For disclaimers see Part 1 . Feedback is totally cool and very welcome Yes, feel free to set me straight if I goofed something up. And don't forget to check out my blog for occasional updates and other musings:http://kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com/
Gabrielle sat there with her mouth agape and just stared at the sparsely-clad, dark-haired queen standing at the foot of her bed. She spared a quick glance at the woman next to Melosa and caught the dour expression on Ephiny's features.
“Princess?” Ephiny noticed the woman's face go ghostly pale right before her eyes. “Are you feeling all right?”
“I'm…” Gabrielle swallowed with difficulty. “A little overwhelmed.”
“I know it's a lot to take in during one sitting,” Melosa said in her stern, no-nonsense tone. “But you need to understand the gravity of the situation. You're no longer a simple servant in the Conqueror's keep, nor are you a peasant girl from some obscure village. You're next in line to accept the queen's mask. If anything should happen to me, well—”
“I think she gets it, yer maj,” Eponin piped in.
“Yes, well,” Melosa shifted uncomfortably. “I just want to be sure you're fully aware of the burden of responsibility that now rides solely on your shoulders, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle glanced around at the faces of the women crowded inside her small room and mentally noted the pall that hung over the room. Everything that Melosa had just told her came crashing down like a lead weight, but she kept her chin up and absorbed it all like a true princess.
“I suppose there's nothing I can say, except I accept this great responsibility and will do my best not to let anyone down,” Gabrielle finally said.
There was a collective sigh of relief from all the gathered women and a smile split Melosa's features.
“Oh, thank Artemis,” the queen breathed out the breath she'd been holding. “For a moment there, I really thought you would renounce your claim, which you certainly had every right to do.”
“And who would be princess in my place, if that were the case?” Gabrielle couldn't help but ask.
“Oh, you don't want to know,” Ephiny shot back with an exasperated sigh. “It's just too awful to contemplate.”
Gabrielle shot her a confused look. “I really want to know.”
“Her name is Velasca,” Melosa supplied. “She's…um…Well, let's just say she isn't the one I would want as my successor. That's why I appointed Terreis to be our princess. Velasca was the heir-apparent when I took the mask from my predecessor, Illya. I killed her in a challenge and Velasca was none too happy about it. Now that Terreis is no longer with us, I'd much rather have you be the one to accept the honor, Gabrielle. You're a much better choice than Velasca will ever be. She's too much like her mother was.”
“Was Illya a bad person?” Gabrielle prodded.
“She was a real bitch,” Ephiny supplied. “And the apple certainly doesn't fall far from that tree, believe you me.” She glanced at Melosa. “And there's nothing to stop Velasca from making a play for the queen's mask, once she learns what happened to Terreis.”
“She doesn't know?” Gabrielle continued.
“Velasca no longer lives with us,” Melosa stated. “She and her followers were banished when I took the mask from her mother. They tried to mount a coup shortly after the masking ceremony.” Her eyes met Ephiny's and then Eponin's. “Those loyal to me were able to stop her before things got too far out of hand.”
“So, she's still out there,” Gabrielle concluded.
“She tries anything and we'll squash her like the bug she is,” Eponin ground her fist into her hand for emphasis.
“Down, Pony,” Ephiny smirked. “We have another situation on our hands at the moment that is far more important than Velasca's misguided attempts to take over the tribe.”
“Yes, we do,” Melosa agreed.
Gabrielle glanced at the three women, in turn. “What's the situation?”
“Xena,” all three replied in unison.
“And?” Gabrielle prodded.
Melosa glanced around at her personal guard. “Leave us,” she ordered, then shot Ephiny and Eponin a stern glare. “Stay, you two. I want you to hear this.”
The other women quickly shuffled out of the small room. When they were gone, Melosa shut the door and turned to face the three women. She crossed her arms over her chest, as she gathered her thoughts.
“How much do you really know about her, Gabrielle?” Melosa addressed the smaller woman directly.
Gabrielle shrugged. “What do you mean?”
“You knew her as the Conqueror, right?” Melosa continued.
“Yes, I served in the keep at Surra after she destroyed my home village this past spring,” Gabrielle answered, still not sure where the queen was going with her questions.
Melosa met Ephiny's gaze with a lifted brow. “She remembers?”
“I remember,” Gabrielle piped in. “I remember everything—including why I was brought to your village.”
A dark brow rose on the queen's face. “You were raped, Gabrielle.”
“I…I remember that, too,” Gabrielle swallowed down the bile that suddenly forced its way into her throat. “One of the male servants attacked me in my room at the urging of another servant. They wantedto…um…to teach me a lesson.”
“Xena left you in charge,” Melosa continued. “She put a mere child in charge of an entire keep of seasoned servants, several of which were obviously disloyal. Did you know that?”
“I do now,” Gabrielle's chin lifted defiantly. “I'm not exactly a child, though.”
“No,” Melosa agreed. “But Xena had no business putting you in charge of all those servants in the first place. Why did she do it?”
“I really don't know. You'll have to ask her yourself,” Gabrielle felt anger burning at the undertone of accusation in Melosa's tone. She wanted to challenge the woman herself, but had no idea what that would entail.
“Do you know what happens to a leader who lets their emotions get in the way of their good judgment, Gabrielle?” The queen prodded.
“No,” Gabrielle answered. “But I know what happens when a leader shuts their emotions away and never lets anyone get close to them.”
“And what, pray tell, happens to such a leader?” Melosa eyed the smaller woman curiously.
“They become cold and distant,” Gabrielle answered confidently. “It's not long before their decisions become cold and calculating, until they turn into a tyrant with no heart and no regard for human life. Those are the ones that everyone should fear the most, because they don't care about anyone but themselves. Emotions are just as much a part of who we are as the air we breathe or the food we eat. We need them to survive. They make us human—keep us grounded.” A smirk touched her lips. “Just ask the gods, if you don't believe me.”
“And what do the gods have to do with any of this?” Melosa scoffed. “As Amazons, we only acknowledge the goddess Artemis. The rest aren't worth our attention.”
“The gods bestowed emotions on humans to reflect their own desires,” Gabrielle answered. “We choose whether or not to act on what they gave us. Love, hate, anger, sorrow—these are all things that the gods themselves will never know and cannot feel, because they've never experienced real emotions.”
“They're immortal. They experience everything,” Melosa tossed back.
“Just because they live forever, doesn't mean they experience all that life has to offer,” Gabrielle countered. “Their anger stems from selfish disappointment when they don't get their way. And the only beings they truly love are themselves. And hate and sorrow? Tell me the gods can really know what those mean when they've never experienced loss? They're immortal. They don't die. Loss isn't part of the equation for them.”
“Yes, but…” Melosa started, before her expression turned thoughtful.
“She has a point, My Queen,” Ephiny glanced at Gabrielle and gave her a quick wink, before she returned her attention to Melosa. “But I'm not quite following, here.”
“Xena isn't a god,” Gabrielle stated flatly. “She's just as human as the rest of us, which means she makes mistakes, just like anyone else. There may have been divine intervention in her rise to power, but her fall from grace had everything to do with emotions. Isn't that right, My Queen?”
All eyes turned to Melosa, who let the hint of a smile touch her lips.
“Yes, that's right,” the dark-haired woman conceded.
“So where does that leave us?” Eponin put in. “What does that mean?”
“It leaves us with a tyrant,” Ephiny replied. “Draco doesn't care about anyone but himself. He's not a god, but he sees himself as one.”
“Like Rome 's up and coming ruler, Julius Caesar,” Melosa nodded. “And those who put in with the Roman scum who invaded our lands.”
“And, like all tyrants, Draco too must fall,” Gabrielle smirked.
“So, how are we going to bring the tyrant to heel?” Ephiny added with a wry smirk. “I assume our illustrious queen has something in mind?”
Eponin slammed a fist into her hand. “I hope it involves pounding heads. I'm really in the mood for a decent ass kicking.”
“Down, Pony,” Ephiny quipped with a barely-suppressed grin.
Gabrielle chuckled at the interplay between the two women, then sobered. “You want Xena to lead an army of Amazons against Draco?” Her gaze met Melosa's.
“We need to rid ourselves of him before things get out of hand,” Melosa responded with a nod. “I've seen what the warlords did to our sister tribes. Entire villages were laid waste during their quests for power. Things were much more peaceful during the Conqueror's reign, believe me. She may have appeared to be an emotionless tyrant to many of her critics,” her gaze held a gleam of amusement, “but she did a great deal to enforce a number of just laws that were instituted during her reign. And those laws kept the warlords from wiping us out to the last Amazon.”
“Am I interrupting something?” All eyes suddenly turned to the woman peeking her head in the door. “I knocked, but there was no answer. So I decided to just go ahead and bring Gabrielle's midday meal in.”
Cyrene placed a tray of covered dishes on the small table near the bed.
“We were…um…just…” Ephiny looked pointedly at Melosa for assistance.
“Your meal is down in the main dining room, ladies, as are your friends,” Cyrene 's tone was dismissive, as she rearranged the dishes to her satisfaction. “Gabrielle needs her rest,” she turned to meet the gazes of the three Amazons with her hands on her hips and a stern expression on her features. “I expect you'll be staying the night, so I've set aside several rooms for you and the rest of your retinue, Queen Melosa. I'm sure you'll find everything in good order. If you need anything, please feel free to let me know. I'll be in the kitchens.”
Cyrene left the room with a pointed look at Gabrielle that basically said she expected her orders to be followed without question.
“Well,” Melosa said, after clearing her throat. “I guess we know where Xena gets her assertiveness.”
The three other women chuckled, despite their rather uncomfortable reaction to the innkeeper's sudden intrusion.
“You really don't need to stay on my account, Queen Melosa,” Gabrielle said after a moment of uncomfortable silence. “I can talk to Xena about what you've proposed. Maybe she has some thoughts on the situation. After all, she's quite familiar with the inner workings of running a campaign of this magnitude. She might even have a few allies she can count on to get things rolling. I'll return to the village just as soon as I'm able. No worries.”
Melosa eyed the bed-ridden woman a moment. “That sounded an awful lot like a dismissal,” she glanced at the other two Amazons for confirmation. “Didn't it?”
Ephiny rolled her eyes and Eponin shifted uncomfortably.
“We will do as you wish, My Queen,” Ephiny finally responded.
A playful smirk quirked the corners of Melosa's lips. “I expect a full report before the end of the week, Princess.” Her gaze met Ephiny's. “I'm leaving you two here with her until she's well enough to travel. I'll also leave a messenger who can carry the report back to the village and deliver it into my hands. The rest of us will return to the village and ready ourselves for the days to come.”
“Yes, Queen Melosa,” Gabrielle bowed her head in respectful acknowledgment of the woman's words.
“Now, it's time to leave you to recover from your injuries,” Melosa said, as closed the distance to the door with Ephiny and Eponin on her heels. She let the other two precede her through the door, then glanced back over her shoulder. “Artemis' blessing on you, Princess.”
“Safe journey, My Queen,” Gabrielle responded with a warm smile.
Melosa gave Gabrielle a quick wink, before she closed the door behind her. Gabrielle just sat there for a moment, absorbing all that was said and the implications of what was ahead. She'd somehow agreed to convince Xena to mount a campaign against the tyrant who had taken everything from her. The task was a little daunting, considering Gabrielle's precarious relationship with the imposing woman. But time would tell on that score.
Draco slammed a beefy fist down on the padded arm of his throne, as a deep scowl marred his features. The reports were all in and the news was grave.
“You are telling me that Xena is nowhere to be found?” He ground out between clenched teeth. “Seriously?!?” He slammed his fist down again to emphasize his point.
“Y-yes, Lord Draco,” the lanky messenger who stood before the throne said. “Our spies have searched the countryside for any sign of her, but not a single one of them has a clue as to her whereabouts. She just…um…vanished.”
Draco shot up out of the chair and grabbed the man's throat in one beefy hand. “You had better not be lying, Methileus. I don't tolerate liars in my midst.”
“N-no, m'lord,” the man gasped for breath, as he felt the hand tighten on his windpipe. “P-please, L-lord D-Draco…”
Draco pushed the spineless little messenger away from him and watched with satisfaction as the man sprawled on the stone floor a few paces away.
“I am surrounded by idiots!” Draco raised his arms and waved them in the air, before resuming his seat on the throne. “Hector!” He bellowed at the top of his lungs.
“Yes, my lord,” the scruffy second-in-command stepped forward and bowed his head slightly.
“We need a new plan,” Draco glared, as he poured a goblet of wine and handed it to the Hector, then poured one for himself. “Any suggestions?”
“Send a contingent of mercenaries to Xena's hometown and beat the truth out of ‘em?” Hector offered with a sly grin, as he downed the contents of his goblet.
Draco smiled. “I like it.”
“I would be honored to lead them, my lord,” Hector continued, as Draco refilled his goblet. “It would give me great pleasure to put the people of Amphipolis in their place.” He absently rubbed the bandana that covered the scar across his throat. “Especially after what the bitch did to me and my men.”
“I'll leave the details in your capable hands, my friend,” Draco handed over the goblet. “Just be sure to send word, once you know where Xena is. I want the honor of bringing her down myself.”
“Yes, my lord,” Hector bowed and left the throne room.
“Hello, my lord,” Nora slinked up next to the throne and placed a seductive hand on Draco's shoulder. “Is there anything I can do to…um…relieve your tension?”
Draco frowned. “Get lost, Nora,” he growled. “I'm not in the mood for your games today.”
Her hand snaked down his bare chest and stopped at the prominent bulge in his pants. “But, my lord,” she leaned close to his ear and lowered her voice. “There is so much I have yet to show you.”
Draco grabbed her wrist in a death grip and glared at her. “I said, get lost.”
Nora saw the menace in his dark gaze and knew a moment of fear. “Y-yes, Lord Draco,” she lowered her gaze demurely and slowly backed away from him.
Draco didn't even pay her any attention as he heard her footsteps quickly retreat through the small, hidden door that he'd discovered behind the throne just a few days prior. He'd set up residence at the keep at Surra for more than a moon and hadn't known about the hidden door until then. It had amused him to no end that Xena would have a way to duck away from her duties so covertly. It was just another of the reasons he admired her so much.
Of course, just because he admired the woman for all she'd done for Greece didn't mean he would ever allow her to dethrone him. He was enjoying her austere living quarters far too much for that. Her suite of rooms, alone, were enough to keep him firmly ensconced in the place. Those windows had a breathtaking view that still had him in awe.
“More wine, my lord?” A buxom redhead stood just out of reach with a pitcher perched precariously on a silver tray. He couldn't remember the servant's name, but knew she was one who was still loyal to the former Conqueror of the Known World.
“You know the drill,” he said in a flat tone.
Maida poured a small cupful of wine and downed its contents to the last drop. “I assure you, Lord Draco, ‘tis safe to drink.”
Draco was on his feet in an instant. He took the cup from her fingers and swiped a finger inside it.
“I want to see you actually drink it, this time,” he growled menacingly, as he shoved the cup back toward her.
“Y-yes, m'lord,” Maida responded with far less confidence, as she slowly poured wine from the pitcher into the cup and quickly downed its contents. “See?”
Draco took the pitcher from the tray and walked back over to the throne. He poured himself a goblet full of the sweet wine and downed it in several swallows, while keeping his eyes firmly on hers.
“Don't think that I will ever trust you, girl,” he said, as he swiped his mouth with his bare arm. “Your precious Traecus thought he could pull one over on me, and you know what happened to him.”
They all did, Maida suppressed a shudder at his words. Traecus had tried to rid them of their new master by spiking Draco's wine with a tincture of deadly poison. Unfortunately, Draco found out about the plot and lopped the man's head off right there on the spot. Traecus never knew what happened, as his head dropped onto the stone floor in front of every servant present in the room. It was a day of sorrow for all those still loyal to the Conqueror and there wasn't a dry eye among them for an entire week, thereafter. It was also the day that everything changed.
Draco rounded up every servant in the place and told them, in no uncertain terms, that they were on notice. As of that moment, any servant found to still harbor feelings or thoughts of their former mistress would be summarily executed. He told them there would be no mention of the woman formerly known as the Conqueror, nor would he tolerate misconduct of any kind from any of them.
Xena lay on her back in the bed her brother, Toris, once occupied. Her mother had offered to take the smaller room and let Xena have her room, but the warrior had refused the offer. She didn't want to put her mother out any more than she already had. Besides, the woman was always up before dawn and Cyrene 's room was closest to the kitchen, so it stood to reason that she should stay in her own room. That and Toris' bed was longer and fit Xena's height better than her mother's bed.
Night had fallen long ago and everyone had retired to their respective rooms, including Gabrielle's retinue of Amazon feather-heads. Xena smirked into the darkness that surrounded her, as she remembered what had transpired only a few candlemarks earlier. The evening meal had been an interesting affair. Cyrene had actually put the Amazons at a corner table in the back of the main dining room, while she shooed Xena away to Gabrielle's room with a conspiratorial half-smile.
As soon as Ephiny spotted the warrior heading out of the dining room, the Amazon erupted with a loud protest that Xena could hear all the way down the small hallway. She smirked to herself when she heard the Amazon argue with Cyrene about allowing Xena to eat with their princess, while they were forced to take their meal in the dining room. But Cyrene stood firm and countered the protests with one simple statement: Are you blind? They're in love.
Xena sighed, as she tucked her hands behind her head and continued to stare at the dark ceiling above her. Yes, even her own mother knew what she herself had been completely unwilling to admit until that very day. Had it only been that morning that she had declared her love for the smaller woman who was sleeping soundly across the hall?
“So, why are you in here, instead of in there with her, huh?” Xena mumbled to the darkness. “Fool.”
But she knew the answer to that question, too. The two rooms she and Gabrielle occupied were only furnished with single beds. There was nowhere for Xena to sleep, except in a chair next to Gabrielle's bed. So, there she lay, staring up at the ceiling above her.
Her musings were suddenly cut short by a loud scream that pierced the silence. Shooting up from the bed, Xena didn't bother to grab anything but a small dagger she had acquired from the local blacksmith during the day. She held the dagger in front of her as she charged out into the hallway and stopped. Another scream pierced the silence and Xena acted without hesitation.
Throwing her shoulder against the closed door next to her, Xena burst into the dark room and glanced around. Nothing moved in the small space, but a whimper from the bed had her next to it in two long strides.
“Gabrielle?” Xena put a hand on the forehead of the apparently-sleeping woman, only to have Gabrielle suddenly shoot up in bed and let out another ear-piercing scream. The smaller woman's arms shot out and Xena received an unexpected blow to the head that caught her off guard. “Gabrielle!!!” She shouted, as she dropped the dagger and grabbed the flailing arms of the smaller woman. “Gabrielle! Stop! Wake up!!!”
The smaller woman continued to fight against her and Xena realized Gabrielle was far stronger than she'd been when she was a simple servant at the keep in Surra.
The shuffling of feet reverberated in the hallway and suddenly the room was bathed in a golden glow of candlelight. A crowd of onlookers was suddenly filling the doorway, which included Cyrene dressed in a nightgown and holding a single taper.
“Xena?” Cyrene couldn't keep the concern from her tone. “What's going on?”
Ephiny stopped just inside the doorway, her leathers askew and her hair in wild disarray. “What in Tartarus is going on in here?” She took in the scene and quickly moved to the bed. “Xena, what are you doing to her?”
“She's having a nightmare,” Xena ground out, as she kept a firm hold of Gabrielle's wrists. “Gabrielle! Wake up!”
“No!” Gabrielle suddenly wrenched her arms free of Xena's grasp and lashed out with all her might.
Ephiny wasn't prepared for the blow to her midsection that doubled her over and sent her careening into the wall behind her. One moment she was on her feet and the next she was sprawled on the floor.
“Eph!” Eponin was suddenly at the Amazon's side. “You okay?”
Ephiny waited for the air to return to her lungs and then took a deep breath. “Gods on Olympus ! What have the two of you been doing during your sparring sessions?” She turned a questioning glare on the weapons master. “She's sure stronger than she looks.”
Eponin offered Ephiny a hand up and smirked. “Now you know why she's my star pupil.”
“Yeah,” Ephiny absently rubbed her midsection as she returned to the side of the bed and kept a safe distance.
Xena had Gabrielle's hands in hers as she tried to calm the smaller woman. Her gaze met Ephiny's. “You okay?”
“Peachy,” Ephiny continued to absently rub her stomach. “She packs quite a wallop.”
Xena smirked. “She didn't mean to hurt you. She's still not quite awake.” She returned her attention to the smaller woman and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Gabrielle, can you hear me, love?”
The words seemed to have a penetrating effect on the smaller woman, who instantly calmed. Green eyes fluttered open a moment later and Gabrielle looked around her.
“What's going on?” Her gaze met Xena's. “What are they doing here?”
“You were having a nightmare, Gabrielle,” Xena explained, as Cyrene unceremoniously ushered the onlookers out of the room.
“Nightmare,” Gabrielle nodded, as a yawn escaped unbidden. “Sorry.”
Xena pulled Gabrielle into her arms and held her. “It's okay. Not your fault.”
Gabrielle caught sight of the two Amazons watching her intently. “Ephiny? Eponin?”
“Hey, kiddo,” Eponin stepped up next to the bed. “You scared the feathers off us with all that catterwalling. Sheesh! You certainly have a pair of lungs on ya.”
“And you pack a mean punch,” Ephiny added, rubbing her stomach. “Haven't been decked like that in a long time. Never saw it coming, either.”
Gabrielle pulled away from Xena enough to look her in the eyes. “What's she talking about?”
“You knocked her across the room,” Xena snorted. “She thought I was trying to hurt you, I guess. Don't think she was expecting quite the reaction she got.”
Gabrielle shot Ephiny an apologetic look. “Sorry.”
Ephiny shrugged. “Teach me to get in your crosshairs, Princess.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “It's just Gabrielle, Eph. It's not like there's anyone else here besides us.”
Eponin put an arm around Ephiny's shoulders. “So, you think she's still not worth your time, Eph?”
Ephiny blew out an exasperated breath and shoved Eponin's arm off her shoulder. “Get a life, Pon.”
“Been there, done that,” Eponin put her arm back around Ephiny's shoulders and squeezed. “'Sides, I got fifty dinars says she can take you down with that little stick of hers.”
Ephiny shook her head in consternation and tried to shrug off the weapons master's arm again. “You have a serious death wish, you know that, Pony?”
“I have confidence that our new princess has what it takes to knock some sense into you,” Eponin shot back with a smirk.
Gabrielle watched and listened to the interchange between the two Amazons until her gaze met Xena's. “Can you…”
“Out!” Xena ordered in no uncertain terms, as she shot the two a stern glare. “Gabrielle needs to rest.”
“Fine,” Eponin threw her hands in the air and stomped over to the door. “You comin', Eph?”
“Are you okay?” Ephiny asked Gabrielle.
“I'm fine,” Gabrielle answered with a firm nod.
“Okay, then,” Ephiny joined Eponin at the door, spared a last glance at the two women on the bed, then pushed Eponin out into the hallway and closed the door behind them.
Xena traced Gabrielle's features. “You sure you're okay?”
“Why does everybody keep asking me that?” Gabrielle huffed. “It was a nightmare. It's not like I just battled a dozen harpies or a Cyclops or something.”
Xena snickered. “Let's hope it never comes to that.”
Gabrielle reached up and placed her palm on Xena's cheek. “With the luck we're having?”
“Good point,” Xena acknowledged and ran the backs of her fingers along Gabrielle's jaw line. “I really want to kiss you right now.”
Gabrielle's eyes met hers. “I really want you to kiss me right now.” And then she yawned. “Gods, can't believe I just ruined the mood.”
“It's really late,” Xena pulled back and put a hand over the one in Gabrielle's lap. “You should try to get some sleep.”
“And you?” Gabrielle clasped her hand in Xena's. “Did I wake you up, Xena? I'm sorry if I did.”
“Not much of a sleeper these days,” Xena shrugged. “Kinda comes with being locked in a dungeon for the last two moons with rats for roommates.”
“Ew,” Gabrielle scrunched her nose. “Not a big fan of rats. Found a couple in a storage cellar at Surra as big as rabbits. Damned things screeched at me and had me on the run before I could utter a sound. Never went back down there again.”
“Eh,” Xena shrugged again. “They're not so bad, once you put ‘em in their place and show ‘em who's boss.”
“Ever the Conqueror, eh?” Gabrielle smirked.
“Not really feeling like a conqueror these days, I gotta say,” Xena gave her a wistful smile. “Maybe a change in profession is in order.” She lifted Gabrielle's hand to her lips and kissed it. “I might be persuaded to take on the role of…say…protector to the next queen of the Amazons?”
“My hero,” Gabrielle pulled their joined hands to her and kissed Xena's knuckles.
“I think the term they use is champion,” Xena corrected. “I guess it wouldn't be so bad to be the next queen's champion. It actually has a nice ring to it.”
Gabrielle shook her head and sobered. “There's just one thing.”
“And what's that?” Xena put a finger under Gabrielle's chin and lifted it so their gazes met.
“Melosa asked me to ask you something earlier,” Gabrielle said. “I completely forgot about it, until just now.”
Xena sighed. “Can't it wait until morning? You really do need to get some sleep, Gabrielle. I don't want your fever to return. And I certainly don't want to risk the wrath of my mother when she finds out I kept you up.”
Xena moved to stand and found a hand on her arm.
“Please don't leave,” Gabrielle's voice was barely above a whisper. “I really don't want to be left alone.”
Xena eyed the tiny bed and then glanced at the wooden chair next to it. And then she watched Gabrielle sit forward in open invitation.
“You sure about this?” Xena hesitated, as she watched Gabrielle slide forward enough to allow her to climb in behind the woman.
“You don't mind if I use you as a pillow, do you?” Gabrielle motioned for Xena to slip in behind her. “I think we can both fit if I'm in your lap.”
Xena slid in behind Gabrielle and got comfortable, then pulled the smaller woman back against her chest. Her legs were long enough that her feet dangled over the foot of the bed, but she didn't mind. Having Gabrielle in her arms was enough to make up for the minor discomfort. She let her arms rest on Gabrielle's stomach and smiled when the smaller woman's head rested in the crook of her arm.
“This is more like it,” Gabrielle breathed out a tired sigh and let her eyes drift shut. “Mm, I could really get used to this.”
“Me, too,” Xena agreed, as she rested her head against the headboard behind her and allowed her eyes to slowly drift shut.
It wasn't long before the two women were fast asleep. Neither one heard the door open or saw Cyrene peek her head inside. A smile touched the older woman's lips, as she grabbed the blanket at the foot of the bed, pulled it up over the two sleeping women and then silently left the room.
Ephiny and Eponin ignored the stares that followed them as they slowly made their way through the stalls of the marketplace the next day. Amphipolis had enough merchants passing through on a regular basis that the marketplace held an assortment of oddities to satisfy even the most discerning shopper. Several merchants had numerous bolts of cloth on display, while weavers plied their trade at several other stalls. There were two potters showing off ceramics in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. There was even a dealer tucked in a corner with a stall overflowing with an array of weapons that made Eponin's mouth water. She made a beeline right for it.
“You think I could learn to use this?” Eponin brandished a small hook-like devise with a spring-loaded trigger and a strange blade mounted on a hair trigger.
“I think you would shoot yourself with the damned thing, first,” Ephiny scowled. “Put that down before I'm the one who ends up on the receiving end of it.”
Duly chastised, Eponin gingerly returned the weapon to the table and picked up a small dagger, instead. “This has promise.” She ran a finger along the blade's edge and winced. “Oo, that's sharp.” She stuck her thumb in her mouth.
“Twenty dinar,” the squat merchant approached the pair and eyed their attire with a mixture of wariness and awe. “You ladies aren't from around here.”
“A veritable genius we got here,” Eponin shot her companion a wry smirk. “I ain't payin' that much for a stupid dagger. You got balls the size of a centaur's to be askin' that much, buster.” She tossed the weapon back onto the table. “I don't care how sharp the blade is. It ain't worth it.”
“Fifteen?” The man ran a hand over his greasy hair and smiled a gap-toothed grin. “It is made from the finest Corinthian steel.” He picked up the dagger and held it in the palms of his hands. “The hilt is of pure ivory and it comes with a beautiful scabbard of the finest leather.”
“Still ain't interested,” Eponin shook her head. “I only paid five for this one.” She took a long dagger out of the sheath at her hip and held it up in front of his face, watching in amusement as his eyes crossed. “And I didn't have to cut the tongue from the mouth of the merchant who sold it to me. He was a damned sight more honest than you are, little man.”
The man's eyes widened and he took a step back. “B-but…” He caught the curly-haired blond's chuckle and relaxed. “You play with words, Amazon.”
Eponin resheathed her dagger. “I don't need another damned dagger.”
He reached behind him and came back around with another weapon in his hands. “What about this little gem? Eh?”
Eponin eyed the small wrist-mounted dart launcher in the man's palms and then met his gaze. “A pea shooter?”
“Poison darts,” he corrected, as his free hand caressed the shiny brass. “Comes with six darts that can be dipped in whatever poison you see fit to use against your enemies. Eh? Nice, huh? You can hide it beneath a sleeve and your enemy will be none the wiser.”
Ephiny snorted and covered her mouth with a hand to stifle her giggles.
“Do I look like I got sleeves?” Eponin shot back with an annoyed glare, as she slapped her bare arms for emphasis. “Not interested, dumbass.” She grabbed Ephiny's upper arm and ushered the woman away from the merchant's stall. “Come on, Eph. I got better things to do than stand here and be insulted.”
“Nice,” Ephiny shrugged her arm out of Eponin's grasp. “I can see your manners haven't improved over the years.”
“I hate shopping,” Eponin groused.
“Then why did you agree to escort me over here?” Ephiny shot back. “It's not like I can't browse the marketplace by myself, ya know.”
“And what was I supposed to do?” Eponin fingered a bolt of silk and watched the merchant hurry over to her. A raised hand stopped him in his tracks, however. “Just looking, bub.”
Ephiny snorted. “Bub?”
“Didn't want to insult the man. He kinda looked like a nice guy,” Eponin crossed her arms over her chest. “Besides, I like soft stuff like that cloth back there. Feels good on my skin.”
A blond brow shot up into Ephiny's hairline. “You are just full of surprises, aren't you?”
Eponin shrugged. “I have many layers. You just never take the time to peel any of ‘em away to learn more about the woman underneath all this leather.” She motioned to her attire, then realized there was more skin showing than leather. “You know what I mean.”
Ephiny shot her companion a quick once-over. “All that leather, huh?” She snorted again.
“Don't go there, Eph,” Eponin rolled her eyes. “Why do you always have to get the last word in, huh?”
“I don't,” Ephiny stopped in front of a stall. The aroma coming from the stall was enough to make her mouth water. “Want something to eat?”
“You buyin'? ‘Cause I ain't got no money.”
“I got enough for two gyros and a couple ciders.” She reached into the pouch at her waist and produced two coins that she handed to the merchant.
The man took the coins and handed over two overflowing pocket sandwiches and two mugs of cider.
“Thanks,” Ephiny took her sandwich and a mug of cider, then made her way over to sit under a tree.
“Mm, good,” Eponin joined her and took a rather huge bite of her food. She didn't bother to wipe the sauce that dribbled down her chin as she chewed.
Ephiny gave the woman a tolerant eye roll. “I swear, you have the manners of a damned Cyclops.”
“Ain't tha' bef I ebber ha',” Eponin replied, her cheek bulging with food. Sauce continuing to dribble down her chin, which she finally wiped away with a bare arm.
“Ugh! Disgusting,” Ephiny muttered, as she took a smaller bite and sipped her cider. “So, what do you think of all this?”
“All of this, what?”
“Xena, our new princess, Amphipolis, going to war,” Ephiny shrugged. “Pick one.”
“Xena's okay,” Eponin replied and then glanced around. “And this place ain't so bad for a farming village. Lotta people doing a lotta nothin'. They're a little lax where the militia's concerned. Could use a good butt kickin', if ya ask me. But that innkeeper's a real spark of Greek fire. Makes Xena look like a cuddly puppy.”
“You do know that's Xena's mom you're talking about, right?” Ephiny watched the surprise register. “Okay, guess not.”
“Seriously,” Ephiny nodded. “Her name's Cyrene .”
“Whoa,” Eponin practically shoved the remainder of her sandwich into her mouth, garnering a scowl from her companion. “Guesh I nebber saw tha'n comin'.”
“Didn't your mother ever teach you not to talk with your mouth full?” Ephiny groused.
Eponin swallowed some of the food. “I'm a damned orphan, Eph. Didn't know my mother. She died when I was really little.”
A blond brow shot up. “Oh, sorry. I had no idea.” She frowned and then her expression turned thoughtful. “How come I never knew that before now?”
“Never came up, I guess,” Eponin took a long drink of her cider and winced. “Ugh! This stuff is way too sweet for my tastes.”
“It's not ale or port, that's for sure,” Ephiny smirked.
“Damned straight it ain't,” Eponin finished off the cider and wiped her mouth with her arm again. “Tastes like centaur piss.”
“And you would know that, how?” Ephiny shot her a wry smirk.
“Hardy har har,” Eponin groused.
Neither woman spoke for a while as they just sat there and watched the people move through the marketplace. Ephiny noticed a woman with two small children running and playing around her long skirts. The woman seemed perfectly content to let the kids scamper around her as she browsed the stalls. The scene struck a chord deep within the Amazon.
“You ever consider having kids?” Ephiny's voice broke the silence.
“Kids?” Eponin shot a sidelong glance at her companion and followed Ephiny's line of sight until she was looking at the small family. She shrugged. “Guess so, sometimes. Don't everyone?”
Ephiny smiled wistfully. “Not something Amazons think all that much about.”
“No,” Eponin agreed. “We're usually thinkin' about war and other stuff. Like what's happening back at the village, right now.” She picked up a blade of grass and absently stuck it between her teeth. “You think her maj is rallying the warriors?”
Ephiny glanced at Eponin. “Isn't that your job? Or maybe Solari is filling in while we're stuck here.” She let her gaze drift over the marketplace again. “The queen's probably sending word to the other villages and asking the other queens to join in the fight. We'll need a lot more than a hundred decent warriors to go up against Draco's army.”
“Yeah, you're probably right,” Eponin shrugged. “Wish I was back there kickin' butt. Don't think Sol's got it in her to muster our warriors.”
“You don't give her enough credit,” Ephiny scoffed. “She's a lot tougher than she appears.”
Eponin pounded a fist into an open palm. “Not as tough as me.”
Ephiny snorted. “Pony the Lionhearted, eh?”
“Rar,” Eponin lifted a hand up and clawed the air, sending Ephiny into a fit of giggles that toppled her into the grass. “Hey, don't knock it til ya try it, Eph. I'm a lot tougher than Sol, any day.”
Ephiny finally managed to get her laughter under control and sat back up again. She put an arm around her companion's shoulders and squeezed. “That's why you're our weapons master, Pon.”
“Got that straight,” Eponin nodded. “Best damned weapons master in all the tribes.”
“And oh so modest, too,” Ephiny slapped her hands on her thighs and stood up. “You up for some more shopping, there, tough stuff?”
Eponin shot her a pained look. “I think I'd rather face off against Draco's entire army with only my bare hands. It'd sure be a lot less painful, that's for sure.”
Ephiny snorted and offered a hand to the woman. “Come on, Eponin. I saw a weapon stall we haven't yet visited that has your name written all over it.”
Eponin's expression perked up. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Ephiny pulled the woman to her feet and took Eponin's arm in hers. “Let's go find you a new toy to play with.”
Xena sat on the edge of the gate that passed as the entry point of the village. Several men in worn leather jerkins with short swords in scabbards at their waists lounged around the small barrier. One of them even had his feet propped up on the low fence and was snoring lightly with his arms crossed over his chest. Xena just rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“You boys don't know the first thing about mounting a proper defense, do you?” She commented to the older man to her left.
“You ain't been ‘round here in a long time, beggin' yer pardon, Xena,” the man answered in a gruff voice. “Whatcha been doin' with yerself all these years, eh? Last time anyone saw ya was when Cortese came through. At least, that's what I heard.”
Xena glanced away and let her gaze take in the fields beyond. There were a few women tending the fields and she could just make out the song they were singing as they worked.
“I've been here and there,” she answered evasively. “Did some extensive travels in those early years after I left.”
The man shot a smirk at his companions, who chuckled. “And that makes ye an expert on militias?” He turned his head and spit a glob of dark spittle onto the ground next to him. “Sounds like ye were more the vagabond than the settlin' type.”
Xena shifted her stance and had a long stick in her hand before any of the men even knew she'd actually moved. “You want to test my skills, old man?” She twirled the stick between her hands in a blur of motion.
The older man drew his sword and held it in front of him. “Give ‘er yer best shot, woman.”
Xena disarmed the man with one quick swipe of the stick. His sword flew into the air and she caught the hilt with expert precision, then had the tip at his throat in the blink of an eye. A dark brow hiked into her hairline, as she watched the fear flare his nostrils. She could smell his fear and knew an instant rush of bloodlust, before she sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She then flipped the blade end over end and caught the tip, thrusting the hilt towards him with a wry smirk.
“Anyone else wanna try their hand?” She glanced around and caught the awed expressions the other men were giving her.
“You willing to teach us how to mount that proper defense?” A slim youth with a bit of blond peach fuzz on his chin piped up. He stepped around the others and offered an arm to her. “Name's Milos . My old man's the constable here now.”
Xena took his arm in hers and shook it. “How old are you, Milos ?”
“Turned sixteen just last winter,” he beamed proudly, then brushed his fingers along the fuzz on his chin. “Been growing this beard since I was fifteen.” He leaned toward her conspiratorially. “It drives all the girls wild.”
The older man resheathed his sword and offered his arm. “Name's Stellos, Xena. Sorry about…”
Xena merely waved him off. “It happens,” she took his arm and shook it, noting the sinewy muscles beneath her hand. “You a blacksmith?”
Stellos nodded and smiled. “How'd ye guess?”
Xena released his arm and looked pointedly at the bulging muscles. “You have quite the grip. It usually comes with heavy labor, like smithing.”
He nodded. “I been smithin' since I was a boy. My da was a smith and his da afore him. Runs in the family.”
“Did you live here when I was growing up?” Xena frowned. “I don't remember ever seeing you.”
“Nope,” Stellos shook his short-cropped gray head. “Moved here two winters past. A bunch of raiders hit our village and cleaned us out. T'weren't enough call fer a smith in the village after that.” He spit again. “Damned Conqueror and her lofty speeches ‘bout peace ‘n all. She was livin' high off the backs of us commoners when those mongrels came and stole our livelihood. I ever lay eyes on that bitch and she'll get an earful from me, that's fer sure.”
Others nodded in agreement, while a few of them cast her a fearful glance.
Xena's expression remained composed, as she listened to the man. “Don't think you'll have to worry about running into the Conqueror anytime soon. Word has it she's been dethroned and her successor is a real piece of work.”
“Eh?” Stellos perked right up at the news. “Didn't think there was a soul in Greece who could take the Conqueror down. All them stories make her out to be some kinda goddess, what with the way she swept through Greece and leveled all them warlords.” He crossed his arms over his chest and eyed her skeptically. “How'd ye come by the news, anyway?”
“Ran into a merchant fresh from Therma,” Xena replied with an easy lie. “The man rambled on and on about the newest tyrant—an ex-warlord by the name of Draco.”
“No lie?” Milos pushed past the older man to stand in front of Xena. “What happened to the Conqueror? Did this Draco fella kill her?”
Xena shrugged. “Don't know. The merchant wasn't real forthcoming with his information.”
Milos turned to his comrades. “Do you know what this means?”
“Chaos? Anarchy? Bloodshed?” Xena deadpanned.
“No,” Milos ' expression mirrored his anxiety. “It means there's a new tyrant who will make our lives miserable with higher taxes and demands for conscripts for his army.”
Stellos slapped a hand on Milos ' shoulder. “Calm down, boy. ‘Tain't all that bad. I lived through my share of them warlords. You leave them alone and they'll leave you be.”
Milos shrugged off the man's hand. “Don't call me boy, Stellos. I'm as much a part of this militia as you are.”
“Yer da used his influence to get you a place on the militia, boy,” Stellos shook his head. “Don't mean ye'll know what ta do if'n an army comes plowin' through the gates.”
“And you do?” Xena shot the older man a raised-brow look. “I took your sword with one flick of a lousy stick, Stellos. That alone tells me you're as green as Milos , here.” She put a hand on his other shoulder in open challenge. Then she glanced at the others. “What about you, men? What kind of military training do you have?”
The others just shook their heads and adjusted their leather jerkins.
“I thought so,” Xena continued with a wry smirk.
“Yeah, so you can disarm a man with a stick,” Stellos stepped forward. “That don't mean you can use a blade or fight. Yer a woman, Xena, ‘scuse my bluntness. Whatdya know ‘bout fightin' or combat?”
Xena sprang up into the air and twisted around with a loud battle cry over the man's head, landing behind him with ease. She then yanked his sword from the scabbard at his hip before he knew what hit him and twirled it expertly.
“I know enough to disarm you twice,” she smirked, as she rested the blade against her shoulder. The others just stared at her in open awe as she twirled the sword again and then tossed it back to the man. “Meet me in the western clearing at first light tomorrow. I may just be in a mood to teach you gentlemen a few tricks of the trade.”
They still stared at her in open awe, as she turned her back on them and sauntered away from the gate.
“Report?” Melosa demanded tiredly, as an Amazon entered the main meeting hut and bowed low before her. She felt her stomach twist painfully for the second time that day and took a drink of her sweet wine to try to squelch the pain.
“My Queen,” the woman raised her chin and glanced at the two guards on either side of the queen's throne. “I bring replies from six of the queens.”
The messenger reached into the pouch at her hip and pulled out several small scrolls, then handed them toward the seated monarch.
Melosa took the scrolls and read each one in turn. When she finished reading the last one, she looked up and met the expectant gaze of the toe-headed messenger.
“You've done well, Ashante. Now, leave us,” the monarch tossed the scrolls into a basket next to her throne, as the messenger scurried back outside.
“My Queen?” Solari relaxed noticeably and leaned an arm on the back of the throne.
Melosa was lost in her musings, as she contemplated the latest news and her twisting guts. “Hm?” She glanced up to find Solari watching her expectantly. “Oh, sorry, Solari. I was just going over some things in my head.” She waved a dismissive hand and downed the rest of her wine. “Those messages confirm that the last six queens and their warriors are with us.”
Solari tried to keep a smile from her lips. “That's wonderful news, My Queen.”
“At least it gives us a slight edge we didn't have before,” Melosa tried to hide her discomfort, as her stomach roiled in protest. Maybe drinking the wine wasn't such a good idea, she mused. “I'm just not sure a thousand Amazons will be enough to face Draco's forces and win. He has more than five thousand men with him, according to our latest intelligence. At least the Romans finally beat feet back to Rome . Apparently, Caesar wanted Pompei back within the fold.”
Solari considered the queen's words for a moment. “Do you think Xena will have any idea where to find some seasoned recruits?”
Melosa stood up and tried to keep from doubling over in pain, as she turned around to face her two guards. “Maybe we should send a runner to Amphipolis and find out how our princess is faring. The messenger Ephiny sent back didn't have much to say, other than Gabrielle is still resting.”
“Oo, oo, send me,” Solari deadpanned with an exasperated eye roll. “I can certainly talk to Eponin and Ephiny. See if either of them has a read on the former Conqueror, yet. Maybe one of them can sit down and discuss the matter with Xena, so we know what we're up against.”
Melosa nodded, as a wave of nausea hit her unexpectedly. She swallowed it down with effort. “In the meantime, I'll have Margalene and Rayna work with our warriors in your absence. I've asked the queens to come directly here, so we can formulate a plan and coordinate a strategy to get everyone working together.”
A snicker from behind the throne had both women glaring at the source.
“You have something to add, Sehran?” The queen asked, as another wave of nausea rolled over her.
“No, My Queen,” the woman lowered her gaze. “I was just thinking how difficult it will be to have more than a thousand Amazons swarming around here like a pack of confused chickens.”
Solari and Melosa exchanged a look.
“She's right,” Solari shrugged. “That many women in one place is bound to wreak havoc with our security, not to mention what a bunch of hyper featherheads will do to morale around here. We need a plan to deal with them, too.”
Melosa pinched her nose to stave off the headache that was pounding behind her eyes. “Damn, I hadn't thought of that.” She breathed out a heavy sigh, felt another wave of nausea hit and stood her ground. She was determined not to give in to whatever ailment was plaguing her. “It's time to put our elders to work. They can coordinate with the incoming tribes and set them up in clearings around the village. They can also set up a schedule for using the practice field. It will give them something to do besides ride my butt over my decision to confirm Gabrielle as my heir.”
It was Solari and Sehran's turn to chuckle at the sparkle of mischief in their queen's brown eyes. Neither woman noticed her pale gray complexion, as she turned away from them.
“Sure can't hurt,” Solari shrugged. “Is there a message you'd like me to deliver to her highness or Xena?”
“Give me a candlemark to come up with something,” Melosa replied with far less enthusiasm than was appropriate. “I need some time alone. That should give you time to take care of the preparations for your trip.”
“Yes, My Queen,” Solari bowed to the monarch and left the hut.
Gabrielle was bored. She'd taken a nap, read some scrolls Cyrene had loaned her from the village archives and stared out the small window for the better part of two days. Xena hadn't had time to visit her much during the course of either day. They slept together and then Xena was up before the crack of dawn and didn't return until well after dark. Cyrene brought her morning, noontime and evening meals, but didn't have time to sit and chat. The woman was just too busy running the inn and taking care of her guests.
So, Gabrielle sat there and tried not to stew. Her thoughts inevitably turned to the darker days at Surra—those days after Xena's departure. Actually, most of the days had been relatively uneventful. She'd had her own room and was too busy running things to really give her plight much thought.
And then her musings turned to that fateful final day. She still had terrible nightmares about the attack that had nearly killed her and left her with no memory of her time in Surra, until just recently. But she was also feeling more confident about the turn her life had taken. She was learning to fight—learning to be an Amazon warrior. She could effectively bring a man twice her size to his knees with a few swipes of her staff. She was also learning to defend herself in hand-to-hand combat. That, however, was coming along a lot more slowly than she had hoped.
Hand-to-hand combat was more a battle of wills and strategy than of brute strength. If you were smaller than your opponent—which Gabrielle invariably was—you had to find ways to breach their defenses without falling prey to the other person's superior strength or size. Gabrielle had received more bumps, bruises and scrapes during those long hours of hand-to-hand, than she had during all her time with the staff. But she was learning—slowly.
A knock at the door brought her out of her reverie in time for Xena to step inside the room.
“Hey, there,” the dark-haired woman greeted her with a warm smile. “How're ya doing?”
Gabrielle scowled and crossed her arms over her linen-clad chest. “Where have you been all day?”
Blue eyes went wide. “Um, I…uh…”
Gabrielle continued to scowl. “Gods, Xena, I've been sitting here for candlemarks with nothing more to do than stare at the knots in the ceiling. Incidentally, there are six hundred forty-two and twelve small holes that probably need patching before winter arrives. Wouldn't want anyone to get rained on or snowed on after we leave.”
Xena gingerly approached the bed and sat down on the edge near Gabrielle's feet. “My mother…”
“ Cyrene is busy,” Gabrielle cut her off.
“Haven't seen them since they took off at first light,” Gabrielle cut her off again. “You were gone again when I woke up this morning.” Her expression softened. “I missed you.”
Xena watched the smaller woman's lower lip jut out in a childlike pout. “What can I say? I'm an early riser,” she shrugged.
“You were gone before dawn,” Gabrielle lowered her gaze to the hands in her lap. “I had a nightmare…”
Xena's eyes snapped up and noticed the single tear that slid down the woman's cheek. She moved closer to Gabrielle and took her hands in her own.
“I'm sorry, Gabrielle,” Xena whispered. “I had no idea.”
Gabrielle sniffed and met Xena's sincere gaze. “It's okay,” she wiped the tear from her cheek. “I guess I can't expect you to sit here with me all day long. You have stuff to do, I'm sure.”
Xena used her free hand to pick at the blanket that covered Gabrielle's legs. “So, how's the leg today?”
“Better,” the smaller woman glanced down at her covered legs. “It doesn't hurt as much as it did yesterday. It's getting better every day. I tried to get out of bed—you know, to use the…um...” She finished with a shrug. “Anyway, I put weight on it and nearly fell on my face.” She smirked. “Didn't hurt. It just wouldn't hold me up.”
Xena slowly pulled the blanket down to reveal the bandage wrapped around Gabrielle's upper thigh. “Mind if I take a look?”
“Knock yourself out,” Gabrielle leaned back against the pillow behind her and let Xena do her thing.
The former Conqueror carefully unwrapped the bandage until only the two squares remained. The one on top only had a small spot of blood on it. Xena carefully removed that to reveal the scabbed wound beneath.
“Not too bad,” Xena commented, as she noted the healthier color around the wound. “I think that poultice mother mixed up is doing the trick. I don't see any infection at all.” She carefully lifted Gabrielle's thigh and removed the other square of cloth, eliciting a slight hiss from the smaller woman when the cloth stuck to the wound and then came free. “Exit wound looks much better, too. No infection there, either.” Xena then got up and walked to the door.
“Where are you going?” Gabrielle's tone was almost pleading, as she stopped Xena in her tracks.
“I'll be right back,” the dark-haired woman left the room and returned within a few moments with some fresh bandages in her hands. “I asked mother to mix some more of that stuff. For now, though, we'll just let them air out until she gets here.”
Gabrielle nodded, as she watched Xena move around the room with catlike grace. She marveled at the muscle tone that seemed to return to the woman so quickly and wondered about it.
“Have you been working out or something?” Gabrielle commented absently.
Xena stopped what she was doing and shrugged. “I always did morning drills at the keep. Thought it would help to get back into my routine and start doing them again.”
Gabrielle openly admired her companion. “It definitely isn't hurting, any. You look really good for someone who was nearly on Death's doorstep when we found you.”
A dark brow shot up into Xena's hairline. “Oh?”
Gabrielle nodded. “I've never seen muscles appear on someone that quickly. How long have we been here?”
“A few days,” Xena answered, as she returned her attention to her task.
“You'll have to share your secret,” Gabrielle continued to watch the woman closely. “And what happened to all the bruises you had when we found you?”
“I'm a fast healer,” Xena waved her off. “Always have been.”
Gabrielle glanced down at her wounds. “Wish I had some of your amazing recuperative powers.”
Xena snorted. “You'll be up and about in no time.”
“Promises, promises,” Gabrielle sighed. “I really hate sitting here all by myself for hours on end. It's boring.”
Xena considered something for a moment. She then stood up, lifted Gabrielle into her arms, blanket and all, then carried her from the room. Her long strides had them on the porch of the inn in a few heartbeats, much to Gabrielle's surprise.
“What the…” The smaller woman blurted, as Xena sat down in a chair with Gabrielle in her lap.
“Better?” Xena smirked into confused green eyes.
Gabrielle looked around at the activity around her and lifted her face to the bright sunlight streaming through the leaves of the tree overhead. She breathed in the familiar smells of the typical village and sighed with contentment as she rested her head against Xena's shoulder.
“You gonna stay out here with me for the rest of the day?” Gabrielle finally asked. “Or do you have other pressing engagements?”
Xena propped a foot up on the porch railing and relaxed back into the chair. She kept her arms wrapped loosely around her companion and let a smile of contentment touch her lips.
“I got nothin' better to do,” Xena smirked. “I guess I can squeeze,” she did just that, “ya in for a while.”
“Mm,” Gabrielle snuggled deeper into Xena's embrace, despite the strange looks they were receiving from the many passersby. “You'd think they've never seen two women sitting together before.”
Xena frowned. “Villagers, pfft! ” She shot several of the passersby her intimidating glare and watched with satisfaction as they scampered away without a backward glance. “Their small-mindedness never ceases to amaze me. Wonder what they would do if they learned they had the former Conqueror in their midst. Of course, some of them already know and really don't seem to care. To them, I'm just Cyrene 's crazy kid.”
Gabrielle snickered. “Oh, I don't know, they might just bow down and kiss your brother's boots,” she glanced at the ones on Xena's feet and chuckled. “I'm not really used to seeing you dressed like this,” she picked at the button-down shirt Xena was wearing. “Don't get me wrong,” she placed a kiss on the woman's cleavage visible above the first button, then realized what she'd just done and blushed to her roots. “Um…I…uh…”
“Relax, Gabrielle,” Xena brushed a wisp of hair away from the woman's face. “Man, you turn the brightest shade of red when you blush. Never seen anything like it. You're almost the color of a pomegranate.”
Gabrielle ducked her head and hid her face in her hands. “I am so mortified.”
Xena put a finger under Gabrielle's chin and gently lifted it until their eyes met. “Don't be. I think you're beautiful when you turn red like that.”
A throat clearing near the doorway had both women looking up to find Cyrene standing there.
“You two enjoying the weather?” Xena's mother asked with a sly grin. “It's a beautiful day out here.”
“Yes, it is,” Xena met her mother's gaze with a challenging one of her own. “Gabrielle was bored, so I thought a change of scenery was in order.”
“Well,” Cyrene sauntered over to stand before the two and then eyed the blush on Gabrielle's cheeks. “I went to your room and found it empty. So, I decided to do a little reconnaissance. Your Amazons were sitting in the dining room when you two breezed through there. They told me where to find you.”
“And?” Xena shot her mother an impatient glare that merely bounced right off the woman.
“Do you intend to take your evening meal out here?” Cyrene scowled. “Or would you like me to set it in your room?”
“What's on the menu for tonight?” Gabrielle piped up.
“Roast venison and suckling pig stuff with spiced apples,” Cyrene replied with a warm smile. “It's an old recipe that's been in the family for generations. Xena was kind enough to supply the venison.”
Gabrielle glanced up at her companion with a raised brow. “You went out hunting and brought back a deer?”
“And three rabbits, a small boar and several ducks,” Cyrene added with a smirk. “We'll be eating high off the hog for a few days.”
Xena shrugged. “Your pantry seemed a little bare, so I decided to make a contribution.”
Cyrene just shook her head. “What am I going to do with you, Xena?”
“Fatten me up with your amazing cooking?” Xena shot back with a playful smirk. “People have been commenting that I need to gain some weight.” A slap on her chest had her looking down at the woman in her lap. “What was that for?”
“Weren't we…um… just discussing your muscles?” Gabrielle gave her an innocent smirk.
“Oh, yeah,” Xena rolled her eyes. “Among other things.”
Cyrene cleared her throat. “So, answer my question,” she shot the pair a reproachful look. “Do you want your meal in your room or out here on the porch?”
“On the porch.”
“In her room.”
Both women looked at each and burst out laughing.
Cyrene shook her head. “Oh, for the love of the gods,” she threw up her hands. “You two definitely deserve each other.” She shook her head and walked back inside.
“Hm,” Xena got her laughter under control and hugged her companion a bit tighter.
“Not sure if you'll get your meal at all, now,” Xena frowned.
“Why do you say that?”
“Personal experience,” Xena shook her head. “She used to make me go without a meal when I was being particularly mouthy. Thought it would teach me a lesson.”
“Yeah,” Xena snickered. “Taught me to find somewhere else to eat on those rare occasions she was teaching me a lesson.”
Gabrielle giggled. “You didn't.”
“Bet your ass I did,” Xena returned, squeezing the body part affectionately. “Although, Dell's tavern probably wasn't the best place to bum a meal. He had some really fine ale, though. Better'n Mom's. Please don't tell her I said that, though. She'd make me go without a few meals to teach me a lesson.”
Gabrielle's giggles turned into full-blown laughter. “How old were you?”
“Eleven or twelve,” Xena answered. “He always seemed to save me some of his mom's special apple crisp, too. That woman could give my mother's cooking a good run for her money, especially when it came to her apple crisp with cinnamon. All I had to do was supply the apples.”
“Let me guess,” Gabrielle snorted. “You stole the apples from your mother's cellar?”
“Nope,” Xena shook her head. “Climbed a tree outside the village. Had the best apples for leagues. But you had to climb to the very top to get the extra juicy ones. No one else was willing to go to such great lengths for that apple crisp like I was.”
“Is Dell's mother still around?” Gabrielle picked at Xena's shirt. “Maybe I can convince her to make you some more of her baked apples. They sound delicious.”
Xena's face fell. “No, she's been dead for years. Her heart gave out when Dell was killed during our skirmish with Cortese. She really loved her son and couldn't live without him. The tavern closed up and never reopened.”
“Oh, Xena, I'm so sorry,” Gabrielle looked up into eyes clouded with sadness. “Did your mother ever get the recipe from the woman, before she died?”
Xena shrugged. “I really don't know. I was a little busy mounting a defense against Cortese, by then. Didn't really have time for domestic stuff, like cooking or gossiping with the neighbors.”
“Oh, you,” Gabrielle playfully slapped the woman holding her. “Maybe you should put me back to bed and go apologize to your mother. You don't need to miss the evening meal because of me.”
Xena leaned down and gave Gabrielle a long, lingering kiss on the lips. “I'd miss a million meals, as long as I could have this,” she said breathlessly, as the kiss ended. “Beats old Shaela's cooking, hands down.”
“Charmer,” Gabrielle ran a palm against Xena's cheek and pulled her down for another kiss. “I think we should just forego dinner and move directly to dessert.”
“And you call me the charmer?” Xena said with a teasing smile.
They snuggled closer and enjoyed the moment together, as the sun dipped toward the western horizon pulled by Apollo's chariot.
A week passed in relative peace and quiet, as life in Amphipolis continued on without interruption. Hector sent his spies into the village and learned very little about the sleepy farming village. His orders were clear: Do whatever it takes to find Xena. Well, that was apparently easier said than done. His spies still had no information on the elusive former Conqueror.
“You boys ready to kick some villager ass?” Hector rallied his troops at the campsite they had occupied for the last two days, a few leagues south of Amphipolis. He slapped the flat of his blade against an open palm and licked his lips in anticipation, as he gazed at his men's faces in the flickering firelight. “We charge in there, get them all riled up with some good old fashioned intimidation and make ‘em tell us where that bitch Xena is hiding. Any questions?”
The firelight flickered on the faces of his men, as they all glanced at each other and shook their heads. Murmured responses carried around the group of armed men, as they thrust their sword blades into the air and chanted Draco's name. They were all tired of sitting around and waiting for the action they'd been promised. Hector just beamed with pride, until the noise level died back down. The fire crackled and sparked up into a cloudless night sky, as a million stars shown down on them from above.
“I have a question,” a woman's voice pierced the darkness.
Several men were pushed, thrown or knocked out of the way until there was a clear path through the crowd of men. A woman in black leather and brand-new armor stepped forward. Her dark hair framed an angular face, and she pulled a sword from the scabbard at her back.
Hector's eyes widened, as the woman stepped confidently into the flickering firelight. “Xena?”
Xena twirled a gleaming, new sword that she'd purchased from Stellos just that afternoon. The blacksmith had been a bit dumbfounded when she'd charged into his establishment at the edge of town and told him she was in the market for a decent sword. He showed her his stock and then pulled one of the special weapons from his private stash. Xena grabbed the hilt, twirled the blade to test its balance and grinned as she handed him a pouch of coins.
“In the flesh, Hector,” Xena grinned menacingly, revealing perfect white teeth. “How's the throat?”
Hector put a hand to the grungy cloth at his throat, as he took a step away from her. His eyes then took in the unmoving men that surrounded them and he crossed his arms over his chest. “Come to surrender?”
Xena rested the blade against her shoulder. “Nope.”
A brow hiked on his scruffy features. “You don't expect me to let you leave here in one piece, now, do you? You're outnumbered, Xena. Throw your sword down and we might just let ya live.”
“I'm not the one who's gonna die tonight, Hector,” Xena lifted the blade off her shoulder and held it in front of her. “And I'm not gonna let you attack my home village, either.”
Hector snorted. “What're ya gonna do to stop us?”
Xena felt the men move closer and instantly sprang into action with her signature battle cry. In a blur of movement, she suddenly took down those men closest to her. Her blade an extension of her arm, it found its mark in the chests of several men before any of them knew what was happening. And then a loud whistle pierced the darkness beyond the campsite and more men rushed in from the darkness beyond.
Hector's men suddenly found themselves under attack from all sides, as men in plain leather jerkins and wielding short swords swarmed in like a pack of crazed wolves.
“What the…” Hector couldn't believe his eyes, as Xena continued to plow through his men in the flickering light from his once-peaceful campfire and others charged in from the darkness.
Realizing his men were sorely outnumbered and that Xena really did have the upper hand, Hector looked around with wide eyes for a means of escape. He was surrounded by clashing men, and Xena seemed to be everywhere at once. She was a blur of deadly precision, as she chopped, hacked and slashed her way through the men closest to the blazing campfire.
Seeing his chance, Hector finally ducked through an opening and charged away into the darkness beyond. He made it several paces before a loud, high-pitched battle cry rang out over the sounds of battle. And then Xena landed in front of him with her blade at his throat.
“Going somewhere, Hector?” The warrior woman sneered, as she tossed a strand of dark hair away from her face.
“I…I…I…” he stammered, as he dropped his sword and raised his hands in surrender.
He could see the crazed bloodlust smoldering in her eyes, as she stood there in front of him. It scared the crap out of him, literally.
“Tell me what Draco's game is, these days,” Xena hissed. “Where is he hiding his scrawny little carcass? Hm?”
“DDDDraco i-is aaaat S-S-Surra,” Hector stuttered.
A dark gleam of mischief infused Xena's eyes. “You're gonna deliver a message to your illustrious leader, Hector.”
“Y-Y-You're g-gonna let me l-live?” He couldn't believe his good luck.
“I am,” Xena nodded once and then pulled a dagger from a hidden sheath at her waist. “But you're gonna have to figure out a way to deliver the message without your tongue.”
His eyes widened again, as she moved like a flash. She closed the distance between them and slammed the hilt of her sword into the side of his head before he knew what hit him. Then she made quick work of cutting his tongue from his mouth with practiced ease. When she was done with her task, Xena stood up and looked down at the unconscious man.
“Tell Draco I'm coming for him,” she turned away from the bleeding man and jumped back into the action with yet another battle cry.
The once-peaceful night rang with the sounds of battle, as Xena and the Amphipolis militia wiped out Draco's men to the last man. Hours and hours of training over the course of the week paid off more than any of them could have anticipated, as the last of Draco's men went down and lay dead at Stello's feet. The ground was soaked with the blood of more than thirty men, as Xena and the militia stood there in the flickering firelight.
“We get ‘em all?” Stellos cautiously approached the woman who had single-handedly taken down more men than anyone else.
He stood next to Xena and marveled at the sight spread out before him. His bloody blade rested on the shoulder of his blood-soaked jerkin and he swiped a bloody arm across his forehead, as he surveyed the scene. A slash wound on his bicep was oozing dark-red blood and he knew he had a number of small nicks and cuts in other places. But he was beyond impressed that he was relatively intact, as were the other militia men milling around the fire.
“I think we got ‘em all,” Xena's voice was low and barely under control, as she tried to breathe through the bloodlust still raging inside her. It was all she could do not to run the man next to her through with her blade and watch the life ebb from his dark eyes. The tangy smell of blood was still in the air and fed the fire still raging inside her. “Your men did well tonight, Stellos.”
“We have you to thank for that, Xena,” he shot back with a proud smile. “If not for you, only a handful of us would have been standing at the gates when these mongrels charged through with blood in their rotten hearts. Your plan to mount an offensive and wipe ‘em out to the last man was a sight more effective. The bastards barely knew what hit ‘em.”
“Yeah,” Xena blew out an exasperated breath, as she resheathed her sword and turned her back on the flickering firelight. “Just leave the bodies here for the scavengers to take care of. I have something I need to do before I return to the village. Spread the word that you'll need to double the guard at the gate. Once Hector delivers his message to Draco, all hell's gonna break loose.”
“Right,” Stellos nodded and watched Xena disappear into the darkness.
He sensed something off about her that he couldn't quite put a finger on. She didn't quite have the iron control that she'd had when they'd remained hidden in the bushes at the edge of the clearing before the attack. He'd seen the quivering of the flesh around her mouth and the barely-visible shaking of her hands, as she'd shoved her sword into the scabbard at her back just moments ago.
After a week of intense training, he'd learned just how skilled she was with a blade. He and his men carried a few scabbed-over cuts for their efforts. But she was more than just a skilled warrior. She was an incredibly patient teacher and had turned his ragtag group of mostly-green militiamen into a well-trained, well-organized cohesive unit.
There were only twenty of them, but they'd managed to wipe out Draco's men with few casualties. And they had Xena to thank for it. She'd given them confidence they didn't have before and assured them they could do what needed to be done to protect their village. They had succeeded beyond his wildest hopes.
“Let's go, men,” Stellos' voice boomed in the silence. “We have families waiting for us.”
Xena let her eyes adjust to the darkness and take in the shadows that passed in a blur, as she picked up her pace and flew through the woods with single-minded purpose. Her heart was pounding fiercely in her chest and still she continued on. Low branches slapped at her face and bare arms, as she barreled recklessly past trees and vaulted over low bushes in her mad flight. The gurgle of a stream met her acute hearing and she followed the path of the unseen water.
As she burst into a clearing, her pace didn't slow in the least. She charged toward the edge of a cliff and launched herself into the cool night air. The wind in her face was a balm to her frazzled soul, as she soared out over the dark pool beneath her. And then she hit the cold water with barely even a splash, as she dove head-first into the small pond.
She let herself sink beneath the chilly water and remain there for as long as her lungs could stand the pressure. Then she broke the surface with a loud gasp and let the air fill her starving lungs. The soaked leather she wore weighed her down, but powerful muscles kept her just above the water's surface. The blood that was feeding her bloodlust was finally washed clean and she let the fresh air fill her nostrils several more times, as her lazy strokes took her to the shore beyond.
Booted feet finally found purchase on the rocky bottom, as Xena emerged from the pond and shook the water from her as much as possible. She sat down in the grass at the water's edge, grabbed her dripping hair and wringing it out. She then removed her soaked boots and emptied the water from them. The chill night air brought goose bumps to her exposed flesh, but she didn't mind. Being clean was more important than being wet.
She pulled her damp boots back on and stood up. Sparing one last glance toward the starlit pond, Xena then turned and headed toward Amphipolis at a more sedate pace. There was a certain blond she was anxious to return to and a mug of her mother's port with her name on it.
“Another successful campaign,” she muttered, as she trudged through the woods with purpose.
“I'm fine, Ephiny,” Gabrielle groused, as her two Amazon bodyguards hovered over her like a couple mother hens. “I've been hobbling around here with that crutch Xena made for me for two days, now. I think I can get to the dining room without any assistance.”
“Fine,” the curly-haired blond crossed her arms over her chest and took a step back. “Just don't look to us to help you up when you fall flat on your face, Princess.”
“And stop calling me that!” Gabrielle barked. “There aren't any Amazons here in Amphipolis, so just drop the formalities, will ya? It's just Gabrielle.”
A snicker from her companion had Ephiny swatting Eponin's bare midsection. “Shut it, Pon.”
“Can't help it,” Eponin tried to cover her laughter with a hand to her mouth, but wasn't very successful. “She reminds me so much of Terreis that it's eerie.”
Two sets of eyes—one green and the other hazel—glared at the weapons master.
“Can it, Eponin!” Ephiny rounded on the woman next to her.
“What'd I say?” Eponin threw her hands up.
Gabrielle just shook her head, as she used the wooden crutch to help her cross the room. Although her leg was finally healing, it still wouldn't hold her full weight. So, she used the crutch whenever possible and hobbled around the inn with it. She was still only allowed to go as far as the front porch and was always accompanied by her two Amazon bodyguards. The two were insufferable and Gabrielle was beyond irritated with their constant hovering, not to mention they constantly bickered like a couple of kids.
“Will you two just shut up!?!” Gabrielle rounded on them and found them right behind her. “Gods! You're like my constant shadows! Just leave me alone to make my way to the dining room, will ya?”
They silently took a mutual step backwards and let Gabrielle hobble out into the hallway. She took several successful steps and then stumbled. Ephiny was right there beside her in an instant, but the growl and glare she received stopped her in her tracks.
“I can do this myself,” Gabrielle snarled.
She hobbled down the short hallway until she reached the dining room, then made her way over to the only vacant table and sat down. She dumped the crutch on the floor next to her and leaned back in the chair. Her eyes scanned the packed room and she realized there were only women present, which surprised her a little. Then her two shadows stood hesitantly in front of her.
“Mind if we join you?” Ephiny eyed the two empty chairs in front of them. “There really isn't anywhere else to sit in this place, Prin…um…Gabrielle.”
“Yeah,” Eponin glanced around. “What's up with all these women?”
Cyrene suddenly breezed in from the kitchen with her arms full. She flew past them and easily navigated the packed dining room until she reached a table at the far side of the room. She set her load down and then headed back toward the kitchen.
“Hey, Cyrene ?” Gabrielle called, still leaving her two shadows standing in front of her and taking a measure of satisfaction out of keeping them guessing.
“Yes, dear?” Cyrene stopped in front of Gabrielle and eyed the two Amazons curiously.
“Is there an empty table that Ephiny and Eponin can sit at?” Gabrielle continued with a wry smirk.
“You're sitting at the only table left in the place, Gabrielle,” Cyrene wiped an arm across her brow. “We're completely full this evening.”
“What's going on?” Gabrielle asked curiously. “Why are all these women here?”
“They're waiting for word,” Cyrene answered, then glanced at the two Amazons again. “Sit down, you two. I don't think Gabrielle is going to deny you the chance to sit with her—even if she is getting a bit put off by your constant hovering.”
Gabrielle watched as Cyrene shot her a covert wink and couldn't help the snicker that escaped unbidden. The innkeeper ducked back into the kitchen without a backward glance. And Gabrielle's mirth earned her twin looks of disgust from her companions.
“You gonna do like she says and let us sit down now?” Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Gabrielle.
“Depends,” Gabrielle answered smugly. “You two gonna stop following me around all the time? It's not like I'm an invalid anymore. I've been getting around just fine for the last two days.”
The two leaned toward each other and whispered something.
“Fine,” Ephiny said, as she straightened up again. “We'll stop shadowing you, as long as you promise to stay close to the inn and not push yourself too hard.”
“I think I can do that,” Gabrielle smirked and waved them to take the seats across from her.
“You didn't really promise, yer highness,” Eponin commented, as she sat down gracelessly.
“Fine, I promise,” Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and stuck her tongue out at the women.
“Is that an invitation?” Ephiny leaned in close and smiled seductively, much to her companion's consternation.
Gabrielle blushed to her roots. “Not in this lifetime, Eph.”
Eponin laughed at the interplay between the two to cover her own disappointment. “Our little princess, here, has her sights set on someone who is waaaaay outta your league, Eph.”
Ephiny just rolled her eyes. “As if.”
Gabrielle took a moment to recover from the blush that had suffused her cheeks at Ephiny's unexpected come-on. She wasn't sure if the woman was being serious or just teasing her. Their relationship had become so much less combative and much more at ease, lately, that Gabrielle wasn't quite sure how to respond. Ever since Terreis' untimely death, it was like Ephiny was a completely different person, at least where Gabrielle was concerned.
“You think Xena succeeded in her mission?” Eponin piped in, breaking the uncomfortable silence at the table.
“What mission?” Gabrielle's ears perked up. “Does it have anything to do with all these women waiting here for word?”
“Yep,” Eponin nodded and earned an elbow to the ribs and a glare from Ephiny. “What?”
“You weren't supposed to…” Ephiny hissed and then caught the look Gabrielle was giving her.
“Spill it,” Gabrielle ordered in a commanding tone.
“Spill what, Princess?” Ephiny shrugged innocently.
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. “You know exactly what it is, Ephiny. Tell me what's going on.”
Ephiny rolled her eyes and shot a scowl at the woman next to her. “Xena took the militia out on a mission.”
“Aaaand,” Ephiny set her elbows on the table and let her chin rest in her upraised hands. “She didn't want to worry you.”
A blond brow quirked. “And?”
“Xena and the militia are going after Draco's goons,” Eponin blurted. “One of the patrols Xena's been sending out found ‘em camped not a couple of leagues from here.”
Gabrielle frowned. “Why would she think it was necessary to keep that from me?”
“She didn't want to worry you,” Ephiny added.
“Worry me?” Gabrielle sat back in her chair and moldered that over for a few moments.
“Yeah,” Ephiny continued. “You've been remembering stuff from the last time she went off to take care of Draco and she didn't want you worrying that this time would be…”
Gabrielle shot up from her chair and nearly went sprawling when her leg wouldn't hold her. She sat down and grabbed the crutch, then got back up and hobbled toward the front of the inn. The two Amazons watched as their princess maneuvered through the crowd with surprising agility.
“You think we oughta go after her?” Eponin looked to Ephiny.
“And give up our very own table?” Ephiny sat back and put her hands behind her head, as she stretched lazily. “Naw. She'll be fine.”
“And Xena?” Eponin added with a worried frown.
“She has her hands full with that one,” Ephiny chuckled. “There isn't a god on Olympus who will be able to help her if she gets into trouble like she did the last time. Our princess has it bad.”
It was Eponin's turn to chuckle. “So, your little flirtation there was all just an act?”
Ephiny glared at the weapons master. “Why? Are you a little jealous, Pon?”
“Me?” Eponin pointed to her chest. “Jealous? Naw. You were just a little too convincing, is all.”
A blond brow hiked into Ephiny's hairline. But she was saved from responding when Cyrene breezed back in and placed a tall pitcher and several mugs on the table in front of her.
“Where's Gabrielle?” The innkeeper glanced around the room in surprise. “I have a special meal on the way, just for her.”
“She'll be back,” Eponin responded, as she grabbed the pitcher and poured herself a generous mug full of Cyrene 's finest ale. Her first mouthful put a contented smile on her face, as she quickly downed the contents of her mug and poured another. She glanced at her companion and noticed the irritation in the hazel eyes. “Want some?”
Ephiny just held out her mug and waited for the woman to finished pouring. She then sipped her ale and sat back in her chair, as Cyrene ducked back into the kitchen again.
A moment later, the entire place erupted in cheers. Women suddenly stood up and pressed toward the entrance with excited eagerness.
“I guess the militia's back,” Eponin commented, as she sipped her ale more slowly. “I hope Xena made it okay, for Gabrielle's sake.”
“Yeah,” Ephiny turned her head enough that Eponin wouldn't see the disappointment in her eyes.
Gabrielle watched the men stream out of the darkness and head toward the inn in droves. The darkness hid their features from view, but she knew they were excited to be home just by the way they moved. They barely spared her a passing glance, as several of them mounted the porch and burst into the inn. Wild cheers greeted their return and soon men and women were pouring back outside.
Gabrielle swallowed down the uncomfortable edge that overcame her at the men's presence. Ephiny's words and the images that those words conjured rang through her mind. Xena's departure from the keep at Surra had left her with mixed emotions, especially knowing she was in charge of the servants from that moment forward. But things hadn't exactly gone as planned, had they? Xena's departure was only the beginning—a beginning that eventually led to where she was now.
She could feel her emotions roiling to the surface, as she watched the men embrace the women with enthusiasm. And then her mind took her back to that night. She felt those unyielding arms wrap around her and knew a moment of sheer panic when her mind relived the rape that followed. She couldn't shake herself out of the flashback, no matter how hard she tried to will it away.
Everything else just seemed to recede, as her mind took her back to every detail of those horrifyingly painful moments. The grunts of her attacker rang through her as he thrust painfully inside her. And then Nora's laughter rang out in the silence and the woman was suddenly there. She felt the blows that sent her flying and then felt the cold stone seep into her bones.
She was so caught up in the vivid images that she didn't hear her name being called. She didn't even know that the reunion was over and everyone had returned to their homes.
“Gabrielle?” Xena stepped up onto the porch and found the young woman just sitting there staring at nothing in particular. “Gabrielle? Are you okay?”
Even in the faint light streaming through one window, Xena could see that something was terribly wrong. Gabrielle wasn't moving and she was breathing heavily, as if she'd run a marathon. But Xena knew better. She knelt in front of the woman and was concerned when Gabrielle didn't acknowledge her presence. She even put her hands on the woman's knees, but nothing seemed to penetrate Gabrielle's trance-like state.
“Gabrielle!” Xena put a hand to Gabrielle's cold cheek. “Come on, sweetheart. Come back to me.”
It wasn't until Xena lifted the smaller woman into her arms that all Hades broke loose. Gabrielle suddenly went crazy and lashed out like a wild woman. A blow landed against Xena's jaw and it was all she could do to remain standing. She couldn't catch the woman's arms while holding her, so she set Gabrielle back on the chair and then grabbed her flailing arms.
“Gabrielle! Gabrielle, stop! It's me!!! It's Xena!!!” She grabbed Gabrielle's upper arms and shook her just enough to emphasize her point.
Gabrielle's eyes suddenly snapped to Xena's and reality slammed back in with blinding force. One moment she was struggling against her attacker, and the next Xena was right there in front of her.
“Yes, it's me,” Xena searched the frightened face before her and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that Gabrielle really did recognize her. “What…”
“Oh, gods!” Gabrielle launched herself into the woman's arms.
Xena nearly fell backwards when Gabrielle launched herself into her arms. She held on tight when the smaller woman's body shook with the sobs that wracked her.
“Shhh,” Xena stroked Gabrielle's short-cropped head. “It's okay. I'm here. You're safe.”
Cyrene chose that moment to step out onto the porch. The scene before her stopped her in her tracks.
“Xena?” The older woman moved in next to her daughter and looked down with concerned eyes. “What happened?”
“I don't know,” Xena continued to hold Gabrielle and stroke her head.
Cyrene looked closer at her daughter. “Are you wet? And what is that you're wearing? I don't remember ever seeing it before. What in the name of the goddess is going on?”
Xena rested her chin on top of Gabrielle's head, as the smaller woman continued to sob. “Can we talk about this later, Mother? This isn't really a good time.”
“Fine,” Cyrene huffed, as she turned on her heel and went back inside.
Xena waited until her mother was gone, before returning her full attention to the woman in her arms.
“Hm?” A loud sniff and a shudder rocked the smaller woman.
“Are you okay, now?” Xena ventured.
Gabrielle pulled back and looked into the concerned eyes watching her intently. “Are you really here?” She reached up and traced the angular planes of Xena's face.
“I'm really here, Gabrielle,” Xena smiled. “I didn't mean to scare you like that. I'm sorry.”
“You didn't,” Gabrielle shook her head and a few tears slipped from her eyes. “I was…I…um...” She closed her eyes tight and just leaned against Xena's chest. Then she pulled away again. “What in the world are you wearing?”
Xena shrugged. “I had the local tanner and blacksmith make me a more appropriate fighting outfit. Thought it would be a good idea to wear something a little more practical than my brother's clothing when I faced off against Draco's men again.” She picked at the damp leather. “It's still a little wet.”
“Jumped in a pond to wash off all the blood and gore,” Xena replied. “Didn't want to come back here covered in the stuff. Mom would freak.”
“Your mission was successful, then?” Gabrielle let the conversation ground her and bring things back into focus. Those images hadn't been real, but they'd sure seemed like they were.
Everything had seemed to tilt off-kilter when those vivid images washed over her. She could still feel the panic simmering just below the surface, but was able to push it down with Xena as her anchor. It was scary to think that she could so easily succumb to her memories like that. It had all seemed so real that she couldn't distinguish between reality and memory.
“We wiped them out to the last man,” Xena replied, sensing a change in her companion. “You haven't answered my question, Gabrielle. Are you all right? You really had me scared, there. Thought I lost you.”
“You nearly did,” Gabrielle rested her cheek against the damp leather and armor. She wanted to be close to the woman who had brought her back from the brink of insanity. “Can we…”
Xena didn't need any further words to know what Gabrielle wanted. She just knew. Scrambling to her feet, she lifted the woman into her arms and carried her through the now-deserted dining room to the rooms beyond. She didn't stop until she had Gabrielle safely in the small bed they had been sharing for more than a week. Then she made quick work of removing her own damp clothing.
A gasp behind her had her turning to meet a pair of smoldering green eyes.
“What?” Xena glanced down at herself to see if she was sporting a wound she hadn't realized she'd received during the skirmish.
“You're…beautiful, Xena,” Gabrielle's voice came out barely above a whisper, as she continued to stare in open awe at the statuesque figure before her in all her naked glory.
Xena blushed, then quickly donned a linen chemise to cover herself. “You say that to all the girls?”
Gabrielle's eyes were torn from the sight, as the chemise dropped into place and effectively hid Xena's magnificent physique from view.
“Um…” the smaller woman shook herself. “Did you just ask me if I flirt with other women?”
“Do you?” Xena sauntered over to the bed and sat down on the edge next to Gabrielle.
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head emphatically and felt a blush creep up into her cheeks. “Gods! How do you do that?”
“What? Make you blush like a girl experiencing her first crush?” Xena brushed the hair from Gabrielle's forehead and smirked.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle nodded and covered her stomach with her hands in an attempt to still the butterflies. “And how do you make me feel so…” She shrugged. “I've never felt this way around anyone, before.”
“Not even Perdicus?” Xena smirked.
“How…” Gabrielle shook her head again. “Never mind. I think I remember telling you about him. And the answer is no. Definitely not with Perdicus. And I didn't have any other beaus. I was a little too busy trying to keep food in our bellies to bother looking at the young men who were still left in Potidea.”
“What about Ephiny, then?” Xena shot Gabrielle a raised-brow look.
“Ephiny?” Gabrielle shot Xena a confused look. “What does she have to do with anything?”
“Oh, come on, Gabrielle. You can't tell me you haven't noticed how chummy she's gotten toward you, lately,” Xena said.
“She's been nice to me since Terreis died,” Gabrielle returned. “I wouldn't call her behavior chummy, though. Ephiny isn't exactly a warm and fuzzy kinda person. She's…um…”
“She likes you,” Xena stated flatly. “I can see it in the way she looks at you when she thinks no one else is watching. As a matter of fact, she more than likes you. She isn't very good at hiding it, either. I can't believe she hasn't made a pass at you, yet.”
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. “What makes you think she hasn't?”
Xena eyed her companion for a moment. “You mean to tell me…”
“I'm not as naïve as everyone thinks I am, Xena,” Gabrielle said. “I just tend to ignore some things and disregard others. Besides, Ephiny isn't my type.”
“Nope,” Gabrielle shook her head and then ran a finger down Xena's bare arm. “My tastes run more for the tall, dark and exquisitely gorgeous warrior type.”
It was Xena's turn to blush, as Gabrielle decided to throw caution to the wind and meet a pair of surprised lips with her own. The kiss took Xena completely by surprise, but she soon gave in to the whirlwind of sensations that suddenly washed over her. Candlemarks later, she would never be able to tell if the sudden onrush of lustful need had to do with her recent bloodlust or something else, entirely. All she knew was she was lost from that first tender kiss on.
“Are you sure about this?” Xena breathed when they finally came up for air.
“Do harpies fly?” Gabrielle shot back with a playful grin. “Wait, don't answer that. Yes, I'm sure. I couldn't be surer if Aphrodite herself were here with us.”
Xena snorted. “If she were here, bwa—” She never finished, as Gabrielle's mouth found hers again.
Passions quickly ignited and soon they were in each other's arms. Xena shifted until she had Gabrielle beneath her on the narrow bed and was raining kisses down the younger woman's length. They were so caught up in each other that they both failed to hear the knock that sounded at the door.
“Oh, my stars!” Cyrene slapped her hand over her eyes, as she barged into the room unthinkingly.
“Mother!” Xena sprang from the bed so fast that she nearly landed face-first on the floor.
Cyrene kept her hand firmly over her eyes. “Am I interrupting something?”
Gabrielle snickered from her place on the bed, as she shifted until her back was against the wall behind her. She didn't know which was funnier, Xena stumbling around next to the bed with the look of a child caught with its hand in the proverbial cookie jar or Cyrene with her hand slapped firmly over her eyes.
“You don't have to keep hiding your eyes, Cyrene ,” Gabrielle decided to let the older woman off the hook. “We're both fully dressed.” She glanced at Xena. “Or, maybe, we're as dressed as we usually are when it's bedtime.”
Cyrene peeked through her fingers. “Oh…well,” she let her hand fall to her side. “I was just coming to ask if you two wanted some supper. I did knock. I promise.”
Xena finished adjusting her shift and crossed her arms over her chest. “Next time, knock louder, Mother. We…um…didn't hear you.” She finished by absently rubbing the back of her neck.
“I can see that,” Cyrene shot back with a wry glare. “For the love of the gods, Xena, Gabrielle is still recovering from an injury and fever. Can't you control yourself until she's…”
“I'm fine, Cyrene ,” Gabrielle cut the woman off. “Besides, Xena wasn't doing anything that I hadn't initiated. I love your daughter, Cyrene . If expressing our love under your roof bothers you, then maybe we should gather up my Amazon escort and head back to the tribe. I think the trip would do me good and get this leg back in shape.”
“Oh, Gabrielle,” Cyrene shot the smaller woman an indulgent half-smile. “You're not serious.”
Gabrielle reached out a hand and took Xena's in hers. “I'm totally serious, Cyrene . I love your daughter with all my heart—have loved her for a really long time now. She's incredible and I want to show her just how much she means to me.” She glanced up to find Xena standing there with a bright red blush infusing her cheeks. “And I don't care if the whole world knows it.”
Xena met Gabrielle's gaze and the look in the woman's eyes grounded her. “You really mean that?”
“With all my heart,” Gabrielle said and placed her free hand over her chest.
A huge grin split the warrior's features. “I love you, too.”
“Oh, for the love of...” Cyrene started.
“ Cyrene !”
The two women glanced at Cyrene and then back at each other when they realized they'd made their exclamations in unison. They just stared at each other for a long moment that wasn't lost on the older woman still standing in the doorway.
“I'll leave you two to it, then,” Cyrene just shook her head and closed the door behind her.
“Is she gone?” Gabrielle kept her gaze locked on Xena's.
“I think so,” Xena nodded.
“Then what are we waiting for?” Gabrielle's brows wriggled several times in open invitation.
Xena didn't hesitate and immediately sprang into motion. She was, after all, a woman of action.
A new day dawned bright and sunny, as a stream of sunlight cut through the small window and shone down on two sleeping women. The smaller of the two was sprawled on top of her taller bedmate and neither was wearing a stitch of clothing. A light blanket covered them both, as the shorter blond snuggled deeper into the warmth. Soft snores rang through the silent room, as both women slept soundly.
“No, you. I'm not that dumb.”
“Rank has its privileges, Pon.”
“And I'm still not that dumb, Eph.”
“Just knock. No one's gonna hurt you.”
“Not gonna happen in this lifetime, Eph.”
“Oh, for Artemis' sake. You are so stubborn and pigheaded…”
“Still not gonna do it.”
A dark brow lifted and one sky-blue eye fluttered open to peer over at the closed door where the two muffled voices were still arguing in subdued tones. Xena waited for the argument to subside and for one of the Amazons to barge into the room. Let ‘em, she mused. It would serve them right for waking her up from one of the first peaceful night's sleep she'd experienced in a while.
She glanced down at shock of blond hair peeking out from beneath the blanket covering her and Gabrielle. A smile tugged at her lips. Last night had been—amazing. Who knew? Then again, it shouldn't have surprised her that her lover could find such inventive ways to…um…
“Princess!” A loud pounding on the door followed. “Gabrielle, wake up!!!”
Xena was tempted to give up her role as Gabrielle's human pillow and answer the door in all her naked glory, but she repressed the urge and just held onto the woman pillowed against her chest, instead.
“Not interested,” a low mumble brought a smirk to Xena's lips.
“You awake?” Xena brushed the short hair from Gabrielle's eyes and watched them flutter open. “'Cause I think we're about to have company.”
“Still not interested,” Gabrielle didn't move, except to press her lips against the top of a round, firm breast within reach. “Tell ‘em ta go ‘way.”
Xena closed her eyes tight against the onslaught of sensations that suddenly coursed through her at the intimate contact and tried not to burst out laughing when the door shook from another insistent pounding.
“Go ‘way!!” Gabrielle lifted her head enough to yell at the intruder.
“We need to speak with you, immediately, Princess,” Ephiny's muffled voice came through the still-closed door.
“I'm busy!!” Gabrielle shouted back and returned her attention to the task at hand. “Mm, love you.”
Xena snickered, as another round of loud pounding nearly shook the rafters above. “They're just gonna keep pounding on the door ‘til you let ‘em in, sweetheart.”
Gabrielle stopped with her lips poised over a rosy nipple. “You really want me to stop this, so I can listen to Ephiny bitch about how bored she is? Seriously?”
Xena considered Gabrielle's words for a moment and felt her skin tingling with anticipation for what she knew her lover intended. The ache in her groin was pulsing incessantly and she just knew it wouldn't be satisfied if the Amazons were allowed to interrupt the moment. Then again…Another pounding reverberated through the tiny room.
“What in the name of all the Olympians is going on out here?” Cyrene 's muffled shout cut through the pounding. “Do you two have a blessed death wish? Xena's in there and is liable to come out here with sword in hand and death in her eyes. Not to mention what this noise is doing for business. Why, I have half a mind to put you out in the stables with the horses for all the racket you're making in here.”
Both Xena and Gabrielle chuckled at the outburst.
“Go, Mom,” Xena whispered, as she looked down and met a pair of sleepy green eyes. “You think she'll get those two to stop bugging us long enough so we can finish what we started?”
Gabrielle latched onto a taught nipple in answer to her lover's question. Xena just groaned, as the fire ignited and she was lost in a sea of sensations that effectively drowned out everything around her.
“I could seriously get used to waking up like this,” Xena shifted down enough that they were in each other's arms.
“Me, too,” Gabrielle met the lips that rose up to hers. “Gods, I seriously can't get enough of this.”
“So, where's the fire?” Gabrielle leaned on her crutch, as she stepped up next to the table where three Amazons were just finishing up their morning meal. “Hello, Sol. When did you get in?”
“Hey, Princess,” Solari greeted the woman with a sad, tired smile. “I just got in this morning. Ran all night to get here.”
Xena stepped up behind Gabrielle at that point and put her hands on the smaller woman's shoulders, glaring daggers at the three Amazons over the top of the blond head. “So, what was so all-fired important that you just had to wake us up?”
“Um,” Ephiny swallowed down the sudden lump in her throat at the dark woman's menacing glare. She glanced at her two companions for support and received shrugs, instead. “We need to return to the village immediately.”
Blond and dark brows rose in unison at the dire note in the Amazon's tone.
“Why?” Gabrielle asked. “What's happened?”
“There was…um…an accident,” Ephiny stumbled over the words and then shot Solari a pleading look. “Tell her.”
“It's Queen Melosa,” Solari couldn't meet the green eyes watching her intently.
Gabrielle glanced impatiently from one Amazon to the next, in turn. “Would someone please tell me what's going on before I strangle it out of one of you. Enough with the evasive hints, already.”
“She's dead,” Eponin blurted.
“Who?” Gabrielle felt her stomach plummet and knew the answer even before the words were spoken.
“Queen Melosa,” Ephiny added. “She died last night.”
Gabrielle blew out the breath she'd been holding and let a shuddering breath fill her lungs. “How? What happened?”
“Not sure,” Solari continued. “Leisa thinks it must have been something she ate or drank. Or maybe someone poisoned her.” She shrugged. “All we know for sure is she took ill two days ago and quickly went downhill from there. She had a really high fever and died last night.” Her eyes finally lifted to meet Gabrielle's. “You're now the queen.”
Gabrielle's eyes widened and she stumbled back into Xena, who caught her and wrapped strong arms around her chest. The taller woman rested her chin on top of Gabrielle's head in the hopes that the contact would add a measure of stability.
“I'm…I…” Gabrielle shook her head and met Ephiny's sad gaze. “Eph?”
“It's true,” Ephiny acknowledged. “You're now the queen, your majesty.”
“All that's left is Queen Melosa's funeral and the Ceremony of Masking,” Solari added. “The elders are anxiously awaiting your return, as is the rest of the tribe, My Queen. We look to you for leadership in these difficult and trying times.”
Gabrielle swallowed down the bile that threatened. “And what if Queen Melosa was murdered? If it was poison, then someone had to slip it in her food or…” She shook her head against the implications of her words, as tears slipped unheeded down her cheeks. “Who could have done such a thing?”
“I wouldn't put it past Velasca and her supporters,” Eponin muttered. “Maybe she managed to get one of them past our guards to infiltrate the tribe. What, with all the new arrivals and all.”
“What new arrivals?” Gabrielle turned teary eyes on the weapons master.
“Queen Melosa sent messages to all the queens,” Solari explained. “I was supposed to come here and fill you in, but then she took ill and there just wasn't time. The other tribes have been sending warriors to us to join in the fight to depose Draco and return the Conqueror to power.”
It was Xena's turn to look at them with wide-eyed surprise. “Queen Melosa was gathering an army to go up against Draco?”
Solari nodded. “She didn't want to notify you until she was sure the other queens would be onboard with the idea. We now have more than a thousand seasoned warriors on the way to the village. Some of them even began arriving as early as two days ago.”
“Giving you cause to believe Melosa was poisoned,” Xena put two-and-two together.
“There's no telling what lengths Velasca will go to seize the queen's mask and take control of this army,” Solari added. “She's that devious and determined.”
“In the meantime,” Gabrielle sniffed again. “We have the funeral of a queen to return for.”
“And a masking ceremony to celebrate,” Ephiny shot back with a wry grin.
Gabrielle turned and fled the room as fast as her gimpy leg and crutch could carry her, leaving the three Amazons and Xena staring after her. Xena turned an angry glare on Ephiny.
“What'd I say?” The curly-haired blond looked to her two companions for support and received looks of consternation, instead.
Xena approached the closed door and heard the faint sounds of crying inside. She hadn't bothered to stick around the Amazons. As far as she was concerned, they could go back to their village and sort through the mess that awaited them. Her first concern was the woman obviously crying behind the closed door in front of her.
“Gabrielle?” Xena knocked on the door.
“Come in,” a small voice answered.
Xena pushed the door open and entered the room. She nearly tripped over the crutch on the floor at her feet, but hopped easily over it, instead. She then made her way over to the bed where Gabrielle was curled up on her side.
“Hey,” Xena lifted the still-crying woman up and sat on the bed with Gabrielle curled up against her. “It's okay, Gabrielle. Please don't cry.” She ran her fingers through the short-cropped hair and rested her chin on the top of Gabrielle's head. “Come on, now. Tell me what's going on. Why all the tears?”
Gabrielle sniffed loudly and swiped at the wet on her cheeks. “Sorry.”
“Don't be,” Xena hugged her and waited patiently for Gabrielle to continue.
“I…I'm not sure where this is coming from, actually,” Gabrielle admitted. “I don't think I ever cried this much during all the time I was growing up—not even when Daddy left and never returned or when Mother died and left Lila and me all alone to fend for ourselves.”
Xena put her finger under Gabrielle's chin and lifted her tear-streaked features to hers. “This is a lot to take in all at once, Gabrielle,” she smiled encouragingly and brushed the hair away from Gabrielle's eyes. “It wasn't that long ago that Agatha and Mother dumped you off with the Amazons and it's only been a few weeks since Terreis' death and you learned you were to be princess in her place. And now—”
Xena shook her head at this latest development. Even she couldn't wrap her mind around the fact that little Gabrielle of Potidea was now queen of the Thracian Amazons. It was just too surreal to think that the defiant young woman who was once a servant in her keep at Surra was now one of the most powerful women in all of Greece .
“How can she be gone?” Gabrielle choked out between sobs. “How could this be happening? I don't know the first thing about being an Amazon princess, much less queen. Why did this happen? Why me? Why me?”
Xena wrapped both arms around the smaller woman and tried to ground them both with her strength, as she whispered nonsensical words of comfort to the sobbing woman. She felt Gabrielle's body shudder with the sobs that shook her to her very core. She could think of nothing else to do in that moment, except offer what little comfort she could to the woman whose world had turned completely upside down in such a short time.
And she had absolutely no answers to the woman's questions. Why Gabrielle, indeed. What were the Fates planning that they would weave such an unexpected twist into that loom of theirs? Or was there some other force at work in the world? Were the gods playing some kind of cosmic joke on them that they would bring them together and then throw such a confusing wrinkle into everything?
A soft knock at the door brought Xena out of her musings, but didn't seem to penetrate the misery of the woman in her arms.
“Come,” Xena called, as she continued to hold tightly to the sobbing woman in her arms.
Cyrene 's head popped in. She took in the scene and her expression mirrored her concern, as her eyes met Xena's.
“Ephiny filled me in on what happened,” she said in a quiet voice, as she pulled a chair up and sat down next to the bed. She reached out and gently stroked Gabrielle's hair. “Poor child. This is quite the unexpected blow, isn't it?”
“You're telling me,” Xena replied, as she gently rubbed Gabrielle's back with one hand as she kept her other arm around the woman's shoulders. “I'm not sure she's ready for something this huge.”
Cyrene 's eyes met Xena's. “Were you?”
“Ready to become Conqueror of the Known World?” Xena confirmed and received a quick nod. “I'd been the leader of an army for several years and had already made a name for myself as a warlord by the time I returned to Greece . It was only logical that I take that next step and rid Greece of the scum who were always scrambling around and fighting for one piece of land after another. Those lousy bastards didn't care who got in their way or what villages stood in their way. All they cared about was feeding their lust for power and control.”
“So you brought a bigger army in and wiped out all those who opposed you,” Cyrene tried to understand her daughter's reasoning.
“My army had orders not to disrupt the local villages, unless they resisted the edicts I set forth,” Xena explained. “We were self-sufficient and were able to feed, clothe, and arm ourselves. I hired a blacksmith, a weaver, a tanner and several cooks to keep things running smoothly. We recruited from the villages we passed and gained volunteers without having to conscript them. Young men wanted to be in my army, if for nothing else than to receive three square meals a day, a uniform that included a pair of sturdy leather boots that many of them had never dreamed of owning, and the skills to defend themselves when they returned home. I was firm, yet fair and relatively just—at least I thought so. I didn't tolerate deserters, but gave the new recruits every opportunity to voluntarily leave, before they were sworn in and assigned to one of the corps.”
“And Surra?” Cyrene shot back with a quirked brow.
“A damned mistake that should have never happened,” Xena shook her head. “I left a commander I didn't really trust in charge of one of the lesser corps—a group of green foot-soldiers fresh from their swearing in. The commander had a bug up his ass…um…I mean, his butt,” she glanced up and met the wry smirk her mother shot her. “Sorry. Anyway, from what I could glean from the last of those I executed, Balthus ordered them to sneak into the village, so he could get his rocks off with a little raping and pillaging.”
“You executed them? All of them?” Cyrene couldn't believe her ears.
“Mother, it wasn't like they were acting on my orders,” Xena defended. “As a matter of fact, they had strict orders not to disturb the local villages or they would suffer under pain of death. Balthus knew it and so did those soldiers under his command. My orders were always reiterated during the swearing in, so they couldn't mistake what my expectations were for them.” She inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly. “I showed up to find the village in flames and a few terrified village kids huddled near a burning barn. The kids were sent to the palace at Corinth and became servants there. There was nothing else I could think of to do with them.”
Both women were so caught up in the moment that neither realized that Gabrielle was no longer sobbing uncontrollably. A loud sniff, however, caught both their attentions.
“Hey,” Xena looked down at the woman in her arms. “You okay?”
Gabrielle eyes were red and puffy and her nose was running. Cyrene reached into a pocket and produced a linen handkerchief, which she handed over to the sniffling woman. Gabrielle took it with a watery smile and blew her nose.
“Thank you,” she said to the innkeeper and finished wiping the tears from her cheeks. “I think I'm better now.”
“Well, that's good,” Cyrene waved off Gabrielle's attempt to return the handkerchief to her. “Keep it, dear. I have several others.”
The small woman in Xena's arms blew out a heavy sigh and sat up until she was leaning against Xena's shoulder for support, instead of curled up in a tight ball.
Cyrene reached over and cupped Gabrielle's cheek. “You're going to be fine, Gabrielle.” She glanced up and met Xena's steady gaze. “A few tears are good for the soul. They help wash away everything that we keep bottled up inside us and clear the way for better things to come.”
Gabrielle smiled and nodded. “Wise words, Cyrene .”
“I've learned over the years to trust in what she says,” Xena added with her own smile. “Mom's usually right about a lot of things.”
“I was certainly right about you, Xena,” Cyrene smirked and then rose from her chair. “Now, if the two of you will excuse me, I have a shepherd's pie baking in the oven and some dough that is about ready for kneading. I'll leave word for one of the girls to bring you something to eat.”
She was gone before either of the two remaining women could say a word, so they didn't. They just sat there and basked in the closeness they were sharing in that moment.
The sun was dipping toward the western horizon as Ephiny led the last of the horses from the stables and readjusted the worn saddle for the umpteenth time.
“We ready to go?” Ephiny glanced around at the three horses and two mounted riders surrounding her with a distasteful frown.
“As ready as I'll ever be,” Eponin groused from atop her dappled gray mount. The horse took that opportunity to shake its head and it was all the weapons master could do to hold on, as the beast's entire body suddenly shook. “Hera's tits!”
Ephiny mounted her own roan mare and shifted until she was relatively comfortable in the saddle underneath her. “Anyone seen the two lovebirds, yet?”
Three pairs of eyes searched the surrounding area and glanced at the sleek black horse that patiently awaited its rider.
“You sure you wanna make this trip at night, Eph?” Eponin glanced skeptically at the curly-haired blond. “After all, the kid's been gimpin' around here better'n she was last week, but she's still not one hundred percent, yet.”
“She'll be fine,” Ephiny glanced at Solari and caught the skeptical glare the woman was giving her. “You have something to add, Sol? ‘Cause I don't remember asking anyone's opinion on the subject.”
Solari shrugged. “I kinda wish Xena was coming with us, is all.”
“And why is that?” Ephiny scowled. “You think we're not capable of taking care of her majesty on this trip?”
“No,” Solari shifted in her saddle and absently patted her sorrel's neck. “I just think the kid's gonna need all the support she can get when we reach the village. Did you see how red and puffy her eyes were when those two joined us for the midday meal? Looked like she'd been crying an awful lot after she stormed back to her room when we gave her the news about Melosa.”
“She looked all right, to me,” Eponin added with a shrug. “The kid's got spunk, I'll give ‘er that much.”
“It'll take more than spunk for Gabrielle to get through the next few days, though,” Ephiny put in. “We still don't know who was responsible for Melosa's death—if it really was poison that killed her. We need to launch a full investigation once we reach the village.” Her gaze met Solari's. “Sol, you think you can round up a few trusted sisters to start poking around and get some answers?”
“It will be an honor,” Solari beamed. “I know just the women for the job, too. They're just sneaky and conniving enough to sniff out the truth behind our former queen's untimely demise.”
“Good, I'll leave you to it, then,” Ephiny said. “Eponin, I want you and your warriors to continue working with the other tribal warriors. We need to be a cohesive unit when the time comes to join forces with the army Xena is planning on raising.”
“You got it,” Eponin nodded. “I'll have ‘em eatin' outta the palm of my hand by the end of the week.”
“Good,” Ephiny nodded. “Now we just need to get back there.” She glanced at the inn again. “What is taking Gabrielle so damned long?”
Gabrielle and Xena stood in each other's arms in the small room that Gabrielle had occupied during her convalescence. A small satchel sat on the bed and Gabrielle's crutch leaned against the wall near the door.
“I don't want to leave you,” Gabrielle murmured into the taller woman's leather-clad chest.
Xena wore the new leathers she'd worn the night before. They weren't completely dry, yet, but had warmed up nicely against her skin. She wasn't wearing her armor, which was sitting in a pile on the chair. That she would put on after Gabrielle was safely on her way with her Amazons.
“I know,” Xena answered, as she brushed a cheek against the shorter woman's pale hair. “I don't want you to leave, either. But we both know this is for the best.”
Gabrielle pulled back enough that she could look into Xena's pale-blue eyes. “Is it?”
“It is,” Xena pressed her forehead against Gabrielle's. “You know this is for the best as well as I do. I can't very well raise the Conqueror's new army if I'm constantly worrying about you. You'll be safer with the Amazons, trust me.”
A blond brow quirked. “Someone may have poisoned our last queen, and you think I'll be safer with them than with you?”
“Okay, moderately safer,” Xena conceded with a shrug. “You have Ephiny, Eponin and Solari there to protect you. Just don't eat or drink anything that smells funny or that the others aren't ingesting. As the queen, you can always appoint an official food taster, if it'll make you feel safer.”
“I can't expect someone else to put their life on the line for me like that, Xena,” Gabrielle said. “I just don't feel that my life is any more important than someone else's.”
Xena cupped Gabrielle's cheek. “It is to me.” And then she closed the distance and gently traced the soft lips so close to hers with the tip of her tongue. “I just can't imagine existing in this world without you, Gabrielle. You're the most important person in my life. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Xena,” Gabrielle said and pressed her lips firmly against the taller woman's. Their kiss deepened until they were both breathless and had to come back up for air. “Gods, I'm really gonna miss this.” She ran her fingers along Xena's jaw line. “This separation is going to kill me, Xena.”
“Me, too,” Xena snickered. “But just think of the reunion we'll share when all this crap is behind us.” She gave Gabrielle a last peck on the lips and then straightened. “We will definitely see each other again.”
“Promise?” Gabrielle placed a kiss on Xena's chin.
“I promise,” Xena replied with a saucy grin, as she reached down and lifted the satchel by the leather strap. “Here, I packed you some things for the journey. Actually,” she glanced inside the satchel and spotted several cloth-wrapped bundles. “I think Mom included some of her special venison meat pies, some dried figs and dates, some shelled nuts, and a few extras for your traveling companions. She said to stop in the kitchen on your way out and she'll hook you up with a few skins of ale and cider, too.”
“Your mom is amazing,” Gabrielle beamed as she took the satchel and slung it across her chest. She then stood on her tiptoes and kissed Xena one last time. “I know where you get it from.”
“Charmer,” Xena grinned and stroked Gabrielle's cheek with the backs of her fingers.
“My Lord Conqueror,” Gabrielle smirked. “Until we meet again?”
“I will be counting the heartbeats, My Queen,” Xena pressed her thumb and finger against the smaller woman's chin.
“Oh, for the love of the gods, you two!” Cyrene 's timely interruption had them both rolling their eyes. “Gabrielle, those Amazons of yours are out there waiting for you. And they don't look very happy to be kept waiting, especially on top of those horses of theirs.”
Gabrielle snickered. “Amazons and horses don't really mix,” she said, as she turned to the intruder and gave Cyrene a warm hug. “Take care of yourself, Cyrene . And thank you for everything.”
“You're the one who needs to take care, cutie,” Cyrene pinched Gabrielle's cheek affectionately. “Try to stay out of trouble, for once, will you?”
Xena snorted. “Not likely.”
“Hey!” Gabrielle rounded on the taller woman and glared up into blue eyes shining with laughter. “I resent that remark.”
“Resemble is more like it,” Xena grabbed Gabrielle around the waist and kissed the protest right out of the smaller woman. “Do stay out of trouble, will you? I really want our reunion to include you being in one piece, love.”
“Do you two mind?” Cyrene stepped up next to them and glared. “Those Amazons aren't going to be patient for much longer.”
Xena released Gabrielle and let her precede her through the door. Both Xena and Cyrene trailed behind the smaller woman as she grabbed her crutch and used it to maneuver through the quiet inn. They stepped out onto the porch just as the sun dipped below the horizon, coloring the sky in shades of purple, orange and fuchsia.
Mother and daughter stopped on the porch, while Gabrielle handed her crutch up into Ephiny's waiting hands and mounted the sleek black gelding she'd received as a gift. The beast tossed its head as Gabrielle took the reins in her hands, but otherwise remained still and patiently waited for her to settle into the saddle on his back. Gabrielle turned her mount and gently prodded him until he was standing in front of the porch of the inn.
“I'll see you at the rendezvous point at the next new moon,” Gabrielle said to Xena.
“Wouldn't miss it for the world,” Xena responded and then waved as Gabrielle turned her mount toward the road and kicked him into an easy trot.
The other Amazons merely followed after their new queen in silence, as both Xena and Cyrene continued to wave until they disappeared from sight.
“You okay?” Cyrene squeezed her daughter's waist.
“I have to be,” Xena answered with a wistful smile. “I'm about to resurrect the Conqueror of the Known World and take down her greatest enemy.”
“And what about your heart, Xena?” Cyrene looked up into her daughter's sad eyes and patted her leather-clad chest. “How is it faring?”
Xena swallowed back the tears that threatened. “I don't know,” Xena answered and then sniffed. “I think it just left here on horseback and went off with the Amazons.”
Cyrene wrapped both arms around her daughter and hugged her tight. “You will be together again, daughter. I just know the Fates wouldn't be so cruel as to bring you two together only to tear you apart again forever.”
“I hope you're right,” Xena kept her eyes on the deserted road, as she squeezed her mother's shoulders.
Continued in Part 5
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