When Diomedes had first told her of what had happened, she had been first concerned for the young Queen, and then angry with Xena for sending her on such a mission so soon afterward. But upon reflection, she knew that Xena would never do anything to put Gabrielle at risk, and assumed she had sent the young woman away for good reason, to keep her safe. Well, Xena, you sent her to us. And I will be sure to keep her under my personal protection. No harm will come to her while I'm on watch. Selari vowed silently.
The remainder of their trip to the Amazon village was uneventful. Gabrielle awakened a bit disoriented and slightly ashamed that she had fallen asleep. She knew that she was worn out form the events of the last couple of days, but she hadn't realized just how tired she had become. The young Queen raised her head from where it had come to rest between Selari's shoulders and cautiously opened her eyes, blinking in the afternoon sun. The Amazon warrior felt the Queen stirring behind her and turned her head sideways to look at her.
"Did I fall asleep? I'm sorry." Gabrielle said, trying to shake off the lingering exhaustion she still felt.
"It's all right, you probably needed the rest. Besides, we're almost to the village. We should be there very soon." Selari replied. "I've already seen some of the perimeter scouts."
Gabrielle found herself gazing intently at the trees, but could not make out anything that shouldn't be there. The continued in silence for several minutes before Gabrielle made out the familiar calls of the patrols, alerting those within the village walls that friends approached. As they broke through the ring of trees surrounding the town, the Queen could see that a royal guard had been assembled and Ephiny stood waiting at the gates.
Gabrielle allowed a feeling of warmth and security wash over her as she gazed upon the familiar faces of the Amazons arrayed before her. Ever since she had assumed the throne, she had felt at home here. These people had offered her a home when she had nowhere else to turn, they would always hold a special place in her heart.
Selari drew their mount to a halt in front of Ephiny and the Royal guard and swung down out of the saddle, turning to help Gabrielle down as well. The young Amazon accepted the proffered hand without argument, still acutely aware of how weak and tired she was, and it didn't seem like the proper time to collapse in a heap in front of the entire village. As she landed on her feet beside her horse, Gabrielle could see Ephiny striding purposefully toward her. The bard allowed herself to be drawn into a deep hug, which she returned with enthusiasm.
"Ephiny. It's good to see you."
"Gabrielle, what brings you to us? And where is Xena?"
Ephiny noticed the guarded expression that came over Gabrielle's eyes at the mention of the Warrior Princess, and grew immediately concerned.
"Gabrielle, is everything ok?"
"Ephiny, we need to talk. And I need you to convene the Council of Elders. There is great danger, and it must be faced quickly or all may be lost."
"Of course. Come, let's get you cleaned up. Supper is nearly ready, and I'm sure you could use a hot meal." Ephiny said as she all at once noticed the rest of Gabrielle's entourage. "Gabrielle, who are these men with you?"
"Oh, Xena sent them with me, just to make sure I got here all right. I know that Amazon law forbids men to stay in the village, so could you arrange for someone to take them to the Centaurs?"
Diomedes had been silent up until now, not daring to speak lest he raise the anger of these warrior women, but the thought of being sent so far from Gabrielle made him uneasy. Xena had tasked him with keeping her safe, and he couldn't do that from the Centaur village.
"Gabrielle, are you sure that's a good idea?" Diomedes began, "We could camp just outside the village walls, couldn't we?"
Gabrielle looked to Ephiny, "That would be acceptable, wouldn't it?"
"I think we can arrange that, if that's what you want, Gabrielle. I'll send word to all the sentries and patrols that they are friends of the Queen, and are not to be disturbed." Ephiny turned to look at Diomedes. "Ok?"
The Athenian nodded slightly, "That's acceptable. You know where to find us if you need us, Gabrielle."
"Thanks Diomedes. But don't worry, I'm sure I'll be quite safe here." Gabrielle replied as she turned to toward the village.
Ephiny had begun to walk beside the young Queen, when Selari caught her eye, and she paused to allow the warrior to catch up with her.
"What is it Selari?"
"I need to speak with you, alone. It's about Gabrielle."
Ephiny was taken aback by the concern she saw in the eyes that now coolly regarded her. "All right, as soon as I get her settled in for a meal and a bath, I'll send for you, ok?"
"I'll be waiting." Selari said as she moved off in the direction of her hut.
Ephiny hurried to catch up with Gabrielle and escorted her to the Royal quarters where she ordered a bath to be drawn and a meal laid out for the weary traveler. Gabrielle entered the quarters and laid down her bag and staff, sinking wearily into the nearest chair.
"So, Gabrielle what's happened? Is there danger to the Amazon Nation we haven't heard about?"
"Yes, there is. You've heard of the Horde?" Gabrielle paused to gauge Ephiny's reaction. "I can see that you have. They've organized a large army, and have already driven an enormous army of Corinthians, Athenians, Metoans, and Thessalonians off the plain north of Corinth. Ephiny, it was terrible, so many killed and wounded." Gabrielle took a long shuddering breath, trying to quell the memories of that bloody battle and all that she had seen. "Xena sent me here to persuade the Amazons and the Centaurs to send as many warriors as can be spared to help battle the Horde."
"Where is the army now?"
"Well, the allies are safe within the walls of Corinth, for now. And the Horde, last I knew, was at least two days march from there. They should have reached the city by now. Please, Ephiny, you must help me convince the council of the urgency here. If the Horde is not defeated at Corinth, there is nothing to stop them from wiping out all of us. Only a united army could possibly defeat them."
Ephiny could hear the anguish in Gabrielle's voice, see it in her eyes. She had left her best friend behind in Corinth, knowing that if she failed, the young Queen would never see her alive again.
"Gabrielle, you know I'm behind you, but it will take some convincing to get the Council to act. Corinth seems so far away, and the danger not immediate. At least not for us."
"I know, Ephiny, that's why I need your help. You know the Council better than I do. I know we can convince them, together. We must."
Ephiny suddenly became aware of the pallor of Gabrielle's skin and the weariness that seemed to permeate her every move. "Here, why don't you get cleaned up. There's a bath ready for you in the next room. And after you've bathed and eaten, we'll go talk to the Council. I'll be sure to have them ready to meet with you in two hours, ok?"
"That sounds great, thanks." Gabrielle said, giving her a small smile.
Once she had Gabrielle safely into the bath, Ephiny sent for Selari. The warrior had arrived a few scant minutes later, and she and Ephiny talked in hushed tones just outside the door to the hut.
"What is it Selari?"
"I know she doesn't want us to know, but one of the soldiers traveling with Queen Gabrielle told me what happened during the battle with the Horde." Selari paused, unsure how to proceed.
"What?" Ephiny said, becoming impatient.
"She was attacked by four Horde warriors, held off three of them before she was wounded."
"What…she was wounded?" Ephiny said incredulously.
Selari nodded, "A head wound from what he said, would have been killed if not for Xena."
Ephiny's mouth dropped open slightly at the news. "How did she seem on the way here?"
"She's tired and weak, and she's trying not to let it show. I thought that you would want to know."
"Thank you, Selari, I do need to know. Go on, get yourself something to eat and a hot bath, you deserve it."
Selari smiled and saluted, leaving as quietly as she had come. Ephiny took a few moments to allow what she had heard to sink into her mind. She had always known Gabrielle to be exceptionally strong willed and brave, but that kind of courage, no. It was amazing that she was even here, she should be planning her funeral pyre, not sitting down to dinner with the young Queen. As she reentered the hut, Gabrielle was emerging from the baths, her hair still dripping.
"Feel better?" Ephiny asked.
"Oh yes, much better, thanks."
"The Council has been notified that you wish to meet with them. They'll be ready."
"Good, we need to move quickly, if we are to have any chance at all." Gabrielle walked over to where she had dropped her bag and reached inside, drawing out a small folded parchment. "Here, Xena wanted me to give this to you." She said, extending the parcel. Ephiny accepted it, unfolding it and reading the contents. It mainly dealt with the warrioress' need for the Amazons and Centaurs to join them in the fight against the Horde, but it was the last paragraph that caught Ephiny's attention.
Ephiny, Gabrielle was wounded in the battle
with the Horde, and I don't want to put her
in that kind of danger again. Please, as a
favor to me, keep her there if you can. She
needs time to recover, and I don't want her
to have to see anymore of this. I can't bear
to see her hurt again. You know me, I don't
often let my feelings show, but this time it
seemed necessary. Keep her safe, I'm counting
Ephiny read and reread the passage, finally coming to realize just how much Xena cared for the young woman before her. Up until now, Ephiny had not seen how deep those feelings had run, now it seemed that Xena felt there was nothing more she could do for Gabrielle, and she had sent her to the only people she knew could keep her safe. She wondered if even Gabrielle knew how much she was loved.
Gabrielle watched Ephiny's reactions carefully as she read the message. The bard had an idea what it said, but wasn't sure until she saw the look on the Amazon's face.
"She asked you to keep me here, didn't she." It wasn't a question, but more like a statement of fact. When Ephiny didn't respond, Gabrielle nodded slightly. "I had a feeling she would do something like that."
"Gabrielle, she was only worried about you. Why didn't you tell me you had been wounded?"
The young woman shrugged. "It didn't seem important, getting help to the army at Corinth is. You don't think that you'll be able to keep me here, do you?"
"Ephiny, she's convinced she's going to die. I've seen that look from her before. And I'll be condemned to Tartarus if I'm going to let you keep me away from her now. I won't let her die alone, even if it means I'll die along with her. I'm not going to abandon her now, not after all we've been through together."
"Gabrielle, she'll kill me herself if I let you leave here, you know that."
"Yeah, well since when can anyone keep me from doing something I want, hmm? I left home to follow the Warrior Princess half way across Greece, didn't I? And I'll do this too. I'll find a way. You can try to stop me, but I don't think you'll have too much luck, what do you think?" Gabrielle said defiantly, daring Ephiny to contradict her.
Ephiny sighed in defeat, with these two there was just no way to win. "All right, if you are insisting on going back, at least let me provide an escort for you, ok? At least that would make me feel a little better."
"Gods Gabrielle, if you get yourself hurt, or…well, I'll kill you myself, you hear me?"
Gabrielle gave the Amazon a crooked smile, "I hear you, I hear you. Come on, let's eat. We don't want to keep the Council waiting, now do we?"
An hour later, Gabrielle found herself standing before the Council of Elders, Ephiny at her right hand, her pain and fatigue forgotten, only the pressing need to get reinforcements to the beleaguered city of Corinth foremost in her mind.
The Council was made up of the most respected members of the Amazon community as a counterbalance to the power of the Queen. All matters of utmost importance had to be approved by them. Gabrielle now addressed them, facing the leader of the Council of Elders, seated in the middle of a long table, flanked on either side by her fellow council members.
"Honored warriors of the Council, I, Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons request your audience."
"We recognize you, Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons. Come forward and state your case."
"I come to you on behalf of our neighbors in Corinth. There is a great enemy that threatens us, and we must ride out to meet it. The Horde has mounted an army and is now poised to attack an allied army of Athenians, Corinthians, Thessilians, and Metoans in the city of Corinth. If we do not send help soon, I fear that the enemy may defeat this army and march on the Amazon Nation next. If that happens, we will not be able to turn them back, they will destroy us."
"You say that there are four city-states already engaged with the Horde at Corinth?"
"Then how is it that they are not enough to defeat them? It is well known that the Horde does not attack in large numbers." The council leader questioned.
"In the past, that may have been true, but not now. The army that I faced in the valleys north of Corinth was at least 30,000 strong. That many Horde warriors fighting together is nearly unstoppable, unless we send them the reinforcements they need to defeat this enemy."
"I'm sorry, Queen Gabrielle, but we just do not see how this affects the Amazon Nation. We have never before had any encounters with the Horde, and frankly the danger you propose seems rather remote."
"Let me assure you, this danger is very real, and very close. If the Horde is not defeated at Corinth, then there will be nothing to stop them from marching over all of Greece, destroying all in their path. Eventually they will find their way here. And we will not be strong enough to stop them. No, the time is now. We must act, and quickly if they are to be stopped." Gabrielle looked deeply into the eyes of the council members, and could see the faintest traces of fear there. That fear could only work to her advantage, she only hoped that it would be enough.
"The Horde is coming, make no mistake about that. And they will wipe us out if we don't defeat them here and now. There is no tomorrow." Gabrielle concluded passionately.
"Ephiny, how do you see the situation?" The Council leader asked.
"I agree with Queen Gabrielle, we must help to defeat the Horde, or it could be the death of us all."
"We will consider your petition. We will summon you when we have reached a decision." The Council members rose from their chairs and retired to an anteroom to debate their involvement in this war. All Gabrielle could do now was wait, and hope.
Ephiny tugged gently on the young Queen's arm. "Come on, you've had a rough few days. Let's go back to the Royal hut where you can get some rest. It'll be morning before we hear anything."
Gabrielle nodded, "Ok. I am a little tired."
Ephiny gave her a slight smile and led her back to the Queen's quarters. The night air wrapped them both in cool arms that Gabrielle found comforting, but also filled her with a sense of unease. Time was slipping away from her. By now the Horde had reached Corinth, and she still needed to travel to the Centaurs and convince them of the danger and the urgent need to send help. Hang on Xena, I'm coming just as fast as I can. You've just got to hang on.
Once inside the hut, Gabrielle laid down on the cot provided for her and nearly at once fell into a fitful sleep, her fears and anxieties following her to Morpheus' realm. Ephiny watched over the sleeping bard for a while, concerned that she was pushing herself too hard, but knowing that there was little she could do to keep her from it. She finally retired to her own room within the Royal hut, leaving word that as soon as the Council reached a decision, she was to be awakened.
Word came shortly after dawn, the Council had reached its decision. Ephiny stole quietly into Gabrielle's room, gently shaking the young Queen to wake her.
"Gabrielle." She called softly. "Gabrielle wake up."
The bard came awake slowly, at first unsure of where she was. "What…uh…"
"Gabrielle, come on, we need to go. The Council's made its decision. They're waiting for us."
Ephiny's words brought the young woman to complete wakefulness, and she sat up a little too quickly, her head swimming dizzily. Ephiny noticed the odd look on Gabrielle's face and was immediately concerned.
"Hey, are you ok?"
"Yeah, I think I just sat up too fast. I'm all right, really. Come on. I'm ready to meet the Council now."
"Are you sure?"
"Ephiny, trust me. I'm fine, and I don't have any time to waste. Let's go." Gabrielle said, swinging her legs off the side of the bed and onto the cold floor.
The two women dressed hurriedly and made their way to the Council chambers where they found the Council members waiting rather impatiently for them.
"Queen Gabrielle, Ephiny. Come, we have much to discuss."
Gabrielle sighed inwardly they really didn't have time for this.
"Please, tell me, will you send the reinforcements?" Gabrielle asked, trying to hide her growing sense of exasperation.
"Since you seem to be in such a hurry, yes. Yes we will send what help we can. But we will not leave the village undefended. A regiment will stay behind, just in case the army at Corinth is not successful."
Gabrielle breathed an audible sigh of relief. "Thank you. I know that whatever assistance we send will be appreciated."
"But know this, Queen Gabrielle, it has come to our attention that you intend to solicit the help of the Centaurs also in this war. We will not stand for our warriors fighting alongside them."
"But, please, we need all the help we can get. Without them, all may still be lost. Surely we can work out some sort of compromise."
"In this there can be no compromise. The decision of the Council is final."
"What if I were to assure you that our warriors and the Centaurs would be assigned to separate parts of the battlefield. Would that satisfy you?"
The Council deliberated shortly over the proposal made by Gabrielle, and when they had finished, the leader turned to face her once again.
"If you can assure us they will not fight beside them, we will agree to allow you to enlist the help of the Centaurs. But they must not fight together. We were enemies for far too long, and the temptation for those Centaur ruffians to turn their weapons on our Amazon sisters may be too great for them to resist. We will not put our warriors in such jeopardy unnecessarily."
"I understand, and it will be done." Gabrielle replied, already turning to head out the door, Ephiny in tow. Once they were outside the Council chambers, Ephiny took a couple of long strides to catch up to the fast moving Queen.
"I've never seen anyone get them to agree to something like that before. You really have a flair for diplomacy, you know."
Gabrielle flashed a quick smile over her shoulder at the Amazon. "Well, I do my best. Now for the Centaurs."
"When do we leave?" Ephiny asked.
"Just as soon as you and I have eaten. I want to be in the Centaur village as soon as possible. Tell your warriors to be ready to march to Corinth by tomorrow morning. That should give them enough time to gather their supplies. Even if we aren't back from the Centaurs yet, they are to leave without us. We'll catch up to them."
"Ok, I'll make sure everyone's ready. Listen, I'm not trying to mother you or anything, but are you sure you're really up to all of this. You seem a little pale…"
Gabrielle stopped and turned to face the warrior. "Ephiny, I'm fine. And I'll be better when we get the Centaurs to agree to send help and we are all on our way to Corinth."
"All right." Ephiny said, but still was not convinced. "Listen, I have some things I need to attend to. I'll meet you in the Royal quarters in say a candlemark, and we'll leave to see Tyldus and the Centaurs."
"I'll be ready." Gabrielle replied, determination coloring her voice. The Amazons were with her, now all she needed was the Centaurs and she could return to Corinth with hopefully enough warriors to turn the tide of battle in their favor. The only question now was, would they get there in time.