Violence Warning: A warrior princess with lethal combat skills down on a farm -- better hide the livestock just in case.
Other Warning: In case you didn't realize, this is an alt story. Meaning, there might be some graphic or not-so-graphic depictions of two or more women in love. If for some reason you don't care for this sort of story - What are you reading this for? Also, if you are under 18, you also know better - leave now.
Summary: Gabrielle's missing and it takes a warrior princess and some Amazons to find her.
Note: Submitted as a competing entry for Bard Challenge #19.
AN AMAZON, A WARRIOR AND A BARD WALK INTO A BAR
by Del Robertson
"Then what?" slurred out Phineus, his
shirt sleeve slipping in the wet patch of ale he'd
inadvertently propped his elbow up in. He just barely
managed to keep himself from falling down by latching onto
the edge of the bar. Righting himself, he squinted
through glassy eyes at the barkeep.
"Huh?" The bartender grunted, clearly distracted as he picked up a dirty sheet of parchment littering his bar, glanced down at it:
Down on the Farm
Fresh-faced farmer's daughter
looking for fun and excitement away
from the farm.
Crumpling the parchment in his fist, he
used the scrap of scroll to wipe out a dirty mug.
"The joke? You know; an amazon, a warrior and a bard walk into a bar," the customer persisted, "What's the punchline?"
"Oh, umm - " The barkeep swallowed harshly, trying to moisten his suddenly too-dry mouth. "I - umm - I forget."
"I'll just bet." The voice was low and menacing, the words coming out like something very much resembling a growl as deadly blue eyes pierced him with a look that could kill. "Two ales." There was a dark glance at the mug he was still busily wiping down before she ordered, "In clean mugs."
The customer that had been hanging onto the bar turned, looking at the newcomer. In his current position, he was eye-level with her breasts. Which, as far as he was concerned, was usually a good point of reference to begin with. Only, this woman wasn't dressed in a serving wench's outfit. Far from it, as a matter of fact. She was wearing leather. And had some sort of armor encircling both breasts as if to protect them from wandering fingers.
And, she was tall, too. Very tall. Adjusting his slumped over position on the bar, Phineus craned his neck, looking up and up and then up some more. His eyes nearly bugged out as he recognized a sword hilt protruding over one of the woman's shoulders. His vision swam as his head lolled back. His eyes met, then crossed as he stared into the most intense blue eyes he'd ever seen. Framed by dark brows; one of them arched in bemusement as his stare was steadily returned.
"Hey, beau - beautiful," he slurred out. Somehow, he managed to let loose the bar and pull himself completely upright, albeit on two very unstable legs. "Hey," he tried again before wobbling, blindly reaching out with a flailing hand in an attempt to keep from falling down face first. Lips pursed as he realized his fingers had latched onto the intricate metal-work of her breast armor. Undeterred, he began again. "Didja hear the one 'bout the am . . . ama . . . amashon, the warrior and the bardz that walksh'd into the bar?"
Before the warrior could do little more than finger the weapon at her side, the drunk's eyes rolled back in his head and he hit the floor with a resounding thud. Looking up as two fresh mugs of ale were deposited on the counter, she advised the barkeep, "And that better be the last time I ever hear that joke."
X X X X X
"What was all that about, Xena?" asked
the Amazon, indicating the barkeep and the drunk on the
floor with a tilt of her head.
"Nothing." The warrior princess shrugged the incident off as she eyed the three vacant chairs at the table. "Just some bar room humor." Still holding both mugs, she looked about, her gaze sweeping over the dimly lit interior.
A wry smirk caressed Ephiny's lips as she noted the perplexed look on Xena's face and immediately surmised the cause. She'd secured the table while the warrior had procured their beverages. And, it was a good table, too. Back of the room, away from the usual crowds that would eventually start trickling in as dusk fell and the work day was done. The line of sight to the door was clear; they could see anyone coming in without being immediately seen in return. Matter of fact, the entire room could be viewed from the corner chair.
Only problem was; there was only one chair in the corner. And the regent had already claimed it as her own. Knowing how warriors were about sitting with their backs against the wall and not wanting to discomfit Xena any more than she already was, Ephiny compromised. She wasn't willing to give up her own position, but she did scoot over an inch or two. Hooking the closest chair with her boot she dragged it nearer, indicating with her eyes that Xena should sit.
With an eye roll and a disgruntled look that spoke volumes, the warrior princess acquiesced. Once was a time, she knew, when she wouldn't hesitate to dump the Amazon on her backside and simply take her chair. Actually would have taken great pleasure in the act. I've changed, she realized. At last depositing the two mugs on the table, she settled herself on the edge of the rickety wooden chair, adjusting the sword sheath across her back as she sat. From her new position, sharp eyes intently swept over the room once again.
"Xena?" Ephiny asked, drawing the attention of those baby blues back to her again. "You really think this is doing any good, us coming here?"
"I don't know, Eph. I honestly don't know." The warrior let out an exasperated sigh. "But, that old man we passed on the road pointed us in this direction. And, it's been well over a moon since - " she swallowed harshly against the growing lump in her throat " - and quite frankly, I've run out of other ideas."
The regent didn't press the issue as the warrior's voice trailed off. She knew Xena was suffering; that much was obvious. As were they all. But, there could be no doubt in anyone's mind that the warrior princess had been the hardest hit by the news.
Xena stared morosely into her drink and didn't even look up as the heavy wooden door swung open and a troupe of five Amazons marched in. The first two were dressed in the lightweight doeskin outfits the scouts generally preferred. Typically, there were wolf-whistles and catcalls as the men in the tavern openly ogled the scantily dressed women. Grips resting on knife hilts at the waists of two members of the guard as they dutifully flanked the scouts quieted the most overt comments to whispered murmurings. "Ooooh, hurt me, baby" and softer growls mixed with elbow jostling and manly preening as more than one daring soul ventured out of his chair with the intent of joining the women at the bar.
When the weapons master purposefully strode up to the counter and turned, pointedly glaring at every patron as she stood with her arms crossed over her chest, making her biceps bulge, the entire room was instantly quelled. Asses instantly returned to their seats. Heads were quickly lowered and noses were meekly thrust into mugs. With a satisfied smirk, Eponin turned to the barkeep to place her order.
"Besides," Xena continued, not having even noticed the exchange that had taken place, "the horses needed a break. Your featherheads, too." Eph recognized what the warrior was doing, attempting to mask her pain with humor. And failing miserably. Taking a long draw from her mug of ale in an effort to steady her voice, she mentioned, "You know, many a night we'd stop in some sleepy little village just like this and I'd stable Argo and walk into some hole-in-the-wall dive very much like this one and find her up on stage, weaving her magic, telling her stories, enthralling the crowd."
"I know exactly what you mean." Ephiny reached a hand out, laying it atop Xena's on the table. Glad her gesture wasn't immediately rebuked, she offered a firm squeeze. "You don't know the number of times my Queen was supposed to be sparring with Eponin and I'd walk out onto the practice fields to find all these big, strong warriors, my weapons master included, sitting cross-legged on the ground like little kids, thoroughly mesmerized by the latest tale Gabrielle was spinning." A tiny smile formed on her lips as she confessed, "Solari and Pony had taken to calling Gabrielle their Queen Bard." Unexpectedly, she found herself blinking back threatening tears, "Gods, Xena!" Her grip tightened considerably upon the warrior's hand, "What are we going to do without her?"
The question hung between them for long heartbeats. Xena stared at their hands, Ephiny's smaller one resting atop her much larger one. Reaching out, her limb trembling with the gesture, the warrior placed her free palm atop Eph's, sandwiching the regent's hand between hers.
Mustering up her courage, she looked up, meeting red-rimmed hazel eyes. There were dark circles embedded beneath moist lashes and a furrowed line that Xena had never noticed before etched into the brow just below the braided leather headband that signified the regent's crown. Dirty-blonde curls hung in tousled disarray about bronzed shoulders. Self-conscious beneath Xena's scrutiny, fingers nervously tucked errant tendrils behind a delicate ear.
Something broke inside Xena as she took in the regent's disheveled appearance. She'd been so consumed in her own grief that she hadn't taken the time to truly notice anyone else's suffering. Oh, she knew the Amazons were Gabrielle's sisters and they shared a bond, but she hadn't really appreciated what that meant until now. Until Ephiny announced that she personally would lead the mission out of the village. The regent asked for a handful of warriors to accompany her; what she got was an entire nation that had volunteered.
"Umm, Eph? Xena?" Both warrior and regent looked up to see Eponin standing beside the table, one hand on her regent's shoulder, the other clasping a scrap of parchment. "I think maybe you should read this."
Eponin smoothly exchanged the scroll for her regent's mug, then proceeded to drink down the remaining ale as the other two women perused the message. She watched raptly as the expressions on their faces ran the gamut from curiosity to shock then right to bewilderment all in the blink of an eye.
Mouth hanging open, words refusing to come, Ephiny gaped at the Amazon warrior standing there, rocking back and forth on her heels, a smug grin plastered on her face. "That sound like a certain bardly queen we know?" she asked, proudly pointing at the parchment.
"Pony, don't - " Ephiny tried to signal the jubilant weapons master to tone things down a bit. The last thing she wanted to do was to needlessly get all their hopes up. "We don't know for certain that it's even - "
"It is." Xena quickly divested herself of the handhold she'd been sharing with Ephiny. Both hands visibly trembling, she reached out, fingertips reverently touching, almost caressing the wrinkled, battered parchment. Lips quivered, forming into a smile despite the fact that she could no longer clearly see the lettering. "This is Gabrielle's handwriting." The words were smeared, the ink blurred from both the stains already on it and the tears steadily streaming down the warrior's cheeks. "She's alive. Gabrielle's alive."
"Xena - " Ephiny cautioned.
Nothing could deter Xena now, though. She was already up out of her seat, a familiar glint in her eye as she latched onto one of the stocky Amazon's arms, waved the parchment beneath her nose. "Where did you get this, Pony?"
"Over there," Eponin pointed across the room. "Barkeep had it. Solari's talking to him about it now."
X X X X X
"Look - " Solari ran an agitated hand
through her dark tresses, pushing her hair back. " -
what's your name?"
"Damascus," grunted the barkeep as he dubiously eyed the woman.
"Look, Damascus." She plastered a sickly sweet smile on her face, "I'm trying to be nice here; really I am." Her smile faltered as she added, "But, I need that information."
"Nothing's free, girl. Everything comes with a price. Including information."
Damascus took note of the lightweight armor, the sword pommel jutting over one shoulder, the serious glint in the brunette's eye. He might be impressed; if he was some dumb farmer or spineless merchant. But, he tended bar for a living. He was used to dealing with trouble. Granted, in a sleepy little town like Potadeia, that trouble usually came in the form of rowdy locals just looking to have a good time. Still, he figured with the seasons of experience he had beneath his belt, he could handle just about anything.
Thought he'd seen just about everything, too. Until the murmurings of amazons followed the band of women into his bar. Truth was, he figured they didn't really exist and were just fairy tales mothers told to naughty children to get them to behave. Like the ones his own momma used to tell him about Centaurs. Or Hercules. Praise Zeus they're real, he thought, as his eyes slid towards the brunette's skimpy top and ample cleavage.
Noticing his gaze once again shifting south, Solari grabbed the barkeep by his collar and roughly shook him. Flustered, he focused on her face again. And, what a pretty face it is, too, he drifted again. Big brown eyes, high cheekbones, full pouty lips that would look so good wrapped around my -
He felt the tip of a knife that he hadn't even seen her draw press beneath his chin. Lowering his eyes, he followed the line of solid steel to where a steady hand was firmly gripping the hilt. Still, he figured he had nothing to worry about. She was, after all, just a woman.
"If you're a little short on dinars, sweetie," He purposely let his eyes wander towards her breasts, lasciviously licked his lips and offered, "we can always work something out in trade."
"The only sort of payment I'm offering today is hard Amazonian steel," was hissed through clenched teeth as the blade of the knife bit into his throat, drawing a trickle of blood. "Now, I'm only going to ask you once more. Where did you get that parchment from?"
She was bluffing. He knew she was. No way this little bit of fluff was going to follow through on her threat. He was just about to call that bluff when he looked over her shoulder. Three paces behind and flanking her on either side were two of her friends. The brunettes he'd seen at the corner table only heartbeats before. When had they walked up? he wondered. The shorter, more muscular of the two was methodically cleaning beneath her nails with the biggest hunting knife he'd ever seen. The taller one, dressed all in dark leather and armor was watching him with an arched brow and fingering a circular weapon hanging at her waist.
Suddenly recalling another series of tales he'd heard, Damascus considerably paled. His mind raced as he clearly heard the bard's voice echo in his thoughts; luminous blue eyes with a stare as cold and lethal as hard steel, her deadly chakram at her side, she can remove a man's head from his body with just a subtle flick of her wrist -
"C - cute little bit of a girl came in and posted it a while back," he stammered, eyes frantically darting back and forth between the warrior and the Amazon holding the knife to his throat. "Herodotus' daughter, I think." Damascus saw something glint in the warrior's eyes. Something that had him uncontrollably quivering as he added the directions, "Farm's to the south, 'bout five or so miles past the outskirts of town."
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Xena was bolting for the door, no longer concerned with what Solari did to the man. She had just stepped out away from the building and into the long shadows of early evening when she felt the restraining hand upon her arm. Whirling about, instinctively cocking her fist, she came face to face with the regent of the Amazons.
"Xena," Ephiny fought down the reflexive flinch as she saw the fist coming to a halt mere inches from her nose. She breathed a sigh of relief as the closed hand immediately fell away. "Xena, stop."
"Gather your Amazons quickly if you're coming along, Ephiny. I'm not waiting."
"Xena, you saw the barkeep's reaction when he realized who you were. He would've said anything to get you out of there." Ephiny tried to be the voice of reason. How many times in the past moon had they gotten their hopes up only to have them repeatedly smashed? She didn't know how much more Xena could take before she snapped. "This could be just another wild quail chase."
"You heard him, Eph. He mentioned Herodotus by name. Gabrielle's gone home to her father's farm."
Xena removed the Amazon's hand from her arm, strode down the street. She'd scarcely gone six paces before Ephiny deliberately stepped into her path. The six-foot tall warrior stared menacingly down at the curly-haired woman blocking her way. Hands planted squarely on her hips, the regent refused to back down, even when she heard the low growl rumbling up from the warrior's throat.
"It's been over a season, Xena! You think word hasn't spread by now; even to these little backwater towns?" Ephiny's tone was clipped as she spotted Pony and Solari leading the other Amazons out of the bar and towards the stables. "You think these people, especially in this town, don't know who travels with the warrior princess?!?"
"It doesn't matter." Xena's gaze was cold and hard, her tone firm and brooked no argument. "If there's even a chance it could be Gabrielle, I have to go."
"Herodotus has two daughters, Xena." Ephiny didn't want to be the bad guy here, but she couldn't just let her friend continually set herself up to be hurt. Lowering her voice, trying to be as gentle with her words as possible, she asked, "What if it's not Gabrielle?"
"Then, I - " A lump forming in her throat, her eyes stinging, Xena rapidly looked away. Then, drawing a ragged breath, meeting the Amazon's expectant gaze, she replied, "Then, as her parents, the least I owe them is an explanation."
X X X X X
The ride out of town was eerily muted,
with only the echoing beat of horses' hooves to mark their
passage. Guiding Argo south, setting the pace, Xena
led the way down dirt-packed roads. Ephiny urged her
steed to follow close behind, flanked on either side by
Eponin and Solari, who kept an ever-vigilant watch out for
their regent's safety. The rest of the Amazons rode
in formation, keeping their eyes on their surroundings and
their weapons within easy reach.
Given that it was nearly nightfall, they weren't surprised that the roads were deserted, the riders not having seen another traveler since they'd left the main street of Potadeia. Old country roads like the one they were following were generally little more than well-trodden footpaths that had been slowly widened by repeated use. Sometimes, these paths cut straight through a grassy field. More often than not, they ran beside heavily wooded areas to give weary travelers respite from the scorching sun of a summer day. Unfortunately, these same shaded areas also gave safe haven to outlaws and were a breeding ground for bandits.
A snapping twig caused nearly every spine to stiffen in reaction. Without turning her head and giving away her intent, Ephiny's eyes darted towards the woods. The underbrush was too thick, the shadows too long. But, she could sense they were being watched. A subtle hand-signal gave the command to maintain silence, remain in formation and pick up the pace.
Xena, too, had heard the twig snap, the soft shuffle of leaves. And although she was wary, she wasn't that concerned. Potadeia was not a rich community. Meaning any bandits hanging about the woods in this province were either too lazy or too inept to ply their trade elsewhere. And, she figured, they probably also lacked sufficient experience, horses and/or weapons. Add to that, if they were stupid enough to attack a very conspicuously armed group of wild Amazons; well, she trusted said Amazons would gleefully correct their error in judgment.
She had more than enough on her mind as it was. More important things than bandits. Like Gabrielle. And how she'd failed her.
"Are you sure you don't want me?" Gabrielle asked yet again.
Xena's acute hearing caught the pitiful inflection in her companion's voice. The one purposefully designed to make the warrior feel guilty. And, it might have. If Xena didn't know full well that Gabrielle was a bard - and a damned good one, too. If she wasn't careful, Gabrielle could wield her words as a weapon sharper than any sword Xena had ever gone up against.
"It's not that I don't want you, Gabrielle." Xena used the pretense of looking beneath the sheet for her missing gauntlet to mask her wavering resolve. One look at Gabrielle with her tousled hair, flushed cheeks and swollen lips would be enough to make her determination crumble. "You know that. But, you can't come."
"Oh, I think we've already proven that I can." Gabrielle pushed Xena onto her back, pinning her in place with a leg tossed over her torso. Capturing Xena's wandering hand in her own, she decidedly guided those roaming fingers between moist folds. "And, with your many skills," she lecherously waggled her eyebrows, "I'm quite certain I can again."
Xena buried her nose in silky blonde hair, as much to inhale the scent of Gabrielle's flaxen locks as to hide her groan at her bard's intentionally bad puns. There was no doubt that Gabrielle was a talented bard - - a very talented bard, Xena corrected herself as she remembered how aroused she'd gotten last night just from Gabrielle talking dirty to her. But, as a professional joke teller? Well, it was a good thing she had that Amazon-Queen thing to fall back on.
Speaking of aroused . . . Xena squirmed as she felt a couple of bardly fingers tweaking a rapidly swelling nipple. "As much as I'm enjoying this, Gabrielle," Xena gasped as fingers were replaced with a tongue, "And, believe me, I am . . . " With a warrior's determination, Xena locked her jaw and gritted out between tightly clenched teeth, "I have to go help Joxer - "
" - screw Joxer," was bitten out as teeth deliberately nipped.
"Ow! And, no thanks; He's not my type," Xena retorted, gazing down at the bard happily chewing on her nipple. "Besides, you've got that thing with the Amazons."
"Screw the Amazons," was the predictable mumbled response.
"I'm already screwing their Queen," Xena wiggled her fingers for emphasis. "So, job accomplished." This earned another sharp bite. Which Xena decided she didn't quite mind so much, after all.
A sharp rapping at the door had one green eye opening in annoyance. "Xena!" was shouted as the pounding continued. "Xena! You in there?"
With a groan, Gabrielle tightened her hold upon her warrior.
"Yeah! Hang on, Joxer!" came Xena's shout as she set about disentangling herself from a clinging post-cloital bard. Capturing Gabrielle's lips in a kiss, she apologized, "Sorry, gotta go."
"You don't have to," Gabrielle argued from her very comfortable position. "You could stay here with me."
"I really wish I could, my love." And, the look in her eyes had left no doubt that was true. "But, I kind of promised. And, it wouldn't be fair to the Sisters of Gaia and the orphans if I backed out."
"Sure, pull out the poor, suffering orphans. Way to lay the guilt on, warrior princess! How do you expect my raging libido to compete with that?" The bard chided with a smile. "I can't believe I'm saying this," fingers wandered across a bare backside as Xena bent over to retrieve her armor from beneath the bed. "But, if you can't go with me, maybe I can come along with you and Joxer."
"Wish you could, my bard." Agile fingers caught wandering digits as they were coming dangerously close to tickling that little divot at the base of Xena's spine. "But, you made a commitment, my Amazon Queen. Ephiny can't perform the ceremony herself, you know."
"Well, I could go with you. Then, you could go with me," the bard offered up. "Ephiny would understand if we were a little late."
"Ephiny might," Xena responded with a wry smirk, "But Eponin wouldn't."
"Screw - "
"Gabrielle - "
Xena smiled indulgently at the little sulk-and-pout routine. There was nothing she loved more than Gabrielle's playfulness and teasing banter after a night filled with satisfying lovemaking. Turning around, capturing her lover's lips, she planted a searing kiss on her bard that left them both trembling with need and praying to the Gods that their separation would be brief.
"I'll join you at the Amazon village just as soon as I can," Xena breathlessly promised.
'Just as soon as I can' turned out to be a torturously painful time later. Her simple mission to aid Joxer in helping the Sisters of Gaia raise money to save their orphanage had turned out to involve a complex plot by a greedy land baron to evict the sisters and the orphans and open a pleasure palace in its place. The misguided land baron had a seemingly endless supply of resources to throw at the warrior princess, including skilled warriors of his own . . . and even more skilled magistrates.
It had taken nearly a moon, but finally, a weary warrior princess gave the Amazon sign of peace and was granted admittance to their lands. With a lightness to her step that she hadn't felt since leaving Gabrielle, Xena fairly leaped and flipped and somersaulted her way to the Queen's hut.
Where she walked in on a weapons master sitting upon her Queen's desk, with her hands splayed upon a regent's butt as she stood between Eponin's open legs. Neither woman immediately noticed Xena's entrance. Which wasn't surprising, given that Ephiny's tongue was thrust about as far as it could go down Pony's throat.
"A-hem." Xena loudly cleared her throat, surprised by the reaction that simple vocalization garnered. Ephiny fairly leapt into the air, then back, effectively placing some distance between herself and Eponin. Her head was lowered, eyes downcast as a tinge of embarrassment colored her cheeks all the way to the tips of her ears. Long, elegant fingers clenched and unclenched, tangling themselves in the folds of her deerskin skirt. A low growl rumbled up from the depths of Pony's throat, echoing loudly in the stillness of the room.
"Don't you perverts have your own hut you could be doing that in?" Xena teased, her exceptionally good mood making itself known.
"We might, now that the Queen is here," rasped out Eponin, in a clearly agitated tone. Obviously perturbed by the intrusion, she gave an annoyed flick of her leathers as she smoothed the hem of her skirt into place.
"Great. She in the food hut?" Xena guessed.
"Who?" Ephiny asked, stepping forward to give her friend a hug.
"I don't know; is she?"
Puzzled looks passed between regent and warrior, both staring at each other in confusion.
Feeling the knot of panic rising in her gut, Xena asked, "Gabrielle's not with you?"
"No. Isn't she with you?" A very similar feeling of dread was working it's way into Ephiny's being. "When she didn't show up for the ceremony, we assumed you'd both been delayed."
"I was," Xena answered, her quick eyes already scanning the interior of the hut, confirming none of her bard's effects were there, "Gabrielle and I were going to meet up here at the village."
The alarm had been immediately sounded and search parties hastily formed. When the reports came back in that Gabrielle had indeed never stepped foot on Amazon soil, the search area was widened. When that search became fruitless, Ephiny made the announcement that she personally would lead a small band to backtrack their errant royal's trail.
And, they'd keep searching, Ephiny privately promised Xena. Even if it meant tracking Gabrielle all the way back to the inn she'd stayed in with Xena their last night together.
True to their word, the Amazons hadn't given up. Even when they'd found signs of a struggle at a river six days journey out of Amazon territory. There were tracks from a wagon and a broken wheel left behind along with traces of blood upon the pebbled ground. And, a very familiar staff half-buried in the silt less than a dozen paces into the water.
At that point, Xena fully expected Ephiny to call off the search and lead her Amazons back to the village to mourn the loss of their queen. She'd been taken aback when the regent had merely split her force, sending only half of the warriors back. The rest, she'd kept with her, and they'd been diligently searching right alongside the warrior princess ever since.
"Hang on, Gabrielle," Xena spoke aloud, sensing her search was nearly at an end, "I'm coming for you."
X X X X X
It was full-on dark when Xena and the
Amazons rode onto Herodotus' property. Artemis' moon
hung high in the night sky, its luminous light banked by
gathering clouds. Halting the horses in the main
yard, Xena and Eponin smoothly slid from their saddles,
booted feet landing in tandem upon the hard ground without
making a sound. Ephiny signaled for the rest of the
party to remain mounted. Solari's horse nickered in
protest as it was reined in, hooves nervously shuffling,
but a firm pat and low, soft-spoken words soon had the
unseasoned mare settled down.
The barn and the main house were cloaked in darkness, the rising smoke billowing up from the chimney the only indication that anyone was in residence. By unspoken agreement, Xena and Eponin kept low, sprinting for the house. Pressing their backs against the cool surface of the wall, they halted, listening for any noise from inside the structure. Xena made a hand-signal, Pony nodded in affirmation and they darted about the side, checking in windows as they went.
At the rear of the house, Xena craned her neck, peering over the window sill and into a bedroom. Inside, she spied a dresser, a small desk and a chair, clothes draped haphazardly across its wooden back. In the center of the room were two single beds. Dark locks were clearly visible upon the pillow of the bed nearest the door. In the bed closest to the the window, blonde tufts of hair were peeking out from beneath the frayed edges of a blanket.
"Gabrielle," Xena breathed a sigh of relief.
Hearing the Queen's name spoken, Eponin placed her fingers on the window frame, edged her eyes over the sill.
"Gabrielle," Xena hissed through clenched teeth, mindful of waking her sleeping lover's sister. "Psst. Gabrielle."
Typically, the bard slept right through Xena's subtle attempts. Fingers reaching down, closing about a small pebble, she chunked it through the open window. The stone pinged Gabrielle's forehead, bouncing back to hit the dresser then ricocheting off the wooden chair and then the wall before finally coming back towards the window. Pony reflexively ducked as Xena's large palm came up and smoothly plucked the rock right out of the air. Gabrielle stirred, mumbling and rolling over, her blanket falling haphazardly to her waist with the movement, but did not fully awaken.
Rolling her eyes, grumbling beneath her breath about bards that slept too soundly, the warrior princess hoisted herself through the window and into the room. Edging her way to the bed, she clasped the blonde's shoulder, gently shaking her.
"Gabrielle?" She jostled her bard a little more firmly. "Come on, sweetie, wake up," was requested with a pursing of lips and insistent kisses to a forehead, nose, cheeks and bardly lips.
"Huh?" Brown eyes slowly blinked open, then widened. The sound of voices had intruded upon Lila's dreams, stirring her from her slumber. Her heart leapt into her throat as she saw the imposing form bending over her sister's bed. As her eyes drifted across the room and saw another menacing figure climbing in through the window, she sat bolt upright in bed, letting loose a bloodcurdling scream.
The scream jolted Gabrielle awake, who found herself staring up close at a set of puckered lips. Reaching beside the bed, grabbing the first thing her fingers landed on, she brought her arm up, swinging wildly. There was a muffled curse as the blow connected, sending her apparent attacker stumbling backwards. She was instantly up and standing on the bed in her shift and bare feet, continuing to swing as her attacker made repeated attempts to approach the bed, only to find a wildly flailing hearth broom blocking the path each time.
"Hey! Knock it off, will ya?" It had been annoying enough when she was being hit with the dry twigs that made up the lower part of the broom. But, when Gabrielle turned the broom around and started hitting her with the other end, it actually hurt.
Gabrielle grinned wildly as another blow landed solidly, hitting the dark-haired intruder in the nose, eliciting a muffled Ouch! as the injured appendage was hastily covered by a hand. Even in the dark, Gabrielle was almost positive she saw blood spurt from between large fingers. Her grin instantly fell as a sharp growl was hurled in her direction.
"Lila! Run!" she screamed as a firm grip closed about her ankle, hauling her down to land awkwardly on her backside. The broom was jerked from her fingers and negligently hurled across the room.
"Father!" Lila seemingly found her legs, scrambling from the bed, running towards the bedroom door. "Father! Mother!"
"No!" Xena shouted, torn between pursuing Lila and pinning a struggling Gabrielle down. "Ep! Stop her!"
The other intruder was completely through the window and racing across the room. With a fearful look over her shoulder, Lila just managed to get the door open and dart through it, slamming it shut behind her. There was a resounding smack! as a hard body ran into the wooden door, shaking equal parts dust and rust from the hinges with the impact. Then, the door was being roughly jerked open and a muscular shape was barreling through and rushing through the darkened house.
"Stop!" Xena was kneeling precariously upon the bed, straddling Gabrielle, attempting to still a frantically twisting torso and wildly flailing limbs, "Stop fighting me!"
"Get off me!" Gabrielle threw all her energy into her struggles. "Get off me, you - you - - rapist!"
The word was enough to catch the warrior princess so off-guard that she froze, her grip upon Gabrielle's wrist loosening, then falling away completely. Staring at the woman beneath her in stunned incomprehension, she never even saw the closed fist that connected. The momentum knocked her sideways, sending her tumbling, landing in a painfully awkward position between the two beds.
Gabrielle wasted no time. She was on her feet, running off the end of the bed, making certain to stay out of reach of her would-be attacker as she darted for the door. Ignoring the sensation of the cold floor beneath her bare feet, she put all her concentration into just running; past her parents' empty room, through the kitchen and towards the front door. Knowing that her father would get her mother and sister safely to the barn before grabbing a weapon and coming back for her gave her the strength to keep going, even as she heard bellowing shouts of Gabrielle! and Get back here! pursuing her. She just prayed to the Gods her sister had managed to elude the other intruder.
She bolted out the front door and off the porch, looking back over her shoulder at the shape lumbering through the house in an attempt to catch her. The jarring shock of each barefoot step upon the hard ground jolted her entire body as she raced for the safety of the barn. Don't look! Run! Don't look! Gabrielle repeated the mantra in her head, forcing herself to stop looking over her shoulder at her rapidly gaining pursuer.
Hair whipping across her face, she turned around, trying to dredge up some last bit of energy to sprint the rest of the way across the yard. She caught sight of a horse and rider blocking her path, had to stop short before she ran right into it. Skidding, stumbling, she landed in a heap upon the ground.
Solari struggled mightily, arms flexing, hands straining, the leather reins unforgivingly biting into her palms. The captain of the royal guard had seen her Queen rush from the house and was in the process of dismounting when Gabrielle had charged across the yard, nearly running right into her horse. The already skittish mare was frightened, rearing up, hooves wildly pawing the air. Solari's entire body tightened with the strain of trying to keep those hooves from coming down and striking her Queen.
Gabrielle saw two hooves land, loudly hitting the ground scant inches from her face. Swallowing her rising panic, she fearfully looked up. A horse was towering over her, a fierce-looking woman in the saddle, a sword hilt jutting over one shoulder as she stared down at her. Quickly, she scrambled backwards, putting some distance between herself and the horse's hooves.
Frantically, she glanced around the yard, looking for help, or at least another plan of flight. Her father was standing some fifteen paces distance, a pitchfork in his hands as he protectively stood between his wife and daughter and the thug that had chased Lila out of the house. Behind the horse and rider that had nearly trampled her were more riders. The full moon was at their backs, casting their profiles in silhouette, illuminating the numerous blades carried upon their persons. Gabrielle was shocked that they were all women, all fiercely armed and looking very ferocious.
"Oh . . . my . . . Gods . . . " Slowly, she rose to her feet, knees wobbling with the effort " . . . Amazons . . . "
"Gabrielle . . . "
Whirling about, she saw her attacker stumbling from the house, one hand clutched against the side of her face as she lurched on unsteady feet down the porch steps and across the yard. Blood continued to drip from her nose, down her chin and splattered on her breast armor. Seeing the condition their companion was in, two of the riders dismounted and started towards her. Instinctively, Gabrielle balled her hands into fists, holding them in front of her as she backed up several steps. The dark haired woman glanced anxiously at Gabrielle, checking her reaction, then waved the two women off.
Not a word was said as the menacing woman walked with slow, measured steps until she was standing in front of the blonde. She opened her mouth to speak, then stopped, using her fingers to gently prod at her jaw. She spit into her open hand, then grimaced at the blood and piece of tooth that produced. Teetering precariously, she leveled a measured glare at the young woman. Gabrielle found herself flinching beneath the look.
"Gabrielle," Xena spoke softly, trying to soothe her clearly rattled bard, "It's okay, I'm here now. Everything's going to be okay."
Staring incredulously at the woman before her, Gabrielle asked, "How do you know my name? And, just who in Tartarus are you?!?"
X X X X X
"I'm telling you, Xena," Herodotus
repeated, "It's no use. She doesn't remember
you." A disparaging look about his kitchen at the
remaining Amazons had him adding, "Any of you."
He hadn't been thrilled about letting them tack their horses and make their beds on his property. But, he disliked the idea of having the lot of them bedding down in his home even more. Which is what Hecuba suggested when he'd been reluctant to allow them use of the barn.
It had taken candlemarks to get everyone calmed down from all the excitement. But eventually, the Amazons in the barn were squared away and his daughters sent off to bed. Leaving him sitting at the kitchen table, sharing warm cider and nutbread with his wife, Xena and a couple of Amazons.
"That doesn't matter. As I've said," Ephiny's tone held an edge to it as she insisted, "Once we've taken her back to the Amazon Nation and our healers have a chance to attend to her - "
"My daughter's life has been endangered enough!" Herodotus barked out, half-rising from his chair and thumping his closed fist upon the tabletop. "Do you really think I'm just going to stand idly by and allow you to take her away again?"
"She is our Queen." Ephiny's glare was intense and there was a dangerous timbre to her voice as she asked, "Do you believe we'll simply leave without her?"
"Herodotus," Hecuba looked up from slicing more nutbread for her guests, "Gabrielle's being here all this time hasn't helped her memory any. Perhaps we should leave her to the care of Xena and the Amazons."
"If they're so concerned about her, why'd it take so long for them to come for her? She's been home for nearly a season now."
Xena grimaced, as much from Herodotus' accusations as the dull throbbing in her head. My bard got in a good one, no doubt about it, she thought, placing her fingers against her jaw and experimentally wriggling it about. Tearing off another strip of cloth from the rag Hecuba had given her, she dunked it into a now lukewarm bowl of water, soaking it before putting it in her mouth and padding it around the area exposed by her partially missing tooth.
"Because we didn't know where she was.," Xena explained around the wad of cloth in her mouth. "We'd been searching for her day and night. It wasn't until we found Gabrielle's staff and signs of a wagon that had lost a wheel as it forded a river that we had an idea what might have happened."
"She had a head injury when she came to us," interrupted Hecuba.
"The wagon belonged to a family traveling to Athens. Gabrielle stopped to help them." Xena glossed over the details she felt she could safely protect Gabrielle's parents from; details like the signs of a struggle and the blood they'd found. "We trailed the wagon, finally overtook it and questioned the family. They confirmed that Gabrielle struck her head. She rode with them for a couple of days." Xena silently added, Thank Gods they were decent folk and moved her into the back of their wagon, taking her with them, until she regained consciousness A knot twisted in her gut as she thought what could have happened to her bard if that family had just left her alone along the side of the road. "They parted ways at a crossroads; they went on towards Athens and she turned south."
"And, where were you?" Herodotus turned on the warrior. "Why weren't you with her?"
"I was on a mission. Gabrielle had one of her own." A soft smile formed on her lips as she looked across the table at a guilty-looking Ephiny. "One she was very eager to be on," she added for the Amazon's benefit.
"You're the warrior; we trusted you to protect her, keep her safe. You should have been there. Or, you should have made her stay with you."
There was an arch of one lone, dark eyebrow, but no other indication that Xena had taken offense at the farmer's words. In the past, she might have taken out someone's tongue for such impertinence. But, this was Gabrielle's father; he was concerned for her. A concern Xena was all too able to understand, having recently been in the position of having lost Gabrielle. Was that what it was like for them; knowing Gabrielle was out there on the open road, but not knowing exactly where she was, how she was; only that she was trailing along after me? It was a warrior with a much more sympathetic heart that was suddenly determined to give Herodotus some leeway.
"I think we'll all agree that no one can make Gabrielle do anything she doesn't want to. Not even me."
Both Ephiny and Solari caught the subtle inflection, knowing looks and tight smiles passing between them. At a tilt of her regent's chin, Solari was out of her chair and on her feet. She stopped halfway to the door, came back and grabbed another slice of nutbread before heading out into the chilly, predawn morning.
X X X X X
light sheen of sweat covered the Amazon's bare torso and
upper arms as she twirled the staff with practiced
ease. It was a well-worn routine, one she could
perform blindfolded if need be. As a matter of fact,
her eyes were closed even now as the staff repeatedly
passed by the tip of her nose with deadly
Eponin enjoyed these private moments, when it was just her and the staff. By blocking out the visual, she could hone her other senses, relying on them to reveal what else was happening about her. She could feel the cooling breeze upon her heated flesh caused by the repetitive motions, hear the whistling sound of the wood as it twirled past her ear, the squeaking of a field mouse as it stirred. And, a soft smile forming on her lips, Magdelus' snoring.
She, too, had made her pallet upon the hay, even bedded down for a time being. But, she was restless, sleep elusive. And, she'd finally grown weary of tossing and turning with the troubling thoughts racing through her mind. So, she'd grabbed her staff and crept out into the predawn morning, closing the barn door behind her so as not to wake the others.
As she settled into her routine and her mind began to drift, Ep reflected on what was troubling her. Bad enough she and Xena had managed to wake the entire household in their effort to inconspicuously roust only Gabrielle. But, they'd also traumatized her sister, who had never even seen an Amazon before, let alone woken up to find one climbing in through her bedroom window. No wonder she wouldn't even look at us, even after hasty explanations were made. Very hasty, very vague explanations.
Gabrielle's outburst and her inability to recognize either the Amazons or Xena had quickly given away that there was something wrong with their Queen's memory. And, for reasons that weren't immediately clear, it was obvious that the farmer was determined to not reveal their true identities just yet. A signal from Xena had them holding their tongues, waiting to see how things would play out.
As Gabrielle's initial fear faded and her natural curiosity fought for dominance, she began casting speculative looks in the dark-haired warrior's direction. Little glances at first, then the looks growing bolder, until she was all but flat out staring at the warrior princess. Just as she thought Gabrielle might approach Xena, Herodotus interfered, ordering his two daughters off to bed. The youngest had obeyed without question. But, Gabrielle had lingered, pleading with unmistakable excitement in her voice to be allowed to stay.
Herodotus had casually dismissed her with a parental peck on her cheek and a stern warning that he better not catch her out of her room before morning's light. She had demurely lowered her head then and mumbled Yes, father before shuffling on bare feet back into the house.
Instinctively, Ep had started after her. After all, Gabrielle was the Queen of the Amazons. And, for her to just meekly go off to bed because a man had commanded it of her . . . even if he was her parent . . . Eponin's entire being railed against it. With a determined glint in her eye, she started across the yard with every intention of following her Queen back to her room. Until a firm grip upon her arm and a stern look from Ephiny advised her against it.
That was what had truly ruffled her feathers. Her Queen being sent off to bed like an unruly child. And, her being unable to do anything to prevent it. As she dissembled the events in her mind, Eponin was able to put things in perspective. Her initial feelings when Ephiny had restrained her were ones of hurt and resentment. As her mind and body worked through her staff routine in cohesive fluidity, she was finally able to push her wounded pride aside, clearly seeing the situation from the regent's position.
Pressed firmly against the wall, fingers curled about the aged wood, a figure peered around the corner of the barn. Mesmerized, she watched as the lone Amazon exercised with precision movements.
"She's pretty good, isn't she?"
Gabrielle let out a startled squawk and a jump as the question was whispered in her ear. Hand over her heart, forcing deep, exaggerated breaths, she turned around, scowling. "Gods! You scared half a season's growth off me!"
An Amazon with chestnut brown locks and deep, mahogany eyes was leaning against the barn, one foot propped up on the wall behind her, casually nibbling on a slice of nutbread, a bemused smile upon her lips.
Irritated at being so easily scared, the girl in the ankle-length peasant dress snapped, "You get off on terrorizing farm girls or something? First you try to trample me with your horse, now you're sneaking about, trying to frighten me to death!"
"As I recall, you're the one that scared my horse by running into her. And, I thought I heard your father order you to bed. Seems to me you're the one sneaking about," pointed out Solari.
"Ah-ha!" Gabrielle thrust a finger at the Amazon's chest. Her very ample chest, she noted with some envy, her eyes drifting down then back up to her face again. "My father's exact words were to not let him catch me out of bed before morning light."
Solari's gaze flicked beyond Gabrielle's shoulder. "Sun's just now edging over the horizon. You couldn't have gotten from your room to here in that amount of time."
"True, very true." Gabrielle was beginning to take small, pacing steps, a habit she had of doing whenever she was thinking out a problem or a plot to a story. "But," she turned to Solari, a smug grin on her face as she announced, "My father wasn't the one that caught me, was he?"
"Give it up, my friend," Eponin had picked up on the conversation, wound down her routine, then joined them around the side of the building, "You'll never win a verbal sparring match with this one." Eyes crinkling with mirth, she smiled and tilted her head in acknowledgement of her Queen. "Good morning."
"Morning," Gabrielle managed to vocalize. Her eyes had gone completely round at the Amazon's approach. She stepped up to the muscular woman without a heartbeat's hesitation, her expression conveying a sense of childlike wonderment. Slowly reaching out, her fingertips barely caressing the worn, smooth surface, she ran her digits along the length of the staff. "How do you make this work?" she asked, her voice full of awe.
X X X X X
"Herodotus, no one here is trying to hurt
Gabrielle." Xena managed to keep her voice low and
non-threatening. "The Amazons have some of the best
healers in the known world. If anyone can help
restore her memories, it's them."
"We have a healer, too, you know." He looked across the table at Xena. "And, he's advising that we not force things upon her. He said we should let her memories come back on their own. In their own time."
"And, normally I might agree with that. But right now, all she knows is this farm and you. And she's not going to ever know anything else if you continue to coddle her." Holding up a hand to silence the objections she knew were coming, she rushed on. "We have to tell her who we are. How can she be expected to remember a past if she's not exposed to it?"
"Her past is fine, Xena," Hecuba argued. "She was able to remember us, the house she grew up in. She made it back here. My daughter came home."
"Yes, she did." The warrior purposefully kept her voice even, her tone devoid of malice. Normally, Gabrielle was the one to handle any negotiations. Xena's idea of diplomacy was to hit someone in the back of the head with her sword hilt and simply take what she wanted. When she had turned to a life of good, it had been Gabrielle that had taught her the importance of negotiating. Words suck - takes too long to make someone see your point. Come on, Xena, this is for Gabrielle; warrior up and do this. "But, you have to ask yourself; is it because she's truly happy here, or is it because she doesn't remember anything else? She's so much more than a girl from Potadeia. It's not fair to expect her to live half a life."
"She's right," Herodotus finally agreed, reaching over and laying his hand atop his wife's, giving a reassuring squeeze. As much as he was glad that his little girl was home, he could also see that she was already struggling. When Xena had come along the first time, Gabrielle was restless, eager to see the world. And, somewhere, deep inside, he feared she still had that same restless spirit.
Hecuba slid her hand out from beneath Herodotus'. Excusing herself from the table, she paced on stiffened joints across the kitchen to stare out the window. Rays of sunlight were beginning to edge across the yard, the rooster was already crowing and the chickens were gathering out front, looking for feed. Any time now, her daughters would also come in, looking for breakfast. Lila would emerge first, Gabrielle would stir from her bed only after her stomach demanded she feed it. Oh, sweet Demeter. My baby's just now come home. Please, let me have a little more time with her before she's taken away again.
"So, it's agreed, then?" Ephiny asked, both eyebrows raising in question. "We'll send Magdelus and the scouts back to the Nation with word that we've found the Queen. A fresh squad will come out," she glanced at Herodotus as she added, "with a work detail to help you in the fields and a couple of our healers to take a look at Gabrielle."
"Yeah, we're agreed," Herodotus grunted, even though he was secretly pleased that he'd been able to bargain the Amazons into agreeing to help him work the farmland as a means of paying for their room and board while they were there.
"And, in the meantime," Xena added, "The remaining Amazons and myself are allowed to spend equal time with Gabrielle in an effort to help her remember who she is."
Herodotus didn't much care for this part of the agreement, but he reluctantly nodded his head.
"When Gabrielle's memories return," Xena stressed, "we let her decide if she wants to stay or go."
Hecuba abruptly covered her mouth with both hands, looking as if she was ready to faint. Herodotus jumped up from his chair, rushing to his wife's side. Xena and Ephiny were right behind him, looking out the window for some untold danger. What they saw made Xena's brow raise and Ephiny's lip quirk. Out in the middle of the yard was Gabrielle, clad in a simple peasant girl's long-sleeved blouse and cumbersome skirts, Amazon fighting staff in hand, running through a series of drills with Eponin and Solari.
Deciding to make themselves scarce before Herodotus and Hecuba could rethink their agreement, Xena and Ephiny headed outside. Leaning against the porch railing, the warrior and the regent silently observed the exercises. Gabrielle kept perfect pace with Solari and Pony, their routines meshing together solidly.
"That's a good sign," Ephiny observed, "I was worried she might start whacking herself in the head the way she used to when she was first learning the staff."
"Nah," Xena shook her head, never taking her eyes off her lover, "The memories may be lost to her right now, but her instincts are still intact. Her body still inherently remembers, even if her mind doesn't."
"Huh." Ephiny mulled that one over as she chewed her bottom lip. Casting a sidelong glance at Xena, she slyly asked, "If that's true, why did her body instinctively beat the stuffing out of you, warrior?"
"Laugh it up, regent. I caught her by surprise, that's all." A large hand came up and swatted Ephiny's backside, eliciting a loud crack and a startled yelp. "Just be thankful it wasn't your skinny tailfeathers she whacked. Gabrielle can be a real bacchae when you disrupt her sleep."
Ephiny rolled her eyes and snorted. "So, you figure now that Gabby is fully conscious, her instincts might recognize you?"
"No sweat," Xena shrugged. "Gabrielle and I are destined to be together, our fates are intertwined; our souls would know each other anywhere. Give me a quarter candlemark alone with her and she'll remember."
"Good." Ephiny firmly nodded. "Then your souls can intertwine all you want after she finishes her session with Pony and Solari. And, while we're waiting," she grabbed the taller warrior by the hand, tugged her off the porch, "you can help me figure out how to milk a cow."
"Can't I just go out and kill something for breakfast instead?" Xena locked her knees in an effort to forestall being tugged across the yard.
"Nope. Killing things is warrior work; milking things is farm work. And, since you're the warrior who negotiated the terms of our surrender - " Ephiny whirled about, quickly sidestepping Xena's long reach, ending up directly behind her. Pressing her forearm into Xena's lower back and muscling her forward, she declared " - it's only fair you do your share of the farm work."
X X X X X
Gabrielle's stomach grumbled loudly as
she wiped her sweat soaked face with a damp rag. Her
blouse was drenched with perspiration and was sticking to
her in the most uncomfortable places. As she finished
with the cloth, she passed it to the Amazon standing beside
her near the water trough. Solari wet the cloth,
running it briskly over her face and arms, then down her
neck and upper chest to her flat stomach and then down both
legs. Gabrielle felt a wave of envy wash over her at
Solari's ability to so easily cool off. She was just
about to ask if all Amazons wore similar clothing when a
disturbance drew her attention.
A deeply scowling Amazon with fire in her eyes and muttering a litany of curses beneath her breath was heading straight for them, a determined stride to her step. Following closely on her heels was the dark-haired warrior that had been in her room the night before. She couldn't hear what the taller woman was saying as she trailed behind the Amazon, but to Gabrielle, it looked like it might be something like, "I swear, it was an accident."
Solari's face blanched as her regent stomped up to her, grabbing the damp cloth she'd been using right out of her grasp. Fresh milk was dripping from her hair, liberally coating her face, her neck, and most of her upper body. She tried using the rag to wipe herself down with, but soon discovered the futility of that. With a frustrated growl, the Amazon dunked her head and face in the water trough. Coming up for air, she gasped loudly, shook the water from her hair.
"Solari," she growled out, "Where's Pony?"
The warrior's eyes were wide and all she could do was stammer as she stared at her dripping regent.
"In the north pasture," Gabrielle spoke up in an effort to help out her tongue-tied friend. "That's where father asked all your animals be kept."
Ephiny's head turned so fast, Xena and Solari were afraid she'd throw something out of whack. "A - Animals?!?"
"Mmm-hmm," Gabrielle confirmed. "It's a nice pasture, wide open, lots of grass to chew on."
Face turning beet red, Solari buried her face in Xena's shoulder in an effort to bite down on her laughter. The warrior stood firm, unyielding as the Amazon clung to her.
Ephiny flicked an annoyed glance at the two, then turned her rapidly increasing ire back on Gabrielle. "Grass?" she repeated in a menacing tone.
"Yep. Your Pony's probably pretty happy there." She saw the smirks on the other two women's faces, heard the beneath-the-breath snickers. "You might want to think about renaming her, though. I mean, I had a donkey once. And, I couldn't think of a name for him at first, so I just called him Donkey. That worked out great until he followed me to market one day. Where he promptly got lost. I wandered the streets calling out "Donkey". You can imagine the confusion that created; I think every donkey in Potadeia came to me."
The regent's mouth worked soundlessly for several heartbeats before she sputtered out, "Pony's a people, not a horse!"
That's when Solari and Xena both lost it, laughter erupting from their chortling frames at the same time. Rolling her eyes, the regent brushed past the two nearly hysterical warriors. As she did, she was certain she heard one of them make a neighing sound. A thunderous scowl on her features, she turned around and glared as they both valiantly tried to appear innocent.
"Come on, Soli." Grabbing Solari by the ear, she firmly tugged, nearly yanking the Amazon clear off her feet. "I'm sure we can find you some sort of farm chore that needs to be done. Maybe something like pitching hay for the horses, hmm?"
Xena waited until the Amazons were out of earshot before turning to her bard. A confident smile on her face, she asked, "How you doin'?"
"What?!?" Gabrielle asked in incomprehension.
"How're you doin?" added with a suggestive arch of an eyebrow.
"I asked," The warrior held up a finger, crooked it into her mouth and pulled out a blood-soaked, wadded up rag. Clearing her throat, then spitting, she repeated, "I asked how are you doing?"
"Oh, sorry. I didn't understand you because of - " Gabrielle gestured with at the bloodied cloth still clutched between a thumb and forefinger. "Umm, are you okay?"
"Oh, yeah. Imagine it looks much worse than it really is."
Somehow, Gabrielle seriously doubted that. One of the warrior's eyes was swollen shut, the area about it mottled in dark blacks and blues. Beneath her other eye was also darkened, no doubt due to the solid hit Gabrielle remember landing to her nose. And, she seemed to be favoring her jaw, constantly fiddling with it.
"I'm sorry for - " she briefly wondered exactly how insulting it would be for her to say something like beating you up. " - I thought you were an intruder - "
"You know who I am now, though, right?" She tried for a wink.
"Oh, sure," Gabrielle nodded enthusiastically. "Mom explained it earlier, said you're a friend of mine that sometimes travels with me."
That caught Xena flatfooted. "I'm a little more than that."
"Oh!" Gabrielle's eyes lit in comprehension. "So, you're like one of my Amazon sisters, too, then?"
"Not exactly." Spying Ephiny curiously watching them from the height of the barn loft, she tried another tact. "I saw you sparring with Solari and Ep earlier. You're very good."
"Yeah," the small blonde shrugged self-depreciating shoulders. "I guess I have many skills."
Xena leaned forward, leaning in until her forehead was nearly touching Gabrielle's. "Maybe you'd like to spar with me sometime," she husked out in a deeper timbre, "one on one?"
"Umm, no offense," Gabrielle reached out, placing a comforting hand upon Xena's arm. "But after seeing you in action last night, I don't think you're ready for that, warrior."
Hearing her mother calling them for breakfast, Gabrielle rushed past the stunned warrior. Ice-blue eyes slowly rolling up towards the loft, she could see the phrase "Give me a quarter candlemark alone with her" already forming on the regent's lips.
"Shut up, Ephiny," Xena warned, "Just shut up."
X X X X X
"So, Damascus lets me post scrolls in his
bar, sort of a preview of what my tale is going to be
about. Helps to draw in the crowd. That one,"
Gabrielle offered up, pointing at the wrinkled parchment
upon the table, "is about a farmer's daughter that goes
looking for excitement on the open road and all the
different adventures she has."
"Makes sense," Ephiny sagely nodded. "You once told me that the Academy taught that any bard worth her salt invested in the marketability of sequels."
"The Academy?" Gabrielle couldn't contain her enthusiasm. "I attended the Royal Academy of Bards?"
"At my insistence, of course."
All heads turned towards the warrior sprawled in the chair at the head of the table. She was leaning back, fingers interlaced behind her head, her feet propped up on the table as she balanced the chair on two legs.
"You?" Gabrielle asked, hardly believing this uncouth warrior even knew how to read. "You're responsible for my being a good bard?"
"Of course," Xena nonchalantly shrugged. "Look at your tale about a farm girl seeking adventure. That's you. Only instead of going out and hitting the road on your own, you waited until I was passing through. Then, you latched onto me and begged me to take you away from Potadeia."
"I . . . begged . . . you?"
Ephiny kicked Eponin beneath the table. Biting down on her lip to keep from yelling, reaching down and rubbing her shin, she glared at her regent. Then, she caught the covert glances towards the door. Gently sliding her chair away from the table, she silently crept out of the kitchen. A glance over her shoulder confirmed Ephiny was right behind her. Solari remained at the table, head bowed over her plate as she continued to eat, completely oblivious to the conversation going on around her.
"And when I didn't let you come along, you came up with this plan to follow me until I was in some sort of trouble. Lucky for you I invited you into my camp that first night out or you would've frozen to death."
"Lucky me," Gabrielle echoed.
Now Hecuba caught the tone. "Lila, help me go gather some more eggs."
"But mother," Lila whined around a mouthful, "We've got plenty. Besides, I haven't finished my breakfast, yet."
"Won't hurt to gather a few more." Hecuba cuffed her daughter on the ear. "Now, quit sassing me and get moving."
"Yep, where do you think you get all the material for your stories?"
"From . . . " Gabrielle hazarded a guess " . . . you?"
"Exactly. My adventures. You even tied them all together with the same opening. In a time of warlords, kings and . . . " Xena indicated herself with a sweep of her hand and roguish grin " . . . well, me . . . a land in turmoil cried out for a hero. You remember, right?"
"Umm, no." Gabrielle felt her stomach roiling. Feeling queasy, she pushed herself away from the table.
"Hey! Where you goin?" Xena called out, following her bard out onto the porch. "I'm not even to the best part, yet!"
"Sorry," Gabrielle apologized. "There's a sheep somewhere I'm certain I forgot to shear."
"Great! I'm from Amphipolis, sheep capital of Greece! Let me grab my chakram and I'll help you!"
"Uh - that's not really necessary," Gabrielle waved off the offer. "It's just a small sheep. I'm worried too many people will scare her. Don't want to risk getting a bad batch of wool, you know."
"Oh, okay. Sure, I understand." Xena watched her go for a moment before hanging her head, kicking at a stone. Her bottom lip protruding, she cursed, "Damn sheep."
Inside the kitchen, Solari finally looked up from her plate, noticing for the first time that everyone else had left. "Huh." Shrugging, she reached across the table, grabbing Eponin's and Ephiny's plates and adding their half-eaten contents to her own. A contented smile on her face, she leaned back in her chair, slowly chewing her eggs.
X X X X X
Furtively looking back over her shoulder,
Gabrielle made sure no one was following her.
Especially that persistent warrior. Seemed like every
time she turned around, Xena was there. She knew they
were supposed to be friends and all, but really . . . a
girl should be allowed to go into the bushes by herself
without worrying someone's going to be there to pass her a
leaf to wipe on.
Thankfully, her mother had come in search of them, asking if Xena would mind helping her with one of the hogs that was going into labor. In an annoyed huff, the warrior was led off towards the pens.
Ducking into the barn, Gabrielle stood still, simply enjoying the respite from the midday sun and heat. Eyes slowly adjusting to the muted sunlight filtering in through the second-story loft and the spaces between the boards making up the walls, she looked about the dim interior.
The other Amazons had already cleared out, taking their bedrolls and other belongings with them for their journey back to their Nation. Only four bedrolls remained, spread out amongst the piles of hay. In one corner of the barn was stacked an array of armor and weapons ranging from breastplates to swords and bows and staffs. It seemed as if by mutual consensus, the warriors had agreed that they didn't need to be completely armed when confronting cows and chickens and pigs.
Ears perked as a faint moan reached her. Remaining completely still, listening intently, she waited. Again, the soft sound filled the air. She looked up, eyes narrowing as she scanned the piles of hay lining the upper floor.
"Hello?" she called out, standing at the foot of the ladder leading up to the loft, "Is there anybody up there?"
A muffled groan drifted down, but no other verbal response was forthcoming. Steeling herself, she began a slow, cautious ascent. Hands reaching the top rung, green eyes peered over the ledge. "Are you injured?" she called out again, "Do you need a hand?"
Twin sets of confused eyes blinked at each other. Brow creased in annoyance, Eponin looked up over the strategically placed pile of hay she'd led her regent behind earlier. Recognizing her Queen - her steadily approaching Queen as she checked behind each bale of hay - she hastily ducked.
"Well?" Ephiny hissed between clenched teeth.
"Centaur crap!" The regent began struggling to extricate herself from a tangle of arms and legs. "Get off me!" she urged.
"Hang on, Eph, " Eponin lowered her mouth, swirling her tongue about a lobe as she whispered in Ephiny's ear, "Maybe we should let her find us."
"What?" Ephiny's mouth dropped open as she stared up at the Amazon still laying prone atop her. "Have you been smoking henbane?" Despite her protestations, she was unable to keep from reflexively arching, exposing more of her neck as lips settled upon her pulse point and gently sucked. "She's the Queen!"
"Yeah," agreed Pony. "She can perform the ceremony."
"She has no memory of being Queen, Eponin," Ephiny anxiously looked in the direction she heard footsteps slowly approaching from. "How do you expect her to remember the damn ceremony?"
"You can tell her the words, have her repeat them." Pony shrugged. "Please, Eph," she implored, purposefully thrusting her hips to add emphasis to her plea. "I can't stand it."
"Neither can I," Ephiny confessed, gasping as Eponin's thrust hit home, "But, we can't ask Gabrielle to do that in her current condition." She used a lingering kiss to convey her regret, "It wouldn't be right."
"What about my condition?" Eponin asked with a mock growl and a playful nip to the end of her regent's nose to indicate that she wasn't really that upset by the refusal. "My fingers are going to be worn down to the nubs if I don't get some sort of relief soon. How can I be the weapons master if I can't even lift my staff?"
Ephiny snorted. "Get out of here." Lifting herself up onto her elbows, she could just make out the bounce of Gabrielle's blonde hair as she drew nearer. "Now," she added a sharp slap to one of Pony's bare buttocks.
With a pitiful look and a low groan, Eponin rolled off her regent. Grabbing a handful of Amazonian clothing, she scurried on hands and feet through the straw, disappearing with a shuffle into a large pile of hay.
Ephiny had just finished straightening her halter when Gabrielle appeared. "Hey," she nodded in greeting.
"Hey," Gabrielle answered, casually glancing around, "You alone?"
Ephiny glanced around, afraid of seeing some trace of Eponin. "Yeah, why?"
"Thought I heard voices up here." Gabrielle shrugged. "Guess I must've been imagining things."
"Oh." Heartbeat returning to normal, she asked, "You okay?"
"I guess so," Gabrielle listlessly picked at the hemline of her dress. "it's hard to know for sure when there's so much of my life I can't seem to remember. I mean, I remember being a farm girl. And, everyone telling me I'm a performing bard, that makes sense, too. But, learning that I'm an Amazon; I look at myself, and I don't look anything like what I imagine an Amazon might look like."
"Come with me." Ephiny determinedly grabbed Gabrielle's hand, dragged her from the loft.
"Where are we going?"
"To turn you into an Amazon."
Burrowed deep inside a pile of straw, a set of eyes lit up as Eponin watched the two departing women, an idea already formulating in her mind.
X X X X X
"Eph, can I ask you a question?"
"Of course you can," Ephiny answered, unable to hide her smile. Whether Gabrielle was conscious of it or not, she'd already fallen back into the habit of calling her by a shortened version of her name.
"We are friends, right?"
"Absolutely," The regent agreed from her position where she was stretched out upon Gabrielle's bed, idly watching as the short blonde adjusted the Amazon belt at her waist. Thankfully, Hecuba had hid Gabrielle's traveling clothes in a crate rather than tossing them out.
"And, you did say I was a Queen, right?"
"You are the Queen, Gabrielle, whether you remember or not."
"Was I - I mean, am I - a good Queen?"
"And, I'm loved by my tribe?"
"Of course." Blonde brows furrowed in confusion. "Why would you even have to ask?"
"Well, I'm just wondering if I'm such a good Queen and all," Gabrielle pulled the edge of her halter away from her person, eyeing it suspiciously, "Why would you force me to wear such a hideous green top?"
"I don't know how to break the news to you, My Queen," Ephiny grinned wryly, "But, you yourself picked out that particular top."
"Huh." Looking somewhat dubious, the Queen proclaimed, "Then, maybe someone should have hit me in the head sooner, because this has got to go." Grabbing the bottom of her halter, she hoisted it over her head, tossing it so it hit her giggling regent in the face. Standing there in just her boots and skirt, hands on her hips, she suggested, "Either find me a new halter, Ephiny, or put into law that all Amazons will go topless from now on."
Ephiny's laughter abruptly died. Cocking her head to the side, eyeing her now bare breasted Queen, she shrugged her shoulders. "Could be interesting. Would certainly distract our enemies when we rode into battle."
Gabrielle snickered at the image. "We couldn't go a quarter-mile without half the tribe having blackened eyes!"
"Oh, Gods!" Ephiny laughed, rolling off the bed and onto the floor. "I can just imagine - "
"Xe -Xena!" The Amazon regent managed to gasp out. "W - where would she hide her breast dagger?"
Gabrielle shrieked, burying her face in her hands. "Seriously, Eph?" Gabrielle worked to control her laughter, "Can I have another top? I saw one earlier in the hayloft - "
"In the - " Ephiny's face blanched.
"Whose was it?" Seeing Ephiny's panicked reaction, Gabrielle coaxed, "Come on, Eph. I'm a farm girl, not a Hestian virgin. I'm old enough to know what two Amazons do together." She giggled a little, "All I'm asking is, who are you doing it with?"
"Ep," Ephiny confessed, "It's Eponin."
"Cool," Gabrielle decided, recalling the muscular Amazon she'd been sparring with. "I knew there was something going on between you two. Lila bet me a dinar I was wrong. I can't wait to rub her nose in it - "
"Gabrielle, please. You can't tell. Anyone." Swallowing harshly, looking down at the tops of her boots, she confessed, "Look, there's something you need to know."
"Oh, Gods. You aren't having an affair with her, are you?" At Ephiny's startled look, she added, "That's it, isn't it; you're cheating on someone else to be with her?"
"NO!" Ephiny waved her hands in denial. Clasping Gabrielle by the shoulders, she guided her to sit down on the edge of the bed. "At least, not exactly." Bowing her head, unable to look her in the eye, she told her Queen the truth.
"Sooo," Gabrielle drawled out as Ephiny finished her tale, "Just to be certain I've got this right . . . You and Eponin have been a couple for several seasons now. And, you finally decided to make an honest woman out of her by officially making her your consort." Ephiny nodded in affirmation. "But, in order for the ceremony to be considered binding, another member of Amazon royalty must bless the union." Something clicked. "I was on my way to the Amazon village for the ceremony, wasn't I?"
"If it wasn't for us, you never would have lost your memory."
"Oh, Ephiny. That wasn't your fault. It was an accident! And, who's to say I wasn't meant to be there to help that family that day?" Gabrielle caught Ephiny in a warm, comforting hug. "There's no reason for you to feel guilty. And, there's no reason for you and Eponin to hide - "
"Umm, Gabrielle, there's more."
Gabrielle sat back with her hands in her lap, patiently waiting.
"You see," Ephiny began by restlessly pacing the room, "Before a member of royalty can join with a consort, both parties must undergo a ritual purification followed by," Seeing the blank look on her Queen's face, she elaborated, "Followed by a minimum seven-day period of chasteness."
"Meaning, you and Ep aren't supposed to - " Gabrielle waggled her hand back and forth.
With a grimace, Ephiny admitted, "Not until the ceremony is completed."
"Oh! Oh, my! Oh, you have been a naughty Amazon, haven't you?" Gabrielle caught the chagrined look on Ephiny's face, couldn't help but laugh. "Oh, Ephiny, I am so sorry. You must really be . . . " she tried to be serious, but lost it again as the word "frustrated" escaped her lips.
"Yeah, well the damage you and your consort caused before your ceremony - "
" - I have a consort?" Gabrielle appeared taken aback, "Is she, you know," she asked, leaning forward and whispering, "a babe?"
"Oh, yeah," Ephiny confirmed. "Tall, dark-haired, fit. A warrior. Completely devoted to you."
"Really?" Gabrielle squeaked in anticipation.
"Really. And, hot for you. Couldn't keep her hands off you during the chastity period. Guess that's why the Council of Elders found you both buck naked on top of the long table in the council hut. Needless to say, sessions were delayed for quite a while."
"No!" Gabrielle's mouth dropped open in shock. "No!"
"Yep. They never did find the gavel, either!"
Both women stared at each other, then Ephiny suggestively waggled her eyebrows. Turning beet red, Gabrielle set off a whole new round of laughter. They were both rolling around on the floor, holding their sides, trying to breathe through their giggling fit as the bedroom door swung open.
"Oh, great; you're bonding," Xena sarcastically drawled as she looked down at the two women writhing on the floor. Pausing just long enough to flick the pig slop from her leathers, she delivered the news, "Hecuba's looking for you. Something about naked chickens."
X X X X X
"No-no-no-no-no. Gods, no." Ephiny
bowed her head, pinching the bridge of her nose between her
thumb and forefinger in a vain attempt to ward off the
pounding headache building behind her eyes. Standing
on the front porch, casting a disparaging look about the
yard, she pleaded, "Please, Artemis, please let this be
some sort of hallucination."
"Does that one look sunburned to you?" Xena asked, jerking her head in the direction of one particularly pink-skinned chicken.
Ephiny's jaw just dropped. Turning, she directed her best glare at the warrior.
"Hey, don't look at me!" Xena held up both hands, "This has Amazon-caper written all over it!"
"We're sorry, Eph."
"Yeah," agreed Solari.
Both the captain of the royal guard and the weapons master were standing at the foot of the porch steps, hands clasped behind their backs, heads bowed with guilt.
"But, we were really trying to help," Eponin looked up through thick lashes, trying to make eye contact with her regent. A chicken somehow hopped up onto the porch, walked across the regent's boots, lifting her wings as she went. Her very bare wings. There were only three feathers left on the top of this chicken's head; the rest of her had been completely plucked. Ephiny's scowl made Pony instantly duck her head again.
"In what context could you two possibly think that plucking the feathers off all the chickens - " she took a deep breath as her gaze flitted about the crowded front yard " - all the live chickens would possibly help anything?"
Standing beside the regent, Gabrielle really had to work had to press her lips tightly enough together so that a snicker wouldn't escape. It really was funny, seeing dozens of naked chickens running about the yard.
"Well, you see, I kind of overheard Gabrielle saying she didn't feel like a real Amazon," Eponin confessed.
"Yeah," chimed in Solari. "And, we thought it might make her feel better if she had some of her own stuff from the village here. But, all we brought was her staff."
"So," Eponin twisted the toe of her boot into the dirt, "We thought that maybe if we could make her something instead?"
Solari brought her arms from behind her back at this point, held out a feathered-covered object. At Gabrielle's perplexed look, she explained, "It's supposed to be a mask, like the Queen's mask back at the village."
"Yeah, only it didn't turn out so good," Eponin offered by way of explanation, glaring at a cackling Xena.
"Oh, gods!" Xena roared with laughter. "I don't think I've ever seen anything so hideous in my life!"
"They tried." Eyes narrowing, Gabrielle skewered the warrior princess with a scatching look. "I didn't see you attempting to help."
"If you wanted your chickens sheared, you should have told me; I would've brought my chakram and done both them and sheep at the same time," Xena retorted. She grimaced at the thing Solari held in her hands. "That's demented!"
"Well, I happen to think it's sweet," declared Gabrielle, delicately picking her way through naked chickens to stand upon the bottom step of the porch. Taking the mask from Solari's hands, she gingerly held it up for inspection. "Thank you, that was very thoughtful." Bending down, she placed a kiss on first Eponin's cheek, then Solari's. Taking both their arms, steering them away from the house, she tossed back over her shoulder, "And considerate. Which is more than I can say for some people."
Xena was left standing on the porch with a stupefied expression on her face as her bard walked away on the arms of two other Amazons. A featherless chicken boldly strode up to her, imperiously pecking her on her boot. Jumping back, shaking the bird off her foot, she cursed, "Son of a bacchae!"
"Hey," Ephiny reached over, sympathetically patting the warrior on the back. "Anytime you want that quarter candlemark alone with Gabriele so your destinies and souls can instinctively intertwine and all that, Xena, you just let me know, okay?"
X X X X X
Argo ate up the miles at a rapid pace,
her mistress spurring her on. As they crested a hill,
Xena shortened the reins. Argo slid to a halt as the
warrior somersaulted out of the saddle and over her head,
adroitly landing several feet away. Standing atop the
hill, arms spread wide, Xena tilted her head back - and
"I don't get it, Argo," her head snapped around to look at her trusty horse, "I just don't get it. Two days! It's been two days! And, she still doesn't have a clue who I am!"
Drawing her sword, she ruthlessly hacked at the air about her, no clear pattern to her movements. Spying a rotted tree, she stormed over to it, ruthlessly hacking. Bits of aged bark flew off with each hit, littering the grassy knoll as she lost herself in the mindless destruction.
"What am I doing wrong?!? Why doesn't she remember me?" Sword growing heavy in her arms, legs eventually giving out, she slumped down, resting her torso against the scarred tree. Wrapping her arms about it, sobbing against its now raw surface, she cried out, "Why doesn't she remember us?"
X X X X X
"I think things are really starting to
click into place, Eponin."
"Yeah?" asked Pony, walking along beside her regent. She'd spent the day patching the roof on the house while Ephiny helped Hecuba and Lila in the kitchen. Now, they were done for the day and were taking a leisurely walk back to the barn, enjoying the beauty of the setting sun and each other's company.
"Uh-huh," Ephiny confirmed, leaning her head against her weapons master's broad shoulder, "Gabrielle came into the kitchen for a midday snack."
"Yep, that definitely sounds like our Gabrielle."
"Let me finish, smartass," she elbowed Eponin in the ribs, "She told me she's been having thoughts about someone, may be feeling an attraction towards them."
"And?" Eponin grinned.
"I advised her to go for it. Her and Xena should be back together in no time."
Ephiny turned and looked her warrior in the eye. "Are you saying that just because you think once they get back together, Gabrielle will bless our union and you'll finally get into my leathers?"
"Well, there's that," wheedled Eponin, "But, also because they really do make a good couple. Speaking of - " dark eyebrows waggled suggestively, as she looked towards the darkened barn " - how bout we maybe get in a little kissing before everyone gets back?"
Grinning wickedly, Ephiny gripped the front of Eponin's belt, tugged on it as she pressed her back against the barn door to open it. Turning around, blonde eyebrows rose in surprise as she realized they'd walked in on Gabrielle. Her back was to them, her hands on a broad set of shoulders as she firmly pressed her lips against those of her dark-haired companion.
Ephiny's jaw nearly hit the floor as Gabrielle ended her kiss and turned around. Standing with her back pressed up against the post, chest heaving as she took in deep, gulping breaths was Solari.
"Gabrielle! What in Tartarus?"
The short blonde grinned saucily. "I'm taking your advice, Ephiny. I'm following my instincts."
X X X X X
"Have you completely lost your mind?"
Eponin cursed, popping Solari in the back of the head.
"Hey!" Solari reflexively rubbed at her injury. "I was just getting ready to bed down for the night. She's the one that came in and started kissing on me!"
"I didn't see you trying to discourage it," the weapons master shot back.
"Well, uh, no. Not, yet." Solari's face reddened considerably. "I umm, well, I was going to. But, she's the Queen. And, she's wearing that little top that shows off those tight abs and how was I gonna tell her no and - " A tortured look crossed Solari's face. "Gods, Ep! What's gonna happen when her memory comes back?"
"I've got a better question for you, my friend." Eponin's gaze drifted across the barn to where Gabrielle was animatedly talking with a very agitated Ephiny. "What happens if Xena finds out?"
"Oh, Gods!" Solari suddenly felt weak in the knees. "I'm dead. I'm dead. I'm dead."
"What were you thinking?" Ephiny paced up and down in front of Gabrielle. "How could you put Solari in that position?"
"It was easy," Gabrielle smirked, "She's very flexible."
"That's not what I meant!" Ephiny groaned, burying her face in both hands. "I meant, what's Xena gonna do when she finds out?"
"What business is it of Xena's about what goes on between me and my consort?"
"You're - you're - " Ephiny openmouthed gaped at Gabrielle. "Your consort?"
"Just like you said, Eph. She's dreamy." Gabrielle smiled, waggled her fingertips at her royal guard. "Tall and gorgeous. And, talk about sexy."
"But, she's not Xena!" shouted Ephiny. "She's your consort! Not Solari!"
"Xena?" Gabrielle repeated.
"Yes. Xena, warrior princess."
"Is my consort?"
"Yes." Gripping Gabrielle by both shoulders, Ephiny posed the question, "What part of that are you having a problem understanding?"
"Xena! But, she's so -- " Gabrielle worked for a description, "She's just so - frustrating and aggravating and conceited and rude - "
"And, she's back," Ep warned, spying Argo's dust trail on the road leading into the farm.
X X X X X
She was sitting beneath a shade tree
midway up a gently sloping embankment, a light breeze
blowing through honey-golden hair. Pushing the
strands away from her face, tucking them behind an ear, she
peered down at the scroll in her lap. A serene smile
bowed full lips as she scrawled her thoughts upon the
Suddenly, a shadow fell across her scroll. The unexpected intrusion caused her to lose her flow mid-sentence. Uncomprehendingly, she stared down at her parchment, unable to bring back the words that were on the tip of her quill just a heartbeat before. She rolled her neck, looking up in annoyance, wondering exactly who was inconsiderate enough to directly block her sunlight.
I should have known, she thought, eyes falling upon the warrior that seemed to be the bane of her existence. She does have nice eyes, though. That admission startled Gabrielle. Ever since she'd snuck out the back of the barn and into her bed last night, she hadn't been able to keep thoughts of the warrior from plaguing her.
She had been completely content thinking Solari was her consort. She was cute and funny and charming. Then, Ephiny had to go and tell her that it was Xena she was supposed to be in love with. She tried to deny it for half the night, even after Solari had crept out of the barn and come to her window. For some reason, the Amazon had felt it was her duty to try to convince her what a good consort Xena was. And, although she was honored that Gabrielle felt an attraction to her, she couldn't in good conscience allow her to throw away her relationship with the warrior princess.
"Hey, mind if I sit down?" she asked in a soft tone.
"It's a free hill, can't stop you," Gabrielle shrugged.
Sitting down beside Gabrielle, adjusting the saddlebag she carried draped over one shoulder, their thighs touched as she gazed out upon the landscape. Plucking up a blade of grass, idly chewing on it, she cast a sidelong glance at the woman beside her.
"Working on a scroll?" she inquired.
"Yep," was the short response, "For tonight. I have a performance."
"Oh, right. Your series of adventures."
Gabrielle waited for the jibe, expecting something sarcastic about the adventures of a farm girl from Potadeia. She was mildly surprised when it didn't come.
"Is it okay if I listen, too?"
"My scrolls are for everyone. My family isn't going. They never do. But, the Amazons are. I'm sure you can travel into town with them."
Xena thoughtfully chewed her blade of grass, her mind running in circles. At last, she turned to Gabrielle. "I talked to Ephiny last night."
"Oh?" Gabrielle's heart pounded. Did the Amazon tell Xena about her inadvertent indiscretion? And, why does the thought of that bother me if I feel nothing for her?
"Look, maybe we got off on the wrong foot or something. For some reason, I thought I could just ride in here and amnesia or not, you'd know me," she confessed. "And, for the longest time, I couldn't figure out why no matter how hard I tried, you couldn't remember me" Avoiding Gabrielle's intense scrutiny by staring out at the valley below she added, "or love me."
"I just don't feel - "
"I know." Xena held up a hand, forestalling the apology. "And, in my arrogance, I figured I was still the same me and you should instantly love me. What Ephiny reminded me of last night, though, is that you and I don't see me through the same set of eyes." Taking the saddlebag off her shoulder, dropping it on the ground beside Gabrielle, she opened the flap. "These are your scrolls. All of them." There was a shy smile as Xena downed her head and looked up at her through thick lashes. "In here, that's the Xena you saw."
Gabrielle looked down at the saddlebag, fingertips trembling as she touched the soft leather. Gingerly, she reached in, withdrawing one at random. Unrolling it, her eyes glistened with tears as she recognized her own handwriting. Looking up, she saw the warrior smiling at her through moisture-filled eyes. "Thank you," she managed to choke out.
"I hope you find what you're looking for in there," Xena husked, emotion tightening her throat as she gathered her legs beneath her and started down the hill with a lighter heart. No matter what happened now, she knew she could leave Potadeia secure in the knowledge she'd done everything in her power to help Gabrielle.
X X X X X
"An Amazon, a warrior and a bard walk
into a bar."
"Will you cut that out, Phineus?" Damascus growled, "I told you I don't welcome those kind of derogatory jokes in my establishment."
"It's no joke," Xena growled, ambling up to the bar. Damascus visibly paled beneath the warrior's gaze. "Relax, I'm here for the show," Xena smirked. "Ales all around for me and my friends," she ordered, indicating the Amazons seated at the table nearest the little stage he'd had constructed for traveling bards.
"Can you hold these for me while I perform?" Gabrielle asked, approaching the warrior standing at the bar. Seeing a painful flicker in blue eyes as she made the request, she hastily amended, "I mean, you don't have to if you don't want to. I can leave them at the table with the Amazons. It's okay, I understand how you might not want - "
Xena reached out, easily lifting the saddlebag off the smaller woman's shoulder. "Give me the damn scrolls already," she smirked. Then sobering, she added with a wistful look and a painful smile, "I know you're going to be great up there tonight."
"Even if it's just a tale about a silly little farm girl looking for adventure?" She shot back with an easy smile.
"She's not silly," Xena amended, "She's beautiful." Feeling her stoic warrior facade starting to waver, she turned Gabrielle around so she was facing the stage and gave her a push in the right direction. "Now get up there and knock their sandals off."
Xena watched as Gabrielle took to the stage and the applause died down. Then, reaching for her mug of ale, her eyes locking with the bartender, she silently dared him to comment. Wisely picking up a tray full of mugs, she maneuvered his way to the table full of thirsty Amazons. Turning her attention back to the stage, Xena tuned in just as Gabrielle's voice clearly rang out over the crowd.
"In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings a land in turmoil cried out for a hero." Gabrielle caught the shocked look on the faces of the Amazons as she began her narrative. A glance at Xena revealed that the warrior was equally stunned. She was unable to keep the twinkle out of her eye as her next words indeed confirmed that her memories had finally returned to her that afternoon as she was reading through her scrolls. "And, sometimes being a hero means sacrifice. Tonight, I sing of such a hero. A hero that risked everything to restore the memories of someone she was destined to be with and prove to her love that their souls would recognize each other no matter what."
She'd barely gotten the word destined out before Xena had leapt onto the stage and swept her up into her arms, laughing and crying all at once. The rest of her Amazons stormed the stage, hugging her, hugging them both.
"Your memories - " Xena asked
"Are back," Gabrielle confirmed.
"Woo-hoo!" Gabrielle found herself hoisted in the air as Eponin shouted out, "I'm finally gonna get some!"
Embarrassed beyond words, Ephiny hid her suddenly red face in both hands and shook her head.
Struggling to restore a sense of order to the stage, Gabrielle attempted to continue her story. With a laughing lilt in her voice, she began, "And, it all began with a joke. An Amazon, a warrior and a bard walk into a bar . . . "