by B L Miller
Copyright: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. are owned by MCA/Universal. I only borrowed them for a little while. No infringement was intended. The rest of the story is mine and I hold the copyright to it. Do not use any part of this story without my written permission. I may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sex: This story contains scenes of two women making love. <smile> If this offends you, please dont read my story. There are plenty of other wonderful stories out there.
Violence: There are scenes of violence within this story.
For Julie - who always expects Amazons
Artemis and Athena listened carefully to Ares, searching for any sign of insincerity from their brother. It wouldn't be the first time he tried underhanded tactics to get the Warrior Princess back into his fold. "Artemis, dear sister..." he began, walking up behind her and putting his hands on her shoulders. "I'm only looking out for your best interests and those of your precious Amazons. You say that you have no doubt that Xena will always protect that annoy- I mean Gabrielle, your Queen. I'm just saying that perhaps you're wrong." he released the huntress and turned to Athena. "Athena, tell me, would you trust Xena to watch over Athens, your beloved city?"
"Why, yes of course...she's changed, Ares."
"Ah, before you say that, think about this...would you trust her to have complete control? To influence your government, have free reign in decision making? The woman who once tried to kill Hercules?" he looked at Artemis "And let us not forget Queen Melosa."
"That was to prevent a war, Ares, you know that." the huntress protested.
"So it seemed. Xena will do many things in the name of 'protection', won't she? Just think of how many villages she razed in the name of protection for Amphipolis." both goddesses shuddered at the memory of Xena the Warlord. Ares stroked his beard thoughtfully. "You trust her to protect Gabrielle. What if the name of that protection she destroys another village? Athena, she helped your army defeat the Horde, tell me...did she keep Gabrielle safe then? Or did bloodlust make her blind to the truth?" the Goddess of Wisdom closed her eyes at the legitimacy of her brother's words.
"She allowed her fear and lack of knowledge about the Horde to cloud her judgment." she admitted. "But she still protected Gabrielle, Ares."
"Oh?" he said slyly, knowing she had fallen into his trap. He waved his hand and an image appeared in the scrying bowl. Gabrielle outside the gates of the fort giving the wounded men water, Xena inside plotting the best way to destroy the Horde. The image changed, as he had directed, to the tall warrior sending a hatchet into the back of an escaping man, reminding his pure and noble sisters just how cold-blooded his former princess could be. Images filled the bowl, the visions he loved best, of his warrior princess riding through a village; her army at her back, the smell of fire and blood in the air, he had to stifle the urge to grin at the sickened faces of his sisters. "Now tell me, Artemis, do you still believe that she's the best choice for your Queen's protection?"
"Ares, she's not that warlord anymore. She's on the path to redemption." the huntress said firmly.
"Ah, and is that all it takes" She has proven time and again that she cannot protect the blond from danger." he waved his hand again and the images changed once more. Gabrielle dangling from a beam while Xena battled Callisto, Gabrielle tied to a pole with the totally incompetent Joxer, Gabrielle trapped on in a casket heading into the crematorium.
"She rescued her each time." Athena said firmly.
"Yes, she did rescue her those times." he walked around the room, his hands clasped, the forefingers touching each under just below his chin. "But it's only a matter of time before she doesn't. How close was Gabrielle to being fried?"
"Ares, this is just another one of your tricks to get her back." Artemis accused. "Xena loves Gabrielle. She won't allow anything to harm her."
"Really" She loves her so much that she let her marry that poor boy. Let her become a widow in the span of a day. There's a loving act." he sneered. "And who exactly was it that tried to kill Gabrielle and did kill her husband? Callisto, a vicious killer created by Xena. Tell me, Artemis...do you think harm came to your Queen then? How many nightmares has she had since then? How close did she come to losing her blood innocence?" he stopped the images in the scrying bowl. "Ah, but enough of that. The important thing is to prove that she's truly changed."
"Ares, Athena and I won't allow you to use Gabrielle in one of your little tests for Xena." the brown haired goddess warned.
"Oh, I don't want to give Xena a test, dear sister. You see, Xena is far too cunning for any kind of test I might throw her way. No, what I propose is for you to give her a test. One that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she would never harm Gabrielle." he looked Artemis in the eye. "I ask again, are you so certain of the Warrior Princess?"
"I believe that Xena would never hurt Gabrielle, no matter what." the huntress said with conviction.
"Even if she were still a warlord?"
"She loves Gabrielle. And my queen loves Xena. There is nothing that can break that bond."
"Nothing? Even if Xena was a warlord again? With no memory of Gabrielle?" he baited. "Is your faith that strong? Do you believe that Xena would hesitate to use that little br- blond for her own personal gain?"
There was a long silence in Artemis' realm while the two goddesses considered their brother's words. Ares waited patiently, the taste of victory on his lips. Artemis looked at the scrying bowl again, the images swirling around in a montage of scenes thanks to her brother. She turned around to face him and Athena. "I despise treachery, Ares, you know that." her brown eyes bore into him, daring him to turn away. The God of War held his ground, his evil nature allowing him to remain steadfast and return the gaze. Treachery was an art form to him and he could play it better than anyone else. "The paramount question here isn't Xena, but rather the safety of my Amazon Queen with her. You were right about her actions with the Horde." her gaze turned briefly to her sister, who lowered her eyes in silent agreement. Artemis took comfort in that motion and continued. "I am concerned at how quickly she was able to return to her former ways. I wonder if Gabrielle had not figured out that the men were only asking for water what would have happened."
"Exactly, Artemis. What if Xena was a warlord again? Gabrielle would be nothing more to her than a pawn or a fetch-it girl. And if she crossed her, then what? Xena would treat her the same way she treated any of her lieutenants that disobeyed her." he smiled inside when he saw the exchanged glance between his sisters. "How will you ever be sure? Do you really believe that Gabrielle could ever be safe with Xena, knowing the warlord lies just below the surface?"
At that moment, the Goddess of Wisdom made a statement would soon cause one of the most heated exchanges in the history of Mount Olympus. "Even if Xena had no memory of Gabrielle, she would still never allow any harm to come to her. Their love is too great and the warrior is not the animal you make her out to be, Ares. I would stake Gabrielle's life on it." before Artemis could recover from the shock of her sister's words, Ares broke into a sinister grin.
"As you wish, dear Athena." he bowed in a sweeping motion at his sisters. "The challenge is accepted." his evil and chilling laughter filled the chamber as he disappeared. Athena lowered her head, waiting for the explosion she knew was coming.
"You, you made a challenge with Ares? And you're the Goddess of Wisdom?" Artemis raged. "You're giving him exactly what he wants, another chance to win Xena back!" she balled her immortal hands into fists. "And you're using Gabrielle to do it! You know what Xena was like. How can you think she won't do anything to hurt Gabrielle?" Athena was certain that if her sister got any more angry that smoke would pour out of her ears. "And to top it off, you staked Gabrielle's life on it!" Artemis sputtered to a finish.
"Please calm down, Artemis. If you were mortal, you'd have a stroke. Now just think about it for a moment. You told me once that Gabrielle was the calming factor that kept Xena on the right path. Are you saying now that she isn't?"
"Did you forget in your quest to best our brother that it wasn't Gabrielle that turned Xena, but rather Hercules?"
"Are you saying that your queen isn't capable of turning Xena around? Do you have so little faith in their love for one another?"
"Xena won't even know who Gabrielle is, much less that she loves her!" Artemis protested. "You made sure of that with your boast!" she was still fuming and her words dripped with her anger. Far below Mount Olympus great storms rolled over the land as the Moon Goddess let loose on her sister. "And even if she does survive this ordeal, do you have any idea how much damage that can do to their relationship? Xena may not remember everything, but Gabrielle will!"
"Artemis, you should visit Aphrodite more often. You have to believe in their love."
"For your sake, sister, their love had better prevail. There isn't a place on Mount Olympus that can hide you should Gabrielle fall victim to the Warrior Princess' blade." Artemis moved in close, her eyes burning into her sister. "I swear it on my Amazons. If Gabrielle dies, Zeus help Athens." Athena could only gulp at the intensity in her sister's gaze. She had no doubt that she meant every word.
"The Gods must be fighting again." Gabrielle commented, looking at the teeming rain just outside their small cave. "Wonder what it's about this time?"
"Probably nothing more than their petty little games that they like to play." Xena replied as she tossed more wood on the fire. A series of thunderclaps struck with such ferocity that the bard jumped back from the mouth of the cave. Instantly the warrior was by her side, hands on the younger woman's shoulders "Whatever they're arguing about, it must be pretty serious for the storm to be this bad." mentally the warrior was concerned. Rarely did anything good come from a battle between gods and more often than not it was nothing but trouble for mortals. She felt Gabrielle shiver beneath her hands. "Come on, let's get you near the fire."
No matter how hard the bard tried, she couldn't shake the feeling of foreboding that came the instant the rains started. Something was wrong, but she didn't know what. Xena had caught a pheasant for dinner but Gabrielle did nothing more with her share than pick at it until the bird was cold, she shove the plate away from her. The warrior arched an eyebrow in concern. "Gabrielle, you barely touched dinner. Are you feeling all right?" without waiting for an answer, she reached over and placed her hand on the younger woman's forehead.
"I'm fine, Xena, it's just...I don't know, I just have a feeling that something terribly wrong is about to happen." she said with a shaky voice, her green eyes filling with unshed tears. Gabrielle found herself immediately enveloped in the warrior's strong arms.
"Shh...it's okay. I won't let anything happen to you." Xena pulled her into her lap and held her close. The blue eyes looked down at the bard with concern. She'd never seen Gabrielle so spooked before. The warrior gently rubbed her hand up and down the bard's back in a comforting motion. After almost a full candlemark of comforting the young woman, Xena was finally able to get her calmed down enough to carry her to her bedroll and continued the gentle rubbing of the bard's back, gently lulling the younger woman into sleep.
Long after she heard the soft snore emanating from the bard, Xena continued to lay there, gently stroking the long blond strands of Gabrielle's hair want watching the steady rise and fall of her chest. The warrior longed to curl up next to her and hold the bard all night long, to feel the warmth of Gabrielle's skin against hers, to bury her face in the golden tresses, to pretend that they were lovers settling down for a peaceful night's sleep. Gabrielle shifted slightly, drawing the warrior out of her musings. Xena placed a soft kiss on the bard's forehead before moving over to her own side of the fire and falling into a restless slumber.
A silvery white owl fluttered into the cave and transformed into the Goddess Athena. With a wave of her hand, she made certain that both mortals would continue to sleep, leaving her to complete her task undisturbed. She collected all of the scrolls from the saddlebag as well as the ink and quill. She then removed all the personal items that they had given each other over the last two and a half summers of traveling together. Combs, bracelets, even a small lamb that made noise when its tail was pulled. Ah, the winter solstice, Athena recalled. Xena had given the wooden gift to Gabrielle. The goddess quickly finished her task, effectively removing any trace that the two women belonged together. A shimmering light appeared behind her. Athena knew without looking that her sister was there. "Artemis, you know you can't interfere in this."
The moon goddess looked down at her sleeping Amazon queen. "I'm not interfering, Athena. I just wanted to see my chosen one last time." she knelt down and brushed a lock of hair off the sleeping bard's face. "Be strong, little one. Trust in your love and be strong." she bent down to place a kiss on Gabrielle's cheek but was stopped by her sister's hand on her shoulder.
"No, Artemis. You know that a kiss of protection isn't allowed."
"Thanks to you." she spat bitterly as she rose to face the goddess of wisdom. "You still had no right to make a deal with Ares." Artemis waved her hand and a table appeared, a scaled down version of Athens covering the top. Both goddesses walked over to it. Artemis grinned almost evilly at the vision before her, reminding Athena of the look Ares was so famous for. Faster than the goddess of wisdom could react, Artemis brought her fist down, crushing the Coliseum into little pieces. Athena nodded solemnly, the silent threat acknowledged. "Finish your task, sister." Artemis said, changing into a shimmering form and disappearing. Within heartbeats, the table and all upon it also dissolved into nothingness. Athena let out an involuntary shudder at the memory of her sister's fury.
The goddess knelt down next to the sleeping warrior and passed her hand over the chiseled face, her touch draining Xena's memories. Athena stopped at the point just past when the warrior went through the gauntlet of her own men in order to protect a baby. The goddess rose and walked over to Gabrielle, repeating the words of her sister. "Be strong, Gabrielle. Only your strength and love can guide Xena back." she reached down and moved the bard's staff closer to the sleeping form, just in case. Athena moved to the mouth of the cave and took one last look at them before turning back into an owl and flying away to Athens.
Xena awoke before the first rays of dawn appeared in the morning sky. Without opening her eyes or moving a muscle, she tried to take in her surroundings. The hard surface beneath her told her that she was in a cave. Once certain that there was no threat, she opened her eyes and looked around. A golden mare stood just outside the cave entrance, chewing lazily on the wet grass, but what caught the warlord's attention was the young woman sleeping peacefully on the opposite side of the fire. Without making a sound, Xena crept over and knelt down next to her. She had no recollection of finding anyone after leaving her army. Her blue eyes fell upon the staff laying at the blond woman's side. She picked it up and studied the markings. The well worn wooden weapon bore the markings of Amazon Xena carefully moved the weapon out of reach of the sleeping woman, then sat back on her haunches and to decide what to do. After a few moments, the warlord walked over to the saddlebags and rummaged through them until she found some rope. She bound the sleeping woman's wrists firmly behind her back before rising and grabbing her sword. Xena fought the urge to laugh at how easily she had captured and restrained an Amazon. "Wake up, Amazon." there was no movement. The warlord reached out and placed her boot on the blond's rear, shaking her forcefully. "I said up!" she snarled.
Gabrielle stirred and immediately realized that her hands were tied behind her. She rolled onto her side and saw her best friend looking down at her, sword pointed at her throat. "Xena, what are you doing?" she protested, groggy from being so rudely awakened, not to mention the restraints. Had she focused on the blue eyes boring into her, Gabrielle would have noticed the lack of recognition. Instead, the bard rolled into a sitting position and scowled. "I don't know which lesson you're trying to teach me, Xena, but let me out of this." She shrugged her shoulders to indicate the binding. "And put that sword down."
"Well, you know my name, that's good." She kept the sword leveled at the bard. "Now, who are you and why are we here in this cave?"
"Who am I? Xena, did you hit your head on something?" before Gabrielle could react, the warlord was upon her, shoving her hard back down onto the ground and jabbing at her throat.
"I will not ask again." She snarled. It was then that the bard noticed the look in the warlord's eyes. This was no training game. She swallowed and tried to remain calm.
"G-Gabrielle." she said, dimly aware of the thin line of blood trickling down from her nose.
"That's better. Now, why are you here?"
"W-we travel together. There was a storm...Xena, please?" she croaked, feeling blackness washing over her. The warlord's fingers found her throat and with a painful twisting motion released the pinch. Gabrielle rolled onto her side, partially to ease the pain in her hand and arms from laying on them on the hard ground and partially to keep Xena from seeing the true fear in her eyes.
"How many of you are there? Where are your Amazon friends hiding?"
"There's no one else. I swear. You and I travel together, Xena."
"I don't travel with Amazons." the warlord said flatly, not believing a word of it.
"Well you travel with me." Gabrielle shot back angrily. "If you'd let me loose, I'll prove it to you." she expected perhaps a protest, but certainly not the laughter that burned her ears.
"Nice try, Amazon." Xena said without a trace of humor.
"Look, if you'd just let me get to the saddlebags..." she watched the tall woman rise and walk over the corner where their gear was kept. Gabrielle took the opportunity to roll to a sitting position and raise her knee to wipe the blood from her nose onto the edge of her skirt, grimacing at the memory of feeling the pinch.
Xena opened every flap and searched every compartment, looking for any sign that the Amazon was telling the truth. All she found were medical supplies, a close and spare shift for herself, her cape, and foodstuffs. "And just what is it that I'm supposed to find?" she queried.
"My scrolls." Gabrielle replied, confused. How could Xena miss seeing them?
"No scrolls." she double checked the compartments. "No scrolls, no clothes, nothing that could possibly belong to you."
"That's impossible! All my scrolls? There's nothing?" Gabrielle's mind raced to figure out what was going on, nothing made any sense. Why didn't Xena remember her? Where were all her things? "Xena, listen to me. I know it doesn't make sense, but I'm telling you the truth. We travel together, we have for over two summers now. Please you have to believe me." she pleaded.
Instantly Xena was in front of her, the blue eyes piercing like daggers into her. "I don't have to believe you, Amazon, and I don't believe you."
"Then how do you explain us being in this cave? Xena, please untie me, my wrists are really starting to hurt and I need to make a trip to the woods." she squirmed a bit to make her point. For a moment she feared that Xena would make her suffer but then the warlord reached behind the bard and hoisted her up to her feet roughly.
"No tricks." the tall woman warned as she half-guided, half-dragged the bard out of the cave. Once outside, Xena released her painful grip on the Gabrielle's upper arm and stood there.
"Um..." the bard shifted uncomfortably. "Xena, I can't get my breeches down while my hands are tied. Look, I swear I won't go anywhere." she yelped in surprise when she felt Xena come up behind her and lift her skirt.
"I don't trust you, Amazon. You've lied to me enough already." the warlord said as she hooked her fingers under the thin material of Gabrielle's breeches and pulled them down.
"Xena, I can't do it if you're going to stand there and watch me." she said, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment.
"Then I'd say you have a problem." the warlord said dryly.
"At least turn around." the bard said angrily, the pain in her full bladder overriding her newfound fear of her best friend. In the blink of an eye, Xena's fist flew out, connecting solidly against the side of Gabrielle's jaw, sending her backwards against the side of the cave. The bard tasted the blood in her mouth where her teeth cut her cheek. The warlord's powerful hand gripped her jaw painfully, forcing the bard to look into the stormy blue eyes.
"Never tell me what to do, Amazon." she said through gritted teeth. Gabrielle knew that her face would bear bruises from her best friend's fingertips. She nodded her head slightly in defeat. Xena released her grip and stepped back. Face flushed with embarrassment and fear, Gabrielle squatted down, keeping her eyes focused on the ground ahead and not at the barely controlled violent look on Xena's face. The bard realized that this was not her friend anymore, whatever happened, Xena was back to her warlord ways and the young woman gulped in fear, although she wasn't sure if the fear was for her friend of for herself. She stood back up and waited for Xena to help her get her breeches back up, something that the warlord made no move to do. Rather than asking for help and possibly enraging the raven haired woman again, Gabrielle stepped out of them and silently returned to the cave, followed closely behind by the woman who was still debating what to do with her.
Xena mixed up a cup of tea for herself and sat down on her side of the fire, using the saddle as a backrest. Gabrielle sat on her side, just away from the wall, which was too cold to lean against. The warlord picked up her whetstone and began sharpening her sword, her eyes flitting to the cave entrance every so often to look for signs of more Amazons. With the quiet disturbed only by the sound of stone against steel and the occasional crackle of the fire, Xena tried to piece together what was going on. The last thing she remembered was leaving her army, battered and beaten by the gauntlet of men, but alive. She looked down at her armor. Less than what she normally wore, but still usable. Try as she might, Xena couldn't remember when she had acquired the armor, much less the horse and saddlebags. The saddle she recognized as her own, but other than the cape, cloak, chakram, and her leathers, that was about it. And what of the woman...Gabrielle, she recalled the name, what of her? She didn't appear to be much of a threat, yet she carried an Amazon fighting staff. She claimed to be a friend. While it was true that Xena allowed Amazons into her army from time to time and that they usually were far more capable than their male counterparts, she couldn't imagine this little one being of much use, especially with just a staff. And what of the lies about scrolls? Surely this one was up to no good.
"Um, Xena? Do you think I could have something to drink too?" Gabrielle asked softly, still afraid of the taller woman's violent temper. The bard didn't know what to think about what had happened. All her belongings were gone as well as her scrolls, it just didn't make any sense. She remembered the previous day's storms and the dream she had last night. A soft voice telling her to be strong, to believe in her love for Xena. The Gods, it had to have something to do with them, Gabrielle realized. The warlord ignored her request, continuing to sharpen her sword. The bard stared at the fire. That was the only explanation. The Gods were somehow involved. No doubt Ares, the blond mused. She swallowed, trying to ease her parched throat. "Xena, can I please have some water?"
The warlord stopped sharpening her sword and glared at the Amazon. She rose in one fluid motion and picked up the waterskin. It was full, so there must be a water source nearby. She could afford to spare some water. Xena knelt down in front of the restrained woman and unstopped the skin. "Open up." she squirted some water into Gabrielle's mouth.
"Thank you." the bard said quietly. Xena made no indication of hearing the remark, simply rising, returning to her side of the fire, and resuming her sharpening.
"Where are we?" Xena asked after a few moments.
"About a day south of Minos." she replied. The warlord nodded and continued her sharpening. The information disturbed her. Minos was at least a good three or four quarter-moon journey from where she had left her army. Try as she might, she couldn't come up with anything to fill in the gap. Drugs, that had to be the answer, Xena thought. The Amazon must have drugged her.
Gabrielle noticed the change in Xena's features. The jaw tightened, the eyes narrowed accusingly at her and the muscles in her neck stood out. The warlord rose and went to the saddlebags, searching through the variety of herbs until she found what she was looking for. She pulled out the small pouch of white powder and frowned. Xena had no way knowing how much she had but was convinced that this had to be how the Amazon had managed to get her so far without her knowing being able to recall it. Without looking, she released her chakram. The flying disc of metal clanged off the near wall and sailed just over the top of Gabrielle's head before hitting the far wall and coming back to the warlord. Xena walked over and knelt down in front of the now trembling woman. "You drugged me." she said flatly. "That's why I can't remember anything. What price is the Amazon nation paying for my head these days? Not that I can remember ever striking one of their villages." her blue eyes burned with anger. "Or is it another warlord that you're working for? Perhaps some little village that wants revenge on the Warrior Princess? Tell me, Amazon, what made you think you could possibly capture me?"
"Xena, I didn't-" she was cut off in mid sentence by a strong slap across the face.
"I can't believe a word you say." she stood up and jerked Gabrielle into a standing position, noting the muscles in the shorter woman's biceps. "I'll give you a sporting chance, Amazon." she unhooked her chakram and cleanly cut the hemp holding Gabrielle's wrists together. The bard brought her hands around front, her hands rubbing the raw skin. Xena walked over and picked up the staff, turning it over slowly in her hands before tossing it Gabrielle. The bard caught it easily, her eyes widening in understanding.
"Xena, no, please, you don't want to do this." she pleaded while readying her staff. The warlord had already retrieved her sword and was twirling it around in her hand.
"I don't want revenge on someone who was trying to kill me? Defend yourself, Amazon."
"Don't do this, Xena, I beg you." she backed up toward the mouth of the cave, silently fearing that escape would be impossible.
"Ayiyiyiyi!" the leather clad woman yelled as she somersaulted over Gabrielle to land between her and the exit. "Going somewhere?" she taunted. "Come now, Gabrielle, where's that Amazon spirit?" she lunged forth, sending her sword in an arc toward the bard's right side. Gabrielle brought her staff to a vertical position, barely blocking the blow. She steeped back, readying herself for another attack.
"Xena..." she brought her staff up above her head to block the next blow. It was delivered with such force that the bard's hands stung from the contact. "This...isn't you...please listen to me...it's the gods...please...." she said between parries. Every blow was sending Gabrielle back further into the cave. She continued to defend herself, knowing full well that Xena would never allow her an opening to attack unless it was a setup. What she didn't expect was Xena grabbing and handful of ash from the fire and throwing it in her face. Blinded, Gabrielle was helpless to the leg sweep that followed. In a heartbeat, her staff was out of her hands and Xena's sword was at her throat. Tears filled the bard's green eyes, but not just from the ashes.
"Scared, Amazon?" she taunted, pressing down slightly against the soft skin of the bard's neck with her sword. Gabrielle knew better than to move.
"Y-yes, I don't want to die, Xena." she said softly, her voice cracking with fear.
"You should have thought of that before you tried to kill me." the warlord replied.
"Xena, you don't want to do this." her mind focused on one thought. "Unless you want the entire Amazon nation to come down on you."
"For one warrior? Amazons aren't that stupid. Why would they possibly wage a war with me over you?"
Gabrielle swallowed, the steel of Xena's sword pressing harder against her throat. She said the only thing she could think of to save her life, the one thing she knew better than to reveal to a warlord, any warlord, much less one who needed money to raise a new army. "Because I'm their Queen. If you kill me, they'll never stop hunting you." she felt the pressure against her throat ease slightly. Sensing that Xena was listening, she continued. "Do you really want to be number one on every Amazon's list of people to kill?"
"I'm number one on many people's lists, what difference would a few Amazons make?" she pulled her sword back. "However, perhaps you are worth something to me alive." she said before sending the hilt crashing against the side of Gabrielle's head. "If you are indeed their queen, you are worth something to me. If not, it makes no difference if I kill you now or later." She stood up and walked away from the unconscious form.
Gabrielle awoke to find herself atop Argo, her hands securely tied to the saddlehorn. The pain in her head was a quick reminder of what had happened and she sadly realized that it wasn't a dream. Looking up, she saw that they were approaching the outskirts of Minos. She felt the hard metal of Xena's armor pressing into her back and the evening wind had pushed the warlord's cape forward to rest against both their thighs. The pommel of Xena's sword bounced in rhythm to Argo's steps, pressing against Gabrielle's hip. A quick glance to the side told the young queen that her friend was now wearing her sword on her side again, something she hadn't done in almost two summers.
Eponin and Solari were sitting in the tavern, enjoying the last day of their vacation before returning to the village, both blissfully unaware of the threat to their beloved queen just outside the door.
Xena dismounted and tied Argo to a nearby post. She wasn't planning on staying long. She reached up with her chakram and cut the ropes that held Gabrielle's hands to the saddlehorn. "Down." she commanded. The bard did exactly what she was told. Xena pulled a knife out of her boot and held it close to Gabrielle's neck. "Don't forget that I will kill you without a thought, Amazon."
"I know." she said solemnly. "I know."
When the door to the tavern opened and Gabrielle stepped in, both Eponin and Solari smiled at their good fortune. It had been far too long since they'd seen their friends. Their smiles quickly faded, however, when they saw not only the multitude of bruises and cuts that littered Gabrielle's face but also the knife held so close to her bare abdomen. "Ep, what..."
"Shh." the stout but powerful Amazon replied. She had never seen Xena in a cape before and had to admit that she looked even more powerful and intimidating than usual. Gabrielle stared at them, her eyes betraying a deep fear while Xena's gaze encompassed the entire room before settling at their table. Ahh, I knew she had to have help, the warlord thought to herself as she roughly led Gabrielle to their table. Uncertain as to what exactly was going on but concerned for the safety of their queen, Eponin slipped her knife out of its sheath and held it just below the surface of the table. There was no friendliness in the tall woman's blue eyes, a fact that Eponin found very disconcerting.
"Is she your queen?" Xena demanded, stopping just short of their table.
"Of course, Xena, you know that." Solari replied as she rose to her feet. "Gabrielle, what happened?" she took a step toward the bard and the warlord immediately took a step back, the hand holding the knife wrapping itself around Gabrielle's neck.
"Don't come any closer." Xena warned, her eyes darting from Eponin to Solari and back. "You tell your people that I have her and if you want her back alive it'll cost fifty thousand dinars."
Eponin rose to her feet quickly, sending her chair flying backwards in the process. The tavern quieted immediately as the patrons paid attention to the four women standing in the center of the room. Suddenly everyone remembered somewhere else they had to be at that moment instead of within range of what appeared to be an upcoming fight between a group of Amazons. Only the bartender remained and he was hiding behind the bar, silently wondering why he too didn't find somewhere else to be. Xena tightened her grip on Gabrielle's neck. "Fifty thousand. One dinar less and she dies."
"Xena, I don't know what's going on but there's no way we're going to let you leave with her like this." Solari warned, her own sword coming out of its scabbard. Eponin did likewise, switching her knife to her left hand pulling her own sword out with her right.
"Xena, listen to me. Gabrielle is your friend. You don't want to do this." the stocky Amazon said, her eyes darting from the frightened green of her queen to the ice blue of what was apparently now her captor. Eponin took a step forward, her brown eyes focused on the knife at Gabrielle's neck.
"Lies, all lies!" the warlord snarled. "I knew I'd find Amazons here. Waiting for a report on the status of your prisoner? A great capture for the Amazon Nation, huh? The bounty must be pretty high for you to stupidly risk your queen's life. Did you think I wouldn't escape?"
"Xena, I don't know what happened but this isn't you. You and Gabrielle are best friends. Please, put the knife down and we'll talk. You can come back to the village and have Saras look at you, perhaps you hit your head on something..."
"Quiet!" the warlord growled at Solari. "I know what the white powder can do and I know how you tried to use it to keep me from escaping. That's all over now. I'm the one giving the orders, not your precious little queen." she jerked the knife slightly for emphasis. "Fifty thousand."
"I can't let you leave with her." Eponin said, taking another step closer, her own adrenaline racing. Gabrielle's eyes were wide with fear. It was obvious to the Amazons that whatever was going on, their queen was in grave danger.
"Who's going to stop me, you?" she sneered. Solari tried to circle around behind Xena, but the warlord was having none of that. Before the tall Amazon could react, the knife that was at Gabrielle's throat flew through the air, imbedding itself deep into Solari's bicep. Eponin made a split heartbeat decision and charged at the warlord. Unable to wield her sword and keep her grip on Gabrielle, Xena released her grip on the bard's neck and reached down, striking a pressure point on the young woman's upper thigh. With her hostage incapacitated, Xena shoved her to the ground and leveled her sword at Eponin. "Wanna play, Amazon?" she taunted, twirling her sword in preparation of the battle. Unable to use her right leg, Gabrielle started to drag herself across the floor. Solari took advantage of Xena's preoccupation with Eponin to reach down with her good arm and help pull Gabrielle out of the way. Together they worked to release the pressure point while the stocky Amazon kept Xena engaged.
One by one the tables and chairs of the tavern found themselves tossed about as the two sword-wielding women made room to maneuver. Having sparred many times with the raven haired woman, Eponin knew well Xena's style of attack. The warrior she knew left little if any opening and she hoped that the crazed woman in front of her now was more prone to carelessness, although deep inside she doubted it. Xena brought her sword down, connecting solidly with the Amazon's, and the fight was on.
Solari's arm was covered with blood dripping from her wound, yet she paid no attention, her primary concern at the moment was getting her queen out of danger and then helping her friend and Amazon sister. Although her leg screamed from the after effects of the pinch, Gabrielle forced herself to her feet, leaning on Solari for support. "Come on, Gabrielle, we have to get you out of here."
"No, I can't." the bard replied. "I can't leave Xena like this. I can't let her become a warlord again."
"What?" Solari said incredulously. "You can't be serious. Gabrielle, look at you. You look like she used you for punching practice and she wants to hold you for ransom. How can you even think of staying with her?" the sound of sword against sword continued to ring throughout the tavern as the two skilled fighters continued to exchange blows, neither able to land anything significant on the other. Although Xena had the height and strength advantage, Eponin had the advantage of knowing the raven haired woman's style of attack and used it to keep herself alive.
"Solari, what do you think will happen to the Amazon nation if I escape now? Xena thinks the Amazons tried to kidnap her and sell her off to another warlord for the bounty. Do you think she's just going to ignore that?"
"It doesn't matter, Gabrielle. What's important is keeping you safe and alive."
"No!" the bard said. "My safety isn't what's at stake here. It's the safety of the entire nation. If I escape, she'll declare war on the Amazons. How much more blood would be spilled then?"
"Gabrielle, listen to me. This isn't your Xena we're talking about here. Whatever's going on, she's a warlord again. You can't change her and you can't stop her. Please, come back to the village. We can organize a group of warriors to go after her and bring her back. Maybe Saras can help."
"There's nothing that a healer can do for her, Solari. What's happened to her has to be the work of the gods."
Although a fierce warrior in her own right, Eponin could only stand up so long against Xena's continued onslaught. The warlord showed no signs of wearing down and in fact was grinning as she continued to rain down blow after blow on the stocky Amazon. Solari retrieved her sword and moved in to assist Eponin, hoping that they together might be able to subdue the warlord. Gabrielle hobbled over to the corner and retrieved a mop, using her foot to break the head off and create a makeshift staff. As good as Xena was at fighting, having two well trained Amazons facing her made it more difficult that she would have liked. Unlike most men she faced, these two women kept their distance from her, neither trying to press an attack nor were they falling for her false openings. It was time for new tactics. With a blood-curdling cry, Xena somersaulted through the air, landing on one of the still upright tables. Before Eponin could react, she found her chin colliding with the well-placed heel of Xena's boot, sending her down to the floor, dazed and groggy.
Gabrielle knew she had to do something. Both Amazons were injured and no longer in any shape to face the barely sweating Xena. She looked at the fireplace and knew what she had to do. Eponin was on her back, rolling to avoid the warlord's blows that alternated between her and Solari, who was rapidly growing weaker from the loss of blood. Gabrielle moved in close, keeping one hand on her makeshift staff and the other tightly closed around a handful of ash. "Xena! You want me, come get me!"
"I thought you didn't want to die, Gabrielle." Xena said, taking a step toward her. Eponin seized the advantage offered her by the queen's distraction and threw her sword at the warlord, praying to Artemis to make her aim true. The blade struck Xena in the right thigh, just above the knee, slicing a clean gash that although not deep enough to do any damage to the muscle would still require stitches. The desperate move also left the stocky Amazon with nothing more that her knife for protection. Gabrielle chose that moment to open her hand and throw the ash into Xena's face.
"Run!" the bard yelled, wrapping both hands around the mop handle and positioning herself between Xena and the Amazons. Solari helped Eponin to her feet but neither moved toward the exit. Without taking her eyes off the temporarily blinded warlord, Gabrielle yelled at them again to escape.
"Not without you!" Eponin said, taking Solari's sword from her and preparing to engage Xena again.
"If you don't leave she'll kill you! Run! Tell Ephiny not to worry about me!" the ash didn't blind Xena as much as Gabrielle had hoped and she quickly found herself on the defensive. Fortunately, the thigh wound kept Xena from doing any acrobatics that would have allowed her to get to the wounded Amazons. "Go!" Gabrielle shouted as she parried another blow designed to force her back closer to Eponin and Solari. The two Amazon warriors desperately wanted to stay and protect their queen but understood the importance of her command. Beaten and wounded, they stood no chance against the angry warlord and someone had to warn Ephiny about what had happened, not that they really understood themselves. Against their training as Amazon warriors and against their better judgment, Eponin and Solari followed their queen's order and backed up toward the door.
"How will we know where to deliver the ransom?" Solari said through clenched teeth, her bloody arm now throbbing painfully. Eponin was still hoping against hope for an opening to disable Xena and rescue Gabrielle. The warlord's sword came down at just the right angle and snapped the wooden mop handle in two. At the same time Eponin lunged forward, Xena reached down and in one fluid motion, unhooked and released her chakram. The usual element of surprise was lost on the Amazon, who was well aware of the weapon and had been waiting for Xena to use it. Eponin brought her sword up in front of her body at just the right moment, deflecting the chakram away from her throat and her probable death. Unfortunately, the ricocheting weapon sliced downward, slicing through her upper left thigh at an angle almost parallel to the bone. Now out of energy, the chakram clanged to the ground and skidded to a halt near the far wall. Xena was done toying around with them. One quick movement of her own bloodied leg and she brought Gabrielle to the ground, her sword at the bard's throat in much the same fashion as she had done in the cave. For several breaths, no one moved or made a sound.
"At the northern edge of your lands, near the hunting grounds. There's a field there, a place where your archers can't reach from the trees. Have the ransom there in six days. Have it loaded on a chariot and make sure the horses of your best Amazon bred stock. I'll know if they aren't." she warned. "If I see one Amazon, I'll kill your precious queen without a thought." she hauled Gabrielle up to her feet, keeping one arm wrapped around the bard's neck. "Now get out of my way."
Xena rode hard, pushing Argo more than she ever would under normal circumstances. Her leg throbbed painfully but she didn't dare stop until she was certain she couldn't be found by the Amazons. The site she finally settled on was a good half-candlemark from the road. It afforded her a clear view of the surrounding area, was easily defendable, and also had a small pond for water and bathing. The warlord chuckled to herself as she dismounted. At best she was only six candlemarks from the edge of the Amazon lands yet was certain that they would think her much further away. It was the perfect place to hide and care for her injury. Despite the tightly wound bandage, Xena's blood seeped through and covered not only her leg but also Argo's right side. She dismounted, leaving Gabrielle tied to the saddle horn.
Gabrielle looked down at her with the one eye that wasn't swollen shut. No matter how hard she tried to hold back the tears, they still continued to flow. In all the time she had been with Xena, she never once feared for her life from her. Today was a different matter altogether. This wasn't her Xena, the one that held her when she was scared, that taught her how to fish and make fires and scout and handle her staff. That wasn't the woman she was with now. This Xena was cold, calculating, short with the temper and quick with the fist. This woman scared Gabrielle, scared her more than when Draco had tried to enslave her so long ago.
Xena pulled the needle and thread out of the saddlebag and looked at her bloody bandage. The sword wound was in the back of her thigh, an area most difficult for her to reach. She pressed down on a pressure point to lessen the bleeding and removed the bandage. The dim light of dusk and the position made it hard for her to see the gash, much less stitch it.
"If you let me down, I'll help you." Gabrielle said quietly, uncertain if she should offer but unable to do otherwise. No matter how she was acting, Xena was still her best friend. The warlord looked up at her and contemplated the offer. They were certainly far enough away from civilization that any thoughts of escape weren't possible. She reached back one more time to see if she could do it herself.
Gabrielle trembled slightly when she saw Xena rise and head towards her, knife in hand. The warlord reached up and rested the blade on the rope. "No tricks." she warned. The bard nodded silently and waited for the bindings to be cut before sliding down from the saddle.
"Um...we'll need a fire for light." Gabrielle said cautiously. Xena said nothing but limped over and picked up a thick branch from the ground before heading back to where she had been sitting before the Amazon spoke. She reached into the saddlebag and removed her flint. Within moments she made a torch that would provide enough light for the blond to work with. Gabrielle knelt down next to her and reached for the torch.
"No. I'll hold it." Xena said firmly. The bard nodded and waited for the dark haired woman to roll onto her stomach. Gabrielle inhaled sharply when she saw just how deep Eponin's blade had gone. She felt Xena tense up at the first touch of the needle against her skin. With gentle, loving hands, Gabrielle began making the series of small, tight stitches and felt the muscles beneath her relax. She remembered back to the last time she had to stitch Xena up. It was after another fight in a tavern, only that time the leather clad woman was trying to defend her honor from a smelly behemoth of a man who thought the Amazon was available for his pleasure. The memory made Gabrielle smile and she was grateful that Xena couldn't see her face. "You're very gentle, Amazon. Are you a healer as well as a queen?" there was no sarcasm or threat in the warlord's tone, just curiosity.
"No, I'm no healer, Xena. I'm a bard." she replied as she pushed the needle through again.
"Then tell me a story." the warlord prompted.
"Okay..." came the surprised and slightly pleased reply. Even though it was an order and not a question, Gabrielle was still happy that Xena wanted to hear a story. She thought carefully about which tale she wanted to tell. Obviously anything they had been through was out of the question as were any stories about Hercules. She took a deep breath and wet her lips. "Once upon a time there was a great hunter who dared to hunt on sacred ground...." she proceeded to tell Xena the story she had once told the leader of the Minatoan army, trying hard not to think about how close she had come to death at that temple in Thessaly. Xena listened intently, the soft words drawing her in and blocking out the pain of her wound. Gabrielle drew the story to a close at the same time as she finished applying the fresh bandage. Xena rolled over and looked at her in the torchlight.
"Why?" she held the torch up to see Gabrielle's face. "I'm holding you for ransom, I've tried to kill you and your friends, yet you still helped me. I ask again, why?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and thought carefully before answering. "I lost a dear friend recently, someone who meant more to me than anyone else in the world. I didn't do this for you, I did it for her."
"I'm not your friend."
"I know." the bard replied, trying to keep the sadness out of her voice. She shivered slightly in the cool night air. Xena stood up.
"Can you cook?"
"Fine." the warlord looked around, pleased with the amount of branches and fallen wood she saw. Within moments she had a small but warm fire going. Gabrielle reached for the saddlebag to get their foodstuffs but then stopped and looked expectantly at Xena, waiting for permission. The warlord nodded and watched as Gabrielle pulled the different items out of the saddlebag and poured some herbs into the pot for tea.
"I need to go get water for the tea." the bard said, not wanting to make any move that might upset the warlord, who seemed to be rather calm at the moment.
"I'll get it." Xena replied, walking over and taking the pot. She looked at the amount of herbs and frowned. "Is that all there is?"
"No, but there's enough in there for your tea." the bard replied. So unsure of what would set the leather clad woman off, Gabrielle was afraid to assume she could have a cup as well and thus only put enough in for Xena.
"Give it to me." she took the pouch of herbs from the bard and added more than enough to the pot for both of them.
Ephiny was awakened by the frantic pounding on her door. "Come." she said groggily, rising to her feet and reaching for her clothes. Ilanna, Ephiny's assigned guard, entered and began rapidly trying to explain what was going on. Ilanna joined the Amazon nation during her twenty-first summer after having escaped a slave ship from Egypt. Now four summers later, her Greek had improved to a point where she was easily understood despite her thick accent. Easily understood, that is, when she spoke slowly. At the moment however, the only words that Ephiny could understand were Eponin, Solari, and Saras. The mention of the healer's name in the same sentence as her closest friends struck a chord of fear deep into her heart. "Ilanna...Ilanna calm down." the blond Amazon said, reaching out and putting her hands on the copper toned woman's shoulders. "What happened?"
Ephiny entered the healer's hut reluctantly. The report she wrangled out of her near hysterical guard told her little save that her two friends had been attacked in Minos and that Eponin had been hurt so bad that she had to be carried in on a travois. Now in Saras' hut, Ephiny saw that the words hadn't been exaggerated. Saras and one of her assistants were working feverishly to stitch the deep gash that threatened to drain all of her friend's life blood. Eponin was unconscious, something that the regent thought must have been a blessing considering the severity of the wound. Solari lay on the other bed, her upper arm heavily bandaged. Ephiny didn't need to see the wound to know it must have been a hades of a fight. Solari's clothes were covered in blood and the blond ruler silently prayed it didn't all belong to her Amazons. She sat down on the edge of Solari's bed.
"How's Ep?" the tall, dark haired warrior asked quietly. The healer in Minos did little to help them, merely wrapping the wounds tightly with bandages and telling them to return to their village for treatment. Minos was the closest village to the Amazon lands, slightly more than four candlemarks away, yet there were still people there who resented the strong and independent tribe of women. Unfortunately for Eponin and Solari, the healer of Minos was one of those people.
"They're still working on her." Ephiny replied, casting a glance over at the other bed. Saras called for more water, bandages, and thread. That was not a good sign. If there was one thing the Amazon healer was known for it was her tendency to always have more supplies at her side than she needed. To have her call for more meant that the wound was far worse than she had anticipated. Ephiny looked back at Solari. "Can you tell me what happened?"
Solari licked her lips nervously. "We were sitting in the tavern and Xena and Gabrielle came in." she watched Ephiny's eyes light up at the mention of her friends' names. Solari swallowed hard, knowing that the blond Amazon wouldn't like what came next. "Eph, Xena's changed. She's a warlord again." the look of surprise turned to a look of confusion.
"No, that can't be." she said incredulously. "There must be some mistake. What did Gabrielle say?"
"Gabrielle couldn't say much. She's being held hostage." Solari replied.
"Hos-no, that's not possible. By Xena?" Ephiny shook her head in disbelief.
"Yes, Eph. By Xena. She's demanding fifty thousand dinars for Gabrielle's safe return." she looked over at the other bed where her best friend was being tended to. "Xena did this to us." the dark haired Amazon said angrily.
"Where's Gabrielle? You didn't leave her with Xena, did you?" Ephiny asked worriedly. If the leather clad warrior was out of control, there was no telling what she would do to her.
"We had no choice, she ordered us to leave and warn you." she debated for a moment before continuing. "She fought Xena to try and protect us." Solari decided to keep the knowledge of their queen's appearance to herself. Telling Ephiny about the signs of physical abuse would only get her more upset. "Xena's demanded the money be placed in the middle of the old field on the northern edge of our lands. She said that if there was any sign of Amazons that she'd kill Gabrielle without a thought." the dark haired warrior looked over at her bandaged shoulder. "Ephiny, I believe her. There was nothing in her eyes but anger and rage." Solari said. Saras came over and placed a hand on Ephiny's shoulder.
"She needs to rest. Come, I want to talk to you." the healer said. Ephiny nodded and followed her out of the hut, Ilanna close behind.
Saras walked away from the hut, not stopping until she reached the large series of adjoining huts that made up the royal palace. Ephiny nodded and led her inside and to the large conference room. Although there no one else was around, Saras spoke quietly. "They both lost a great deal of blood. Eponin's wound should have been stitched up immediately." her words carried with them a bitter tone of anger. "I believe both will recover...." she hesitated, clearly wanting to say more.
"What? There's something you're not telling me." Ephiny said in her most authoritative tone.
"It...it's too early to tell, but I fear that some of the injuries will have permanent ramifications. The wounds were quite deep and the damage extensive. The muscles in Eponin's leg were almost completely severed."
Ephiny closed her eyes at the painful news. Fear for her friends, fear for Gabrielle, and even fear for the world in general if Xena was truly a warlord again filled her. "And Solari?"
"I'm more optimistic about her. Her injury was apparently made by a sword and not Xena's chakram. She's complaining of numbness in her fingers. Perhaps the feeling will return when she heals. The body is a mysterious thing, Ephiny. Miracles happen. We'll pray to Artemis for them."
Saras left to tend to her charges. Ilanna sat down at the table next to Ephiny. "What are you going to do?" the Carmelite Amazon asked. Ephiny rubbed her eyes, darkened from lack of sleep.
"I don't know, this just doesn't make any sense." she set her hands on the table and leaned back in her chair. "I know Xena's pretended to be a warlord again before, but this...this is totally different. Holding Gabrielle hostage, demanding a ransom, attacking two of our finest warriors? Ilanna, we can't afford for Xena to go back to her old ways. In the battle of Corinth she destroyed half the Centaur army before pulling out. Right now she can still be stopped. Without an army by her side, our warriors can defeat her."
"Then why haven't you dispatched a group of them to find her yet?" Ilanna asked the obvious question. "Surely you don't intend to pay the ransom, do you?" the pause she received concerned the royal guard. "Ephiny, she attacked two Amazons and is holding the queen hostage. How can you stand by and not do something about it? Xena must be captured and punished for her crimes, you know that."
"I know." Ephiny growled, standing up and walking over to the wall covered with ceremonial masks. "This isn't some nameless warlord we're talking about. This is Xena, a person I'm proud to call friend."
"In light of what's happened perhaps you should rethink that, Ephiny."
The blond Amazon turned around quickly, anger evident on her face. "This is the woman who delivered my son. The woman who saved us from a war with the Centaurs and helped us create a peace with them that we've never seen before. The woman that risked her own life to protect Gabrielle AND the village from Velasca. How can I turn my back on her now?" she put her hands on the back of the chair and leaned against it.
"I know you don't want to hear this, Ephiny, but this is also the woman that burned villages to the ground, killed countless men, women, and children, and at this moment is holding the leader of the Amazon nation as prisoner. What choice do you have?"
"I have the choice not to hunt her down like a dog." the regent exclaimed. "I don't know what happened, but somehow we have to get Gabrielle back to us safely AND do it without killing Xena."
"That may not be an option anymore, Ephiny. The whole village knows by now what happened to Solari and Eponin. How are you going to answer their calls for Xena's blood?"
The blond ruler bowed her head. "I don't know, Ilanna. I just don't know. I can't believe that Xena willingly would do all this. I wish there was a way to talk to Gabrielle and find out what's going on."
"If Gabrielle is still alive, Eph. Who knows what Xena did to her after Solari and Ep escaped." Ilanna said, regretting it instantly when she saw the look on Ephiny's face. She realized that she had made her point, but wondered if the cost was worth it. The blond ruler walked back over to the wall and stared at the masks of her foremothers as if she could draw strength from them. For several moments she said nothing. When she did speak, her words were laced with regret and pain.
"Find out from Solari when the exchange is supposed to take place. Then collect the best warrior and archers and have them make preparations."
"Right away." Ilanna headed for the door.
"Ilanna, I want it made clear that under no circumstances is anyone to try and take justice into their own hands. Xena is to be captured, not killed." Ephiny spoke in the tone reserved for official declarations and her body language made it clear that her words were not to be taken lightly.
"What if Xena leaves them no choice?"
"Let's try not to put her in that position, shall we? Remember that she and Gabrielle have a special bond together. You weren't there in the Hall of Ambrosia, you didn't see how they looked at each other when Xena was in that sarcophagus and opened her eyes. I did. How do you think our queen would feel if her own people killed the woman she loves?"
"If it was to save her life, I think she'd understand."
"That's because you don't know Gabrielle like I do." Ephiny said simply. She sighed and ran her fingers through her curly blond hair. "You have your orders, Ilanna." she waited for the dark Amazon to leave and returned to studying the masks and trying to ignore the pounding pain behind her eyes.
Athena knew something was wrong the instant she entered her realm and saw the table with the miniature version of Athens there. She hesitantly walked over to it, not looking forward at all to seeing what her sister thought of the latest events. She looked over the scaled down city, frowning at was she saw. Both the Acropolis and the Parthenon were destroyed as were all the statues devoted to her. "Tsk tsk tsk."
The Goddess of Wisdom turned to see Ares standing there, a self-satisfied grin on his face. He sauntered over to the table and casually glanced at the damage. "It seems that our dear Artemis is a bit upset with you."
"I still believe that their love will persevere." she said, not at all trusting her brother.
"Yes, well, believe what you want, Athena. Let me ask you this, do you think the Athenian army could withstand an attack from the Amazons?" he put two fingers down on the table and walked them through the streets of the city. "Hmm?"
"There won't be an attack on Athens by the Amazons, Ares. Even if Xena fails, Artemis isn't so mean spirited as to attack an innocent city." she said confidently, even though inside she feared exactly that. The Athenian army was good, but if the entire Amazon nation descended upon her beloved city, she didn't know if it could survive.
"Are you willing to take that chance?" he twirled one finger through the dust that once was a miniature statue of Athena. "I can have an army surround Athens in the blink of an eye, just say the word."
"No, Ares. We have an agreement."
"Ah yes, that little brat's life, I remember. Tell me, though..." he waved his hand over her scrying bowl, filling it with the vision of Gabrielle's battered face. "Already Xena has shown that she has no problem smacking that little queen around. Do you really think that Gabrielle will forgive her? Or trust her again?" he smiled at the concerned look on Athena's face. "You see, I win either way. If Xena fails, she comes back to me and returns to her rightful position at my side while Artemis sends her Amazons down on your city. Now your army may be able to defend Athens, perhaps even defeat those harlots. But what about the next army? And the one after that? Can your army protect Athens then? When Xena returns to me, I'll give her the biggest, most fearsome army the world has ever known. Just guess what the first city they'll attack will be." he grinned evilly. "If by some chance Xena passes this little challenge...well, can you see Gabrielle staying with her after all she's been through? The poor dear. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if she decides to stay with the Amazons. What will Xena do then? Why, without someone there to guide her, she'll fall back into my fold in a matter of days. So you see, either way I get Xena back and Athens falls."
"You bastard! You had this planned all along, didn't you?" she seethed. "I knew you were desperate to get Xena back but that was just the precursor, wasn't it? Your real goal was to destroy Athens." she said angrily, furious at being duped by his deceit and treachery.
"Let's not forget about the Amazons." he stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I just don't which I want to destroy first, your city or Artemis' precious harlots. Ah well, makes no difference. They'll both be crushed soon enough." he smirked in a most annoying fashion at his sister. "You know, for the Goddess of Wisdom, it sure took you long enough to figure it out." his laughter grew louder, echoing off the walls of her realm as he disappeared.
Athena walked over to her scrying bowl and looked down at the image. "Oh Gabrielle, I hope I haven't overestimated your love for her. Without you, there'll be no way to stop Ares from controlling her again and if that happens...." she couldn't finish her sentence, the thought of the Destroyer of Nations returning to the God of War was just too horrid. "Be strong, Gabrielle, be strong."
Xena sipped her tea and stared at the sleeping woman. In the light of early morning, the purple bruise that surrounded Gabrielle's eye stood out in sharp contrast to the rest of her face, save for the other bruises around her mouth and jaw. The warlord felt a tinge of regret for her treatment of the prisoner, especially after the way the young woman had so carefully stitched up her thigh the night before. There was something almost loving in the way Gabrielle had touched her. Xena shook her head. It made no sense. She had beaten the woman, attacked her compatriots, held her for ransom, even tried to kill her. Yet Gabrielle still tended to her wounds and spoke to her as if she were a friend. Xena rose and pulled some herbs out of her saddlebag, mixing them together in the pot and adding water from the skin. She set it on the fire to boil, then grabbed the soap and walked over to Argo. Gabrielle had unsaddled the horse last night, but it was too dark then to wash the blood off. Now in the light of day, Xena led Argo to the edge of the pond and began to gently clean her. After she finished, the warlord returned to the campsite and untied the sleeping woman. Xena finished her now cold cup of tea and waited for the blond woman to wake up.
For a moment, the bard forgot that she was being held hostage until she went to rub the sleep out of her eyes and felt the pain of her shiner and the rawness of her wrists. Now remembering the recent events, Gabrielle sat up and looked at Xena, trying to gauge her mood. The dark haired woman poured the hot liquid from the pot into a cup and handed it to her. "Drink this, it'll help ease the swelling." Gabrielle looked at the cup warily, unsure of its contents. Xena noticed and frowned. "It's not poison, Amazon. Drink." the bard drank it down as quickly as she could, not wanting to anger her captor and face the possibility of another attack. She was relieved when she recognized the different herbs in the drink as being helpful instead of harmful.
"Thank you." Gabrielle said as she set the empty cup down. The warlord grunted and started to pack up her bedroll and gear.
"We have to keep moving to avoid any rescue attempts." she looked at the mountain range in the distance, a good day's ride away. She knew the area well, having traveled through it several times over the summers with her army. Xena recalled several large caverns and caves that were easily camouflage and would make good hiding places for her until it was time to collect the ransom. She remembered a small village nearby that would serve as a good place to get more supplies. Even if the Amazons questioned people in the village and someone mentioned seeing her, there was still no way the women warriors would find her or their queen in the vast maze of caverns that cut through the mountain. She gave Gabrielle time to make a trip to the woods and to eat a meager breakfast before hoisting her onto Argo. Xena thought about tying the young woman's hands to the saddle horn again, but decided that it wasn't necessary. Besides, she was running out of rope and needed to conserve as much of it as she could. She fastened her scabbard to her hip and put on her cape before climbing up behind the blond and sending the horse into motion.
Xena kept to the road, her eyes searching constantly for any signs of Amazons. She knew better than to get caught within the forest. The women warriors were experts on using the trees to their advantage and the warlord wanted the odds to be in her favor, not theirs. Gabrielle sat quietly in front of her, well aware of the arm encircling her waist and the thighs pressed up against hers. Xena had never sat so close to her before and the contact of skin against skin flared up hidden feelings within the bard. With the silence, Gabrielle could pretend that it was her Xena that was touching her, that there was no danger or threat, that it was just the two of them riding along the countryside as they had done so many times before. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the warm hand against her belly, the soft muscular thighs touching hers, the feel of the woman she loved against her. There were so many times that Gabrielle had longed to tell Xena of her true feelings, of her need and desire. Sadly she realized that she might never get the chance. Whatever reason the gods had for doing this, she had lost her Xena, possibly forever. Her musings were interrupted by Xena's hand abruptly leaving her abdomen and pulling hard on the reins.
Standing in the road in front of them were seven well armed men, all leering at them. "Hello boys." Xena drawled.
"Looks like we might just have some fun today after all." the largest man said to the rest of his group as he rubbed his crotch suggestively. "Come on down off the horse ladies."
"I'll make it easy for you...you can move to the side and let us pass or you can spend the rest of the day picking up your guts from the ground. The choice is yours." Xena pulled the side of her cape back to reveal her sword and scabbard.
"Ooh, girlie has a sword." he jeered, causing the rest of the men to laugh uproariously. Gabrielle knew without turning around that Xena was grinning at the underestimation of her ability to handle her weapon. "You really think that you can handle all of us?"
"Do you really want to find out?" she dismounted and stood in front of Argo, sword drawn. Gabrielle reached down and pulled her staff out of the saddlebag, assembling it quickly. The seven men moved to try and encircle them as the bard climbed down and readied her staff for defense. The leader and two others charged at Xena while two tried for Gabrielle and two headed for Argo. A large strong horse like that would either fetch a good price in the village or make several meals for them. Just as the leader reached Xena, she let out a piercing yell and swung her sword out to meet his.
Gabrielle swung her staff with ease, quickly pulling the legs out from under one of them and swinging it back to catch the other one in the midsection. Argo danced in circles, keeping her reins out of reach of the two frustrated men. "Dammit, stand still." one of them yelled. This horse would never make it to market, he decided as he drew his sword. Xena heard the blade being removed from its sheath and without looking released her chakram. It careened off his head and ricocheted into a nearby tree, the wood weakened by parasites living within the tall cypress. Xena frowned at the momentary loss of her weapon. The distraction almost cost her dearly as the leader swung his sword in a vicious arc. She brought her sword up at the last heartbeat to block the blow. With her attention divided between the three men in front of her, the warlord couldn't see the one man give up on catching the horse and concentrate on slipping up behind her. Gabrielle knocked out the last of her attackers just in time to see the man heading for the otherwise occupied Xena. "Behind you!" she yelled. Without looking, the dark haired woman brought her foot back and connected with his chest, sending him sprawling to the ground. Within moments it was over. Four of the men were dead, the other three unconscious. Xena walked over to the leader and untied the wineskin from his belt. She opened the stopper and sniffed it carefully before taking a sip. Satisfied, she tied it to the saddlehorn and retrieved her chakram from the tree. When she returned to Argo's side, she found that Gabrielle had already disassembled her staff and put it back in the saddlebag.
"Do you always help those that are holding you captive?" Xena asked as she helped Gabrielle up before climbing up behind her. The bard thought carefully before answering.
"I'd rather be your prisoner than theirs."
"Don't be too sure about that, Amazon." the warlord said before wrapping her arm around Gabrielle's waist and sending Argo into motion.
Ephiny walked onto the field to survey the preparations. One team was busy using flat edged spades to cut squares in the grass as long as an average warrior was tall. Another group was carefully pulling away the patch of grass so a third group could move in with shovels and dig out pits for the archers to hide in. On the edge of the field, an assembly line of women were busy making box frames to set inside the pits with hinged roofs to attach the grass to. If everything worked out correctly, three dozen archers would be hidden in the pits, which were set in a circular pattern around the center of the field. The blond ruler walked up behind Ilanna, who was supervising the operation. "Are you sure she won't see the pits?"
"No, great care will be given to groom the field so the cut lines aren't visible. We're lucky that the grass is as tall as it is. That will help to conceal them." Ilanna replied. "By the time she realizes that they're there, it will be far too late for her to escape. Ephiny nodded in understanding.
"Where will the scouts be positioned?"
"There'll be four in the trees on the road and six others throughout the nearby forest in case she tries to sneak past them."
"No, there'll be no need for them. She has Gabrielle as a shield. There's no reason for her to hide. She'll know that we're watching her." Ephiny took the map from Ilanna and noted the positions of the scouts. "Move these two over here, they'll be able further down the road. Which pits will also hold warriors?"
"Every third one will also contain a warrior." the ebony guard explained.
"No, you're underestimating her. Ilanna, her arm was dislocated and her solution was to bash her shoulder against a rock wall to put it back in place. Twelve warriors, even with archers as backups, won't be able to handle her if she gets into a rage. I've only seen her in a real battle once, against Krykus, but I've heard stories about her exploits from Gabrielle." Ephiny remembered a story she was told about Xena being in a prison and jerking the chains free with just her brute strength. "I have to go see the smithy. Make those changes and meet me at Saras' hut. I'll see Solari and Eponin when I'm through."
Gryne was hard at work in her shop forging a new sword for Eponin when Ephiny arrived. Her grey hair was cut less than the width of a finger away from her head. Her powerful forearms, broad, muscular chest, and larger than average height made her the perfect blacksmith for the village. She did more than just fashion blades and arrows, Gryne was also an accomplished sculptor with granite and had assisted in the repairs to Artemis' temple after Velasca's rampage desecrated it. If anyone could handle the task Ephiny was about to give, it would be Gryne.
She looked up from her task and smiled at the blond ruler. "What can I do for you today, Ephiny?"
"I need you to fashion manacles and chains so strong that Hercules himself couldn't break them. They must be linked to granite slabs so heavy that ten Amazons couldn't lift them." she stopped, momentarily alarmed by her own coldness toward a woman that she called friend. Gryne set the blade back in the coals, sending hot ash rising skyward. Ephiny looked at the orange glow that quickly worked its way up the metal and remembered why the sword was being made in the first place. Eponin's sword had been given to her by her mother, passed down six generations from mother to daughter. It was her friend's prized possession. She made a mental note to send someone to Minos to try and locate the weapon, despite the knowledge that a sword of that quality and craftsmanship was most likely long gone. Ephiny took a deep breath and pushed all thoughts of friendship aside. She didn't need to hold Xena, the warrior friend of the queen, she needed to keep the animal that attacked her friends and was holding Gabrielle hostage from escaping. When she looked at Gryne again, Ephiny's jaw was set, her eyes narrowed with intensity. "I want you to make sure that Xena won't be able to escape, no matter what."
Gryne nodded grimly. She had been thinking all morning about what happened to Eponin and Solari. "She won't escape, Ephiny. I swear to Artemis." the smithy said firmly.
Saras met the blond ruler at the door of the hut and filled her in on both women's conditions. Solari was alert and doing much better, reporting tingling feelings in her fingers, a sure sign of healing. Eponin was not as lucky. The strong, quiet warrior had been reduced to tears several times from the intense pain caused by the chakram wound. Saras gave her as much pain medicine as she dared and it didn't seem to even touch the agony the stocky Amazon was in. Eponin was talking out of her head when Ephiny entered. The blond woman wanted to stay and be there for her friend but there were too many matters that had to be attended to first. She pressed Solari for every detail of their meeting with Xena, urging her to hold nothing back. At first the tall dark haired Amazon was reluctant to tell her everything, especially the condition of Gabrielle's face. But the more she talked about what happened and the more she listened to her friend crying out in pain, the more angry Solari became. She held nothing back, not even when she saw Ephiny visibly wince at some of her more graphic descriptions. The dark haired Amazon made every detail excruciatingly clear to the blond ruler. By the time Ephiny left the healer's hut, she was convinced that she had been right to insist on the extra warriors and restraints. She swore to Artemis that she would capture Xena or die trying.
It was nightfall by the time Xena found the cave she was looking for. The opening was barely wide enough for the reluctant Argo to squeeze through but the cave itself had plenty of room for them. There was evidence of previous occupants, most likely Xena's army when they had passed through there summers ago. A small ring of stones marked the location of a long dead fire and a small pile of dried wood was gathered at the far end of the cave. Xena started the fire while keeping one eye on her unrestrained prisoner. The warlord was certain that she wouldn't try to escape, especially when Gabrielle unloaded the saddlebags and bedrolls and started to set up camp. Xena watched with great interest at the speed and ease at which the Amazon laid everything out, as if she did it all the time. Once the fire was going, the warlord unsaddled Argo and brushed her down before bringing the wineskin and saddle over near the fire. She sat down and used the saddle as a backrest. Gabrielle had finished laying out the bedrolls on opposite sides of the fire and had already started water to boil for tea. Xena unstoppered the wineskin and took a deep draught before holding it out to the Amazon. "Go ahead, you fought them as much as I did." the warlord said when Gabrielle seemed reluctant to take the skin. The warlord watched her take a small swallow before trying to return it. Xena refused. "What's the matter, Gabrielle? I know you Amazons like good wine."
"Well...I'm not much of a drinker, I guess." she said. Despite the civil treatment she had received that day, the bard was still wary and wanted to keep her senses as alert as possible. Xena leaned forward and took the wineskin. She took another drink and handed it back to her prisoner. This time Gabrielle got the message and took a decent swallow. Apparently Xena was trying to be sociable and the bard wasn't about to do anything that might cause the leather clad woman to become angry again. They passed the wineskin back and forth, slowly draining it, the pot on the fire forgotten. Indeed, Gabrielle only remembered it when all the water had boiled away. She looked at Xena apologetically. "I'm sorry. I'll get some more."
"Don't bother." the warlord replied as she took another drink. "I'm not in the mood for tea anyway." She removed her armor and sprawled out on her side, propped up on one elbow. She went to pass the skin back to Gabrielle but couldn't reach. "Move closer." the bard hesitated for only a moment before grabbing her bedroll and moving around the fire until she was within arms reach of the leather clad woman. She adopted the same relaxed position as Xena and took the wineskin. The orange glow of the flames flickered off her well-developed abdomen, highlighting the muscles for Xena to see. The warlord openly gazed at Gabrielle, her eyes traveling up and down the bard's body. By the gods, this woman is beautiful, Xena thought to herself. She took the almost empty skin back and finished it off, tossing the empty sack behind her. "You must be anxious to get back to your village, to your lover."
"Um..." Gabrielle noticed the frank examination and the hunger in Xena's eyes and swallowed nervously. "I don't have a lover."
"As queen I would think you could have anyone you chose." the warlord replied, rolling onto her stomach. The move put just that much closer to the young blond.
"I...well, there was someone that I wanted, but...." she looked into the fire, the conversation and closeness combined with the wine was making it hard for her to think clearly.
"Your friend? The one you said I reminded you of?"
"Yes." Gabrielle admitted. "She's the only one I ever wanted."
"Why didn't you become lovers?" she pulled herself closer to the bard, her own desire heightening when she heard Gabrielle's breathing quicken. "Did she want someone else?"
"N-no, not that I know of." her heart beat faster when she looked up from the fire and caught the blue eyes staring at her cleavage. "I guess she didn't find me...desirable." the emotions were getting too strong for Gabrielle and she stood up, intent on returning her bedroll to the far side of the fire and away from the powerful presence. Xena rose and wrapped one long arm around Gabrielle's waist, pulling her close.
"That's too bad." the dark haired woman said huskily. "Because you are a very desirable woman." she pulled the bard closer, until bare skin connected with soft leather. Gabrielle's hands went to Xena's upper chest, intent on pushing herself away. This wasn't her Xena, this was a warlord holding her prisoner, she kept telling herself. Her body told her a different story as her hands slid up to wrap around the taller woman's neck. The unique scent of leather and Xena filled Gabrielle's nostrils, making it hard for her to concentrate.
"We shouldn't..." she made the mistake of looking up into the blue eyes, dark with desire. "I-I never..." she was silenced by the pressure of Xena's lips on hers. The warlord's tongue pushed past the bard's lips and demanded entry to her mouth while one strong hand reached between them to undo the laces of Gabrielle's top. The young woman whimpered when tongues collided and dueled within her mouth. Xena's hands became more insistent, one deftly undoing her top and the other cupping and squeezing her firm rear. Gabrielle felt her knees go weak under the oral onslaught and she tightened her hold around the taller woman's neck.
The warlord smiled at the surrender and guided them to her bedroll. As she lowered Gabrielle down, she pulled the lace free, causing the green top to open and expose the hidden treasures within. Xena's tongue blazed a trail down the bard's throat and chest until her lips wrapped around one pink nipple. Gabrielle gasped and her back arched involuntarily at the delicious contact. She tried to think of a reason why she shouldn't allow it to continue but with each flick of Xena's tongue Gabrielle's reasoning skills dissipated. Her fingers buried themselves in the raven hair and she had no control over the sighs and moans escaping from her lips. Xena brought her hand up to knead and fondle the other breast, capturing the nipple between her thumb and forefinger and squeezing firmly. "Oh sweet gods...." Gabrielle cried when the warlord switched the position of her mouth and hand. Xena couldn't remember the last time she had felt someone so responsive to her. It was as if the young queen's body was meant for her to enjoy. The soft moans and cries only served to drive Xena further. She slipped one powerful thigh between Gabrielle's legs and pressed against her, eliciting a deep groan.
Xena propped herself up on one elbow and looked down at the face flushed with desire. "Open your eyes, Gabrielle." she commanded. The warlord held her gaze while she slipped her hand down to unfasten the belt. "So beautiful." she murmured as the leather fell away and her fingers hooked around the edge of the bard's skirt. "You want this."
"Yes" came the breathless reply. Skilled fingers unwrapped the folds of material, revealing the golden triangle of curly hair. Xena's hand slipped between Gabrielle's thighs.
"You need this." she urged, her fingers pressing against the wet folds but not entering.
"Yes." the bard replied breathlessly, her hips arching on their own. One lone finger slid between and was soaked instantly with Gabrielle's passion.
"You need me." Xena commanded as another finger joined the first, both resting just outside the young woman's opening. The bard's hips rocked, trying to draw the warlord in.
"Tell me." she brought her thumb in, resting just to the side of Gabrielle's clit.
"Please." the bard begged, reaching down to capture Xena's wrist. The warlord held fast, refusing to give in.
"Tell me, Gabrielle." she wiggled her thumb, sending a jolt of pleasure though the young woman.
"Please, Xena, please." she cried. All of her senses were concentrated on the burning need between her legs. "I need you."
With those words spoken out of pure desire, Xena brought her head down and captured a nipple between her teeth at the same time she plunged her fingers deep within Gabrielle's core. "Oh gods!" she screamed as her hips came off the blanket, trying to draw more of Xena into her. The warlord began pumping her fingers in and out while her thumb went to work on its task. She brought her head up and watched Gabrielle's face as she increased the rhythm of her strokes. The green eyes were shut tight, unintelligible grunts and cries came from her mouth and her arms flailed about helplessly until they found purchase in the long tresses of raven hair. With a strength born of passion, she pulled Xena's face down for a kiss.
"So responsive." the warlord growled before hungrily claiming her mouth. She pulled her fingers all the way back until only the very tips remained inside the bard, then added a third finger and sank them back in as deep as she could go. Xena buried her face in Gabrielle's hair and increased the speed and force of her strokes. Coherent speech was impossible for the bard as her body took over and her hips bucked frantically against the warlord's questing fingers. Xena groaned at the damp tightness that gripped her fingers and wished she had removed her own clothes as the dampness between her legs increased. Gabrielle's hips met the warlord stroke for stroke and the series of 'oh gods' and 'yes Xena, more' increased in volume. The raven haired woman sat up and brought her other hand down through the golden curls until she reached Gabrielle's clit. The frantic rocking made it hard for her to maintain contact with the sensitive nub and Xena resorted to flattening her fingers against it and rubbing back and forth rapidly. Gabrielle's fingers dug into the warlord's upper arm and she gritted her teeth as she felt herself lose control. Xena felt the spasms begin deep within the young woman and gave her one last deep plunge. Gabrielle's body arched and stiffened as she climaxed and a scream of pleasure was torn from her lungs. She collapsed weakly back to the ground, the warlord's fingers still inside her. Only when Gabrielle's inner muscles stopped twitching with aftershocks did Xena slowly remove them, the action drawing another moan from the near unconscious woman.
The warlord stood and quickly removed her clothes before laying down against the still recovering woman. She ran the back of one long finger against the soft skin of bard's cheek. "You're so beautiful, Gabrielle." she murmured. She took the smaller hand in hers and brought it to her mouth. Xena took one of Gabrielle's fingers into her mouth and nibbled and sucked on the tip. Once it was thoroughly wet, she brought it down to circle her own dark nipple, sighing at the feeling. "Touch me." she groaned, pressing Gabrielle's hand firmly against her breast. Xena's legs wrapped around the bard's thigh and pulled it against her aching sex. Gabrielle opened her eyes and watched her best friend's face as Xena rocked against her. She squeezed the breast beneath her hand and felt the hard nipple press into her palm. The knowledge of what she was about to do hit her and Gabrielle withdrew her hand.
"What's wrong?" Xena asked when she felt the break in contact. The bard couldn't meet her gaze, choosing instead to look down between them. Gabrielle mumbled something unintelligible. The raven haired woman put her fingers beneath the bard's chin and tilted her head up until they could make eye contact. "Tell me." she said, wanting to straighten out whatever was obviously making the Amazon uncomfortable so they could go back to what they were doing.
"I don't know what to do." she whispered. "I've never been with a woman before."
Xena released her grip and looked at her in disbelief. "You've never slept with a woman before?"
"No." her cheeks flushed slightly with embarrassment. "I've only been with one person before, my husband, and that was only for one night."
"You've only had sex once?"
"Well you don't have to say it like it's a bad thing, you know." she shot back, now clearly uncomfortable. This was not how she dreamed her first time with Xena would be.
"Hey...look at me." she gently turned the bard's attention back to her instead of the fire. "I didn't know. I thought you were...experienced." she took Gabrielle's hand and put it back on her breast. "Like this." Xena put her hand on the bard's generous breast and gently kneaded the warm, soft flesh. Gabrielle mimicked the warlord's actions and soon found herself squeezing and fondling Xena's erect nipple. She smiled when she saw the blue eyes close and the full lips form a small smile. Gabrielle went on instinct after that, taking her cues from the older woman's body language and soft groans. Xena soon resumed her rocking motion against the bard's thigh, soaking it with her wetness. She rolled onto her back, pulling Gabrielle on top of her. She guided the bard's mouth to her breast. "Suck me, Gabrielle...mmm, yes, like that." she moaned. The young woman experimented, learning what pleased Xena and what didn't and how much was too much. It only took a couple of ouches from the warlord for her to learn the limits and stay within them. She brought her hand up on her own and began squeezing and pinching the other nipple, causing Xena's hips to rock beneath her. The warlord could take only so much of Gabrielle's exploration before she needed more. She shifted the young woman off of her and guided the smaller woman's hand between her legs. "Touch me, Gabrielle." she kept her hand on top of the bard's, guiding her between the folds. "Go inside." she croaked, her voice thick with need. Worried about hurting her, Gabrielle slowly entered with one finger, marveling at the texture and feeling of actually being inside Xena. "More..." she added a second finger, feeling the slight pressure of the inner walls surrounding her fingers. "More." Gabrielle added a third and finally a fourth finger, slowly stretching the wet skin around them. Xena reached down and tried to reach the bard's sex, frustrated to find it beyond the reach of her hand. She grabbed Gabrielle's thigh and guided her to a kneeling position, the bard's upper body laying across her torso. "Move your knees apart." she commanded, smiling at the speed at which the young woman complied. She slipped two fingers in deep, pleased at the renewed wetness against her fingers. Gabrielle moaned and pressed deeper with her own hand, drawing a similar response from the warlord beneath her. They worked each other, meeting stroke for stroke as both fell into the spell of passion. Xena added a third finger, stretching the young woman as far as she felt comfortable, and began pumping her with the same enthusiasm as before. Gabrielle gripped the warlord's thigh and cried out at the sudden change in tempo. She increased the motion and speed of her own hand within the older woman, unsure if she would be able to continue as she felt herself rising again. She rocked back and forth, meeting the long fingers thrust for thrust, blindly seeking the impending release. She buried her head into Xena's hip and her hand stilled as a violent orgasm ripped through her body. She collapsed against the warlord's body, shuddering when she felt the fingers slowly pull out of her. Gabrielle began moving her hand again, refusing to succumb to her need to recover in her quest to bring the woman she loved the same pleasure she had received. She laid there, slowly pulling in and out until she felt enough of her strength return to move. She shifted her position and knelt next to Xena's thigh, giving herself better leverage. Gabrielle increased her motions in an attempt to match the pace of the older woman's hips. "Harder." Xena cried, her hips bucking frantically. Gabrielle gritted her teeth and pumped as fast and hard as she could, amazed by the amount of fluid flowing out and covering her hand. With a mighty yell Xena arched up and stayed suspended in the air, her inner muscles spasming around Gabrielle's fingers. The bard went to pull out but was stopped by Xena's hand around her wrist, keeping her inside. "Wait." she gasped. After a few heartbeats, she lowered her hips back to the ground and released her grip on Gabrielle's wrist. The bard slowly pulled out and rubbed the aching muscles in her arm. Xena laid there, eyes closed, letting herself slowly come back to earth. When she finally opened them, she saw Gabrielle looking down at her, a mixture of emotions on her face. Xena held her arm out to the side, silently inviting the young woman in. Gabrielle smiled and scooted up to lay her head against the raven haired woman's broad shoulder. The feel of Xena against her and the steady heartbeat beneath her ear served to quickly lull the bard to sleep.
Xena laid there for a full candlemark listening to the steady breathing of the woman sleeping next to her. Never before had anyone elicited such a response from her. Usually Xena dictated all the actions, her own pleasure all that mattered. Yet tonight she wanted, no, needed to please Gabrielle, to take her over the edge, to watch her face the moment she sailed away to ecstasy. One touch of that soft skin, one taste of those lips was all Xena needed to surrender herself to the joy of giving pleasure to another, to give instead of just taking. She reached out and brushed away a lock of hair from Gabrielle's face and sighed. 'If only you weren't their queen,' Xena mused. 'I'd keep you with me, by my side as I conquered Greece. But you are their queen, aren't you? You control them, guide them, lead them into battle. They do what you tell them to.' the warlord thought about being in charge of a whole army of Amazons. Unlike the men she usually filled her armies with, the warrior women were strong of heart, not likely to betray their leader for a few dinars. 'With you at my side and your Amazons at our back, we could crush all those who oppose or defy us.' she thought about the two warriors she fought with at the tavern. That could pose a problem but she was sure that she could handle it. After all, she had convinced their queen to surrender to her. With their leader on her side, it was only a matter of time before they all became loyal to her. If one or two chose to oppose her, what difference would their lives make in the grand scheme of things? With thoughts of an army of well trained Amazons under her control and their queen in her bed, Xena slipped off to a comfortable slumber.
Solari was awakened by the sound of pottery smashing against the floor and a string of expletives. "Ep?" she got out of bed and knelt down on the floor next to the stocky warrior. She reached out her good arm to help Eponin up only to have it smacked away angrily.
"I don't need your help, Solari. I just wanted to get to the pot. Guess I can't even do that without help now." She said dejectedly. Saras came out of the back room where she slept when she had patients.
"What is going on here?" she held her torch out to see to two women on the floor. "Eponin, I told you to stay in your bed. Do you want to rip all your stitches?" she chastised.
"I don't care." she snapped back. "What difference does it make? I know. I can feel it. You may not want to tell me the truth but I know." she lowered her voice and looked at her bandaged thigh. "What good is a warrior who can't walk?"
"Eponin, that's not true." Solari said. "You just have to give yourself time to heal. You've been hurt before in battle and came through just fine." she looked at the healer. "Tell her, Saras, tell her that she'll be fine."
The healer looked down at them, truly not wanting to have this conversation. "Solari, you need to get back to bed. I'll get someone to help me with you, Eponin."
"Go to Hades, Saras. I don't need your help." she growled. She set the table she had knocked over back up and tried to pull herself up. Solari put her hand on the table to keep it from falling over again while Saras came over to help. Eponin used her good leg to push herself back into the bed before the healer could reach her.
"Ep, I know it seems bad right now, but you will get better."
"Save your words for someone who cares, Solari. I'm not buying them. I've seen enough injuries to know when one is permanent. I saw you wiggling your fingers earlier. You'll be okay. Be happy for yourself." every word was said with anger and rage and Solari's face showed the hurt at the words spoken by her best friend. Saras put her hand on the tall Amazon's shoulder.
"Go back to your bed, Solari, there's nothing that can be done tonight." the healer said softly.
"Yeah, go back to your bed, I don't need your pity."
"No, it looks like you have enough of your own, Ep." Solari shot back. Saras guided the tall Amazon to her bed.
"Be gentle on her, Solari." the healer whispered. "This is hard on her, you know that. Don't take what she says seriously."
"I've never seen her like this, Saras, it's like she's given up."
"Shh, you rest. Things will be better in the morning." the healer lied. She'd seen the cycle before and knew the worst was yet to come. Warriors were always the hardest to deal with when they were permanently injured. More than any other class of Amazons, the protectors of the village were the ones that took their positions as a reflection of who they were and when they could no longer be warriors because of an injury, many went through a period of self pity and depression. Most came through the other side just fine, finding another vocation that allowed them to work despite their limitations. Sadly, she had seen far too many that never came out of their depression. Most of them ended up falling on their own swords, unable to bear the thought of not being a warrior anymore. Looking over at Eponin, Saras prayed to Artemis that the stocky warrior would choose to be one of the former and not the latter. The healer went to her counter of medicines and picked out a mixture of pain and sleep herbs that she hoped would calm Eponin down and allow her to rest. She mixed them together and added water to make a potent drink.
"Trying to keep me drugged, Saras?" the stocky warrior said as she took the offered cup. "I suppose it's just as well. At least when I'm talking crazy I don't think about the fact that I won't be able to be a warrior anymore." the healer knew better than to try and argue with the depressed woman. Words would make no difference at this point. Saras knew she could only heal the physical wounds caused by the warlord. The emotional ones were beyond her reach.
"I don't understand. That isn't like Eponin. She's always been so strong." Ephiny sighed. Ilanna sat down in the chair next to her. Saras had just left after giving the blond ruler a report on her patients. Ephiny rubbed her eyes and thought again of their queen being held captive by the same person that did so much damage to her friend. She walked over to the wall of ceremonial masks, drawing strength from them. "May Artemis have mercy on your soul if you've done anything to harm Gabrielle, Xena, because I won't." she vowed. She left the conference room to go check on the progress in the jail, Ilanna close behind.
Gryne slipped the last link through the cutout in the granite and sealed it with molten steel. "Hephaestus himself couldn't have done better." Ephiny said as she inspected the smithy's work. One large slab of granite anchored two thick chains drawn over pulleys. The manacles were designed more like gauntlets, tapered to be smaller at the wrist, making it impossible to wiggle out of. The leg manacles were fashioned similarly and had their own set of thick chains attached to the granite. Ephiny picked up one of the wrist manacles, ran her finger through the inside of it, and frowned. "Gryne, we don't torture our prisoners. Remove the burrs."
"Oh yes, we wouldn't want to make Xena uncomfortable, do we?" Gryne grumbled before picking up her rasp and file. "I don't know why we don't just put her on a rack or better yet just kill her on sight."
"Because we're Amazons, not animals!" Ephiny roared. All morning she had to listen to women complaining about her decision to capture rather than kill the warrior princess. "Something had to happen to cause Xena to change. We owe her a chance to explain herself before we pronounce sentence."
"What's to explain, Ephiny? You place too much trust in her because of what she did for you. She was a warlord, they don't change. Look what she did to Eponin and Solari."
Ephiny dropped the manacle. She was tired of defending her decision to every Amazon she came across. "Just make sure the insides are smooth. That's an order." she said firmly before storming out, the pounding in her head increasing.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked around. Her mouth tasted like something died in it and her head protested the sudden movement. The soreness between her legs and her nudity confirmed the fuzzy memory of the previous evening's events. There was no sign of Xena but Argo and the saddlebags were still there. The fire was heating up a pot of water so she knew that the tall woman would be returning soon, most likely only gone long enough to make a trip to the woods. Gabrielle laced her fingers behind her head and looked up at the cave ceiling. She couldn't help but smile at the memory of touching Xena intimately. The smile left when she allowed the reality of the situation to enter her thoughts. It wasn't her Xena. No matter how hard she tried to pretend that they had made love, Gabrielle knew that it didn't mean as much to the warlord as it did to her. There had been nothing gentle in Xena's touch. It had been raw, passionate, and exciting, but not loving. It had been enjoyable, most certainly, but it wasn't the way Gabrielle had pictured it would be. What would happen when Xena got her memory back? Would she remember what happened between them? Would she regret it? Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Xena returning.
Xena looked down at Gabrielle laying under the cover of the blanket. She had the pleasure of waking up over two candlemarks earlier and enjoying the sight of the beautiful naked woman lying sleeping next her. She had been tempted to wake the bard up and take her again but she knew there would be plenty of time for that. She watched as Gabrielle self-consciously wrapped the blanket around herself and reached for her clothes. The bard turned away from her to reach for her shirt. Xena knelt down behind her pulled the blanket away. Gabrielle leaned back against the leather-clad woman as long hands reached forward and cupped her breasts. "You're so beautiful, Gabrielle. I want you...now." she breathed into the bard's ear as her fingers found the rapidly hardening nipples.
Gabrielle moaned with pleasure but reached down to cover the larger hands with her own. She knew she couldn't handle another session like last night so soon. "Xena...I can't. I'm...a little sore." she shyly admitted. She was answered with a soft chuckle and the feeling of Xena's fingers resuming their task.
"You won't be for long. I'm sure I can make you forget all about that."
"I have a headache." Gabrielle said distractedly.
"I'll make you forget about that too." the warlord murmured into her ear before nibbling the soft flesh of Gabrielle's neck. Xena loved the effect her touch had on the young queen. She lowered her right hand until she reached the bard's soft curls. It took only the slightest pressure from her to get Gabrielle to spread her knees apart, opening herself to Xena's questing fingers. Like any well planned attack, Xena knew exactly what she was going to do and when she was going to do it. Her fingers explored, slipping between the folds and coating them with Gabrielle's warm wetness before bringing them up to lightly brush against the young queen's clit. Xena heard the soft gasp and smiled. So responsive, she thought to herself as her fingers continued to gently stroke the bard's most sensitive spot.
Gabrielle floated helplessly under Xena's touch. All rational thought was gone, as was her headache. She could no more stop the taller woman from touching her than she could stop breathing and she suspected that Xena knew it. She allowed herself to be guided onto her hands and knees and felt the warlord shift behind her. Xena kept up the pace against the clit with her right hand while her left hand slid down Gabrielle's buttocks and forward until her fingers found their goal. The bard let out a deep groan and her body jerked forward at the sudden invasion of two fingers but Xena held her fast, refusing to let her prize go. She played Gabrielle like a fine instrument, sending her higher and higher until she felt the young woman's body begin to stiffen. She stopped all movement of her fingers and grinned at the protesting moan from Gabrielle. Without warning, Xena flipped the bard onto her back and straddled one thigh. She wanted to see the young woman's face when she sent her over the edge. Gabrielle looked up at her with half-closed eyes, silently begging for her to continue. Xena grinned and kept her fingers still. "Please."
"Please what, Gabrielle?" she twitched the fingers still trapped inside the bard.
"Ungh...Xena, please..." she tried to move her hips but stopped when she felt the warlord start to pull out.
"No no no...please what?" the warlord taunted, this time moving her fingers against the clit slightly, drawing another sensual groan from the bard.
"Oh gods, Xena...I need...please..." Gabrielle's head moved from side to side, her hands were balled into fists and it was all she could do not to reach down and finish it herself. "Please...take me."
Xena smiled at her victory and leaned down until her lips were against the bard's ear. "Remember that I'm the only one who can make you feel this way, Gabrielle...only me." both sets of fingers began moving again, sending Gabrielle over the edge in a matter of heartbeats. The young queen's scream echoed off the cave walls as her body flooded Xena's hand with the passion she created.
Much later, after her own needs were taken care of by the willing bard, Xena laid back against the saddle, Gabrielle curled up in her arms. It was time for the warlord to put her plan into action. "You know, Gabrielle, I'm not some ruthless warlord out to destroy and conquer, I just want to make the world a better place." she felt the queen stiffen in her arms and increased her grip. "That's all your Amazons want, isn't it?"
"They just want to be left alone, to live as they see fit without interference from the outside world. They have no interest in conquering the world." Gabrielle said softly. Her mind raced to figure out where the taller woman was going with her comments.
"Gabrielle, that's all I want, a land free from bandits and warlords, a place where children can be raised in safety and peace. The only way to make that happen is to have a strong army, like yours. An army to protect and defend their homeland, to take back what is rightfully theirs from those who've come before and taken it away. Tell me, Gabrielle, do the Amazons control as much land now as they once did?"
"No, but the land we have now is enough for us. There are other ways to live without wars and battles. The Amazons have made treaties with their neighbors, they've learned to make the land they have meet their needs." she didn't like the direction of the conversation and fully suspected that Xena was up to something.
"That's not enough, Gabrielle...they've learned to settle for what others will 'let' them have. How long do you think it will be before someone comes along and decides that they want more Amazon land? How will your people stop them?"
"We won't give up any more land. Our warriors protect the forest surrounding the village and the river at the other end is a natural barrier."
Xena shifted until she was face to face with the bard. "Gabrielle, you're no warrior. You have no understanding of what it takes to create and keep peace. I do. If you truly are their queen, you have to allow them to fight, to take back what is rightfully theirs. Together we could bring the Amazons back to what they once were, the most fearsome group of warriors ever assembled. They could have their land back...be free to live as they chose, without answering to anyone else." hearing no argument from the queen, Xena pressed what she thought was her advantage. "Gabrielle, when you were growing up, you watched the lands your mothers fought for taken away. Now you're their queen. Don't you want to do the right thing? Don't you want to make your goddess Artemis happy?"
Xena's last sentence set off the warning bells in Gabrielle's mind. There was no way that her Xena would ever reference the gods in such a manner. This was definitely the warlord talking. The bard thought fast, realizing that Xena had no memory of her and thus believing that she had grown up with the Amazons was something that Gabrielle could use to her own advantage. "Yes, I want to make my goddess happy." she said, not at all liking the direction the conversation seemed to be going.
"Then you must want to restore your Amazons to their former place of glory. I can help you with that, Gabrielle. I can help you become the greatest leader the Amazons have ever known."
"I want to be a great leader." she replied, sounding as if she was willing to accept whatever Xena offered. "I want to make my mother proud, goddess rest her soul."
"Then let me help you. Gabrielle, I'm a leader, I know how to bring your Amazons back to their true station in life. If you put me in charge of your warriors, I guarantee you that no one will ever dare speak of the Amazons as if they were a joke. Together we can reclaim all that has been lost and then some, proving to the rest of the world that we are a force to be reckoned with."
Gabrielle forced herself not to shudder at Xena's words. She made it sound so believable. The bard understood now how the warlord had been able to make so many people follow her blindly into battle. She also understood Xena's real intentions, to make the Amazons her own personal army. 'That's what you wanted all along, isn't it?' the bard thought to herself. 'You didn't want me, you wanted control over the Amazon army. Sleeping with me is just a way for you to get that control, isn't it?' Gabrielle believed that Ares was somehow involved in all this, that he was the one who had changed her Xena. Perhaps if she could get the warlord onto Amazon land, under the protection of Artemis, the spell could be broken. Yes, that's what she had to do, the bard thought. Ares wouldn't be able to touch Xena then. "It would be a great day for the Amazons if they were to return to their former glory." she said. "You're right, you do know more about leading them into battle than I do. Perhaps you should take control of the Amazon army."
"Yes, Gabrielle." the warlord tasted victory on her lips. "With you leading the people and me leading the army, the Amazons would be unstoppable." she reached over and fondled the bard's breast. "We would be unstoppable." she said huskily, claiming Gabrielle's mouth with a searing kiss. Xena's passion rose as it always did when she felt a plan falling into place. Gabrielle plotted and planned the series of lies she would have to tell Xena to keep her believing that she would gain control of the women warriors. The bard didn't want to think about what would happen if the spell wasn't broken once they reached Amazon land. The thought of ordering her sisters to capture the woman she loved was unbearable. 'Then again, you don't really love me, do you?' she thought as the warlord continued to touch her breast. 'This is all just another skill of yours, seduction. You don't find me desirable and when you get your memory back you still won't.' the pain of her thoughts was too much to bear. She needed to lose herself, to forget about wars and warlords and battles. She returned Xena's kiss with equal passion and soon both women forgot about trying to manipulate the other.
Ephiny watched the Amazons practicing on the training grounds. Every single warrior had signed up for extra sparring time, every archer for time on the practice field. No one wanted to take any chances with the warrior princess. If they weren't working on their skills, they were working on their armor. Gryne worked feverishly to provide chest armor to those that were assigned to the inner ring of fighters. Bows were restrung, arrows sharpened. They worked as if they were going into the most important battle of their lives. Saras prepared for heavy casualties, certain that the warlord would not be taken down without a fight. Litters were made, bandages rolled, supplies of herbs restocked. The preparations reminded her of the Centaur-Amazon wars of so long ago.
The blond ruler reviewed the plans with Ilanna again. Thirty-six pits had been dug, each to contain a warrior and archer. Another twenty warriors would be hiding in the trees that ringed the field. Saras and her assistants were positioned behind the trees closest to the village. Ephiny looked at the battle map again. Their plan would trap a small army with no problem. She was satisfied that it would prove successful against Xena. She didn't believe that every warrior would be necessary but there was no way she was going to take any chances. Better to overpower the warlord with sheer numbers than to underestimate and have her escape from their clutches. The other problem of keeping her warriors from taking matters into her own hands had been more difficult than Ephiny had planned. Already ten had been reassigned from the inner circle to the trees because she was uncertain of their ability to restrain themselves. The rings under her eyes from lack of sleep were testament to the internal struggle she faced. There had been no improvement in either Eponin's physical condition or her mental one. Solari was released and sent back to her hut, her prognosis much better than her friend's. Already the tall warrior was wiggling her fingers and complaining only of the residual ache in her shoulder. She still had to keep her arm in a sling for half a moon but was assured that there would be nothing more than a scar as a permanent reminder of her battle to protect her queen.
Saras was glad that Eponin was the only patient in her hut. She had to move all her supplies and anything breakable away from the sullen and angry Amazon. Although several friends came in and out during the day to visit the stocky warrior, none seemed able to raise Eponin's spirits, even Ephiny.
The only thing the stocky warrior thought about was Xena. She thought about the leather-clad woman all the time. The battle replayed itself over and over in Eponin's mind. She second guessed every movement, every action. Her dreams filled with visions of Xena helpless under her blade, begging for mercy. She fantasized about running the warlord through again and again with her sword. She thought about her sword, lost forever, a weapon handed down from generation to generation in her family. Xena would pay for that too, she swore.
"Do you see that? Do you see what's happening?" Artemis said angrily. Athena glanced at the scrying bowl but said nothing. "Look Ath, look at what's happening to my Amazons. They're going to kill Xena. You know she won't go down without a fight. Dozens of my children will die. Are you happy now?"
"Artemis, please calm down. No one will be killed. Xena will fulfill her duties and protect Gabrielle. Look, already they've been intimate. Surely you can't think that she'd-"
"What? That she wouldn't sell Gabrielle out for money? For power? You haven't been paying attention. She's not loving my child, she's using her to gain control of the Amazons. Can you imagine the pain Gabrielle is in? You don't hear her, Athena. You don't hear her begging me, pleading with me to help her get her Xena back. It tears me apart to stand aside and let this continue." the Moon Goddess stormed over to the table and slammed her fist down again on the model of her sister's beloved Athens, which now looked more like a pile of rubble than Greece's most prosperous city. "Whatever you were thinking has failed, Athena. Please, lift this spell. Give Gabrielle back to my Amazons where she'll be safe. I don't care what happens with Xena anymore."
"Artemis, if we do that than Ares has won and all of Greece is lost. Do you think that he won't send Xena and her army after the Amazons? This isn't just about Athens or even one mortal. He wants war. He wants to destroy all that we love and cherish in the name of his own personal pleasure."
"I don't care! I'll protect my Amazons."
"Like you have so far? Artemis, your Amazons are scattered throughout Greece. Small villages that barely survive, many of them don't even live in their villages anymore. Your once proud and strong women are now just small groups living off the land. You couldn't stop that from happening any more than you can stop Ares from one day destroying all of your children with his forces if he gets Xena back. The only way to keep that from happening is to keep her from returning to him. Gabrielle is the key to that. Please, you must be patient."
Artemis leaned against the table and sighed. "I hate this, Athena. I hate this more than you know."
Convinced that she had the queen under her control, Xena continued to formulate her plan to control the Amazon warriors and turn them into her own personal army. She questioned Gabrielle endlessly about the strength of her force, their loyalty to her, any special skills that they possessed. Gabrielle used her bardic skills to provide just the right lies to make the warlord believe her. After two days of questions mixed with carnal pleasures, Xena was certain that she not only could take control of the army with little to no problems, but that she also had complete control over their queen. Gabrielle made no attempt to refuse her advances. The warlord suspected that the smaller woman was falling in love with her, especially after one particularly passionate session. Spent beyond anything she ever remembered, Xena was almost asleep and swore she heard the young woman whisper that she loved her. She opened her eyes but Gabrielle had rolled over and the warlord decided not to pursue it. Now in the darkness of night, Xena stared up at the ceiling and thought about her own feelings toward the young queen. Gabrielle was supposed to be just another pawn in her quest for control. Yet Xena felt the young woman slipping past her defenses. Already she found herself wanting to learn more about Gabrielle, she found herself being more gentle with her sexually and touching her more often. Perhaps it was possible to have her as a true lover. Certainly it didn't seem to bother Gabrielle that she was a warlord. Even the fact that she was still being held hostage didn't seem to matter to the young woman. She made no mention of the ransom except to say that she was queen and the Amazons would do as she commanded and believe whatever she said. Gabrielle had even worked out a story that she swore would be accepted. The two Amazons that Xena had battled in the tavern were traitors attempting to assassinate her and they made up the story of the ransom in order to protect themselves. By the time Gabrielle had finished explaining her story to Xena, the warlord was convinced that it would be believed and everything would work out the way she planned. The bard even suggested that they go to the village early to further support her story instead of showing up on the day the ransom was due. In actuality, Gabrielle feared that the Amazons would have something planned and hoped that by showing up a day early that they would be able to avoid any confrontation before she had a chance to speak to Ephiny.
Xena insisted that Gabrielle ride in front, partially so she could keep an eye on her in case it was a trap and partially so she could run her hands up and down the queen's thigh whenever she pleased. The warlord was still amazed at how strong her desire for the young woman ran. The way Gabrielle looked at the height of her passion was something that Xena never tired of seeing. And the way the queen made her feel...well that was something special in itself. It was as if Gabrielle put every ounce of her being into giving her pleasure and Xena's body responded time and time again. Gabrielle's breeches had been left behind on the first day, something that the warlord was now glad about since it gave her the freedom to explore without barriers.
The trail they were on ran above and parallel to the main road, affording Xena a clear view yet still allowing them to remain unseen. The warlord's hands were busy under Gabrielle's skirt when they approached the edge of a ridge. Without warning, Xena removed her hands from their warm, wet playground and reached for the reins with one hand to stop Argo and used the other to cover Gabrielle's mouth. "Don't make a sound." she whispered into the bard's ear. As quietly as possible, Xena slipped down and helped Gabrielle to the ground. Together they looked over the ridge to see what had triggered the warlord's senses. On the road below them, a wagon containing a half-dozen young women was being led by three scruffy looking men with four heavily armed men on horseback following. Xena motioned for Gabrielle to move back away from the edge. "Slavers." she said quietly. The bard nodded in agreement and the memory of her Xena rescuing her from a similar fate so long ago filled her mind.
"What are you going to do?" Gabrielle whispered, assuming that Xena would intervene.
"They haven't seen us yet. We can wait until they've passed." she replied, her concern at the moment getting to the Amazon village.
"Xena, you can't just leave those girls without any help. You're all that stands between them and a life of slavery. Please, you have to do something." she pleaded. Xena looked from her to the wagon and then at the ground. She had purchased slaves from time to time herself. She was always fair to them and eventually all of them earned her freedom from her. All of them, of course, except for those that betrayed her trust. Those she dealt with the same way she dealt with disloyal soldiers, swiftly and severely. She looked at the men, calculating the different ways she could attack and what the possible outcomes would be. There was no way she could attack them alone, the men were both in front and behind the wagon. The girls would be vulnerable to at least one of the groups. The only way to pull it off was to have Gabrielle help her. Was it worth the chance? She didn't know these girls, they meant nothing to her. If she used the queen to help her and she was killed, there would be nothing for her to either ransom to the Amazons or use to gain control of the women warriors. Yet if she didn't help, the young women in the wagon were certain to be sold into a life of slavery, most likely to men not as fair in their treatment as she had been. It came down to Xena making a decision, do nothing and allow six innocent girls to be condemned to a life of living Tartarus or risk ruining all her plans to save them. Xena knew that if she didn't try to save them, no one would. Gabrielle was right, she was the girls' only chance.
"Get your staff." she whispered. "Go down the ridge, over there." she pointed to a gradual incline that would leave Gabrielle safely behind the slavers. "When I release the girls, get them to run back down the road. Their village is less than a half-candlemark away." the bard moved to retrieve her staff when she felt an iron grip on her arm. She turned and for the briefest instant thought she saw something familiar in the blue eyes of the warlord. "Be careful." Xena said, her face betraying no emotions. Nonetheless, Gabrielle swore she heard the briefest hint of concern in the warlord's voice.
With her sword in her hand, Xena removed her cape, leaving it on the ground next to Argo. She motioned for Gabrielle to go ahead and descend while she kept her eyes on the slavers. Once she was certain the queen was on the road behind the group, Xena moved down an incline much steeper than the one she sent Gabrielle down. The warlord ended up on the edge of the road ahead of the wagon. She hid behind a tree until the wagon was almost on top of her. She threw her chakram vertically at the wagon just behind the horse's hind quarters, slicing through both the reins and the harnesses. The wagon came to a dead stop, tipping backward and sending the occupants sprawling out onto the ground while the horses took off, happy to be away from the man with the overenthusiastic whip. Xena let out a shrill cry, startling the portly man who was trying to get to his feet. She somersaulted through the air, landing feet first against his chest at the same moment she caught her chakram. "Run!" she yelled to the confused girls as she sent her chakram sailing again, this time at the four men on horseback. Three fell but the fourth one saw the weapon coming and ducked in time to avoid joining his friends in the world of unconsciousness. Xena had no time to deal with him as the other two men that were leading the wagon unsheathed their swords and advanced on her. One swift kick to the head of the portly man made sure he would remain out for the duration of the fight. She flipped off of him and landed between the two sword wielding men, twirling her own weapon while her eyes narrowed. "Come on, boys. You like to take young girls from their home, let's see you stand up to a real woman."
Gabrielle brought her staff around in a defensive position while the girls ran past her. "Keep running and don't stop until you get to your village." she yelled, her eyes never leaving the behemoth of a man who was advancing on her, sword drawn. One girl stumbled just before her and Gabrielle was left with no choice. She gripped her staff tightly and ran forward until she was between the man and the girl. "Meddling bitch!" he swore as he raised his sword. She brought her staff up just as he swung down, the force stinging her hands. She swung as hard as she could, catching him just below his ribs. He didn't flinch, but stopped and grinned at her. "Uh oh." she said softly, her eyes darting back to see if the girl was still there. Thankfully she had gotten up and ran after her friends, not daring to look back to see what the big man would do to the little woman with the stick.
Xena wiped her sword on the shirt of the dead man and looked back in time to see Gabrielle backing up under the force of the behemoth's blows. Knowing she would never reach them in time, Xena let out a yell and threw her chakram forcefully. The large man howled in pain as the round disc sliced through his left shoulder. Unfortunately it was not in time to keep him from knocking Gabrielle's staff from her hands. He lifted his leg and connected his boot against the bard's chest, sending her flying backwards to the ground. In the back of his mind he knew he was a dead man but he was damned if he wasn't going to take the meddling bitch with him. He towered over Gabrielle, certain that the tall woman would never reach him in time. He raised his sword high above his head, determined to impale the wide-eyed blond. Xena looked at the scene before her, the behemoth standing over the now helpless bard. In that instant all thoughts of Amazons, dinars, or power were replaced in her mind by the overpowering need to protect Gabrielle. She threw her sword with all her might. The behemoth felt the burning sensation and looked down in amazement at the blade sticking out of his chest, covered with his own blood. The bard scampered back out of the way as he fell forward, his eyes revealing his surprise and shock the instant before his lifeless body hit the ground with a mighty thud.
It took a few moments for Gabrielle to get her rapidly pounding heartbeat under control. She looked at the dead man, sword sticking out of his back, chakram from his shoulder, and realized that Xena hadn't reached them yet. She got to her feet and looked ahead to find the leather-clad woman on the ground, leaning against the wheel of the wagon. So concerned was she that Xena might be injured, Gabrielle didn't bother to retrieve her staff as she ran to her friend's side. What she saw when she got there stopped the bard in her tracks. She had expected Xena to be covered with blood, no doubt all of it from the men now lying dead in the road, but she didn't expect the thoroughly confused look on Xena's face. Gabrielle quickly knelt down next to her. "Xena? Xena, are you all right? Are you hurt?" she fired off the questions in rapid order while her hands roamed up and down the leather-clad body looking for any sign of injury.
"Gabrielle?" she reached up to touch the side of the bard's bruised face and her heart broke when she saw Gabrielle flinch. Everything came back to her in a flood of memories, from surviving the gauntlet and saving the baby all the way through the throwing of her sword with all her might to save Gabrielle. She looked at her best friend's face, remembering how each and every bruise got there from her own hand, her own fist. She remembered tying Gabrielle up, holding her own sword to her best friend's throat, the battle in the tavern, everything. Her blue eyes welled up with unshed tears. "Gabrielle." she wanted to apologize, to tell her best friend that she didn't mean to hurt her, that she wasn't the monster that the bard had been with the last few days. All she could do was look helplessly at the green eyes looking down at her and wonder why Gabrielle didn't run away with the girls when she had the chance.
"Xena?" she asked tentatively, her heart skipping a beat at the look of recognition in the warrior's eyes. "It...it's really you, isn't it?" she put her hand to her mouth as her own tears started to fall. "Oh Xena, it is you. It's really you." unmindful of the blood and gore that covered the warrior's body, Gabrielle threw herself against Xena, holding her as tightly as she would a piece of driftwood in the harshest ocean storm. "It's you, it's really you..." she said over and over, her tears falling unchecked against the warrior's neck. All the fear and frustration of the past few days caught up with the young queen. Finally knowing that she was truly safe with Xena at last, she found herself unable to stop crying. "Hold me." she choked. Xena complied immediately, grateful for the contact and certain that she didn't deserve the beautiful creature in her arms. She shifted slightly, pulling Gabrielle onto her lap. For the next half-candlemark they sat there, neither woman able to control the steady stream of tears that rolled from their eyes.
Eventually Gabrielle pulled back and looked at her. "Xena, what...what exactly do you remember?" she asked tentatively. The warrior thought carefully before answering.
"Nothing, Gabrielle. The last thing I remember is holding you when you were scared. You...had a bad feeling, right?" she asked, although she knew the answer. She remembered every detail, every heart-wrenching detail of what she had said and done.
"Uh...yeah...Xena, that was almost a quarter-moon ago. You...you don't remember anything?" Gabrielle wasn't sure if she was relieved or disappointed.
"No...I don't remember anything except that suddenly we were here, in a fight. I don't even know why." she lied.
"Xena, I know a cave not far from here...there's a small pond nearby where we can wash up. Let's go there. I'll try to explain what happened." the warrior nodded, grateful that Gabrielle wanted to go back to the cave and not head for the Amazons. They walked over to retrieve their weapons before Xena whistled for Argo.
"Do you want to ride?" she asked, uncertain of just how close Gabrielle wanted to be to her anymore. She had done so much, so very much to hurt her. Xena couldn't even bring herself to think of how she seduced and used Gabrielle, it hurt too much.
"Actually, I'd rather walk if you don't mind." it seemed so long since she'd been able to just walk alongside. Xena nodded, trying not to let the hurt show. 'You're scared of me, aren't you?' she thought to herself as she mounted Argo. She almost turned the horse in the direction of the cave when she remembered and stopped herself.
"Over there. There's a path up to that ridge and there's a trail from there." Gabrielle explained, pointing to the ridge where they first spotted the slavers.
They moved along in silence, both women caught up in their own thoughts. Gabrielle alternated between being happy that her Xena had been returned to her to being terrified that the warlord would return to being worried about what would happen when the Amazons found them. She had no intention of returning to the village anytime soon, especially with Xena. Gabrielle hoped that they could get far away from the village and she could communicate with Ephiny through a messenger until things were settled. She worried about Solari and Eponin, but worried about Xena more. She remembered how the women warriors reacted when Terreis was killed. They wanted to declare war on the Centaurs and then when they discovered the truth they went after Krykus with blood in their eyes and vengeance in their hearts. If they went after Xena, Gabrielle knew she'd be powerless to stop them, even as queen.
Up on top of Argo, Xena was lost in her own thoughts. She had no idea what happened to turn her into a warlord again or how she managed to regain her memory, although she suspected that somehow the gods were involved. It made no difference to her though. She was the one that hurt Gabrielle. It was her hands that caused all the bruises, including the nasty looking shiner the bard still sported. Xena looked down out the corner of her eye to see the bruise again. No longer the deep purple, it was still black and blue with a yellow tinge around it. She wondered if she had broken any bones in Gabrielle's face with the force her blows. She closed her eyes in pain as she replayed the scene in her head over and over again. Gabrielle crying for her to stop, to please stop hurting her. 'How can you stand to be near me, Gabrielle?' she thought to herself. 'How can you stand to be this animal that hurt you so much? That hurt your friends? Our friends?' she replayed the scene in the tavern, Gabrielle risking her life to protect Eponin and Solari. In her mind's eye she
saw her chakram flying through the air, slicing into her friend's leg over and over again. The scene changed to Gabrielle lying naked beneath her, begging for release. It was too much for Xena to bear and she shook her head visibly to remove the thought from her mind. Gabrielle noticed but said nothing, unsure of what was going on in Xena's mind. She thought that the warrior was simply still trying to figure out what had happened in the last few days. The bard decided to concentrate on the story she would have to tell Xena about what had happened the last few days, what lies she would have to come up with to fill the gaps in time. She debated about telling her about the battle in the tavern, finally deciding that it could wait until another time, especially since she planned on getting them as far away from the Amazon village as possible. She had no way of knowing that Xena had other plans.
Xena removed her armor, weapons, and boots and stepped into the pond, letting the water wash away the stench and gore of the recent battle from both her and her leathers. She painfully noted that Gabrielle decided to get the fire going instead of joining her, despite the fact that the bard was just as filthy as she was. Xena had no way of knowing that the young queen simply needed more time to come up with a story to tell her. The warrior was certain that Gabrielle just wanted to be as far away from her as possible. She looked down at her hands, now balled into fists. 'As far away from these as possible.' she thought to herself.
She found Gabrielle in the cave pulling scrolls out of the saddlebag along with her clothes, silently confirming both of their suspicions that the gods had been involved in Xena's amnesia. The bard tossed her a clean shift before grabbing her own clothes. "I'll go wash up and then we can eat and talk." she said as she headed for the pond.
Both her body and clothes clean, Gabrielle returned to the cave to find Xena staring at the fire, lost in thought. "Hey, why don't I get dinner started. You must be famished." as if on cue, the bard's own stomach grumbled. Xena forced a smile.
"Sure, Gabrielle. That sounds good." in truth, the last thing the warrior was thinking about was food. All she thought about was what she had done to hurt the bard during the last few days, and the wrath of the Amazons that she would soon face. She had no doubt that Gabrielle would want to head for the village, to be free from the monster that had terrorized her, used her, even raped her. Yet looking across the fire at the young woman heating up the last of their biscuits, Xena sensed no anger or fear from Gabrielle. Indeed, the bard acted as if nothing at all had happened during the last few days.
They ate their meager dinner in silence, but the tension was palpable. Gabrielle afraid that Xena wouldn't believe her lies and the warrior afraid that the bard would reveal the entire ugly truth to her and then announce that she was leaving her forever. 'I certainly would deserve it.' Xena thought. 'I deserve to be handed over to the Amazons, to face my crimes and the punishment they choose for me, no doubt death.' her only consolation was that she was certain that Ephiny wouldn't make Gabrielle carry out her sentence. Only when neither woman could stand the silence any more did Xena speak. "What happened?" a simple question but one which required a thousand answers. Gabrielle took a deep breath and took a long swallow from the waterskin before speaking.
"From what I can tell, the gods took away your memory. You can't remember anything from the last few days? Nothing at all?" Gabrielle had to be certain of that before she started her story. Xena shook her head, nervously waiting for the bard to tell her in full detail all the horrible things she had done. Gabrielle licked her lips and looked into the fire. She knew she wouldn't be able to lie if she looked Xena in the face. "Well, you remember my bad feeling and how I needed you to hold me..."
"Yes, that's the last thing I remember."
"When I woke up the next morning, it was as if we didn't know each other, like all your memories had been wiped away. You had no idea where we were or what we were doing out there. You didn't even know who I was." she continued to stare at the fire. "I think Ares was trying to bring you back to him. All my things were gone, the scrolls, my spare clothes, even the lamb." Xena now noticed the small wooden toy sitting in the bard's lap, small fingers gently stroking it. "I didn't know what to do so I suggested that we head for the Amazons. I thought maybe Saras would be able to help."
"Gabrielle, when we made camp, we were less than a full day from the Amazons. Why haven't we reached them yet?" she noted that the bard had made no mention of waking up and finding herself tied up.
"Oh, Argo was favoring one leg and you suggested that we camp here for a few days to let her heal up. You said you didn't want to push her. We were heading for the Amazons today when we came across those men. They were kidnapping women from the nearby village and we stopped to help them." Gabrielle felt her skin flush and prayed that the warrior wouldn't notice her nervousness at the lies.
"Where did you get all those bruises? Those are too old to be from a fight today." Xena realized that Gabrielle was completely lying to her, avoiding any mention of the tavern or even that she was a warlord again.
"Oh those." the bard laughed as if they were nothing. "We ran into some bandits just before Argo started limping. I guess I wasn't as careful as I usually am."
"Oh." Xena said quietly. 'Are you afraid, Gabrielle? Are you afraid to tell me the whole horrid truth? That I beat you, hurt you, took you? Are you so scared of me now that you have to lie?' she thought. "So I guess we're heading for the Amazons now?" she asked, fully expecting the bard to lead her to whatever trap was waiting.
"Oh no." Gabrielle exclaimed a little too forcefully. "Now that you're better I thought perhaps we'd head west, go visit Athens or something. There's no need to visit the Amazons right now." she silently feared that Xena would push the issue knowing how much she usually wanted to see Ephiny whenever they were in the area.
It was Xena's turn to stare at the flames. She understood exactly what Gabrielle was trying to do now. Protect her. 'How can you do this, Gabrielle? How can you not only stay with me but try to protect me from the punishment I deserve? You won't even tell me the truth about what happened. After all that I've done to you, you still want to keep me safe. I don't deserve your love, Gabrielle. I deserve you hate, certainly, your anger and your fear, but not your love. It doesn't matter if the gods were involved or not. I'm still a warlord, an animal that deserves to be taken down for what I've done. I can't let you do this. I just can't.' "All right, Gabrielle. If you want to go to Athens, then we will."
"Really?" the bard said excitedly. "Can we leave first thing in the morning? I promise I'll get up." she wanted to put as much distance between them and the Amazons as possible once they found out that Xena wouldn't be returning her hostage as planned. Gabrielle had no doubt that the women warriors were already looking for them and would be out in full force once the noonday sun showed no sign of her.
"First thing, Gabrielle. I promise." she just didn't promise where they were going.
Sleep came easily to Gabrielle for the first time in almost a quarter moon, content with the knowledge that her Xena was back. The hug before bed was gentle and warm and she felt safe again in her warrior's arms. She tried not to think about what had happened between them sexually, knowing in her heart that it would never happen again. The warlord Xena had used her in an attempt to gain control of the Amazons, but the sad truth was that her Xena never wanted her in that way and never would. She would have to be content with the memories of their passion. She hugged the wooden lamb close to her body and let the memories of their first winter solstice together calm her into slumber.
Xena laid awake long after the bard had fallen asleep. She crept over and studied Gabrielle's face in the firelight, letting each fading bruise stab through her heart. "You didn't deserve this." she whispered, letting her finger barely brush over the shiner as her vision blurred with unshed tears. "You didn't deserve to be beaten and you don't have to try to protect me. I know what I did and I'm ready to face it. You won't have to lie for me anymore." she leaned forward and placed the softest of kisses on Gabrielle's forehead before grabbing the saddlebags and heading for her own side of the fire.
Gabrielle woke to the smell of fresh rabbit cooking on the fire. "Mmm, smells good." she yawned.
"That's because you woke up before I had a chance to burn it." Xena replied, forcing a smile. This wasn't going to be easy. Already she was tempted to just run away with Gabrielle, run far away from the Amazons and her past and just be with the woman she loved. She took another look at the shiner on the bard's face and it strengthened her resolve. She was doing the right thing, she told herself. This was the right thing for Gabrielle. Satisfied that the rabbit was done, Xena pulled it off of the spit and split it between them. She also handed Gabrielle a cup of tea. "Here, I made you some tea. It's a little strong, sorry." she deliberately made it strong to hide the taste of the extra herbs she had added to it. She watched as the bard quickly ate her breakfast, washing it down with the tea. Xena pushed her food around on her plate, having absolutely no appetite. Before Gabrielle could get up, the warrior stood and took her plate. "We can take care of these later."
"Later?" she asked, watching Xena scrape the dirty dishes and put them into the saddlebag. "I thought we were going to get an early start towards Athens." she stood up and immediately felt dizzy. In an instant Xena was there, lending her a steady arm to help her back down to the ground. "Xena? I don't feel so good."
"Shh, you'll be fine. Everything will be fine soon." she said soothingly, cradling the bard in her arms.
"Xena?" the green eyes opened wide with realization. "You...you did something." her head swam and her vision blurred. It was a battle to maintain consciousness.
"I just gave you some herbs to make you sleep for a while. You'll be fine. Saras will know what to do." she watched Gabrielle's eyes close despite the bard's best efforts to keep them open.
"Saras..." she mumbled. "No...Amazons...trap." her head fell limply to the side. Xena pulled her into her lap and held her close.
"I know, Gabrielle...I know."
"What is she doing?" Artemis yelled as she stormed into Athena's realm. "I thought you restored her memory."
"I did." the Goddess of Wisdom replied, already knowing what her sister was upset about.
"Then why did she drug Gabrielle and why is she going after the ransom?" the Moon Goddess roared.
"Artemis, I don't think she is going after the ransom. I think she's turning herself in to the Amazons."
"What? That's insane. They'll kill her for what she did to them, to their queen. It's a suicide mission. I'm going down there right now and putting and end to this madness."
"You will do nothing of the sort." both goddesses turned to see Zeus standing there. He waved his hand and they were joined by the surprised Ares. "I've had enough of this nonsense. The three of you have been using those mortals like toys." the blond bearded god glared at his son. "You. This obsession you have with Xena is utterly ridiculous. She's just a mortal." he turned to his favorite daughter. "Athena...I would have expected better from you. Taking away her memory, subjecting that poor girl to a warlord like that. What were you thinking?"
"Father, I was just trying to-"
"You were trying to best Ares and you used mortals to do it. Well, you won, you proved your point. It's over." he said authoritatively.
"But Father..." Artemis interrupted. "Xena's walking into a trap. We have to do something."
"I've been watching, Art. From what I can see, the former prodigy of Ares is doing this willingly. She no doubt is aware that your Amazons are waiting for her. If she chooses to face them, then she must have her reasons. I won't allow you..." he looked at Ares and Athena. "...any of you, to interfere."
"But we've already interfered." Athena protested. "We have to set things right now."
"Enough!" Zeus roared, his deep voice reverberating off the walls of Athena's realm. "I'm telling the three of you to leave her alone." he looked at the Goddess of Wisdom. "Athena, all you did was remove her memory, you didn't make her a warlord. The things that she did, she did of her own volition." he glared at his son. "No matter how much you would like to take credit for Xena, her actions were her own." he turned back to his daughters. "I've watched what she's done over the summers. The wars, the looting and killing. So far she's never had to truly pay for her crimes. Perhaps it is time. Artemis, once she crosses the border onto Amazon land, you are the only one who can touch her and I'm telling you right now, stay out of it." he glanced at the table covered with rubble. "And this!" he threw a thunderbolt at the table, destroying it. "I would have expected this from my God of War, but from you, Artemis? I never thought you were so vindictive. It's over, now. Do I make myself clear?" he looked at each of them, receiving silent nods of understanding. "Mortals aren't as helpless as we think. Perhaps if we stopped interfering in their lives so much they wouldn't have as many problems." he said before turning to his son. "And you...I think you and I need to have a little talk." with that, Zeus disappeared, taking Ares with him.
Xena stopped less than a candlemark from the Amazon territory and dismounted, the limp bard in her arms. She sat down and leaned against a thick tree, Gabrielle in her arms.
She opened the waterskin filled with the drugged tea and slowly forced as much of it down the unconscious woman's throat as she dared. She was confident that the bard would not wake up until sometime tomorrow. By then Xena was certain that she'd be visiting Hades, this time with no return ticket for Charon's boat. She tilted Gabrielle's head back to study her face, the blue eyes deliberately avoiding the shiner. Xena didn't want to remember her that way. She ran her fingers over the full lips, remembering how she kissed them forcefully when she seduced Gabrielle. She pulled the bard up and lightly brushed her own lips against them, reveling in their softness. She ran her fingers through the golden locks, her thumb across the soft cheek. She kissed the closed eyelids and returned to Gabrielle's lips one last time before tightly hugging the woman she loved against her. The strong, stoic warrior felt the lump in her throat and refused to stop it, letting the tears fall down her cheeks. "I love you Gabrielle. I'm sorry I never told you. I'm so sorry." she buried her head in the bard's neck and let herself cry until no more tears came. Xena sniffled a few times, looked up at the position of the sun, and wiped her eyes. "I guess it's time." she said sadly.
The scout reported what she saw to Ephiny. That Xena was on her way, the queen either unconscious or dead in her arms. In the span of a few heartbeats, the warriors and archers were all in position in their pits or in the trees. Crossbows were cocked and ready, swords were out of their scabbards and in the hands of the ready warriors. Ephiny and Ilanna crouched in the darkness of their pit, the blond ruler holding her crossbow and praying to Artemis not to have to use it. She listened to the bird calls from the advance scouts and tracked the progress of Xena toward the field. It became extremely quiet and every woman on the field tensed and waited for the final signal, the one that would alert them that the woman holding their queen hostage was in the middle of the circle.
Xena watched and listened as she crossed over the border. She knew the sounds she heard were not birds, but rather the warning calls of the scouts. She guided Argo straight into the middle of the field, where a large chest filled with dinars sat in wait on a chariot. She looked around without moving her head, trying to spot the hidden warriors that no doubt were waiting for her. Seeing none meant nothing, she knew they were there. She pulled Argo to a stop right next to the chariot. She heard one last call and watched as dozens of squares of earth lifted to reveal warriors and archers, all aiming at her. She held Gabrielle in her arms and remained still. The Amazons exited their pits and formed a well armed circle around her. Ephiny removed her bird mask and leveled her crossbow at the raven haired woman. "Xena! Put Gabrielle down or I swear to Artemis I'll kill you myself." No one dared move, all knowing that their queen's life was in the hands of the Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations. Xena opened her hand and let Argo's reins fall loosely to the ground.
"Argo, down." following her master's orders, the golden mare knelt down until Xena was able to step off without letting go of her precious cargo. She stood several paces away from Ephiny and knelt down, gently setting the unconscious woman on the ground. The blond ruler watched as Xena stood and took two steps back from Gabrielle. Ephiny swore that she saw the leather-clad woman mouth the word good-bye.
"Back away from her...more." the blond ruler ordered, motioning with her crossbow. Xena did as instructed, taking four steps back. She watched as Saras and two assistants carrying a litter broke through the circle and surrounded Gabrielle. Within heartbeats they had the queen on the litter and whisked her away to the healer's hut. No one missed the glaring black eye on the unconscious woman and all knew who was responsible. Xena felt the angry eyes of the Amazons focused on her and waited for the sound of arrows to come whizzing at her. Ephiny took a step forward. "Put your weapons down...Now!" everyone held their breath as Xena reached for her chakram. They all knew just how dangerous the flying weapon was in her hands, Eponin was evidence of that. A collective release of breath was heard as she tossed the chakram harmlessly on the ground in front of Ephiny. It was followed by her breast dagger. Xena made certain to make her movements appear as non-threatening as possible, but also knew that when it came to her, even the most innocent looking movement could prove deadly should she chose it to be so. She pulled her sword out of the scabbard and darted her eyes about the crowd in front of her. Archers' fingers twitched on their crossbow triggers, warrior's swords were out in front of their bodies, just waiting for the word to attack. Xena turned the sword around in her hand until she was holding the blade rather than the hilt and tossed the weapon on the ground with the others. Although weaponless, the Amazons knew that Xena was still quite formidable and kept their distance lest she suddenly turn and become violent. "Down." Ephiny ordered. Xena glared at the blond ruler for a moment before lowering her head and kneeling down in front of her. She heard the sounds of warriors moving toward her from behind and quickly found her arms bound behind her. Fairly certain that the threat was over, Ephiny lowered her crossbow and moved until she was between Xena and her weapons. The blond woman's eyes burned with anger. "Xena, you are under arrest for crimes against the Amazon nation. For the kidnapping and ransoming of our queen and for the physical assault on two of our warriors." she nodded to the warriors behind Xena. They reached down and hoisted the raven-haired woman to her feet. Ephiny motioned them back and stepped in so only Xena could hear her. "I don't know what you did to Gabrielle, but I swear you'll pay. You'll pay for Eponin, you'll pay for Solari, and you'll pay for our queen. She trusted you and you betrayed that trust." she nodded to the warriors standing behind Xena. "Take her to the jail."
Six warriors stood guard as Xena's armor and leathers were removed. They dressed her in a simple tunic and skirt before fastening the manacles to her ankles and wrists. Xena's arms were suspended above her, forcing her to remain standing to avoid straining her shoulders. Despite the extraordinary restraints, two guards stayed outside her cell door when the others left. Xena looked at the thick chains, the unusual manacles, and the large granite slab. She had no doubt that they were made especially for her. Even though she didn't plan on escaping, the warrior noted that the Amazons had made certain that it wasn't even a remote possibility. Xena was frankly surprised that they even bothered to capture her. It didn't matter, she thought to herself. Once they found out what she had done to Gabrielle, she'd be dead soon enough.
Saras sniffed the waterskin retrieved from Xena's belongings and examined the multitude of small pouches of herbs. Ephiny waited impatiently, her eyes moving from the unconscious queen to the healer and back again. Finally her patience broke. "Saras, will you tell me what's going on?"
"From what I can tell, she's been drugged."
"I could have told you that." the ruler said in an exasperated tone. "Is she going to be all right?"
"She'll be fine. From what I can tell, she's just in a deep sleep, no doubt to keep her from escaping from Xena." the healer said bitterly. "There's nothing we can do right now. We just have to wait for her to wake up."
Darkness had fallen long ago. Xena's legs ached and her shoulders burned from being left in a standing position for so long. She opened her eyes when she heard the hushed whispers outside the cell door. The door opened and five Amazons entered. The guard shut the door behind them and walked away. "Hello Xena." the largest Amazon said as she pulled on a leather glove, then covered it with a glove made of chain mail. "My name is Gryne. I'm a friend of Eponin's. You remember her, don't you?" she flexed her gloved hand. Xena stared at the Amazon, her face revealing no emotion. The first blow split her lip. "You remember how you sliced her leg open? How you left her there to bleed to death?" the next blow struck just below her ribs, the force enough to lift the tall warrior off the ground. "Just another victim of the warrior princess, right?" another blow. "Just a simple flick of your wrist and that damned weapon of yours ruined one of the finest warriors the Amazons have ever known." another blow. "You like to inflict pain? You like to see people begging you for mercy? Did you enjoy beating our queen?" each question was followed with another punch from the gloved hand. Even without the glove, the smithy's punches would have caused damage. "She trusted you and now you'll pay for betraying that trust." the other women moved closer and Xena steeled herself for a long and painful lesson in Amazon justice.
The night was quiet save for the occasional owl hooting off in the distance. Eponin rolled onto her side and watched as the young queen began to stir. The stocky warrior reached over to the small table next to her bed and lit the short candle, adding the barest hint of light to the room. "Xena?"
"Gabrielle, it's Eponin." she watched the bard try to sit up, only to fall back down from the dizziness. "You're safe now."
"Wh-where's Xena?" she sat up slowly and looked over at her Amazon friend, realizing now that she was in the healer's hut in the Amazon village. Eponin bit back the harsh remark she wanted to make because of the concern she heard in the queen's voice.
"In the jail. They took her there after they rescued you."
"Res...no, it's all a big mistake, Ep." she tried to stand up and had to lean on the table for support. "I've got to see Ephiny."
"Gabrielle, it's the middle of the night. Eph will be here in the morning." the stocky warrior moved to the edge of her bed but knew better than to try and sit up. "Please, get back in bed. You're safe here."
The bard instead moved closer to Eponin and waited for her to move back before sitting down on the bed next to her. "How are you doing?" she asked gently.
"About as well as can be expected considering what Xena did to me." she shrugged. "I'll probably never be able to walk normally again." Gabrielle couldn't see the damage beneath the sheet and bandages, but vividly remembered all the blood at the tavern. She put her hand on the stocky warrior's shoulder.
"Ep, I know it seems hard right now, but it will get better." she looked off into the dark shadows of the room.
"What happened, Gabrielle? She was your best friend. What caused her to do this?" she motioned toward her leg and at the queen's eye, the bruise still visible in the dim light.
"I don't know for sure, but I think the gods were involved somehow. Ep, you have to know that Xena would never-"
"How can you defend her? How can you sit there and tell me that she wouldn't do this? Look, look at what she did to you." she reached out and touched the edge of Gabrielle's cheek. "How can you forgive that?"
"Because I know her." she said firmly. "Ep, you don't know her like I do. What you saw in the tavern, well...that's not Xena."
"That's where you're wrong, Gabrielle. That monster in the tavern WAS Xena. God or no god, it was still Xena. Are you so blinded by your friendship that you can't see that? Once a warlord, always a warlord." she said bitterly.
"She changed, Ep. Xena gave up that life and was fighting for a better world."
"Yeah and I'm sure the world is a much better place now that I can't walk." she snapped back. Gabrielle lowered her head.
"I wish there was a way to take back what happened to you, Eponin. I suppose wishing won't make it so." she said softly.
"Nope, it doesn't." the stocky warrior responded, refusing to go easy on her queen. "It won't matter now anyway. Her days of terrorizing you and attacking those who would try to protect you are over."
"What are they going to do to her?"
"Depends on what she's charged with and what the verdicts are. I don't think she'll see freedom for quite a while, though, if ever."
"But I'm the queen, can't I do something?"
"Yes, Gabrielle, you are the queen. You're queen of the Amazons." Eponin's voice rose in relation to her outrage and anger. "You have a responsibility here. When you accepted the right of caste and later on the mask of queen, you accepted the responsibility that came with it. Don't think you can just waltz in there and pardon her. We're not talking about some minor crime here. She kidnapped you, held you for ransom, physically assaulted you, attacked two Amazon warriors trying to protect you. Gabrielle, she held you hostage, how can you possibly think of helping her? You have a responsibility to us, to your subjects. Being queen isn't some kind of game, Gabrielle. We've all sworn to protect you, with our lives if necessary. It isn't too much for us to ask for you to act like you care about us." she knew her words were harsher than necessary, but she had to make the young queen understand.
"I do care, Eponin. I care about every Amazon. But I also care about Xena." in a softer voice she added "I love her."
"Gabrielle..." she gentled her tone. "Did it ever occur to you that perhaps your love for her is blinding you to the truth?"
"Did it ever occur to you that your anger and self-pity is blinding you?" she shot back angrily before getting up and returning to her own bed. Neither woman spoke to the other for the rest of the night even though both found sleep to be impossible.
Ilanna tapped lightly on Ephiny's door before entering. The blond Amazon opened a bleary eye and looked at her. "The sun isn't even above the trees yet. What is it?" sleep had been hard for her to come by last night and all she wanted to do was go back into Morpheus' arms for just a little while longer.
"You'd better come down to the jail. I've already sent for Saras." the dark Amazon said quietly. Ephiny sat up quickly.
"She didn't escape, did she?" she asked with disbelief.
"No, she didn't escape, although you might wish she had. It seems that some of Ep's friends took it upon themselves to pay her a visit last night."
Saras had just finished stitching the gash above Xena's left eyebrow when Ephiny came storming in. The blond ruler stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the battered woman. "Sweet Athena." she whispered. The once white tunic and skirt were now spotted with dark brown stains from the dried on blood. Xena hung limply from her shackles, the strength gone long ago from her arms and legs. Her face was battered and raw and sported several spots where the healer had to give her stitches. Despite her anger at Xena, Saras was still disgusted by the heinous beating and thus tried to be extra careful not to inflict any more pain than necessary while administering to the wounds. "Who did this?" Ephiny asked angrily. "Where are the guards that were supposed to be watching her?"
"They said they didn't see a thing. Everyone in the village knows what happened but no one will say who's involved." Ilanna explained. "Alessa and Dyna were on duty and both have been questioned. They're sticking to their story that they never left their post and have no idea what happened."
"I want to see both of them...NOW!" Ephiny growled.
"Xena?" came the quiet voice from behind them. Everyone turned to see Gabrielle standing there, her eyes wide with concern. Ephiny moved to block her view of the battered woman only to have the queen roughly push past her. Saras knew enough to step out of the way as Gabrielle approached. "Xena?" she whispered, her fingers a hairs breadth away from the swollen face before her. At the sound of her voice, Xena slowly lifted her head and focused on the bard, who was doing her best not to cry. "Is this how you treat your prisoners, Ephiny? Chain them up and then beat them?" Gabrielle said angrily. "Is this Amazon justice?" she reached down and brushed her fingers along one of Xena's ribs, stopping when she heard the soft whimper escape from the split lip. During the beating, the raven haired warrior had done her best to keep from reacting to the pain, but all of her reserves were gone now.
"Gabrielle, I think you should return to-"
"Forget it. I'm not leaving her side." she said firmly. She reached for the manacles and scowled. "Get these off of her and get a cot in here."
"We can't do that, my queen." Ilanna said. "It's too dangerous."
"Dangerous?" Gabrielle turned, her green eyes burning with anger. "What kind of danger could she possibly pose now? She couldn't kill a fly much less try an escape." she glared at Ephiny. "You've seen to that, haven't you?"
"Gabrielle, I didn't do this and I didn't order it. Before you came in I was trying to find out who had done it."
"Why, so you could give them a medal? I know what Xena did, I was there. At least she gave them a chance to defend themselves. You chained her up and let them beat on her. I want her removed from these..." she shook the thick chains. "...now!" no one moved. "Dammit, I'm the queen and I'm commanding you to unchain her!" Ilanna looked at Ephiny, who slowly nodded. Within a quarter candlemark, Xena was laying down on the cot, Gabrielle kneeling beside her. With a gentle thoroughness, the bard inspected the damage caused by the beating. Several of Xena's ribs were cracked and her torso and face were covered with bruises. "Ephiny, I want another cot brought in. I'm going to stay with her."
"Gabrielle, we need to talk...now." for several moments no one moved while the two women stared at each other. Finally the bard relented and followed Ephiny outside.
"What do you mean I can't stay with her?" the bard practically yelled. "Ephiny, you don't understand what happened. The gods were involved, you have to believe me."
"I want to, Gabrielle, I really do." she ran her fingers through her blond curly locks in frustration. "But you have to see it from my perspective. She attacked Eponin and Solari, demanded fifty thousand dinars ransom for you, not to mention the beatings you obviously suffered through. She even drugged you. How can you stand to be near her after all that?"
"Because I know her, Eph, I know that what we saw wasn't Xena." she looked away. "Well, it was Xena, but not like she is now. She didn't know me. She doesn't even remember what happened."
"And that makes it all right? Gabrielle, every Amazon in the village is calling for her blood. She has to stand trial for what she's done." Ephiny reached out and put her hand on the young queen's shoulder. "And I think that's why she came here. Gabrielle, she surrendered without a fight. She never even looked at the money."
"Then why those manacles, Eph? Why treat her like that? You said she surrendered without a fight. Why did you think it necessary to chain her up like an animal?"
"Because she acted like one, Gabrielle." she said, trying hard to keep her voice level. "We had no idea what happened. All we knew was that she was holding you hostage and assaulted two of our warriors. I did what I felt needed to be done. If you can't see that...."
"What? You think I'm blinded to the facts just because I care about her?" she jerked her shoulder out from under the blond Amazon's grasp. "She's here. When's the trial?"
"We'll start it as soon as she's able to move about on her own and all the parties are here. Gabrielle, I don't want there to be any surprises for you. Any moment she's not in that cell she'll be chained and under heavy guard."
"I'm sure she'd expect no less. Perhaps you can even find some volunteers to guard her, perhaps the ones who paid her a visit last night?" she said sarcastically.
"That's not fair, Gabrielle. I've done everything I could to avoid that kind of thing happening. You should know that. If it wasn't for Xena, Phantes would have been executed and my son would never have been born. I've sent a messenger out to the northern village to get an advocate for her. Xena will have a fair trial, Gabrielle, I swear it."
"Why can't I be her advocate? Ephiny, no one knows her like I do."
"It's out of the question, you're one of her victims, you'll have to testify."
"I...I can't do that, Ephiny. I can't testify against her." the stricken look on the queen's face pulled at the blond Amazon's heart. She could only imagine how hard it must be for the bard.
"You have no choice, Gabrielle. Not only for the crimes against you, but you're the only witness to what happened to Eponin and Solari. You have to stand up and tell what happened, no matter how much it hurts."
"What will happen to her if she's found guilty?"
"Part of it depends on what she's charged with. So far we're charging her with kidnapping as well as assault on you, Ep, and Solari. Once you tell what happened while you were with her, there may be more charges." Ephiny reached out and tilted Gabrielle's chin until she was looking into the queen's eyes. "Gabrielle, I need to ask this...." she hesitated, unsure of how to phrase her question. "I know you care very much about Xena, but did she...well, did she try to...you know, force herself upon you in any way?" she asked as delicately as she could. Gabrielle met her gaze.
"No. Xena never forced herself on me." regardless of her mixed feelings about what happened, Gabrielle knew in her heart that she was a willing participant, even if the warrior had no memory of what happened between them. Ephiny let out the breath she had been holding and smiled gently.
"Good. That will improve her chances at trial."
Gabrielle looked at the ground for a moment before speaking. "Ephiny, be honest with me. What's the worst that can happen to Xena?"
"Let's not think about that right now, okay?" she replied, desperately not wanting to answer the question.
"Tell me. I need to know what to expect."
Ephiny looked everywhere but into the eyes of her queen. "For the assault on Ep and Solari, she'll probably have to serve a few moons at hard labor. For what she did to you...it depends on the trail. Gabrielle, she won't get off so easy. Everyone knows she drugged you and your face tells its own story. Kidnapping the queen is a very serious crime all by itself, but combined with everything else...." she let the sentence trail off.
"They could order her death, can't they? That's what you're trying not to tell me, isn't it?" Gabrielle asked, her heart pounding with fear.
"It's one of the options, yes." Ephiny quietly admitted.
Gabrielle refused to eat in the food hut, partly because she didn't feel like being sociable and partly because she didn't want all the Amazons to see her face and be reminded of what had happened to her under Xena's wrath. Trasis, the head cook, delivered a platter heaped with meats and cheeses to her hut. Gabrielle ate sparingly, her concern for the upcoming events overriding her hunger. She wrapped several pieces of food up in a cloth and headed for the jail.
Xena sat up when she heard the key turning in the door, but looked down at the floor when she saw the bard enter. Gabrielle murmured a few words to the guard, who nodded and closed the door behind her, leaving the two women alone. "You shouldn't be here." the warrior said quietly, refusing to look up.
"And just where should I be if not at my best friend's side?" the bard replied, sitting down on the bed next to her. Gabrielle noted disapprovingly that Xena was sporting a leg manacle. She reached over and fingered the chain. "Does this hurt?" the warrior shook her head. A heavy silence fell between them. The bard set the package of food down between them and unwrapped it. "I brought you some meat and cheese. I'm sure it's better than whatever they've been feeding you." she said, breaking off a piece of cheese and handing it to Xena.
"Thanks." she put the food in her mouth, careful of the split lip. To Gabrielle's delight, she took another piece.
"Xena, we need to talk. They're going to try you for what happened."
"I know." she said quietly.
"Then why did you come here?" she reached over and put her hand on Xena's knee. "Xena, they don't care if the gods were involved. They're going to go after you for everything. We have to come up with some kind of a defense for you."
"There is no defense, Gabrielle. I did it. The reasons why don't matter." she looked up at the bard's eye, the bruise now more yellow than anything else. "How can you stand to be around me after what I did to you?"
"Because I know it wasn't you, Xena. I know the gods were involved in this. The trick is to get the Amazons to believe us."
"There's no 'us' in this, Gabrielle. I'm the one who attacked Eponin and Solari, not you. You're a hero to them, risking your life to save two Amazon warriors from the evil warlord."
"Stop it, Xena." she said angrily. "I'm trying to help you here. The least you can do is try act like you give a damn about what happens." she rose and walked over to the granite slab, still sitting in the middle of the room, and leaned against it, her face away from the warrior. "They're going to put me on the stand, you know. They're going to make me testify about what happened. I have to come up with something that we can both agree on."
"Just tell them the truth." she leaned back against the wall, her left leg out straight because of the shortness of the leg chain and wincing slightly at the pain in her ribs from the attack. "I deserve whatever happens." she said quietly. Gabrielle spun around, her green eyes blazing with anger.
"And what do I deserve, Xena? Do I deserve to watch you give up? Do I deserve to watch them sentence you for crimes that wouldn't have happened if the gods hadn't been playing yet another one of their petty games with you?" she walked over and knelt down in front of the bed, putting her hands on Xena's shins and looking up at the multitude of bruises and cuts that littered her best friend's face. "I can't lose you, not like this. If I have to lie, if I have to give up my title, I don't care. Nothing matters to me except helping you get out of this mess."
"Gabrielle, do you know what the penalty is for lying on the stand? The Amazons will see that as treason." she scooted forward and took the bard's hands in hers. "I can't let you do that. You have to tell them the truth."
Gabrielle jerked her hands free as her eyes began to well up with tears. "There is nothing that the Amazons can do to me that will hurt more than losing you, Xena. You can't even remember what happened when you lost your memory. There's no justice in that. This is no different than when Ares killed those men and let you take the blame."
"The difference is that this time 'I' did the things I'm accused of, Gabrielle. There's no defense for that. There's nothing we can do except wait and see what punishment the Amazons see fit to give me." she had no doubt as to exactly what the severity of the punishment would be.
"That's where you're wrong, Xena." she said angrily. "We can fight this if you help me instead of just giving up." they were interrupted by a polite knock on the door. "I have to go. Don't say anything until the advocate gets here and I have a chance to talk to her. Somehow we'll find a way to defend you. I'll try and come back later." she rose and headed for the door. "I mean it, Xena." she said, turning back around to face her best friend. She lowered her voice so the guard wouldn't overhear. "I'll figure something out. I'd rather be accused of treason than face losing you."
Xena waited until she was certain that Gabrielle was gone before summoning the guard. "I want to talk to Ephiny." she said. The Amazon motioned for the other guard to fetch the ruler. Xena sat back and thought about what her best friend was planning to do. Moments later the blond ruler arrived.
"Leave us." Ephiny said to the guard before sitting down on the bed next to the prisoner.
"What's the penalty for treason?"
"Death or banishment, it depends on the severity of the act. Why?" Xena didn't answer, choosing instead to stare at the granite slab. She had no doubt the bard would lie to try and protect her or minimize her punishment. If the Amazons discovered her lies, there was no telling what they would do to her. 'You've suffered so much at my hands, Gabrielle...' she thought. 'I can't let you sacrifice everything for me. I can't let you be punished because of my crimes. I love you too much to let that happen.' she closed her eyes momentarily as she made her decision.
"Ephiny, I want to confess. I plead guilty to all the charges brought against me. There's no need for a trial." she said without emotion.
"Xena, are you sure you want to do that? Gabrielle tells me that the gods were involved. If you can find a way to prove that..."
"There's no way to prove it without having her testify. I won't put her through that." she said firmly. Ephiny's eyes widened with understanding. "Gabrielle was going to lie to protect you, wasn't she?"
"Just promise me that you'll be there for her." she said, refusing to answer the question.
"I'm not the one she wants by her side, Xena, you are." she waited for a comment from the dark haired woman. When none came, the blond ruler sighed. "I'll need a full confession. You'll have to tell the tribunal exactly what happened, what you did to Gabrielle as well as Ep and Solari."
"Whatever it takes to keep her from testifying." she said solemnly.
It was almost dark when Ephiny approached Gabrielle's hut. Xena's confession had taken less than one candlemark, but the lack of detail in her statement caused the tribunal to ask her question after question in an attempt to clarify some of the points. The whole matter took over four candlemarks before the members of the tribunal were satisfied. Ephiny knocked gently on the door. "Come in." she entered to find Gabrielle sitting there looking over several scrolls. "I thought if I could just find something in the laws..." she stopped when she saw the look on her friend's face. "What's wrong?"
"There's not going to be a trial, Gabrielle. Xena confessed to everything this afternoon."
"What? She couldn't...I told her not to do anything until I had a chance-"
"She was afraid for you. I think she believed that you were going to lie on the stand to try and protect her." she sat in the chair opposite the queen at the small table. "Gabrielle, I thought you said she didn't remember anything."
"She didn't. She told me that she didn't."
"Well, she did. She answered every question put to her and the account about the fight in the tavern agrees with what Eponin and Solari said." she reached across the table and put her hand on the bard's forearm. "Gabrielle, she remembers everything. Are you certain the gods were involved?"
Gabrielle stood up, walked over to the bed, and pulled the wooden lamb out from under her pillow. "I'm certain." she said, gently stroking the toy as she sat down. Her mind swam with the new information and the ramifications of it. "Ephiny, what happens now?"
"Now is the sentencing. The advocate should be here tomorrow and the hearing will probably take place the day after."
"What happens then?"
"All the interested parties will testify in front of the tribunal. The advocate will plead for leniency and the prosecutor will plead for the most severe punishment possible. It'll be up to the tribunal to decide what will happen to her then." she didn't fail to catch the glimmer of hope in the bard's green eyes.
"All the interested parties? So anyone who has feelings about this can speak?"
"Yes, but they're put through the same procedure as the trial. They have to take the stand and answer questions, but the advocate and prosecutor can bring things up that have nothing to do with the facts in the case."
"So they can ask about her past? They can ask about all the good things she's done?" she asked hopefully.
"They can also ask about the bad things too, Gabrielle. It works both ways. For every town she's helped, there's ten more that she's destroyed. For every person saved, there's a dozen she's killed. It doesn't work in her favor." Ephiny cautioned. Gabrielle pulled away and looked at her.
"Then I'll just have to figure out a way to make it work." she said. "I'm not letting go of her without a fight."
Eponin looked away when she saw Gabrielle enter. "Come to apologize?" she said snidely.
"No. I came here to see you." she said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "How are you feeling?"
"Better now that Xena has admitted her crimes." She glared at Gabrielle. "I'm going to be there at the sentencing and I'm going to speak my peace."
"I wouldn't expect otherwise, Ep. I know that you feel angry about what happened but there's nothing you can do about it now. You have to move on."
"Move on? Move on? What in tartarus am I supposed to do, Gabrielle? I was a warrior. I'm useless now."
"You may be many things, Eponin, but never useless. I'm sure there's something else you can do, something that doesn't involve walking."
"Like what? All I've ever wanted to be was a warrior. I trained since I was five summers old. I'm almost thirty. It's a little late to pick a new career."
"It's never too late. Is there something, anything that ever interested you? Some hobby perhaps?"
"Hobbies don't protect the village. Besides, the only thing I ever had any interest in was being a warrior. There never was time for anything else, not if I wanted to keep in top form."
"Well, it seems to me that you have plenty of time now." she pointed out. "I'm not here to ask you to go easy on Xena, I wouldn't expect that from you. I'm here because I care. I want to help you in any way I can." she smiled gently. "You know, Trasis was telling me that you've been in her kitchen a few times to complain about the food."
"That's because Trasis doesn't use enough spices. She's afraid to take chances." She shifted and adjusted the pillow behind her back.
"Like you? Sometimes the biggest risk is to not to do anything at all. You've been a warrior for so long that you're afraid there's nothing else you can do. You're wrong about that, Eponin. I'm not saying it'll be easy, but you'll never know until you try. Remember when I first tried to learn how to use a staff? I kept hitting myself in the head and I was certain that I'd never get the hang of it. But you kept encouraging me, showing me again and again until I learned. You didn't give up on me and I'm not giving up on you." she was rewarded with the closest thing to a smile that the stocky warrior had given in days.
Xena laid back on the cot and laced her fingers behind her head. She had been expecting Gabrielle to show up for candlemarks. The moon was now almost directly above and there was still no sign of her. Not even a message. The raven haired warrior sighed audibly. 'Where are you? Why haven't you come to see me?' One thought continued to race through her mind no matter how hard she tried to ignore it. 'I lied to her. I lied about remembering and now she won't see me.' she reached down and ran her fingers over the bruised ribs, hoping that the physical pain would overpower the emotional pain she was in. Nothing she did could tear her mind away from the thought that Gabrielle wasn't coming. She jerked her left leg in anger, causing the chain to rattle and the metal band to dig into her skin. The noise caused one of the guards to poke her head in to make sure the prisoner wasn't trying to escape. Xena closed her eyes and let the vision of the woman she loved fill her mind. Only then could she relax enough to let sleep finally overtake her.
After talking to Eponin for the better part of three candlemarks, Gabrielle walked toward the jail but found herself unable to enter. She wandered the village aimlessly, trying to sort out her conflicting feelings. She had lied to Xena in an attempt to protect her, but the warrior had lied to her simply to deceive. She wandered until she reached the river bank and sat down on the sloping ground. Time passed as she stared at the moon reflecting off the water. "Why, Xena, why?" she said out loud. "Why did you let me believe that you didn't remember anything?" she picked up a stone and tossed it, watching it skip across the water several times before sinking below the surface. "You let me sit there and go on with a pack of lies knowing full well what the truth was. Why?" she pulled her knees up and rested her arms on them. The cool night air blew her hair back and caused the tears to take a curved path down her cheeks. "I would have still tried to protect you. Don't you understand how I feel? Don't you realize that I can't live without you?" she thought back to the nights of passion they shared. "It may not have meant anything to you, Xena, but it meant something to me." she sniffed. "Don't you realize that you've held my heart hostage for as long as I can remember?" she never heard Solari come up and stand just behind a large tree. "How can the gods be so cruel? For so long I've wanted you to want me, to see me as more than just a young girl, to see me as a woman. And when you do, it's because you want to control me, not out of love." The tall Amazon didn't mean to eavesdrop, merely coming out for a late evening stroll, but the sound of her friend crying softly and talking to the night sky caught her attention. Gabrielle threw another stone angrily. "I hope you're happy, Ares. You got what you wanted, didn't you? No matter what happens, I've lost her. I can't stay with her knowing that she doesn't love me the way I need her to and never will. I can't look at her and not remember how it felt to be with her, to touch her in the most intimate of ways and to feel her touching me." she buried her head in her arms as the sobs began. "If they kill her, I can't stay here either. I can't live day in and out with the people who took her away from me. I can't go to Poteidaia either. I don't belong there, I never have." she lifted her head up and stared at the moon. "She's my home." she pounded the soft earth next to her. "Damnit Xena, why didn't you let me take you to Athens? You would have been safe there. Why did you come here, knowing what they'd do you? How many villages have we avoided because you were wanted there? Why deliberately walk into an ambush here?"
Solari could stand it no more. She politely coughed to announce her presence and stepped out from behind the tree to see the young queen wiping her eyes. "Gabrielle, can we talk?"
"Uh, sure." she said, watching as the Amazon took a seat next to her. The injured arm was still in a sling and Solari was careful not to jar it when she sat down. The look on her face told the bard that she had been listening. "How long were you there?" Gabrielle asked, staring out at the water.
"Long enough to know that you're in a great deal of pain and could probably use someone to talk to."
"There's no one I can talk to, Solari. I'm surrounded by women who want to see Xena dead, including you, I imagine." the tall Amazon said nothing but looked out at the water. "I love her. I've loved her for so long that I can't remember not loving her. Now tomorrow I have to sit there and listen to all the reasons why she should die."
"They may not choose to execute her, Gabrielle. You can't give up hope."
"Hope?" she cried. "What am I supposed to hope for? That the gods will descend and make everything all better? That she dies quickly and doesn't suffer? That she escapes at the last moment? That I'll wake up and discover that this is all some horrible nightmare?" she looked down at her lap. "There is no more hope, Solari. I hoped that she'd someday love me the way I love her. Now I know that will never happen. I hoped that together we could find a way out of this mess and our lives could get back to normal. Even if some miracle happens, that dream is gone. Too much has happened." she rose to her feet. "If you'll excuse me, I have to get some sleep so I'll be ready tomorrow to watch my world fall apart some more." she walked away, leaving the Amazon sitting in silence.
It had been late when she returned the center of the village and she knew she was far too emotional to go see Xena. There was just no way she could face looking at the blue depths of the warrior's eyes and know that she would never see the love she needed there. She returned to her hut instead and spent the next two candlemarks reviewing the scrolls of Amazon law before giving up and laying down on her bed. Normally a sound sleeper, Gabrielle found herself tossing and turning in a vain attempt to settle into Morpheus' arms. Her body finally succumbed to exhaustion just before sunrise, but not before she had soaked her pillow with more tears.
It was mid-morning when Gabrielle was awakened by the sound of a knock upon her door. "Come in." she mumbled, sitting up to see Ephiny enter.
"The advocate arrived about a half candlemark ago. I thought you should know."
"Where is she now?"
"In with Xena." she walked over and put her hand on the bard's shoulder. "Gabrielle, the tribunal wants to start the hearing as soon as possible."
"I imagine they would." she replied. "What happens first?"
"The first thing they'll do is listen to a reading of Xena's confession, then the victims will take the stand and tell their side of the story and of how her crimes have affected them. It's at that point when Symra, the prosecutor, will ask questions followed by Luna, the advocate. After all the interested parties have spoken, Xena can take the stand if she wants."
"Sounds about right, everyone gets up there and paints the picture of the evil warlord and then she has to take the stand and defend herself. Tell me something, Ephiny, why even bother with a sentencing hearing? Why not just toss the rope over the nearest branch and be done with it?"
"Gabrielle, that's not fair and you know it." Ephiny replied, letting anger tinge her voice. "I understand that you're upset by all this but you need to realize that what she did was serious. We're Amazons, not mindless killers."
"Like Xena? Isn't that what you mean?" she shot back.
"No, that's not what I mean. Xena had the chance for a fair trial, she refused. If all we wanted was to see her dead we would have killed her in the field."
"I know, Ephiny." she sighed, running her fingers through her hair. "I'm just not looking forward to this."
The largest hut in the village was the food hut and Trasis and the other cooks worked feverishly to clean up after breakfast and turn the long rows of tables and benches into a makeshift courtroom. Every Amazon in the village wanted to be there to hear the proceedings. As it was, less than half could fit inside, the others were forced to listen through the bamboo walls or wait for friends to relay what was being said. Symra sat at the front table on the right, a pile of scrolls in front of her. Luna sat next to Xena at the left table, one nearly empty scroll in front of her. The raven haired prisoner gave her little information to work with, offering almost nothing to her case. Ephiny sat on the bench behind the flame haired Symra, waiting patiently for Gabrielle, who had stopped before entering the hut and insisted that she needed to return to her hut for a moment. Andro, the head member of the tribunal, banged her ceremonial gavel on the table in front of her. Symra nodded and rose to her feet and cleared her throat. She unrolled a scroll and opened her mouth to speak but was silenced by the collective gasp from the crowd. All heads turned to see Gabrielle walk up the aisle.
She was dressed in her queen outfit, the soft brown leather hugging the curves of her body like a second skin. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders and framed her beautiful face. Mouths dropped open and every eye in the room followed her progress toward the front of the room. Gabrielle saw the empty space next to Ephiny and stopped. She looked down at the regent before turning and taking a seat on the bench behind the defense table. A series of small murmurs swept through the crowd as they took it as a sign of silent support for Xena. The warrior herself was speechless at the bard's obvious defiance of protocol, although she noted that Gabrielle sat directly behind Luna and wouldn't look at her. Symra looked at the tribunal and waited for Andro to nod for her to proceed. "The purpose of this hearing to determine the punishment to be given to Xena of Amphipolis for the following crimes to which she has already plead guilty: the kidnapping, ransoming, physical assault and drugging of our queen as well as the assault on two of our warriors who were trying to protect her." the red haired Amazon looked around to make sure she had everyone's attention. "In the failed attempt to protect and rescue our queen, one of our greatest warriors, Eponin, suffered a crippling injury from which she will never recover." the crowd murmured again. Symra continued on, nonplused by Gabrielle's obvious support of her friend. "Xena once was called the Destroyer of Nations. Once again she tried to live up to her reputation as one of the most fearsome warlords in all of Greece. She turned on her friend, beat her mercilessly, even drugged Gabrielle to keep her from escaping."
"It wasn't like that." the bard whispered to Luna, who merely nodded and scribbled something down on the scroll before her. Symra frowned at the interruption before continuing.
"You all saw what Queen Gabrielle looked like when she was brought in. Unconscious, drugged, her face battered by Xena's own hands." she turned to face the crowd instead of the trio of judges and held her hand up in a fist. "Xena used her overpowering strength to beat a woman so much smaller than her into submission." she smacked her palm with her fist. "Imagine what it must have been like for Gabrielle." she brought her fist down again. "To be afraid for her life from the woman she once called friend, to wonder if she would ever see Apollo's chariot sail across the sky again, to no doubt have been bound and gagged..." she continued on but Xena didn't hear her. The warrior's head never moved but her eyes looked down at table before her. Only the tribunal members could see the immense sadness and guilt that stretched across her bruised face. Andro looked from the warrior to the bard and noticed that Gabrielle was whispering something into Luna's ear. "...and we ask that you pronounce sentence on the Destroyer of Nations, not just for the good of the Amazons, but for the good of the rest of the world as well. She's proven that she cannot be trusted to maintain a life of helping others, she's too selfish for that. This is our chance to stop the carnage that is Xena Warrior Princess, disciple of Ares. We ask for the ultimate penalty, death."
"And I have the sword." Gryne shouted from the back of the room, holding up the sword she had forged for Eponin. "She should die the way she has killed so many others." she was met with shouts of approval that raised in volume until Andro was forced to bang on the table several times to regain order.
Andro waited until the crowd settled down before nodding to Luna to proceed with her opening statement. The brown haired advocate quickly scanned the notes in front of her before rising to face the tribunal. "Um...Xena has done many things in her past...but we shouldn't judge her based on her summers of conquest and destruction...the issue before us today is only for the crimes she committed against the Amazon nation and its people." she looked down at her notes again. "Ah yes...she once saved this village from destruction at the hands of Velasca and helped to prevent a war. These acts should be taken into consideration when you pass your sentence." she nodded at the tribunal and sat down. Gabrielle looked at her, then Ephiny with disbelief. The blond ruler returned the look. Xena kept her attention focused on the trio before her that would soon determine if she would live or die.
"Is that all?" Andro asked, not believing herself that the advocate gave such a useless opening statement. Luna nodded and looked back at her notes. Gabrielle leaned forward and tapped the advocate on the shoulder.
"Why didn't you mention how she saved Ephiny's life three times?" she whispered. The brown haired Amazon leaned back.
"It's not important here. I can bring it up later."
"Not important?" the bard hissed. "You're supposed to be trying to save her life. Anything she's done in the name of good should be mentioned."
"It will, in time." Luna replied. She turned her attention back to her notes. Gabrielle looked over at Xena and was surprised to find the warrior looking at her, the blue eyes filled with guilt and sadness. The bard found she could not maintain the eye contact and looked down, her own feelings threatening to overwhelm her. She closed her eyes and prayed to Artemis for the strength to make it through the day without breaking down. Symra rose and began to read from the scroll that had recorded Xena's confession. Gabrielle listened intently, concentrating on every detail revealed by the warrior. She winced visibly a couple of times when Symra emphasized the beatings that Gabrielle received as well as the battle in the tavern. The bard noted gratefully that Xena had made no mention of their sexual activities. Whether it was to spare her or the warrior, Gabrielle wasn't sure.
"I call Ephiny, Regent of the Amazon nation." Symra said. The blond ruler rose and walked to the raised platform. Myrina, the shortest member of the tribunal, nodded and waved her hand at the empty chair. Ephiny sat down and took a deep breath. She hadn't planned on going first. "Ephiny, you have known Xena for how long?"
"Two summers now."
"And in that time, has she ever attacked you?" the blond Amazon shifted uncomfortably. "Remember that you are under oath to Artemis to tell the truth." the prosecutor said.
"Yes, once but-"
"Thank you, a yes or no will do." Symra said, cutting off her answer. "And isn't it also true that she once entered a battle to the death with the late Queen Melosa?"
"But that was to save the nation." she protested.
"Is it true or isn't it?"
"You know it's true." Ephiny replied, annoyed at the line of questioning even though she knew she should have expected it. The redheaded prosecutor smiled slightly at her victory.
"So in addition to her current acts against the Amazon nation, she engaged previously in attacks against Artemis' children, isn't that true?" Ephiny looked regretfully at Xena before nodding reluctantly. The warrior stared straight ahead, her face revealing nothing about her emotions. "I'm sorry, Ephiny, could you please say your answers out loud?"
"In the past she has engaged in combat with Amazons, but it was always for the good of the nation." she said quickly, refusing to let the prosecutor interrupt her again.
"Uh huh." Symra said sarcastically. "And do you think she was acting in the best interest of the Amazons when she beat our queen senseless and crippled one of our finest warriors?" she waved her hand dismissively. "There's no need to answer that question. Tell me, when she arrived at the appointed place and time to collect the ransom, she had drugged Gabrielle, isn't that correct?"
"No doubt to keep her from escaping." she stepped out from behind the table and approached Ephiny. "Eponin is one of your best friends, isn't she?"
"Yes, we've known each other since we were children."
"And in all that time have you ever known her to want to be anything except a warrior?"
"Now tell me, will Eponin ever be able to perform her duties as a warrior again?"
"There are other ways that she can contribute to-"
"That's not what I asked, Ephiny. Now I know you consider that animal a friend, but try putting your responsibilities as regent first. I'll ask again, can Eponin ever return to her former duties as a warrior and defender of the Amazon nation?"
"Not to her former duties, no."
"The injury she suffered at the hands of Xena saw to that, didn't it? No more questions for you right now."
Symra sat down and Ephiny waited for Luna to finish looking at her notes. "I understand that Xena helped to deliver your son?"
"Yes, if it wasn't for her neither of us would have survived." she gave the warrior a small smile.
"So she has done things to help Amazons." she looked down, trying to think of what question to ask next. "And until this latest incident, she has always tried to help our nation?"
"Yes, Xena helped us avoid war and defeat Velasca. She gave us hope when there was none." the crowd murmured as they recalled the fierce battle with the sinister Amazon. "Do you feel that Xena should die for her crimes?"
"No." Ephiny replied firmly. For the first time since she took the stand, the blue eyes of the warrior focused on her. The room filled with whispers. In the time since Velasca's death, Ephiny had proven herself over and over to be a capable and fair leader and was respected by almost all of the Amazons. Her statement that Xena's crimes weren't worthy of execution carried a great deal of weight with them and many began to question whether in fact her death really was necessary.
"Thank you." Luna said before sitting down. Gabrielle and Ephiny exchanged looks of surprise at the brief questioning.
"Why didn't you ask her more questions? She's the best ally Xena has right now." the bard said into the advocate's ear.
"I think I made my point." Luna answered as the blond ruler returned to her seat. "There's no need to ask a thousand questions."
"No need?" Gabrielle raised her voice slightly. "This is Xena's life we're talking about. Ask ten thousand questions if it helps."
"Queen Gabrielle." Andro said in a warning tone. "I really must ask you to remain quiet."
"But she didn't ask the important questions." the bard said, rising to her feet to address the head of the tribunal. "She didn't ask her how she felt when we found her on the road in Thessaly. She didn't ask about the time Xena saved Ephiny from a Centaur."
"Enough, Gabrielle." Andro said firmly. "You are not the advocate in this case. Now sit down and remain quiet or I'll have you removed until it's time for you to take the stand." the bard glared but took her seat.
"How did you feel?" a voice from the crowd shouted. It was joined by several others who wanted to hear the answer. Ephiny stood and faced them.
"When I looked up and saw Xena standing over me, I felt a wave of relief. I knew I was safe then." she looked over and smiled briefly at the raven haired warrior. "I will always be grateful to her for saving me and my son." Andro pounded on the table. The hearing was quickly getting out of hand. "Trasis needs time to restore this room before the mid day meal. Rather than having her change it back again before dinner, we'll recess for the rest of the day and resume tomorrow. Take the prisoner away." two Amazons stepped forward and waited for Xena to stand. It was then that Gabrielle saw the reason the warrior had kept her hands under the table. She wore chains on her wrists and ankles which were connected to a band of metal encircling her waist. Obviously they still considered her an escape risk. They exited out the front, never allowing Gabrielle a chance to get near her. The crowd got to their feet slowly and a cacophony of voices filled the air as the Amazons made their way out of the hut. The young queen waited until almost everyone had left before turning and speaking to Luna.
"I can't believe you. You're supposed to be trying to save her life." she roared. Ephiny stepped up behind her.
"Gabrielle, let's go for a walk."
"No." she replied angrily, turning to face the blond Amazon. "What did you do, Eph? Find the most incompetent advocate possible?" she said, not caring if she hurt the brown haired woman's feelings.
"I am doing the best I can, Gabrielle. You need to be patient." Luna said.
"You need to ask better questions or they might as well pass the sentence right now." she felt herself losing control again and stormed out of the food hut, ignoring the dozen Amazons standing around outside. Ephiny watched her leave before addressing the advocate.
"Luna, she has a point. I could have done a better job than you did today. If you have feelings about this, let me know and I'll find someone else to defend Xena. If you're not up to this " she let the comment hang in the air.
"I've handled dozens of cases, although I'll admit this is my first death penalty case. I generally handle contract disputes, you know, disagreements about sales and goods."
"You mean you've never handled a criminal case before?" Ephiny asked incredulously. "I specifically sent word that I needed an experienced advocate."
"I am experienced, just not in matters of life and death. I generally deal with dinars."
"Then why did they send you? Surely there must have been someone else "
"No one else would take it, Ephiny. Once they heard that Xena, Destroyer of Nations was being accused of kidnapping and ransoming the queen, everyone figured it was an open and shut case with no chance of winning."
"And no one figured it'd matter if she got proper representation or not, right?" the advocate looked downward, silently confirming the regent's suspicion. "Well they were wrong, Luna, as I'm sure you see by now. This is much more complicated than just some raging warlord committing a crime. This is Xena, a friend and ally to the Amazons and the most important person in Gabrielle's life. She deserves every chance we can give her. If you can't handle the challenge then I'll suspend this hearing until we can find someone who can."
"I can handle it." the advocate replied. "Xena's not much help, you know. She barely answers the questions I put forth to her and when she does it's with one or two word answers. You know her, what can you tell me that will help?"
Gabrielle went to Saras' hut to get something for her pounding headache and was surprised not to find Eponin there. "Where is she?" she asked the grey haired healer.
"She went to the training grounds. Be back soon, I imagine. Even with the crutches, I don't think she can stand to be up too long."
"Thank you." the bard said, turning and leaving, her reason for being there forgotten.
She found Eponin leaning against the wooden fence of the training grounds watching a group of young girls practicing with staffs. Their lesson had ended a few moments ago but the enthusiastic youths were still hanging around trying to master their newly taught moves. "How are they?" the bard asked, leaning up on the fence next to the stocky Amazon.
"Not bad, Arissa is a good teacher. They don't pick it up as quickly as you did, but they're still young, they have plenty of time to learn." she replied.
"Hmm." they continued to watch as two girls no more than ten summers old practiced twirling the long staffs around their bodies. Eponin's eyes narrowed slightly.
"Wait." she called out, stopping them. She put the crutches under her arms and worked her way out to them. "You have to concentrate on how you hold your staff just as much as how you move it. Look you have a death grip on it. How can you use it as an extension of your body if you're holding it as though it were a wiggling eel? You have to hold it loosely in your hands, tight enough to control it but not so much that you can't move it freely." she balanced herself enough to release her grip from one crutch and reached out for the staff. The young girl handed it over to the older woman quickly, grateful for the extra lessons. Eponin twirled the staff effortlessly through her fingers. She showed them the proper way to hold it. "Like this " she changed the way she gripped it. " not like this. Try again." she handed it back and returned her grip to the crutch as she watched them repeat their motions, this time using the lesson learned from her. Gabrielle came up behind her and put her hand on the stocky Amazon's shoulder.
"You do that very well. You have a lot of patience when you're teaching, you know that?"
"They already have an instructor, Gabrielle. Besides, I can't teach them if I can't walk." she said sourly.
"Of course you can, you just did. Look at them, Ep. They're eager to learn."
"Like you were." she remembered. Eponin soon found herself surrounded by a half dozen young girls, all enthusiastically waiting for her to teach them another lesson. Gabrielle quietly slipped back out of the way and was quickly forgotten by the warrior as she concentrated on her new pupils. By the time Eponin looked for her, the young queen was long gone.
Despite her actions at the hearing, Gabrielle still found herself unable to approach Xena privately and retreated instead to her hut. She laid on her bed, absently stroking her wooden lamb and trying to think of what she'd have to say on the stand when she was called. She saw Symra in action against Ephiny and knew that she'd have her hands full when she finally had to speak about what happened. She went over all the possible questions in her mind and the answers that would inflict the least amount of damage to Xena's case. She was grateful that her face bore no more than the faintest tinge of bruises and those could only be seen from close up. That would help her to try and minimize the extent of injuries she'd received. She also thought about Luna and her style of defense. Gabrielle knew exactly what questions she wanted the brown haired advocate to ask in order for her to put Xena in the best possible light. Her green eyes lit up with an idea and she jumped off her bed and headed for the small table, reaching for a blank scroll and her quill as she did so. If Luna didn't know the right questions to ask, then she'd just have to supply her with them. Gabrielle lit several candles, giving herself plenty of light to complete her task. The candlemarks sailed by as she wrote question after question down, all designed to paint a picture of the Xena she knew and loved.
Xena paced in her cell as much as the leg chain allowed. The hearing seemed secondary to her in relation to the emptiness she felt without Gabrielle. Again the bard had refused to come see her and she could only suspect the worst. 'No matter what happens, I've lost you haven't I?' she thought to herself. The cell door opened and for a moment the warrior's heart leapt at the thought that it might be Gabrielle coming to see her, only to sink when she saw Luna enter. Xena slumped down on the cot. "What?"
"I came to see if you could tell me anything else that would help. I don't know you or Gabrielle well enough and Ephiny could only provide me with what she knew." she leaned against the granite slab and unfurled her scroll. "She's under the impression that you care very much for our queen."
"I do." she said adamantly.
"That's good. Now if she cares for you as much that will be a great help, I think." she looked at her notes. "Now what can you tell me about the time you rescued Gabrielle from someone named Callisto?"
The conversation went on for a few more moments before the brown haired Amazon stopped. "Xena, I really need more details that you're providing. You make it sound like it was no big deal."
"I'm not a bard." she protested. "If you want details, ask Gabrielle."
"Hmm, that's not a bad idea. She seems willing to help you." the warrior made no comment. "Perhaps I'll do that. You realize that it's Gabrielle's testimony that will have the most impact on the tribunal."
Xena didn't respond, but her mind raced with the ramifications of that very problem. Gabrielle appeared supportive in public but refused to talk to her privately. She had no doubt that the bard would do everything in her power to help, but what after that? She looked up when she realized that Luna had spoken again. "What?"
"I asked you about Thessaly. The temple? You saved Ephiny's life and she tells me that you also saved Gabrielle. What can you tell me about that?" she said, slightly annoyed that the warrior had ignored her. "Xena, this is your life we're talking about. I need your help if we're going to keep you alive."
The hut was just as packed as the day before by the time Andro called Symra to begin. The redheaded Amazon rose to her feet. "I call Queen Gabrielle." all eyes turned to see the bard rise from her seat behind Luna. As she passed the edge of the defense table, Gabrielle casually reached out with her hand and knocked the advocate's scroll to the floor.
"Oh, I'm sorry, let me get that." she said, quickly dropping to her knees. Using her body as a shield, Gabrielle slipped the scroll she had prepared the night before out of the inside of her boot and switched it with the advocate's. She rose to her feet and placed her scroll on the table in front of Luna. "Here you go." she said sweetly before turning and taking the stand. The advocate unrolled the scroll and immediately realized what the young queen had done. Xena glanced over, recognized the handwriting, and felt a sense of comfort wash over her. Gabrielle was still trying to help her. It was more than just appearances, she had provided Luna with the right questions to ask. She looked up at the stand and for a brief moment green eyes met blue, but both women kept their emotions hidden and the bard turned her attention to the prosecutor.
"Hello my queen." Symra said, nodding slightly in acknowledgment of the young woman's rank within their society.
"May I call you Gabrielle for the purposes of this hearing?"
"That's fine." the prosecutor smiled insincerely and glanced quickly at her notes. She had three scrolls filled with information about the young queen and her relationship with the warrior.
"Now Gabrielle, you've been traveling with Xena for over two summers now, isn't that correct?"
"Yes." she replied, knowing full well that the innocent sounding question was leading up to something.
"And in that time, how often did the warrior princess hit you?"
Gabrielle had been expecting the question, knowing full well that her account of Xena's battle with Ares over the death of three innocent men was documented in her scrolls, scrolls which were stored in the Amazon library. "Once, when Ares tried to pull her back into his fold using treachery and deceit."
"A simple number would suffice, my queen. So prior to her kidnapping and brutally beating you, she had only hit you once?"
"Hmm, and you weren't frightened of her? You have to admit, Gabrielle, she is a lot larger and stronger than you."
"I've never feared Xena. I know she'd never do anything deliberately to hurt me." she gazed defiantly at the prosecutor, daring her to say otherwise.
"A yes or no, please." Symra realized that she had underestimated the friendship between the two women.
"No, I've never feared for my safety from Xena." she said. The redheaded Amazon refused to take the bait and make mention of yes or no answers again. It wouldn't look good if she appeared hostile toward her queen. She would just have to work around the bard's answers.
"When you were savagely beaten by her, you weren't afraid?" Gabrielle smiled slightly.
"I was afraid of the warlord, not of the woman I've come to know."
"Come now, Gabrielle, it's the same person."
"No, the Xena that held me prisoner isn't the same-"
"Yes, we've all heard your tale of how the gods were involved in this. Tell me, if the gods truly interfered, then why haven't they stepped forward to stop this hearing? Surely they wouldn't allow an innocent" she snorted "woman to be sent to her death, now would they?"
"I can't speak for the gods." she replied.
"Of course not. But tell me, don't you find it strange that they would allow this to continue for so long?"
"As I said, I can't speak for the gods and I can't guess at what their reasons are for allowing this to happen."
"Perhaps it's because the gods weren't involved at all. Isn't it more likely that your 'friend' simply snapped?"
"No, my scrolls disappeared, my clothes-"
"That could easily be explained. We all know that Xena would never have been so successful if she wasn't smart enough to plan for every conceivable possibility." she turned to face the crowd. "The temptation of a queen's ransom was just too much for her to take. Pretending to lose her memory was merely a ploy to protect her in case she was caught." she spun on her heels to face Gabrielle again. "How many times did she beat you while you were held prisoner?"
The bard quietly thought about it. "A few times, I I can't remember how many." she looked apologetically at Xena, there was no way to avoid the question. The warrior's head was down, unable to face her friend.
"In other words she beat on you so many times that you lost count?"
"No, I just can't remember. Three, maybe four times." Symra smiled at the answer. It was exactly what she was looking for.
"So three or four times she pummeled you senseless, is that correct? Don't bother answering. By her own admission she claims to have beaten you five times. It's obvious to this tribunal that you're trying to protect her but I need to remind you that you have sworn to Artemis to tell the truth in this hearing. Now I'll ask again, how many times did she physically assault you?"
"Five times." she said quietly.
"Five times five separate times she violently attacked you. Tell me, Gabrielle, did she stop when you started begging? Did she stop when you cried and pleaded?"
"She didn't know-"
"Did she stop? Answer the question!" Symra said angrily. "Did she stop beating you when you begged for mercy?"
"No." she quietly admitted. A murmur went through the crowd. "But she was under-"
"The influence of the gods. Yes, we know that you'd like to believe that, Gabrielle." she said dismissively. "So far of course, there's been no evidence of this, but if you need to hold on to your little fantasy " the muscles in both Gabrielle's and the warrior's jaws tensed simultaneously at the barb. "Let's move on, shall we?" she glanced at her notes. "Now, both you and Ephiny credit Xena with saving your lives in Thessaly, is that correct?"
"Absolutely." she replied firmly.
"Now I can understand Ephiny being lost and alone and feeling relief at seeing the two of you, but Gabrielle, I have to ask this. What were the two of you doing in such a dangerous area?"
"It was the shortest route to-"
"Oh, so when it comes to taking the shortest route or the safest, Xena chooses to take you, at the time our princess, right through the middle of a war zone?"
"You know I had a say in it too, I could have insisted on a different route." she said angrily.
"That wasn't the only time she's taken you through a war zone, was it?"
"That wasn't the only time WE'VE gone through war zones, no." she replied.
"She involved you in the battle of Troy, didn't she?"
"Xena helped to end that war, a war which was responsible for countless deaths. This has nothing to do with this hearing."
"On the contrary, it most certainly does. Time and time again her warlord bloodlust has surfaced and put your life on the line." she walked up to the stand and stood directly in front of the bard. "But we'll get back to the ruthless attacks on you and the others. Why do you think she drugged you before coming to collect the ransom?"
"She wasn't coming to collect the ransom, she came here to surrender."
"Surrender? She was fully armed, how can you call that a surrender? The truth of the matter is that she had you drugged to keep you from escaping and it was only the efforts of practically the entire Amazon army that kept her from running off with the chariot of dinars."
"That's not true! I wanted her to go to Athens, she chose to come here."
"Come now, Gabrielle, you expect us to believe that you wanted to go to Athens and she chose to come here, knowing that she'd be captured?" she turned away and headed back to her table. The battle of words wasn't working. Symra decided to that it was time to play dirty with the defiant queen.
"Queen Gabrielle, you defeated the Titans, isn't that true?"
"Xena and I defeated them, yes."
"And the only way they could be defeated was to have a virgin read the chant, isn't that correct?"
"Yes." she answered, puzzled at where this was leading.
"So you were a virgin at that time, is that correct?" whispers went through the crowd at the prosecutor's brashness to ask such a question of their queen.
"I'm not sure what this has to do with the matter at hand." Andro said in a warning tone.
"If the tribunal will indulge me, I don't believe all the details of the queen's abduction have been revealed. I'm just trying to get to the truth." there was a pause while the members of the tribunal conferred quietly amongst themselves.
"Very well, we'll allow you to continue, but there had better be a good explanation for this." the head jurist said sternly.
"Thank you." Symra replied. "Now Gabrielle, are you still a virgin?"
"I'm a widow. No, I'm not a virgin."
"Ah, yes, you were married once, rather briefly if I understand correctly. What was his name? Nerdicus?"
"Perdicus." she replied, the vision of her late husband filling her mind.
"I'm sorry for your loss. How long were you married?"
"He was murdered the day after our wedding." she said quietly.
"By Xena?" Symra asked casually.
"By Callisto!" she growled. "Xena did everything she could to protect us."
"Oh, I'm sure she did." she said insincerely. "So you were married for one day. Tell me, are you and Xena lovers?"
"Really? A beautiful woman like yourself?"
"I said we weren't lovers." she replied testily. It was true, despite what happened between them. Sitting in the back of the room, Solari locked eyes with the bard and nodded with understanding of the young woman's pain.
"Yes, you did say that, didn't you? My Queen, the scouts found the cave where you and Xena first stayed when you claim she was turned back into a warlord. Do you know what they found there?" Gabrielle looked over at Xena nervously. She hadn't counted on this. She noted that the blue eyes held the same look. She swallowed hard.
"No, what did they find?" the bard asked nervously. Symra grinned and opened a small bag laying on the floor next to the table. She reached in and pulled out the bard's breeches.
"These are yours, aren't they? They were found just outside the mouth of the cave. Now you've said that you and Xena aren't lovers so how do you explain this?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and focused on Ephiny, sitting just behind the prosecutor's table. The blond ruler gave her a smile of support. "When when Xena first woke me up and she didn't know who I was, she tied my hands behind my back so I couldn't escape. Well " she blushed slightly. " I had to make a trip to the woods and I couldn't get them up myself and she wouldn't help me, so I stepped out of them and I guess they got left behind."
"So she didn't rape you?" Symra asked, silently cursing herself for not verifying some other explanation for the breeches being left behind. Gabrielle looked over at Xena, forcing her to meet her gaze. The warrior swallowed hard, fearing the answer.
"No. She didn't rape me." she said, her eyes never leaving Xena's. It may not have been an act of love but it wasn't rape either and Gabrielle knew it.
"I think that's enough of that line of questioning, Symra." Andro said, receiving nods of agreement from the other jurists. She turned to face Gabrielle. "My queen, I believe that a break is in order. We'll break for one candlemark and then Luna can start her questions."
"But I'm not finished with my-" the prosecutor protested.
"Yes you are." the leader of the tribunal declared.
Everyone filed out of the food hut and gathered into groups to discuss the newest revelations about the hearing. Most expressed shock at the questions and accusations that Symra made. "I can't believe she asked Gabrielle about her sex life." one woman said. "How about practically accusing her of sleeping with Xena and lying to protect her?" another said. Walking through the crowds, Solari was stopped on several occasions and asked her opinion. The tall Amazon was non-committal and evasive. She finally made her way to where Gabrielle and Ephiny were standing quietly. "Can I speak with you privately?" she asked the bard. They walked away from the hut and didn't stop until they were well out of earshot of the others.
"What did you want to talk about?" Gabrielle asked.
"You did a great job on the stand, you know. All the Amazons are talking about it." they sat down on a low stone wall that surrounded the main well. "Your testimony got a lot of them thinking."
"Good, they should do more thinking. This is her life we're talking about, why can't they see that?"
"I think they're beginning to." Solari replied, putting her arm around the younger woman's shoulders. "Now, how are you doing? I know it had to be difficult for you to be up there and talk about what happened." Gabrielle looked down at the ground, studying a blade of grass.
"I felt like I betrayed her with each word." she said softly.
"You didn't." Solari replied, putting her hand under the bard's chin and forcing Gabrielle to look at her. "You did everything you could to be gentle to her. I'm sure she knows it and your words really had an affect on people. I'm sure Luna's questioning will help as well."
"I hope so. Xena needs all the help she can get." she turned her head to look down at the ground again. "I haven't been to see her, you know. I just can't."
"I know." she smiled at Gabrielle's surprised expression. "There isn't much that escapes the grapevine, especially when it concerns this case."
"I don't know what to say to her. She knew what happened and she didn't say anything. How am I supposed to take that?"
"Gabrielle, you haven't talked to her since she confessed. How was she supposed to talk to you about it? It's not like she can just walk up to you. The only way she can see you is if you go to her." she urged gently. "You're assuming the worst and you haven't even heard her reasons yet."
"But she lied to me she told me she didn't remember."
"I think she lied to protect you, Gabrielle. You know she came here to surrender, she probably drugged you to spare you having to see that. Everything she's done since she regained her memory has been for your benefit. She loves you, maybe not the same way you love her, but she does love you."
"I know she does "
"Then give her a chance to explain, Gabrielle. I haven't been to see her, but I've heard from the guards that she just sits in there looking like she's lost her best friend." she squeezed the bard's shoulders. "And she thinks she has, you know. Hey, we'd better get back." she was surprised when Gabrielle gave her a fierce hug.
"I'm sorry you got hurt, Solari, but I'm glad you're okay. Thanks for being my friend."
"I'll always be your friend, Gabrielle, don't ever forget that. I, for one, believe that Xena was influenced by the gods. But right now you have another friend that needs your help more."
The bard nodded and released her embrace. "I guess it's almost time, huh?"
"Yeah, come on, I'll walk you back." they returned to the food hut together, causing yet more conversation between the Amazon spectators. Gabrielle's support of Xena was obvious and now Solari was apparently supporting the queen, leading to more questioning about the severity of the non-Amazon's punishment.
Gabrielle resumed her place at the stand and waited for Luna to ask her first question. The brown haired advocate smiled at her. "Can you tell us the first time you met Xena?"
"It was just outside of my home village of Poteidaia. The warlord Draco had taken several of us prisoner and was going to sell us into slavery. Xena came out of the woods dressed in nothing but her shift, weaponless, and rescued us." she smiled at the memory. "She didn't know me, my sister, or the other girls of our village yet she fought a dozen men to save us." the crowd began their murmuring again until Andro banged on the table. Luna cleared her throat.
"So she had no idea who you were and yet she risked her life to save you?"
"Yes." she said proudly, looking directly at Xena, who smiled almost imperceptibly back at her.
"And many times she's put the safety of others ahead of her own, isn't that true?" Luna asked, reciting the next question on Gabrielle's list.
"Yes, she's always risking her life for others. In fact, when she died " she looked downward as the horrible memory of Xena's battered body lying in the sarcophagus filled her mind. "She was trying to rescue a young villager that she didn't know." the pain of the memory showed clearly on the bard's face.
"Always trying to make the world a better place. Her own personal needs coming second. Doesn't sound at all like the heartless warlord, does it?" Luna was beginning to feel more confident in her case thanks to the questions given to her. "There was an incident where the two of you found a baby that turned out to eventually be heir to the throne, is that correct?"
"Yes Xena waited until she was certain that King Gregor wouldn't try to kill the baby and then she turned it over to him."
"She didn't just hand it over to the king and be done with it?"
"Oh no, she wanted to make sure the baby was safe first."
"I see." she looked at the questions again and shook her head. "Gabrielle, let's talk about the temple at Thessaly." the bard looked confused. That wasn't the next question on her list. "Actually " Luna looked up at the tribunal. "If it pleases the court, I'd like to recall Ephiny to the stand for this question and call the queen back after."
"And your reason for this? My understanding is that Gabrielle was there at the temple." Andro said. "Surely she can answer whatever question you might have."
"I'm afraid not, if the court will grant me this small indulgence " the jurists whispered amongst themselves and nodded. Gabrielle stepped down and headed back to her seat at the same time that Ephiny rose and headed for the stand. They exchanged the same look of confusion. Luna smiled and turned her attention to the blond Amazon. "Ephiny, you were there when Gabrielle was brought in, seriously injured, is that correct?"
"Yes, she had been stabbed with a sword and was very close to death. In fact she passed her right of caste to me just in case."
"And at one point she did in fact die, is that correct?"
"Yes, she stopped breathing and her heart stopped beating." Xena lowered her head in memory of that painful day.
"Ephiny, can you describe how Xena reacted to the queen dying?"
Intense silence filled the room and women leaned forward to hear. Gabrielle leaned forward as well. Her memory of that event was fuzzy at best and Xena refused to talk to her about it except to say that she was glad that she was okay. The blond ruler took a deep breath. "Gabrielle started having trouble breathing, then she just went limp. She died in Xena's arms the priests told her that there was nothing that could be done, others told her to let Gabrielle go."
"And did she?"
"No, she she just couldn't. She kept telling Gabrielle to fight, to just fight. It was hard for me to hear everything she said."
"And why was that?"
"She was too upset she was crying." the crowd broke into murmurs again.
"Xena was crying. Had you ever seen her cry before that?"
"No, never. If you knew her, you'd know that she doesn't cry, it's just not something she does."
"Yet she cried when she thought she'd lost Gabrielle?"
"She did more than cry, she was practically hysterical. I realized then just how much Xena cared for her." she looked over at the defense table and gave a brief smile. "I believe she would have fought Hades himself to get Gabrielle back."
Gabrielle leaned forward and put her hand on the warrior's shoulder. "I never knew." she whispered.
"I try not to think of that day." she turned in her seat slightly to face the bard. "It's one of my most painful memories." she replied softly. "I just when I thought I lost you "
"My queen, I really must ask you not to speak with the defendant." Andro reprimanded. Gabrielle gave the warrior's shoulder a small squeeze and sat back in her seat. The jurist nodded at Luna to continue.
"So when you heard that Xena had kidnapped her and attacked Eponin and Solari, your thoughts were of disbelief?"
"Yes, I couldn't believe that the same person who fought so hard to save Gabrielle's life would suddenly change like that." Ephiny replied.
"So what explanation do you have for why she acted the way she did?"
"I believe what Gabrielle has said, that the gods were somehow involved. There just can't be any other reason."
"So even though it was Xena who committed the crimes, crimes which she has admitted to, you believe that she never would have done them if gods hadn't been involved?"
"Exactly." Ephiny replied firmly.
"I have to object to this." Symra said, rising to her feet. "There's no evidence that the gods were involved and Xena already admitted to the crimes. They're just blowing smoke to keep her from getting the death penalty."
"Do I need to remind everyone involved that the purpose of this hearing isn't to determine Xena's guilt or innocence but rather to determine the severity of her punishment?" Andro said. "There's no doubt that she committed the crimes in question, but the punishment should not only fit the crime, but also the reasons behind the crime. And as for blowing smoke," she leveled her gaze at the redheaded Amazon. "You seem just as capable of that as the defense is."
"I have no further questions at this time for Ephiny." Luna said. The blond ruler nodded and stepped down from the stand.
"I believe we've heard enough for the day. We'll resume tomorrow." Andro said, rising to her feet. The other two jurists followed her out the front entrance. The Amazon guards pulled Xena to her feet and headed her toward the same door. She stopped just inside the entrance and turned around to look at Gabrielle.
"Please come see me. I I need to talk to you."
"Let's go." one of the guards said, giving the warrior a slight shove.
"I will." Gabrielle replied, but her voice was drowned out by the roar of voices from the crowd. This time they didn't even bother to leave the hut to talk about the case, much to Trasis' annoyance. It took her the better part of a candlemark to get the hut cleared out enough for them to set up for the mid day meal. Of course it didn't help that the majority of the kitchen staff was engaging in conversations with the women they were trying to shoo out.
Gabrielle returned to her hut and changed from her queen outfit into her usual clothing. She was just fastening the ties in the front of her top when she heard the soft knock on the door. "Come." Ephiny stepped in and closed the door behind her.
"You okay? You seemed a little shaken with today's testimony." the blond ruler said. Gabrielle motioned for her to take a seat at the table and pulled out a chair for herself.
"She never talked about it with me. I mean, I knew she was upset but ."
"But you didn't know she was that upset? Gabrielle, when I saw her fall to pieces in that temple I knew then that you were more than just a friend to her. How much more, I can't say."
"I love her. I when she regained her memory, I wanted to run, to get as far away from the Amazons as possible."
"You wanted to protect her." Ephiny said. The bard nodded and stared at the table. "Gabrielle, that's what she did when she came here, when she confessed all she's done since she regained her memory has been to protect you." she laced her fingers together and sighed. "I know it's none of my business but I understand that you haven't been to see her since the hearings started."
"I was just getting ready to head over there." she ran her finger along an indentation in the wood where a sliver had long ago been chipped away. "I I'm not sure what to say to her."
"Just tell her the truth. Tell her how you really feel, all of it. She needs to hear it as much as you need to say it."
"What if what if she doesn't feel the same?" her finger continued to trace the outline of the indentation.
"Then you'll know. And isn't knowing the truth better than spending the rest of your life guessing? Tell her, Gabrielle. Just swallow your fear and tell her how you feel." Ephiny stood placed her hand on the bard's forearm. "I'm here for you if you need me."
"I appreciate that, Eph." she said before slowly rising to her feet.
Gabrielle passed by the smithy hut on her way to jail and couldn't help but hear Xena's name being mentioned. Curious as to what they were saying, she walked closer. "Ephiny pulled Dyna and Alessa from guard duty and assigned them to the south wall for the next three moons." one voice said.
"At least they were smart enough to stay quiet. They know the meaning of protecting their own." another voice said. Gabrielle recognized it as the grey haired woman that held the sword up the first day of the hearings. Standing in the shadows of the outside of the hut, she had a clear view of the half dozen women inside but so far had been unnoticed by them. From the long leather apron and gloves, she realized that the woman had to be the smithy.
"You got her good though, Gryne. Where'd you get that glove?" a blond Amazon whose name was unknown to the bard asked. The grey haired smithy laughed.
"Made it myself summers ago. Took me forever to get her blood out of the links." she chuckled. "If Ephiny wasn't so damn spineless and put her responsibilities to the Amazon nation over her friendships, we wouldn't have had to handle things our own way. Now we can't get near her. She's got Ilanna watching Xena at night and you know she won't let us in."
"Gryne." Gabrielle said, stepping out of the shadows. The Amazons quickly turned to look at her nervously.
"Queen Gabrielle." the smithy said sweetly. "What can I do for you today?" she cast glances at her friends, all silently wondering if she had heard any of their conversation.
"I would like to see you on the training grounds now!" her green eyes flashed with anger, telling them that she had in fact heard at least some of their conversation.
"I um I'm rather busy today, my queen, perhaps-"
"Now Gryne. You're not so busy that you can't sit and chat with your cohorts. Surely you aren't planning on refusing an order from your queen?" she said, silently wishing she had her staff with her but glad she didn't, her anger was almost as strong as when she went after Callisto in an attempt to avenge Perdicus' death.
"No, of course not." she flashed her friends a look, conveying that she knew she was in trouble and took off her apron and gloves. Gabrielle turned on her heels and stormed off toward the training grounds, not bothering to look back. She knew they were all following her there.
Eponin was leaning against a stool, showing the young Amazon girls a new drill with the staff when she saw Gabrielle approach with a look that meant business, followed quickly by a half dozen Amazons. The bard softened her features and walked up to one of the young girls. "May I use that for a few moments?"
"O-of course, my queen." the young girl replied, quickly handing over her staff. Gabrielle took it and patted the girl on the head while getting used to the feel of the weapon, slightly shorter than her own but still quite useable.
"Thank you." the bard said before turning to Eponin. "I need this field."
"My queen, this isn't necessary." Gryne said.
"What's going on?" the stocky warrior said, reaching for her crutches. One of the young girls carried off the stool.
"Tell her, Gryne." Gabrielle said. "Tell her how you and your friends were the ones who beat on Xena while she was chained up and defenseless."
"What?" Eponin asked, looking at her friends. She of course had heard about the attack, but no one knew who was responsible, except Dyna and Alessa, and they refused to tell.
"She deserved all that and more, Gabrielle." Gryne said, receiving several murmurs of agreement from her friends. "Did you forget that she beat on you too? Or are you still in awe of the mighty Xena?"
"Choose your weapon, Gryne." the bard shot back angrily.
"Now just wait a moment." Eponin said, hobbling over on her crutches to stand between them. "Gryne, is what she says true? Did you?"
"Ep, look at what she did to you. How can you even think of questioning what we did? She attacked you, left you for dead."
"Get a weapon." Gabrielle repeated, setting herself in a battle stance. Eponin looked from one woman to the other and back to the smithy again.
"Gryne, you knew Ephiny was going to put her on trial. Justice would have been served." she tried again.
"Justice? I gave her justice. I made her hurt like she had hurt you, Ep. Look at you, you can't even walk without help. Where's the justice in that? Xena deserved a hades of a lot worse than what we gave her. How can you even think that she didn't?" she turned her attention the angry queen. "And you you're so I don't know what over her that you can't even see that what we did was the right thing to do. She tried to kill Ep and Solari. Don't you even care about them?"
"I risked my life to save them, Gryne." Gabrielle replied, still maintaining her stance. "I fought Xena to protect them when they were down. Don't EVER accuse me of not trying to protect my Amazons."
"Yeah, like you're protecting them at the hearing? 'Oh Xena saved my life, oh Xena this and Xena that. Why don't you recommend her for godhood?" the smithy said sarcastically.
"Gryne, she's still the queen." Eponin gently warned.
"The queen who's got a soft spot for warlords." the grey haired Amazon taunted. Never one for tact or for knowing when to back down, she continued. "You don't want to fight me, little girl. Before I became a smith I was an expert with a sword."
"Can you fight someone who isn't tied up?" the bard replied.
"I could beat you any day. You should make it a royal challenge, at least that way we would end up with a queen that would truly lead us, not just pop in and out whenever she felt like it." Gryne's friends shuffled their feet and looked at each other. The situation was quickly getting out of hand. It was one thing to beat on Xena, it was quite another to threaten the queen.
"Oh yeah, you're just what the Amazon nation needs, someone who attacks people when their chained up and defenseless." Gabrielle taunted, her own anger near full force.
"Gryne " Eponin said sternly.
"Forget it, Ep. I can't believe you're taking her side. Doesn't being crippled by Xena mean anything to you? Or have you gotten as soft as Ephiny?"
"Xena admitted her crimes and is facing the tribunal. She'll get her punishment." the stocky Amazon growled. "I understand why you did what you did but this is going too far. Gabrielle was just as much a victim as I was."
"Really? Are you so sure of that, Ep? Maybe she's in cahoots with Xena. Maybe this was all some kind of plan to get dinars."
"You can't believe that."
"All I know is what I saw on the stand today. She practically professed her love for that bitch. What's the matter, Gabrielle? You all hot and horny for Xena?"
"Gryne! That's enough! Walk away." one of the other Amazons reached out and put her hand on the smithy's shoulder, silently urging her to back down.
"I can't believe you, Eponin. I thought we were friends. How can you take her side? Xena's side?" the grey haired Amazon said, roughly shoving her friend's hand off of her. "Are you happy teaching little girls how to use staffs? Or maybe you have the hots for Xena too." she reached over and took one of her friend's swords. "Come on, Gabrielle, you little piss ant. You want to avenge Xena's beating? You want to protect the women that beat you, beat on your friends, tried to hold you for ransom? Come on." she twirled the sword expertly in her hands.
"You're not worthy of a royal challenge." Gabrielle said, moving so that Eponin wasn't in the way.
"Fine, just you and me." the grey haired smithy growled as she stepped closer. She swung her sword downward. Gabrielle brought her staff up in front of her to block the blow. Xena sparred with the bard often but the young queen still found herself forced down to one knee from the force of the powerful blow. She tucked and rolled out of range before returning to her feet. "Come on Gabrielle, you started this."
"You started it when you attacked Xena without giving her a chance to defend herself." the bard retorted. Eponin moved back to the edge of the field, giving the two women plenty of room.
"She attacked Eponin and Solari. Or did you forget that little fact?" Gryne shouted.
"I didn't forget. I've told you, the gods took away her memory."
"Well, she seemed to know enough to confess." she made a swipe with her sword but the quick footed queen backed out of the way and swung her staff, smacking the tip of the sword in the process.
"When she regained her memory, she remembered everything. She feels very bad about what happened, that's why she came here to surrender."
"So you say. I say she deserves to die." the crowd started to grow as word of the battle spread throughout the village.
"Why? For actions that never would have happened if the gods didn't intervene?" she looked briefly at the crowd. "Xena saved this village twice. If that doesn't earn her a chance then what in tartarus will?" she blocked another blow. The sounds from the crowd grew larger, some cheering for Gabrielle, some cheering for Gryne, but most talking about the queen's statement. The battle continued on for several moments with neither woman landing a solid blow. Then the grey haired smithy swung hard at Gabrielle's right side, beyond the reach of her hands, forcing the staff down, putting the bard off balance. Gryne took advantage to land a boot on her chest, sending Gabrielle to the ground. The force of the impact knocked the staff out her hands, sending it just out of her reach. The smithy dropped her sword, knowing full well that she could defeat the smaller woman in hand to hand combat with her overpowering strength. She pounced on Gabrielle, but the bard brought her knees up at the last moment, catching Gryne in the midsection. Her well developed thighs propelled the smithy backward and allowed her a chance to get to her feet. Her staff was no hopelessly out of her reach but the movement had allowed Gryne to reach her sword.
"Stop this!" Ephiny shouted, bursting through the crowd, Ilanna close behind. The adrenaline ebbed from the bard's body and she sank to her knees, trying to catch her breath. The dark-skinned Amazon reached over and took the sword out of Gryne's hand while the blond ruler approached Gabrielle. "What's going on here?"
"She challenged me to a fight. I just accepted the challenge, that's all." the smithy said, rubbing her lower ribs, still smarting from the bard's kick.
"She she's one of the ones that attacked Xena in the jail." Gabrielle said, still trying to get her breathing back to normal. Ephiny spun around to face Gryne.
"Is that true?"
"She'd say anything to protect that Xena, you know that." she looked to her friends to back her up. Dyna and Alessa had gotten three moons duty at the worst place to patrol in the entire village and all they did was let them into the cell. Gryne didn't want to think about what she would get for leading the attack. Ephiny looked at the others standing around. The smithy's cohorts looked down at the ground, reluctant to turn themselves in but not wanting to lie to their regent. The others in the crowd murmured but didn't hear Gryne's confession before the battle started. Ephiny looked at Eponin.
"Ep?" all eyes turned to look at the stocky Amazon. She shifted on the crutches and looked from Gryne to Gabrielle and back again.
"A warrior is nothing if not honorable. Gabrielle's telling the truth. Gryne was involved in the attack on Xena. They were too." she indicated the smithy's friends.
"So now you turn on your own, eh Eponin?" the grey haired Amazon growled.
"You did when you attacked someone who was tied up and defenseless." the stocky Amazon retorted. "Xena battled with me honorably, I had a chance to defend myself. Amazons don't take justice into their own hands. We have codes and laws. I can't say that I was sorry to hear that Xena had been beaten up but the way you did it was wrong."
Xena sat up quickly, ignoring the pain in her ribs, when she heard the door to her cell open. Gabrielle stepped in and stood there, fear and nervousness keeping her from moving. For several heartbeats, neither moved or said a word. Finally it was the warrior who found her voice. She held her hands out. "Come here." she said softly. The bard didn't need a second invitation. She crossed the room and threw herself into the warrior's waiting arms, burying her face into the crook of Xena's neck. The movement jarred the still healing ribs but the warrior didn't notice. She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and held her tight, afraid that if she let go that the bard would disappear. Nothing else mattered to her except the feeling of holding the young woman. She buried her face into the golden hair and breathed in the scent she missed so much, the scent of her Gabrielle. Xena wished she could just stay like this, just her and her beloved bard. No Amazons, no gods, nothing but the woman she loved in her arms. So much had happened between them and so much more was yet to come. Regardless of what happened at the hearing, Xena knew she couldn't take the chance, couldn't wait any longer to tell the bard just what her true feelings were. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and said the words that had stuck in her throat so many times before. "Gabrielle I love you." she whispered, feeling the weight of the repressed words lift from her soul. Xena inhaled sharply when she felt the arms around her tighten against her injured ribs.
"Oh gods, I'm sorry." the bard exclaimed, pulling back from the embrace.
"Shh, it's okay." she replied, tightening her hold. "It's worth it. I've missed you." she said, trying hard not to let her disappointment show at the young woman's reaction.
"I love you too, but we need to talk." Gabrielle said into the warrior's neck, not truly understanding the depth behind the raven haired woman's declaration. Xena nodded, let the young woman out of her embrace, and steeled herself for whatever bad news the bard was about to tell her. She sat back on the bed, her left leg straight because of the short chain attached to the leg manacle. Gabrielle sat cross-legged next to her. "Xena, why didn't you tell me that you remembered everything? Why did you lie to me?"
"I " she looked down at her lap trying to come up with the right words. "I couldn't when I thought about all the things I did to you how I hurt you used you ." the shame she felt was evident on her face. "How can you even stand to be near me after what I did to you?"
"You didn't answer my question, Xena." she said softly. "Why didn't you tell me?" she reached up and brushed her fingertips against the warrior's jaw.
"I I was afraid after all that had happened, I was certain that I had lost you especially since we were heading for the Amazons when we got into that fight with the slavers. You were taking me in to be captured." the bard lowered her head at the truth of Xena's statement. Despite it being the right thing to do at the time, Gabrielle still felt like she was betraying her. "Then you came to me and I didn't know what you were going to do. It seemed easier to pretend not to remember."
"Then why did you come here anyway? You had to know there was a trap waiting for you." she continued to stroke her thumb across Xena's jaw, being careful of the still healing bruises. "You could have told me. We could have gone to Athens, we could have gone anywhere but here. You would have been safe." the warrior finally lifted her head and looked into the soft green eyes, amazed at the amount of gentleness and love that appeared there.
"When I realized that you were going to try and help me run away I just couldn't let you do that. I had to face my crimes. I can't run anymore, Gabrielle. I couldn't turn you into a fugitive too." 'I couldn't let you end up like me.' the warrior thought to herself.
"Okay." the bard nodded. "We can't change what's happened. What's important now is to get you out of this mess." now sitting back, Xena noticed the beginnings of a bruise on Gabrielle's upper chest.
"What happened?" she asked in a concerned tone.
"I found the women that attacked you and challenged one of them to a fight."
"You what? You got into a fight with someone?" the sounds of the new prisoners being led into the next cell filled the hallway. "Gabrielle, you could have been hurt." her tone carried the self-reproach that the warrior always felt when she couldn't be there for her bard.
"I'm fine, Xena. Ephiny stepped in and stopped it." her fingertip moved from the warrior's jaw to her lip, lightly brushing over the stitching. "Does it hurt?"
The gentle feeling of the bard's fingers on her lips caused Xena to inhale sharply. "No, it doesn't hurt." she whispered as she pulled back from the distracting touch and looked down. "Not as much as not being able to see you. I'm glad you came." she looked up at the bard again and took a deep breath. "Gabrielle, about what happened ." she began.
"Shh, it's okay, Xena. I understand." her voice took on a sadness and she pulled away from the warrior. "You were just doing what warlords do. Anything to gain an advantage."
"It wasn't like that well, it was at first, but "
"You don't have to explain." she said, steeling herself for the rejection she knew was coming. "I know you don't feel about me that way."
"Gabrielle " she went to reach for the younger woman but the bard pulled back.
"No, Xena. You don't have to do that. You don't have to pretend that it meant something to you." her face hid nothing of the pain she felt. This was why she had avoided coming to see the warrior. This was the conversation she tried so hard not to have to face.
"I love you." the warrior said again. She received a gentle slap on the thigh as Gabrielle shook her head.
"I know you do, you love me as a friend, as a little sister, as everything except the way I love you. It may not have meant anything to you, Xena, but it meant something to me." she pulled back again when the warrior reached for her. "No, let me finish." she sniffed and gave a short laugh. "When you approached me in that cave I wanted I needed so desperately to believe that you really did find me desirable, that you wanted me the way I wanted you." Xena found herself unable to speak, the words revealing a truth to her that she had never dared hope for. Gabrielle pressed on, her emotions driving her to tell all now that her big secret was out. "You know why I gave in to you? Do you?" she shifted to her knees and moved close, her breath brushing the warrior's face. "I gave in because I knew it was the only chance I'd ever have to show you how much I love you. It may have been wrong of me to do that but I won't apologize for it." she sat back and lowered her head as the silence drew out between them. "When when I touched you gave you pleasure it it pleased me too, does that make sense?"
"Yes it does Gabrielle " she reached out and took the bard's hand in her own, drawing strength from the contact. "I would give anything, make a deal with any god that would listen if it meant that I could take back what happened this last quarter moon. You mean everything to me, everything." she squeezed the bard's hand for emphasis. Gabrielle tried to pull but Xena held tight. "When you wouldn't come to see me I was certain I'd lost you forever." she closed her eyes to the memory of sitting in the empty cell, silently begging for Gabrielle to come see her. "It didn't matter to me anymore, nothing mattered except that I failed you." she released her grip on the younger woman's hand and was surprised to find that the bard didn't pull back. "It meant something to me too. I never felt like that before."
"Like what?" Gabrielle asked softly, hoping against hope. "Tell me."
For long moments there was silence as Xena stared off into nothingness, yet her thumb continued to brush back and forth across the bard's palm. The touch caused a stirring deep within Gabrielle and she had to close her fingers around the distracting digit. She needed to know. She needed to know exactly how Xena felt. "Tell me." she urged again, silently begging the woman she loved to open up.
"I I felt loved." she looked up to capture the green eyes with her own. "I didn't know why then, but I knew you were loving me. Then I enjoyed it but I didn't understand it."
"And now?" she asked tentatively as her heart soared with the new knowledge.
"Now I understand." she said, pulling their joined hands to her chest. "I understand that you are the only one I could ever love enough to let love me. I love you, Gabrielle. Not as a sister or a friend, but as a woman, the only woman I could ever love."
"Really?" the bard whispered, her eyes misting up. "You you're not just saying that? You really do love me that way?" the moons and moons of wishing and hoping and dreaming about this moment were finally coming true and Gabrielle felt overwhelmed by the flood of emotions. One lone tear made its way down her cheek as she moved close enough to feel the heat radiating from the raven haired woman.
"Really." Xena replied, releasing her grip on Gabrielle's hand and pulling the young woman onto her lap. She reached up and cupped the bard's face with her hands, the callused thumbs wiping away the salty tears that were now trickling down Gabrielle's face. With infinite slowness that tortured both of them the warrior lowered her head until her lips came into contact with the sweet softness of the woman she loved. The stitch on her lip ticked the bard and the pressure of the kiss brought pain to the warrior, but neither noticed as time and space drifted away and their world narrowed to the exquisite contact between them. Over and over again they shared the intimacy of their first real kiss, the first mutual expression of their love, the first joining of their souls. The sweet contact went on for what seemed like both an eternity and an instant as their fears dissipated, replaced by the security of knowing that whatever happened, they'd see it through together. They swallowed murmurs of 'I love you' back and forth from each other, both content to stay in each other's arms. Their exchanges were of love, not passion, and neither tried to deepen the kisses, knowing that it was neither the time nor the place to take things further. When they finally broke off the kisses, Xena leaned back against the wall and continued to hold her precious Gabrielle against her. Strong hands stroked golden hair while the bard's fingers traced the outline of Xena's collarbone. "It's going to be all right, Gabrielle. Whatever happens, we'll be okay." she said reassuringly, placing a gentle kiss on the bard's forehead. She was rewarded with the feeling of soft lips against her neck.
"Yeah, we'll get through this together." Gabrielle replied. Xena adjusted her hold and they continued to snuggle together, both lost in the utter bliss of being in love and having that love returned.
Dusk settled across the village by the time Ilanna arrived at the jail to relieve the day guard. "The queen is in there with her, but they've been awfully quiet." the guard said as she handed the keys over to the dark-skinned Amazon. Ilanna nodded and took her position outside the cell door. It was a good candlemark later when Gabrielle emerged and asked to be let out. Even in the dim torchlight the bard's face glowed with happiness. When the Amazon looked in on Xena a short time later, she found her sleeping contentedly instead of her usual thrashing about. Obviously their talk had been productive. Ilanna sat down on a stool near the cell door and relaxed. The other prisoners were being guarded by two Amazons, so her only responsibility was to keep an eye on Xena. She knew she had nothing to worry about tonight.
The women were packed in the hut even tighter than before by the time Luna rose to ask her first question of the young queen. "Gabrielle, have you ever met Death?"
"You mean Hades' sister, Celesta. Yes, I have twice."
"Once was at the temple in Thessaly, can you tell us about the other time?"
Gabrielle nodded at her face took on the look that usually preceded a story. "It all started when Xena and I ran into Toxeus and his men ." as she spoke, the bard drew the crowd in, all entranced with the tale of Xena and their queen saving the God of the Underworld's sister from King Sysiphus. She made it a point to mention exactly how much it meant to her when Xena held her after Talus died.
"Of course she helped Hades." Symra growled, rising to her feet. "She's certainly given him enough business over the summers."
"She was the only one who knew enough about King Sysiphus' tricks to get past him and save Death. She risked her life to save the world." Gabrielle replied. Andro glared at the prosecutor.
"Symra, you had your turn to ask questions. Don't keep interrupting." the redheaded Amazon glared briefly but resumed her seat. She'd have another chance to question the queen and then she'd get the answers she wanted. Luna gave the tribunal a small smile and turned her attention back to the queen.
"One of your reasons for feeling that the gods were involved was the way she treated you."
"Yes, she didn't recognize me, had no idea who I was."
"Has she done things to anger the gods?"
Gabrielle smiled at her friend and gave her a knowing smile. "Xena is an expert at angering the gods. Not just Ares, she's given Poseidon plenty of reasons to be angry with her. She helped Ulysses get past the Sirens and return to Ithaca, not to mention what she did for Cecrops."
"Ah yes, the Curse of the Lost Mariner. You were pulled aboard that ship, were you not?"
"And once onboard that ship, you were cursed as was the rest of the crew?"
"Yes, if I had left the ship, I would have been killed instantly."
"And Xena was aware of this curse yet still boarded?"
"Without hesitation." Gabrielle said proudly as the crowd broke out into murmurs and comments. Andro pounded the table.
"Without hesitation Xena doomed herself to the same fate as you. That's a far cry from the woman who attacked Eponin and Solari in the tavern, isn't it? No wonder you believe the gods were involved." she turned back to look at the list of questions. "Prior to the incident with Velasca, there was another occasion in which you and Xena came into possession of a large amount of ambrosia, isn't that correct?"
"And in fact, Xena had the ambrosia in her hands."
"And what did she do with it? What did she do with the food of the gods? The food that can reunite the dead with their bodies, that can turn a person into a god?"
"She got rid of it." the bard said proudly. "She gave it back to them and said it wasn't needed here." there was more murmurs from the crowd.
"So she had the perfect opportunity to become a god and she threw it away? Doesn't sound like a power hungry person to me." Luna noticed several members of the crowd agreeing with her statement. She had read the last question on Gabrielle's list but felt that perhaps there was one more question that was of even greater importance than all those the young queen had written down. "Gabrielle, after all that has happened, do you fear being alone with Xena? Do you fear that she'll return to her warlord ways? That there's any danger to either yourself or the Amazon nation?"
Gabrielle looked over at Xena and gave her a smile that could only be described as loving. "No, Xena is no threat to the Amazon nation. Without the gods interference, I believe that she will continue in her quest for a better world and her own personal redemption. She was taking a step in that direction when she surrendered out in that field."
"Thank you. No more questions at this time." Luna announced, taking her seat. Gabrielle returned to the bench behind the defense table and squeezed Xena's shoulder encouragingly. Symra shot a dirty glance in their general direction. The queen obviously wanted her friend spared but this was a matter of Amazon law and the prosecutor vowed silently to do everything in her power to get the Warrior Princess condemned to death for her crimes.
"I call Solari to the stand." the red haired Amazon said. The tall Amazon, arm still in a sling, headed for the front of the room and took the indicated seat. "Can you tell me what you felt when you first saw Xena holding a knife to the queen's throat?" she needed to get the focus back on the warrior's crimes.
"I was concerned for Gabrielle's safety, of course, but I also was worried about-"
"Worried about our queen because she was obviously frightened?" the prosecutor said, cutting off the remainder of Solari's answer, suspecting that it was something in favor of Xena. The tall Amazon took a quick glance at Ephiny, then Gabrielle.
"And what happened when you tried to save your queen?"
"Xena threw the knife at me." she shrugged the injured arm to indicate where she had been struck.
"Both you and Eponin were bleeding rather badly. Did she make any effort to help you?"
"And what would have happened to you both if you had not been so close to the Amazon village?"
"I don't know."
"Oh come now, Solari. You're an Amazon warrior. You've seen enough wounds to know the answer." she admonished.
"My injury wasn't as serious. I probably would have been able to stop the bleeding in time."
"Not if you had passed out first from the loss of blood. Isn't the truth that you both would have died?" she spoke forcefully, demanding an answer.
"If we hadn't been so close to the village, we might have died." she reluctantly admitted. Symra debated about asking the tall Amazon just what punishment she thought Xena deserved. When the hearings first started, the prosecutor was certain that Solari wanted to see the Warrior Princess sentenced to death but now she wasn't as certain. Symra decided not to take the gamble. She'd already made one mistake with the breeches.
"No more questions."
Luna went to stand up but was pulled back in her seat by Gabrielle's firm grip. The bard whispered something quickly in her ear before releasing her. The brown haired Amazon nodded and addressed Solari. "Do you believe the gods were involved?"
"Yes, absolutely. Xena didn't act like she knew who Ep and I were, and the way she treated Gabrielle, well that's just not the way she would ever treat her. I know that."
"How do you know that?" the advocate said, walking closer to Solari.
"I know how Xena acted when Velasca was chasing Gabrielle. I know she cares for the queen very much." the mention of the mad Amazon turned god reminded Luna of something she had heard before from Ephiny. "Solari, you were here in the village when Velasca first returned from the cave and used the ambrosia to become a god, is that correct?"
"And you were there when Velasca began destroying our village, were you not?"
"Yes, of course. We were trying to defend ourselves until the retreat was called."
"And where was Queen Gabrielle during this time?"
"Xena told her to head for the caves with the others while we tried to hold Velasca back."
"Did Xena follow her immediately?"
"No, she stayed behind with Ephiny and the warriors until it was obvious that we had no chance against Velasca's fireballs."
"So Xena risked her life to protect the village, not just Gabrielle? Was she injured?"
"Her arm was dislocated, but she put it back into place herself. Saras was much too busy with the other injuries."
"Had Xena not stayed by Gabrielle's side and found a way to defeat Velasca, what do you think the fate of our village, of our entire nation, would have been?"
Solari smiled gently at the warrior. "There wouldn't be an Amazon nation if Xena hadn't found a way to stop Velasca." this time the crowd refused to stop commenting until Andro banged the table several times and threatened to empty the room.
"No more questions." Luna said respectfully to the tribunal. "Thank you." she said to the tall Amazon. Solari went to get out of the chair when Symra stood up and held out her hand.
"Just a moment, please. Solari, when you first realized that Xena had been captured and that our queen had been drugged, how did you feel?" she figured out a way to get the answer she wanted and decided to take the chance.
"I I didn't know what had happened. I was upset."
"Upset? She tried to kill both you and your best friend. You expect us to believe that you were merely upset?" Symra challenged.
"I was angry at her."
"Of course you were, she left you for dead. What kind of punishment did you hope she'd get?"
"I hope that the tribunal takes into account that the gods-"
"I asked you AT THE TIME SHE WAS CAPTURED what punishment did you want her to get?"
Solari looked up at the tribunal. "Do I have to answer that?"
"Yes." Andro said, receiving nods of agreement from her peers. The tall Amazon looked apologetically at Xena.
"At that time when I didn't know I wanted to see her executed, but now-"
"Thank you." Symra said dismissively, cutting off the Amazon's answer again. "No more questions."
Luna jumped to her feet after a quick whisper from Gabrielle. It wasn't necessary, the advocate planned on asking the question. "Solari, how do you feel now?"
"Now I believe that she should receive the lightest sentence possible. She wasn't responsible for her actions." the tall Amazon said clearly, making sure everyone heard her.
"Do you know what you're going to say tomorrow?" Ephiny asked. She was sitting on the edge of Eponin's bed in the healer's hut.
"I'll tell the truth, what do you expect?" Eponin replied, adjusting the pillow behind her back.
"Just remember one thing this is Xena we're talking about. You know how much Gabrielle cares for her."
"Are you telling me to soften my testimony? I won't do that, Eph. I may not have liked what Gryne and the others did to her, but I'm not ready to roll over and say that all is forgiven either. What, do you think she should just get off with no punishment?" she reached out and gripped the blond ruler's arm. "Ephiny, I was there, if Gabrielle hadn't stepped in and defended us, Xena would probably have sent me to Hades. You know that. How can you think that she shouldn't pay for that? I'm saying she should be killed, but who knows? What if it wasn't the gods? What if it was just something that happened to her? Like her mind snapped or something?"
"All of Gabrielle's things?"
"That's the only thing I can think of that lends any proof to that." she released her grip and rubbed her eyes. "This isn't easy."
"No, it's not. But when you go up on that stand, just remember that the Xena sitting there isn't the same one that attacked you."
Ilanna jumped to her feet when she heard Eponin coming down the hallway. There was no mistaking the rhythmic pounding of the crutches on the stone floor. "I want to see her." the stocky Amazon said.
"Eponin, you're scheduled to testify tomorrow. Why don't you wait until then?"
"I want to see her, Ilanna. Let me in." the look on the stocky Amazon's face told the guard that this was one argument she would lose and reluctantly opened the cell door. She preceded Eponin in and took a position just inside the door so she could keep an eye on them. Neither woman paid her any attention once their eyes locked. "Eponin." the raven haired woman said softly, her muscles tensed and ready.
"Looks like they got you pretty good." she replied. "How many stitches?"
"Two in the lip, five total." Xena replied, knowing already where this was leading to. "I'm sorry you got hurt."
"I lost count of how many stitches Saras had to give me to keep my leg together." she shook her head. "You know, I thought about this. What it would be like to face you again." she leaned against the granite slab but kept her grip on the crutches. "Do you remember, Xena? Do you remember throwing your chakram at me?" the non-Amazon nodded. "What would have happened if I hadn't deflected it with my sword? Tell me."
"It would have sliced through your chest." she said honestly. Eponin hobbled over until she was right in front of her.
"Then tell me why I shouldn't want to see you executed."
"You do what you have to do." Xena said, turning away from the stocky Amazon. Eponin reached out and grabbed her, losing one of the crutches in the process.
"No, don't run away like this. I'll never fight as a warrior again. I can't walk without help." she felt the muscles under her hand tense up to give her support to keep her balance. "You didn't give me a choice, Xena. Tell me one reason why I should give you a chance. You owe me at least that much." she released her hold and hopped on her good leg back to the granite slab.
Xena sat down on the bed and looked at the floor for several long moments. Surely she had done so much over the summers to warrant her execution. There was a time when she didn't care about dying, even welcoming it. Even when she first crossed over the Amazon land with their queen in her arms, she expected to be killed. Now now was another matter entirely. Now she knew that her beloved Gabrielle was in love with her as well. Now all she wanted was to hold and be held by the bard. She raised her head to meet Eponin's gaze. "I love Gabrielle and she loves me." she said softly. "I'd give my life for her and I'm willing to spend the rest of my life paying for the crimes I've done if it meant I could be near her."
"You know I bet if we gave you six moons of hard labor that she'd be right there next to you the entire time." she hopped over to the bed and sat down gingerly. "It probably wouldn't matter what Ephiny said, Gabrielle would still find a way to do it. Talking people into things is one of her strong suits."
"Tell me about it." Xena replied, rolling her eyes and earning a small smile from the stocky Amazon.
"You know what she's got me doing? I'm teaching girls eight summers old how to use staffs." Xena gave her a small smile of understanding. "I avoid anything having to do with kids. I'm not the mother type, you know." she laughed slightly. "I even volunteer to pull guard duty whenever there's a festival that involves them. The mothers think I'm just being nice to them by taking their shifts."
"How are your students?"
"Mylas is a wonderful child, the brightest in my class. She gets there extra early to practice and is always one of the last ones to leave. She's good too, for a girl. I bet she could even skip a level if she kept up her drills." Xena noted the teacher's smile of pride when she spoke of her student. "They're all good, really. But they're all different. Risa, that's Symra's daughter, now she needs extra attention. She gets distracted easily. Personally I think she's better suited for farming than fighting. She's got that interest in plants and stuff."
"Sounds like a good class." Xena said.
"Yeah, they're a good bunch, and a handful too." she shifted into a more comfortable position. "Let me tell you what they did today ." Ilanna closed the door behind her and sat back on her stool. Boy would she have something to tell Ephiny in the morning.
Symra looked at the stocky Amazon waiting for her first question. The prosecutor had heard about Eponin's visit to the jail and knew that the chance was good that her testimony would not be as strong for severe punishment as Symra had hoped. The questions about the battle in the tavern were answered in almost the same fashion as Solari's testimony from the day before. The only thing she could focus on and hope to have any affect was Eponin's permanent injury. "When you felt Xena's chakram tear through your leg, you knew then that it was a permanent injury, didn't you?"
"I didn't think about it. My only concern at the time was to help Gabrielle. It was only after Xena left with her that I could focus on my injury."
"And THEN did you know that you were permanently crippled?" Symra said, exasperated.
"I knew then that my injury was quite severe. I didn't know how bad until Saras got a look at it." she admitted.
"And how did you feel toward Xena then? A dozen Amazons heard you threaten to kill her if you ever saw her again."
"I did say that. I was angry. People say lots of things when they're angry."
"Are you saying that you aren't mad about this?"
"I didn't say that. Of course I'm mad." she shifted in her seat and glared at Symra. "I'm forced to use crutches to get around, I need help getting my dinner to the table, I can't even get in and out of the bath without help. If I'm lucky I'll be able to eventually get around with a cane."
"So you think that Xena should be punished for her atrocious crimes. She should be sentenced to death." Symra said confidently, drawing only a small murmur of agreement from a sprinkling of people in the crowd.
"I think that Xena has already been punished." Eponin said. "She has to live with the memory of what she did to me and the others."
"And right after this hearing she can live with the memory of how she got away with everything, just like she's done her whole life." Symra retorted angrily. "Eponin, five days ago you wanted to run her through with your sword. Of course, you can't do that, can you? Your sword, your family heirloom, was lost when you tried to defend your queen. An irreplaceable piece of Amazon honor and history, gone forever." she turned away. "No more questions."
"Eponin " Luna said as she got to her feet. "I know you were one of our best warriors. A true inspiration to those that follow in your image." the stocky Amazon nodded at the compliment. "Tell me, have you found something else, another way to serve the nation?"
"I don't know how long I'll be able to do it but right now I've been training some girls how to use staffs."
"So you've been able to put your skills and knowledge as a warrior to use by training the next generation of Amazons. That's very commendable, Eponin." she looked at Andro. "No further questions."
"Does the prosecution have any more witnesses?" the head jurist asked. Symra shook her head. "Fine does the defense wish to call anyone else to the stand?" Luna looked at Xena, silently asking. The raven haired warrior shook her head. It was too chancy to put her up on the stand with her long history of conquest and destruction.
"No Ma'am. The defense rests."
"Very well. This hearing is adjourned until such time as the tribunal renders its decision."
Ilanna took the keys from the day guard. "Anyone in there with her?" she asked.
"Of course. Queen Gabrielle has been in there for candlemarks. Trasis even delivered her dinner here." the day guard said. "You know when Xena was first captured, I thought she'd be executed, but now I'm not so sure. Have you been following the hearings?"
"Who hasn't?" the dark-skinned Amazon replied. "Now everyone is waiting to hear what the punishment will be. What do you think?" it was a question passed around the village many times that day. Everyone was guessing what kind of sentence the tribunal would give.
Xena was laying on her back with the bard curled up against her. Long fingers gently stroked the bare skin of Gabrielle's arm, reminding the warrior that her love really was there next to her. With the exception of a few breath stealing kisses, this was the only contact they allowed each other. "Xena?"
"I love you."
"I love you too." she replied, giving a small squeeze.
"Do you think they'll come back with a light sentence?" she lifted herself from the warm comfort of the warrior's shoulder and looked down at her. "I mean, they have to believe that you weren't responsible and even Ep said she didn't want to see you get punished. That's got to count, right?"
"It's all going to work out for the best, Gabrielle you'll see." she said softly, gently pulling the bard back down against her. Her own thoughts were not as optimistic, however. Xena feared that despite all the words in her favor that the tribunal would come back with a severe punishment, although she no longer expected to be executed. Of course the Amazons could come up with a dozen different ways to punish her that would make execution seem pleasant in comparison.
The tavern was nearly empty when the young man entered, dressed in a deep brown leather cloak that covered most of his face. The barkeep didn't look up. "Name your poison."
"I'm looking for a sword. Perhaps you can help me?" the deep voice said.
"Weapons shop is down the street. Try there. If you want port, that I can help with."
"The sword I'm looking for is rather unique. It belonged to an Amazon." the man replied, reaching out to touch the portly barkeep. "You suffer from gout no more. Now about that sword."
The barkeep looked up in surprise and found himself staring into deep brown eyes, far deeper than any mortal could ever have. He noted that he did indeed no longer feel the pain that had bothered him for summers.
"I ask again, the sword?"
"It how did " the barkeep stopped trying to question the figure before him and reached under the bar. He pulled out the blood stained weapon and laid it out on the counter. "I was holding it until the owner returned." he said lamely, not bothering to mention that three different groups of Amazons had been in previously looking for the sword.
"Sure you were." the cloaked figure replied. He picked up the sword and left. The barkeep trembled with the realization that he had just been visited by one of the gods.
"Here you go." Apollo said as he handed the sword over to his sister. "You know Father will have my head if he finds out you got me involved in all this."
"In what?" Artemis replied. "All I did was ask you to help me get back something that belongs to one of my children. That's not interfering."
"Then you can explain it to him if I get caught. What good is it to you anyway? Father forbid you from interfering." he pushed the cloak off his head and ran his fingers through his sandy brown hair, a mirror of his sister.
"I'm not interfering." a mischievous glint formed in her eyes. "I'm going to ask Hermes to deliver it for me. He is the messenger of the gods."
"You know he can't cross onto Amazon land. None of us can except you, just like Athena is the only one who can enter Athens or Hades into the Underworld."
"He doesn't have to. He just has to drop it off on the edge of the land. The scout patrol will find it." she ran her finger down the edge of the blade, removing any trace of blood and blessing the weapon at the same time.
"Good luck, Art. I'd better get going." he covered his head with the hood and dissipated into thin air. Artemis closed her eyes and summoned Hermes.
Ilanna opened the cell door. "Visiting time is over." she said to the couple laying on the cot. "Is she asleep?"
"Yeah." Xena replied. "Hold on, I'll wake her up."
"No, wait." she held her hand up to stop the warrior. "I suppose if you don't mind and she's comfortable that it won't hurt anything." she backed up and closed the door behind her, not seeing Xena's smile as she snuggled in closer to the bard. Their comfort was short lived, however, for less than a candlemark later Ilanna opened the door again. "The tribunal is ready to pass sentence. I have to take you there now."
"Can I have a moment to wake her up? She'll want to be there." Xena was already gently shaking the slumbering queen. Ilanna nodded and closed the door, giving them what might be their last moment of privacy together. "Gabrielle Gabrielle, come on, it's time to get up now." she tried gently. "Come on wake up." Xena smiled as she thought of a way to wake the sleeping woman up. She began to gently kiss the bard's lips while her hand moved back and forth across Gabrielle's bare belly. Within heartbeats she felt a response. "We have to get up."
"Mmm, I like waking up this way." Gabrielle murmured as she brought her mouth up for another kiss.
"I like waking you up like this too, but we really do have to get up. The guard is waiting."
"Waiting?" that woke Gabrielle up fully. "Waiting for what?" she noticed the darkness of the night sky through the small barred window. "It's the middle of the night."
"The tribunal is ready to pass sentence." she saw the fear in the bard's eyes and immediately enveloped her in a hug. "Shh it's going to be all right."
"They shouldn't be back this quick." came the muffled reply.
"Maybe it's a good sign." Xena tried, although deep down she felt the same thing as Gabrielle. Pushing her own fears down, she gave the bard one more hug before moving off the cot and standing up.
Gabrielle followed quickly and wrapped her arms around the tall woman. "I love you. No matter what happens, don't forget that." she sealed it with what she feared would be their last kiss.
"I won't. I love you too." she took a few moments longer to simply hold the bard before announcing to Ilanna that they were ready.
Gabrielle sat behind Xena and looked around. She couldn't imagine how there was enough air in the room for everyone to breathe. The bench she was sitting on and Ephiny's bench were the only ones not to have Amazons standing on them, all trying to get a better view of the events. The bard couldn't believe all these women got up in the middle of the night to hear the sentence. Trasis was busy pushing her way through the crowd, admonishing them to stop leaning against the walls and get down from the benches. All the head cook needed was for the food hut to collapse because too many women were leaning against the lightweight bamboo walls. The bard exchanged nervous glances with Luna. Ephiny, Solari, and Eponin were hidden from her view by the large crowd of women but Gabrielle still took comfort in their presence. Andro came in through the front door followed by the other two jurists. In her hands she held a leather wrapped item which she set down on the table in front of her. One quick look told her that there was no way that she would be able to get everyone to sit down. She banged her fist on the table until the din quieted. "Now there are just too many people in here!" she shouted. "Everyone from the back five rows out!" that order was met with a chorus of boos and grumblings. "If I hear one more complaint, I'll clear the whole damn room! All of you leaning on the walls, you too. Out!" she continued to toss Amazons out until she was satisfied with the amount left. Everyone had room to sit comfortably on the benches and the aisle was now clear as well. Trasis silently mouthed 'thank you' from her position in the back near the kitchen.
"Before we start with the business before us, I have a gift which must be delivered. Eponin, would you please come forward?" Andro rose and held up the leather covered object. The stocky warrior used her crutches to get down the aisle and stopped in front of the head jurist. "This was found by the northwest patrol. I do believe it belongs to you." she handed the sword, still wrapped in leather, to Eponin. She knew immediately from the weight and feel just what it was.
"My sword!" she exclaimed. Balancing herself on the crutches under her arms, she carefully pulled back the leather to reveal the jeweled hilt. A small emerald and ruby were nestled where the hilt met the blade. "These weren't there be-" she touched the jewels and was overwhelmed with a feeling of lightheadedness. The crutches fell away she fell to her knees. Xena, Ephiny, and several others rose to their feet in concern. Saras raced down the aisle and knelt down next to Eponin. The stocky warrior continued to hold her sword in a death grip as waves of energy passed through her body. The grey haired healer jerked the weapon away and Eponin slumped to the floor, her breath coming in ragged gulps. Ephiny and Gabrielle went to move closer but were stopped by Saras.
"Wait!" she ran her hand along the side of Eponin's thigh and whistled. "Not even a scar or stitch mark." she marveled. "The gods praise Artemis."
"She returned Ep's sword and healed her." Ephiny said softly. Within heartbeats the information had been passed to the throngs of women waiting outside. Eponin's breathing slowly returned to normal and she sat up with Saras' help. With everyone looking on, the stocky warrior took the healer's offered hand and hoisted herself up to a standing position. Never one for public displays of emotion, Eponin nonetheless allowed some tears to fall and gave the older Amazon a bear hug. Slowly, gingerly, she moved away from Saras and took her first steps in over a quarter-moon, a huge smile breaking out across her face.
"I can walk I can walk!" she did just that and went to Ephiny to receive a hug.
"Thank the gods." Gabrielle whispered into Xena's ear. The warrior nodded in agreement and squeezed the smaller hand within hers. Eponin looked over at them and smiled through her misty eyes. Andro rapped the table with her knuckles.
"I believe it's time for us to render our decision." she waited until everyone sat down and unrolled the scroll in front of her. "Xena of Amphipolis, you have admitted to crimes against the Amazon nation. There's no need to repeat the list at this time. We have listened to all the testimony before us. We have also taken the liberty to the scrolls left here by Gabrielle about your prior exploits. Combined, they give us a very clear impression of who you were and who you have become. The most telling evidence of involvement by the gods has just been witnessed. We believe that the crimes committed by you against Gabrielle, Eponin, and Solari would not have occurred without an immortal influence." Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand harder and smiled. "However " the smile left the bard's face, replaced by the same worried look that appeared on Ephiny and Luna's face. Xena's features remained impassive. "You did commit the crimes and thus will be punished accordingly."
"No " Gabrielle whispered in disbelief.
"You are sentenced to time served." Andro said, allowing a small smile to appear on her face. "Your punishment is ended, Xena. You're free to go. Your weapons and armor are to be returned to you." she was about to recite the ending series of phrases that accompanied the rendering of a decision, but realized that the whoops and hollers of the crowd would have drowned her out anyway. Luna and Symra stepped up to the head table and shook hands with the tribunal, accepting congratulations for a fine job as they went. The guard stepped forward and unhooked the manacles and chains. Not an easy job considering that the queen refused to stop hugging the tall woman.
"It's over, it's finally over." Gabrielle said as she continued to hold Xena.
"Hey, you're going to drown me if you don't stop crying." the warrior said playfully.
"I don't care. I'm never letting go." she murmured. Xena held her with one arm while shaking their friend's hands with the other.
"Gabrielle." she whispered. The bard turned to see Eponin standing before them.
"Come on, Gabrielle." Ephiny said, taking the younger woman by the arm and leading her away from the two warriors. "Xena will be along in a moment."
"So it's over." Eponin said. "This wasn't how I figured it's would end." she was turning the blade over and over in her hands.
"Neither did I." Xena admitted. "I'm glad things worked out for you."
"Why do you suppose there are two jewels?" she said, not looking up from her sword.
"I think it was blessed by more than one god. My guess would be Apollo and Artemis." the raven haired woman said.
"And you get blessed by Ares. Odd, huh?" she looked up. "It's funny, Xena. You and I are so much alike, yet so different." she reached out and caught Xena's arm in a warrior's grasp. "I'll fight beside you anytime."
"And I you." the tall woman replied, accepting the offer of forgiveness and friendship. "Come on, there's a village full of women that want to see you walk." Xena said, putting a friendly arm around the shorter woman's shoulders.
It was almost dawn by the time the crowd cleared out, leaving Ephiny standing with Xena and Gabrielle. The young queen remained by the warrior's side, her arm wrapped lovingly around the older woman's torso. The blond Amazon looked at the now free woman and then at the ground. "Um, Xena, I just wanted you to know that I'm glad everything worked out the way it did." she said, obviously uncomfortable. "I know some words were said out there on the field that-"
"You did what you felt was right. I understand that."
"Xena, I wasn't fair to you. I never gave you a chance to-"
"It's not important now. You did the right thing then. You were trying to protect Gabrielle. I would have expected no less." she said dismissively.
"Well..." Ephiny said, realizing that the tall woman wasn't going to let her apologize. "You know that you're welcome here. I mean, just because the hearing is over doesn't mean that the two of you have to leave right away. I was hoping that you both could visit for a while." Xena stiffened noticeably in the bard's grasp. "Um would you excuse us, please? It's been a long night." Gabrielle said politely.
"Uh sure. We'll see you later on." the blond ruler said before turning away.
"What's wrong?" the bard said once they were alone.
"Nothing." Xena said quickly.
"You want to go, don't you?" she turned so they were face to face. "Xena, you've been freed. You don't have to hide. Don't you want to stay around at least until all your stitches are removed? You have to admit that you could just some time to just sit back and recover and what better place to do it than here? Xena, you heard them when the sentence was announced. They cheered for you. Everyone understands what happened and why it happened. They know you're not the enemy."
"It's not that I believe that they think of me as the enemy. You know how I hate to stay in one place for any length of time." she stifled a yawn. "Can we talk about this later? Right now all I want is a hot bath and a soft bed. You know that cot is worse than sleeping on the ground."
"Oh, I don't know." Gabrielle said, wrapping both arms around the warrior's waist. "I was pretty comfortable last night."
"That's because you were sleeping on me." Xena replied as she returned the embrace. It was still a good two candlemarks before the morning meal and everyone else had already returned to their huts, leaving them alone.
"Hmm and I liked it." Gabrielle murmured, giving the soft skin on Xena's neck a quick kiss before pulling away.
"Come on, I know you're still tired and I'm exhausted. Let's go get some sleep." the warrior said, pulling the bard against her. Gabrielle pulled back and wrinkled her nose.
"You're not getting into my bed smelling like the jail." she turned Xena in the direction of the baths. "I'll go on ahead to the hut."
"Oh no you don't." the warrior said, pulling the bard next to her. "Are you forgetting just how much time you spent in that cell with me? You don't smell like roses either."
"I don't have a clean shift." Gabrielle protested.
"Neither do I. We'll wrap ourselves in the towels." Xena replied. "Let's go."
As expected, the baths were deserted by the time they arrived. Leagues away, the lava pit where Velasca had met her end heated several underground rivers, one of which ended with the Amazons hot springs, thus giving them an endless supply of hot water. The main bath room consisted of a half dozen small inground tubs surrounding a larger one, but Gabrielle led them to a smaller room in back. This room had only one small inground tub, large enough to fit two or three comfortably. "I prefer bathing in here, it's more private." the bard said as she pulled fresh towels off the shelf and laid them on the bench.
"Gabrielle if you'd rather bathe alone " Xena said, suddenly finding herself nervous at the thought of being naked and alone with the bard. She looked at Gabrielle and felt her heart begin to pound rapidly.
"Xena, we've bathed together plenty of times. What's oh." she gave a small smile of understanding and wrapped her arms around the warrior. "I understand." she leaned up on her toes and gave Xena a gentle kiss. "I'm a bit nervous myself."
"Of me?" her face became as serious as the bard had ever seen it. "Gabrielle, I swear I won't force you into anything you don't want. Maybe I should go in the other room." she tried to pull away but the bard held fast.
"I'm not afraid of you, Xena. I know you'd never hurt me."
"Then what?" she asked gently, cupping the smaller woman's chin. "Tell me, I need to know."
"I I don't want to rush it. I know it seems silly, but I want this time to be special." she turned a pretty shade of pink. "I mean I don't want it to be here, now, while we're both tired. I really haven't had a chance to be alone with you, just you, in so long that it hurts." she pressed her lips against the bare skin above Xena's tunic. "Right now I just want to wash up and be together."
"Hey " Xena reached under the bard's chin and tilted her head up. "Anything you want. I won't push you." she took advantage of the closeness to brush her lips against Gabrielle's. "Now let's get cleaned up."
They stripped, trying hard not to look at each other. Xena stepped into the refreshingly warm water and held her arms out to help Gabrielle. They allowed themselves the luxury of simply letting their muscles soak for a while before Xena finally reached for the soap and cloth. "Let me get your back." she said softly, lathering up the cloth.
"All right." she turned around and scooted back, allowing the warrior easy reach of her skin. With long, gentle, loving stokes Xena washed the bard's back, her fingers massaging at the same time. Gabrielle melted into the delightful touch. Her eyes closed and her head tilted forward, exposing a most kissable neck. Xena dropped the cloth and brought her hands up. She used her thumbs to gently massage away all the kinks and tightness that existed, drawing a languid groan from the relaxed bard every time she hit a particularly sore muscle. "That's nice." Gabrielle murmured.
"Glad you're enjoying it." she replied as her hands moved up and down the soapy back. She knew that Gabrielle's back was clean long ago, this was pure self-indulgence on her part. The bard didn't complain either, merely sitting back and enjoying every caress, every sensation. Only when her own fingers were puckered like a prune did Gabrielle finally pull away and take the cloth from the warrior's long fingers.
"I think I should do the front." the bard said apologetically as she moved back a pace or so. "Otherwise we won't get out of here without you know." she said sheepishly. To her surprise, Xena leaned forward and gave her a peck on the nose.
"I know." she grinned.
Gabrielle finished washing herself and set about to provide Xena the same gentle washing that she had received. She took her time, letting her fingers run over every scar, every muscle, every plane of the warrior's back and shoulders. At some point she had begun humming while her fingers and hands continued to explore. Xena was completely relaxed until she felt those gentle hands slip around her sides and graze dangerously close to her breasts. "Uh, Gabrielle?" she said softly as her heartbeat picked up rhythm.
"Mmm? Oh sorry." she said as she pulled her hands back to a more 'friendly' distance. "Guess I got carried away there for a moment."
"Yeah, you almost did." Xena said as she turned around to face the bard. She leaned in and exchanged a gentle kiss while her hand reached for the soapy cloth. "I think I'd better finish. Why don't you go dry off?"
"Uh yeah. Good idea." Gabrielle muttered, heading toward the edge of the tub. She hoisted herself up and reached for the towel. With her back to Xena, she didn't see the blue eyes widen and the warrior's mouth open slightly in awe of the vision before her. The fair skin, the perfect body, even the droplets of water dripping off that perfect body all served to make Xena's breath quicken and her pulse to race. She had to turn away lest the bard's innocent movements cause her to melt into a puddle right there and then. Xena washed quickly and wrapped a towel haphazardly around herself. "Ready?" the bard asked.
"Yeah." she replied, keeping her eyes straight ahead and not at Gabrielle, she even kept herself a step ahead of the bard to avoid temptation. All of Xena's actions suited the young woman just fine. Gabrielle stayed back and enjoyed the sight of the warrior's bare shoulders and upper back as well as the large amount of thigh revealed by the towel.
Once inside the hut both women felt the same nervous tension. Xena handed her a clean shift and looked around for their saddlebags. "Gabrielle where are my clothes?"
"Oh." she replied, suddenly realizing that Ephiny never had the saddlebags sent to her hut. "I guess I didn't realize that everything was still in the stables. I've been wearing the clothes that Terreis left to me."
"Great. I have to walk across the entire village in a towel to get to my clothes?"
"Just sleep in the nude." Gabrielle said before realizing what exactly she just proposed. Xena looked at the bard and arched an eyebrow.
"Now don't you think " she closed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around the taller woman's neck. " that we can sleep together without clothes? If it makes you feel more comfortable, I'll sleep nude too."
"If you sleep naked next to me, I guarantee I'll feel something, but comfortable won't be it." Xena said with a slight leer. "Put your shift on. We're both so tired anyway that I don't think we could do anything else." she accented her statement with a long yawn. In a matter of moments, they were both buried under the blankets and cuddled up in each other's arms. Just as the warrior had predicted, it wasn't long before they were sound asleep. It was without a doubt the best sleep either woman had in almost half a moon.
When Xena opened her eyes around mid-day, she found herself trapped by Gabrielle sleeping almost completely on top of her. She ran her fingertips lightly back and forth across the sleeping woman's back and closed her eyes for a few more moments to enjoy the feelings that flooded her. For so long she had dreamed of being able to hold her bard like this, to be close without having to use the cold as an excuse, to be able to touch without worry. Xena lifted her head and placed a gentle kiss on the golden hair atop the head resting on her chest. As enjoyable as the feeling was, she knew they couldn't stay in bed all day. She stretched the muscles she could without disturbing the bard and tried to think of a way to crawl out from under her. Of course their intertwined legs made such an action impossible. "Gabrielle " she shook her gently. "Come on, wake up now."
"Hmmm don't wanna." came the muffled reply. The last thing Gabrielle wanted to do was be separated from the warm soft skin beneath her. There was no more fear of separation, no more worries about how Xena felt about her, nothing but the complete joy of being with the woman she loved. "Can't we just stay like this all day?" she said as she snuggled closer. The shifting caused Xena to inhale sharply.
"Gabrielle move your knee."
"Oh." she replied, noticing for the first time that she had it wedged between the taller woman's legs. Curiosity got the best of her and she pressed upward. Her reward was a deep, throaty groan and the feeling of Xena's hips pressing back. "Sorry." she said as she pulled her leg back to a less intimate position, silently pleased with the reaction she got.
"You're a tease." the warrior replied, rolling over on top of the smaller woman and stealing a kiss before hopping out of bed. "Come on, I'm hungry and you still have to go get my clothes for me." she said, turning her back to the bard to look for the brush.
"Oh all right." Gabrielle grumbled playfully. "Although I think you look pretty cute naked." she said as she got out of bed and retrieved her clothes. She looked over and was glad that the warrior was busy looking for a brush and not at her as she felt a flush come to her cheeks. By the gods, Xena's a beautiful woman, the bard thought to herself as she felt herself drawn closer, her feet moving of their own free will until she was standing just behind the naked goddess of her heart.
"Gabrielle are you going to get my stuff or do you really want me to run around naked in front of the Amazons?" she tilted her head at the queen and grinned. "Actually that might be fun." that comment earned her a playful backhand to the belly.
"Don't even think about it. There's only one Amazon who's allowed to see you like this and that's me." she smiled at that thought and leaned up for a soft kiss, which quickly turned into several that grew in intensity until Xena had to pull her head up to catch her breath and regain her sense of equilibrium. The kisses just felt so natural, so right, so enjoyable that neither woman could imagine how they survived without them. The warrior held Gabrielle's head against her chest for several heartbeats, her long fingers gently stroking the golden tresses beneath them. Gabrielle's hands slid back and forth across the muscled territory of Xena's back thoroughly enjoying the freedom allowed to them. They maintained the silent embrace a little bit longer until the bard felt the arms wrapped around her relax their grip. She smiled and gave Xena kiss just below the collarbone and backed up. "I'll go get your clothes and you can make the bed."
"Why bother? It's only going to get messed up later." the warrior quipped.
"Is that a promise?" Gabrielle asked with a wink before turning around to look for her boots.
"My, you're in a good mood this morning." Xena said as she pulled the bard in tight for a hug. "I love you." she whispered.
"I love you too." the bard replied.
"What happened before isn't how I wanted to treat you, how I want to treat you." Xena said, cupping the younger woman's chin. "This is all new to me and I don't want to rush this. I want to slowly " kiss, "gently," kiss, "and passionately make love to you. I want you to wake up every morning and be as happy as you are today." she said softly, once again wondering just what she had ever done to deserve someone so wonderful in her life.
"If I can wake up like that every day, I'll always be in a good mood." Gabrielle replied.
"Hmm I'll see what I can do." the warrior said with a smile, bending down for another taste of the sweet softness of her bard. She hoped that Gabrielle was fond of kissing because she knew that she'd never tire of the feeling of the bard's lips upon hers and planned to take every opportunity she could to do just that.
Half a candlemark later, Gabrielle returned to find Xena sitting up on the bed with a sheet wrapped around her and looking very guilty. "Food's here, but I don't think Trasis will deliver dinner." the warrior said. The bard looked over at the table to see the tray, noting that the drinks had spilled over onto the plates and soaked everything.
"Do I dare ask what happened?" she said while placing the saddlebags on the floor.
"I didn't know it was her and well "
"Xena, you didn't beat up the head cook, did you?" the bard asked, thinking of her warrior's quick reactions to unexpected company. Xena's motto was to deck first, then find out who they were. It had saved their lives more than once.
"Uh, no I uh " she mumbled something unintelligible. Gabrielle sat down on the bed next to her.
"What did you do?"
"Well, I thought it was you how was I supposed to know?" she protested.
"Aside from the fact that Trasis is a good ten summers older than me?"
"She backed in, I didn't see her face first."
"What did you see oh." she couldn't keep the grin off her face. "I assume you're responsible for our soaked meal?"
"Yeah well, she backed in and I thought it was you and I didn't know she had a tray in her hands."
"I'm almost afraid to asked, but what did you do?"
"I pinched her."
"Oh gods." Gabrielle said, breaking into a fit of laughter and leaning against the warrior. "Nope, I don't think she'll bring me any more meals."
"I apologized." Xena said glumly, completely embarrassed at what she was certain was all over the village by now.
"Oh, I'm sure that helped." she said between giggles. "You really like the jail, don't you?"
"It was an honest mistake." Xena protested playfully. "Besides, what took you so long?" she asked, trying to change the subject.
"You realize that will be around the village in less than a candlemark. Big bad warlord pinches cook's rear." she gave up all attempts to control her mirth and giggled helplessly against the warrior.
"I know Amazons are worse than the old ladies in my home village when it comes to gossip." she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and pulled her close. "Now what took you so long?" she said when the bard finally calmed down enough to be able to answer.
"Mmm, this is nice." she snuggled closer. "Half your stuff was in the stables with Argo and the rest was over at the jail. I still didn't find your weapons and armor, though. I think Ephiny might have them stored somewhere."
"That's all right at least I'll have my leathers."
"Uh, I don't think you'll want to wear them."
"Why not?" she released her hold on the bard and went to the clothes, losing the sheet in the process, much to Gabrielle's silent enjoyment.
"Everything smells like either the jail or the stables. Your choice."
"You're kidding." Xena said in a defeated tone. "Damn. Not even one shift?"
"Not one." the bard replied just as they heard a knock at the door. "That must be Solari. I ran into her and asked if she had anything you could wear."
Xena dove under the covers and nodded for the bard to open the door. Solari held out a small pile of clothes. "Here you go, Gabrielle. They might be a little tight on her, but it's the best I could do."
"I appreciate it." she kept herself positioned between the door and frame but the taller Amazon easily looked in.
"Good afternoon, Xena. Sleep well?"
"Hi Solari. Yup, just fine, thanks. Like a baby." she replied, silently wishing the bard would close the door and let her get dressed.
"I'll see you later, Gabrielle, have fun." she said, winking at the young queen. The bard blushed furiously and closed the door.
Xena spent the afternoon giving some attention to Argo, who whinnied and nickered with joy at the return of her mistress. As much as Gabrielle wanted the warrior's first day of freedom to be spent with her, she understood Xena's need to have some alone time after being cooped up for so long. Instead the bard spent the time entertaining the children of the village with stories of the Amazons legends and tales. Even though their mothers had heard the stories many times before, most found themselves sitting down with their children and enjoying their queen's rendition of them as if it were the first time. Gabrielle relished the relaxed atmosphere, the chance to spin tales, the ability to just relax and be free of the tension of the last half-moon.
Eponin entered the stables, eager to be able to ride her mare again, and was surprised to see Xena there. "How's Argo?" the stocky Amazon asked.
"Well-fed from the looks of it, aren't you?" she said, scratching her beloved horse behind the ear. Argo snorted in agreement. The Amazons were most generous with their feed.
"She needs a good run wouldn't let anyone mount her." she reached for her saddle. "I know a trail leads up past the mountains. It's a good ride, I bet Argo would enjoy it." Eponin offered.
"She'll be all right until we leave." Xena replied, not feeling comfortable with traipsing around the Amazon lands.
"Suit yourself, although I think she might have a different opinion." she tightened the straps of her saddle. The raven haired woman didn't reply, merely moving toward the other side of Argo and out of view of the stocky Amazon. "It sure is a nice trail."
"I'm sure it is, Ep Eponin." she corrected. Despite being forgiven for the attack, Xena still felt uneasy calling the shorter woman by her nickname. She picked up the brush and began to groom Argo again.
"Hey." Eponin said, coming around the side of Argo to face her. "I thought we worked all this out last night well, early this morning."
"If everything's fine, then why don't you want to go for a ride with me? I considered you a friend before and I still consider you as one." she reached out and put her hand on the brush, stilling the tall warrior's movements. "Xena, you're not the enemy. People know that now. You don't have to hide until it's time for you and Gabrielle to leave."
"I'm not hiding."
"No? Then why not go for a ride? Your saddle's here and I have a waterskin."
"You're not going to give up, are you?" Xena said in a defeated tone. The Amazon grinned.
"Nope. Get Argo saddled up. I'll be waiting." she turned to finish getting her horse ready.
Xena put the brush down and stroked Argo's nose. "You wanna go for a ride?" she asked and got a whinny in response. "Of course you do." she scratched the horse's cheek and reached for the saddle blanket.
"Ready?" Eponin said as Xena led Argo out of the stable, stopping on the left side of the Amazon's horse.
"I should stop and get my weapons first."
"I've got my sword and besides, we'll be on Amazon land. There's no danger there." she said as she mounted her black mare. Xena followed suit and Eponin noticed the length of stitches still on the taller woman's thigh. "Did Saras stitch that up?"
Xena looked down and realized what the Amazon was talking about. "No, Gabrielle did the night of the fight. They're almost ready to come out." she noted the look of regret on Eponin's face. "Don't worry about it. I've been hurt worse. Besides, you were doing exactly what I would have wanted you to do, protect Gabrielle." she looked down at her saddlehorn. "I never thanked you or Solari for that. Thank you, Eponin."
"None needed." she said, pulling her horse up enough for her to look at the taller woman. "And Xena? Call me Ep. Now, let's stop all this sensitive chitchat that we both hate so much and go enjoy the day." the raven haired warrior agreed and followed the stocky Amazon out of the village.
"Who is waiting for me?" Zartok yelled angrily as he threw the flap back on his tent. "I told you I'm tired and wanted to rest. I don't have time for-"
"No time for me?" Ares said, rising from the chair. The blond warlord's eyes bulged with surprise and disbelief.
"A-Ares. How good of you-"
"Yeah yeah, I've heard it before." the god said, waving his hand dismissively. "Zartok, are you happy running this little group of misfits?"
"I'm happy to serve you in whatever way-" the blond warlord said before he was cut off again.
"Good, glad to hear it. I'm going to make you an offer, Zartok. An offer so incredibly wonderful, so so " he held his immortal hands out in a wide circle to demonstrate. "I'll give you some of the most prized land in all of Greece. All you have to do is get rid of the current occupants." Ares walked behind him and clasped his shoulder. "I'll give you all the food, men, horses, and weapons that you need. All you have to do is accept my offer."
"Anything for you, great God of War." Zartok said humbly.
"Ah, that's what I wanted to hear, my boy. Consider yourself hired." he walked around the small tent as if thinking. "One little thing I forgot to tell you the people on this land are Amazons." he grinned. "Not a big deal, just think of how many fine sons they can make for your men once you conquer them."
"Uh b-but Ares, the Amazons are fierce fighters and they know their land too well. We'd never be able to defeat them."
"I know a way you can enter their land without being detected. I'll transport your army right to the edge of their lands. All you have to do is cross the river, go through the valley, and follow a trail right into their back yard." the God of War clapped his hands together and his lip turned up in a sneer. "It's perfect."
"Um if I can ask, your godship."
"What?" Ares replied, annoyed.
"Well if you can make us appear at the edge of their lands, how come you can't just drop us off right in the middle of their village?"
"Well, there's a little problem with that. You see, my dear sister Artemis is in control of those harlots and I can't cross onto their land or send anyone else in. I can only take you to the edge. You'll be on your own once you cross over the border. But don't worry." he said with an evil, chilling smile. "They'll never know you're there until it's much too late."
Xena and Eponin rode past the outskirts of the village and up the trails that lead to the mountains. The fresh clear air whipped their hair back and raised goosebumps on the tall warrior's skin. The outfit loaned to her by Solari was nothing at all like she normally wore. Two large leather cups held together with a pin formed the front of the skimpy top and the short brown leather skirt had an annoying tendency to hike up on the sides while she rode. "Just past those Cypress trees is where the road splits." Eponin yelled to her. "We're taking the left road, the one that goes up into the mountains." Xena nodded with understanding and followed.
They rode one for another candlemark before the cool grass gave way to a rocky incline. Both women slowed their horses down and formed a single line with Eponin, who knew the trail well, in front. The steep trail turned sharply and allowed them a clear view of the large valley below. "We don't patrol this area much. It's too difficult for any kind of army to get through. The river runs around this valley just past the edge of the horizon and it's too wide to cross at that point." Eponin explained when they brought their horses to a stop. "Once in a while some small band will try and slip through, but by the time they even get to the valley, half their food supplies are gone. When our patrols find them they usually are grateful to see us. No one imagines that it's that far of a trek from the crossing point into the valley and so far no one has ever made it past the mountains themselves without us spotting them." she took a long swallow of her water before passing the skin to Xena. "It'll take us about a half candlemark to get down to the valley but there's a great place down there to let the girls open up and run full out." Eponin said, grinning. "Then we'll see just how much better Amazon bred horses are."
"Oh, I think Argo's up to the challenge, aren't you girl?" she said, patting her mare's neck confidently. The wind changed direction and a familiar odor caught Xena's attention. She sat up straight in her seat and motioned for Eponin's attention. "Do you smell that?" she whispered.
"I don't smell anything except the trees " she concentrated, "and horse dung."
"Exactly." Xena said. "You said this area is deserted. Are there a good deal of wild horses out here?"
"Let's go check it out." the Amazon said, turning her black horse to head down the trail. The raven haired warrior followed, mentally cursing herself for not retrieving her weapons and armor before leaving the village.
They reached a fairly level ridge that crossed over their path. Eponin suddenly left the trail and headed into the trees. Xena followed for several moments until the Amazon dismounted and tossed the reins over a low branch. "This ridge wraps around the whole side of this mountain but some spots are too narrow for the horses. We'll have to continue on foot." the tall warrior nodded and tied Argo to a nearby branch. They made their way silently, being especially careful when the trees thinned out or the ridge became extremely narrow. A fresh scent caught their noses and this time they knew that it wasn't from wild horses. The smell of cooking meat wafted up to them. "How many do you think?" Eponin asked.
"Too hard to tell. Smells like a large amount of meat for just a small band, unless they're smoking it for jerky. We need to get closer."
They moved further along the narrow path and the smell grew stronger. They reached an area where the path became barely wider than one of their boots. The rock jutted out slightly from the wall, making it even more treacherous. With her shorter stature, Eponin easily avoided having to lean out too much but Xena wasn't as lucky. She leaned out slightly more than she felt comfortable with at the same time her boot came into contact with some loose stones. In one instant Eponin grabbed an overhanging branch with one hand and Xena's wrist with the other, pulling back hard. "Gotcha." the Amazon grunted, holding on until she righted herself.
"Thanks." Xena said, glancing over the edge and visibly cringing at the sight of the jagged rocks far below.
"Don't mention it. You think I want to be the one to explain how you got hurt to Gabrielle?" she said. "Not a chance."
Xena made no comment on the Amazon's remark and they continued on, growing more uneasy with each step. The smell was getting stronger and there was now no doubt that they weren't talking about a small handful of bandits. They reached a large tree with limbs that branched out over the edge of the valley. Eponin signaled and scampered up, leaning down a hand to offer assistance. Xena grinned at her and somersaulted from a standing position upward into the tree, landing feet first on the same branch that the Amazon occupied. Realizing that the weight might be too much, Xena climbed up to a higher branch and wormed her way out along its length. Eponin did the same and their eyes opened wide at the sight below.
"What do you think you're doing?" Artemis raged as she stormed into her brother's lair. "You know you can't interfere."
"I'm not interfering with anything." Ares replied. "You'll note that I didn't put them on your land. And as for interfering, just what do you think dear old dad would have to say about that little stunt you and Apollo pulled, hmm?"
"We were only returning one of my Amazon's swords. It had nothing to do with Xena."
"Oh, of course not, just because she was the one responsible for your harlot losing it in the first place. Besides, it's over now. This is something totally different." he walked to the other side of the room and grinned. "And there's nothing you can do about it." he watched Artemis take a step forward get bounced off the invisible barrier. "Problem, dear sister? Oh, I bet you thought I removed ALL of Sysiphus' little tricks and traps." he laughed evilly. "You're not going anywhere for a little while, relax and enjoy yourself." he walked over until he would have been in striking distance had the barrier not been there. "Don't worry, Sis, I'll be sure to let you out the instant the last of your Amazons has been killed, raped, or enslaved." as he dissipated from sight, he laughed as he watched his sister frantically throw herself back and forth against the invisible walls.
"Any suggestions?" Xena said once they were back on the ground. "How many could you make out?"
"From the size of the camp and the tents, I'd say there has to be at least a hundred of them." Eponin replied. "Did you see the catapults?"
"Yeah, not to mention the spear throwers and the net launcher. They're prepared, I'll give them that."
"Any idea who they are?"
"No." she shook her head. "I don't recognize the crest."
"We'd better get back and warn the others. We can have the warriors assembled just before the mountains. They can pick them off one by one as they come through the trail." the stocky Amazon grinned at the thought.
"Sure, until they fire off that netting and trap the Amazons like a bunch of fish. Or aim the catapults at the trees and take out the archers." Xena knelt down and began drawing in the sandy earth. "No, we need the warriors, but they can't face those weapons." she unconsciously nodded in respect to the warlord that planned the attack. "They'd probably send the weapons first through the trail in case they met any resistance, then cut enough of a gap in the lines to get to the village. It'd be a slaughter."
"But if we wait until they're past the mountains completely, they can spread out and attack. It'd still be a bloodbath and some of them still might get through." she saw a grin cross over the tall warrior's face and a twinkle form in her eye. "Xena, you've got a plan, don't you?" she said with a equal grin.
"We need to get a message to Ephiny, but I need you here with me in order to make this work. I can't do it alone."
"All right, what do you suggest?"
"Argo can take a note back. That'd leave us with your horse in case we needed to get out of here quickly."
"I'll agree that Argo is smart enough to get back on her own, but what exactly are you planning to write this message on? or with?" Eponin said, watching the smile leave Xena's face.
"Oh. Guess I'm used to having Gabrielle and her scrolls nearby." she gave the Amazon a lopsided grin. "Oh well, guess we'll just have to borrow some parchment and ink from the boys down there." she said as if it was no big deal. "Come on, time's wasting." Eponin grinned, shook her head, and followed Xena down the tree covered slope to the valley below.
Gabrielle watched the sun begin to set over the horizon and walked to the stables for the fourth time. "I'm going to kill her for making me worry." she growled as she once again found no sign of Xena or Argo. She turned swiftly and bumped into Ilanna. "Oops, I'm sorry." Gabrielle said.
"It's all right, my queen. I wasn't paying attention to where I was going. It's my fault." the Amazon guard said, even though she had been watching where she was headed and it was the bard's inattention that was at fault. Gabrielle nodded distractedly and looked at the stables again. "My queen, is something bothering you?"
"Please call me Gabrielle." she sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. "Have you seen Xena? She was supposed to be spending time with Argo but that was candlemarks ago."
"Oh, she went riding with Eponin. I'm sure everything is fine." the dark-skinned Amazon assured her. Gabrielle nodded but wasn't convinced. She had an odd feeling and at the moment only wanted to see Xena and know she was safe.
They moved across the trees, careful not to rustle the leaves any more than necessary and moved past the first two sentries with ease. Eponin and Xena silently grinned at each other when they reached the back of one of the tents, conveniently placed on the outer edge of the camp and less than a body length away from their tree. The Amazon slipped down and pressed herself against the tarp, listening for any sounds of activity. She motioned with one hand and was quickly joined by Xena. "Let's just get in and out, okay?" Eponin whispered. "I'm not in the mood to get caught." she carefully slipped her sword out of its sheath and slit the tent side cleanly.
Unfortunately, they picked the messiest soldier in camp's tent to raid. There was parchment to be found, even ink, but the quill was nowhere in sight. Xena shuffled through the stuff on the rickety table, letting whatever was in her way fall to the ground. "Will you be quiet!" Eponin hissed. "And look at the mess you're making. They'll know we were here for sure if you keep that up."
"I doubt he'd notice the difference." Xena replied dryly, waving her hand at the tentful of junk. She moved her boot and heard a slight 'crack'. "Aha!" she said triumphantly, bending down and picking up the now broken quill. "Huh." she said, tossing it behind her.
"Hey!" Eponin walked over and retrieved the quill. "The point's still good. Come on, we don't have time to find another one."
"But it's broken." Xena growled, moving the mess around a little more. "I'm sure there's another one around here somewhere."
"We don't have time." the Amazon said firmly, grabbing the taller woman's arm and jerking her back out of the tent.
"I'm telling you-" Xena began.
"Going somewhere, ladies?" the deep voice behind them said. The women exchanged glances.
"What do you think?" the raven haired warrior asked.
"Sure, why not." the stocky Amazon replied a heartbeat before crouching low and sweeping the soldier's feet out from under him at the same time Xena's boot came back and connected solidly with his chin.
"What do we do with him?" Eponin asked as she got to her feet and brushed the dirt off her skirt.
"Well, we don't want him waking up and warning the others, now do we?" Xena grinned, picking him up and hoisting him over her shoulder. Eponin had the good sense to duck back into the tent and grab a shirt that was lying on the floor. Neither one of them had any clothing to spare for a gag. Within moments the unconscious soldier was resting comfortably in the upper branches of the tree, tied securely to keep from falling, or calling out for help.
Ephiny leaned against the table and watched Gabrielle pace for the umpteenth time. "She's fine. Eponin is with her. What trouble could they possibly get into?" the sharp turn and glare of the bard made her regret that question.
"You don't know her like I do. And with Ep? Two warriors with nothing to do?" she began pacing again, then stopped and looked at the blond woman with fear in her eyes. "Oh gods, what if they ran into trouble?" her eyes fell on the pile of armor and weapons that were laying on the bed. "Xena doesn't have her sword, her chakram she doesn't even have her armor. She's out there with that flimsy thing that Solari loaned her."
"Gabrielle." Ephiny made the mistake of deciding to deliver Xena's stuff to her personally and now was stuck with the bard, whose moods were changing as rapidly as her direction. "You know that Xena can handle anything, with or without her weapons." she walked over and squeezed the younger woman's shoulders. "Come on," she whispered. "You're just scaring yourself. She'll be fine."
"I know." Gabrielle said softly. "It's just that she should have been back candlemarks ago. She has to know I'd be worried." they were interrupted by a knock on the door. The bard opened the door to find an out of breath scout standing there.
"Sorry to disturb you, my queen...is Ephiny here?"
"Right here Polydora, what's wrong?" she said as Gabrielle stepped back and let the scout in.
"Xena's horse. We've got three people trying to catch her but she won't come near them." Gabrielle was out the door before the scout could finish her sentence.
"Argo!" the bard yelled. The three Amazons who were trying to corral the excited horse stared in amazement as the golden mare calmed down and trotted over to the familiar voice. "Shh " Gabrielle cajoled as she patted the upset war-horse. "Where's Xena?"
"Hey, this is Ep's saddle." Ephiny said, running her hand over the worn leather. "That doesn't make sense. Why would her saddle be on Xena's horse?"
"Get it off." Gabrielle said, reaching for the straps. "It's got to mean something." Polydora held a torch near so the young queen could see the unfamiliar buckles easily. As Ephiny pulled the saddle free, a folded up piece of parchment fluttered to the ground. "Can't get into trouble, huh? What possible trouble could they get into, Gabrielle?" the bard said, mocking Ephiny's earlier comment as she held the note up near the torch to read it. At the sight of the words 'large army' her face drained of color and she leaned against Argo for support.
"What is it?" Ephiny said as she held her hand out for the note.
"I think we should read it inside." Gabrielle said softly as her heart filled with concern and fear for her warrior.
Ephiny sent Polydora off in search of Ilanna and Solari. Gabrielle led Argo back to the stable and gave her an apple before handing the reins to one of the Amazons. "It's okay girl." she said, giving the mare a reassuring pat. "Clonie will take good care of you."
Once Argo was settled Gabrielle turned and followed Ephiny and the other two Amazons back to the queen's hut. Once inside the bard nervously lit the candles while the blond Amazon read over the note. She flipped the parchment over and studied the crude map drawn there before looking up at the bard. "They found an army with over a hundred men camped in the valley just past the mountains. There's some numbers and letters here in the corner but I-" Gabrielle pulled the note from her hand and looked at the familiar writing.
"Four catapults, three spear throwers, and I'm not sure what the other one is." the bard said, recognizing Xena's codes. "This isn't good." she said, handing the note back to Ephiny.
"No it's not." the blond Amazon replied just as Solari entered, followed quickly by Ilanna. "The village under threat from a large army." Ephiny explained quickly. "Ilanna, get the warriors ready. Solari, you're going to help gather all the children and elderly and take them to the Centaur village. They'll be safest there."
"What?" the tall Amazon said in disbelief. "Ephiny, I'm a warrior. You can't be serious. I'm not going to run away and let others defend my home."
"I'm very serious." she replied. "You're still recovering but more importantly " she moved close to her friend. "I'm asking you to make sure the children of this village get to safety before a hundred or more soldiers start attacking." for a moment the two women looked at each other until Solari finally nodded.
"You'll have nothing to worry about. I'll get them all there safely."
"I know." Ephiny replied with a warrior handshake and a smile. "All right. Let's get going. The note said that they were going to stay there and give our uninvited guests a few surprises. Let's make sure we get there in time to take advantage of those surprises."
Under the cover of darkness, the two women circled the camp until they were near the catapults. Xena twirled the sword in her hand, a gift from the now unconscious sentry that was sleeping up in the tree. Eponin pointed out the two men who were standing lookout nearby and indicated which one she would take care of. The tall warrior nodded in agreement and circled around the other side to introduce the soldier to the hilt of her sword.
"Suggestions?" Xena whispered once they reached the first catapult. The launching arm was already locked into position by the taut ropes.
"Well, we can't cut the ropes, that'll send the arm up in the air and warn them that we're here." the Amazon said.
"Agreed. We have to find another way to disable it." she said, looking over the weapon again. The catapult itself was bolted to a large wagon for transport. Xena's eyes fell on the wooden pins that held the wheel to the axle. "Perfect."
The pair worked for the next three candlemarks, slipping around the camp and sabotaging the weapons, doing their best to avoid detection. Eponin considered them lucky that they only had to knock out four men during their activities. They were almost done with their tasks when the stocky Amazon noticed from both sight and smell what must had to be the mess tent. "Hey Xena, think they have some grease?"
"With an army this size there's no doubt." her eyes narrowed as she looked at her grinning partner. "What are you up to, Ep?"
"You'll see...come on." she said before slicing an opening in the back of the tent. It didn't take long for them to find what they were looking for.
"Okay, so what are we going to do with it?" Xena said as she helped Eponin carry the large barrel out of the tent.
"Ever play with greased pigs?" the still grinning Amazon asked. The tall warrior arched an eyebrow and gave her an 'are you serious?' look before returning the grin. Whatever Eponin was up to, Xena was certain that it was devious, wicked, and probably would provide them a good laugh once executed.
Archers climbed into the trees that littered the area near the trail entrance while the warriors took their positions on the ground below. Ephiny double-checked the string on her crossbow before looking for the brightly colored mask that identified Gabrielle. She found the bard staring at the trail as it disappeared into darkness beyond the mountains.
"You okay?" Ephiny asked when she reached the young queen.
"I'm fine." she replied, gripping her staff a little tighter. "I'd feel better if I knew where they were."
"Gabrielle, they're both warriors. They'll be fine." she gave the bard a quick one-armed squeeze. "I know Eponin, she doesn't take chances. Xena's the same way. Neither of them is going to do anything careless." she said, even though she knew her assurances were falling on deaf ears.
"I know." the bard said unconvincingly. "I think I'll go check and see how the others are doing."
"Okay, just don't go too far. Morning will be here soon enough."
Gabrielle walked aimlessly past the groups of warriors, grateful that her ceremonial mask kept her face hidden and thus the tears that were rolling down it. 'Where are you, Xena?' she silently asked the night sky, focusing in on the cluster of stars that looked like a bear to her.
"So now we just wait until morning." Eponin said as she laid down on the grass and put her hands behind her head. She chuckled. "Can you imagine the looks on their faces when they try to mount up in the morning?"
"The key word is 'try'." Xena chuckled in return, rolling onto her stomach to face the Amazon. "I want to see their faces when they launch the netting."
"Oh, or how about when they try to move the catapults?" Eponin replied, sending them both into silent laughter at the thought. They went back and forth reminding each other of the little tricks they had waiting for the army come morning, each seeming funnier than the previous one.
Once they settled down, Xena rolled onto her back and let her gaze settle on the twinkling lights above. "Looks like a dipper to me." she said softly.
"Nothing. Just thinking out loud." the raven haired woman said, turning her attention back to the stars. No matter how hard she looked at it, she just couldn't see the bear that Gabrielle insisted was there. 'I miss you.' she thought as she closed her eyes and let her mind fill with the vision of the women she loved. She hoped that her and Eponin's actions would secure them a quick victory come morning. Xena thought again about heading back up the trail and meeting the Amazons that she was sure were in position by now, certain that Gabrielle was with them and no doubt worried about her. "Ep?"
"You sure we can't just head back and meet up with the rest of them?"
"I thought you wanted to see what happened in the morning. We'll catch up with the reinforcements long before the army can get there."
"I know." Xena sighed. "Do you really want to stick around?"
"What, you don't?" Eponin asked, puzzled by her friend's odd question.
"I love to see a well-executed plan fall into place, but..." she stared at the stars again.
"But you want to get back to Gabrielle, don't you?"
"I won't leave you here alone...we'll stay." Xena said, but the look on her face told the Amazon something completely different. Eponin sighed and sat up.
"I suppose we should meet up with Ephiny and let her know just what exactly we're up against."
"Yes, we should." the raven haired warrior readily agreed.
"Of course we'd miss all the fun."
"Yeah, we would." Xena admitted guiltily.
"But I guess it'd be just as funny to see them when they finally reach the other side of the mountain and see all the Amazons waiting for them after all we've put them through." Eponin said as she tightened the laces on her boot. By the time she got to her feet, Xena had already saddled the horse for her and was heading for the trail that would take her to Gabrielle. The Amazon watched the silhouette disappear into the blackness and chuckled silently. 'Never thought I'd see you fall head over heels in love, my friend, but I can't think of anyone who deserves it more.' she thought to herself. 'Except me, of course.' she added as she mounted up.
Ephiny sat down against a large rock and closed her eyes, trying to catch a few more moments of rest before the upcoming battle. She had just fallen into a light doze when Ilanna tapped her silently on the shoulder and motioned toward the trail. The blond ruler didn't have to look to know that her warriors were getting in position should the approaching pair not be their compatriots. She felt a presence and turned to see Gabrielle kneeling down next to her, staff in hand. "The scouts said there's two people approaching, but it's too dark to see who they are." the bard whispered. "I bet it's them."
All was quiet for several heartbeats until the figures appeared at the end of the trail, arms up, hands clasped in the Amazon gesture of peace. A smile broke across the bard's face when she saw Xena's unmistakable outline. It took all of her power not to jump up, run to the warrior, and throw her arms around the woman she missed so much. There was an audible exhalation of breath throughout the warriors as they realized that there was no threat and they returned to their previous tasks.
Eponin filled Ephiny in on what they had found and more importantly, what they had done to sabotage the army. Gabrielle quietly followed Xena away from the Amazons until they were completely alone. The bard opened her mouth to speak but found herself enveloped in the warrior's strong arms in a loving embrace, their bare stomachs pressed together, Xena's face buried in her neck. "I missed you." the warrior said softly.
"I missed you too, I was worried." Gabrielle admitted.
"Come here." Xena said, taking the bard's hand and leading her over to a wide tree. The warrior sat down and leaned against the smooth bark before pulling Gabrielle onto her lap. "We've got a little time before they wake up. Right now all I want to do is just hold you, okay?" she was answered with a soft kiss and the feeling of her beloved bard snuggling against her. Xena closed her eyes and allowed herself to relax and enjoy the sensation. It didn't take long for Gabrielle's breathing to change, to slow and deepen as sleep overtook her. The warrior smiled and shifted slightly to get into a more comfortable position before allowing herself the same luxury, knowing that the Amazons would wake her as soon as there was any indication of movement from the army.
Zartok stepped out of his tent and smiled. Today was the day that he would make Ares proud, the day he would lead his army into the Amazon village undetected and claim the land as his own. He took a deep breath, swearing that he smelled the scent of victory in the crisp morning air. "All right men, let's not waste any time here. Just think of all those harlots just waiting for us to come and conquer them." his comment was met with several lewd comments from the men about just what they would do once they captured the women. 'Ah, yes.' he thought. 'Ares will be so proud of me.' the grin remained on his face as he reached for the reins of his horse. A grin that was quickly removed when his foot slipped on the greasy stirrup and his chin slammed into the side of the saddle. "What the Hades?" all around him he heard similar exclamations as his men found their feet slipping from their stirrups. "Ranis, get over here!" Zartok growled to his lieutenant. "Get down on your hands and knees." the smaller man did as he was told and grunted when he felt the warlord step onto his back. "There, that's bet-whoa!" he said as he tossed one leg over the saddle and found himself slip off and onto the hard ground on the other side. "What is going on here?" he bellowed.
"Sir, all the saddles have been greased." one of the men said.
"Well then wipe the grease off, you idiot!" Zartok bellowed.
"It's no good, your warlordship, sir." Ranis replied. "All their britches are greasy now. Even if we wipe off the saddles, they'll still slip."
"Well then tell them to hold on tight. Who was on sentry duty? How did this happen?" he barked. This was not good, not good at all, he thought. He grabbed Ranis by his shirt and pulled him close. "This was supposed to be a surprise."
"Ah...apparently it wasn't as much of a surprise as we had hoped, sir." the lieutenant said before being shoved roughly backwards.
"Get those men on their horses and get those weapons moving. I'll show those harlots that they can't defeat us with just a little grease." he grabbed another soldier and used him as a stepping block to get back on his horse. This time he was more cautious about keeping himself balanced, although the feeling of the grease on his britches made him squirm a bit. "Let's move out." he yelled.
With the catapults in front, Zartok and his men worked their way up the trail, careful of the steep drop-off to the left of them. The were halfway up the incline when the blond warlord heard the shouts. "Look out!" someone yelled as the wheels fell of the left side of the catapults and the large weapons tumbled helplessly over the side, crashing against the rocks below. Zartok dismounted and ran up to the front of the line, his anger growing with each step. Only one catapult remained on the trail, but its wheels were nowhere in sight. "What happened?" he said when he finally reached the disabled weapon.
"I-I don't know, sir. The wheels just...fell off, I guess." the soldier said meekly.
"Fell off? Fell off? How do wheels just fall off?" his frustration was evident to all those around him.
"I don't know, your warlordship. We were going along and then the wheels started to wobble and then, poof, they just...fell off."
"I don't believe this." Zartok sighed, scratching his head in annoyance. "Well, get it out of the way."
"What are they doing?" Ephiny asked as the scout climbed down from her perch atop the large rock.
"They just pushed the last catapult over the edge of the trail." Clonie said with a grin.
"Let's get everyone into position then." the blond Amazon said. "You'd better go get Xena and Queen Gabrielle. Last time I saw them they headed that way." she pointed. "Oh, and Clonie?"
"Make sure they know you're coming...Xena doesn't take too kindly to surprises."
part 8 (conclusion)
They were near the edge of the trail when the axles to the wagons holding the spear throwers mysteriously broke, as did the thin restrain Zartok had on his temper. "That does it!" he yelled when they finally pushed the wagons over the side. He grabbed Ranis by the neck and shoved him against the rockface. "I want you to personally inspect the net thrower. If there's one thing out of place, one little chip in the wood, I want to know about it, understand?" he roughly shoved the lieutenant in the direction of the remaining weapon. "Damn Amazons." the warlord spit as he once again tried to adjust his uncomfortable britches.
"There's nothing wrong with this one, sir." Ranis said a few moments later. He inspected every wheel, every axle, every harness. "They must not have had enough time to do anything to it."
"They'd better not or it's your head." Zartok replied. "Now let's move out."
Clonie gave the silent hand signal that the army was almost there before slipping down from her lookout post and assuming her position near the back of the field behind the warriors. Gabrielle insisted on being up front with Ephiny while Eponin and Xena lounged in the shade of a large cypress tree, completely unconcerned about the approaching forces. "Think they found out about the netting yet?" the Amazon yawned. Xena opened one eye and looked at the weapon appearing over the edge of the trail.
"Nope." she replied, closing her eye.
"Should we bother to move?"
"Naw, we're fine right here." the tall warrior replied. Hiding in the branches above the two women, three archers looked at each other, puzzled at how they could be so relaxed with the large army approaching.
Standing to the right of his impressive looking net-thrower, Zartok looked at the mass of Amazons waiting for him. "Surrender now and we'll spare your lives." he said commandingly.
"I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons." the bard said as she stepped forward, gripping her staff. "You have violated the boundaries of the Amazon Nation. Throw down your weapons and leave the way you came or we'll be forced to take action."
"You're the queen?" he sneered, looking at the petite woman whose face was covered by the large feathered mask. "This is going to be easier than I thought." he turned his head and nodded at Ranis before turning and giving an overconfident grin to the Amazon queen. The lieutenant smiled and used his sword to cut the rope holding the launching arm down. The instant the rope was severed, the arm flew up into the air and released the netting. Xena and Eponin watched with self-satisfied grins while Zartok watched in horror as hundreds of little pieces of rope fluttered helplessly to the ground. The blond warlord glared at his second in command. "Nothing wrong with this one, sir." he said sarcastically. "Nothing wrong but the damn netting being all cut up!" he roared, taking a haphazard swipe at Ranis with his sword. Several Amazon warriors lowered their swords and smiled at each other and at the two women responsible for foiling the warlord's plans. Zartok's pride was hurt far more than his common sense could compensate for. "Attack!" he yelled, raising his sword high in the air.
The problem with the men constantly trying to adjust their greasy britches was that their hands were now equally greasy, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to maintain their grips on their swords. The Amazon warriors moved in and quickly knocked the weapons out of the hands of those who were foolish enough not to have thrown them down immediately. Zartok concentrated on the little Amazon that stood so boldly in front of him and thus did not see Ilanna slip up behind him. One blow from the hilt of her sword and the blond warlord slumped to the ground. The dark-skinned Amazon nodded at her queen and turned to join in the fray with the rest of the warriors.
"Think we should help?" Eponin asked without opening her eyes.
"We did our job already. They're fine." Xena replied, although instead of being closed, her eyes were focused on one figure within the battle. She needn't have worried. Ephiny and Ilanna made certain to be as close to Gabrielle as possible without getting in the way of her staff. Again, they needn't have bothered since the bard easily handled anyone who came within her reach. Within a candlemark the army was soundly defeated with half of them surrendering and the other half either unconscious, dead, or running back down the trail in a desperate attempt to outrun the sword-wielding women that were chasing them.
"Damn you, Xena." Ares cursed as he watched the ending unfold through his scrying bowl. He looked over at his still captive sister and smiled nicely. "Well no harm done." he walked over to the wall and released the invisible barrier. "None of your har-I mean Amazons got hurt and look at it this way, they needed the practice."
"Father!" the Moon Goddess screamed. In the blink of an eye the imposing figure of Zeus appeared.
"Now it was just a joke ." Ares said, holding his hands up in a placating gesture.
"He trapped me and sent an army after my Amazons." Artemis said angrily. Zeus' dark eyes became stormy as he glared at his son.
"I thought I told you to leave Xena alone." he growled, his deep voice reverberating throughout the area.
"I did leave her alone. This had nothing to do with her. And I didn't cross over her boundary. I know better."
"No, you just set your army right next to it." she protested. Zeus held his hands out to quiet both of them down.
"Now you both listen to me." he turned to face his daughter. "Artemis, you know he's the God of War. War is what he does and he's necessary, even if I don't approve of everything he does. If he chooses to take the chance and send an army after your Amazons, well that's just the chance you have to take. He knows he can't interfere on your lands and as long as he doesn't, there's nothing I can do." he held his hand out, pointed at the panel that controlled the trap, and fired a lightning bolt, destroying it immediately. "As for you " he glared at Ares. "You used a mortal's trick to capture your sister. That's WAY over the line!" it was one of the few times that Ares' eyes didn't show either contempt for the other gods or simple indifference. They showed fear, true genuine fear that he had finally gone too far just once too often. "Artemis " Zeus said, his dark eyes never leaving his son. "Leave us." the Moon Goddess was out of there before the words finished echoing off the walls.
It was almost dusk when the Amazons returned to the village. It had taken most of the day to run the men completely off their land and to clean up the pig sty of a camp they had left behind. Only Zartok and Ranis were arrested and taken to the jail. Once there, Ranis told anyone who would listen that Ares sent them to attack the village. Zartok paced back and forth, careful not to get to close to the Amazons glaring at him from the adjoining cell while all the while yelling at Ranis' cell across the hall to shut up.
Ephiny announced that there would be an Amazon victory celebration at sunset the next day. Everyone needed time to rest after being up all night and then fighting all day, not to mention being up the previous night because of the hearing. Xena went to the stable and checked on Argo briefly before returning to the hut. She found the bard sound asleep on the bed, fully clothed. The warrior knelt down and gently removed Gabrielle's boots before climbing in next to her and covering them both with the blanket. "Good night sweet bard." she whispered as she placed a soft kiss on the young woman's cheek.
The next day was a lazy one for most of the village. Solari didn't return with the children until late in the afternoon, allowing many of the warriors to sleep in as much as they wanted or to spend some quiet time with their lovers. The almost non-existent breakfast crowd and small lunch crowd allowed Trasis plenty of time to help with the preparations for the celebration. Xena woke shortly after the sun was high in the sky. She considered waking Gabrielle but decided against it after thinking about how hard the bard had fought in the battle and how late the party itself would most likely run. Amazons weren't known to turn in early from their celebrations and frowned on their queen doing so. The warrior decided that Argo still deserved her ride that was interrupted the day before. She slipped out of bed and looked at the clothes that Solari had loaned her then at her own, still lying in a smelly pile on top of the saddlebag. Xena knew there was no way she was going to get out of at least making an appearance at the celebration but she'd be damned if she was going to show up in anything other than her own leathers. With a sigh she picked up her clothes and headed for the tanner to get the paste she needed to get them cleaned, a task she knew would take her a good three candlemarks or more to accomplish.
Ephiny didn't poke her head out of her hut until a few candlemarks before the party. She went to Eponin's hut to see if she wanted to get a bite to eat with her but the stocky warrior wasn't there. She looked at the training grounds, the stables, even the temple, but there was no sign of her friend. After wasting the better part of a candlemark looking for her, Ephiny gave up and went to the food hut alone.
"Hi Eph." Gabrielle said when she saw her friend enter. "Come join me."
"Where's Xena?" the blond Amazon asked as she took the seat opposite the young queen.
"She left me a note that said she was going to get her leathers cleaned and then go riding with Argo." the bard replied casually, although she had been upset to wake up alone. She was comforted by the memory of waking up in the middle of the night and feeling the warrior's arms wrapped securely around her, Xena's face buried in her hair. It was as if she was being blanketed with the warrior's love, even in sleep. Gabrielle smiled to herself.
"Dinar." Ephiny said with a grin.
"Dinar for your thoughts."
"Oh." she looked down at her plate, the smile never leaving her lips. "I was just thinking of Xena."
"Obviously. I don't think anything else would light up your face like that." the blond Amazon said. "Have you two ."
The bard blushed slightly and looked away. "No not yet well, not since ."
"Not since?" Ephiny raised an eyebrow slightly. "Gabrielle, you didn't do it in the jail, did you?"
"No, of course not." she studied her fingernails for a moment as she contemplated how best to answer the unasked question. "I was afraid to tell you before but ."
Xena slipped the strap up over her shoulder and smiled to herself. It felt good to be back in her leathers after being without them for so long. As she passed by one of the huts, the door opened. Eponin and Ilanna appeared, their lips firmly attached. Xena kept walking but her keen sense of hearing picked up their departing words.
"I'll see you later, Ep?"
"Absolutely." the stocky Amazon replied throatily. A few heartbeats later Xena heard Eponin's footsteps coming up behind her. "Xena, wait up."
The tall warrior turned in place and waited for the Amazon to catch up. "Very nice." Xena drawled, her blue eyes glancing back at the hut. Eponin blushed hotly.
"Yeah, she was." the stocky Amazon murmured, unable to hide her ear to ear grin. The raven haired woman laughed and wrapped her arm around the smaller warrior's shoulders.
"Glad to hear it, Ep. About time."
"Hey, can I help it if she finds me sexy? Besides, I can say the same thing for you." she grinned. "Gabrielle's quite the catch. You're very lucky."
"She's very special." Xena answered seriously, her eyes taking on a faraway look. "Even after I put her through ." she shook her head, not understanding how she could possibly deserve a beautiful creature like her Gabrielle.
"Come on, let's go over to the training grounds and spar a little bit."
"You've got to be kidding, Ep. They'll think I'm attacking you again." Xena said.
"Not when they see your butt on the ground instead of mine." she baited. "Come on, we didn't even break a sweat disabling that army and I'm sure you could use the practice."
"Is that a challenge?" the tall warrior dared. "You know I can knock you down without any problem." she grinned. "Why not, I could use the 'little' workout."
"We'll see just how 'little' the workout is, my friend." Eponin teased back. They took a few steps toward the training grounds when Xena stopped.
"Damn." she said, turning her hip to look at the back of her leg.
"What?" the Amazon asked, moving to see what she was looking at. "Oh, the stitches."
"I forgot about them. Give me your knife, will ya?" she held her hand out.
"I can get it for you, Xena." she said, pulling the weapon out of her boot. The tall warrior looked at her and arched an eyebrow.
"You, sharp objects, my leg? I don't think so." she reached out and took the offered knife from the chuckling woman. Within a few heartbeats the stitches were removed and the knife back in Eponin's hand. "All set, let's go." Xena said casually. The Amazon grinned and shook her head before following.
The drums started just as the sun disappeared from the sky. Gabrielle excused herself from Ephiny and returned to her hut to change for the festivities. She found Xena sitting at the table sharpening her chakram. "I see you got your leathers cleaned." the bard said as she stripped off her green top and pulled the light brown one over her head.
"Yeah, took a while, then Ep and I went over to the training grounds to practice." she said, setting the whetstone down. "Do you need help?" she said, noticing Gabrielle fumbling with the laces in the back.
"Actually, I do." the bard admitted, turning so Xena could reach the troublesome ties. Gabrielle inhaled sharply when she felt the strong fingers touch her bare skin.
"Are you sure you want to go?" the warrior whispered into her ear, causing the green eyes to close and a soft moan to escape her throat. Xena released the ties and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's bare midriff, her long fingers stroking the smooth skin. "We could just stay here."
"Mmm..." the bard replied, leaning back against the strong woman. "I can't...and neither can you. We have to be there."
"You have to be there. I'm not an Amazon." the warrior said, releasing her embrace and resuming her task of tying the laces. "There, all done."
"Xena..." she turned around to face the taller woman. "You weren't planning on skipping the party, were you?" the warrior's blue eyes looked away. "You were...Xena, you're a big part of the reason we're having this party. If it wasn't for you and Eponin stumbling onto that camp, we never would have known about the army until it was too late."
"Gabrielle, you know I'm not much for celebrations and parties."
"Especially when they involve you, right?" she reached up and stroked the muscled jaw. "Look, I'll promise that you don't have to make any speeches, okay? Just be there with me."
"They won't even notice that I'm not there. Let Ep have the glory, I don't need it, or want it." she bent down for a kiss, hoping to distract the bard but Gabrielle pulled back.
"Xena, don't you understand? I want you there with me. Since this whole thing started there hasn't been one moment where the two of us could just relax and be here together. Tonight the whole village is celebrating." she leaned up on her toes and gave the warrior a gentle kiss. "I want to celebrate too. Not just the victory over Ares and Zartok, I want to celebrate us." she wrapped her arms around Xena's waist and laid her head against the leather covered chest. "I know I'm being selfish but I want to be there with you. I want to be at the celebration with the woman I love." she felt long fingers sink into her hair and tip her head up to look into blue eyes.
"It means that much to you?" Xena asked softly, receiving a small nod in reply. "Well then, I guess we'd better get ready, huh? Wouldn't look good if the queen was late, now would it?"
"I love you." Gabrielle said as she tightened her grip.
"And I love you, don't ever doubt or forget that. Now come on, let's get going before they run out of that Amazon wine I like so much."
Several bonfires lit up the village in the darkness of the summer night. A group of Amazon dancers jumped and swayed to the pounding rhythms of the drums. Several long tables were scattered throughout the festivities, piled high with food. Kegs of wine were at each end of the tables as well as near the bonfires. One of the more roguish warriors was busy trying to dazzle a starry-eyed young lady with her version of the battle, even going to far as to put her arms around the younger Amazon and demonstrating how she fired the arrow that turned the battle, making sure to hold her just a little tighter than necessary. Xena looked at the couple, or soon to be couple depending on how suave the warrior was, then at Gabrielle and found herself unable to suppress a smile. She had no doubt that tonight would finally be her chance to show the bard just how much she loved her. Xena grinned at the Amazon warrior and winked before putting her arm casually around Gabrielle's shoulders.
"What's this for?" the bard asked, turning her head up to smile at her warrior.
"What you don't me to touch you in public?" Xena said in mock surprise. She began to take her arm back only to have her wrist gripped firmly by a happy queen.
"Don't you dare take it back." she pulled the warrior's arm back to its previous position. "I like it, I'm just surprised, that's all." the bard looked around and finally noticed the other couple, now leaning against a pole and kissing deeply. "Oh, I see." she said with a smirk. "Showing off, Xena?"
"And if I am? I don't guarantee that it'll last all night, but if I want to touch you, that's okay, right?" her tone held the barest hint of concern, a hint so small that only Gabrielle would have ever noticed it, so tuned was she to the warrior. She stopped their walking and leaned up to kiss Xena on the cheek.
"Of course it's okay, as long as that goes both ways." she felt Xena stiffen. "Hey, I'm not talking about hanging all over you, but perhaps I want to show off a little bit too." she grinned. "After all, it's not every day that the Amazon queen captures the heart of the most eligible warrior in the land."
"You caught that long ago, my dear bard." Xena said with a smile reserved for the queen of her heart.
"Hmm, probably around the same time you captured mine." Gabrielle found herself unable to resist and wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck, pulling her down for a kiss. It was supposed to be a gentle, loving kiss but lips soon parted and it turned passionate enough to make both women moan before they finally broke apart.
"We can't kiss like that all night." Gabrielle said through ragged breaths.
"No we can't." Xena agreed, shaking her head to regain her equilibrium, which seemed to have been stolen from the feeling of their tongues dancing in her mouth. "One more like that and we won't even make it back to the hut." she said, even though she knew that nothing would keep her from that goal. The only question was how long they had to remain at the celebration and be sociable before she could take her bard to their bed and show her all the things that she hadn't done as a warlord. As they walked toward the main group of women, Xena let her mind travel to thoughts of just what she wanted to do to, with, and for the young woman walking next to her. Her hand began to absently stroke the bare flesh of Gabrielle's upper arm, causing Ephiny and Solari to exchange an amused grin. Xena noticed and gave them both a glare that was meant to be menacing but ended up just looking cute since her fingers never stopped moving over the bard's skin. They joined the Amazons at the table and Gabrielle quickly found herself sampling the variety of foods that were spread out before them. Xena helped herself to a large mug of port and sat back to enjoy the primal music and the feeling of the bard's bare thigh pressed against hers. Ilanna joined them and the leather-clad warrior didn't miss seeing how close the Amazon guard sat to Eponin.
The drummers changed the music to a livelier beat and more women joined the dancers. Xena refilled her mug while Gabrielle chatted with Ephiny. Across the table, Eponin's hand disappeared under the table just before Ilanna jerked upright and shot the stocky woman a surprised look. Xena looked around and noted that they were the only five at the table. With the bard's attention elsewhere for the moment, the warrior decided to watch the game going on across the table. Ilanna's brown eyes fluttered shut and a few moments later the pair excused themselves for the evening. Xena watched them leave with a look akin to envy before looking next to her and realizing that Ephiny had just engaged Gabrielle in telling a story which the warrior knew would take the better part of a half-candlemark to finish. Xena turned her attention to the dancers, watching them lose themselves in the music, their movements more reaction than action. Gabrielle shifted, reminding her of the contact between their legs. Xena thought about how the bard would be reacting to her touch later. Blue eyes closed as a mental image of Gabrielle's naked body formed in her mind. She thought about the soft breasts, the curly hairs that covered hidden treasure, the way the bard's face looked at the height of passion .
"Are you listening to me?"
"Huh?" Xena said, opening her eyes and looking at Gabrielle with hungry eyes before the visions cleared and revealed the real woman sitting next to her. "Sorry, just thinking." she mumbled, burying her attention to the mug of port in front of her. Warm breath caressed her ear.
"I can just imagine what you were thinking of." the bard whispered before allowing her lips to press against Xena's earlobe, causing the warrior to almost choke on her port. Gabrielle placed her hand on top of the larger one resting on the table. Ephiny looked around the crowd of women milling about.
"Will you two excuse me? I need to talk to someone." before they could answer the blond Amazon was up and heading toward the crowd, determined to disappear for a while. It was bad enough to have to look like she was paying attention to Gabrielle when Eponin was fondling Ilanna under the table, but when the young queen nuzzled Xena's ear, it was more than Ephiny could bear. "It's been far too long." the Amazon mumbled to herself as she headed for the privacy of her hut. Certainly no one would miss her for a quarter-candlemark or so.
A steady stream of Amazons came to their table, both to chat with their far too absent queen and to exchange polite pleasantries with Xena. At first the warrior was surprised at the cordialness of the women who at one time were screaming for her blood but after almost two candlemarks of hearing the same words over and over, Xena was more than ready for a change. She was rewarded when the drums changed rhythm to a slow, earthy beat and many Amazons split off into couples to dance. "Excuse me ladies but I believe it's time for the queen to dance." the warrior said, rising to her feet. Gabrielle heard her and quickly stood up, almost knocking the bench over in the process. She rattled off some polite comments to the women she hadn't gotten a chance to speak to as she followed the leather-clad beauty out to the dancing area.
Xena took the bard's hand and led her to the outer edge of the dancing couples before turning and putting her arms around the smaller woman's neck while Gabrielle put her arms around the warrior's waist. The drums beat a slow beat, far slower than the beating of their hearts, which were increasing with each look, each caress of fingers against bare skin. "Have I ever told you how much I like your queen outfit?" Xena said as her thumbs moved back and forth in lazy arcs against the bard's back.
"Mmm, I don't think you have." she let her fingers glide through the long dark tresses. "Just the outfit or what's inside it as well?"
"Good question, perhaps you should take it off so I can compare?" Xena murmured, letting her thumbs slip up under the soft brown material of the half-top.
"Oh, I plan on it." she replied huskily. The drums changed rhythm slightly, beginning a new dance. It was soft and slow and incredibly hypnotic to the pair. With deliberate steps Xena guided them toward a darker area, still on the dirt and not the grass yet far away from the light of the bonfire. A casual observer would have missed seeing the two women gently swaying together in the shadows.
Wrapped in the warm cocoon of their love, Gabrielle and Xena continued to exchange soft words and gentle touches as they danced, completely oblivious to everyone else at the celebration. Ephiny had returned long ago and occasionally glanced over at the couple, the action never failing to bring a smile to her lips. The crowd thinned out more and more as the Amazons began to retire to their huts. As was usually the case with an Amazon celebration, several overindulgers found sleeping on the soft grass more enticing than trying to navigate their way home. Some had friends that took pity on them and helped them but others would still be on the ground come morning. Xena and Gabrielle barely noticed when almost all the dancing couples left and since the music they heard was coming from their hearts, they failed to realize when the drummers packed up and turned in for the night. It was only when Ephiny finally walked over and wished them a good night that they took returned from their own little world and realized that the celebration was over. With slightly sheepish grins they returned the comment and walked hand in hand to their hut, their pace a little quicker than normal.
Once Xena shut the door to their hut, the outside world disappeared. Gabrielle lit some candles, causing a gentle orange glow to settle throughout the room. She turned to face Xena and found herself immediately in the warrior's embrace. "Gabrielle " she said huskily, her desire turned up a notch by the halo of orange that surrounded the bard. When she felt the small hands move to her face, the queen's thumbs stroking her cheeks, Xena lost track of whatever she was going to say and simply moaned. Gabrielle smiled gently at the affect her touch had on the warrior's senses.
"I love you." the bard murmured, using her hands to guide Xena's mouth to hers. The warrior's hands moved to bury themselves in the golden hair as lips parted and tongues touched. Gabrielle allowed the firm, questing muscle to explore her mouth fully while her hands slipped down to push the leather straps off the warrior's broad shoulders. Their bodies moved as one to the bed, their lips never losing contact. Only then did Xena pull back, partly to get control of her ragged breathing and partly to remove the clothing that served as a barrier between her and the bard's soft flesh. But when the warrior reached around the smaller woman's back to loosen the laces of Gabrielle's top, the normally strong and sure hands began to tremble slightly and she pulled back, her face showing her uncertainess. "Hey " the bard said softly, her hands moving to cover Xena's. She squeezed the larger hands reassuringly and searched the warrior's face for any sign of hesitation. What she saw surprised her. Gabrielle saw the deep love but she also saw a nervousness in the warrior's features that caused the bard's heart to skip a beat. She smiled softly and brought one of Xena's hands to her lips. "I love you with all my heart." she said, kissing each digit between words. Gabrielle turned the warrior's hand over and gently kissed the callused palm. Xena moaned softly and let her fingertips stroke the bard's cheek.
"I know I love you too, it's just " her thoughts were interrupted by the feeling of her index finger being pulled into Gabrielle's mouth, the bard's tongue flicking over the tip in a rhythm that rivaled the pounding deep in her lower body. "I I want "
"Want what?" the bard said softly as she released Xena's finger and gently squeezed her hand.
"I want to do this right not like " she lowered her eyes at the memory of seducing the younger woman.
"Before?" Gabrielle finished for her. "Xena, this isn't like that at all. That was " she looked for the right word. " it was well, it wasn't this. This is love, Xena. It's the love you have for me and the love I have for you." she released the warrior's hands and moved until their bodies were so close together that air couldn't have passed through. "This is about expressing that love." she leaned up for a kiss. "What happened before doesn't matter. It's here and now that counts." Gabrielle took a step back and brought Xena's hands up to her leather covered breasts. The feeling of the warrior kneading her soft flesh through the rough material caused the green eyes to close and a soft moan to escape her parted lips. Slowly, too slowly for either of them, Xena moved her hands around back to finish undoing the laces. Gabrielle lifted her arms as the brown material was pulled up over her head and off her body. The soft candlelight caused her erect nipples to cast small shadows on her breasts, only serving to enhance the vision that had taken the warrior's breath away. She knew full well what the bard's breasts looked like, remembered the feeling of their firm heaviness in her hands, the firm tips in her mouth, but the memories were nothing compared what she was feeling right now. With her eyes locked on Gabrielle's, Xena brought her hands to the bard's face, letting the fingers gently trail downward, over the edge of the jaw and down until she reached the base of Gabrielle's throat. She smiled at the rapidly pounding pulse she found and let her fingers rest there for a moment before moving them lower. "Xena " the bard gasped when she felt the warrior's palms brush against her erect nipples.
"Mmm, I like the way you do that." the taller woman murmured as her fingers closed around the pliant flesh. She bent down until her lips were next to a very sexy earlobe. "I like the way you react to my touch." unable to resist, Xena pulled the flesh into her mouth and suckled while her hands continued to explore Gabrielle's breasts. The sighs and groans the warrior received from her actions were enough to cause a trickle between her legs as her passion and desire increased beyond anything she experienced before. There was something so pure, so right about being with Gabrielle that Xena couldn't imagine how she survived without it. She released the bard's ear and moved her lips down until she reached the offered throat and claimed it as her own. She brushed the backs of her fingers across Gabrielle's nipples before taking them between her thumbs and forefingers and squeezing rhythmically.
"Gods, Xena please don't stop." the bard sighed, her hands going to the back of the warrior's head, encouraging further exploration. She mewed a complaint when Xena's hands left her aching breasts until she realized where they were headed.
"I have no intention of stopping until I've sent you higher than Mount Olympus." the warrior said huskily as her hands cupped Gabrielle's firm rear, pulling her closer. Come morning the bard would be unable to remember when or how her skirt and undergarments disappeared because before she knew it her bare flesh was pressing against Xena's leathers.
The warrior gently pressed her down onto the bed and laid partially over the bard, sighing at the sensation. Her mouth sought out Gabrielle's while her right hand traveled up and down the bard's side, committing every curve and valley to memory and fanning the fire that was already burning brightly within the young woman. Xena used her knee to gently separate Gabrielle's legs and pressed her thigh against the warm wetness. "Gods, Gabrielle " she groaned as she buried her head in the bard's shoulder. " so wet." she couldn't resist and ground her thigh against the bard's sex, eliciting a soft cry and the feeling of Gabrielle rocking her hips. She felt small fingers reach behind her to loosen the ties that held her leathers on and smiled against the bard's neck at her persistence when the string refused to budge. "Hang on." Xena said, rocking back onto her knees and reaching behind herself to loosen the stubborn lace. When she sat back to pull the leathers off, her soaked undergarments came into contact with Gabrielle's knee, causing the warrior to groan and rock slowly. She tossed the leathers aside but made no effort to move, the feeling between her legs too enjoyable to end quite yet. Xena's head fell forward and her eyes closed as she continued to rock against the bard's lower thigh, the thin material of her undergarments rubbing against her clit. Gabrielle watched through half-lidded eyes while the warrior continued to soak her leg.
As pleasant as the sensations were, Xena had a more pressing goal than her own pleasure. She rolled off the bard long enough to shuck her boots and the remainder of her clothing. She laid down against Gabrielle and showered her face with soft kisses mixed with murmurs of how much she loved the bard and how lucky she was to have the young woman in her life. Her leg insinuated itself back between Gabrielle's powerful thighs and proceeded to resume its pressure against the bard's sweet wetness.
"I want you, Gabrielle." Xena husked as she slid further down, her lips reaching the area usually covered by the bard's top. "I want all of you everywhere totally." her lower lip brushed across one aching nipple. She was answered with a soft whimper that she found most sexy. "Oh yes, Gabrielle, I want to hear you."
"Xena " she moaned, arching her back and closing her eyes. Her hands, which were balled into fists at her sides, now found themselves buried into the raven tresses, pressing the warrior's mouth against her. She rocked against Xena's thigh, desperately seeking relief from the ache between her legs. Gabrielle cried out when she felt the warm mouth close around her nipple and began suckling.
Xena couldn't believe how responsive the bard was. Every touch evoked a reaction and every reaction caused an equal response from the warrior. Each moan was answered with a muffled one, each rise of the hips was met with a downward thrust of a thigh. Xena feasted on Gabrielle's breasts, alternating between licking, sucking, and nibbling while her fingers lavished attention to the neglected one. Her thigh was soaked with the bard's passion and the warrior's mouth watered with the thought of tasting that sweet wetness.
Gabrielle's senses were on overload. Her fingers clasped and unclasped the strands of ebony hair hopelessly tangled about them. Her hips moved of their own volition against Xena's thigh in an increasingly frantic motion as her cries grew louder and became more urgent. "Oh gods, Xena please!" she begged as she felt herself spiraling out of control. The warrior understood and shifted just enough to bring her hand between her thigh and the bard's need. Both women moaned at the contact. Gabrielle's heels dug into the bed and her back arched as her body stiffened. A few strokes of Xena's fingers against her throbbing clit were all that were needed to send her over the edge. Gabrielle let out a guttural scream that only remotely resembled her lover's name. Her thighs trembled but she never noticed as the warrior's still moving fingers continued to draw her orgasm out. When she fell limply back onto the bed, Gabrielle found herself immediately in Xena's loving embrace. "Shh I've got you " the warrior cooed, placing a multitude of kisses on the bard's forehead while softly stroking her golden hair. Gabrielle buried her head into the safe haven of Xena's neck and let the steady pounding of the warrior's heartbeat lull her back from the Elyssian Fields.
The bard was so still that Xena was certain she had fallen asleep on her until she felt the warm mouth attach itself to her neck and begin sucking. She had no doubt that she would be sporting a red mark come morning to match the one she had created on Gabrielle's neck just a short while ago. The pressure of the bard's tongue moving across her pulse point caused her blue eyes to flutter and a soft moan to escape her lips. "So nice " she murmured, pressing against the back of Gabrielle's head, silently encouraging her to continue. Small fingers moved slowly across the warrior's abdomen before moving upward to cup the underside of her left breast. "Oh gods " Xena sighed when she felt Gabrielle's mouth begin its descent over her collarbone and still lower while the bard's hand slid up to cover her hardening nipple. "Yessss " she groaned when Gabrielle's tongue circled her right nipple before taking it into her mouth. Xena's hips began to rock in anticipation. It was all Xena could do not to move the bard's hand to exactly where she needed it, to quench the burning fire between her legs. Gabrielle's slow and loving movements were driving her crazy and she wondered just how long she could endure the exquisite torture.
"So nice." the bard murmured as she let her tongue paint a path down the soft hill into the valley between Xena's breasts. She shifted her body on top of the warrior's, her wet golden curls doing their own painting on the dark haired woman's belly. Gabrielle slowly kissed her way up the left breast until her lips came in contact with the pebbly flesh. "I love you, Xena." she said before lightly nipping the erect nipple, pleased with the shudder it created. She pulled as much of the warrior's breast into her mouth as she could and proceeded to lose herself in her task. She captured Xena's nipple between her teeth and flicked her tongue across it again and again. The warrior's body was in constant motion now, her back arching into the activities of Gabrielle's mouth while her legs parted to cause the bard's leg to slip between them. Xena's hands trailed down the smaller woman's back to cup the firm rear and push against her need.
Gabrielle moved her other leg between Xena's and slowly moved downward, her mouth exploring the firm softness of the warrior's stomach. She came into contact with the area where her passion was still glistening on the smooth skin and she tasted herself for the first time. It was a taste unlike any she'd known before. Curious, Gabrielle ran her index finger over the warrior's soaked curls and brought it back to her mouth. She sucked her digit clean and repeated the process, this time allowing her finger to slip between Xena's folds and become soaked with the flood that existed there. "Gabrielle " the warrior moaned, her hips bucking to try and draw the bard in. She let out a disappointed whimper when she felt Gabrielle's hand move away until she realized where it was going. Xena watched through barely open eyes as the young woman put her finger into her mouth and sucked it before moving up to claim a kiss.
"I love you." Gabrielle whispered before her lips touched the warrior's. Xena tasted herself on the bard's tongue and moaned into the younger woman's throat. All too soon the kiss ended and she felt Gabrielle move down her body, small fingers sliding through her dark curls and between her folds.
"Yesss, please Gabrielle I need " she lost coherent thought as two fingers found their way deep inside her.
Supporting herself with her left arm, Gabrielle continued to slid the fingers of her right hand in and out of Xena, quickly creating a rhythm with the frantically moving hips. She couldn't believe just how wet her warrior was, so much more so than when they were in the cave. Her fingers moved easily, plunging in and out to meet each thrust, but Gabrielle realized instinctually that Xena needed more. "Oh, sweet Athena." the warrior gasped when she felt a third finger slide into her depths. "Yes, Gabrielle please " her eyes shut completely as every movement of the bard's hand drove her higher and higher.
The sweet tightness around her fingers coupled with the nonsensical moans from Xena caused Gabrielle's own sex to throb with renewed desire. She moved her thumb against the side of the warrior's clit and rubbed against it, never losing the rhythm of her thrusts. Xena's eyes were clenched shut, her head thrown back, her breathing ragged and she was sure that she'd never survive the impending explosion. Her hips were now completely off the bed as she forced herself onto the bard's hand again and again. She covered her eyes with her arm while her other hand found purchase in the bed clothes. She felt Gabrielle shift position and groaned when she felt the bard's thumb move away from where she needed it most. Her head snapped up when she felt the soft tongue slide between her folds and lightly explore. The pounding deep in the center of her being grew to a level beyond any she had ever felt before and her head dropped back to the bed as her hands grabbed Gabrielle and held her in position. "Oh gods, don't stop, please don't stop." she cried as her muscles all tensed up. One, two, three thrusts of the bard's fingers deep in her combined with the soft tongue on the outside were all that was needed to send her over the edge.
Gabrielle was held so tightly against the velvety softness as Xena's body spasmed with release that she couldn't breathe but she didn't care. It would be worth suffocating to share this precious moment, to feel the squeezing of the warrior's inner walls against her fingers, the pulsing clit against her tongue, the salty wetness on her chin. She slowly removed her fingers and did her best to lick up every drop of Xena's love before she heard the soft, raspy voice call her name. "I'm here, Xena, I'm here." she murmured as she moved up to hold the still quivering woman. She expected the warrior to need some time to recover but she didn't expect Xena to bury her face and cling almost tight enough to leave bruises. Gabrielle stroked the warrior's hair and mixed gentle kisses with soft words of love and devotion until she felt the death grip lessen and soft lips seeking hers.
"I love you." Xena said over and over between kisses. Neither woman could get enough of the other as each kiss deepened and became more passionate. Arms wrapped around each other, hands gently stroked smooth backs, bodies pressed against each other with increasing urgency, each needing more. Xena gently urged the bard onto her back, the pale candlelight reflecting off the sweat soaked body. "You're so beautiful, Gabrielle so perfect." she whispered in awe. She bent down and gently kissed the perfect nipple she was admiring before looking into the green eyes of the woman that had long ago captured her heart. Xena ran one long finger across the bard's lower lip before the desire to taste those lips again took control.
Gabrielle moaned and pushed with her body until she accomplished her goal of reversing their positions, stretching her compact body atop the length of her warrior. "Mmm, this is better." she murmured as she slid down to taste Xena's neck. Her hands moved until she captured the breasts she enjoyed so much. "I love touching you, Xena." she moved back up for a quick kiss. "I love all of you, the light and the dark and everything between." she found an ear nestled by long dark hair and ran her tongue along it. "You feel so good " Gabrielle nipped the soft flesh. " and I can spend all night tasting you." she breathed with a sensuousness that sent a shudder through the body beneath her.
Xena groaned and flipped them over. "Speaking of tasting ." she used her legs to separate the bard's and slowly kissed her way downward. By the time she reached Gabrielle's breasts she noticed the change in the smaller woman's breathing and smiled against the soft mound. She slid down until her lips were even with the bard's navel. Xena noted with a self-satisfied smile that Gabrielle's hips were pressing against her in a silent statement of need. "Soon lover, soon." she promised before moving lower still and brushing her lips over the soaked blond curls.
"Please " Gabrielle whimpered at the too soft touch. Her body was crying out to be returned back to the glorious place that only her warrior could take it. Xena answered those cries a moment later when she used her thumbs to part the soaked lips and buried her tongue deep into the wetness that was waiting for her. Xena let her tongue explore every fold, every dip, every change in texture while the scent and taste of the bard's passion wreaked havoc with her senses. The soft sighs and groans were sweet music to the warrior's ears and her body reacted to each one of them.
Gabrielle's hands grasped the warrior's head and shoulders, unable to reach anything else. "Xena " she groaned in frustration and groaned again when she felt Xena pick her head up to look at her, concerned.
"I can't reach anything." she growled, reaching down to pull the warrior up to where she could reach her. Xena complied, sliding her hand between the folds to continue her assault on the bard's senses while she moved up to share a kiss. The warrior's lips, face, and tongue were still coated with Gabrielle's juices and the bard moaned deeply when she tasted herself on Xena's mouth. "I want to taste you." she husked into their kiss as the warrior's fingers stoked the fires of her passion.
Gabrielle thought she knew the utter joy that being with Xena could bring but she was wrong. Woefully wrong, she realized, when the warrior lowered herself onto her waiting mouth. She wrapped her arms around the older woman's hips to keep herself grounded in reality when she felt the warm tongue replace Xena's fingers. Passion begets passion and pleasure begets pleasure. Gabrielle increased the speed of her ministrations and was answered with an equal increase from the warrior's tongue. Their bodies moved fluidly, hips grinding, hands gripping firm mounds of flesh, soft cries and deep moans spoken and answered. Both concentrated on giving the other the most pleasure they could while their own body rose higher and higher. Gabrielle reached the pinnacle first, turning her head and screaming her release into Xena's thigh while her lower body rose off the bed, taking the warrior with her. Xena stayed with her through the spasms before lifting her head and resting it on the soft triangle of curls. Gabrielle refused to give in to her body's demand for rest and fought to maintain her senses long enough to lean up and wrap her lips around Xena's clit, sucking hard while her tongue moved rapidly across it. Only a few heartbeats passed before she felt the tensing in the warrior's muscles. Xena cried out her lover's name over and over as the waves of release washed through her.
They laid on their backs, both too spent to even think about moving so that they were both in the same direction. For a long time they laid like that, head to toe, fingers lazily strumming across calves. "I can't move." Gabrielle admitted.
"Neither can I." Xena replied, but she finally did move just long enough to turn around and pull the bard into her arms. She looked around the darkened room. "Candle's burned out."
"Mmm, didn't notice."
"No, I'm sure you didn't." the warrior chuckled, placing a soft kiss on Gabrielle's nose. "I think the village could have been picked up and moved and we wouldn't have noticed."
"The village?" the bard picked her head up, suddenly realizing just where they were. "Oh gods, Xena. Do you think someone heard us?"
"Oh I'm sure someone heard us. We weren't being particularly quiet." she smiled gently at the blush she knew was on the bard's face even though she couldn't see it. "It's all right, Gabrielle, I'm sure they've heard two women loving each other before. This is a village full of Amazons, after all." she leaned over for a kiss. "Besides " she held her lips just above the bard's. "I love the way you cry out my name." she ran her tongue along the outline of young woman's lips.
"You do, huh?" Gabrielle asked with a smile. "Good, 'cause I love the way you cry out mine." she lifted her head up and captured Xena's lips with hers. "And I have every intention of hearing you say it often."
The next day showed no sign of the Amazon Queen or the Warrior Princess but every so often one of their names were shouted out from within the confines of the small hut. Ephiny walked by at one point and shook her head. "Some queens have all the luck." she muttered before heading to the piles of scrollwork that she knew she'd get no help with that day.
I would like to thank Verda and Lunacy for their immense help with this story. It would never have been anywhere near the caliber that it is without them. B L