as it dripped into the flames. Gabrielle could barely keep her eyes open, so complete was her exhaustion. She didn't think she had ever been this tired in her life. Not even the smell of a hot meal could draw her from Morpheus' realm. She was a little startled when a gentle touch on her shoulder awoke her to find that the sun had sunk beneath the horizon.
"Hmm?" She said sleepily as she forced her eyes open.
"Here," Diomedes said, thrusting a plate into her hands. "Your dinner."
"What? Oh, thanks." Gabrielle said as she reluctantly began to eat. She didn't even feel that she had the energy to chew, but knew that if she was to regain her strength, she needed to eat.
Diomedes lowered himself to the ground next to her and began to consume his own meal. Diomedes noticed Gabrielle's lack of appetite, "Is there something wrong with your dinner?"
"No, I'm just not that hungry. It's fine." Gabrielle replied, forcing herself to eat at least a bit more to appease the young soldier. She surprised herself by finishing the plate.
"Here, I'll take that for you. Why don't you turn in. You look like you could use the rest."
"Thanks, Diomedes. I am pretty tired." Gabrielle said as she gathered up her bedroll, spreading it out next to her, she stretched out, cradling her head on her forearm.
"Good night, Gabrielle. Sleep well." Diomedes said quietly.
"Good night, Diomedes." Gabrielle replied. As she settled in, something seemed to be tickling at the back of her mind, making the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. It was almost as if she was being watched.
Camouflaged seamlessly in the trees surrounding the small camp, they watched and listened. Only four in number, they had followed the Chosen One since her departure from the city that morning. They had been selected because they were the swiftest among all the Horde warriors, able to cover great distances with the greatest of speed and little rest. And they were the most skilled at stealth and cunning. They had no trouble hiding themselves from the Greeks within the city, especially when those fools didn't even know what to look for.
Telmark had made their purpose quite clear. They were to observe and report back only. They had originally been five, but one had been sent back to their leader once it was determined the general direction in which she traveled. They were quite easy to track, not bothering to hide their trail or disguise their movements. The small tracking party had arrived outside the city walls just as the small Greek company was leaving, the Chosen One among them. Mishemo was among the four pursuing the Chosen One, eager to regain his honor, he had quickly volunteered for this detail. He had recognized the Chosen One immediately and they had set off after her.
Telmark was still unsure as to whether or not he wanted to force the prophecy. Tampering with such things could be dangerous, both for him and his people. So now the patrol waited for the dawn, and word from the messenger they had sent. Then they would resume their journey tracking the Chosen One.
The morning dawned clear and bright, and the little company was up with the sun. Pelias was eager to be off, and had roused the other men at first light, but he left waking Gabrielle to Diomedes. He didn't want to wake the young woman and have her startled by the unfamiliar face leaning over her. Besides, she and Diomedes seemed to be friends.
Gabrielle felt the hand lightly shaking her and journeyed through the layers of her dream like a swimmer making her way to the surface, and wakefulness. She slowly opened her eyes to see Diomedes smiling face gazing intently into her own and felt a small pang of regret. In her dream, it had been Xena leaning over her, and now that she was awake and remembered that Xena was still in Corinth, she felt something akin to homesickness. Trying not to let her disappointment show, Gabrielle pushed herself up on one elbow to face the young Athenian.
"Good morning." She said sleepily.
"Good morning to you too. Breakfast's ready. Come on, Sergeant Pelias wants to get moving soon."
Gabrielle sat up the rest of the way and saw that the camp had already been broken down and the other men were saddling their horses in preparation to leave.
"Why didn't you wake me sooner? I would've helped…" Gabrielle said.
"Well, you looked a little wiped out yesterday, so I thought you could do with a little more sleep." Diomedes replied, a sheepish grin on his face. "Anyway, we can handle the camp, you just get us all through the Amazon lands without them killing us, ok? I've heard they don't take too well to strange men on their hunting grounds."
"Well, you are right there, they don't much like trespassers. Ok, I'll be there in a minute, just let me pack up my things here."
Gabrielle came to her feet slowly, remembering her dizziness from the day before. She stood up carefully and was a little shaky at first, but the food and rest the night before seemed to have helped, and this morning she felt stronger. She could still sense that unsettling feeling that she was being watched, but quickly dismissed it. Who could be watching me out here? The birds? She said to herself.
Gabrielle packed her belongings quickly and efficiently and then joined Diomedes as he saddled their horses.
"Would you like some help?" The bard offered.
"No, that's all right. I've got it. Why don't you grab some breakfast? I saved some fruit and biscuits for you. They're over by the fire." Diomedes replied.
"Ok, thanks. I am a little hungry this morning."
Gabrielle ate alone as the others continued their preparations to leave, and by the time she had finished, they were ready to depart.
Diomedes helped Gabrielle into her saddle and then mounted his own horse, the other two soldiers also mounting up. Pelias turned to the young Amazon.
"Any last minute instructions before we cross over into their territory?"
"Well, don't make any moves toward your weapons when we do meet up with one of their patrols, they tend to shoot first and ask questions later. And when we do see them, the proper greeting is like this." Gabrielle said, clasping her hands above her head. "This way they know you don't have any weapons in your hands, ok?" She asked, looking at each man in turn. The men nodded in response.
"All right." Pelias said. "Well, from here on this is all new territory to me, so we'll need you to guide us through. After you."
Gabrielle nodded and spurred her horse to the head of the small column, followed by Pelias, then Diomedes with Pylades bringing up the rear.
They had not traveled far when Gabrielle first heard the signals of the Amazon patrol, their distinctive birdcalls alerting the rest of their group to the presence of armed men within the lands. Then she heard a shrill cry that had become very familiar to her during her last stay with the Amazons, the royal signal. It was then that she decided to bring the company to a halt.
"What? What is it?" Pelias asked, his eyes darting about nervously.
"Shh. No sudden moves. They are very close now." Gabrielle replied. As if responding to her words, five masked Amazon warriors suddenly burst through the canopy of trees above them, landing easily on their feet in front of Gabrielle's horse, causing him to shy a bit. Gabrielle and the soldiers behind her immediately dropped their reins and clasped their hands over their heads as she had shown them.
The Amazons stood tall and proud, drawing their swords from the scabbards on their backs and holding them upraised in front of their bodies in the traditional Amazon salute. One of their number stepped forward toward Gabrielle, and the young Queen could sense the men behind her tense, ready in case this warrior woman proved to be a threat. Gabrielle dropped her arms and swiveled to face the men behind her.
"It's all right. They won't harm us." She said reassuringly as she turned back to face the Amazon who was now standing at her side. The warrior woman reached up and pushed back her mask to reveal the smiling face beneath.
"Selari." Gabrielle said, returning her smile. "It's good to see you again."
"My Queen." Selari replied, bowing her head ever so slightly in respect. "What brings you home?"
Gabrielle's expression turned dark and serious at the question. "There's trouble in Corinth. The Horde has mounted an army. We were driven out of the plains to the north and into the city. I must speak with Ephiny and the council immediately."
"We have heard the stories about the Horde. Come, if we get moving we should be back in the village by nightfall." Selari said as she signaled to the rest of her patrol and they effortlessly glided back into the trees.
"I'm sorry I don't have the warriors available to give you a proper royal escort."
"It's all right Selari. It's not like I announced I was coming. Would you like to ride up here with me?"
"I would be honored, my Queen." Selari replied formally, vaulting easily to sit behind the young woman.
They journeyed on for several more hours before finally stopping briefly to eat and rest their horses. Selari noticed that Gabrielle seemed to tire quickly in the heat of the afternoon sun and was concerned for her Queen.
As they ate, the men kept their distance from the two women. None of them had ever seen a true Amazon warrior before, and were frankly a bit intimidated. Gabrielle, however, was grateful for the time alone with Selari to catch up on what was happening in the village.
"How have things been with the Centaurs?" The Queen asked.
"As good as can be expected. We tend to just stay away from each other. But Ephiny does go to their village to visit her son on a pretty regular basis." Selari paused, suddenly aware of how pale Gabrielle was, and decided to say something. "My Queen…" Selari began, but the young woman cut her off.
"Please, just Gabrielle. We've known each other for a while now, and besides, it's just us here."
"All right, Gabrielle." Selari said with a smile. "Are you ok? You seem a little tired."
"Oh yeah, I'm fine. Just had a small mishap, but I'm fine now, really."
"I'm sure. Come on, we should probably get moving if we want to be in the village by dark."
Selari nodded solemnly, not sure she really believed the young Queen's assurances. She surreptitiously moved closer to Diomedes, deciding to see if he knew any more about this "mishap" Gabrielle had mentioned.
"You there. Athenian."
Diomedes swiveled his head sharply at the sound of Selari's voice. "Yes, what can I do for you?" He said, trying to be casual.
"I need to ask you something."
"Ok, go ahead, ask your question." Diomedes answered, his eyes narrowing.
"What happened to Queen Gabrielle? Was she injured in the battle with the Horde?"
"Injured? Yeah, you could say that. During the battle, she and a Metoan soldier were attacked by a patrol of Horde warriors. What I heard from the men who were there, she held off three or four of them after the Metoan was nearly killed. I heard tell that she was taken down be one of those Horde savages. Would have killed her too, if not for Xena."
Selari's eyes widened at the tale and she found herself feeling a new respect for the young Queen. "Three or four? It's amazing she wasn't killed…"
"Yeah well, she's got quite a bump on the head to prove it." Diomedes said sincerely.
"She has a head wound?" Selari asked incredulously, then appeared slightly confused. "When did all of this happen?"
Diomedes raised his eyes to regard Selari frankly. "Yesterday."
Selari's mouth dropped open slightly in surprise, as she turned to watch Gabrielle pack up the remainders of her lunch and make her way toward her horse. A wave of anxiety washed over the tall Amazon when she imagined her Queen taking on four Horde warriors, alone, and then picturing her wounded and at their mercy.
"Thank you for telling me." Selari said as she moved to help Gabrielle back onto her horse. The Queen had not told her the whole story for a reason, probably because she didn't want the warrior woman to worry. But now that she knew, Selari wanted to look out for the weakened young woman herself, for as long as was necessary.
"My Qu…er, Gabrielle. Why don't you let me ride up front for a while." Selari offered.
"That's ok, really. I don't mind driving." Gabrielle said, a small grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"No please. I insist. I feel that I would be remiss in my duties as a member of the Royal Guard if I didn't take on the responsibility of your personal safety and well being. That includes giving you a break from handling this horse. It's a matter of honor."
"Well, when you put it that way. Ok, he's all yours."
Selari nodded and mounted the horse, reaching down to help Gabrielle into the saddle behind her.
They set off toward the Amazon village, travelling at a pace that would get them to the outskirts of the village before darkness fell. Gabrielle settled into the calming rhythm of the horses' movements and found herself dozing in the heat of the afternoon.
Selari could feel Gabrielle's arms relaxing around her waist and knew that the Queen must indeed be more tired than she let on. The warrior was worried for the young woman, pushing herself harder than she should so soon after her injury. She knew that even though Gabrielle would not want the whole village to know what had happened, she would at least inform Ephiny. The interim Queen had to know.
Suddenly Selari felt Gabrielle's head fall forward into her back, and was immediately alarmed, turning slightly to look upon the Queen. She breathed a sigh of relief when she realized that Gabrielle was merely asleep, and attempted to ease the horse's gait into a smooth motion to allow her to rest.