An Unexpected Detour
Gabrielle rose up out of her dreams and felt the warmth of the sun on her back. She opened her eyes, just a little bit. The brilliant light blinded her for a moment. Then she smelled it. A rich, toothsome smell that permeated the surrounding forest. She heard the sound of footsteps moving behind her and the merry crackling of a campfire. Blindly, she reached back and felt the empty space where her husband should have been.
"Where does he find the energy?" she mumbled as she rolled over. She smiled wearily as she watched him, moving about the tiny fire. Two small pots and the coffee pot sat near the flames, bubbling merrily as David continued with his preparations. His eyes were hidden behind the red lenses of his sunglasses. He crouched before the fire, adding some of his mixed herbs to the contents. He took a swallow of coffee from a metallic mug and sighed as he stirred the food.
"Don't you ever sleep?" Gabrielle asked. "I mean, we were up pretty late last night?" She smiled.
"What can I say," David said cheerfully. "The combination of simple food, fresh air and you! I feel invigorated!"
"You suck." She held her blanket up to fulfill the requirements of modesty. Gabrielle crawled towards the fire to inspect the food cooking in the pots. She frowned as she studied the pale meat simmering in the broth.
"Where did you find this?" she asked as she stirred it experimentally.
David smiled. "I've been wabbit hunting," he said in a strange voice.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and then looked at the second pot. She stirred it, feeling something at the bottom. Expertly she caught it with the spoon and drew it out.
"What do you have in – "she squealed in fright when David's glass eye emerged from the water, seeming to stare at her.
David laughed out loud as Gabrielle scooted away, now fully awake with her heart hammering in her ears.
"I'm sorry," David continued laughing. "I have to keep it clean, and since there's no antiseptic around, I have to boil it in water every few days."
"That was not funny," Gabrielle growled.
David fished the prosthetic out of the water and cleaned it with a small clean cloth, and then, once it was cool, he slipped it back into the empty socket, blinking experimentally.
Gabrielle watched him with a mixture of wonder and horror. She had never seen the injury to his face without the prosthetic eye before now, and it drove home the pain that he must have suffered.
"Does it hurt?" She asked, suddenly realizing that she had never posed that question before. She stared at the raised jagged scar covering his eye.
David smiled and shrugged. "Sometimes, when I don't have it in, it itches."
"The wound?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, my eye." David grinned.
"How can it itch if it's not there?" Gabrielle asked.
Again David shrugged. "It's called Phantom Limb Syndrome. It's when you continue to feel something that isn't there. It's common among amputees. I knew this guy once, who lost his lower leg. He was always complaining about how much it hurt."
Gabrielle frowned, unable to understand. "Sorry I asked," she mumbled. David smiled and served the stew in two small metal dishes.
"I don't understand it either, though I have a few thoughts," David confessed.
"Oh?" Gabrielle asked. And so began another long conversation about another obscure subject. It lasted through breakfast and most of the morning travels. The talk moved from that to other matters, and still others.
They moved steadily deeper into unfamiliar countryside. As they had planned, they were making their way, over land towards the ancient kingdom of Kehmet – or Egypt – as David knew it. As they traveled, they passed many of the places that Gabrielle had visited during her travels with Xena. David watched her carefully at those times. Her emotions were mixed. In some cases, a certain village or landmark seemed to raise her spirits, while others brought them down. David began to tie in places with events from the scrolls Gabrielle had written, adding topography to the words and faces. His picture of Gabrielle's life with Xena and before the Chronos Stone became more and more defined with every mile they traveled. So, too, did his understanding of the relationship his new wife had shared with the fabled Warrior Princess. He understood now that the relationship had gone beyond friends and beyond family. There was a dedication to each other that had permeated their very existence. Each of them had become so attuned to the other that they had, in essence been one whole complete being, reduced when the other wasn't present.
The day was warm and sunny, and passed uneventfully as the two of them made their way through the countryside, and back through many of Gabrielle's memories. As the shadows began to lengthen, the pair came to the crest of a gentle rise and looked down into the small clot of buildings that indicated a village.
Gabrielle looked at the sight and smiled in recognition.
"That's Tripolis!" She exclaimed. "It's where Xena and I held off the Persian Cavalry advance!" She looked back at David, suddenly a bit sheepish. "Well, Actually, Xena did most of the work on that one."
David smiled. "And what did you do?"
"I was dying from a poisoned arrow wound at the time," Gabrielle confessed. Her smile brightened suddenly. "Got a new pair of boots out of that whole mess, though!"
David grinned. "And that's what's really important, isn't it? As long as you get something out of it?"
Gabrielle smiled smugly. "Absolutely. That's why I married you, after all."
David's eyebrow's shot up. "Oh? Something you'd care to share with the rest of the class?" He put his hands on his hips and stared at her through the mirrored red lenses on his nose.
She looked back at him and her eyes flicked to the large knapsack carrying their supplies, and then back at him again. A sly, mysterious smile began to spread across her lips. She turned and began walking down towards the village.
"Well," David huffed. "What's in it for me?"
"More of last night," Gabrielle said, looking back at him again. "Or did you forget about that already?"
David shook his head and grinned. "I've created a monster."
Tripolis was a smallish cluster of shops and homes surrounding an inn that was not much larger than the barn on Gabrielle's old homestead. Still, it seemed well maintained and comfortable, with windows on an upper floor looking out over the rolling hills.
The entire cluster of buildings was surrounded by several large farms. A few people could be seen moving across the packed dirt path that served as the main road through the town. A single horse cart rattled up the hill past them, driven by a wizened old man wearing a dirty gray tunic and tan breeches. His eyes stared out at the two strangers from beneath the wide brim of his straw hat.
David and Gabrielle felt unusual intensity from those clear, old eyes. They both stopped and looked after the passing cart.
"That was interesting," Gabrielle commented.
"That's one word for it," David replied. "I was thinking 'hostile', myself."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Why should he be?" she asked. "The last time I was here was thirty years ago, and Xena and I were the only ones here?"
David's smile began to reassert itself. "Perhaps he didn't approve of your clothes?"
Gabrielle looked down at her garments. Red Amazon style halter, skirt, boots, and her small bag, all a bit worn, but still in decent shape. They were perfect for traveling during the hot summer days. She looked back up at David and shrugged.
"What's wrong with my clothes?" She asked.
David's grin expanded. "Nothing from where I stand."
By contrast, he was dressed in a faded pair of blue jeans, tough black boots, and gray tee shirt.
Gabrielle gave him a reproachful glance and sighed. "You're a pig, sometimes. You know that?"
"I just call them as I see them," David replied smiling. "If that makes me a pig? Then oink oink to you, sweetheart."
Gabrielle laughed and the two of them continued into the village.
Their mirth slowly faded as they moved down the worn path towards the inn. All activity seemed to slow to a halt as eyes fixed on them from every nook and cranny of the village.
David saw a tinker, peeking out from between several small well made pots and pans. His eyes fixed on David only for a moment, and then on Gabrielle and they went dark.
Several local women scooted to the opposite side of the small street, glaring at her with obvious spite.
In every instance, the men and women would look at David with curiosity or trepidation, but then they would fix on Gabrielle with suspicion or outright hostility.
Beneath and behind the scenery, David also made out the unmistakable signs of recent conflict. The occasional scorch mark or broken window could be seen behind carts or other items placed to disguise the damage. The movements and gazes from the residents were in some cases nervous, others more sullen, but a sense of shell shock permeated the entire population. It felt like the two of them had just walked into a siege.
David watched all of this from behind his glasses, a feeling of vague dread knotting in his belly.
"What the hell is going on here?" he asked quietly. Gabrielle shook her head, her own eyes scanning the people as they walked.
"I don't know."
David felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as eyes followed them down the main street and into the front door of the inn.
Again, all activity ground to a halt when Gabrielle and David pushed their way into the main common room and paused, looking about for a place to sit.
The tavern smelled of wine, ale, sweat and various food dishes all mingled together with the pale haze of tobacco smoke drifting a few feet off the floor. There was no sound for a few moments except a muffled cough or a furniture creak.
"Is it me?" David asked quietly. "Or did the temperature just drop about twenty degrees?" He removed his sunglasses and scanned the myriad of faces staring back at them. Then he took the front and stepped down towards two unoccupied stools at the bar.
He politely held out the stool for Gabrielle, pushing it under her as she sat. That was when he noticed a young man, about her age, staring at her with undisguised contempt.
"Can I help you with something?" David asked, locking his gaze on the intrusive man.
The man blinked and turned away after a few moments.
David settled down on the stool next to her, his eyes gazing back over his shoulder at the people. Conversation resumed slowly, but only as loud as hushed whispers would permit.
The innkeeper, a tall, lanky, middle aged man with thinning gray hair stepped over to them absently wiping a cup.
"Would you be wanting a meal, then?" he asked unenthusiastically.
"Yes," David replied. "And a room for the night, if you don't mind?"
Usually, any innkeeper would be delighted at the prospect of having travelers staying in his establishment. It meant money for several meals, and for the room. However, in this instance, the innkeeper merely shrugged. His face remained completely neutral.
"Don't have no room available," he lied.
Gabrielle looked at David who matched the innkeeper's gaze with a stony one of his own. David's eyes flicked to the steaming bowls of mutton on the counter behind the innkeeper.
Instantly, David's expression changed, and he smiled.
"Fine. Two bowls of stew and two ales, if you please?" he said pleasantly.
The innkeeper was about to repeat his lie, but saw the bowls behind him. He sighed in resignation and nodded.
"Ten dinars," he said as he set the bowls down.
David set five coins on the table and fixed the innkeeper with a knowing look.
"We may be out of sorts, here," David said. "But we're not ignorant."
The innkeeper swallowed hard and then scooped up the coins and set two mugs of ale before them.
Gabrielle and David ate in silence, feeling the eyes of the other patrons burning into their backs.
A hushed discussion was gaining intensity somewhere behind them and David strained his ears to make out what was being said. Apparently, two or three individuals were arguing about which one of them would broach some subject or other.
Finally, David could stand it no longer. He took a long drink of ale, choking down the bitter stuff and turned slowly on his stool.
Three men sat at a small table nearby, hot in the middle of their argument. His eyes fell on them and all three ceased.
"Something on your mind?" David asked
One of the men, a strong looking one with a thin coating of soot covering his arms, rose to his feet. He, along with the others in the room stared at David nervously.
Gabrielle also turned and placed a hand on David's shoulder. Trying to calm the slow boil she could almost feel through his clothing. She also looked at the young man, obviously a blacksmith, and subtly shook her head. She was attempting to warn the young man off, but instead, his own gaze darkened at her eye contact.
"Why have you brought that in here?" he asked angrily, flinging a finger at Gabrielle. "Her kind isn't welcome here!"
David's expression remained hard.
"Her 'kind'?" He repeated as if the word had a foul taste in his mouth. "What do you mean by her 'kind'?"
"You know quite well!" The man snapped back.
"Pretend I don't," David replied, his voice like granite.
"Amazons," Gabrielle whispered, barely audible.
David's stony gaze didn't waver, and his eyes darkened a bit with anger. "We have no quarrel with you, friend. All we want is a meal and a place to spend the night before we move on?"
That statement didn't seem to satisfy anyone in the room. The young blacksmith refused to be intimidated. Inwardly, both David and Gabrielle knew that there was no way they would get out of this place without a fight.
"Bed your harlot in the forest where she belongs," The blacksmith growled.
David stood up so quickly that everyone in the room, including the blacksmith took a step back in surprise. The stool clattered to the floor.
"Watch it, friend," David growled. "You're talking about my wife."
"David?" Gabrielle rose, keeping a hand on his shoulder. "They obviously don't want us here. Let's just go, okay?" She looked at the blacksmith. "We aren't looking for trouble here."
David's fingers twitched reflexively as he fought to cool his temper.
"Fine," he said, forcing a deep breath. "The ale wasn't that good anyway."
Slowly, they began edging back toward the door. David kept Gabrielle in front of him, the better to protect her if one of the patrons got ambitious. The small door suddenly seemed miles away.
As they passed the table where the blacksmith stood with his friends, he quickly grabbed his mug and swung it at the back of Gabrielle's head.
Just as quickly, David's arm shot up and deflected the blow, wrapping the young man's wrist and twisting the mug out of his grasp.
David's eyes locked on the blacksmiths.
"Now, we have a quarrel," he said, and his uppercut sent the young man sprawling across the table beyond. His two friends dove for cover and the entire scene dissolved into a rush mass of bodies, some struggling to get out the small door, while others arrayed themselves around the two strangers.
Instantly, David's bow was notched and bent, panning about the room.
"The next one makes a move on my wife, gets his skull pinned to the wall!" He barked. The bowstring creaked slightly under the tension. "You want us gone? We're going. You want it ugly? I'll be more than happy to stick around!"
The various men standing about the room saw the weapon in David's hands and the two sais in Gabrielle's as well. They thought better of it.
Several men that had been blocking the door stepped warily aside and allowed them to pass, while the others either stood passively or raised their hands slightly in gesture of surrender.
David slowly backed out the small door after his wife.
Once out in the fading light of the evening, David let the tension on his bow ease and followed Gabrielle at a brisk walk towards the far end of the village.
"What the hell was that all about?" David asked as he slipped the arrow back into the holder on his bow.
Gabrielle slid her sais back into her boots.
"I don't know," she admitted. "We're on the borders of the old Amazon lands. But not enough of us made it out of Helicon to maintain it. Most of my sisters ended up joining the remnants of other tribes. As far as I know, there aren't any Amazons left in these parts?"
"Well," David said as he still watched the door of the inn. "Either way, we might want to put a little distance between us and this place before nightfall. I have a hunch that some of our friends in there won't object to a little night time hunting, if you know what I mean?"
Gabrielle nodded. "There's an old abandoned store house just on the other side of a small river, a short way up the road. It was where Xena hid a weapons cache a long time ago - and where she held of the Persians. If no one's using it, we should be able to stay there for the night."
"Fine by me," David agreed, anxious to put some distance between them and this hostile place. "Lead the way."
They passed the rotting and burned out remains of the original village as they traveled. Everything had nearly been reclaimed by the wilderness after all those years. Only the occasional rotting stump of a timber or the vine-covered outline of a foundation could be seen to mark the spot where the village had once stood.
They continued along until Gabrielle stopped at the edge of a narrow depression. Slow moving water could be seen meandering through the mud at the bottom. The ruined foundation of a bridge could be seen beneath the tall grasses, but the wooden structure had long ago fallen away or been dismantled. Across from that were two old wooden doors, one of them hanging slightly ajar. The entire structure was half dug out of the hill on the far side. Low and squat, it seemed more like a storm shelter than a storage shed.
"Looks like a pill box," David commented.
The two of them scrambled down the steep bank and back up the other side.
Images and voices from Gabrielle's past began to echo in her mind as she approached those old doors. Her eyes glanced about, as if she were expecting a ghost to rise up out of the mists beginning to snake across the damp earth in the cooling of oncoming night.
They entered the building, and instantly Gabrielle saw everything as it had been all those years ago. Her breath caught and she paused at the door. She started slightly when David put a hand on her shoulder.
"Ghosts?" he asked knowingly.
She nodded. When she looked back again, she saw it all as it was.
No one had used the place for many years and dust had settled thick up on everything. A part of the roof had fallen in at the back of the structure. The debris now rested mostly on the little shelf where Xena had concealed a wounded Gabrielle before the fateful battle. The ladder was gone. Some of the timbers jutted out precariously overhead. And the whole structure creaked ominously in the wind.
Bits of old tackle, tools, and rope hung or lay strewn about the floor, and several old crates were stacked neatly against the wall on their left. Gabrielle went over to one of them where two of the timbers had been ripped free and smiled as her hand touched the old wood.
Curiosity overcame her nostalgia and she pushed the empty crate aside, looking down at the top of the one beneath it. She pulled one of her sais out and pried at the lid.
"What are you doing?" David asked.
"This was Xena's old weapons cache," Gabrielle explained. "She hid these here in case she ever recruited another army. Doesn't look like anyone's touched them since we were here last?"
The old lid creaked as she pried it up, then she flipped the lid off and looked inside.
Lying neatly in intertwining rows were at least a dozen old bows fashioned from horn and steel.
Gabrielle reached in and drew one of them out, holding it up to examine it closely.
A low whistle escaped David's lips.
She handed the weapon to him for examination and continued rummaging about within the crate.
David studied the carved workmanship of the handle and nodded in appreciation. The design was intricate and meticulously crafted.
He planted the steel end of the bow in the packed earth and bent it experimentally a few times. There was a dry cracking sound as the old bone began to weaken under the stress.
"This is nice," he acknowledged. "But I'm afraid it would snap under pressure."
"I'll bet this one won't," Gabrielle said, lifting another bow, of the same general design, but more intricately crafted. The steel and horn handle were a deep oily black, filigreed in gold. David, unwilling to set the point of this bow into the ground, rested his knee on the crate and flexed the bow experimentally.
"I believe that you're right," he said with a grin. He looked at the crate. "Any bowstrings in there?"
Gabrielle pulled out several, but they were shrunken and dried out, completely useless.
"Well," Gabrielle said regretfully. "I guess that's that."
David smiled and held up his finger.
"Maybe not," he said. He rummaged about in his knapsack and came out with a small plastic sealed packet. Breaking it open, he withdrew a long length of nylon cord. He gauged the length and then checked the ends of the bow. Smiling smugly, he expertly strung the old bow and handed it to her.
"Good as new," he said proudly.
Gabrielle took the weapon and drew back on the bow, testing her strength against the draw. She smiled after a few minutes.
"All you need is arrows," David nodded.
Gabrielle pulled a bundle of the projectiles from the bottom of the crate and held them triumphantly.
David frowned at them. "Hey, those look pretty good." He said. He took one and examined it. "Damn, these are nice. How many of them have you got in there?"
Gabrielle looked back down into the crate. When she spoke, her voice sounded mildly muffled.
"The entire bottom of the crate is stocked with them," she said. "Why?"
David slid in next to her, reaching down into the crate and removing several bundles.
"My own supply is beginning to run low," he said regretfully. "Which sucks." He notched one of them to his bowstring and tested it. They were a little longer and heavier than his arrows, but otherwise, they were superbly manufactured.
"I can't wait to try these out," David said, grinning. Gabrielle laughed quietly listening to the night noises beyond the earthen walls. Her smile faded when she realized that all the familiar night noises were fading to silence.
"What?" David asked. Gabrielle clamped a hand on his forearm and put a finger to her lips.
David stood still and listened as the night noises faded to silence. A few minutes later, the noises resumed, regaining their previous volume.
Gabrielle's eyebrows rose inquisitively.
"Something just went past us," She whispered.
David nodded. The two of them crept to the closed doors and peered out just in time to see several shapes vanish into the high grasses at the opposite side of the small creek.
"They're heading towards Tripolis," Gabrielle said.
"It's a raid," David growled. "Part of me wants to let them go."
"David?" Gabrielle asked.
"Only for a second," David smiled. "Let's go see if we can surprise the surprisers, shall we?"
He shifted his pack and the two of them jogged down the path after the mysterious figures.
By the time they reached the torch lit outer edge of Tripolis. People could be seen running helter skelter between the small buildings. Three of the shops were already alight, the fires licking the interior mud and wooden walls.
David saw several individuals tangling in the street. The attackers were small and lithe, wearing patches of old armor and elaborate feathered masks.
"Those are Amazons!" Gabrielle cried out in disbelief.
"Right now," David replied. "They're raiders."
The two of them ran into the fray.
A twinge of moral conscious began to prick at him. He had never been one to hit a woman. Now he was running into a fight against highly trained, fighting women. In the back of his mind, he wondered if he could actually strike back at them, since they were all women.
He saw one figure standing over another with a raised dagger.
At the last second, before he impacted the female figure from the blind side, he recognized the young blacksmith that he had punched earlier. Then he slammed into the woman at full speed, sending the two of them tumbling in a tangle. The Amazon warrior's dagger went skidding into the shadows.
When David rolled back to his feet, he grasped a long wooden staff and spun it expertly, clearing an area of six feet in all directions as he searched for the next target.
Two more masked figures charged at him with cries of rage. David met the attack head on, swinging the makeshift staff quickly and accurately, sweeping the feet out from beneath one and rocking the second with a blow to the side of the head.
The blacksmith, realizing that he had been saved, scrambled to his feet and sought out his savior. His eyes went wide when he saw David fending off another attacker.
In the distance, they both saw several other figures darting back into the shadows, arms filled with various bundles of goods.
Another glance showed Gabrielle entangled with another of the raiding Amazon figures. She seemed to be holding her own, but David wasn't convinced. He began fighting his way back toward her and was surprised when the same blacksmith he had just assisted intercepted one of his attackers.
David looked at the young man in surprise. He merely shrugged quickly.
"I owed you one," The man said quickly and then resumed running towards Gabrielle and her opponent. David ran after, but the blacksmith got there first, bowling over Gabrielle's attacker.
Gabrielle paused in surprise before leaping over the two tangled figures and kicking another squarely in the chest. That one went skidding across the street before rolling to her feet and stumbling into the shadows at a run.
The raiders were in retreat, their surprise foiled.
David felt more than heard the approaching attacker from behind. His instincts took complete control. He spun with lighting speed, wrapped the wrist that descended and twisted, driving the weapon involuntarily into the belly of the attacker.
The female figure doubled over and the mask fell from her face.
"Oh shit!" David gasped as the figure looked back up at him, the young, pale blue eyes wide in surprise and shock.
The attacker was small with long waves of blondish hair and delicate features.
David's hands held the narrow shoulders and his eyes went wide.
"Jesus," He breathed. "You're just a kid?"
The girl dropped to her knees, the hilt of her own blade protruding from her gut.
Her mouth opened as she tried to speak, but only a trickle of blood dripped from her lips.
"Oh no," David sank down with her as she collapsed.
The girl lay back, her hands clutching at the knife in her body, her eyes wide with fear and realization.
"Easy," David soothed desperately. "Just take it easy now." He turned his head away.
"Gabrielle!" he shouted in panic.
Instantly, she was kneeling at his side, inspecting the wound.
The young woman looked at Gabrielle and one bloody hand shot up to grasp her arm, pulling her close. She whispered something inaudible to her. Gabrielle froze in surprise and then nodded.
"You'll be alright," David was whispering desperately. His hands were suddenly trembling as if he didn't know what to do. "It's going to be okay. Everything's going to be okay."
The girl's eyes looked up at him without pain.
"No, no," David said quickly, pointing two fingers at his own eyes. "Look at me…look right here…don't go. Just stay here. Stay here with on, look at me….stay…stay….stay…stay…" his shaking voice faded when he realized that the pale blue eyes had gone black as the pupils dilated. The girl was dead.
David slowly stood up, backing away from the grisly sight, his one bloodied hand rising to his temples as he stumbled back against a storage barrel.
Gabrielle was looking at him in concern. David's mouth moved, but the words wouldn't form. He looked pleadingly at his wife as he tried to speak.
"She came at me from behind," David finally stammered. "She was….and I just….it was instinct and I twisted. She should have dropped…" He fell back on the ground, staring at the body, a string of self deprecating whispered curses flowing from his mouth.
One of the men from the fight looked down at him.
"Don't beat yourself up about it, stranger," he said gruffly. "They came after us. She got what she deserved."
David's desperation was suddenly replaced with bitter anger and he leapt to his feet, grabbing the man by the neck and leading him to stare down at the corpse.
"Look at her!" he roared. "Go on, LOOK! She was all of fifteen! That's someone's daughter!"
He shoved the man away and looked at the myriad of faces staring at him through the smoke and haze.
David's eyes were wide with desperate fear. "Because of me," he finished in a haunted whisper. He sought some semblance of pity in the faces of the villagers, but saw nothing. He backed away slowly and turned, walking back towards the outskirts of the village.
It was the first time in their entire relationship that Gabrielle had seen her husband flee.
She rose to her feet and took a few steps after him. Then she turned back to the others.
"Put her in a cart and bring her to the old storage barn at the edge of town." She ordered. "And be gentle with her." The glacial gaze brought terrible images of retribution to the minds of all that looked at her. Then she turned and ran after David.
A middle aged man, obviously one of the village elders, approached Gabrielle. His eyes were dark and thoughtful, and his hands were at his sides. He nodded in greeting.
"I must thank you for your aid," he said "Though I am somewhat confused. Why did you turn against your own people?"
"If the remaining Amazons in this region have sunk to robbing and pillaging their neighbors, then they are no longer my people," Gabrielle replied quickly, her eyes drifting in the direction that her husband had gone.
Another man stepped over to the elder, his sword was tainted red with blood.
Lord Festius," he said angrily. "The men are armed and ready. We can set out at first light."
"Very well," Festius replied.
"What do you plan to do?" Gabrielle asked, feeling a knot of dread form in her belly.
"What do you think?" The man answered. "These Amazon bitches have been raiding all the villages in the area for over a year now! Tomorrow, we plan to end that for good!"
"War?" Gabrielle asked in astonishment. "You're declaring war against the Amazons?"
"They started attacking us!" The man countered. "As far as we're concerned, they declared war on us! We're just giving them what they want!"
"Wait a minute," Gabrielle said, holding her hands up. "There has to be another explanation. As far as I knew, there were no more Amazons living in this area?"
Festius nodded. "That was my understanding as well. Then, a little more than two years ago, we began to see signs of their return. At first, we welcomed it, and then the raids began."
The man at Festius's side cleared his throat impatiently.
"Why are discussing this with her?" He asked. "For all we know, she is in with them?"
"I saw her, and her companion battling as fiercely as any one of us, Globus!" Festius said with sudden vehemence. Then his voice dropped back to the soft calm of a moment before. "How many other raiders were slain?"
Globus suddenly looked a bit uneasy. "None, sir. We did wound several, but as far as I can tell, that one is the only casualty." He pointed at the body being loaded into a small cart. "Still, once the stragglers arrive, we'll be able to change that."
"Just wait a moment," Gabrielle said quickly. "Look, I understand that you're all angry about this and I don't blame you. But there has to be an explanation for all this? The Amazons would never condone this kind of action, let alone partake in it? When they lived here, they helped protect the local villages, including Tripolis."
"I agree," Festius replied. "And yet, one of your sisters lay dead in our street? What are we to do? We cannot simply stand idly by while they ravage our stocks and supplies?"
"No, you can't," Gabrielle agreed, glancing back towards the edge of town again. "I have to take this young lady back home. When I do that, I can find out what happened to start all this, and maybe bring a stop to it?"
"Back home?" Globus stammered. He looked at Festius. "You can't let her leave! Not after she has heard about our plans!"
Festius looked into Gabrielle's eyes for a long moment and then shook his head. "She is free to go."
"She may bring the body of her fallen warrior back home," Festius replied evenly. "If she is able to bring these attacks to a stop, so much the better."
Gabrielle nodded. "Thank you."
Festius's eyes hardened slightly. "Understand this. We will give you seven days to resolve this matter peaceably. Know that we have assembled all the fighting men from the neighboring villages. Our combined forces will easily overwhelm the remnants of your Amazons. I do not say this to threaten you. I merely state a fact. Pray, do not make us prove it?"
"I'll do what I can," Gabrielle nodded. She looked at the covered body on the cart and sighed. "I must go. In seven days?"
"I can only hope," Festius replied."
Gabrielle stepped alongside the sturdy pony that was hitched to the cart and led the passive creature towards the outskirts of town.
She found David behind the far wall of the last building in the village, scrubbing his hands in a barrel of rainwater with manic intensity.
Gabrielle stepped slowly towards him, mesmerized and horrified at the pain she saw on his face.
The blood was gone from his fingers, yet he continued to scrub them as if he wanted to remove the flesh from his hands.
Gently, Gabrielle wrapped her fingers over his hands.
"David?" She asked gently.
"I must have used that move a dozen times since I got here," he said in a shaky voice. "It was one of the first moves I ever learned. She should have dropped the knife. That's how it works. It's simple. Disarm and disable. She should have dropped the damned knife!" He tore his hands free of her grasp and fell back against the side of the shack, his hand rising to his forehead. As he slid down the wall, the tears flowed.
"Jesus Christ," David breathed. "I killed a kid."
Gabrielle knelt down next to him and wrapped her arms about his neck, trying desperately to comfort a pain that she readily understood.
After a long time, a mule cart came walking up, led by the blacksmith. Gabrielle saw the pale cloth covering the body of the dead girl.
Gabrielle nodded to the young man once and then looked back at David.
"I have to take Yania back," Gabrielle said gently.
David looked at Gabrielle with red rimmed eyes. "You know her name?" he asked in a hoarse voice. "How?"
Gabrielle smiled slightly. "She told me when she gave me her Right of Caste."
David frowned, and then he remembered how Gabrielle originally got her title in the Amazon Nation.
"I'm coming with you." David said.
"That's not a good idea, David," Gabrielle said softly. "They'll put you on trial for her death."
David nodded. "I think her sisters deserve to know how she died."
"I can tell them," Gabrielle said evenly. "And they cannot harm me, since I have been given her Right of Caste, it's not allowed."
She stopped when she saw the look in his eyes. It was the same look that she had seen when she had returned with him from the debacle at Mogador, after their encounter with the enigmatic Gurkhan.
"Don't," David said with a growl. "Don't you dare!"
His eyes were weary, but filled with a grim resignation that she couldn't remember ever seeing before.
Gabrielle nodded in understanding. She recognized the desperate need for absolution, one way or another.
"All right," Gabrielle agreed. She knew how the Amazons treated murderers, or perceived murderers. A knot of inevitable dread began to freeze in her belly. "But, when we get there, you let me do the talking, agreed?"
David got wearily to his feet. "Agreed."