"Do you want any more of this or should I toss the rest?" asked Gabrielle offering the last of the evening's meal.
"Okay." Gabrielle threw away the dregs of their soup, then poured water in the pot to rinse it out. She put away the cookware and tidied up the campsite before joining Xena on the blanket. "Star gazing?"
"Mmmm," murmured Xena, watching the night sky.
"I love the spring," said Gabrielle, dreamily. "Everything is fresh and new and coming to life again. There's the smell of flowers in the air and the colors all start jumping out -- the green of the grasses, the white and pink buds on the trees -- it's all so exciting."
Xena glanced over and shook her head slowly. "Exciting to slog through mud, forage for hours for greens, get caught in downpours..."
"You're just so darn cheerful, Xena, it's a wonder you don't break out in song."
Xena chuckled. "Yeah, well, you just wait. I'll surprise you some day. I'll kneel at your feet and serenade you in proper style."
"Now *that* I would like to see. Oh yes, I'd pay many a dinar for that sight."
"Yeah? How much?"
"A hundred at least."
Gabrielle looked at Xena, a suspicious smile on her face then stood. Xena rose to her knees, clasped her hands together and began to sing. "From Poteideia there came a bard a'wandering overland. She found a warrior, cold and hard, to whom she'd lend a hand. A hand, my friend; a hand, my friend; she said she'd lend a hand. And off into the sunset went the warrior and the bard. Wherever the one went, the other was... um... was... card... guard... tarred... hey this is hard!" said Xena, smiling at the inadvertent rhyme.
"Now she figures that out," said Gabrielle, laughing joyously. Gods, Xena, you don't do this often enough, she thought. You can be so delightful. You have this lovely 'goofy' streak in you that surfaces every once in awhile and the glow of it stays with me for days.
Xena laid back down, shaking her head. "Keep your money," she said, then yawned. "You laughed instead of swooned and I just looked ridiculous."
Gabrielle laid down on her side and lightly kissed Xena's shoulder. "You never look ridiculous. It's one of the things I hate about you. No matter what you do, you always look gorgeous and powerful and at ease with yourself. -- while *I*, on the other hand, have a fifty fifty shot of looking silly." Damn, it feels good, thought Gabrielle. Good to have Xena back. The Xena who knows how to laugh and says wry things to make me smile and who can lie here discussing nothing instead of being deep in despair. Thank you, Thor, wherever you are.
"I like it when you're silly. Besides, with me it's all an act," Xena said, stretching.
"Uh huh. Then you should be on the stage."
"No thanks. I'll stick to the original plan. Settling down with you and tending the garden and living out our days in peace. That's what I want."
Do you? Gabrielle asked silently. I still don't understand that. I assumed that when you found yourself again, you'd change your mind. "You aren't going to miss the travel or your mission for atonement? It's not going to bother you?"
Xena glanced over with a wry smile. "Well, I'll miss having people trying to kill us every few minutes. And sleeping in the rain -- why, I don't know how I'll live without that. And it'll be tough not having warlords chasing us, or villagers spitting on me for things I did ten winters ago or seeing the hatred in someone's eyes when I tell them my name or --"
"You see? You're missing it already and we haven't even gotten to the Amazons!" said Gabrielle, smiling.
"Oh, for the good old days," said Xena with a fake sigh.
"Yeah, I get your point. But it wasn't all bad, you know. There's a lot to be said for knowing you saved someone's life, or you righted a wrong."
"True. I suppose I will miss some of it. And I'm still considering this a temporary test of the idea -- we'll try it for a moon or so, and see if it works. It could very well drive us both crazy and we'll be itching to get back on the road. But I think it could work. I mean, we don't really need to give up everything. We can still travel when we want. And we can go to a trouble spot if we're needed. I guess I just want to know what it feels like to have a home when we're through. A place to relax. To call our own. And maybe, not right away but eventually, we can raise a family..."
Gabrielle propped herself on one elbow and stared at Xena's face. The warrior's expression was tender, her eyes on the heavens. "A family? As in kids? As in one of us having a baby or something?"
"Maybe. But I was thinking more like adopting some kid who needs people like us in her life. And I might talk to Kaleipus about having Solan visit us. You know, sort of share custody of my son with his 'uncle.' If I approach him right, that wily old centaur might say yes."
"You've really been thinking about all this, haven't you?"
"Yeah, I have," said Xena, turning to look at Gabrielle. She reached out her hand and stroked the bard's cheek. "You told me once that we have a lot of love to give to a child. And that's more than many kids have. As usual, you were right. We do. And we might be able to make a difference that way. You don't have to swing a sword to fight for the greater good. There are many kinds of battles, and many kinds of battlegrounds. Maybe we just need a change of scene."
"You never stop surprising me, Xena," whispered Gabrielle. "Just when I think I'm figuring you out, you say something to make me start thinking all over again."
"Does it sound that crazy? What I'm saying?" Xena asked, concerned.
"No, Xena. It sounds that wonderful," whispered Gabrielle, kissing her lightly.
Xena smiled at her companion, all the love in her heart captured in the twinkle in her eyes. "You know, I think I might be growing fond of you, Gabrielle."
"Really? Ya think?"
"Maybe. Try that again and let me check."
Gabrielle complied, deepening her kiss. "Better?"
"You're so articulate," said Gabrielle lightly, though in her heart she was singing with joy. She looked again at the warrior's smiling eyes. "I'm so glad to have you back, Xena," she said, sincerely, trailing kisses down Xena's neck.
"I guess it was rather like going away, wasn't it?" said Xena, arching her neck and closing her eyes.
"Uh huh. You were so far out of reach. I thought I'd lost you. I thought I'd lost your love."
Xena shivered. Gabrielle increased her attentions to the warrior's body, thinking that she had caused this reaction. Had she looked in Xena's eyes, she might have questioned the haunted guilt they held.
"You fill my heart, Gabrielle. You always have," said Xena, capturing her lover's lips with hers.
"You really *are* turning into a bard," said Gabrielle, smiling. She smoothed the bangs out of Xena's eyes. "Ever thought of wearing your hair back? Sort of piled up on your head? You have such an elegant face. I bet that would look nice."
"Not very practical, though," said Xena, unlacing Gabrielle's top then cupping the bard's breast in her hand. "What if it all fell down in a fight? I'd have to worry that I no longer looked elegant as I skewered some bad guy." Xena rolled Gabrielle onto her back, lowering herself gently on top of her lover. She kissed the spot just between Gabrielle's breasts, breathing in the faint musky scent.
"Ah, but you're not going to fight any more, Warrior Gardener," said the bard. She pulled the shift from Xena's body and nipped one bare shoulder playfully.
"Very true. And it's important to look your best when pulling weeds and chopping wood." Xena's tongue traced swirling circles on a voyage up Gabrielle's eager breast. "But why didn't you ever tell me," Xena said, flicking her tongue across the bard's impatient nipple, "that you don't like the way I wear my hair?"
"It's not that I... gods, yes... don't like it..." said Gabrielle, running her nails lightly down Xena's back. "I just wondered why... the other one too, please, Xena, it's lonely... you never tried it, that's all."
"I have. It looks okay, but it's too much trouble," said Xena. She ran her fingers lightly across the bards stomach, finding the ticklish spot she loved teasing. Gabrielle shuddered, the flesh rippling in reaction. The warrior ran a finger lightly around several purplish stains just under the bard's ribs. "Eating boarberries in your blankets again, I see," she said, playing connect the dots. The small black fruit was one of Gabrielle's favorites, but the juice could stain the skin for weeks.
"I was hungry. Sometimes, a woman has to feed those sudden appetites in the night. Stop!" giggled Gabrielle, reflexively contorting to keep Xena's ticklish fingers from any further torture.
"Oh, you want me to stop?" asked Xena, pretending to back off. Gabrielle thrust her thigh between the warrior's legs, causing Xena to arch her back, her eyes closing. "I... I... I..."
"Have a sudden speech impediment?" asked the bard, slyly.
"Trying out... unh... a new war cry, that's all..." Xena dipped her fingers lower, running her nails across short, feathery hairs.
"About your... gods yes, yes... gods... You'd look so... Your hair is... Aphrodite, yes..."
"Leave religion out of this." Xena slid down the bard's body, grabbing Gabrielle's hips in her hands and lifting them to her mouth. "Still, I could... mmmm... try out a new... unh... style occasionally..." said Xena, her statements coming between long pauses while her attention was elsewhere.
"You're... but I... Your bangs are... gods... gods... harder... so beautiful... gods... if you... ungh... oh yes... there... yes... wear it... Xena! Yes! ...differently every... guh... once in a... guh guh... while... now, yes, now..."
"So difficult," said Xena, raising her head momentarily, "to have a normal conversation with you sometimes." She returned to her ministrations, her tongue and lips enveloping, teasing, exploring, tasting. "So sweet..." she murmured, encircled by the clenching power of Gabrielle's thighs as they locked around her shoulders.
Gabrielle didn't answer. For some reason, her ability to discuss hairstyles had abandoned her.
"If nothing else, I'm glad Thor healed my hands," said Xena, using the fingers of one hand in a way the Thunder God may not have immediately considered. She moved now in unison with Gabrielle's thrusting hips. Matching her rhythm, reaching out with her free hand, letting it stroke and tease whatever flesh it found.
"Thank! You! Thoooooooooor!" Gabrielle screamed in a climactic shout.
Neither woman expected the god to answer. And it was just as well he didn't, as soon, Xena began to pray under very similar circumstances.
She moved like a cat in the darkness: stealthily, her steps sure and silent. The embers of their fire had almost died, but the soft light it gave was enough. She saw the two figures wrapped in each others' arms; their naked bodies entwined, their features relaxed in deep sleep.
It was all she could do to keep from screaming her rage.
All my hard work! she thought. Destroyed! How in Tartarus did you manage that, Warrior Princess? How is it possible that you fought off my touch?
Alcimede leaned down and felt the air above Xena's body, concentrating on the spot above her heart, where once there had been a bruise.
Damn you for eternity, she thought. Your heart is full of love. It's going to take me forever to drain you again properly and I have so many other things to do! People to kill, lives to destroy -- you are making so much extra work for me. Ah well, can't be helped. There is no way on earth you can recover from my touch twice.
With infinite care, she reached down and touched the skin over Xena's heart. It only took an instant. The warrior moaned softly in her sleep, her brows pulling together. Then her features relaxed, her body still, her breath even.
Such exquisite breasts, she thought. No wonder that young thing is all over you. Is she what brought you back? Is she the one who interfered? She must have. You were so ready for me. Heart full of pain and anguish and regret -- there's nothing easier. You should have been a stroll in the Parthenon. Instead, you're proving to be such a bother.
Alcimede moved over to Gabrielle and looked down, frowning.
One long, searing touch and you'd be dead. You could never hold onto life without love in your heart. Such a tempting target. One deep touch is all it would take, young thing. You'd be mine.
The woman's hand hovered over Gabrielle's breast, shaking with tension.
I can taste it. I can taste the emotions. Delicious young thing...
She glanced over at the sleeping warrior.
And then dear, sweet, adorable Xena would be so hurt. All gone, Xena. All gone. What would you do then? Would I even need to give you the touch? I wonder. You proved stronger than most. I had to be so careful, coming to your campsite in the night, giving you the smallest of touches so that you didn't empty all at once. Can't have you looking for a cause outside yourself -- you're too smart. Finally, I had you drained yet still you clung to life. And I had so planned to toy with you. Take it away, give a little back. Take more away, give a little back. I was terribly frightened when I accidentally drained you to the point of madness. So afraid I'd gone too far. I don't want you dead, you gorgeous thing you. No, I want you to feel it when everyone you love starts dying. I need you able to feel. Perhaps it's not so bad that you've filled again. Perhaps I've been playing with you too much. I can be such a little vixen sometimes. But I'll be good. I'll drain you slowly, letting you feel your pain until the last drop of love in your heart is gone. I'll be patient, I swear.
Alcimede pulled her hand away from Gabrielle and checked the air over Xena's heart again.
Good. Just enough. The tiniest touch and it starts again, Warrior Princess. You won't even notice. Not at first. I'll take my time. Your young thing will notice long before you do.
She moved away from the sleeping couple and faded back into the forest.
"Sweet dreams..." she whispered.
Widgie lumbered out to the stable in time to catch Jorgos feeding the horses. "Saddle it and ride, Husband," she said.
"Nae. We've been through this afore, wife. I'm staying here."
"So it means naught t'you that th'Warrior and th'Bard ha'not a chance 'thout yer warnin', aye? Ye'll let them two girls be deaded clean, whilst you plays w'yer horses, t'ain't so?" Widgie puffed up to her full height, staring eye to eye with her lanky husband.
Jorgos remained calm, his only tension showing in his hands as he unconsciously rubbed one thumb with the other. "You know I don't want that."
"Aye. I cares for them, too. But I cares a great deal more for you, luv."
"An' what good be that? D'you think ye've a way t'stop th'evil what's comin' fer me?"
"I dunno. But I can't leave you. Not now. Not if there's a chance."
"I telled ya!" said Widgie, raising her voice for the first time since Jorgos could remember. "I be lost, be I! Th'evils got no mind for sparin' me! But them girls -- them girls they be not lost, Husband! Not if'n you be warnin'em!"
"You're not lost to me, Wife!" he shouted back. The horses whinnied nervously and stamped their feet. Jorgos tried to calm himself. "Please, luv. Don't be giving up yet. There's always a way to change fate, aye? You've said so as long as I've known you."
"Aye..." she said turning away from him, hating to see the raw pain in his eyes.
"What was in the newest vision then?"
"I saw me own self lyin' t'bed, dyin' slow an' painful. I saw them girls stalked by a wraith a'fire."
"Stalked by fire? That don't make no sense, Wife."
"It do t'me!" she said sharply, then sighed. "Husband, many times I be tellin' ya, listen t'm'meanings not m'visions. 'Twas not real fire I seen. That be th'evil. T'vision were a symbol, t'ain't so?"
"Aye, t'so. Sorry, luv. Go on."
"T'vision weren't clear on th'afterwards. There be mysteries w'thin't. But what I knows is y'must go, husband, for t'stay means m'death. If'n you go, there be one way t'save me."
"What? What is it? Tell me, and I'll find a way to make it happen."
"After th'evil's visit. I be not deaded for a bit of time. There be one soul strong enough t'bring me back."
"The Warrior. She be th'key t'this. That be why ye must warn'er, t'ain't so? If she be deaded, then I be surely lost. "
Jorgos grimaced at the choice with which he was faced. Did he stay to protect his wife? Or chase after the warrior, hoping to find her and bring her back in time to save Widgie after the deed was done? And was his wife being truthful about the Warrior, or was she manipulating him into going after the two women? In her current state, she would stop at nothing to get her way, he knew. They had been arguing for more than half a moon and his wife was becoming desperate. "The Warrior. She a healer, then?"
"In part. Not w'my gifts, t'so. But she be powerful strong in th'heart an' mind."
"And the Bard? Do I need to bring her as well?"
"I dint see th'Bard in t'part where I lies dyin', but she be th'Bold One's mate. Bring'em both if ye can. Th'Bard's a heart overfull. Th'Warrior might need that strength t'do th'job."
"Widgie, sweet," said Jorgos, taking her hands in his. "Ain't I got love enough to save you?"
Widgie smiled at her husband. "I be countin' on that heart o'your'n, m'soul. Countin' sure an' strong. But t'ain't enough t'battle this evil. It be needin' th'Bold One's aid, aye? Now saddle an'go."
Jorgos let out a sigh. "I can't," he whispered.
"Then I be lost."
Jorgos took her face in his hands and shook his head sadly, staring for long minutes into her small, black eyes. "I can't let you die, Widge. I can't. So I'll do as you ask. Though my heart breaks with it." He turned from her and grabbed his saddle.
Widgie let out her breath. "Thankee, husband. D'ya remembers th'ways of 'em then?"
"Aye. You've taught me well. A man don't live with an Amazon for scores of winters without learning how not to be killed by'em. I know the ways of your people, luv."
"Greetings t'm'sisters, aye?"
"Aye, wife. I'll ride with speed. But it'll take some time."
"Aye. I knows traveling. I be here when y'gets back, m'soul."
"You'd best be," he said, wondering if he'd ever see his beloved wife again.
Xena and Gabrielle entered the forest of the Amazons, both pairs of eyes scanning the trees for signs of guards. Xena heard it first.
"Weapons down, Gabrielle," she said, dropping her sword and chakram then raising her clasped hands in salute. The bard complied instantly.
From the trees slid two dozen Amazons, their faces covered in stylistic masks. Efficiently, they surrounded the two travelers, their weapons at the ready.
"Rather a lot of you. What's wrong?" asked Xena, tensing.
One of the women removed her mask, ignoring Xena and staring at Gabrielle. "Princess Gabrielle?" she asked, her face showing relief.
"Um... yeah. Hi," said Gabrielle, not recognizing the Amazon.
"I am Viktalia, from the Utan tribe. These are my sisters. You were described to us, should we ever meet. Welcome home."
"What are Utan doing here?" asked Xena, disturbed.
Viktalia looked Xena up and down. "The Warrior Princess," she said with thinly disguised hatred. "You know all about the Utan, don't you?"
Xena stared, unblinking, her shoulders square, her jaw pulsing. She nodded briefly.
Gabrielle watched as Viktalia locked eyes with the warrior, the Utan woman aggressively closing the distance between them. Viktalia was tall, just a little shorter than Xena. Her spare frame was athletic and toned, her hair was dark, long and untamed. Her eyes, a brown so deep they were almost black, were large and intense; her complexion was swarthy as if she had spent her life out of doors. She held herself proudly, her broad shoulders willingly bearing the responsibility and dignity of her Amazon status. But the bard could see no beauty in her features because they were twisted with loathing for the warrior.
"Okay, I'm sensing some tension, here," said Gabrielle, looking from one woman to the other. "Let's not do anything rash. We're all friends. Any chance Ephiny is around here somewhere?"
Viktalia tore her eyes from Xena and looked at Gabrielle. With a deferential nod of her head, she said, "Apologies, my Princess. Queen Ephiny will be awaiting your arrival. I've sent one of my-- our sisters back to alert her."
"Good. Good," said Gabrielle, squinting one eye as she looked at the masked faces. Every Amazon still held their weapons at the ready, all pointing at Xena. Here and there a muscle twitched, as if they waited for even the smallest of excuses to let arrows fly and swords thrust. Xena stood as still as a statue, her weapons on the ground. Gabrielle knew that it was up to her to say something to ease the tension. She was royalty. Maybe that would be enough to control this suddenly dangerous situation. "I don't know what's going on, or why your tribe is here or anything. But Xena is with me. And as long as she's here, she's under my protection as a Princess of the Amazon Nation, got it?"
Viktalia lowered her eyes and bowed her head slightly. The other Amazons quietly lowered their weapons, removed their masks and did the same.
Xena stood silently, her face unreadable. "Let's go," she said, picking up her weapons, ignoring the flash of tension this caused. Apparently unconcerned, she led Argo through the cordon of women, not waiting for an escort.
Gabrielle let her lead then fell in step with Viktalia. The Amazon quickly motioned to three women to act as their guards and sent the rest back to their posts in the trees.
"So you and Xena know each other?" asked Gabrielle, deciding to get things out in the open.
"Not personally, no."
"Ah." One look at Viktalia's eyes told Gabrielle that the Utan Amazon would like nothing better than to slay Xena on the spot. The guards appeared to be feeling the same way, as all three glared at the warrior, their swords shaking in their hands, for want of her blood. One in particular, a tall blonde with short cropped hair, could barely contain her enmity. Gabrielle almost expected the woman to start spitting at the Warrior Princess. "I do insist that you treat her with respect, you know," said Gabrielle, pointedly, trying to use the most imperious voice she had. The last thing she and Xena needed was a fight with one faction of Amazons.
"You ask a great deal, Princess Gabrielle," said Viktalia in a near growl.
The blonde glanced over at the bard with thinly disguised animosity, then quickly resumed staring at the warrior, who appeared not to notice.
"When it comes to Xena, yeah, I do. Whatever happened in the past, she's changed. She's not that person any more. I don't know what she did, and I don't care. You can feel whatever you want about the old Xena, but this one -- the woman who is here with me today -- deserves all the respect you can give her."
Viktalia nodded silently, her fists clenched, her eyes boring a hole in the back of Xena's head. "Yes, your Highness."
"Good. Glad that's settled," said Gabrielle, deciding not to press any further. She was eager to speak with Ephiny, in case Viktalia and her tribe might cause trouble for Xena. After all, she and Xena had come to the Amazons to find peace. It wouldn't do to discover they had enemies in the camp.
When Xena and Gabrielle arrived at the main camp, they were surprised at the profusion of Amazons now living there. Whole rows of new huts were crammed into the open spaces and beyond, crowding between the trees. Women were everywhere, swarming throughout the communal areas. In the ceremonial grounds a funeral pyre was being built even as large troops of warriors were being drilled on military tactics all around it.
"Gabrielle! Xena!" said Ephiny, greeting them with a welcoming smile. She gave both of the women a warm hug. "What brings you two here? We weren't expecting you. I would've planned a celebration had I known!"
"Oh we don't want any fuss," said Gabrielle, not sure if Xena was willing to share their plans of staying permanently or not. Looking again at the pyre, she asked with trepidation, "Who died?"
"Balora, our Captain of the Guard, and several of her warriors."
"The Captain of the Guard?" asked Xena with interest. "What happened?"
Ephiny glanced at Viktalia. "That'll be all, Viktalia. I'll take it from here. Thank you."
Viktalia nodded and, with a last look at Xena, left them, motioning for her guards to follow. When the Utan were out of hearing range, the blonde said something which caused her sisters to laugh contemptuously. One of the guards, a short, muscular brunette, glanced back at Xena and made a vulgar gesture.
"They give me the creeps," said Ephiny, shivering. "We've done our best to make their tribe feel at home, and most of them are wonderful, but Viktalia's little clique has been inciting trouble since they got here. Actually, Viktalia herself isn't so bad but the others..." Ephiny watched the four women disappear into the crowd and came to a decision. "I'm not going to let them treat you that way. I'll go have a talk with them--"
"No, please, it's not important," said Xena, restraining the Amazon. "I'd rather you filled us in on what's been happening here. The Utan can wait."
"I guess you're right," said Ephiny, turning back to the visitors. "Gabrielle, please tell me you're here to take back the Queen's mask?" Ephiny said, pleading.
Gabrielle glanced at Xena who nodded once. "Actually, Xena and I have decided to settle down. That is, we're going to try it out and--"
"Artemis be praised -- you are? Really? You're going to stay with us permanently?"
"Well, we were thinking about it..." said Gabrielle, still not willing to commit. "You know, just to see if we like staying put."
"Then we truly *do* need to have a celebration. I'll get working on it right away."
"First tell us what happened to Balora. And why there were so many guards on the perimeter," said Xena.
"Right. This way," said Ephiny, gesturing toward a large central hut. They entered past two guards whom Ephiny waved away. "Sit, please. There's a lot to tell." All three women made themselves comfortable while Ephiny told an assistant to get food and drink for the visitors. When everyone was settled, and no one else was in the hut, she lowered her voice to speak. "I wanted to get away from the others because there's the possibility we have a traitor among us."
"You're kidding!" said Gabrielle, shocked. "A traitor? Is it Viktalia?"
"I don't know. I don't even know if it's true or not. I hate to think that any Amazon would sell out her own sisters, but... well, it's not the time for sentiment. We need to protect ourselves."
Xena nodded, thoughtfully. "Wise move. Now, please, tell us what's been going on."
"There have been a series of raids on several of the Amazon tribes. The Oxana were wiped out. Not a single survivor. One warrior lived long enough to tell of the raid but she died soon after. As more and more reports came in from other outlying tribes, it became obvious that someone very powerful has decided to destroy the entire Amazon Nation."
"By the gods...!" said Gabrielle. She could feel a thrust of pain, deep within her. Adopted or not, she was an Amazon. And as such, these were her sisters. That many deaths -- so many lives -- Gabrielle felt her heart contract at the thought.
And I am their rightful queen, she told herself. If we do stay on, they'll look to me for guidance. Thank the gods Xena is here by my side. She'll help me figure out what's going on; help me to protect my people.
"Any clues as to who is behind this?" asked Xena, in controlled fury.
"None. They usually hit small groups. Hunting parties. Sentries. The supply train." Ephiny paused, cold hatred etching lines of tension in her face. "But the cowards don't just attack those who are armed. Women washing clothes at the river, gardening in their own back yards -- no one is safe. With the Oxana, the entire tribe was hit while they slept."
"What can we do to help?" asked Gabrielle, thankful that she and Xena had arrived in time to offer their assistance, regardless of whatever role she was expected to play.
"I don't know, Gabrielle," said Ephiny, helpless in her grief and rage.
Xena's voice cut through the emotions of the Amazon, her tone logical and concise. "What have the survivors said? How big a raiding party is it? Do they carry anyone's banner? How are they gaining access?"
Ephiny looked gratefully at Xena for the excuse to put her mind to practical matters. "Except for that one warrior, there have been no other survivors or witnesses. And all she said was that she had returned from meditating in the forest, alone, to find nothing but corpses -- most still in their beds. She went from hut to hut and about halfway through the compound, she was grabbed from behind. She didn't remember anything else."
"What was taken?" asked Xena.
"What do you mean, 'what was taken?' Their lives!" spat Ephiny, unable to maintain her control.
"I mean what material things were taken," said Xena, patiently.
"Isn't wholesale slaughter enough?" The Amazon's hands were balled into fists, her muscles shaking with tension.
"Ephiny, please -- I've known Xena a long time and if she's asking the question, there's a reason for it," said Gabrielle softly, putting her hand on the Amazon's arm.
Ephiny took a deep breath, calming herself in the warmth of Gabrielle's kind, green eyes. "I'm sorry. This isn't very easy for me. These are -- were -- my sisters. No, nothing else was touched. They were all murdered, but no 'things' were missing."
Xena shook her head, narrowing her eyes. "Something's very wrong. It doesn't fit the pattern of a warlord. Where's the profit?"
"The profit?" asked Ephiny. "This is about murder, not profit."
"That's just it, Ephiny," said Xena, reasonably. "It's always about profit. That's the bottom line when you're a warlord. You don't raid a village for the sport of it. You do it to take what they have. You do it for the loot. Murder without profit is a sucker's game. That's for hotheads and vengeance seekers and they don't last long, nor do they have the manpower for something on this scale. No, that many deaths and no profit -- this is bigger than a warlord."
"Xena? What are you thinking?" asked Gabrielle.
"A god. It sounds like the work of someone on Mt. Olympus. Or one of their agents," said Xena, her eyes locked with the Amazon's. "Who is it, Ephiny? Who have the Amazons displeased?"
Ephiny was startled. "By the gods..." she said, the epithet sounding eerie under the circumstances. "I don't know..."
"Well you'd better find out and fast. I take it everyone is here in a sort of 'last stand' situation? All the Amazon Nation in one place for defense?"
"Yes... we thought..." said Ephiny, her mind still reeling from Xena's observation. "I don't..."
All three women were silent for several minutes, lost in their own thoughts. Xena stood and looked out the door toward the activity in the ceremonial grounds. "Balora. She and her party were killed in the same manner as the others?"
"Yes," said Ephiny, shaking herself out of her thoughts. "No sign of injury other than a large bruise on the chest. Like they were hit with something big and blunt. A club, maybe."
"A bruise on the chest?" asked Xena, her eyes snapping to where Ephiny indicated the injury had been.
"Xena... didn't you have--"
"Yes, but it has to be a coincidence," said the warrior. "There was nothing fatal about my wound." Gabrielle continued to look at her companion warily. Xena waved off her suspicion. "Besides, I'm not an Amazon."
Gabrielle nodded "Go on, Ephiny. Was there anything else?"
The Amazon shook her head.
"The attack against Balora and her guards -- was it the first in this area?" Xena asked Ephiny.
"Yes, it was. How did you know?"
"Why else would everyone have come here? Because you hadn't been hit yet."
"Gabrielle, what are we going to do?" asked Ephiny, turning to the bard.
"Huh?" Gabrielle looked from Ephiny to Xena then back to Ephiny. Here it was, she realized. The responsibility of being a queen. And that wasn't just about wearing masks and sitting on a throne. It was about solving the problems of your people. "I'll have to think about this some more. Maybe with Xena's help we can come up with some sort of plan..."
"You're our rightful Queen. I want you to take the mask back," said Ephiny. She put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'm sure you can lead us out of this trap. Can find a way to defeat whoever it is who's destroying our people."
Gabrielle glanced up at Xena, who was scowling at Ephiny.
"Don't lay this all on her shoulders, Ephiny," said the warrior.
But Gabrielle knew what she had to do. "She's right, Xena," the bard said, her brows drawn together, her mouth downturned. "This *is* my responsibility."
"No, it's not." Xena came away from the door and took Gabrielle's hand in hers. "This is too big. Too much. You don't have any experience leading a group this large. Ephiny, Gabrielle and I will do everything we can to help you -- we'll be right at your side. But you must continue to be queen for a--"
"No!" said Gabrielle, standing. She withdrew her hand and crossed her arms. Somehow, hearing Xena say that she couldn't handle it was enough to make her realize that she had to try. "I'm not running away from this. I would appreciate your help, Xena. But I'll not be an outsider. I'm taking my rightful place as an Amazon. As *Queen* of the Amazons."
Xena opened her mouth to speak, but closed it without a word. She looked at the steely determination in Gabrielle's eyes, then at the hopeful expression of Ephiny. Coming to a decision, she nodded curtly at the bard, then turned to the Amazon. "Plan your ceremony. It appears you have a new Queen."
The leaping flames of the bonfire threw Xena's sculpted features into shivering designs of highlights and shadows. Gabrielle was mesmerized, staring at the beautiful warrior who stood apart from most of the crowd, her hooded eyes alert and watchful. She was leaning against the tower, her arms crossed, her stance relaxed. But Gabrielle knew that she was anything but tranquil. Her attention was intensely focused on the large group of Utan who had gathered at the far side of the fire. Viktalia was glaring at Xena, her hatred apparent.
Have to do something about this right away, thought Gabrielle. I am not about to let this go any further and we simply don't need dissension among us. Not now; not when the life of every Amazon depends on us working together.
"Queen Gabrielle? Are you listening to me?" cut in Ephiny's voice.
"Huh? Oh sorry, Ephiny," said Gabrielle, tearing her eyes away from the silent visual contest between Xena and Viktalia. "What did you say?"
"Never mind. What were you looking at?"
"Ephiny... do you know what happened between Xena and the Utan?"
"You don't?" she asked surprised.
Gabrielle felt her cheeks redden and hoped Ephiny would blame it on the fire. "I haven't gotten around to asking Xena, yet. There was so much to do..."
"Understandable," the Amazon said, smiling her acceptance of the explanation. The mask ceremony had been performed that afternoon and Gabrielle was now officially the Queen of the Amazons. It had indeed been a busy couple of days. "It happened a long time ago. Maybe six winters or so. The Utan had been hired to protect a bunch of neighboring villages. Xena and her army came through and captured the towns right out from under their Utan defenders. The Amazons were humiliated at being defeated so easily."
"She didn't attack the Utan directly?"
"No," said Ephiny. "It was all done at the villages. Some Amazons were killed, but not many."
"Why does Viktalia hate Xena so much if it was just a squabble about some villages?" asked Gabrielle.
"Viktalia lost her mother and blood sister in the fight. After the defeat, the three of them had decided to go up against Xena alone, thinking that with superior Amazon fighting techniques they could take her down. They figured that with Xena out of the picture, her army would most likely withdraw without a fight."
"Like it's that easy to kill Xena," said Gabrielle, shaking her head.
"Yeah. A very stupid plan. And to make matters worse, Viktalia never made it to the fight. She was hit in the leg by a sniper's arrow. Anyway, her mother and sister went on without her. Xena killed them both."
Gabrielle frowned. A blood feud. Great. Just what Xena needed, she thought. "What do you think about it all, Ephiny? Do you think Xena murdered them or was it a fair fight?"
Ephiny turned to her in surprise. "I have no idea. I wasn't there."
"I just want your honest opinion. From the stories you've heard, what would be your best guess?"
"Before meeting Xena, there would have been no doubt in my mind. I'd heard the story for years. It was always told to make the two Amazons into heroic martyrs and Xena into the evil but cowardly warlord. I didn't know Xena back then, of course. And I suppose it's possible that it all happened the way the Utan said. Yet having met and gotten to know Xena now, the story just doesn't ring true to me. She is the most skilled warrior I've ever met. And I don't see her as a coward in any lifetime. My guess is that it was a fair fight and Xena won. Utan pride dictated that the story be told in favor of our sisters."
Gabrielle nodded, liking Ephiny for the fairness of her thoughts. "Thank you," she said quietly. "You're a remarkable woman, Ephiny."
The Amazon looked surprised. "Why? Because I don't believe everything I hear?"
"In part. So few people know when to doubt and when to believe. That takes a certain kind of mind -- one willing to look beyond the surface. But even more than that, you speak your thoughts without apology. Had you believed the story, you would have told me, regardless of my feelings for Xena."
"True," said Ephiny with a smile. She glanced over at the warrior. "Brrr. Look at her. I sure wouldn't want to be in Viktalia's little gang right now. Xena could take those spite-filled sisters of ours with her eyes closed."
Gabrielle smiled. You don't know the half of it, she thought, remembering how formidable a warrior Xena had been even when she had been temporarily blinded by a head injury. A sightless Xena had taken on four men attacking in concert and never even broke a sweat. She'd had the uncanny ability to 'see' the attackers using her other senses, knowing almost before they did, what they were going to do.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted, motioning the warrior to her side.
Xena glanced over, pushing away from the tower with her shoulder, her stride easy and relaxed. She walked up to the dais and raised one eyebrow. "You bellowed, my liege?"
Gabrielle mockingly puffed herself up. "I do not 'bellow.' That, since you couldn't tell, was a dignified, Queenly whisper."
"My mistake," said Xena, bowing. "You whispered, my dignified Queen?"
Gabrielle couldn't hold her scowl and giggled. "You know, Xena, I wanted to ask you something serious, but you make it very hard when you do that eyebrow thing."
Xena's brow arched a little higher. "What 'eyebrow thing'?" she asked.
Gabrielle shook her head, smiling, then looked out at the Amazon dancers who writhed and undulated to the beat of a dozen drums. "Aren't they magnificent?" she said.
Xena's eyes weren't on the dancers, but were again looking at Viktalia. The warrior and the Utan Amazon took each other's measure, neither backing down, their faces lit by the flickering flames of nearby torches. Finally, Viktalia looked away. The tall blonde standing next to her put a comforting hand on the angry Amazon's arm, sending her own visual daggers at Xena.
"That," said Gabrielle. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
"Huh? Dancers?" asked Xena, glancing at the new Queen who was seated on a wooden throne on the dais.
"Not the dancers -- Viktalia! The Utan. Tell me what happened."
"Nothing much to tell," said Xena.
"Is that a Royal Decree?"
"Indeed. On pain of abject servitude to my every whim."
Xena smirked. "Decisions... decisions..."
Gabrielle smiled, but knew that she had to hear Xena's side of the story to really understand what had happened. The only way to solve the dispute was to find the middle ground between the two factions. She needed to weigh the disparate versions and figure out where the truth lay. In suddenly serious tones, she said, "C'mon, Xena. I need to know. It's important."
Xena lost her smile at the anxious expression on Gabrielle's face. "You're right. It is something you should know. My army caught the Utan offguard. The Amazons were supposed to be protecting some neighboring villages but they left them almost undefended while the tribe celebrated some sort of festival. We had a clear path and we took it. The few guards they left were no match for my army. Some villagers died, as did the Amazon sentries, but all in all it was fairly bloodless. Still, the Utan weren't too happy about it, and a couple of them came after me."
"These 'couple of' women -- was it a fair fight?"
"I won easily, if that's what you're asking. They were stupid. Sending a matron and a maiden instead of an army. I offered the two Utan their lives, but they wanted to fight. So we did. They died, I lived. End of story." Xena shrugged.
Ephiny was frowning. "The Utan were at a festival instead of doing their duty?"
"Hey, it was a long time ago. You know as well as I do that the Amazons have changed a lot since then," said Xena.
"Yes, but still... that isn't the story I've always heard."
"I'm not surprised," said the warrior. "I've heard the other version, too. I'm not going to pretend that I was anywhere near a 'nice person' back then, but this is one time I got a bad rep simply to preserve Utan pride. Never really mattered to me. In fact, at the time, I let the rumor live because it added to my 'mystique.' But I don't feel like being punished by that group over there because their people were too irresponsible to do what they'd promised."
"I'll have a talk with them," said Ephiny.
"No," said Gabrielle. "*I* will. This is my responsibility."
"Be careful, Gabrielle," said Xena. "They're frightened by what's been happening and would love to turn that frustrated rage on something tangible. So when you talk to them, treat them like your sisters -- they have to feel their voices matter. Help them to turn that anger toward the real threat."
Gabrielle nodded, squeezed Xena's waist and stood.
The warrior lowered her voice. "Don't squeeze me in public. You're the queen. You have to appear unbiased and dignified. Let them know that you are above the petty needs of the masses. That you are their leader and will treat everyone equally. When we're alone, away from prying eyes, you can let your guard down. But while you're in the public eye, remember who you are."
"Right. No squeezing."
"Just remember that the Queen's mask isn't merely wood and feathers. It's a state of mind."
Gabrielle looked at the former warlord and cocked her head. "Is that what you used to do with your army? Wear a 'mask' at all times?"
Xena nodded. "Part of the job."
"Okay." Gabrielle was about to step off the dais when she turned back to her friend. In a low whisper she said, "And you'd better watch your back next time you're alone. I just love a challenge."
"No one sneaks up on me, my Queen, unless I let them," said Xena with a grin.
A nearby Amazon didn't need to hide her smile, as her face was covered by a large mask. The tangle of red hair which spilled from behind the disguise blew gently around her bare shoulders. "Keep on believing that, Warrior Princess," she mumbled to herself. "It just makes my job so much more fun."
Xena stood at the doorway of the Queen's hut, staring out at the Amazon camp. There were still celebrants dancing, talking, laughing, and enjoying the night. A small cadre of Utan glanced her way. Among them, Xena recognized the two women who had been with Viktalia the day they had arrived -- the guard with close-cropped, blonde hair and the short, muscular brunette. The blonde blew a kiss toward Xena, making the others laugh derisively. The warrior could hear her voice above the din of the celebration.
"At least I used to be able to respect her. But now -- hiding behind the Queen's skirts. Just too pathetic."
"Xena?" came the sound of Gabrielle's voice from behind the Queen's hut.
"Yes, Gabrielle?" she said, not taking her eyes off the Utan.
"I think it's going to be okay now," said the bard, rounding the corner. "I had a long talk with Viktalia. Let her vent and rage and then I explained the current situation. How we all have to pull together. I did like you said. Treated them as sisters, gave them their voices. That was excellent advice."
"Glad it worked out," said Xena absently, watching as the blonde made an obscene gesture. Again, the others laughed, aping the motion and embellishing on it.
"And now that we're in private," said Gabrielle, sidling next to Xena. "I can finally do some squeezing!"
"In a minute," said Xena. In full view of the Utan, she removed her sword and chakram. Unarmed, she left a surprised Gabrielle in the doorway and walked casually toward the small gathering. The Utan stopped laughing, their faces filling with hatred. The blonde stepped forward, scowling fiercely.
"Stop right there, Warrior Princess, if you know what's healthy. You don't have your stinking army now," said the blonde.
Xena continued to stroll toward them, her eyes heavy-lidded, her lips slightly pursed. She stepped to within inches of the blonde, almost touching her, and stopped.
The blonde was disconcerted and looked like she wanted to back away, but the bodies of her friends pressed against her back. She hesitated, then appeared to draw strength from the presence of her sisters. Resolutely, she raised her chin and returned Xena's stare.
A small, contemptuous smile played on Xena's lips as she said, "I think we need to settle this before you brave, glorious Utan decide to send an old woman and a girl after me again."
Rage rippled through the women and a crowd began to gather.
"Xena? What are you doing?" asked Gabrielle, hurrying across the compound.
"Just talking," the warrior answered, her eyes never wavering from the blonde's.
"I told you," said the bard. "I just spoke to Viktalia. There's no need to start any trouble."
"Is that true, Utan? You don't want any trouble?" asked Xena. The blonde continued to try to ape Xena's predatory attitude, but was betrayed as she swayed slightly, her tension palpable. The warrior, in contrast, was completely at ease within herself. She stood with her arms at her sides, her legs planted slightly apart, her expression disdainful and slightly amused, but her eyes were intense and dangerous.
"Trouble?" said the blonde, a sneer on her face. "There'd only be trouble if someone around here was worth fighting. All I can see is a big, used-up coward." The blonde raised her voice as she asked her sisters, "Any of you see someone who could cause us trouble?"
They all replied 'no,' laughing, some pretending to search the crowd.
"What's going on?" said Viktalia, half-jogging from her hut, strapping on her sword as she ran.
"The Queen's whore doesn't like the way we were talking about her," said the short, muscular brunette who stood just behind the blonde. "I think we made the little Warrior Pwincess cry," she added in a childlike cadence.
There was no reaction at all on Xena's face, not even a flicker in her eyes. She continued to stare at the blonde, unmoving.
"My apologies, Queen Gabrielle," said Viktalia, hurriedly. "I haven't had a chance to talk to our sisters."
"Don't waste your breath, Viktalia. There's nothing to talk about," said the brunette.
"You want to hide behind the little queen?" asked the blonde to Xena. "Maybe you should. Go be her little pet and leave the *real* Amazons alone."
"That's enough!" said Viktalia, losing patience. "Now hit the pallets and worry about this in the morning. We've got a lot of thinking to do. Queen Gabrielle told me some things tonight that have given me a lot to question. It's possible we haven't been hearing the true story of the Utan Martyrs all these years." Viktalia's voice shook as she fought her own protective instincts toward the memory of her mother and sister. She paused, then continued in a different tone. "We have to concentrate on the larger threat, now. Old hatreds have to die if we're going to work together to solve this. We must cooperate as Amazons -- we must!"
"I can't believe this is you talking, Viktalia," said the blonde with a growl of contempt, her eyes still locked with Xena's.
"Believe it, Moriappe. You know me. Would I say it if I didn't believe there was some truth in it?"
Xena remained where she stood, focused and still. Gabrielle moved to her side, staring up at the warrior with a worried expression.
"Come on, Xena. Let it go. Come to bed."
"Yeah, go to bed, Xena," said the short Utan. "Queenie's getting hot for you. She wants you on your knees, like a good little whore."
"Does she taste good, Xena? Or are you hungry for a *real* woman instead of a little girl?" said another Utan.
"First dibs on the Queen when the Warrior Princess is dead!" said a third, the women finding boldness in their growing number as more and more of the Utan filed out of their huts into the square. By now, all eyes and ears were focused on the trouble.
Ephiny quickly joined Gabrielle, standing at her side, her sword drawn. "What in Artemis' name is going on here?" she asked sleepily, having just been awakened. "Viktalia? What's the meaning of this?"
"It isn't Viktalia's fault," said Gabrielle. "Look," she said to the assembled group, her voice strong and clear. "This is not the time for this. You've all been drinking and it's gotten the better of you. Go to bed and sleep it off. I'll hold a conference in the morning where you can air your views in a civilized manner."
"I don't want to 'air my views,'" said Moriappe, the blonde. "I want a piece of her. I want to watch her bleed. My aunt and cousin died at your hand, warlord. This is Xena! Destroyer of Nations, Butcher of Women and Children, Scourge of Corinth! Are we going to let her walk among us, pretending to be a human being?" she shouted. "Telling *Amazons* what to do through a puppet queen?"
The Utan raised their voices in heated agreement, the mob crackling with rage. The other tribes separated themselves from the Utan, anger whipping through the ranks at the slight to their new queen. Gabrielle quickly moved to settle them down. "Please! Stay out of this. We can't have sister fighting sister. As your queen I ask you to remain calm."
Xena, in a whisper only Moriappe could hear, said, "Listen to her, Utan. Learn how a real Amazon acts."
Moriappe glowered at Xena, shaking with the effort to stay still. "How would you know what a real Amazon does, butcher? You're not fit to lick my sword!"
"Quiet!" shouted Viktalia to the rumbling Utan warriors. She turned to the blonde. "Moriappe. Please. If anyone has the right to be angry, it's me," said Viktalia. "They were my mother and blood sister. But I just learned they lost in a fair fight. Honor demands that we allow the victor her due."
"Viktalia," said Xena, in a controlled voice, not moving her eyes from Moriappe's. "Your mother and sister fought bravely and with skill. They were true Amazons until the end. I offered them their lives, but they wouldn't accept because they lived by the Utan code. They'd rather have died than shirk their duty. I respected them for that. And I respect you for honoring their memory and for putting aside your vengeance for the greater good of the Amazon Nation. You are a *true* Utan." Xena paused. "But if these 'girls'," she said, the word dripping with contempt, "want to fight me, I'd be happy to oblige them."
"Queen Gabrielle," said Viktalia. "They'll abide by your wishes. I pledge this on my honor as a warrior of the Utan."
Gabrielle looked at the small group of angry Amazons. The rest of the Utan tribe had moved behind Viktalia, looking to her for guidance. The bard knew that they could go either way, torn between loyalty to their sisters and their duty to their Queen. In the small group that had started the trouble, there were over a dozen women, all of them looking strong; all of them armed. The bard glanced worriedly at Xena and frowned. She could sense the dark power crackling around her, and knew that it was controlled only by the warrior's formidable will. Xena was unarmed and outnumbered, but that didn't concern Gabrielle. No, this was a political decision, she realized. She needed to exert her control.
"My wish," said Gabrielle in a clear, strong voice, "is to solve this peacefully in the morning. For now, I would like you all to return to your huts and get some sleep. Anyone who raises a hand in anger tonight will be considered personally responsible for the discontent. And she will be punished accordingly. Understood?"
A rumble of agreement spread through all the Amazons with the exception of the dozen women standing with Moriappe.
"Xena?" said Gabrielle, trying to keep any emotion out of her voice. She didn't want to plead. Didn't want to show that her biggest weakness was the woman who stood next to her.
"Of course, Queen Gabrielle," Xena said, breaking eye contact with Moriappe for the first time since the incident had begun. "As you wish."
Xena turned her back on the small band of Utan and walked with easy dignity toward the Queen's hut. There was an audible sigh of relief from the gathered Amazons and the assembled onlookers began to disperse in small groups.
Suddenly, a scream of outrage ripped across the open grounds. "Fight, you cowardly, murdering, Warrior Bitch!" shouted Moriappe.
Xena didn't pause, just continued to walk toward the hut. Suddenly, she spun on her heel and plucked a dagger out of the air. A slow, wicked smile spread across her features. "Haven't you learned any new tricks, Utan?" she asked. "A knife in the back. That'll show your sisters how brave you are."
"Moriappe!" said Viktalia, appalled. "Stop it right now! You heard the Queen. I gave her my word we would abide by her wishes!"
"You want to lick her nasty feet, you go right ahead, Viktalia," said Moriappe. "I want a slice of Princess pie." Moriappe withdrew her sword and threw herself at Xena, who tossed the dagger aside then stood waiting patiently. At the last possible moment, the warrior stepped out the way and the Amazon, off balance, fell past her. With a growl of rage, the blonde launched herself again, only to slash empty air as Xena leapt and spun out of the way. "Fight, damn you!" Moriappe screamed.
"I promised the Queen," said Xena, sidestepping another thrust, "that I wouldn't raise a hand in anger. Unlike some, I keep my word." Again, Moriappe slashed and lunged but always, her target disappeared before she could connect. And in return, she didn't receive a single blow. Xena concentrated only on avoiding the deadly blade, not on subduing her opponent.
"Xena!" shouted Gabrielle. "I release you from your promise. Please defend yourself!"
"As you wish," said Xena kicking the sword out of Moriappe's hand high into the air. Before the Amazon could recover, a roundhouse kick landed her on her back. Xena snatched the sword out of the air as it fell, then held the blade to the Amazon's neck. "Now, Utan, do you want to change your mind about obeying your Queen?"
Moriappe's eyes showed her utter humiliation. But before she could concede, her dozen co-conspirators rallied behind the short, brunette Amazon who shouted, "For the honored dead! Get her!"
Swords drawn, they charged Xena.
"No!" screamed Viktalia, drawing her own sword and running to Xena's side.
Without another thought, Gabrielle grabbed a staff out of a nearby Amazon's hands and raced to stand beside them. On her heels sped Ephiny.
The charging Utan slowed, not quite willing to attack their sisters and their Queen. When they drew just outside striking range, they stopped, the bloodlust still clouding their eyes, but their movements now unsure.
Xena handed Moriappe's sword to Viktalia, placed her hand briefly on the Amazon's shoulder and gave her a small nod. Viktalia straightened, nodding in return. Turning back to the dozen Amazons, Xena stepped forward, saying, "There are a dozen of you, and one of me. They," she said, with a nod toward Viktalia, Ephiny and Gabrielle, "won't fight unless I request it. You all carry swords, I am unarmed. I realize that it's still not a fair fight, but it's the best I can do." She paused, drawing closer, clearly in sword range now. "Queen Gabrielle has given me permission to defend myself." Xena paused, looking pointedly into each pair of eyes, letting them understand the weight of the statement. Softly, she said, "Make your decision. Fight me now or talk tomorrow. Your choice."
The dozen Utan looked at each other, then at Viktalia, who held both swords ready, but stood back, Gabrielle and Ephiny at her side. Finally, they looked at Xena, who stood, arms at her sides, a small smile on her face. One by one, they threw down their swords, turned and walked away. Soon, there was only one woman left -- the short brunette with hatred blazing from her eyes. Deliberately, she thrust her sword into the ground, helped Moriappe to her feet, then turned away, supporting her friend who was limping from a twisted ankle.
Xena watched them go until they had all entered their huts for the night. She turned to Viktalia, Ephiny and Gabrielle. "Nice party," she said politely then headed toward the Queen's hut.
"No, that's not what I meant," said Katora. "I have nothing against Xena. I just wish Queen Gabrielle was unattached, y'know?"
"You and your lust for small strawberry blondes," said Karmintia.
Despite their easy conversation, the two guards were tense and alert. They were in charge of keeping the Queen safe from the Amazon-killers. And they took this responsibility very seriously. Both had lost sisters to the unknown raiders, and weren't about to have anything happen on their watch.
"As if you aren't nuts about her yourself, you hypocrite," said Katora, good-naturedly.
"She's my Queen," said Karmintia, then paused at a look from her friend. "And she's so damn cute!" she added, smiling.
"Aha! Thought so." Katora smiled indulgently.
Suddenly both women stopped talking and readied their spears.
"Identify yourself!" said Karmintia.
An Amazon emerged from the shadows, her hands clasped above her head. "Please excuse me. I'm new and was supposed to report to Antonia for perimeter duty but I can't find her hut."
Katora relaxed, but Karmintia kept her spear pointed at the woman's chest. "Third one on the left," said Katora. "You can see the lamplight from here."
"Ah! Okay, thanks," said the woman. She unclasped her hands slowly. "I'm glad to see our queen has such fine protectors," she said, gesturing toward them both.
Katora closed her eyes. Karmintia blinked rapidly several times, then her eyes closed, too. The woman placed her hand above Katora's eyes. "Rest a bit, sweetie. When you awaken, you won't know any time has passed." She did the same to Karmintia, then slipped inside the Queen's hut.
Alcimede stood over their pallet.
You two are insatiable! Look at you. Did all that tension get you hot, Xena? You didn't get to kill anyone so you rutted into the night with your little queen? Damn, you must be good, Warrior Princess. Look at the smile on her face. I cannot wait to sample your wares before I'm done. Oh yes. Something to look forward to.
Alcimede stroked Xena's breast, teasing the nipple with her fingertips. The warrior shifted in her sleep, her body twitching and jerking.
My, but you're strong, Warrior Princess! Look at you fighting my spell. You want to waken so badly you can almost feel it! No, no, can't have that.
Alcimede held her hand above Xena's eyes for a moment, concentrating. The warrior stopped twitching and relaxed.
That's it, Gorgeous. Enjoy. You'll be so well-rested in the morning, you'll want to thank me. And now to get down to business. That last little stroke was a freebie, hon, just getting my jollies. This one will count. Just a touch...
Alcimede felt the air above Xena's breast, then hesitated.
You really were magnificent out there tonight. All smoldering tension and dangerous eyes. Goddess, but you were splendid. It's a wonder those Amazons didn't run away screaming at the first sight of you. Such a pity to drain someone that glorious.
Still, she hesitated.
What is it about you, Warrior Princess? Why do I resist giving you the touch?
Alcimede moved back and stared at the two women, naked in each others' arms, their limbs intertwined, sleeping soundly, secure in their love. Suddenly, a huge smile spread across The Assassin's face.
I'm a fool! I've been going about this all wrong, haven't I? You've been drained and survived it. You were emotionally dead -- pathetic and empty -- and still, you survived it. You had crossed over into madness and somehow, pulled yourself back into sanity. The only place left to go is death, and that is unacceptable.
She leaned over Xena, letting her hand hover over the warrior's heart.
Well, I've already played with you once. Where's the fun in repeating myself? No more touches for you, Warrior Princess, except the lustful ones you'll beg me for later. No, you shouldn't be getting the touch at all. I need you whole. Have to fill you back up.
Quickly, Alcimede touched the skin over Xena's heart.
There. All restored. I barely took a thing last time, but just in case you missed it, you've got it back. You're at full strength, Warrior Princess. Oh please, don't thank me! My pleasure.
With a fond look at Xena, Alcimede slipped gracefully over to Gabrielle.
Here is the key! The Little Queen.
She held her hand over Gabrielle's heart.
My, my, my. So full of love. Compassion. Why you're an emotional gold mine, Little Queen. And I'll bet the Warrior Princess just adores that about you. So capable of expressing what she finds so difficult. I imagine it would hurt her terribly if you were to suddenly... lose... some of that depth of feeling. Wouldn't it, Xena?
Alcimede glanced at the warrior then threw her head back, grinning in silent laughter.
Yes. Let's make Xena the emotional one in this duo. Drain, drain, go away...
Alcimede touched the skin over Gabrielle's heart. The bard stiffened momentarily then relaxed back into her deep sleep. The red-head licked her fingers. She squeezed Gabrielle's nipple.
Don't want you to feel unloved, little queen. I adore both my girls, don't I?
She trailed her fingers down the bard's body until they touched the nest of golden curls between her legs. She stroked the hairs, gently.
You'll feel small effects at first, little queen. Nothing too flashy. Can't have everyone wondering what's wrong with you. Not right away. And don't be frightened, young thing, it doesn't hurt.
She plucked one of the short feathery hairs. Gabrielle's legs twitched, but otherwise, she continued to sleep soundly.
Souvenir of my visit. Need to keep you close. I'll put it next to Xena's, don't worry.
She glanced at the warrior, remembering the first time she had visited the two women in their sleep. They had been camping on Athena's ridge. It hadn't been difficult to find them. Xena's fame made them the easiest of targets.
You don't remember my first visit, do you, Princess? I came upon you in the night. There was a warm breeze, a full moon and a million stars in the sky. You were on top of her; making her cry out with every touch and taste. I watched you. Passion. Lust. Bringing her to a screaming climax, her nails raking swirling patterns on your flesh. I waited until both of you were asleep. Didn't need to. But I wanted to watch as Morpheus claimed you -- wanted to watch you surrender your mind and body to a greater power.
The Assassin's eyes flickered between the single hair she held and the tangle of dark curls at the apex of Xena's muscular legs.
I had to do it. You understand, don't you? I need a piece of you near me at all times. To feel you close. To feel the power of your sex; your heart; your soul. And I always take what I need.
Alcimede carefully placed the golden hair in a pouch at her waist. She stroked Gabrielle's abdomen.
Lovely young thing. I own you now, as I own your Tigress. So dream of me, okay?
Alcimede looked again at Xena's naked form, lust crackling from her green eyes.
But oh, Xena. To me, you're the real prize. You set me on fire. I cannot wait until you devour me, master me, humble me.
She returned to Xena's side, getting down on her knees next to the warrior.
Hera, I can't control myself when I'm around you, Warrior Princess. I want it all. I'm such a bad girl when it comes to getting what I want, too. It isn't nice of me to take advantage of you when you sleep.
She leaned over and ran her tongue across Xena's breast, her hand snaking down between the warrior's legs. She pushed one finger inside the sleeping woman, then withdrew it. Sucking on her finger, she stood reluctantly.
Not nice of me at all. Goddess, you taste better than ambrosia. Xena... don't keep me waiting. I want you badly. But now, lovely ladies, I must be going. I have others who need my attentions.
Alcimede looked around the room, noting the Amazon masks and trappings.
Hate Amazons. But don't worry, I'm through killing them for awhile. I got what I wanted. They're all full of fury and useless questions, running around, bumping into each other, fighting among themselves. And here you are, Warrior Princess, ready to protect them at any cost, while your loved ones go unnoticed. Have to keep you here. Have to keep you worrying about the Amazons and your little queen, so I can have a clear path to destroy everyone else who's ever touched your life. Goddess, but this is fun. I feel so alive again. And I owe it all to you, Warrior Princess...
Alcimede slipped out the door into the night.
"But it was my staff and you never even asked!" said Krysia.
"Would you rather I had been killed? There wasn't time to find you and ask. I simply grabbed the first weapon at hand," replied Travoa.
"Was it truly a matter of life and death, Travoa?" asked their queen, reasonably. Gabrielle had spent the day in a marathon session with the Utan, hearing grievances, listening to several accounts of the skirmish at the party and finally, meting out punishment for Moriappe and her gang of insurgents. More than once she had thanked the gods for Viktalia's presence. It was strange how a woman she had so disliked was proving to be her greatest ally. With the Utan problem solved -- at least temporarily -- she now had to preside over the backlog of squabbles, disagreements and petitions from all the other tribes.
Gabrielle looked at the two young Amazons in front of her. She had done a little research on both of them, asking Ephiny about their backgrounds, and had found to her surprise that they were supposed to be good friends. Yet here they were, unable to solve their dispute, so they had brought it before their queen. "Well?" Gabrielle prodded.
Travoa glanced at the ground then back at the small woman with the warm green eyes. "No, I suppose it wasn't actually life or death."
"And your own weapons. Where were they?" asked Gabrielle, in the same reasonable tone.
"They were... back in my hut."
"So you went out weaponless. With someone killing off Amazons left and right, you decided you didn't need protection. Either you forgot to arm yourself or you are a fool. Which is it?"
"A little of both, I guess. I did forget, but I knew Krysia would have her staff, so I wasn't worried. When she went off to talk to the others I picked it up just to feel it's weight. It's such a fine piece, you see. Anyway, I did some practice moves and wasn't paying attention. The bird startled me and I swung, hitting a tree. That's how the tip cracked."
"I see," said Queen Gabrielle. "Thank you for telling us the truth, Travoa." She turned to the other woman. "Krysia. How would you like to see her punished?"
Krysia looked at her friend and mumbled, "I guess I don't want her to be punished. I just wanted to know what really happened."
"All right. Consider this, Krysia. If the staff cracked from a blow to a tree, then Travoa did you a favor. Your weapon was old and ready to break. Imagine if that'd happened in battle."
"I never thought of that."
"Next time, look for the gift in every event and you'll find yourself less prone to temper and more to reflection."
Krysia hung her head, knowing that her temper had gotten her into many scrapes in the past. Travoa smiled, feeling a little cocky that her error had been turned into a favor.
"Travoa, you'll start working tomorrow on making a replacement staff. Go to the artisans and learn their craft," said Gabrielle.
Travoa swallowed hard. "I... uh..."
"I've been banned from craftswork. I've the worst hands of any Amazon."
Gabrielle tried to hide her smile, having already known this. "In that case, you must work for the artisans to pay them to do it for you. Labor hard and well, doing whatever they ask and they might agree to make you a staff." The queen looked back and forth between the two women. "Agreed?"
Both nodded their heads and left, happy with the decision. Travoa had feared a huge price to be paid, for the staff had been an heirloom. Some time spent laboring for the artisans was a small task for such a transgression. Krysia, on the other hand, was pleased that she would get a new staff. Her old weapon had been showing a lot of wear and she had been considering getting a new one, though she hadn't known how she could afford it.
"Bravo, Gabrielle!" said Ephiny, clapping. The former queen had agreed to stand at her side as an advisor while the bard got used to her new position. "Very well done. You solved their dispute and rescued their friendship."
"Thank you, Ephiny. I didn't know what to do until I heard that she'd cracked the staff on a tree. The gods know I've hit enough trees with my staff to understand that it should be able to handle that stress. From there it was easy."
"Well, they won't all be 'easy', but as long you listen carefully and think everything through, you should do quite well."
"Anyone else waiting?" asked Gabrielle with a sigh. It was late, after sundown, and she was tired and hungry and just wanted to go melt into Xena's arms.
"Only several days worth," said Ephiny with a wry grin.
"Stab me now and put me out of my misery," said Gabrielle. Gods, I want to escape this damn hut, she thought. I can barely sit still and I feel like every nerve is on edge. What's wrong with me? I'm just not used to sitting around all day. That's why my patience is wearing so thin. That's why I'm finding myself unable to care about half the problems I've heard today.
"Are you okay?" asked Ephiny, concerned at the frustration on the queen's face.
"I'm fine. Who's next?"
"Did you get enough sleep? I know I had trouble dropping off after all that tension last night."
"No problems sleeping," said Gabrielle, remembering a night of frenzied love-making which had ended in exhausted sleep. Xena had been especially magnificent, the power and energy she hadn't used in battle she had spent on bringing the bard to one tumultuous climax after another.
"I suppose if I had Xena to hold me through the night I might sleep better myself," said Ephiny, wryly.
Gabrielle blushed. "She's..." Passionate, loving, tender, extraordinary -- the words spilled into her head, none of which she wanted to share. "She's very comforting."
"Uh huh," said Ephiny, laughing.
"Okay, okay, that's enough. How many more are waiting outside?"
"Just one," said Ephiny. "We've put the rest off for another day, but you need to interview the last candidate for Captain of the Guard."
"I thought you had already settled that when you were queen."
"I had it down to two possibles. Tonight's candidate is a new applicant. Only fair to give her a chance to be heard."
"Okay, send her in," said Gabrielle shifting positions in the chair, unable to get comfortable. She looked away from the door, rubbing her tired eyes.
Ephiny motioned to someone waiting outside the meeting hall. Through the doors walked a warrior not dressed as a traditional Amazon. She approached the throne.
"Queen Gabrielle..." she said, a half smile on her face.
Gabrielle pulled her hand away from her eyes and stared at the woman who had just entered. "Xena? You? You want to be Captain of the Guard?" The bard was stunned. She hadn't expected Xena to want to play any official role in the Amazon society.
"Not really. But I think the only way we're going to beat this menace, whatever it is, is with a top-notch fighting force. I was watching the exercises today and they could use a firm hand and some new techniques."
Gabrielle beamed at her companion. "You sure about this, Xena?" she asked, hoping that the warrior meant what she had said.
"Yeah. I know how to lead an army."
Gabrielle smiled wryly. "No kidding."
Xena looked at Ephiny. "You think your warriors would accept someone who isn't an Amazon as their general?"
Ephiny paused, considering. "I don't know. I think that they would have a very difficult time with that, actually. But then, that's not a problem, is it? Since you *are* an Amazon."
Gabrielle's eyes darted between Ephiny and Xena. Both stood still and silent. "Xena? What does she mean?" she asked, when the silence grew too long.
"What makes you say that, Ephiny?" Xena asked quietly.
"It doesn't take Athena to see how much you know about our ways. I just assumed you had to have Amazon blood in you somewhere."
"I see. Do you think the others assume this as well?"
"I've heard a lot of talk. Yes, I think most of us feel you are one of us."
"Good. Then they should accept me, shouldn't they?"
"Yes. After last night I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone unwilling to learn from you when it comes to the warrior arts."
"Are you an Amazon, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
"Looks like I am now," she replied.
"Then I officially conscript you as Captain of the Guard, general of the Amazon armies." Gabrielle smiled. "Hey Ephiny, do I do something ceremonial here? Or should I just kiss her on both cheeks and then jump around for joy?"
"The Queen usually jumps first, kisses second then offers the Captain a freshly caught trout," said Ephiny with a straight face.
"Oh boy. Free trout," added Xena, dryly.
"All right, enough you two. It's not nice to make fun of the queen." What had started out as a very long day had turned into a wonderful evening, thought Gabrielle. Xena will find a way to defeat the Amazon-killers. And being the queen was challenging, if a little too sedentary, but mostly it was gratifying. All in all, not a bad life.
"Xena? Yes, she came through here several moons ago. Haven't seen her since," said the stable boy.
"Oh? I'd heard she was good friends with Princess Diana and King Lias," said Alcimede. Once again, she sent a prayer to her patron goddess for giving her a means of travel which allowed her to cover all of Greece in the space of one day's sun.
"Yes, Xena has been known to help them out on occasion. I suppose they have become friends, though what royalty does is no concern of mine, ma'am."
"No, I suppose not. Thanks for your help, lad. It's wonderful when a strapping youth such as yourself takes the time to bother with an old woman like me."
"Old? I'd hardly say that!" said the boy, puffing out his chest. He was nearing his seventeenth year and had become bored with the local girls. Here was a gorgeous *woman* giving him the eye and it filled him with masculine pride.
"How sweet of you," the red-head said, smiling. "If only there was more time in a day."
"If I can be of any further service...?" he said, cocking an eyebrow in what he hoped was a seductive manner.
"Let me pay my visit to the castle first. If it doesn't take too long, I'll come looking for you. There is a service or two that I could use at that." Alcimede sidled close to the boy, her sweet breath tickling his ear as she whispered, "Let's see what you have to offer, shall we?" Her delicate hand crawled from his lean chest past rippled abs and down to the swelling between his legs. Her eyes held his as she stroked him into eager life. He groaned, fumbling to hold her closer, but she stepped away, winked and turned toward the front door of the castle. Spring, she thought. When love is in the air...
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