blinking string of lights blinking string of lights


by Del Robertson



It was a silent night.  Well, as silent a night as one could expect to find in an Amazon village the night before Solstice.  The big drums used around the dance circle had been put away for the evening.  The casks of Amazonian wine had been dutifully drained dry.  And, the celebration field was littered with drunken, slumbering half-dressed warriors.

Yep, it was a silent night indeed.  Punctuated by the occasional passionate outburst of a sporadic Amazon here or there that hadn't yet completely snuggled and nestled down in her chosen partner's bed.  And the staccato echo of a warrior princess' repetitive pacing across the length of her hut.

They had arrived straight in from Athens only scant candlemarks earlier.  Gabrielle had spent more time - and dinars - in the marketplace than Xena had been comfortable with, picking out solstice presents for her Amazon sisters.  In a momentary lapse of judgment brought on by a pain-filled shopping-induced haze, Xena had quipped that everything Gabrielle needed to make her Amazons happy could be obtained in any farmer's barn or tanner's shop.

"Really, Xena?"  Gabrielle had turned towards her with her eyes narrowed and her staff clutched firmly in one hand, the other was balled into a fist on her hip.  Impatiently tapping her boot upon the cobblestone, she asked, "And, what would that be, Xena?  In your opinion, what would be the perfect gift for the Amazons?"

"Well . . . "  Xena knew even before it came rolling off her tongue that she'd be in trouble for saying it.  Big trouble.  Cyclops-sized trouble.  But . . . she just couldn't not say it. "Come on, Gabrielle.  You know the only things you really need to please an Amazon are a handful of pretty feathers and a good, strong phallus."

You want to talk about a silent night?  Try three or four of them, Xena groused as she continued her agitated pacing.

That's how long Gabrielle had gone without speaking to her.  She hadn't thought it possible, but the bard hadn't uttered a word since they'd left Athens.  Not even when she'd told Gabrielle that they'd have to double-up on Argo if she wanted to reach the Amazon Nation in time for the celebration.  She'd merely hefted the sack of presents she'd been carrying onto her shoulder and extended her hand for Xena to hoist her up into the saddle.  Even Gabrielle moving close against her back and wrapping her arms tightly about her waist as she urged Argo into a gallop had an uncomfortably distant feel to it.

The silence had endured until they reached the first markers signaling their arrival into Amazon territory.  They had immediately dismounted, leading Argo on foot through the dense forest area that swallowed up the trail behind them.  Every nerve was on end, every sense heightened as they cautiously made their way deeper and deeper into the interior of the Amazon Nation.

They both stopped at the same instant, Gabrielle not even having to be told this time to clasp both hands above her head.  Tense heartbeats passed before six armed Amazons rappelled from the trees, dropping in formation to surround the intruders.

"You know the Amazon sign of peace."  A voice muffled by a feathered mask commented as a lone warrior moved away from the rest of the pack.

"I should.  I'm one of you," Gabrielle was pleased to be able to respond as she stepped forth to greet her sister.

The mask was smoothly pushed back to reveal sandalwood colored eyes and a beaming smile.

"Solari!"  Gabrielle launched herself into the laughing Amazon's arms.  Wrapping her arms about Solari's neck, she gave her a fierce hug.  "It's so good to see you!"

"And you, my Queen," Solari deferentially tilted her head in acknowledgement.  One by one, the masks were lifted away, revealing familiar faces.  Gabrielle greeted each warrior in turn, calling them by name.  As the last warrior approached, Gabrielle realized she had yet to remove her mask.  Instead of doing so, she performed the Amazon salute, offered her extended forearm for a warrior's handshake.

Gabrielle brushed off the proffered handshake and literally threw herself into the masked Amazon's arms.  The warrior was caught off-balance by the unexpectedly overenthusiastic display and found herself nearly knocked off her feet.

"Stop acting all formal and give me a proper greeting - " Gabrielle scolded as she ran her hands over a well-muscled upper arm and shoulder.  " - Eponin."  She reached out, pushing back the warrior's mask, revealing a broad, toothy grin and a growing blush.  "Why all the secrecy?"

By way of answer, Eponin reached into the pouch tied at her waist and extracted several dinars, firmly pressing them into Solari's palm.

"Ah, I took a bet with Solari here that you wouldn't recognize me with my mask on."

"Oh, Pony!  I think you've been conned."  To emphasize her point, Gabrielle deliberately placed the flat of her hand against Eponin's taut stomach.  Feeling the flesh twitching beneath her touch, she proclaimed, "I'd recognize those toned abdominal muscles of yours anywhere."

"See there, Ep," Solari smirked, "Told you it wasn't your face she was looking at during all those long candlemarks of staff practice!"  

This earned a round of laughter and bawdy catcalls from the remaining Amazons and embarrassed blushes from Gabrielle and Eponin.  If anyone had looked in Xena's direction at that point, they would have seen the murderous scowl on her face and the jealous green tint to her normally hued baby blues.  As it was, she barely forced down the growl that was working its way up from her throat when Eponin extended her arm for a handclasp with the warrior princess.  Xena ignored the gesture of friendship and shouldered her way past the shorter Amazon.

Seeing the slight, but determined to soothe ruffled feathers with a diplomatic gesture, Gabrielle latched onto both Solari and Eponin.  Looping her arms through theirs, she unerringly steered them in the direction of the village.  "So, not that I'm not pleased to see you both," she chattered away as the rest of their procession fell in behind them, Xena and Argo taking up their position somewhere in the middle, "But, how do I rate having both the weapons master and the captain of the royal guard as my personal escorts?"

"Well, you know the Regent," Eponin began.

"Yeah," agreed Solari.  "She was expecting you guys in some time last evening.  When you hadn't arrived by dawn, she was a little concerned.  By the time lunch rolled around and you still hadn't shown, she was fit to have her leathers tied."

"Don't know why she was worried," Eponin piped in, pointedly glancing over her shoulder at the glaring warrior princess.  "Not like you don't travel with your own, personal army."

Xena didn't know why, but even that off-handed comment didn't sit well with her.  She could tell by Eponin's light-hearted tone that she didn't mean anything by it.  But, it still rankled her to no end that the Amazons continually thought of her as their Queen's personal bodyguard more than her lover.  An image that Gabrielle wasn't helping to dispel by hanging off her escorts' well-muscled arms.  

She slowed her step, allowing the other Amazons to pass her as she tried to push down the surge of jealousy she felt growing as Gabrielle reached out and brushed Eponin's feathered earring with her fingertips.  The hearty laughter and the sight of the weapons master's thick fingers running through Gabrielle's blonde locks in return did nothing to improve her temperament.  By the time they reached the main square, Xena had disappeared, taking Argo along the outskirts of the village to reach the stables.

Gabrielle had been livid when Xena appeared at their hut several candlemarks later.  She was already dressed in her formal attire.  And, Xena had to admit, she looked stunning.  Gone was her little bardly traveling companion.  In her place, the Queen of the Amazons.

With all the fiery, passionate temper of a real-life Amazon.  Xena had barely gotten through the doorway before the argument had started.

"Where have you been, Xena?"  she asked.  "You didn't even greet Ephiny."

"Stabling Argo."  She had thought about letting this one go, but something inside of her just wouldn't let her.  "She can't groom herself, you know.  Someone has to do it for her."

"It certainly smells like it!" Gabrielle protested, holding her nose in exaggeration.  "Couldn't that have waited until later?"

"I have responsibilities.  My obligations don't end just because we're on Amazon land."

"No, they don't," agreed Gabrielle.  "If anything, they increase.  As my champion, they expect you to take care of their Queen.  Part of that includes escorting me to formal functions."  Reaching for the wash bowl filled with water, Gabrielle extracted a wet rag, tossed it at the warrior.  "You can't do that smelling like the floor of a stable!"

"Like you'd even notice I was there," Xena uttered, grumbling beneath her breath.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"That means," Xena yelled, tossing the rag down, "If I don't own a feathered earring, it seems I don't rate with you!" 

"What in Tartarus?"  Gabrielle threw up both arms in disbelief.  "I guess I'm supposed to know what you're talking about!"

Xena folded both arms over her breast plate, leveled a glare at the shorter woman.  "I'm talking about how you were flirting with Eponin." 

As her mind took her back to that afternoon, Gabrielle's jaw snapped shut.  "I was admiring the craftsmanship and the way the blending of the fletching set off the lighter shade of her eyes."  

"Uh-huh.  And, of course, that admiration necessitated her running her fingers through your hair in return."

"And," Gabrielle's eyes narrowed to tiny slits at the implication, "We were discussing what shades might look good on me."  Moving to her dresser, retrieving a russet and burgundy colored feather, Gabrielle hooked it into her ear.  "We decided on this one.  I hope you can see the color through that shade of jealousy."

"I'm not jealous."

"Yes, you are.  You've been jealous of the Amazons since day one."  Both hands on her hips, Gabrielle accused, "Don't think I don't know why we don't visit more often.  And, when we do, you start brooding and sulking until you're just too unbearably unpleasant to be around."

"Warriors don't sulk."

"Fine!  You don't sulk.  You pout!  Is that better?"  Gabrielle jammed her finger into the stubborn warrior's breastplate.  "Don't bother to wash up, Xena.  I'm so mad at you right now that I don't think I could stand to be on the same dais with you."

"Gabrielle."  Xena extended her hand, reaching for her bard.  "I - I just want us - "

"No."  Gabrielle easily sidestepped her, making her way to the door of the hut.  Lifting the hide covering in one hand, she turned back to look at her warrior.  "You need to get this unwarranted jealousy of yours under control, Xena."  Taking a deep breath, she added, "Or, there might not be an us."

That had been several candlemarks ago.  And, Xena hadn't stepped foot outside their hut since.  Oh, she'd nearly paced a trench into the floor, but she hadn't stepped foot outside.  Not while the birdcalls were heralding the arrival of the Queen.  Nor during the actual meal when her overly sensitive nose could pick out the delectable smells of venison and roasted chicken and even freshly baked nutbread.  Nor, did she even poke her head out the door when the drums signaled the beginning of the dances.

Amazon dances were one of the few things Xena hated to miss.  But, she was determined to hold her ground.  No matter how guilty Gabrielle made her feel.  Or, how sorry she was for her behavior.  Or, how badly she wanted to kiss and make up with her bard.

Her resolve held firm.  Until the quiet settled in and it was no longer quite so easy to discern from the shelter of the hut exactly what was occurring.  She paused at the window, looking out at the position of the moon.  Chewing her bottom lip, she resumed her pacing, beating out a steady rhythm with her fist against her thigh.

"Ares' jingle bells."  Xena cursed as each subsequent pass by the window brought the position of the moon into sight again.  The celebration's gotta be over by now.  What could she possibly be doing?  Unable to withstand the torture any longer, Xena went off in search of her lover.  

Her long strides carrying her past the main square and beyond the ceremonial field strewn with inebriated Amazons, she found her.  Or, rather . . . them.  Silhouetted against the door frame of a private hut.  Gabrielle's hands were firmly latched onto a set of slender hips.  A pair of strong hands were clasping her bard's shoulders in return.

Xena's eyes slammed shut, her stomach roiling against the nauseous somersaults her insides were performing at the sight of another woman kissing her lover.  As her eyes slowly blinked open, the sight persisted; only now seen through the wavy red haze of her uncontrollable bloodlust.

She was upon them before they could react, one large hand pulling Gabrielle away by the scruff of her neck, the other forming a fist, slamming it into the face of the Amazon Regent.  The blows rained down so fast and furious, Ephiny was unable to get up off the ground.  She raised her arm in a purely defensive move, only to feel the bone break beneath Xena's onslaught.

Miraculously, the pummeling stopped.  Ephiny lay gasping on the ground, tasting the blood in her mouth, cradling her broken arm.  Solari was instantly kneeling at her side, tenderly attempting to pull her battered lover into her arms even as she shot a murderous glare in Xena's direction.

Xena was standing stock-still, hands held out at her sides, heart pounding in her chest.  The tip of a sword was pressed to her throat, the blade tilting her chin up.  Gabrielle had instinctively snatched it from the stunned captain's grasp as she'd rushed out of the hut she shared with Ephiny.  Gabrielle's entire body shook as she turned the weapon on her own lover.

"Xena!  Stop!"  Gabrielle shouted, tears streaming down her face.  "Just stop!"

"No!"  protested Xena with righteous indignation.  "You!  And - " She pointed at the downed regent " - And her!"

"Xena."  The sword in Gabrielle's hand wavered tremendously.  "Look!"  Gabrielle helplessly gestured towards the hut.  "Just . . . look."

The edges of bloodlust still lingering about her senses, Xena vehemently trained her eyes upon the hut.  And froze.  There, hanging above the doorway was a leafy sprig of mistletoe.  

All the strength drained out of Xena's body.  Falling to her knees before Gabrielle, she pleaded, "Gabrielle.  Gabby.  I thought - " A crooked-half smile formed on her lips along with a sheepish look.  "I guess it must have been the mistletoe?"  Tears welling up in  her eyes, threatening to tumble at any heartbeat, she reached out a hand for her bard.

"Oh, Xena.  Don't blame it on the mistletoe."  All the anger, all the energy seeped out of Gabrielle's body.  With a resolved determination in her eyes and a resigned tone in her voice, she stared down at her warrior.  "I warned you what would happen if you didn't learn to control your anger, Xena.  Now, look what you've done."  

Xena's gaze followed Gabrielle's to the still huddled, broken form of the regent.  "Gabrielle - I - I was jealous.  I thought you and Ephiny were - Give me another chance.  Give us another - "

"No!"  Suddenly, Gabrielle's anger was back.  How dare she?  How dare she hurt Ephiny and then just simply ask for forgiveness like she might ask for an ale in a tavern.  "No."  A resolved edge crept into Gabrielle's voice even as she fought to control the tears that were streaming down her cheeks once again.  "If all you can do is hurt me . . . hurt our friends . . . I don't think I can be with you anymore."

"Gabrielle."  Xena held her hands up in supplication.  "I love - "

"No, Xena.  Don't."  Exhaling loudly, Gabrielle's eyes traveled the horizon as she fought to control her wavering feelings.  "See that mountain range over there, Xena?"  She asked, waiting until the kneeling warrior had nodded her head in acknowledgement.  "Good.  Then, go tell it on the mountain, Xena.  Because no one in this village wants to hear it."

That's how she had ended up here.  After kneeling on the cold ground for candlemarks, too absorbed in her own pain to notice the Amazon healer and her apprentices as they used a stretcher to carry their wounded regent to the hospice.  Too oblivious to acknowledge Gabrielle pulling Solari away as the justifiably angry captain of the guard drew her knife and fought to reach her motionless figure.  Only the presence of Ep standing over her, Argo's reins held tightly in her grasp as she nudged the warrior princess with the toe of her boot finally garnered her attention.  

When she looked up into the eyes of someone she had once called friend, she saw that the normally warm honey colored cast of the weapons master's eyes had frozen over.  Coldly, she stared Xena in the eye.  Tossing the reins down, she commanded, "You are no longer our Queen's champion.  Therefore, your ties to the Nation are now severed.  You have until sunrise to leave Amazon land."

She rode for the remainder of the night, urging Argo into a reckless gallop, Gabrielle's last words to her resounding in her ears like the gallop of her mare's hooves.  Gabrielle had told her to go tell it on the mountain.  That phrase kept echoing over and over in her mind again and again until she did exactly what Gabrielle had bade her do.

Her legs felt like they were made of lead as she numbly slid out of the saddle.  The higher she'd gone into the mountain range, the colder the weather had grown.  Focused on her goal, in her misery and despair, she was able to block out the feeling of frostbite that settled over her with the steadily falling snow.  She reached out, slapping Argo on the flank, as she walked an unsteady course up the mountain path.  Obeying her mistress, Argo began the long descent down the trail that led back to the village.

A steady warmth drew her forward, prompting her to take step after step.  There was a fiery red glow just ahead, the outline of a rope bridge lay before her.  As Xena approached, she realized the bridge was out.  Of course it was; she had been the one to cut the ropes, after all.  

Standing at the very edge of the snow-covered precipice, she leaned out, feeling the heat upon her cold face.  She closed her eyes, allowing a moment to take in the warmth.  Briefly, she wondered if Gabrielle realized the irony of where she had commanded her once-love go.  Eyes slowly opening, she took in her surroundings.  She hadn't been able to enjoy the view the last time they were here.  And, it hadn't been in the dead of winter.  Snow covered everything now, leaving the wilderness in an untouched blanket of white.  Undisturbed by the living, it really was a winter wonderland.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle."  Xena's normally strong voice dissipated into the brutal wind buffeting the mountain.  "I'm sorry all I seem to be able to do is hurt you."  The tears openly streaming down her cheeks threatened to freeze upon her flesh.  "I love you.  I'd sooner die than ever do anything to ever hurt you."  Unhooking her chakram, unsheathing her sword, she lay her weapons down upon the snowy ground.  Stepping to the edge of the chasm, the toes of her boots hanging over, she declared, "I wish I'd never been born" before stepping out over letting out her ear-piercing battle cry and hurling herself over the ledge.

As she plummeted towards the lava flow below, she briefly wondered if Velasca and Callisto, trapped as they were in their molten tomb for eternity, could sense her impending presence.  She had no illusion that she would be dead, her flesh incinerated long before she reached the river of lava.  But, she thought the immortal duo might find a sense of perverse, ironic justice in her fate.

Closing her eyes once again, Xena breathed, "I love you, Gabrielle."



The last thing Xena expected when she blinked her eyes open was to be standing before a goddess clad in a pink nightie and little else.  The lowest levels of Tartarus, yes.  An inquisition before The Furies, maybe.  Even a sentencing passed by Zeus himself, possibly.  But, not a private audience with the Goddess of Love in a black void.

Unless this really is Tartarus.

"Hey!"  Aphrodite looked offended.  "We Gods and Goddesses can, like, hear your mortal thoughts, you know!"

Figures.  "Even us dead mortals?"

"Like, totally.  But, you're not dead.  Yet."

"What?"  Xena looked positively perplexed.  "I threw myself off a mountain and into a river of lava.  What do you mean I'm not dead?"

"I heard your wish, Warrior Babe."

"My . . . wish?"

"Yep."  Aphrodite flipped her trademarked long, blonde locks, looking pretty pleased with herself in the process.  "Heard your plea, snatched you from impending death and transported you here to grant your wish.  Done, babe."

"What . . . wish?"

"Like, the one where you wished you'd never been born."  Reaching out, she placed a cool hand against Xena's forehead.  "You sure you didn't toast your brains on the way down, sweetcheeks?"

"Right now," Xena swatted Aphrodite's hands away, "Anything's possible.  So, you'd better clue me in on what you're talking about."

"Okay, for like the fifteenth time," Aphrodite rolled her eyes.  "Right before you decided you wanted to be toasted warrior, you said all you do is hurt the bardster and wished you'd never been born.  Soooo," she wrinkled her nose as she added, "I decided to show you how wrong you are.  By granting you your wish."

"So, I've never been born."

"Right.  Now, I'm going to show you what the world would be like without Xena."

"Way ahead of you on that one, Aphrodite."  Xena smugly folded her arms over her chest.  "It's a much better place with a lot less suffering."

"Not necessarily.  You'd be surprised what sort of an impact one life can have on another." 

"You're telling me the world's not a much better place without me in it?"

"I'm telling you I'm going to let you decide that for yourself.  I'm going to show you a world where Xena had never been born and then, if you decide you still want to be a bbq'ed warrior, I won't stand in your way."

"Hold it."  Xena's eyebrow arched.  "Isn't this usually something for The Fates to decide?  What gives the Goddess of Love authority over my business?"

"It became my business when you totally abandoned Gabrielle.  You guys are soulmates.  And, as such, the Goddess of Love herself has jurisdiction in this matter."

"The Gods aren't in the habit of granting wishes for free."  More than a tinge of suspicion tinted Xena's voice.  "What do you get out of it?"

"Look; if you must know - " Aphrodite folded both arms over her pink-nightie clad chest " - For me, Solstice . . . it's the most wonderful time of the year.  And, it's, like, really gonna put a damper on my celebration if you off yourself.  So, can we just get on with this so I can continue my festivities?"

"Certainly."  Xena held out her arm in a gesture for the goddess to proceed.  "Wouldn't want my death to inconvenience you."

Aphrodite snapped her fingers and just like that, they were standing knee-deep in snow in front of a dilapidated building that looked like it was in desperate need of some carpentry work and a fresh coat of paint.  A battered sign hung above the door, swinging precariously in the wind by a single worn bit of chain.  The elements had long since worn the lettering down, making it impossible to read the name of the establishment.  But, the light from several candles and a fireplace visible through the front windows still made for a welcome enough invitation.

Drawn to the promise of warmth inside, Xena started up the front steps.  Then stopped in her tracks as she suddenly sensed something was out of the ordinary.  Hand already on the latch of the door, she looked down.  Her customary leathers were gone.  In their place, a familiar set of lighter leathers, a sword belt worn about her waist and a cape held in place on her shoulders with claw-like shoulder guards.  She wore a pair of black gloves, silver gauntlets clasped firmly about both wrists.

Recognizing the outfit, she looked sharply at Aphrodite.

The Goddess of Love merely shrugged.  "Trust me, warrior babe.  You'll blend in much better in something a little less intimidating than your usual gear."  

"Less - ?"  Xena looked incredulously at the deity before her.  "Aphrodite!   This is from - "

" - Your bad, old warlord days?"  Aphrodite waved off the very notion with a flick of her wrist.  "Relax.  No one here will recognize you in that."

Still keeping one wary eye fixed on the goddess, Xena resolutely opened the door and stepped inside.  After the chilling numbness of first the mountain and then standing outside arguing with Aphrodite in the snow, stepping into the warmth of the tavern was akin to stepping into a wall of steam.  Or, swimming in a river of lava.

That thought carried her along, causing her to suddenly recall exactly what she was doing here in this strange town, accompanied by this goddess instead of her usual traveling companion.  And, the events that had led up to these circumstances.  Oh, Gabrielle.  I can't begin to tell you how much I wish you were here with me.

"What'll it be?"  

The barmaid's coarse voice caught her off-guard.  She hadn't even realized she'd made her way to a corner table out of rote, sitting with her back to the wall, her elbows propped up on the table as she balanced upon a wobbly chair.  


"One dinar."  A woman's thin hand shot out beneath Xena's nose, palm up.  "In advance."

Casting a sideways glance at Aphrodite, she caught the goddess' subtle nod towards the pouch tied at her waist.  Fingers reaching down, hefting the bag, Xena realized there was enough coin in the purse that she wouldn't need to be worried about money for quite a while.  Palming three coins, she pressed them into the barmaid's hand without looking up.

"Keep them coming.  Until I say otherwise."

"Umm, getting you plastered wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I saved your butt from being fried."

"I'm not getting plastered.  I just need something to take the edge off if I'm to take your attempt at saving my life seriously." The warrior princess ran her eyes appraisingly over the voluptuous, half-dressed woman who was reclining in the next chair over, one leg draped over the wooden arm, her pink shoe with the fluffy tassels dangling off her toes.  "I take it I'm the only one who can see you?"

"That's how I like to work," Aphrodite confirmed.  "Until you make your choice one way or the other, you're the only one that can see or hear me."  She polished her nails against her pink lingerie.  "Besides, I'm a celebrity; can't hide this much goddessness with just a costume change, ya know?"

"Oh, come all ye faithful and worship at the Temple of Vainness that is Aphrodite." 

"Please!  A little respect for the awesomeness that is me."  Aphrodite gasped and clutched a hand to her chest as if she was shocked by the very notion of Xena's audacity.  "Is it my fault no matter what I wear or where I go, everyone recognizes the Goddess of Love?"

"Sorry."  Xena allowed an eye roll as she apologized.  "Being snatched from the clutches of death sometimes puts me in a bitchy mood."  Before Aphrodite could offer to return her to the volcano, she added, "So, Aphrodite, in your infinite wisdom can you pray tell this poor mortal what town your magnificent powers have brought us to?"

"You know, that would be a lot more endearing if you didn't use such a sarcastic tone when you said it."  Aphrodite folded her arms over her chest, sat back in her chair with a pout.  "Although, with your many skills, I'm surprised you haven't figured out exactly where we are."

Xena frowned at the enigmatic response, yet nevertheless, found herself looking in the direction the tilt of Aphrodite's head had indicated.  As she did, she looked up to see the barmaid slam down her first mug of ale on the table in front of her.  As the woman cursed, pulled a torn and filthy rag from her apron and wiped at the spilled ale that had sloshed over the side and onto the table, Xena studied her.  

She was of average height, her shoulders appearing a little stooped with age and hard work.  Her hair looked like it had been tied up in a bun, but several of the mostly grey streaks had fallen into long strands about the shoulders of the tattered peasant dress she wore.  Deep creases lined her weathered face, dark circles hung beneath her dull eyes.

Xena's jaw dropped open in dismay.  "Mother?!?"

The woman looked up sharply at the outburst.  Something flickered in her eyes before she responded in a cold, distant voice.  "I have no children."

Aphrodite picked this moment to whisper to Xena, "Remember your wish."

"I'm sorry.  My mistake," Xena mumbled.  "My mother used to own a tavern.  You look a lot like her."

"Uh-huh."  The woman gave Xena another odd look, this one laced with suspicion as she moved away.  "Signal when you want your next mug."

As soon as Cyrene backed away to the bar, Xena spun in her seat, addressing Aphrodite in a strained whisper.  "What does she mean she doesn't have any children?"

"Just what she said."  Aphrodite shrugged.  "She never had a daughter."

"Wait . . . I was given a chance to go back once before.  When Cortese first attacked Amphipolis, I didn't stand against him.  My brother, Lyceus, was never killed."

"Like in that timeline, duh!"  Unapologetic in her own sarcasm, Aphrodite reached out, snatching Xena's now forgotten mug of ale and downed a healthy gulp.  "Here, he didn't have a big sister to watch out for him.  Because you were never born, both your brothers died when Cortese attacked."

Biting  her bottom lip, Xena openly stared at the woman who was now waiting on the steady stream of customers that were beginning to come in the door.  Villagers, most of them, she judged by their dress; just in from a days work, no doubt.  Cyrene talked with each patron in turn, offering up a drink as ordered, but her usual smile reserved for paying customers was markedly absent.

Aphrodite allowed Xena to watch for a while longer before asking, "You see how different her life is without you in it?"

"Not all that different.  She still tends the tavern, just as she always has."  Xena snatched her mug from Aphrodite, used the warm ale to wash down the bitter taste she felt in her mouth.  "Only difference is her children died a death she can be proud of, defending their home.  Instead of having one that died, one that turned coward and one that she's ashamed to have ever called daughter."

"She's forgiven you, you know.  A mother's love for her child is a strong bond."

"So strong she blamed me for Lyceus' death and threw me out.  Said she couldn't stand to have a monster like me living under her roof."  Xena drained her mug dry, slammed it down on the tabletop with finality.  "She's better off never having had a daughter."

"That's the thing about monsters," Aphrodite warned cryptically, "Sometimes you don't see them coming until they're already here."

Xena followed Aphrodite's wandering gaze until she focused on another woman dressed in a peasant's dress, an apron tied about her waist as she delivered round after round of drinks to the patrons of the now nearly full tavern.  Her hands were full as she carried four overflowing mugs to a table.  Her blonde hair fell into her eyes, hiding her face from view as she leaned in to place the mugs upon the table.  A merchant's chubby hand crept from beneath the table, latching onto and squeezing the girl's derriere.  With a startled gasp, she jumped, pushing the man's hand from her rear and the hair out of her eyes at the same time.  


Xena stood up, the legs of her chair scraping the floor with her sudden movement,  her hand reflexively reaching for the sword at her side.  Only Aphrodite's hand upon her forearm stilled her from rushing across the room and lobbing the blonde's head from her shoulders.  

"Without Xena, Cirra never happened.  She's not the Warrior Queen you knew her to be." 

The man laughed, pulling a heavy purse from his waist and tossing it on the table.  Spying the bag of dinars, Callisto offered the man a warmer smile.  Then, as if sensing Xena's presence, she raised her head until her eyes met the warrior's steely gaze.

Suddenly confused, feeling the eyes of Callisto and nearly every other person in the room upon her, she tensed.  Finally, meeting Cyrene's gaze, she covered her actions by signaling for her second mug.  Using her foot to hook about the leg of her errant chair and pulling it beneath her, she quickly flopped down.  With the strange warrior now firmly in her seat again, the curious eyes slowly turned away from her.

"What is she doing here?" Xena hissed through clenched teeth.

"With no heirs, Cyrene had to hire help to run the tavern."

"Why does it have to be her?" Xena snarled, pointing at the barmaid who was deftly circling the room, depositing mug after mug of ale upon the tables and mostly avoiding the pinching fingers of the rowdy townies in the process.

"Had to be someone," Aphrodite shrugged.  "And, without her hometown, like, being scorched to the ground and her not needing to spend her life seeking revenge, well, the girl had to make a living some way."

"So, because there was no me, the evil never grew inside of Callisto."

"Hah!  Don't go taking all the credit there, warrior babe!"  

Aphrodite snapped her fingers.  Instantly, they disappeared and reappeared outside.  Up on the housetop of the building on the other side of the street that ran behind her mother's tavern.  As they materialized out of nothingness, Xena's boots slipped upon the snow covered roof, sending her sliding down the steep incline.  

As her legs slid off the roof, followed by most of her body, Xena was able to reach out and just grab onto the edge of the roof with her fingertips.  Gritting her teeth, muscles straining, she was able to pull herself up.  Laying on the roof, feeling the cold snow seeping into her cloak and leathers, she let out an exasperated sigh.

"Tell me next time you're gonna do that, will ya?"

"Sorry.  Forgot your tender mortal sensibilities aren't used to goddess-travel."

"What are we doing up here, anywhere?" Xena asked.

Aphrodite put a finger to her lips to signal Xena to shush.  Catching the hint, the warrior princess maneuvered her body around until she was able to peer over the edge of the roof.  From her position, she was able to see the back door of her mother's tavern open, then close.  

A young woman in a peasant dress stepped out, pulling a man by the hand behind her.   By the light of the moon, Xena was able to make out Callisto and the merchant who'd fondled her bottom.  They paused just outside the door, leaning up against it, the woman taking the lead as she pressed into him as they kissed.  He tried for another kiss, only to find her giggling and stepping away from him.  Twice more he attempted the kiss.  Twice more she side-stepped his efforts, luring him deeper and deeper into the alley.

"You brought me out here to watch Callisto do the nasty with some townie?" 

"Shush!"  Warned Aphrodite, slapping the prone warrior's arm.  "They can't hear me, but they can most certainly hear you!"

Properly chastised, Xena turned her reluctant gaze back to the alley and its two occupants.  The amorous suitor had finally caught his quarry and had her pressed up against the wall of the building Aphrodite and Xena were perched upon.  His lips were pressed against her neck, a suitable amount of moaning and groaning was coming from Callisto's slackened jaw.  As his hands disappeared beneath her skirt, hers went about his waist.  

Xena was about to protest Aphrodite's bout of voyeurism once again when the glint of the moonlight on the dagger blade caught her attention.  With one swift strike, Callisto had plunged it into the man's back.  Once.  Twice.  Three times.   He stiffened, looking up in stunned disbelief before crumbling to the ground at her feet.  Calmly as could be, Callisto bent over, wiping her blade upon his shirt, then using its edge to cut the purse-strings from his waist.  Whistling a jolly Solstice tune, she made her way the short distance back down the alley and let herself into Cyrene's tavern once more.

"See? Sometimes, the monster finds a way to get loose no matter what."  Taking the warrior's hand in her own, looking her in the eye, she asked Xena, "The only question is; without you, who's gonna be there to stop it?"

As they appeared once more inside the tavern, Xena noticed that with the exception of Cyrene and herself and the annoyingly invisible presence of Aphrodite, the tavern was deserted.  Feeling herself drawn towards the woman who in another life would be her mother, Xena slowly, hesitantly approached where she was wiping down tables.  Just as she was within speaking distance, the back door opened.

Xena halted, disappearing into the shadows as Callisto stepped into the tavern.  Boldly, she strode up to Cyrene, placed the purse upon the table.

"What's this?" asked Cyrene, eyeing the bag, already knowing from its shape that it contained coins.  Lots of them.

"Found it in the alley."  Callisto assumed an innocent expression and a shrug.  "Owner must have dropped it.  I'll put it behind the bar in case he comes back for it."

"That seems to happen quite a lot these days," Cyrene noticed.  "Must be nice to have enough coin at home that you don't notice when you drop your purse.  Oh well, if no one claims it, I guess we can put it towards a new roof next summer."

"Maybe I'm not needed to stop her after all," Xena whispered to Aphrodite, "Seems this Callisto's a monster with a heart of gold."

"Oooh!"  The goddess stomped her foot in frustration at the stubborn warrior's logic.  From her position near the fireplace, she watched helplessly as Xena walked  across the room.  

Cyrene was struggling to put the chairs up onto the tables when the warrior approached.  Effortlessly, she took the chair Cyrene had in her grasp and one-handed, placed it upside down upon the table.  Silently, she moved along with Cyrene to each table, picking up every chair and depositing it upside down for her.  From the safety of the bar, Callisto warily eyed the stranger.

"I wondered where you'd gone off to," Cyrene spoke at last as they finished up the final table, "I still owe you that third ale."

"Actually, I find myself in much more need of a room for the night than another drink."

"Cyrene!"  Callisto's loud voice rang out from the other side of the bar, reminding her, "We don't have the room."

Xena offered up her most charming smile.  "I wouldn't take up too much space.  I only need a room with a bed.  The smallest you have would be fine."  Her mind was already recalling the small room housed just above the kitchen that her mother very seldom leased out.  "And, I promise to be quiet."

"Cyrene."  Callisto's glare was unmistakable.  "All those rooms are accounted for."

"There's always room for one more at my inn."  Cyrene performed a subtle eye roll strictly for Xena's benefit.  "I won't turn out someone the night before Solstice Eve.  Besides, that one little room isn't gonna make a bit of difference in the world."

"I'd like to hear you say that tomorrow."  Callisto slammed her fist on the bar, stormed out of the room in a huff.

"Don't mind her.  She's always been wound a bit too tight," Cyrene offered by way of explanation as she proceeded to lead Xena upstairs and into the very room she imagined she'd be staying in.  

To Xena's surprise, all the other doors on the second floor were standing wide open, indicating no other occupants.  As she followed Cyrene to her room situated at the far end of the hall, she noticed Aphrodite already stretched out upon her bed, reclining against her pillow.  Wonder if she knows how many harlots in brothels I've seen strike that exact same pose.  She nearly lost her stoic warrior facade as she caught the offended gasp and the priceless look on Aphrodite's face as the goddess read her mind.  The thought of the brothel brought to mind Callisto's earlier reference to all the rooms already being accounted for.  They're expecting someone.  A lot of someones.

Stopping Cyrene at the doorway before she left, Xena asked, "Your hired girl was upset about me having a room.  What's so important about tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow?" Both Cyrene's eyebrows rose as if this mysterious stranger had suddenly grown two heads.  How could anyone in the known world not know what the next day would bring?  "Tomorrow, the Amazons come."

Apparently, everyone in town with the exception of Xena knew that the Amazons were coming.  At dawn's first light, the entire populace suddenly came to life and set about their preparations.   Having experienced first hand the fear and prejudice of small town life, Xena had fully anticipated every window being shuttered, every door being barred, every sword and dagger sharpened.  

She could have been knocked over with a feather when she observed just the opposite.  All the shutters were thrown open, every home and shop was dusted and swept out.  And, as soon as the posted lookouts reported that horses were sighted on the horizon, every man, woman and child lined the main street in anticipation.

Leaning against a post outside the blacksmith's shop, idly chewing a piece of straw, arms folded across her chest, Xena watched the Amazon procession ride into the heart of downtown Amphipolis.  There were approximately twenty warriors in all, each riding her own horse, demonstrating the assuredness and confidence instilled into each and every warrior of the Nation.  Most of them had long cloaks wrapped about them to keep out the bitter cold.  But, here and there, the wind would catch a cloak, causing it to flutter open, revealing what was beneath the material.  They were dressed in full Amazon regalia, sun-bronzed toned flesh interspersed with glimpses of leather and weapons and feathered masks.

"Oooh!  I just love a parade!"  Aphrodite suddenly materialized beside the warrior.

"Amazons don't have parades."  Xena spat out the bit of straw she'd been chewing.  She'd noticed the way the horses trotted in perfect tandem, two riders beside each other as they made their way down the street.  Two rows, ten horses back.  Except for the solitary figure leading the procession.  "Does look like a royal entourage, though."  The first two riders behind the solitary figure wore blue sashes about their waists, marking them as members of the royal guard.  "But, what's a Queen doing so far from the safety of the Nation?"

"You're so totally struggling with this whole never been born, not there to affect major known world events concept, aren't you?"  Seeing the irritated expression, the blue eyes narrowed to tiny slits, Aphrodite let out an exasperated huff.  "Talk about a grump.  Okay, warrior babe.  Once again; no Xena.  Means no Destroyer of Nations.  Means the Amazons are thriving.  With their Queen's expansion plan in place, all of Greece is their backyard."

"Well, joy to the world."  Xena pushed off from the post she'd been leaning against, determinedly making her way through the crowd, Aphrodite right beside her.  "Proves my point.  The world is better off without Xena.  Send me back to the mountain."

"Wait, sweetcheeks!  There's so much more you haven't seen."  

By this time, the Amazon procession had made it into the main square, the horses reined in, nervously prancing beneath their riders.  The crowd was going wild, enthusiastically cheering as in choreographed routine, the Amazons raised their feathered masks.

"Besides, don't you want to see who the Amazon Queen is?"

"Why would I - " Xena's voice trailed off as she looked across the crowded courtyard.  The Amazon Queen had both arms up, basking in the adoration of the populace.  Waves of blonde hair mixed with the feathers of her mask blew about her youthful face.  Eyes the same shade as Artemis' forest swept over the crowd.  Xena exhaled the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Gabrielle."  

"Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!"  Where do you think you're going?"  

The instant Xena had realized her soulmate was heading the Amazon procession, her legs had begun to work again.  She was dutifully pushing her way through the crowd, causing a small disturbance as she elbowed and shoved people out of her way.  With the assembled mass, though, she was getting nowhere fast.  The Amazons had already dismounted, several of them leading the horses towards the stables.  With her height, she was able to keep sight of the blonde woman leading half her group in the direction of the town hall.  

"That's Gabrielle," Xena succinctly answered.

"This mean you aren't quite ready to go back to the lava?" prompted Aphrodite.  

Xena was growing more and more irritated by the heartbeat.  "I have to see her," she persisted, giving serious debate to letting loose her battle cry and leaping into the air.

"Do that and you'll have every Amazon within half a mile between you and their Queenie."  Unable to resist the temptation of helping the soulmates out, even if Xena was determined to not exist, she offered, "Besides, I know where they're going."

They materialized at what was becoming Xena's regular table in the tavern.  Looking about, the warrior princess saw the freshly picked flowers in the vases on every table.  The curtains she hadn't even realized were covering the windows last night had been pulled back and tied open, allowing the sunlight to stream in.  Hades, even the windows themselves looked like they'd been scrubbed clean.  

Callisto stood behind the bar, grumpily wiping out mugs with a damp cloth, a sour expression on her face.  And, her mother - Her mother was stunning.  Gone was the tattered peasant dress and negligent hairstyle from the night before.  In their place, a clean, pressed blouse and skirt.  Her hair was down, freshly combed out, making her look years younger.  She looked like a completely different woman from the one Xena had met the night before.  The only thing about her that was still Cyrene was the ever-present apron she wore tied about her waist.

The door to the tavern was pushed open.  The amount of afternoon sunlight streaming in was almost blinding.  Xena blinked against the brightness as the Amazon Queen stepped through the door.  Cyrene's entire face lit up as Gabrielle offered her a smile.  The Queen walked with a purpose to her stride, quickly eating up the distance between the front door and the tavern owner.  As they neared one another, Xena noted the tears of joy beginning to form in Cyrene's eyes.  

"Cyrene!"  Gabrielle exclaimed, a look of pure joy on her face as she embraced the older woman.

Xena was stunned, unable to do little more than watch as the rest of the Amazon entourage slowly poured into the building.  Cyrene had Gabrielle by the arm, pulling the young Queen deeper into the room, settling them both down in front of the fireplace.  Callisto appeared, offering each a drink before moving back to tend her bar and the thirsty Amazons.  Sitting there in front of the warm fire, they looked for all the world like two old friends catching up.

"I thought without me, Gabrielle would be safe at home in Potadeia."  As the fire warmed her, Gabrielle slipped out of her cloak, showing her physique.  She was more toned than the Gabrielle she was familiar with, the innocence of baby fat completely gone from her face and waist.  Her taut abdominal muscles moved with every indrawn breath, threatening to steal away Xena's breath in the same instant.  It was a struggle to avert her eyes to look at the goddess seated beside her.  "What is Gabrielle doing in Amphipolis?  And, how did she become the Amazon Queen?"  

"Well . . . " Aphrodite wheedled, picking at the hemline of her gown.

"Aphrodite . . . . " 

The Goddess of Love had never known anyone to be able to put so much menace into just a name.  "Okay," she relented.  "But, you're not gonna like it.  Remember when you first met your Gabby?"

"Sure," Xena shrugged.  "Couple of seasons ago on the outskirts of Potadeia."

"Oookay.  You recall how you two met?  Other than the love at first sight bit?"

"It was hardly love at first sight."  Xena snorted at the memory.  "I stepped out of the underbrush to find this little girl offering herself up to - " there was the sensation of a sword twisting in her gut as the next words tumbled from her mouth " - slavers to keep her sister and the other women safe."

"Right.  Only this time, there was no warrior princess around to prevent her sacrifice."  

A deathly pall came over Xena's face as the realization set in.  Her mouth opened and closed soundlessly several times before she was able to simply utter, "No."

"Sorry, babe."  Aphrodite winced at the pained expression she saw on the warrior's face.  Sometimes, it was no fun being able to read a mortal's thoughts.  Especially when they were wracked with such guilt and pain and misery.  "If it helps any, sweetie, she was very brave," the goddess offered, reaching out, repeatedly rubbing her hand up and down the devastated warrior's arm.

Xena looked up through water-filled blue eyes, settling her gaze on Aphrodite with grim determination.  She had to know.  "What happened?  After - "

"They left her.  Battered and abused and near death.  Thinking her damaged, worthless goods, they left her alongside the road to Thrace.  She lay there for days, alone, unable to walk or even stand, praying for the Gods to let her die."

"But, she didn't."  The healthy image of the strong, young woman sitting near the fire gave testament to that.  "She survived."  

"Barely.  And only because a kind-hearted innkeeper on the way home from a trip with her two sons stumbled upon her and wouldn't abandon her."  

Ice blue eyes widened in surprise.

"Your mother," confirmed Aphrodite, "took her in and nursed her back to health.  It took seasons, but she was finally able to heal Gabrielle's physical wounds, if not her emotional ones.  Toris and Lyceus doted on Gabrielle.  She became the sister they never had.  But, she wasn't so easily able to return their affections.  One day, they were rough-housing and Toris pinned her to the ground, refusing to let her up.  She stabbed him twice with a kitchen knife before they were able to haul her off him."

"Poor Gabrielle." Xena felt her heart break even more at her love's suffering.

"Cyrene was upset that Gabrielle had hurt her eldest, but didn't really blame the child.  Recognizing the cause of the girl's pain, but not knowing what else to do to help her, she took her to the only place she thought she might be safe."

"The Amazons."

"Cyrene petitioned the Queen of the Amazons herself to take in Gabrielle.  Despite her undisciplined rage, Melosa recognized the potential within Gabrielle.  Having had no children of her own and her sister not being as strong of a warrior as Melosa expected, she adopted Gabrielle into her household.  With the death of Princess Terreis, Gabrielle received the right of caste and became next in line for the throne.  When Melosa died in battle against the Centaurs, Gabrielle took the mask of Queen, leading her people to victory over Tyldus and his army."

"Wait."  Xena was stunned.  "The Amazons defeated the Centaurs in battle?"  That was something I was never able to do.

"Gabrielle was relentless in her madness and grief, vowing to destroy the murderers of her household.  It had taken her seasons to block out the loss of her parents, her home, her innocence.  Then, for the Centaurs to destroy the closest thing she had to a new family . . . they also shattered the last vestiges of Gabrielle's goodness.  While beneath a banner of truce with Tyldus to negotiate the terms of his surrender, Gabrielle gave the command for her warriors to slaughter the last of the Centaurs."

Xena had sat in shocked silence, unable to wrap her mind around the series of events leading up to Gabrielle committing genocide.  She just couldn't reconcile the image of her sweet bard grown up into this fierce warrior, commanding the armies of an undefeated Amazon Nation.  Aphrodite silently sat beside her as she sorted out her thoughts, determined to be Xena's unflagging guardian throughout her entire journey.

The lengthening shadows signaling the onset of evening finally drew the troubled warrior from her reverie.  A glance about the tavern revealed that many of the local patrons had been allowed in for the evening meal.  However, the Amazons had taken over nearly half the room, commandeering the best tables in front of the fireplace for their Queen.  Gabrielle was laughing and eating and drinking heartily.  Flanking her on each side, wearing the customary colors of the royal guard, were Ephiny and Solari.

Callisto circled the room, refilling mugs and serving platters.  With the appearance of the Amazons, the patrons were naturally curious, determined to catch a second glimpse of the legendary warrior women.  Cyrene was in the kitchen, preparing more and more food to feed the hungry Amazons.  In one corner of the dining area, a lean figure sat hunched on the floor, a small handheld drum pulled up into his lap as he beat out a repetitively annoying tune.

"Hey, little drummer boy!"  Solari shouted out around a full mouth.  "Give it a rest, will ya?"

"I play for the pleasure of the Queen, not you."

Solari was caught off-guard by the bold response. Her sisters laughed heartily, openly poking fun at her.  Temper rising right alongside her embarrassment, she jumped up from her seat, angrily stalking across the room.  Reaching down, she used a strong one-handed grip to haul the lanky youth to his feet.  Tugging him by the ear, she marched him to her Queen's table; roughly shoving him forward, causing him to slam face first into the wood grain table with enough force to rattle the mugs of ale.

"Why, Solari,"  Gabrielle's lips curved about the brim of her mug, "What do you have there?"

"A musician, I think," growled out Solari, "Although he says he plays for your pleasure alone."

"I think I would find it far more pleasurable if he would stop."

"Begging your Queenship, your Highness," stammered the visibly trembling man, "I'm also somewhat of a bard.  Perhaps a tale for her Majesty?"

Gabrielle slammed her goblet down.  "The only thing more worthless than a musician is a bard.  Telling stories about heroes is a past-time for dreamers."  She gave an off-handed wave at Solari.  "Take him to the stables.  He can tell stories to the horses while he's shoveling out the stalls."

Raucous laughter reverberated throughout the tavern.  The only ones not laughing were Xena.  And Aphrodite.  And Joxer.

"Please, your Supremeness.  Mercy!" hollered Joxer as Solari sharply pinched his ear.  "Just give me a chance!  Then, if you still don't like my story, I'll muck out the stables.  Promise!"

"Solari, wait."  As the guard halted, Gabrielle leaned over, conspiratorially whispering in Ephiny's ear.  With a sly smirk, she turned to Joxer, "Very well, bard.  Entertain me."

Solari released him, reclaiming her seat beside the Queen.  Leaning back in her chair, she kept one hand on her dagger, her thumb intimately stroking the hilt.  She figured ten - fifteen heartbeats tops and the little man would be hers again.

"It - " Joxer's voice squeaked tremendously.  Clearing his throat, he attempted to lower his tone to a more manly pitch as he began again.  "It came upon a midnight clear.  The fierce attack led by the devastatingly beautiful Queen of the Amazons."  

"What do you know?"  Gabrielle called out in a voice loud enough the entire tavern could hear.  "I think I might like this tale after all." 

Xena listened in rapt fascination as Joxer launched into his tale of Queen Gabrielle's attack on the city of Athens.  According to him, the pinnacle of her conquest was when she ordered the Academy of Bards to burned to the ground . . . with the teachers and scholars inside.  In the Queen's own words The only art worth performing is the art of warfare.  

"That is so true!"  agreed Gabrielle, boisterously laughing, raising her mug and clinking it against Ephiny's in salute.

As Joxer recited the tale, he moved about the room, clearly more comfortable with acting out certain parts of the story as  he went along.  Xena's eyes followed him as he paced about, making the entire room his stage.  As he weaved his tale, he watched for the Queen's reaction, his eyes never leaving hers.  As he neared the end of his story, he approached Gabrielle's table.

Faster than even the Queen's guards could react, Xena was on her feet and somersaulting across the room.  Landing with both feet on the table, straddling the Queen's plate, she spun, delivering a kick that sent Joxer spinning and the dagger flying from his hand.  It skittered across the floor, landing beside the hearth.  Callisto darted out from behind the bar, palmed the weapon in a dishrag and hurriedly retreated, hiding the rolled towel beneath the counter.

Ephiny and Solari instantly had a struggling Joxer held securely between them.  Gabrielle gave a single wave of her hand.  Immediately, the rest of the Amazons removed the regular townsfolk from the tavern.  When the last citizen of Amphipolis had been firmly escorted out and the curtains were securely drawn and fastened, the Queen slowly rose from her seat.

With a purpose to her stride, she walked straight up to Joxer and backhanded him across the face.  As his head snapped back, his defiant eyes meeting hers once again, she advised, "You would have done well to have attacked during the middle of the story and perhaps ended everyone's torture sooner."  Eyeing her would-be assassin and speculatively tapping her chin, she posed the question, "Now that you've ruined the story, how shall you entertain me?"  At the knowing looks and chuckles from her entourage, she snapped her fingers.  "I know."  Her smile instantly vanished.  "Crucify him."

Xena's blood ran cold at the sardonic smirks on Ephiny's and Solari's faces.  She was about to protest when another voice called out, "Wait!" 

The guards paused as Cyrene interrupted.  Normally, they wouldn't hesitate to carry out their leader's commands.  But, this was the woman the Queen insisted they visit every Solstice.  If anyone could sway her judgment -

Cyrene had come in from the kitchen just as Gabrielle had given the order.  "Surely you don't mean to crucify him?" she asked, looking into the cold green eyes of the girl who had been the closest thing she'd known to a daughter.

"He attempted to assassinate me."  Gabrielle looked momentarily displeased by Cyrene's interference, but quickly schooled her features into that innocent look that had first attracted Xena's interest so long ago.  "Very well, what would you have me do with him?"

"I - I don't know," Cyrene faltered.  "But it's not right to kill him.  Not on Solstice Eve."  

"Of course."  Gabrielle reached out, comfortingly patted Cyrene's hands.  "I don't know what I was thinking.  I promise, no harm will come to this man on Solstice Eve." 

Cyrene wiped her sweaty palms on her apron.  Then, impulsively caught Gabrielle in a hug, tenderly kissed her on the cheek.  Then, sniffing the air, she realized, "I left some nutbread on the fire."  Heading towards the kitchen, she paused in the doorway, casting a final hesitant look in Gabrielle's direction.  

As soon as Cyrene was gone, Gabrielle turned to the captain of her guard.  "Ephiny, escort him to Velasca's squad.  Her troops are camped about ten miles south.  And, tell her I personally said not to touch a hair on his head tonight."

"Yes, my Queen," offered Ephiny with a bow, already tugging on the prisoner's arm to get him moving.

"Oh, and Ephiny?" The woman with the blonde, curly locks glanced back over her shoulder at her cruelly smiling sovereign.  "Tell her she may crucify him come first light."

"Yes, my Queen."  Ephiny acknowledged the order with a salute and a smirk at her leader's masterful manipulation of the truth.  After all, Solstice was another day.

"As for you," Gabrielle at last acknowledged the stranger at her side, "It seems I owe you a debt of thanks."

Even facing this hardened version of Gabrielle, Xena couldn't resist offering a smile.  "No thanks are necessary, I assure you."

"Still, your bravery should be rewarded.  Name your fondest desire and if it's in my power to grant it, it shall be yours."

If I could have anything, it would be for me to be back in your heart and you in my arms.  Knowing that wasn't possible, even in this reality, she compromised with, "Your company for dinner."

"She already has a companion, warrior."

Xena recognized the gruff voice even before the striking weapons master appeared upon the stairs.  Eponin had been performing an inspection of their quarters to verify everything was in order and had missed most of the confrontation.  However, she had been in time to witness the death sentence and the warrior's flirtatious advances.  With a scowl upon her lips, her fist clenching with displeasure, she walked right up to Gabrielle, pointedly placing a possessive arm about the blonde's waist in an aggressively familiar manner.

Xena's stomach knotted as Gabrielle planted a searing, deep tongue kiss on the Amazon.  Seeing the glare Eponin was still shooting at Xena, she reached up, catching Ep's strong chin in a firm grasp, using her grip to avert the Amazon's gaze.

"Stop that," she scolded.  She turned her attention to Xena, flashing a smile.  "You'll have to excuse my consort.  She tends to get a little . . . territorial."

Xena was listening to the words rolling off Gabrielle's tongue, but her eyes were riveted to the other woman held in her soulmate's embrace.  Misinterpreting Xena's intense stare as something else entirely, Gabrielle purposely allowed her hand to trail over Eponin's shoulder, her fingernails raking a fiery trail as they traveled along the swell of a full breast before clamping down on a prominent nipple.  Eponin's eyes perceptibly widened, but she locked her jaw, preventing the gasp from escaping her lips as the grip mercilessly tightened.

"Tonight's dinner is all but ruined, I'm afraid," Gabrielle's melodically hypnotizing voice recaptured Xena's attention, "But, I'll expect you to join me at my table for the Solstice meal."

Xena caught the imaginary daggers Eponin's eyes were fairly hurling at her.  The stocky Amazon was livid, her jaw and fists clenched so tightly Xena thought something might shatter.  Pissing off the woman who had instigated herself into Gabrielle's new life as her consort made Xena's response that much more sweet tasting, "Of course, your Majesty."

"So, what'cha think, warrior babe?  Ready to call it quits and go back to your life?"

Xena stopped her pacing and turned to the goddess casually sprawled across her bed in the tiny room Cyrene had let her have again tonight.  She'd gone upstairs shortly after accepting Gabrielle's invitation, stating she needed her rest if she was to escort the Amazon Queen tomorrow.  In truth, she wasn't sure how much longer she could stomach Eponin's barely restrained hostility and Gabrielle's obvious teasing of the other woman's body right in front of her.

And, she needed to do some thinking.  A lot of thinking.  The Gabrielle that had grown up in this world was thriving as the warrior Queen of the Amazons.  But, her rise to power had cost Gabrielle her innocence.  But, traveling with me in my world, how long before she loses her innocence there?  She's better off here.  

"You think a hard-assed Conqueror-style Gabrielle is better than you on your worst day?" Aphrodite let out a very ungoddess-like snort.  "Ha!  Next thing you'll be telling me is you don't mind the Gabster having her hands all over that . . . that Amazon!"

"Eponin is a fine warrior."  Despite herself, Xena found she couldn't help defending the warrior she'd once called friend.  "She'd make anyone a good mate."

"There are plenty of other women that feel that very same way."  

Before Aphrodite could elaborate, she was cut off by Xena motioning her to be quiet.  On a warrior's practiced tread, she stealthily moved to the door, cracking it open just enough so she could see down the hallway.

Gabrielle and Eponin were standing in the hall, outside the open door to the largest room Cyrene had.  Solari was on duty, back firmly pressed against the wall, eyes forward as the two women were locked in a kiss.  Gabrielle's arms were looped  about her consort's neck and Eponin's hands had found purchase on her Queen's backside.  Ending the kiss, Eponin took a deep breath and a purposeful step back, effectively distancing herself from her monarch.

"I'm just going to check the perimeter once more."

"Don't be so worried; that's what the guard is for.  Besides, this is Amphipolis, not Athens."

"Where someone just tried to kill you," argued Eponin.  "I'd rest better knowing I've done everything in my power to keep you safe."

Gabrielle smiled at the admission from the gruff warrior.  Reaching up, tenderly stroking a tanned cheek, she pleaded, "Don't be long" before ducking into her room and closing the door behind her.

The door was barely closed when Eponin started downstairs, taking the steps two at a time. Halfway down, she met Ephiny coming up.  They passed each other, shoulders barely touching on the narrow staircase.  Turning, eyes met in silent acknowledgement.  Ephiny reached out, grabbing Eponin roughly by her top, pushing her against the wall, kissing her passionately.

Fingers tangled in blonde locks, Eponin broke off the kiss with a low growl, "I thought you'd be gone for ages."

"I knew she'd be retiring soon and I was anxious to get back to you."  Ephiny's words were muffled as Eponin plunged her tongue deeply into her mouth and her fingers beneath her skirt.  "I wish - I wish we could be together all the time, not just these stolen little moments."

"I know."  Eponin reassured her even as her fingers slipped along moist folds, burying her digits in liquid heat.  "We will be.  Patience, my sweet."

Ephiny gasped as Eponin's thick fingers slid home.  "She'll never let you go."  Arms came up, the fingers of both hands latching onto thick ebony hair.  "She's claimed you as one of her possessions just like she's claimed Rome and just like she's going to claim Egypt."

"Shush," urged Eponin, silencing Ephiny with another well-placed kiss.  "It'll happen.  Soon.  For now, let's enjoy the time we have."  

Ephiny regained enough control so that she was able to drag Eponin up the stairs and into her room.  From her post at the top of the stairs and outside the Queen's door, Solari resolutely kept her gaze fixed straight ahead, her position at attention.

"Eph and Ep?" Xena asked Aphrodite as she firmly closed her own door.  "But, I thought she and Solari - "

"Without your death, Velasca never imprisoned Gabrielle and those loyal to her.  That cell where they were held captive was where Solari first found the words to tell Ephiny her true feelings.  Without you around, they were never imprisoned . . . and much like this reality's Gabrielle . . . Solari's heart was never set free."


Xena's night was plagued by restless visions of an Amazon Queen riding into battle against Caesar.  Boadicea.  Tyldus.  Conquering foes and territory alike.  Rome.  Britannia.  Even far away Chin.  Her throne was made of the skulls of her defeated foes, the feathers upon her mask dripping with the blood of the innocents she'd slain.

Eventually, her exhausted body drifted off into a sleepless state just as the first rays of dawn were edging over the horizon.  It wasn't until Cyrene rang the large bell in the kitchen signaling the midday meal that she stumbled from her bed.  Realizing the time, she hastily donned her the clothes Aphrodite had materialized for her when they had first arrived.  

"If you really wanted to be helpful, you wouldn't have let me oversleep," Xena groused.

"This trip hasn't exactly been easy on me either, you know.  Gods knows baby-sitting your grumpy ass has been like taking a vacation in Tartarus," Aphrodite shot back as she covered a yawn and stretch.  She'd fallen asleep in the bed beside Xena and had to suffer through the warrior princess' incessant tossing and turning.  One of the drawbacks of the sort of alternate-time deal she'd worked out with the Fates meant she was stuck in the same timeline until this whole ordeal was over.    "Better get a move on, tall, dark and grumpy; Your queen awaits."

By the time Xena arrived downstairs, Gabrielle was already seated at the head of the table.  Eponin was to her immediate right, both elbows on the table as she leaned over to hear what Ephiny was whispering into her opposite ear.  The chair directly across from Eponin and to Gabrielle's left was unoccupied.  Glimpsing the warrior coming down the stairs, Gabrielle motioned for her to be seated at her side.

Bowing graciously, accepting the seat, Xena's practiced eye expertly took in the rest of her surroundings.  As was the case last eve, the tavern was still closed to all save the Amazons, who at their Queen's insistence, had pushed several of the regular tables together to form one larger, longer table.  All seated together like that, they looked very much like a regular family gathered on Solstice Day. 

Solari was seated next to Xena,  directly across from Ephiny.  And now, in the clear light of day, the warrior princess saw the way Solari watched every move the Queen's consort and the Captain of the Royal Guard made.  But, except for a subtle stiffening of her body, Solari gave nothing away as Eponin reached beneath the table, smoothly intertwining her fingers with Ephiny's beneath the Queen's very nose.  Looking down the length of the table at the rest of the Amazons, she wondered how many more knew of the consort's infidelity.  They're bold in their actions, almost reckless.  And, that makes them very, very dangerous.  

Cyrene and Callisto came from the kitchen, balancing platter upon platter as they spread the meal over the length of the long table.  Gabrielle made a point of asking Cyrene to sit and have Solstice meal with them, already knowing the older woman would decline.  Xena, too, knew the practiced response before it slipped past her mother's lips.  How many seasons did I hear her say she would nibble on something later because she didn't want her pies to burn?

Despite her restless night, Xena found herself raptly immersed in conversation with the Queen.  This woman held Gabrielle's personality, her body, the only thing she lacked was Gabrielle's heart.  Or, does she?  As the Solstice dinner was placed before them course after course, and the food somehow disappeared from her plate despite her being unaware of tasting a single bite, she thought she saw hints of Gabrielle's light shining through the armor she'd forged around her heart.  How else to explain the Amazon Queen's foregoing the most elaborate of celebrations at any palace or city she chose to return to the sleepy little town of Amphipolis to visit a common tavern keeper Solstice after Solstice?

Gabrielle was very charming and monopolized their conversation, chattering up a storm.  Although, a clearly practiced tongue was able to keep the subjects light and superficial, talking without revealing anything of significance.  When Gabrielle asked about personal details of the warrior's history, Xena kept things very simple, stating she was a warrior from a distant land who was on a quest to discover what was missing from her life.  It was mostly true.  Although from the glint in Gabrielle's eyes, she knew the Amazon Queen was suspicious of her answers.  Xena thought to offer more to allay her fears, but couldn't.  After all, what could she really reveal when much of her past so closely mirrored Gabrielle's darkness?

The front door slammed open with such force that it startled the inn's occupants, bringing in a chill gust of wind and snow swirling about a cloaked figure. Complete silence engulfed the room as every warrior present discreetly laid down their forks and picked up their cutting knives.  

As the stranger secured the door and turned around, removing her hooded cloak, she gave the traditional closed fist strike to chest salute of the Amazons.  Gabrielle signaled for the new arrival to approach.  Another gesture commanded the rest of the guests to resume their meal.  The warrior princess made a point of picking at her food while intently eavesdropping on the warrior's conversation with her Queen.  And, although the remaining Amazons carried on eating, the conversation levels took on a considerably lowered tone.

"My Queen," The Amazon knelt before her monarch.  "Commander Velasca sends you good tidings on Solstice Day."

"Thank you," Gabrielle nodded, commanding the messenger arise. "Although, I doubt Velasca sent out her favorite messenger and bed-warmer in this cold weather merely to convey Solstice blessings."

"No, my Queen."  The young Amazon was having considerable difficulty keeping the blush off her face at the Queen's bold, yet accurate, assumption.  "She sent me with two additional missives.  The first is to assure you that your instructions of last eve were carried out."

Xena stiffened in reaction.  Looking up, her eyes traveled across the room, locking with Aphrodite's as the goddess stood in front of the fireplace.  Aphrodite's subtle nod confirmed that Joxer was indeed already upon the cross.

The second missive is to advise you that a messenger arrived at camp this morning after first light."  The Amazon swallowed harshly, nervously wet her lips.  "From Commander Cyane's camp."  The Amazon pulled a parchment from beneath her bracer, Cyane's signature clearly visible at the bottom of the scroll as she unrolled it.

One dark eyebrow arched.  Cyane - alive?  And taking orders from Gabrielle?

Gabrielle's entire body straightened in anticipation.  "Report," she ordered, barely able to keep the smile off her face.  If Cyane's message meant what she suspected, it would be a very merry Solstice, indeed.

"Commander Cyane seeks to advise you that the negotiations with Cleopatra have failed.  As have all attempts thus far to breach the city's walls."  The messenger kept her eyes focused solely on the scroll held in front of her nose, afraid to look up and accidentally meet the Queen's glare.  "She's commanded her forces to retreat to the nearest oasis to rest, regroup and regain their strength.  Unless she hears otherwise from you in the next three moons, she will order the siege on the Egyptians called off."

Once again, all extraneous noise in the room stopped.  The silence stretched on as all present awaited the Queen's response.  Cyane's message was paramount to insubordination bordering on treason.  To openly demand a response from the Queen in an allotted period of time . . . few but Cyane would have the audacity to so challenge the Queen's authority.  

Gabrielle propped her elbow on the arm rest of her chair, cupped her chin in her palm. Green eyes swept over every face at the table.  Her consort, the royal guards, her elite troops; finally settling on the mysterious stranger that had saved her from an assassin's blade only the night before.  Then, she looked up at the visibly trembling warrior before her.  

"Have Velasca give my reply to Cyane's messenger.  Pay close attention and scribe it word for word."  There was a cold menace in Gabrielle's tone that sent shivers down the spine of every woman present.  Patiently, Gabrielle waited until the messenger had produced a fresh scroll and a quill before she began dictating.  "As Queen of the Amazons, I command that you do not cease your assault on the people of Egypt until their Queen Cleopatra relinquishes control of her throne to me.  In addition, for every day the sun sets and you still have not captured the capital city, you will put one of your own soldiers to the point of your sword."  

Gabrielle thought she could hear the audible swallows of her own warriors as she finished that statement.  She waited until the scribe finished writing before she took the parchment, reading it over.  Taking the quill from the messenger, she scrawled her signature at the bottom of the scroll.  Handing the quill and parchment back, she boldly raked her eyes up and down the woman's form.  

"Velasca sent you to deliver this message, knowing it could mean your death.  That means she either thinks very highly of your abilities and trusts I wouldn't kill someone that she so obviously favors.  Or . . . she doesn't care one way or the other if you return to her side."  Gabrielle deliberately paused, letting that thought settle in.  A smirk tugging at the corner of her lips, she offered, "Since it's Solstice Day, I guess I can't very well kill the messenger; tell Velasca I said Merry Solstice."

There was almost an audible release of tension as the warrior saluted and crisply turned on her heel.  With quiet murmurings, the remaining Amazons returned to their cooling meals.  The messenger was across the room, her hand on the door latch when Gabrielle's voice rang out clear and strong.

"Wait!  I've made a mistake." 

Even Xena audibly sighed at this point, glad that Gabrielle had a change of heart and was going to rescind her orders.  Although each warrior held to her training and held their emotions - and tongues - in check, it was clear that they, too, were relieved.  With a lighter step, the messenger turned with the intention of returning the scroll to the Queen's hand for revision.

No one, not even Xena predicted the swiftness with which Gabrielle pulled the dagger from the sheath at her waist and slashed it across the unsuspecting warrior's throat.  Xena inhaled sharply as the blood spray arced, splattering warmly against her cheek and the table.  

"Seems I can kill the messenger on Solstice Day."  Gabrielle raised her mug in the form of a toast.  "I am, after all, the Queen."  

One by one, the Amazons raised their mugs, saluting their leader, following her lead in lifting their mugs to their lips.  Xena lifted hers, as well, but refused to allow any of the wine past her lips.  Oh Gabrielle, what have you become?

"Solari?"  Two blonde brows rose as Gabrielle casually addressed the member of her guard.

"Yes, my Queen?" asked the brunette with a slight tremor in her voice.  Her Queen had just killed the bearer of bad tidings.  The fact that she had just singled her out by name was not a good omen.

"Be a dear and dispose of that, would you?" The Queen asked, absently nodding at the corpse laying on the tavern floor.  "Oh, and find someone expendable to deliver that scroll to Velasca."

Immediately, Solari rose from her chair, signaled for two more warriors to help her.  Between the three of them, they managed to lift the fallen messenger and carry her out the front door.  Inconspicuously, Eponin turned loose Ephiny's hand beneath the table.  The two lovers would not look at each other throughout the remainder of the meal.


Dessert had been an affair for just the two of them.  Shortly after Solari returned from her errand, Gabrielle had declared that she wished to be alone with her rescuer.  The Amazons seemed relieved to be so handily dismissed, even her consort offered no objection as she left her Queen alone with the other warrior.  One by one, they filed out of the main room and retreated behind the curtain covering the entrance to the large family room where they knew their Queen would eventually join them just as she did every Solstice.

Xena's emotions had run the gamut this night.  She was appalled, shocked at what her innocent bard had become in this timeline.  The Amazons were thriving, on the verge of conquering the known world, led by a less-than-stable Queen.  A Queen who could callously order the death of Joxer in one instant and then dote on Cyrene the next.  

Twice during dessert, Aphrodite had urged her it was time to go.  Each time, Xena swatted at her ear as if there was a gnat flying about.  On the goddess' third attempt, the warrior timed a well-placed yawn and stretch with a backhanded slap to Aphrodite's face.  At that point, the Goddess of Love decided to return to merely being a silent observer.

At some point during her third slice of her mother's pumpkin pie, Xena observed Cyrene and Callisto bundling up to go outside.  As they made their way through the room, Cyrene informed Gabrielle that they would be back soon.  The short hairs on Xena's arms bristled at the thought of her mother trooping out in the snow on Solstice Day.  As did Gabrielle's.  

Cyrene assured the two women that everything would be fine, they were only going down the road to deliver dinner to a nearby friend.  Gabrielle tried to convince Cyrene that her warriors could deliver the food, but the woman wouldn't hear of it.  It took nearly all of Gabrielle's influence to convince Cyrene to allow two guards to accompany her.

She'd been gone less than half a candlemark when Eponin came into the room.  A sharp look passed between her and Xena as she noticed the closer proximity in which she sat next to her Queen, the way their heads were nearly touching as they bent over the table, sharing the last remaining slice of pie between them.  

"Gabrielle, as Queen, your presence is required."  She waited a heartbeat before adding, "In private."

"Of course."  Gabrielle nodded, rising from her chair.  Eponin turned her back on the warrior princess, her stride carrying her halfway across the room before she turned as if to make sure her Queen was indeed following her.  Gabrielle signaled for Eponin to wait before turning to look into those stunning blue eyes that had held her captive all evening.  "They do this every Solstice," she confided.  "They all gather in that one room with the decorated tree, as if I won't notice the sudden absence of twenty or so warriors.  Then, one of them comes out to retrieve me, usually Pony, and they all jump out, trying to surprise me with my gift.  Last Solstice, it was a warhorse.  You should have seen Cyrene's face when she saw him tethered beneath the tree, chewing on her Solstice presents."

"I'll bet she pitched a fit," Xena chortled at the image.

"Cursed like a sailor, too."  Gabrielle's face suddenly sobered.  "I won't be long."  Almost shyly, she glanced down, then back up at Xena's face before admitting, "I'd like it very much if you'd be here when I returned."

"Of course," Xena agreed with a shy smile of her own in return.  She continued to stare at Gabrielle's retreating back, despite Aphrodite's hand repeatedly waving in front of her face, until she disappeared behind the thick curtain that separated the two rooms.  "What?!" she snarled, at last giving her full attention to the Goddess of Love.

"Like, I just want to know if you're ready to go now?"

"No."  There was a grim determination to Xena's voice.  "You still haven't shown me that the world isn't better off without me."

"Heellllllllooooooooo!!! Am I the only one that thinks demented Amazon Queen ruling the known world is a majorly bad idea?"  Both Aphrodite's hands went to her hips, her blonde eyebrows shot towards her hairline.  "She just, like, off-ed the little drummer boy Joxer and . . . " Aphrodite cocked her head to the side, speculatively eyed the warrior " . . . and you're still in love with her.  Even here."

"I'll always love, Gabrielle," Xena admitted.  "No matter what, that will never stop." 

"Sweetcheeks, loyalty is all well and good .. . but you do realize there are a lot of people in the known world teed off at your girl.  Even at your worst, you never hurt as many people as little Gabby has."

"No, but I hurt her.  And, to me, that's worse than anything she's done."  

Aphrodite loudly exhaled.  "Look, warrior babe, maybe you hurt her in the past with your jealousy and stuff.  But, this goes way beyond that.  Even you have to see that this Gabrielle is no good."

"People change.  Gabrielle gives me the strength every day to not go back to what I was."  Xena stared longingly at the curtain as she decided, "She can change.  If someone believes in her."

Aphrodite was ready to start beating Xena's head against the wall if it would convince the warrior that her wish to never exist was the most foolish wish she'd ever granted.  She belonged with Gabrielle.  Gabrielle belonged with Xena.  To separate the two could only end in disaster.

The ear-piercing scream stopped Xena's heart beating.  Throat dry, her stomach churning, she looked to Aphrodite in shock.  The goddess was staring at the curtained doorway, eyes wide, mouth open, with no sound coming out.  Somehow forcing her legs to move, Xena flung herself through the curtained partition.

Three warriors were waiting as she rushed through the door, tackling her, holding her down.  She fought like a mad woman, screaming "Gabrielle!  Gabrielle!" at the top of her lungs as she struggled to get up.  Another warrior pressed the full weight of her body to the melee, planting a knee in the center of Xena's spine.

Gabrielle was in the center of the room, the large decorated Solstice tree behind her, her Amazons positioned about her.  It looked as if Ephiny and Solari were holding her up, helping to support their Queen; until the royal guards wrenched their blades from her stomach.  In unison, they stepped back, joining their sisters, each brandishing bloodied daggers.  

Blood poured from the wounds in the Queen's upper body, running down her torso and legs in thick rivulets.  Xena struggled mightily as she saw Eponin's approach. 

"Gabrielle!"  she shouted as she was able to get one arm unpinned.

Eponin marched up to her Queen, catching both Gabrielle's upper arms in her strong grip.  Despite her grievous wounds, Gabrielle looked her consort squarely in the eye.  Feeling the press of the blade against her flesh, she asked, "You too, Pony?"

Eponin soundly kissed her Queen on the lips, her tongue thrusting deeply in Gabrielle's mouth, tasting the copper of her blood.  At the height of the kiss, she reached about, plunging the dagger into her Queen's heart.

"Nooooooo!!"  Xena screamed, her rage giving her the strength to toss the Amazons off.  She scrambled to her knees even as Gabrielle sank to hers.  Blue eyes locked with green in recognition before the last of the strength left Gabrielle's body and she lifelessly tumbled the rest of the distance to the floor.

It was several candlemarks later.  The last of the sun's ebbing light was valiantly attempting to shine just a little longer before giving way to night.  The Amazons had long since packed up their gear and ridden out of town and Cyrene and Callisto had yet to return.  Somewhere in the far corners of her mind, Xena realized that the escorts Gabrielle had so thoughtfully provided them with had no doubt killed them both and left their bodies to rot in a farmer's field.  The sure knowledge of her mother's death weighed that much harder on her already grieving heart. 

Aphrodite was beside herself with worry.  Ever since her soulmate had fallen, Xena had been sitting on the cold floor beneath the Solstice tree, cradling Gabrielle's lifeless body in her arms.  She'd done everything she could think of to gain the warrior's attention, but she seemed to be beyond even the goddess' reach.  When at last Xena looked up at her, tears streaming down her face, the pain so clearly etched on her face, it was all Aphrodite could do to keep from breaking down and crying right alongside her.  Summoning up all her resolve, she knelt on the floor behind Xena, wrapping her arms about the warrior, rocking her in her embrace as Xena continued to cling to her dead love.

At last, Xena's raspy voice choked out between the heart-wrenching sobs. "Enough. I've seen enough.  I'd rather live in a world without Gabrielle, knowing she's safe and there's a chance she could find happiness with someone else than for her to face a future like this because I didn't exist."

Blinking, Xena found herself standing outside, Gabrielle's lifeless body gone, snowflakes lazily falling from the sky and landing in her hair and on her dark leathers.  She'd fully expected for Aphrodite to materialize her above the river of lava.  Or, perhaps somewhere far away from the Amazon Nation.  Never did she consider that the goddess would deposit her square in the middle of the village.

Glancing about, she took note of the number of Amazons laying on the ground in various states of inebriation and undress.  Cautiously, she picked her way across the ceremonial field littered with bodies and wineskins.  Things looked just the same as she'd remembered, but she couldn't be positive.  Amazons were notorious partiers and she wasn't quite certain that this wasn't a different celebration.  Maybe they had a party to celebrate the fact that their Queen finally dumped your sorry, jealous, stupid ass!

That's when it hit her.&; When she spotted the regent's hut in the distance.  This was Solstice Eve.  It had to be.  Gabrielle and Ephiny were standing in the regent's doorwnbspay, just the way she remembered.  I shattered Eph's arm; beat her so badly she should be in the hospice for seasons. 

If this wasn't the same day, there was no way possible that the Amazon Regent could be standing in her doorway now, hands upon Gabrielle's hips, soundly kissing her.  The familiar stirrings of jealously took hold until a stiff breeze caused the sprig of mistletoe above the doorway to blow away, the wind rolling the greenery along the snow-covered ground.

The kiss ended, Queen and Regent pulling away from each other, looking into each other's eyes with silly grins and almost shy expressions.  At almost the same instant, Solari appeared in the doorway, wrapping her arms about her lover's waist from behind, tugging her in for a hug. 

Ephiny looked up at that moment, spying Xena watching them.  She nudged Gabrielle with her elbow, pointed in the warrior princess' direction.  Realizing what Xena might have just witnessed, Gabrielle looked at her with a clearly apprehensive expression on her face.

The rage dissipated as quickly as it had set in.  Xena offered up a smile and a wave.  Loping the remaining distance, she bent down on the run, sure fingers picking the mistletoe up off the ground.  Coming to a halt before Gabrielle, she gave her a questioning look.  Then, holding the sprig over her head, she pursed her lips into an exaggerated kiss. 

Laughing, Gabrielle stepped into her warrior's embrace.  Reaching up, she moved Xena's arm until the mistletoe was positioned directly over their heads.  Then, standing on tiptoe, she tilted her head up for a kiss.

When the kiss ended, Xena was left with a dumbstruck expression on her face, staring at the love she'd missed so much over the past few days.  Days that thank the Gods never really happened.  The Amazons were laughing at the warrior's dopey expression, good-naturedly ribbing her.  Stoically, she endured the teasing, choosing to end the laughter by soundly kissing their Queen again.  Without the pretense of the mistletoe.

As the snow began to fall faster, Ephiny offered the warmth of her hut and the use of a wineskin or two. 

"Best offer I've had all day," Solari teased, grabbing her lover about the waist and turning her around, steering her into the hut.

Xena found her fingers caught in Gabrielle's strong grip, felt herself being tugged along.  She braced a hand upon the doorframe, stopping to hang the mistletoe up once again.  As she did, she caught sight of what looked like a twinkling of pink sparkles, the sort she associated with a certain Goddess of Love.

"Thank you, Aphrodite," she whispered to the night sky, "It's going to be a wonderful life."



This story was submitted as an entry in the Annual Solstice Bard's Challenge and my selected Christmas classic was "It's A Wonderful Life".

I've included at least five 'known' Xenaverse Amazons, so I'm claiming the maximum amount of five points.  Just for the record, they are:  Ephiny - Eponin - Solari - Velasca - Cyane. 

I'm also claiming the maximum ten points for using the following titles of well-known carols.  I used a total of twelve, but I wasn't positive how 'well-known' the last two on the list were:  Silent Night - Go Tell It On The Mountain - Joy To The World - Little Drummer Boy - Jingle Bells - The Most Wonderful Time of The Year - Oh, Come All Ye Faithful - Up On The Housetop - Winter Wonderland - It Came Upon A Midnight Clear - It Must Have Been The Mistletoe - Blame It On The Mistletoe.

Del Robertson

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