WAITING TO HAPPEN
By Claire Withercross
Disclaimer : Xena, Gabrielle and others are copyright MCA/Universal.
Thanks : To Ann for helping me find the missing piece. To my low life brother for forgetting to record Xena for me the other week. :-(
Note : This story is set in an alternative Xenaverse.
Warning : This story features same sex relationships. Things dont get too icky though. :-)
When you're waiting for something to happen, the worst part is the waiting. And sometimes what happens when you're waiting.
Ephiny adjusted the hood of her cape against the rain absent mindedly as Solari watched her with a grin.
"What?" queried Ephiny, noticing her fellow warrior's smile.
"Nothing," replied Solari and turned to scan the forest.
Ephiny took a step along the branch they were standing on and tapped her companion on the shoulder. "What's wrong?"
"You're thinking about Gabrielle again."
Ephiny smiled. "It beats waiting in the rain."
Solari nodded and chuckled in agreement.
Ephiny shook her head, sent a few more droplets down to the forest floor and turned her thoughts back to her love.
She had met Gabrielle a little over two years ago. If you had asked her then if she would want to spend the rest of her life with Gabrielle, she would have called you crazy.
At first Ephiny thought Gabrielle was nothing more than an irritating child. She was not born an Amazon, but received the Right of Caste from Terreis, whose life Gabrielle tried to save during a Centaur attack. As a true Amazon Ephiny was sworn to protect her queen , even to the extent of giving her own life, regardless of her personal feelings for the actual woman. This she would have done for Gabrielle out of duty. Now she would do it out of love.
Ephiny was not sure the exact moment she fell in love with Gabrielle, but now she could barely recall a time when she wasn't. Gabrielle was a talkative teenager who found herself having to make decisions for a nation she knew nothing about. She knew nothing of Amazon customs or laws. When it came to fighting she was uncoordinated in the extreme. It was deemed safer for all concerned to teach her the use of the staff first; many a practice session ended with bruises, many self-inflicted. She was weak when it came to making tough decisions; she lacked the killer instinct of a true Amazon warrior.
Yet this naive, childish outsider adapted. And adapted quickly. Much more quickly than many, Ephiny included, thought possible. She read all the laws and customs. She became proficient in the use of the staff, some would say she was the best staff fighter in the nation now.
Ephiny was not the only one to have reservations about Gabrielle's ability to rule, but perhaps her first major achievement as queen went some way towards silencing most critics; she made peace with the Centaurs. Her talkative nature was easily turned into the skill of negotiation. Tyldus, the leader of the Centaurs, agreed to her conditions for a treaty; out of desperation to escape the endless chatter, Ephiny had thought evilly at the time. But peace was welcomed by everyone.
The first time Ephiny had any positive feelings towards Gabrielle was after a grueling session with the Amazon Council. Gabrielle had worked hard at trying to persuade the council to accept a new trade agreement with Macedonia. She could easily had made it a royal decree and the council would have had no option but to agree, but Gabrielle was trying to gain acceptance and didn't want to force the council to do anything before she was trusted. Ephiny could see that the agreement was a good idea, but she was there in her position as the queen's bodyguard and was not involved in the meeting itself. Ephiny could also see that some of the council members thought it was a good idea, but they were resisting out of principle against what they saw as an interloper on the throne. Some members were quite vociferous and personal in their attack on the trade agreement. Gabrielle kept up a pleasant, unaffected facade during the meeting, but afterwards, when all but Ephiny had left, she let it slip.
It was then that Ephiny saw Gabrielle for what she really was; a lonely young woman looking for somewhere to fit in. She hadn't fitted in in her home village for whatever reason, but with the Amazons she wasn't being allowed to fit in. At that moment, when she let her emotions come to the surface in an angry swipe of the scrolls off the table and an anguished sob, Ephiny saw Gabrielle as a person. Not as her queen, not as a bratty child, not as an outsider, but as a person who needed to be loved, needed to be accepted. Despite her royal position she wasn't getting it from the Amazons.
To Ephiny's surprise she found herself comforting her queen. She stood by Gabrielle's chair and put a hand on the young woman's shoulder. Gabrielle put her arms around the warrior's waist and pressed her face against her Ephiny's stomach. The queen had shed a few tears then thanked Ephiny for her kindness.
That was the start. It was some while after that before Ephiny realised she was in love. One year ago Ephiny became the queen's consort. One year ago, Ephiny thought, the Amazons finally accepted Gabrielle.
Despite being the queen's consort Ephiny was still a warrior, and while her position held certain privileges, missing patrol duty was not one of them. She didn't mind patrol duty, but she did mind the rain. She adjusted her hood once more. The forest canopy was protecting her from the worst of the downpour, but it was still too wet for her liking.
A birdcall brought Ephiny to attention. Solari answered the call with another. Two other warriors jumped silently from the next tree to join Ephiny and Solari.
"Report," Ephiny ordered.
"A small detachment of soldiers on the other side of the river," replied one of the new arrivals.
"Did you recognise them?"
The warrior glanced sideways at her colleague. "Miranda reckons they were from the Conqueror's army."
"They were carrying her colours," offered Miranda.
Ephiny chewed her lower lip. If Xena was moving her army near Amazon territory it wouldn't be long before they crossed into it. And that meant war.
Gabrielle stared at the floor as she sat on her throne and listened to the news. Ephiny finished speaking and waited for a response. The silence lengthened before Gabrielle spoke.
"Miranda," she said to the blonde warrior. "Are you absolutely certain they were Xena's men?"
"Positive," Miranda replied without hesitation.
"Leah?" Gabrielle asked her red haired colleague.
"I can't be too sure. But if Mir says they were Xena's then I believe her."
Gabrielle nodded. "I suppose we've been overdue a visit by the Conqueror. By the sound of it those soldiers just wanted to get noticed." She came to an abrupt decision. "Miranda, I want you to find their camp. My guess is that Xena will be there. Take her a message."
"Yes, my Queen."
"Gabrielle-" Ephiny started to say, but was cut off by a raised hand from Gabrielle.
"I know what I'm doing," she told her consort, with a gentle smile. "I have the advantage because I know Xena's reputation, but she doesn't know mine."
"Shes a cold, calculating, murderous bitch. You can't reason with her, and you certainly can't expect to play games with her."
The smile disappeared from Gabrielle's face at the outburst from her mate. "Return to duty."
Ephiny realised she had gone too far, not only had she openly questioned the queens plan, she had upset her. She mumbled an apology and left.
Gabrielle turned her attention to the message she was going to send to Xena. She extracted a blank scroll and sat down at her desk. The quill hovered over the parchment for a second, then she started writing. When she finished writing she rolled the scroll and sealed it.
"I'll expect a reply," she said as she handed the note to Miranda.
Miranda took the message and nodded solemnly. She knew she was about to go on the most hazardous mission of her life.
Sweat stood out on the man's forehead and he gritted his teeth as he struggled against his opponent in the arm wrestling bout. He stared hard at his opponent's immovable hand and doubled his efforts.
Xena looked at the man opposite her with a mixture of apathy and loathing. "Surely you can try harder than that?" She yawned, tilted her head back and looked up to the roof of the tent.
The man started making strained, grunting noises as he tried to push her arm to the table.
Darphus entered the tent, stared briefly at the man, then pulled himself to attention as he looked at Xena. "We've got an Amazon," he said.
Xena aimed a puzzled frown in his direction. "What do you want me to do about it?"
"She has a message from her queen."
"Then bring her in."
Darphus stuck his head out of the tent and barked an order.
Miranda was bustled in between two guards.
Xena glanced the Amazon. "You have a message for me."
Miranda took a deep breath and stood up straight. "Yes," she said, just about keeping her fear from her voice.
"Then deliver it, I don't like to be kept waiting."
Miranda pulled the scroll from a pouch at her waist and held it out to Xena.
"Darphus, do you mind?" asked the Conqueror, nodding at her opponent. "I've got my hands full."
Darphus snatched the scroll from Miranda, broke the seal, and held it up for Xena to read.
"Uh huh," Xena nodded as she read. "Hmm, haha," she chuckled. With lightning speed she finished her arm wrestling match, the man's arm snapping audibly, stood up and grabbed the parchment from Darphus. She continued reading as she wandered over to a couch and sat down.
The scroll was tossed aside when Xena finished reading it. She stood, picked up her sword, and walked over to Miranda. "Give me a reason why I shouldn't kill you?" she asked, holding the sword to the Amazon's throat.
"My Queen is expecting an answer."
"I've got messengers of my own. I don't need you for that." She smiled slowly. "Your queen wants to talk to me, I guess she wouldn't want to do that if I killed you. What do you think?"
"I-I don't know."
Xena lowered the sword and threw it onto the couch. "How long will it take you to get back to your queen?"
"I can be there tomorrow morning."
"How long will it take you with a broken leg?" Xena asked casually.
Miranda stared at the warrior, hoping the terror that she felt didn't show on her face.
"Joking," smiled Xena. "Tell your queen I'll meet her tomorrow night, at the place she suggested. Can you remember that, or would you like me to write it down?"
"I can remember it."
"Good. Off you go."
Miranda paused, unsure that she was being dismissed so easily.
"Go on," said Xena, making little shooing gestures with her hands.
Miranda turned to go when Xena grabbed her round the throat and pulled her back.
"Wait a minute, I better sign that," Xena breathed in Miranda's ear.
The Amazon's eyes opened wide as the knife appeared before her and slowly carved an 'X' on her chest.
Candlelight flickered in the royal bedroom, Gabrielle lay on the bed, eyes closed, but Ephiny could tell by the tension in her lover's body that she wasn't asleep. As she quietly approached the bed Gabrielle opened one eye to follow her. A tentative smile formed on the warrior's face. She breathed easier when Gabrielle returned it.
"I'm sorry," said Ephiny, shedding her clothes and weapons. "I shouldn't have spoken out earlier."
"Forget it," replied Gabrielle. "I know contacting Xena is risky, but by taking the lead it'll hopefully put us at an advantage."
"Xena only negotiates when she's beaten someone into a position where they have to accept her demands. I not about to let that happen. That is where our advantage will lie, shes probably never dealt with someone on even terms before."
Ephiny sat on the edge of the bed and placed a hand on her lover's shoulder. "You know I'll support you in whatever you decide. I just want you to think carefully, to know what you're up against before you act."
Gabrielle patted the hand on her shoulder. "I...I'll take your views under advisement, but you know I wouldn't do anything that would jeopardise the safety of the Nation."
Ephiny nodded. "I'll just clean up, then I'll come to bed," she said, and kissed Gabrielle's cheek.
Gabrielle nodded in return.
Ephiny entered an adjoining room to wash the day's grime off. When she returned to the bedroom Gabrielle was asleep.
The warrior got into bed and laid down facing her lover. She reached out and placed a hand on the queens back, feeling the rhythm of her heartbeat. She listened to Gabrielles breathing and matched her own breathing to it.
Perfect, she thought. We breathe as one. Our hearts beat as one. We are one. Inseparable.
At that moment there was a crash of thunder and the heavens opened. She fell asleep listening to the beat of the rain on the roof.
Conversations puttered to silence like the end of a heavy shower of rain.
Xena was used to the reaction that greeted her. She loved the way that conversations and actions stopped as all eyes turned in her direction. She smiled at the curse from a customer as the drink the barmaid was pouring overflowed and soaked his trousers.
"Carry on," she ordered lightly.
The hum of conversation slowly started to build up and she walked to the table at which sat two women. One was definitely an Amazon, fit, muscled and wearing Amazon clothes. The other appeared to be a no more than a girl in simple peasant clothes.
"Queen Gabrielle," she put as much sarcasm as was possible into the title as she addressed the warrior.
"That would be me," smiled the peasant girl.
Xena sneered, she didn't like being fooled.
Queen Gabrielle turned to her companion. "Leave us please, Ephiny."
"But-," Ephiny started to protest.
"Alone and unarmed," said Gabrielle silencing the protest with a hand on her consorts arm. "Those were my terms for the meeting."
Ephiny nodded and left.
Gabrielle extended a hand to the chair opposite her. "Please sit," she offered generously to the leather-clad warrior.
Xena glared at the chair. Not only was the table in the middle of the tavern but the chair would put her back to the door. She knew the queen had deliberately chosen to put her in this position in an effort to make her feel uncomfortable. She was not about to let the young woman get the better of her at any stage of this meeting.
"I'd prefer to sit over here," said Xena. She moved to the far wall of the tavern and glared at the man sitting at one of the tables. He swallowed nervously and quickly vacated his seat. Xena sat with her back to the wall and looked over at Gabrielle.
The queen smiled to herself, she knew the Conqueror wouldn't like the seating arrangements and wanted to see what she would do about them. She could stay where she was and force a battle of wills over which table to sit at, but she was here to talk. Besides, if she conceded this point Xena may underestimate her later. She stood and walked over to the table next to the wall. She was about to sit opposite the warrior when she changed her mind. She moved the chair next to the warrior's and sat down with her back against the wall.
"So much more informal if we sit like this, don't you think?"
"I have better things to do than sit here and make small talk with...," Xena looked Gabrielle up and down. She was going to say something derogatory, but something changed her mind. "You wanted to talk treaty, so talk," she finished, seemingly bored.
"Then listen," said Gabrielle sharply.
Ephiny scowled as she looked through the tavern window and saw her love move her chair next to Xena. Anger boiled close to her surface. How could Gabrielle be so stupid as to trust that monster? She wanted to rush in there, kill Xena and drag Gabrielle back to their home.
A noise in the darkness made her reach for her sword. One of Xena's soldiers's walked up to her, arms spread in a show of peace.
Darphus glanced through the window into the tavern and then back at the Amazon. "We can't let any treaty go ahead."
Ephiny cautiously agreed with him. "I don't trust the word of that bitch."
Darphus chuckled at the insult. "'That bitch' would tear out your heart with her bare hands if she heard you say that."
"Is that supposed to be some sort of threat?"
"No. Just an observation," replied the soldier. He looked once more into the tavern. "We're the same, you and me," continued Darphus. "We're warriors. We live to fight. But to fight well requires a strong leadership. Where would we be if our leaders made peace without giving us the opportunity to prove ourselves in battle?"
Ephiny studied the soldier, trying to figure out what his agenda was.
"If we met in battle," he turned an appreciative gaze on the Amazon. "It would be glorious. We would be evenly matched. But in treaty negotiations," he gestured through the window. "Xena is the best. She knows how to seduce people. Men, women, she can get them eating out of her hand, begging for mercy, begging for death, begging for whatever she wants them to beg for. I've seen it on numerous occasions. She'll do the same to your queen."
Ephiny glared at the monster in the tavern seducing her love, seducing her nation, seducing her way of life. She became so consumed by hate, and thought of derailing the treaty plans she didn't notice when Darphus slipped away back into the night.
"No," said Gabrielle.
"No?" Xena raised an eyebrow.
"No," confirmed Gabrielle. "I'm the one presenting conditions for the treaty, not you. Either agree or disagree with them. Don't make your own."
Xena felt some grudging respect for the young queen. She had thought it would be easy to get the Amazon to accept her proposals for the treaty. But Gabrielle was someone she had never encountered before. Someone who was not afraid or intimidated by her.
"Do you believe I'm an honourable woman?" asked Xena.
Gabrielle thought for a moment. "I believe you think you are. You have a code of honour which you stick by, I just don't think it's honourable."
"A simple yes or no would have done," Xena muttered under her breath as she smiled at the reply. "Let me rephrase the question. Do you think you could trust me if I gave my word?"
Gabrielle scrutinised Xena's face, she looked deep into the blue depths of the warrior's eyes. "Yes," she answered.
"That's a start," said Xena. Because I wouldn't trust me, she added to herself. She looked back into the green eyes that were studying her, and immediately doubted herself.
Ephiny scowled as she watched Gabrielle writing out the treaty.
The queen sensed something was wrong and turned around to look at her consort. She thought she saw a scowl disappearing off Ephiny's face, but by the time she had turned around fully there was only a pleasant smile.
"Is something the matter?"
"Not really," Ephiny shook her head.
"But?" said Gabrielle, sensing Ephiny wanted to say more.
"You know my feelings about the treaty. Xena can't be trusted."
"She gave her word."
Ephiny snorted. "That's not worth anything."
Gabrielle stood up and walked over to her consort. "What about my word?" she asked gently. "Is my word good enough?"
"Of course," replied Ephiny.
"Good. Because those," she pointed to the scroll she was writing, "are my words. Xena has agreed to them. And I give you my word that she'll abide by them."
Ephiny realised that anything she said would not be good enough to convince Gabrielle that she was making a mistake, so she kept silent instead.
Gabrielle took Ephiny's silence as a sign of agreement.
Darphus spotted his commander as she entered the camp after taking a ride. He hurried to her side and took the reins of her mount as she jumped from the saddle.
"I've been looking for you," he said, tersely.
Xena glared down at him.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "I didn't mean it to sound like that."
Xena sneered and strode away, Darphus thrust the reins at a nearby soldier and hurried to catch her.
"What's the plan?" he asked.
"Plan?" she asked with disinterest as she stopped by a boiling cauldron to serve herself some broth. "What plan?"
"The plan to double cross the Amazons."
She took a tentative sip of the broth. "Ooh, that's hot." She fanned her mouth and reached for a waterskin. After a quick swig of water she turned to face her second in command. "What was that, I didn't hear you?"
"I said, the plan to double cross the Amazons."
"Oh, that plan. I'll tell you when I'm ready." She started to walk off with her broth.
"Why not now?" Darphus persisted, chasing after her.
"It's not complete yet. I need to see how certain things play out first."
"Well, can you tell me what the options are?"
Xena stopped, turned around and grabbed Darphus by the throat. "You're beginning to annoy me."
Darphus reached for his throat and managed to loosen her hand enough for him to speak. "The men are getting restless," he croaked. "I need to tell them something."
Xena appeared to think for a moment. "I said I'd tell you when I'm ready," she said, and let him go.
Darphus massaged his throat as he watched the Conqueror enter her tent, and made a decision he hoped he wouldn't regret. He followed her. Xena looked up from her broth and raised an eyebrow in query at him.
"You do have a plan?" he asked.
"The fine details need to be worked out, but Amazon land will belong to me. I just want to see how far Queen Gabrielle is willing to go to ensure the safety of her nation first."
The day of the meeting was dry with a brisk wind and high, scudding clouds. As long as the clouds were high the threat of rain was minimal, which pleased Ephiny no end. It was the only thing that pleased her. The place agreed for the meeting was a small floodplain on the outskirts of Amazon territory, the ground of which was sodden from the rain of the past few days. Mud sucked at her feet as she walked behind Gabrielle, Eponin and Solari were flanking their queen.
Approaching from the opposite direction was Xena accompanied by three soldiers. Both parties stopped about forty yards apart. Ephiny narrowed her eyes as she watched Xena speak to her guards and walk forward, alone.
"Wait here," Gabrielle ordered, and strode forward to meet her counterpart.
"Good day, Gabrielle," said Xena.
The tall woman's voice was low pitched making Gabrielle's name sound exotic. Gabrielle felt a flush rising in her face at the sound of it. She looked down at the muddy ground, cleared her throat and held out the treaty. When she felt Xena take it she looked up into smiling, liquid blue eyes. She smiled slowly in response. The smile in Xena's eyes touched her lips as she turned her attention to the treaty.
"It's all as we agreed at the tavern," said Gabrielle, regaining her composure and realising the seriousness of the matter at hand.
"I'm sure it is, but you won't mind if I read it."
"Not at all."
"My Queen, I need to speak to you."
Gabrielle frowned as she turned around to see Ephiny approaching. "What is it?"
Ephiny stepped close to Gabrielle and subtly positioned herself between her love and Xena. "Something has come up."
Gabrielle looked on in stunned horror as the blade appeared in Ephiny's hand and she span around to face Xena. Xena sensed the attack and deflected Ephiny's arm with ease. The Conqueror's foot connected solidly with Ephiny's thigh, forcing the Amazon to crumple to the ground. Gabrielle became aware of a rushing sound a split second before Xena snatched an arrow out of the air that was aimed at the queen. Their eyes connected for a moment, then Xena caught a second arrow, this one aimed at Ephiny.
"Cease fire!" called Xena.
Gabrielle quickly came to her senses and signaled her guards to stand down. She turned back to Xena. "I-I...This wasn't-"
"Should I have let these hit their targets," Xena cut in, throwing the arrows away.
"Ephiny was not acting with my consent," Gabrielle said, emotion tearing her voice. "Please let me deal with it." She called Eponin and Solari over. She looked down at Ephiny, the warrior was still on the muddy ground, clutching her thigh, her face contorted with anger and pain. "Take Ephiny into custody," she ordered quietly, a tear slipping down one cheek. "And lock her up in the stockade."
Xena seethed silently as she watched her would be assassin taken away. She turned her gaze on the tearful queen.
"I will see she is punished accordingly," said Gabrielle.
"She's your mate, how can I trust you to do that?"
"Because I'm an honourable woman, and I give you my word."
Xena nodded. "I want to witness the trial."
"Of course," agreed Gabrielle. "But you alone, none of your army is to accompany you. I will guarantee your safety."
"Very well. However, I won't sign the treaty until I see a fair trial has taken place."
The Amazon village was divided. No one openly criticised Gabrielle for putting Ephiny in custody for disrupting the peace process, but many felt any deal with Xena was not worth the parchment it was written on. Ephiny's crime was treason and the punishment for treason was death. The underlying tension was palpable. The women were very careful about what they said and to whom they said it. Except Miranda.
"How can you do this?" the warrior berated her queen. "How can you consider trying your mate for treason, after all she's done for you?"
Gabrielle let the tirade flow over her. She knew Miranda had personal reasons for disliking the Conqueror, and was perhaps voicing the concerns of many more of her sisters. Yet Gabrielle was still convinced peace with Xena was the answer. If it came to war, everyone would lose. She just had to come up with a plan to prevent war, secure peace with Xena thus ensuring the safety of the Amazon Nation, and keep Ephiny alive.
The queen looked at the angry warrior. "I will forever be grateful to Ephiny. Without her I couldn't have ruled this past year. So I don't need you to tell me how much she's done for me. But I have to do what's best for all of us, and sometimes that means making difficult decisions. Decisions that will be hard to live with."
"Even if it means Ephiny's death?" asked Miranda, her hand unconsciously going to the wound on her chest.
"Yes," whispered Gabrielle.
Xena was enjoying the discomfort of the Amazons as she walked about their village. Dirty looks and obscene gestures, some hidden, some not, followed her. Solari also followed her, but she did that because Gabrielle had ordered it. Her job was to see that Xena was kept safe. Xena found this amusing. If the Amazons turned on her Solari would probably find something more important to do than protect the Conqueror.
She moved towards the stockade.
"I don't think you should go there," said Solari.
Xena regarded the Amazon with curiosity. "What were your orders?"
"To protect you," the Amazon replied. She made sure Xena knew her displeasure at her task.
"To protect me," repeated the Conqueror. "Gabrielle's exact words were, 'Xena is an honoured guest in this village. Escort her wherever she wants to go, and see no harm befalls her.' Is that not correct?"
Solari merely glowered at her charge.
Xena flashed a quick smile. "I'm glad you agree. Now, I wish to visit the stockade." She moved off without looking for any response from Solari. She peered through the bars in the door at Ephiny. The incarcerated Amazon jumped to her feet and approached her.
"What do you want?" grumbled Ephiny.
Xena held up her hand, palm outward, horizontally in front of her face. She moved it up and down several times.
"What are you doing?" demanded Ephiny. "What do you want?"
"Just seeing what you'll look like tomorrow after your head has been cut off," chuckled Xena. "A big improvement."
Ephiny spat through the bars hitting the Conqueror on the cheek.
"Stop that," ordered Solari. "Queen Gabrielle won't be pleased to hear you've been taunting Ephiny."
Xena wiped the saliva off her face. "Taunting is nothing compared to executing, which is what your beloved Queen is going to do."
Solari pushed Xena away from the door.
"Uh-huh," Xena wagged a finger at Solari. "Remember your orders."
"Move," growled Solari. "Or I might just forget my orders."
Xena had no doubts that she could beat Solari in a fight, and barely break sweat doing it, but she'd had her fun. "As you wish," she bowed slightly to the warrior. She cast a last glance at Ephiny and chuckled.
Gabrielle was resplendent in her queen's outfit and ceremonial mask, thought Xena. She found herself entertaining erotic thoughts, not for the first time since meeting the young queen. The assembled Amazons fell silent as Ephiny was brought out to stand in front of Gabrielle.
Ephiny stood, teary eyed, staring at the mask of her beloved, hoping for one last look at her face. The face she loved. The face that was betraying her. Her eyes flicked right to Xena, sitting next to her mate. The Conqueror smiled gleefully and gave a little wave. Ephiny's blood boiled. Her attention was drawn back to Gabrielle as the queen drew a sword and stepped towards her.
Puzzled looks spread around the group, it was usual for a pronouncement of guilt to precede the execution.
Ephiny swallowed hard as Gabrielle stood before her. She tried to see beyond the mask, but it was hopeless. "Make it quick," she found the strength to whisper. Then added. "I love you."
Gabrielle was quick. The sword cut through the bonds at Ephiny's wrists. She dropped the sword on the ground and returned to her throne on the dais. A frantic buzz of surprise followed her. As she sat down she glanced at Xena, the Conqueror was staring dumbfounded at Ephiny. She held her hands up for quiet. It took a moment to get it.
"Treason, under Amazon law, is defined as an act against the Nation or Queen by an Amazon, and is punishable by execution. Ephiny's crime does not fit that description. Her only crime was to stand up for the Nation against the mistake I was making in attempting to make peace with Xena."
Xena climbed angrily to her feet. The only thing that prevented her from taking action was the fact that every armed warrior present was focusing their attention on her.
Gabrielle turned to face the angry ruler. "Sit, please," she whispered.
The Conqueror sat slowly. "This is a fair trial?" she accused. "You're making a very big mistake."
"This is not a declaration of war against Xena," continued the sovereign. "I still believe peace is possible. It is merely a cessation of negotiations."
Ephiny couldn't quite believe what she was hearing. She moved hesitantly towards her mate. Gabrielle made no move to stop her, but also made no move to encourage her.
"Eponin, Solari," Gabrielle commanded. "Escort our honoured guest safely out of our territory."
The two Amazons approached the Conqueror and she stood up to allow them to stand either side of her.
"I shouldn't have caught those arrows," said Xena flatly.
Gabrielle removed her mask to look Xena in the eye. "We'll speak again," she said.
Ephiny sat and stared at Gabrielle as her love pored over a scroll.
"Do you mind?" Gabrielle snapped. "I can't concentrate with you looking at me."
"I don't understand," said Ephiny. "I thought-"
"You didn't," Gabrielle angrily interrupted her. "That's the problem. You didn't think." The queen stood and walked to a window, keeping her back to the warrior. "I've risked war to save your life. Xena wanted a fair trial, and I bent the law as far as it would go."
"If you're that concerned why did you do it?" asked a tearful Ephiny. "Why did you save my life when it seems obvious you want peace?"
"Shut up, and leave me alone."
"Darphus was right, she's seduced you."
"What?" Gabrielle spun to face her mate.
"I spoke to Darphus when you met Xena at the tavern. He told me she would seduce you to get what she wants."
"It may have escaped your notice, but she hasn't got what she wants," Gabrielle retorted. "She wants Amazon land and you dead. And if I can't salvage the situation, then she may just get what she wants."
The queen ran for the door, Ephiny stood and ran to intercept her. The warrior just caught her lover's arm before she made it.
"Let go of me!" commanded Gabrielle, refusing to look at Ephiny.
Ephiny held on for a couple more heartbeats, then released her. The command was worse than if Gabrielle had carried out the execution. The warrior stood by the door shedding silent tears long after Gabrielle had gone.
The dark haired warrior lay on her bed deep in thought. Her men, Darphus in particular, were itching to take revenge on the Amazons. A part of herself wanted to take revenge, too. However, a bigger part didn't.
The thought of taking revenge on Gabrielle somehow revolted her. The young queen was having an adverse effect on her ability to think straight. If she didn't know better she would say she was smitten by the small, attractive, blonde woman. She let out a throaty chuckle, then sat bolt upright.
"Why did I think 'attractive'?" she muttered. "Gods," she whispered as realisation hit her.
It was dangerous, but Gabrielle had an almost ingenuous belief that everything would be alright. She stopped and looked around. No one appeared to have noticed her. She was about to cough to get attention when she caught sight of a pair of blue eyes staring at her from the centre of the camp.
Her army stopped and stared as Xena marched through the camp to the woman who had appeared.
"Lets walk," suggested the Conqueror, pointing away from the camp.
She turned to face Darphus. "Stay here," she ordered. "And do nothing until I return, or I'll have you begging me to kill you before I've finished. Understood?"
Her second in command gave a terse nod. Even though she wasn't looking back as she and Gabrielle walked away, she knew he was scowling at her back.
"Taking a chance," Xena commented when they were out of sight of the camp.
"I knew you wouldn't hurt me."
"What about my men?"
"Speaking of which. How did you get past my lookouts?"
Gabrielle paused and looked up at the Conqueror. "I'm an Amazon."
Xena gave a crooked smile and shook her head. "That's not what I've heard," she said.
"Oh! And what have you heard?"
Xena walked on. "Nothing important," she waved a hand to dismiss the line of conversation. "Why are you here?"
"To talk. To negotiate," said Gabrielle hurrying to catch up.
"Maybe I don't want to negotiate. Maybe I want to wipe the Amazons off the face of the world, so I can have their land."
"Why?" Xena frowned at the queen.
"Yes. Why do you want Amazon land? Surely you've got enough you don't need any more."
Xena continued to frown. She knew the answer but didn't know how to put it into words. It was all about control.
"You'll only spread yourself thinner and make yourself weaker," continued Gabrielle. "If you form an alliance you can leave the Amazons to defend their own land and use your army to go and.... and do something else."
"I don't form alliances," said Xena. "I conquer. That's why I'm known as the Conqueror and not the Alliancer."
"Who's to know you didn't conquer the Amazons? I won't tell anyone."
Xena chuckled. "You're so naive."
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled sweetly.
"It wasn't meant as a compliment."
"I know," countered Gabrielle. "I might be naive, but I'm not stupid."
Xena stopped and studied the younger woman. "No," she said slowly. "You're not stupid. You're not an Amazon. You're not many things, including afraid of me. So tell me Gabrielle, what are you?"
Gabrielle spread her arms wide and smiled wryly. "I'm what you see, I guess. I don't know. I'm still waiting to find out. What do you see?"
Xena knew what she saw, a very beautiful young woman, but didn't dare vocalise it. So she merely shook her head. "What do you see when you look at me?"
"A very lonely woman. An insecure, frightened woman."
Xena tried to scoff at the description, but didn't have the heart. "You obviously don't know me," she settled for saying.
"I know you," said Gabrielle earnestly. "I perhaps know you better than I know myself. I know you, I know how you think, and I know what you'll do."
"Is that so?" asked Xena, becoming angry in order to avoid confronting the other emotions that were bombarding her. "Then what am I going to do next?"
"Kiss me," said Gabrielle.
Xena stared at the Amazon. Her words almost sounded like a command.
Whether it was an order or a prophecy, she took the younger woman in her arms and kissed her.
It felt right. More right than anything she had ever done before. But how to explain it?
They lay against a large tree, Xena gently stroked the head resting on her chest and smiled as Gabrielle murmured at the disruption of her rest.
"Where do we go from here?" asked the Conqueror.
"Wherever we want to."
"Its not as simple as that."
"Why not? You rule most of the known world. Surely you can do what you want."
"You know the burden of rule. It gives you very little freedom."
Gabrielle sucked in a sharp breath. "Oh, gods. For a moment there Id completely forgotten about it."
"Believe me," chuckled Xena. "Its not so easy to forget about ruling the world. I suppose youve even forgotten about Ephiny."
"I cant go back," said Gabrielle suddenly. "I cant face Ephiny."
"Why not? Youve stood up to me."
Gabrielle moved her head to look up into Xenas eyes. "Because I love you. And I dont love Ephiny," she acknowledged. "At least not the same way," she added.
"Before I met you I didnt know the true meaning of the word love," admitted Xena.
"Careful, Conqueror, youll make me blush," jested the Amazon, before turning serious again. "I cant.... I dont want to leave you."
"And I dont want you to leave me, but you have a nation to run," Xena pointed out.
"I didnt want to run it. It was sort of forced onto me, and I didnt know how to refuse."
"Youve done a good job so far," said the Conqueror. "Youre doing a good job now, keeping a ruthless invader at bay."
Gabrielle shook her head, causing pleasant sensations to flow through Xenas body. "No. I might be keeping you at bay, but Im not doing a good job."
"You are from my position," smiled Xena.
"Be serious," said Gabrielle, digging a finger in the Conquerors ribs.
"Ive decided," Gabrielle declared. "Im going to give up the throne and stay with you."
"Are you sure?"
"Im more sure of this than anything else."
"I know what you mean," Xena concurred.
"Ephiny is more than capable of ruling. Besides, its easier for me to give up the Amazon throne than it is for you to give up the world."
"Id give it up for you. Id give it to you, if you asked."
"That wont be necessary," said Gabrielle. "At least not yet," she added with a smile.
"Hey! Be serious," laughed Xena, and poked the Amazon in the side causing her to yelp.
"Its decided then, Ill come with you."
"If its what you want."
"It is," confirmed Gabrielle. "What are you going to tell your army?" she asked.
"My army will accept anything I tell them."
"What, just like that?"
"I may need to..... how can I put it..... restructure my chain of command."
Gabrielle frowned, unsure what Xena meant, but didnt ask for clarification. "I need to sort some things out, too."
Xena took Gabrielles face in her hands, and kissed her. "They can wait," she said.
"No hurry," said Gabrielle around Xenas lips.
Darphus was waiting in her tent when she returned.
"Well?" he demanded sharply.
"Yes, thank you."
"Did you kill the brat queen, or not?"
Xena crooked a finger. "Follow me," she said without inflection.
Darphus followed his commander out of the tent and towards the senior officers tent, where Xena called them outside.
When the officers had assembled she approached one of them. "Maelom, would you like a promotion?"
Maelom blinked in surprise. "Promotion?"
"Yes, a promotion," said Xena.
"Yes, Conqueror," replied the officer.
"Clean my sword and you can have one."
A puzzled frown crinkled Maelom's forehead. "Your sword?"
"It appears to have some blood on it." Xena pulled her sword and thrust it out sideways without looking.
Darphus slumped to the floor, he tried to clutch at the sword protruding from his neck as a mere afterthought.
Xena walked back to her tent. "Oh, Maelom?" she called without turning around.
"You won't have any problem with my orders will you?"
"Very good. What about the rest of you?"
A stunned chorus of agreement came from the other senior officers.
"Excellent." She took two more paces and stopped. "Oh, Maelom, make sure my sword is spotless, you never know when I might need it again." She didn't wait for a reply and headed for her tent with a large, easy grin on her face.
Xenas problem solving technique was brutal, but effective. Gabrielle on the other hand couldnt use it, her technique would inflict a far greater wound. She struggled to find the strength to carry out what was necessary as she walked back to the Amazon village, and the woman who loved her.
Signals relayed from the patrol told Ephiny that Gabrielle was on her way back and safe. Yet she still paced nervously waiting for her love to arrive. When Gabrielle finally walked through the door Ephiny rushed to her to wrap her arms around her, but pulled up short remembering how they parted.
"I was worried about you," breathed Ephiny. "I never....." Words failed her and she grabbed the young woman in a fierce hug.
Gabrielle gently extricated herself from her consort's arms. "Please, we have to talk."
"Yes, yes, of course."
"I've got Xena to sign the treaty," said Gabrielle, handing a scroll to Ephiny.
The warrior took it gingerly. "I know how much this means to you, but I still don't trust her."
Ephiny unrolled the parchment and started reading.
"You haven't signed it," she said after reading the treaty. She looked up from the scroll and saw Gabrielle standing there holding the queen's mask.
"That's your job," said Gabrielle, her voice quavering. "I'm leaving with Xena and I'm giving you my title. I'll see she keeps up her part of the treaty." She handed Ephiny the mask.
"Has she forced you into this?" demanded Ephiny.
"No. I do this of my own free will."
"I don't understand."
"Im not sure I do, but I can't stay. I have to be with Xena."
"Why?" pleaded the warrior. The reality of the situation was starting to sink in. "I love you. I love you with all my heart," she sobbed.
"I know. And you must know deep down that I didn't really love you," replied Gabrielle. "You accepted me and I clung to that. I used you. I do love you, but not the way you want me to, and not the way you love me. I'm sorry."
Ephiny knew the truth of that statement, but all this time she believed Gabrielle would eventually love her the way she loved Gabrielle. She had denied Gabrielles distance so much she had begun to believe it wasnt true.
"You can't leave me. You can't go with that bitch," she spat, still denying what she knew to be true.
"I love her, and she loves me."
"Love her? You don't know her," said Ephiny without conviction as she gradually accepted the truth. The world became numb and she didnt hear the rest of what Gabrielle had to say.
"Im sorry, Ephiny, I do know her. We may only have met recently, but I know her. I feel I've known her my whole life. It's as if.....I can't explain it. We were meant for each other. Meant to be together. As if our lives up until this point was time spent waiting. Waiting for us to meet each other. Waiting for us to be together. We both feel the same way, that our lives were on hold.
"Waiting to happen."