Compromises had been made, the Centaurs and the Amazons would come to their aid. But it had taken precious time, and now Gabrielle feared that they might not arrive in time. She had been assured that all preparations were well underway for both forces to leave as soon as possible, and yet her unease grew.
She had felt much stronger these last two days since arriving in the Amazon village, and was now ready to return to Corinth. Diomedes, Pylades, and Pelias were awaiting her outside the Centaur village. But first she had to get past Ephiny and the Royal Guard.
Her bag and staff were ready, and Gabrielle gathered them up on her way out the door and into the hot and humid air. The sight of Ephiny and Selari making their way toward her immediately greeted her. The young Queen steeled herself for the argument she knew was coming.
"Gabrielle, where are you going?" Ephiny asked as she stepped to block the young woman's path.
"Ephiny, please. You know I can't stay here. Not with what's going to happen."
"Gabrielle, you are in no condition to go back to Corinth. Please, reconsider."
"Ephiny, I'm fine, really." Gabrielle replied. She stopped and considered her next words carefully. "Ephiny, I know Xena asked you to keep me here."
Surprise registered on the Amazon's face. "I should have known better than to think I could keep it from you. Yes, she asked me to get you to stay here. Gabrielle, honor her wishes. Stay."
"You know I do respect Xena's wishes, and I know she is only trying to do what's best for me, at least in her eyes. But, Ephiny, I need to do this. I need to be at her side, no matter what happens. We have stood by each other through it all these last two years, and I'm not going to stop now. Besides, you know I'll find a way to get out of this camp, and I'll return by myself if I have to." Gabrielle concluded, a look of mischievousness in her eyes.
Ephiny silently regarded her Queen and friend for a moment.
"Yes, I do believe you would. All right, then at least agree to a Royal escort then, ok?"
Selari, who had been quiet up until now then spoke up. "Yes, My Queen, allow me and the members of the Royal Guard the honor of escorting you back to Corinth."
Seeing that this was her only option, Gabrielle agreed. "Ok, ok. But I want to be ready to leave in half an hour."
"We'll be ready." Selari said, and then moved quickly to gather the members of the Guard.
Gabrielle then turned to face Ephiny. "Thank you." She said simply.
"Hey, I've given up trying to get you to do anything you don't want to do. But you realize, I had to try."
"I know you did. And I appreciate you looking out for me, I really do." Gabrielle said sincerely.
"You know, Xena's not going to be too happy to see you."
"Yeah, I know. I'll just have to deal with that when I get there." Gabrielle gave the Amazon a wry smile. "Don't worry. I can handle Xena."
"Oh, I'm sure you can. Just be careful, all right? Xena'll kill me herself if anything happens to you."
"Hey, I'm always careful!" Came the sarcastic retort. Then more seriously, "I will Ephiny. And I'll see you in Corinth soon."
"Everything should be ready by sunrise. We'll leave first thing tomorrow."
Gabrielle nodded solemnly. "Until we meet again. Take care Ephiny."
"You too, Gabrielle."
Within the hour the small company was on the move toward Corinth. Diomedes, Pylades, and Pelias were waiting for them on the road, and were a little taken aback by the size of the troop now joining them. Diomedes rode forward to meet Gabrielle and the Amazons as they came down the road.
"Gabrielle, we didn't think you were coming. Your note said morning, and it's after mid day. We nearly left without you."
"I know, I'm sorry. But I had a little trouble getting away from the village."
"And who are all these Amazons? You didn't say anything about them joining us." Diomedes said nervously.
"Yeah, well, I am the Queen, and they insisted on coming along. It's getting late, we need to get moving. I want to be back in Corinth as soon as possible." With that Gabrielle spurred her mount forward, the Amazons following closely behind. Selari had gathered a small escort for her Queen, three warriors including herself. The others had been needed to escort Ephiny when she led the Amazon army to Corinth the following day. Such a small force had made the warrior woman uneasy, but there was nothing that could be done for it.
Having the Amazons travel with them disturbed the men, but they could do nothing about it, and so fell in behind them so as to keep an eye on them. They still didn't trust these women, but if for some reason they ran into trouble, the extra help couldn't hurt.
They had tracked the Chosen One relentlessly, awaiting their chance to separate her from the larger group of warriors that seemed to constantly surround the young woman. And now their chance had come. Word had reached them, by way of their messenger, just that morning that Telmark wanted her brought to the camp. According to the messenger, Telmark had finally grown tired of waiting for her to come to him, and had ordered her capture.
Now she was outside the protective walls of the village of warrior women, and it was time to return her to her true people. They moved with the utmost stealth and secrecy, the Greeks they tracked never once detecting them in the trees lining the road.
They traveled steadily throughout the day, stopping only briefly to rest their mounts, then up and moving once again. The uneasiness Gabrielle had felt before now only grew in intensity, and she assumed it was her fear that they would not reach Corinth with the reinforcements in time. The young bard shunted the feelings to the back of her mind, she would do Xena and the others hold up with in the city if she allowed herself to be distracted by worry.
Selari noticed the look of consternation on her Queen's face and urged her mount forward to ride at her side. Selari paused, unsure if she should try to talk to the young Queen, or simply wait for Gabrielle to breach the subject, should she choose to do so. In the end it was the bard who spoke first.
"I'm all right, Selari, really. You don't have to keep your eye on me constantly."
Selari cast her eyes down at her hands grasping the reins before answering.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, you just looked like you could use a friend. You can talk to me about whatever's bothering you, ya know."
Gabrielle swiveled in her saddle and gave the Amazon warrior a small smile.
"I know. And I appreciate that, I really do. I just have this strange feeling…like we're being watched or something. I don't know, I think I'm just worried about Corinth, and…" Gabrielle stopped, not wanting to face the fact that they may arrive too late. Too late to help, too late to keep Xena safe, from the Horde and from herself. Gabrielle knew just how close she had come to losing her best friend to the darkness brought on by the Horde the last time they faced them, and the thought of Xena facing that threat again, alone, terrified her. I won't lose her again…I can't. I don't think I could bear it.
Selari saw the look of anguish cross Gabrielle's features, "Don't worry, she'll be fine. The army following us will get there in time." The warrior said, giving Gabrielle a smile. "Besides, Xena is the most stubborn person I know, and no army of savages is going to stop her. No way."
Gabrielle smiled at that. "You're right, what am I worried about?" The bard said, putting on a brave face she didn't entirely feel. Then there it was again, that feeling she just couldn't shake, a light prickling at the edge of her awareness that made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. She was being watched, she was now sure of it. She turned to scan the trees lining the road, but could see nothing.
"What is it?" Selari asked, suddenly concerned, her senses on alert.
"I'm sure we're being watched. Someone's out there, I just can't see them, but they're there." Gabrielle replied, never taking her eyes from the trees. She brought her mount to a smooth halt and waited for the rest of the group to join them.
"Why are we stopping? What's wrong?" Pelias asked, annoyed at the delay.
"We're being watched." Gabrielle replied simply.
"How can you be sure? I don't see anything." The Metoan Sergeant replied.
"I'm sure, trust me. Selari, can't you feel it?"
Selari sat perfectly still in her saddle and listened for a moment, the rest of the small company not making a sound. "Something is out there, but I can't tell where or who."
Pylades quietly pulled his longbow from his saddlebags and looped his quiver over his head. If someone was out there, he wanted to be ready. He quickly strung the bow and notched an arrow.
Other members of the company followed suit, loosing swords from scabbards, readying daggers. Gabrielle's heart rate sped up when she realized that all sounds had stopped, not a bird nor any other creature could be heard, all was deathly silence.
"EEEEEEEAAAAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHH!" Came the cry from the trees, startling both horse and rider as the Horde patrol descended from the trees practically on top them.
The Amazons and soldiers were momentarily stunned at the suddenness of the attack. The first of the Horde warriors to touch the ground immediately moved toward the foremost of the detail's guards. The two Amazon warriors never had a chance. Cut down cleanly by the Horde battle axes, they were dead before their bodies touched the ground. That was all it took to galvanize the rest of the company into action, leaping from their mounts to battle the Horde warriors.
Pylades loosed his arrow, his aim true, and dealt a Horde warrior a deadly blow. But the speed at which these savages moved surprised even the hardened veterans, and one of the other Horde warriors was upon him before he could notch another arrow. Knocked from his saddle, the Athenian bowman was unable to defend himself from the ferocity of the attack, and soon found himself staring into the feral eyes of the warrior atop him. He had only scant moments to whisper a prayer to Athena before his throat was cut, his lifeblood running out in a pool around his body.
The Horde warrior raised his eyes to watch as his brothers battled the other members of the Greek detail. Selari was able to hold her own against the warrior facing her, Gabrielle defending her back with her staff. Diomedes had his hands full with the warrior facing him, but it was a loosing battle, and he knew it. Even though it was now only four warriors facing them, it was too many. Diomedes watched out of the corner of his eye as Pelias went down, his hands wrapped around the battle axe now sunk deep within his chest, the warrior who had felled him turning his attention to the two Amazon women faced off against two of his brother warriors.
Selari and Gabrielle had been able to stay one step ahead of the warrior's attacks, but as a third joined the fray, their defenses began to buckle. Gabrielle found herself back to back with Selari, fighting with all that she had, but it wasn't enough. As she brought her staff up in a sweeping motion across her body she felt the jarring impact as her staff met battle axe and suddenly she was disarmed and helpless. The warrior took quick advantage of the situation, and pulled back a fist, striking Gabrielle across the cheek, stunning her and driving her to her knees.
Diomedes saw Gabrielle go down and immediately jumped to her aid, swinging his sword with abandon. The Horde warrior facing the bard hadn't seen Diomedes approach him until it was nearly too late, and found himself in a quick retreat under the ferocity of the attack. Gabrielle shook her head to clear it, wondering for a moment why she was not dead. She raised her head to see Diomedes locked in mortal combat with the warrior who had attacked her, and was horrified when the warrior suddenly turned the attack back on the young Athenian, disarming him easily.
Diomedes stood before the Horde soldier, unarmed, knowing his end was near. His only regret, that he had been unable to defend the beautiful young bard who had nearly captured his heart. He locked eyes with Gabrielle in that last instant, a look of sorrow and regret communicated clearly before he was cut down by a vicious blow from the deadly battle axe.
Gabrielle could only watch as one by one the members of the small company were savagely murdered before her eyes, and again she wondered how it was that they had not yet killed her as well. Then Selari was next to her, grabbing her arm and hauling her unceremoniously to her feet.
"RUN!" The Amazon shouted. "Run My Queen, I'll hold them off here!"
One look told Gabrielle it was hopeless, they were outnumbered and out matched, and yet she couldn't bring herself to leave Selari's side. Parrying blows from seemingly all sides Selari raised her voice again, "Please, Gabrielle, RUN! Honor my sacrifice, and save yourself!"
With a look of remorse, Gabrielle bent to retrieve her staff and fled into the trees, not looking back, not wanting to see what lay behind her. Selari had given her life that she might live, and she would be damned to Tartarus if she wasn't going to try to survive.
Selari watched the young Queen go, and turning back to her attackers raised her sword to meet them. One of the warriors had immediately broken away to follow Gabrielle, leaving the other three to face the Amazon. Selari knew she wouldn't be able to hold them for long, she only hoped it would be enough time to allow Gabrielle to escape. One Horde warrior the Queen could handle, four was another matter entirely.
The warriors rushed her at once, and for an instant she held against their attack. One of the warriors managed to land a blow to her sword arm, and Selari suddenly found herself disarmed. The Amazon raised her head proudly and awaited her fate, soon she would join the honored dead. The blow struck her in the left shoulder, and in that split second before the blackness claimed her Selari wondered if there would be pain in the afterlife.
Gabrielle ran as fast as her legs could carry her, deeper and deeper into the forest. She could feel the pursuit behind her, could feel them gaining on her, and she pushed herself harder. But these warriors were the swiftest of their Horde brothers, and had the stamina to wear down the strongest of opponents, it was only a matter of time before they would overtake her.
Gabrielle ran, her fear driving her, her breath coming in ragged gasps. The blow she had received hampered her escape, as did her injury from the battle on the Corinthian plain, she knew she couldn't go on much longer. She paused behind the trunk of an enormous tree, allowing its girth to hide her for a moment while she struggled to regain her breath. As her breathing slowed she could her the footfalls of the warrior stalking her. Her alarm grew as she realized he was nearly upon her, and pushed off from the tree, running for all she was worth.
Gabrielle had taken only a few short strides when the warrior caught up to her, seizing her arm to whirl her around to face him. The sudden stop took Gabrielle off guard, and she found herself flat on her back once again, the Horde warrior looming over her.
This is it. She thought, a feeling of hopelessness seeping into her mind. I'm sorry Xena, I should have done like you wanted me to and stayed in the village. All the regrets came to her then, in that moment, all the things left unsaid, all the things as yet undone. I should have told you Xena, should have told you when you face to face that I love you. Now I'll die here, and you'll never know how I felt.
The warrior simply stared at her. Here she was, the Chosen One, in his grasp. They would sing his praises for generations to come! He Mishemo, who had allowed her to escape once before had redeemed himself. A savage grin broke across his face that chilled Gabrielle to the bone, and she tensed for the killing blow.
It never came. Instead she found herself hauled roughly to her feet and propelled back the way they had come. Astonishment rolled through Gabrielle's mind. Why haven't they killed me yet? Oh, gods…what're they going to do to me…? Her arms forced behind her back, and held tightly, Gabrielle found that she was unable to free herself from the steely grip.
As they broke through the trees to the roadway beyond, the sight that greeted Gabrielle horrified her. There was little left of the company that had departed the Amazon village. The carnage was sickening, and Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut against the scene, willed away the tears that now coursed freely down her cheeks. Diomedes, Pelias, Pylades, the Amazon warriors sent as her escort all killed in the most heinous ways. Gabrielle's eyes roamed frantically. I don't see her…maybe she escaped. Then her gaze came to rest on a crumpled form nearly hidden in the greenery of the forest floor. No…no gods please, not her too…Selari… The body was unmistakable, the noble Amazon warrior lay unmoving, and while Gabrielle could see no visible wounds, she couldn't see how the woman could possibly be alive. The Horde didn't leave survivors, she knew that first hand.
Why don't they just kill me and get it over with? The Horde doesn't take prisoners, Xena even said so… The bard's thoughts were interrupted by a second warrior who approached her, scrutinizing her carefully. He then turned to face her captor, speaking rapidly. The warrior who held her arms replied animatedly, gesturing wildly with his free hand. Gabrielle couldn't understand what was said, but it was apparent that there was some sort of disagreement taking place.
Her captor seemed to relent, and she felt a rough length of leather threaded around her wrists and tightened painfully. Gabrielle winced as it cut into her skin. They then immediately set off in the general direction of Corinth, but it soon became apparent that they were not headed for the city itself but for a point somewhere just north of there.
Gabrielle had not spoken a word since her capture. What could she say that would get her out of this? Her only true weapon was her ability to talk her way out of trouble. But these men didn't understand her language, and she didn't understand theirs. One word was all she knew, and the bard didn't think that water would save her this time.