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/
The queen of the Thracian Amazons sat regally on her throne and listened intently to the discussion in the room. The queen's mask rested on top of her blond head, as she leaned against the chair arm and tried not to tune the conversation out—again.
The argument had been raging for the better part of three straight candlemarks and didn't appear to be waning in the least. Gabrielle tried desperately not to yawn or do something else equally embarrassing. But it was become harder and harder not to let her mind wander away from the monotonous droning of the other women in the room.
And it was hotter than Hades' damned realm in there. She caught herself nodding off more than once, as her fellow queens and the elders from all the tribes sat inside a room only meant for half their number. They were all packed in there tighter than mackerels in a chum bucket. She wrinkled her nose at the thought and then caught herself.
“Damn!” She hissed under her breath and suddenly found several pairs of eyes on her.
“You have something to add, Queen Gabrielle?” Queen Jezreal's nasally voice cut through Eleanira's long monotone like a well-honed dagger. And the sneer she threw Gabrielle's way was a bit over the top.
“Yes, Queen Gabrielle,” Queen Gwyn-Taleen piped in sarcastically. “Please enlighten us with your youthful wisdom. I'm sure the other queens and elders can learn some rather…er…interesting insights from you that have yet to be brought before this council.”
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed at the slight, before she composed her features and merely smiled tolerantly. “I was just thinking that it is well past the noontime meal. Maybe we should continue this discussion after we take a short break?” Her stomach chose that moment to growl its agreement, eliciting some chuckles from those closest to her. “Yes, I'm starving, sisters.”
“Apparently,” Jezreal glanced at several of her contemporaries with an I-told-you-so nod.
“Queen Gabrielle has a point, sisters.” Red-headed Queen Marena shot a wry grin at the blond. “I don't know about the rest of you, but my stomach's been growling for the better part of a candlemark. As riveting as Elder Eleanira's argument has been, I think a break is in order.”
“Well, I suppose it couldn't hurt,” Gwyn-Taleen added with an exasperated roll of her sky-blue eyes in a face as dark as pitch. “It really is quite warm in this room. Is there no way to get some additional air in here?”
“It's settled, then,” another woman pounded an elaborately decorated staff against the wooden floor. “We shall reconvene in two candlemarks' time. That should give us all a chance to eat and take in some much-needed fresh air.” The woman—the oldest in the room and a queen by the mask perched precariously atop her gray head—gingerly stood up and stretched until several loud pops could be heard coming from her lower back. “It's damned hard for some of us to sit for that long.”
Several elders and queens chuckled at the old woman's comment. Many of them patted her frail shoulders and filed out of the room in her wake, leaving only Gabrielle, Marena and Ephiny still standing in the council hut.
“Queen Grenella is one of a kind,” Marena snickered. “She doesn't take crap from anyone, either.” She turned her gaze on Gabrielle. “And she likes you, even if the others don't.”
Gabrielle's brow hiked into her hairline. “She does?”
“Oh, yeah,” Marena confirmed. “If she didn't, she would have come up with an excuse to keep us all packed in here for another candlemark or two, just to make her point. She can be a bit vindictive when the mood hits her.”
Ephiny snorted. “We probably would have all passed out from the heat, then.” She chuckled. “I can just imagine the fallout if a messenger came in here and found us all slumped in our seats.”
“Imagine the scandal,” Gabrielle rolled her eyes and chuckled. “There would certainly be no living that one down. And I'm sure they'd find a way to blame that one on me, too. It's not like I asked to be queen. It just kinda fell on my head.” She glanced up at the mask on her head, grabbed it and placed it on the seat of her throne.
“No, but in their eyes you will never be worthy of it, because you weren't born into your tribe, Gabrielle,” Marena pointed out. “There's this unwritten rule, you see.”
“Yeah, I'm beginning to get it,” Gabrielle added.
They made their way toward the only door in the room and exited out into the bright sunlight of another cloudless day. All three of them breathed in the fresh air for a moment, before they headed toward the village center and the communal cooking fires.
The Thracians had moved all food preparations out to the village center in order to accommodate the other tribes and allow them to share the communal facilities. It was all done in the name of furthering relations between the tribes and getting them all to work together as a cohesive unit. And it was working, for the most part.
“You think we'll get this stupid discussion wrapped up before dawn?” Ephiny groused. “I'm really tired of listening to these featherheads go on and on about nothing.”
“Tell me about it,” Gabrielle agreed. “When I took the queen's mask, I thought the job would be a little more interesting than this. Doesn't the queen get to do anything besides listen to a bunch of old hens cackle on and on about the good old days? Gods, they remind me of the bleating sheep back home in Potidea. They just keep going on and on and don't know when to quit.”
“Baaaaaaa,” Marena bleated with a teasing gleam in her pale blue eyes. “Yeah, I guess Gabrielle has a point. I've been queen of our tribe for so long that I tend to tune out most of what's said during council meetings. I only try to concentrate on the really important stuff. I had one council session last an entire fortnight, once. That one was a real ass-grinder, let me tell ya. Had a couple of the younger girls make me a goose-down cushion, so my butt wouldn't fall asleep during those long candlemarks spent sitting on my damned throne. It worked, for the most part.”
“That definitely has possibilities,” Gabrielle raised a finger to her chin. “But what do you do about the constant urge to nod off and take a nap, Marena? I swear I'm gonna start snoring and totally embarrass myself in front of everyone.”
Ephiny snorted. “Maybe then they'll get a clue that they're a bunch of windbags. Then again, they'd probably blame you for interrupting them.”
“Watch it, Regent,” Gabrielle shot Ephiny a playful grin. “Or I may just make you take my place on the council until the windbags finally bring this aggravating session to a close.”
“Oo, my feathers are all aquiver,” Ephiny lifted both hands in front of her and wiggled her fingers. “But, no thank you, My Queen. I'd rather stand behind your throne and pretend that I'm completely enthralled in the discussion, while my mind wanders to other places and the million-and-one things I need to take care of.”
They reached the communal eating area and made a beeline for an empty table. The head table was already occupied by most of the queens and some of the senior elders. They decided on one of the lesser tables set apart from the main grouping of tables.
“Queen Gabrielle!” Someone shouted to her and a hand waved from the queen's head table.
“I think your fan club is beckoning,” Ephiny leaned in close.
“Ignore them and maybe they'll go away,” Gabrielle took a seat at the table and watched her companions do the same.
Gabrielle looked up and noticed that the beckoner was none other than Grenella, the eldest member of the council. Gabrielle watched as the woman actually got up from her place of honor at the head table and made her way toward the table Gabrielle occupied.
“Mind if I join you, ladies?” Grenella took a seat without waiting for a reply.
“Not at all,” Gabrielle could only conjure a half-smile for the woman. “It's an honor…”
“Oh, can it,” Grenella waved dismissively and smiled to soften the blow. “You don't get to be as old as I am without turning a few heads and pissing a few people off.” Twin snickers from Ephiny and Marena greeted her words. “And that whole gaggle of annoying busybodies could take a lesson from this young lady, here,” Grenella waved a wrinkled hand in Gabrielle's direction. “She's got more sense in her little finger than that whole lot combined.”
Gabrielle's brows shot into her hairline. “I do?”
A young Amazon approached the table and set food in front of the women. Another youth that Gabrielle recognized as the ‘official taster' Ephiny had assigned to her, also set several pitchers and cups down on the table, before quickly retreating.
“Definitely,” the old woman shot back with a twinkle in her nearly-white eyes. “You need to express your views to these old battle axes, Gabrielle. You have some insights that none of them have.”
Gabrielle gaped at the woman in open awe, while Ephiny just shook her head and tried to hide her amusement. The newly-appointed regent to the Thracian queen poured a mug of cool ale for Grenella, Marena and herself. She then poured sweet apple cider into a mug, sniffed it to make sure it wasn't tainted and handed it to Gabrielle.
“I keep trying to tell her…” Ephiny began.
“Well, stop,” Grenella interrupted with a scowl. “All this prattling on and on about what the Amazons are and what we truly stand for is a bunch of hogwash. Amazons are women, simple as that. We cycle like other women, fall in love like other women, desire—”
“Like other women?” Marena added with a sly grin.
“Exactly,” Grenella nodded emphatically. “Just because we train to become warriors and don't take shit from our male counterparts, doesn't mean we're any less than the rest of our gender. And we're certainly not inferior to men. We just lack the distraction between our legs that seems to drive them to behave like asinine idiots and power-hungry bastards.” She smiled at the chuckles that followed her words. “Unfortunately, what we lack in that department, we more than make up for in the damned mood swings that screw with us right before we start our monthly flow. It's a bitch to be women, but we Amazons try not to let that bother us. That's what defines us. Not the traditions. Not the incessant prattling of a bunch of post-menopausal bitties with less sense than a bitch in heat.” More chuckles followed her words, as her gaze locked on Gabrielle. “You weren't born into your tribe, Gabrielle. That sets you apart from the rest of us. You don't have years of outdated crap riding around in that pretty little head of yours, unless you count those awful experiences you've had in recent years.”
Gabrielle's eyes widened. “Who—”
“Agatha is one of our tribal elders,” Grenella waved a dismissive hand. “She filled me in on some of what you've been through. She also gave me a little insight into the relationship you and our illustrious Conqueror have.” She slapped Gabrielle's shoulder. “I think it's grand that the two of you got along so splendidly at her keep in Surra. I'm just sorry it had to end like it did.”
Gabrielle shot Ephiny a pointed look when the regent snickered at the words and nearly spewed her ale across the table in front of her.
“Oh we're still…um…you know, Queen Grenella,” Gabrielle stated.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle took a sip of her cider and stared down into the bowl of tasteless rabbit stew Ephiny had placed in front of her. She then looked up and met the wise eyes staring back at her. “Xena left for Athens to raise an army, but we were together not three weeks past.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “We love each other.”
Grenella lifted her mug high overhead. “Well, here's to a very prosperous union between the two most powerful women in the known world.”
“Here, here,” Ephiny and Marena replied in unison and downed their ale.
“What'd I miss?” Eponin approached the table in time to catch the end of the toast and see Gabrielle's subsequent blush. “Geez, yer maj,” she addressed Gabrielle directly, as she sat down next to Ephiny. “You look like you just swallowed an under-ripe persimmon.”
Gabrielle ducked her head and concentrated on the still uneaten stew in front of her. She put her spoon in the bowl and stirred the concoction, not really interested in eating anything at that point.
“We were just discussing Amazon unions,” Ephiny poured Eponin a mug of ale and refilled Marena's mug, as well as her own.
“Oh?” Eponin gulped her ale and wiped her mouth with the back of a dust-covered arm. “Someone having a joining ceremony?”
“A what?” Gabrielle's surprised gaze shot to the weapons master.
“A joining ceremony, yer maj,” Eponin repeated. “It's kinda like a marriage ceremony in a regular village, except that ours usually takes place between two women, instead of a man and a woman.”
Gabrielle shot Ephiny a bewildered look. “You never mentioned there was a ceremony like that.”
“Oh, didn't she?” Grenella added with a wry grin and then directed her next comment to Ephiny. “Guess you left that little detail outta the queen's tutorial, eh, Regent?”
“We haven't gotten that far,” Ephiny ducked her head to keep those present from seeing the chagrin in her eyes.
“You know how head-over-heels in love her maj is with Big Xe, Eph,” Eponin elbowed the woman in the arm. “Why would you keep that one from her? She might want to consider having the joining ceremony and making Xena her consort.”
Ephiny looked away with an exasperated eye roll. “Seriously, Pon? You have to bring that up right now?”
“What's the big deal, Eph?” Eponin countered. “You know it's customary for the queen to take a consort. Just because Melosa didn't go in for that sort of thing, don't mean her present maj is adverse to the idea.”
“Would you two please stop bickering long enough to tell me what it is you're actually bickering about?” Gabrielle huffed impatiently and glanced from one to the other. “Are you suggesting that I ask Xena to marry me?”
“Well, it ain't exactly a marriage, with a certificate and magistrate and all,” Eponin shot back.
“Then what is it, exactly?” Gabrielle glanced at the faces around the table.
“It's a marriage,” Grenella supplied with a knowing smile. “There's really no other way to describe it, except that you stand before a priestess and declare your union to all those present. The priestess blesses the union and you are joined from that point forward. It's as binding as any marriage in Greece. Ours just happen to involve two women.”
“But there have been occasions where an Amazon has joined with a male in an outlying village,” Marena added. “Those are usually quite rare, though. The unions don't generally last, unless the Amazon is willing to leave her tribe to go live in the village with her husband.”
“In all my years, I've only known of one successful union between an Amazon and a male villager—or a relatively successful one, at least,” Grenella piped in. “She was killed in a skirmish with a mutual enemy and their children went to live with her husband. Nasty business, that. The children were all girls and should have stayed in the Amazon village to be raised as Amazons by the woman's sisters. But her husband would have none of it and demanded they be returned to him. He even threatened to kill any Amazon who stepped foot inside his village, if they tried to take his children away from him.”
“A perfect example of why Amazons tend to unite with their fellow Amazons,” Ephiny's sarcasm filled the silence that followed Grenella's words.
“And the role of a queen in all this?” Gabrielle was still trying to absorb the implications of what was being said.
“A queen must produce an heir to the throne,” Ephiny stated flatly.
“That's not true,” Grenella countered. “Melosa adopted Terreis and made the girl her heir. And then that right was passed on to Gabrielle, here, when Terreis gave up her right of caste.”
“Excuse me,” Gabrielle interjected. “But how does a queen produce an heir if she joins with another Amazon? It's not like two women can produce offspring together. If there's one thing I learned from the coupling of the rams and ewes back home, it was that two ewes can't reproduce.”
“A wise observation, Gabrielle,” Grenella smileed. “And oh so true, too.”
“There are ways,” Marena supplied. “Many queens appoint close members of their immediate families to succeed them. Others find the means to become pregnant. And still others just adopt someone and name them as heir.”
“Like Melosa did with Terreis,” Gabrielle nodded. “Has the queen's regent ever been named as heir to the throne?”
Ephiny's gaze shot to Gabrielle's. “What?” She nearly choked on her food.
Grenella chuckled. “I think your queen is looking to make you her heir, Ephiny.”
“Is it possible?” Gabrielle looked to Grenella. “Can I do that?”
“You're the queen, Gabrielle,” Grenella replied. “You can do whatever you wish. They're your sisters and you only answer to the elders of your tribe. If they approve your choice of an heir, then you may appoint whomever you deem worthy.” She glanced at Ephiny. “I'm sure your choice will be a wise one and will benefit the tribe.”
“At least I won't have to do it the old fashioned way,” Gabrielle groused, as she kept her eyes on the brown goo in her bowl.
All eyes shot to Gabrielle's bowed head, as the meaning behind her words became clear to at least a few of them who knew about her ordeal at Surra.
“Hey, sisters,” Solari's greeting brought them out of the sober pall that descended over the table. “How's the food today?” She glanced around at those present and realized Queens Marena and Grenella were seated at the table. “Um, your majesties,” she gave them each a respectful nod.
“Sit down, Sol,” Ephiny ordered, glad for the interruption, as she scooped some stew into a bowl and poured another mug of ale. “So, how is the investigation proceeding?”
“Slowly,” Solari accepted the bowl and a mug from the regent. “My spies are doing their best to glean the information you requested, but the process is a slow one.”
“What investigation?” Grenella glanced from the newcomer to the regent.
“Melosa's death wasn't an accident,” Gabrielle took a small taste of her stew and winced. “Ugh! Can't those women do something to spice up the food a bit? This stuff tastes like—”
“Sweaty feet?” Eponin chuckled.
“Ah, that's what it smells like,” Solari glanced down at her stew with a distasteful frown. “I've been trying to figure that out for days.”
Gabrielle got up from the table and grabbed her bowl. She stormed away without a word or a backward glance.
“Where is she going?” Ephiny watched their queen curiously.
Gabrielle snaked through the maze of tables until she reached the other side of the communal dining area and approached the cooking fires. She walked right up to a woman standing there with her hands on her ample hips and issuing orders to the frazzled women preparing the evening meal. The woman noticed her approach and greeted Gabrielle with a tolerant half-smile.
“Ah, My Queen,” Cheremiah addressed Gabrielle with barely hidden disdain. “How may I serve you?”
Gabrielle held the bowl of stew up in front of the woman. “Are you responsible for this, Cheremiah?”
“Why? Is there something wrong with the stew, My Queen?” The woman eyed the bowl suspiciously.
Gabrielle angrily thrust the bowl under the taller woman's pudgy nose. “Smell!”
Cheremiah sniffed the contents and tried to hide a distasteful wince. “Illya!!!”
A scrawny woman with greasy hair pulled back into a tight bun left one of the cooking fires and hurried over to join the two women. “Yes, Cheremiah? My Queen,” she greeted Gabrielle with a hesitant half-smile and a slight nod. Her beady brown eyes were deep-set in her features. “How may I serve?”
“What in all that the gods have blessed us with is this?” Cheremiah took the bowl from Gabrielle's outstretched hand and shoved it up under the smaller woman's nose. “It smells worse than the slop we feed the pigs!”
Illya sniffed the contents of the bowl and winced. “Ew!!! Smells like Taralise's feet when she hasn't washed them for days. It's awful.”
“And I'm not pleased that it ended up at my table, much less anywhere but in the pig trough,” Gabrielle glared at the two women with her hands on her hips. “We have guests here with us and I expect them to eat food that is much more palatable than the crap that's been served here lately. Are you two incapable of cooking a decent meal that doesn't taste like shoe leather or smell like someone's unwashed feet? Or do I need to assign someone else to do the jobs that you seem incapable of performing?”
Cheremiah bristled. “Why! I never!”
“And you never will again if I don't start smelling some enticing aromas and tasting something that doesn't make my stomach turn!” Gabrielle shot back with a pointed finger. “Send the gatherers out for fruit and vegetables that haven't been rotting in the sun or aren't so shriveled that they no longer resemble what they were when they were on the tree. We have an entire glade of fruit trees on our western border and enough game in these woods to have fresh meat at every meal. There is absolutely no excuse for the fare we've been forced to endure these last few weeks.”
“But, your majesty,” Illya interjected, after a quick glance at the head cook made her realize the woman was about to blow her temper at their latest monarch. “It is customary to use up the stores—”
“I don't give a rat's ass what is customary, Illya!” Gabrielle's voice rose and her temper flared. “You will clear out the stores immediately. Burn the damned building down, if you have to. Feed whatever is left in there to the pigs and fatten them up for slaughter. I don't care! But if I even catch a whiff of something that doesn't tantalize my taste buds, I'm sending both of you to the wash women and you can spend the rest of your days scrubbing the grease and grime out of our clothes. I want food that tastes good and smells like food. Not this slop,” she finished by grabbing the bowl out of Illya's hand, turning it over and dumping it on the ground at her feet.” She then shot Cheremiah a pointed glare. “It's a new day, Cheremiah. If you don't like it, then leave. There's nothing keeping you here and I'm not putting up with your crap anymore. I'm sure there are other tribes out there who would appreciate your less-than-mediocre culinary skills.”
Gabrielle didn't wait for a response. She merely turned on her heel and marched away without a backward glance. When she reached the table where her friends sat, she looked at them and saw the wide-eyed stares they gave her.
The entire table burst out laughing, as Gabrielle took her seat and sighed heavily. Several of them even patted her on the back or on her tanned shoulders. She just held her head in her hands and let the anger dissipate. She hadn't been that angry in a really long time and it was all she could do not to slap the smug expression off Cheremiah's pudgy face. She knew the woman was trying to bate her—trying to make her lose her temper and do something she would later regret.
It wasn't the first time one of her tribal sisters—women who were supposed to support her—had tried to make her lose her temper. There had been others over the course of the last few weeks since Melosa's untimely death, her funeral and Gabrielle's rather hasty masking ceremony. Gabrielle tried to put herself in their shoes—tried to imagine what it was like to see some outsider suddenly come in and take over. But enough was enough. She was one of them and was now queen, like it or not. It was high time she acted like the monarch she was supposed to be.
“Way to go, yer maj!” Eponin whooped. “It's about time someone stood up to that old hag and told her a thing or two.”
“You mean to tell me Melosa actually tolerated this slop?” Grenella frowned, as she lifted the spoon from her own bowl and let a brown glop plop back down into the bowl. “No wonder she took ill and died. My apologies, Gabrielle, but I really haven't been eating this fare your cooks have provided for us over these last weeks. We have our own cooks at our encampment and they provide much more palatable food than this.”
“I should be the one to apologize, Queen Grenella,” Gabrielle smileed. “Things have been so hectic around here that I just haven't had the chance to put some of it right. My sisters are still getting used to the idea of having me as their queen and some of them still aren't onboard with the idea. I guess I thought they would eventually get over their pettiness and move on. But apparently it's going to take a firm hand to put some of them in their place.”
“Been waiting for you to wake up and take charge, your majesty,” Ephiny patted Gabrielle's shoulder. “It's about time you figured out they weren't going to just welcome you with open arms.”
Gabrielle shot her a quirked-browed look. “Is there anything else I should take charge of while I'm at it, Eph?”
“Well,” Ephiny snorted. “Our warriors really need to see their new queen in action before they'll blindly follow you into battle, your majesty. You've been spending an awful lot of time cooped up inside that council hut lately.”
Grenella chuckled. “I think I can do something about that, Queen Gabrielle. Maybe I can convince the head councilwoman to postpone that session until, say, tomorrow afternoon?”
“I know I would be glad not to have to sit in that stuffy room this afternoon,” Marena piped in. “I really need to stretch these muscles and get a good workout in.”
Gabrielle smiled for the first time all day. “I would really appreciate that, Queen Grenella.” She rolled her shoulders and stretched her arms over her head. “I could really use a sparring session with our weapons master, here.” She glanced over at Eponin.
“Why don't we have a little bout together?” Ephiny shot Gabrielle a knowing smile. “I don't think we've shown these ladies just what that little stick of yours can do.”
Eponin, Solari and Gabrielle stared at Ephiny with wide eyes, while Grenella and Marena glanced at the three women in confusion.
“Are we missing something here?” Marena inquired.
“You're serious, Eph?” Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears.
“What's the big deal?” Ephiny glanced at the surprised expressions. “It's just a little sparring session, not the Thargelia, for crying out loud. It's not like I'm gonna sacrifice our queen to the goddess.” She shot Gabrielle a wry grin. “Especially not if she's planning on making me her damned heir. I have no desire to become queen of this bunch of featherheads, anymore than I want to lead the charge when we finally go after Draco.”
Eponin snorted. “It's just a surprise, is all, Eph. You've been real adamant that you won't go up against her maj until she's a full-fledged warrior.”
Ephiny shrugged. “She earned my respect the day Terreis died. No one else was willing to throw themselves in front of our princess like Gab—um, I mean—like her majesty did.”
“Aw, I'm touched, Ephiny,” Gabrielle couldn't help but tease the woman. “And all this time I thought you were actually just responding to my winning personality.” She placed a hand over the regent's. “Now I know that you only liked me because I tried to save Terreis.”
Ephiny pulled her hand from Gabrielle's. “You're my friend, My Queen.”
“Then drop the ‘My Queen', will ya?” Gabrielle scowled. “It gets really annoying that you guys are always using it around me. I'm still the same Gabrielle I was when Agatha and Cyrene dumped me in your laps all those moons ago.”
Ephiny turned fully to Gabrielle and placed both hands on either side of the smaller woman's face. “You're not the naïve shepherd's kid you were when you first came to us, Gabrielle. No matter how hard you try to convince us otherwise, you've grown into a very mature woman and a true leader who is perfectly capable of doing whatever it takes to guide us into a brighter future.”
Gabrielle's eyes widened again.
“You gonna kiss her or what, Eph?” Eponin's words pierced the heavy silence that hung over the table.
Snickers all around broke the serious mood. Ephiny dropped her hands away from Gabrielle's face and turned back around, leaning her elbows on the table as she downed the rest of her ale and refilled her mug.
“Damn, Eph,” Eponin continued with a chuckle. “You better hope Xena don't return to find you honing in on her maj, there. I don't think the Conqueror would hesitate to separate your head from your shoulders, in that case.”
Snickers followed her words. But Ephiny merely growled at the weapons master, while Gabrielle tried desperately to forget the look in Ephiny's eyes during those tense moments. Her stomach was churning and twisted in knots, after having an entire army of butterflies suddenly fluttering wildly in there when she actually thought the regent was going to kiss her.
“If you ladies will excuse me,” Gabrielle shot to her feet and left the table.
She didn't wait for any of them to respond, as she made a beeline for the queen's hut. She wanted to be alone with the confusing thoughts and feelings that were roiling around inside her. Foremost in her mind was how much she had actually wanted Ephiny to kiss her.
“How can that be?” Gabrielle hissed, as she bounded up onto the porch and charged inside the single-room hut.
Sunlight streamed through the windows on one side of the hut, illuminating the large bed, table, chairs and fireplace that furnished the place. A trunk sat at the end of the bed and was filled with her ceremonial garb, feathers, beads and the other accoutrements of her office. While her staff leaned up against the wall opposite the door. Several painted tapestries adorned the walls, as did a beautifully woven rug in shades of red, purple and gold.
The place was as homey as Gabrielle could make it in the short time she'd been there, but wasn't at all what she'd expected from her predecessor. Melosa just seemed so much more austere than the plain trappings that adorned the place.
Gabrielle sat down on the edge of the bed and rested her arms on her knees. She ran a hand through her hair and noticed how much longer it was than when she'd first joined the Amazons. It now hung down past her ears and was well on its way to reaching her shoulders.
“Time for a cut,” she muttered absently, as she sighed heavily. And then her stomach growled loudly. “Damn! Never did get anything to eat.”
Her thoughts then turned to her recent encounter with Ephiny. The woman was attractive enough. Her hazel eyes usually sparkled with mischief or amusement and the two of them had definitely grown closer over the last few weeks. Gabrielle closed her eyes tight against the onslaught of emotions that suddenly washed over her.
“How can I even think of betraying Xena like that?” She pushed a hand into her hair and grabbed a fistful. “I love Xena. I don't love Ephiny. Xena is everything to me. She's caring, compassionate and she knows just how to make me…Ugh!!!” She shot to her feet in frustration. “What the Hades am I doing?” She glanced around the place. Someone had been there to clean up and make her bed, but she didn't really see any of that. “I gotta get out of here.”
Leaving the hut behind her, Gabrielle made her way to the newly-built corral where her black gelding was being kept. There were several other horses in the pen, but there was only one she was interested in. Gabrielle whistled softly and her friend approached without hesitation.
“You want to go for a ride, boy?” Gabrielle let him nibble her open palm with his whiskered lips, as she petted his forehead with her other hand. “I really need to stretch my legs and work off some of this pent-up energy.”
“May I be of service, My Queen?” A young woman approached Gabrielle shyly. “I can saddle him for you, if you want to go for a ride.”
“That would be great—Elsy, is it?” Gabrielle noticed a smattering of freckles on the toe-headed young woman's nose.
Elsy beamed and nodded. “I'm not really used to the horses, yet, your majesty. But they're not so bad, once you get used to how big they are.”
Gabrielle patted her gelding's neck. “He isn't giving you any problems, is he?”
“Oh, no, your majesty,” Elsy shook her head. “Ebony is one of the nicest horses in the bunch. He always enjoys a good scratch behind the ears and I try to reward him with a fresh apple whenever I can.”
Gabrielle smiled at the young woman. “He's a really good boy. Did you know the Conqueror herself gave him to me as a going-away present?”
Elsy's eyes widened. “Seriously, your majesty? You know the Conqueror? That is soooo totally…um…I mean…uh…”
“It's alright, Elsy,” Gabrielle couldn't help but chuckle at the young woman's antics. Then she leaned in conspiratorially. “I have it on good authority that she'll eventually be making a personal appearance right here in this very village, sometime in the near future.” She watched as Elsy's eyes grew even wider at the news. “She's actually not as intimidating as the bards portray her.”
“Oh, your majesty,” the young wrangler beamed. “That is so amazing! Just wait ‘til I tell the others the news.”
“Oh, no,” Gabrielle shook her head emphatically. “It's a secret. No one must know or she won't come. The Conqueror is rather shy about making public appearances, especially when people know she's coming. She would much rather have it be a surprise.”
“Oh,” Elsy pretended to zip her lips. “The secret is safe with me, your majesty. I won't tell a soul. I promise.”
Gabrielle nodded, while a smile touched the corners of her lips. “Good. Now, can we get this big brute saddled, so I can take him for some much-needed exercise? He's looking a bit flabby for my tastes. Don't want him to think he can just laze around with these other horses and get fat on all the great food you guys are feeding them.”
“Right away, your majesty,” Elsy went right to work and had Ebony saddled in quick order. “I hope you two have a good ride together. Should I saddle another horse for your escort?”
Gabrielle looked at Elsy in confusion. “Do I look like I need an escort?”
“Um, no, your majesty,” Elsy dipped her head and looked at her feet. “But it looks like you're going to have one, anyway.”
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and rolled her eyes. “Oh, for the love of the gods.” She waited until Solari stopped in front of her and eyed the gelding with interest. “Sol.”
“My Queen,” Solari greeted her with a slight nod. “Going for a ride?”
“That's the plan,” Gabrielle patted Ebony's nose, as he rested his chin on her shoulder. “I thought I'd take him out for a little exercise. He's been a little too lazy lately.”
Solari eyed the horse distastefully. “I'll go with you, then.”
It wasn't a question, but a statement of fact. Solari nodded to the young wrangler, who scrambled away to saddle another horse.
“You don't have to come with me, Sol,” Gabrielle led Ebony over to the gate and let him out. “I can certainly go for a short ride all by myself.”
“You're the queen,” Sol stated. “Queens don't go anywhere outside the village gates without an escort.”
“Of course not,” Gabrielle groused, as she mounted the gelding and waited patiently for Solari to join her.
The wind whipped her hair and she felt free and energized, as the black gelding galloped across the rolling hills beyond the village. Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to keep right on going, except that a shout from behind and an insistent ache in her newly-healed thigh brought her back to reality. She sat back in the saddle and gently pulled on the reins until Ebony responded to her silent commands and slowed his pace to a fast trot and then a walk.
Gabrielle guided the horse's head around and waited for Solari to catch up on her smaller mare. She sat there atop her heaving mount and patted his neck. Watching Solari slow her mount, she marveled at how awkward the woman still was in the saddle. Amazons, she mused. They could climb and maneuver through trees with ease, but put them on horseback and they were like a damned fish out of water.
“Good boy, Eb,” she continued patting his sweaty neck affectionately.
“Thanks for waiting for me,” Solari panted, as she pulled her sorrel mare to a halt in front of Gabrielle's mount. “What's the rush, yer maj?”
“No hurry,” Gabrielle slipped a leg over the saddle and slid to the ground with ease. She stood there a moment and stretched her aching thigh muscles until her one leg stopped throbbing.
Her thigh still bugged her, even though she'd managed to stop limping and was well on her way to a full recovery. Morning jogs around the practice field had done wonders to improve her muscles and she'd even taken to doing some extra exercises in order to get the leg back in good working order.
“Still a little stiff?” Solari noticed Gabrielle massaging her thigh.
“Still aches a little,” Gabrielle looked up and watched the Amazon slowly climb down from the saddle the same way she'd awkwardly mounted. “Why don't you just slide down, like I do? I taught you how to do it last week, Sol.”
“Why won't you climb trees, yer maj?” Solari shot back with a pointed glare.
“Point taken,” Gabrielle conceded with a smile, as she walked a few paces from her mount and left him grazing on the short grass at his feet. “Not a big fan of trees. Climbed one once and was nearly at the top when I suddenly broke a branch and ended up flat on my back on the ground. Knocked the wind out of me and scared me to death when I couldn't breathe. It was the end of my climbing days. Never could get up the nerve to try again after that.”
Gabrielle sat down underneath a shade tree and stared out over the vast landscape beyond. She glanced over when Solari joined her.
“So, spill it,” Gabrielle addressed her companion with a knowing smile. “I know you didn't volunteer to play escort because you love going horseback riding with me.”
Solari shrugged. “Hate it, actually,” she shot her companion a wry half-grin. “But it's part of my job. That and giving the queen the full report she asked for—away from prying ears.”
“I figured there was more to it,” Gabrielle nodded, as she watched the sun start on its path toward the western horizon. “So shoot.”
“We've been doing some deep digging into Queen Melosa's death and…um…other stuff,” Solari began. “I have a dozen spies scattered throughout the tribes, keeping their eyes and ears open for anything strange or out of place. Most of the reports are fairly benign. There are grumbles from some of the warriors that they're not getting enough time on the practice field. Others aren't happy with where their tribe is camped. A few think a high queen should be appointed to lead the combined army. Others think their tribes are more superior than the others—yada, yada, yada…”
“Sounds pretty straightforward,” Gabrielle nodded. “I'm sure Melosa was fairly certain there would be grumbles and protests from the other tribes when she decided to bring them all together.”
“Yeah,” Solari agreed. “But there's an undertone of something else that concerns me.”
“At first it was just a few whispers here and a gripe or grumble there,” Solari continued. “But, lately, there's been an undertone that has started to change. It's like, the closer to the rendezvous we get, the bolder the opposition gets.”
“What opposition?” Gabrielle looked at her companion.
“Some of the other tribes are saying they don't want the Conqueror to return to power once Draco is gone,” Solari glanced at Gabrielle and watched her brow furrow in concern. “They're worried she won't measure up again. They think an even greater threat outside Greece will come in and wipe us all out—Conqueror or not.”
“Several of the tribes were none too happy that Melosa took it upon herself to sign a treaty with the Conqueror on their behalf,” Solari added. “They feel she overstepped her bounds and betrayed the overall Amazon Nation.”
“Seriously?” Gabrielle's brows shot up into her hairline. “Do they even know what that treaty entails? I mean, I haven't seen it, but I know what Xena told me. She said it actually gave the separate tribes their autonomy, as long as they remain at peace and pledge to assist the Conqueror in any campaigns that arise in their respective areas.”
Solari shrugged again. “Not sure. All I know is there are grumblings against the treaty and especially against allowing the Conqueror to resume her place of power over all of Greece.”
“Enough that someone, or a group of someones, might take it upon themselves to remove Melosa from the picture?” Gabrielle eyed her companion.
“It's possible,” Solari met the woman's expectant gaze. “Amazons are a proud race of warrior women and we don't take kindly to people telling us what we can and cannot do, yer majesty. If one of the other tribes took umbrage to Melosa signing that treaty, they might just decide she was no longer worthy to represent the tribes, even if the treaty was created in the best interests of all parties involved.”
“So, you haven't had any specific intelligence that pinpoints exactly where the threat is actually coming from,” Gabrielle clarified.
“No,” Solari shook her head. “And we haven't heard anything about Velasca, at this point, other than she's set herself up with a renegade group of Amazons somewhere near the coast. But there's nothing specific that links her to Melosa's death and there's nothing to suggest she might be returning to claim the mask or to issue a challenge.”
“Hm,” Gabrielle uttered thoughtfully. “So, the threat is more immediate and has to do with the dissatisfaction of the tribes where Xena's concerned.”
“My main concern has to do with the rumor that your council sessions will yield a decision against our alliance with the Conqueror, either during or immediately after Draco's defeat.”
“Well, at least they think we'll win,” Gabrielle smiled, then sobered. “But it sounds like the other tribes are planning a coup against Xena's forces once Draco is taken care of.”
Solari nodded. “That's what I gleaned, too, yer maj. And the dissidents outnumber those of us loyal to the Conqueror, at least six to one, if not more.”
“Not liking those odds at all,” Gabrielle commented. “We could be caught right in the middle of an ugly situation out there.”
“I'm really not sure you should be there, yer maj,” Solari looked at Gabrielle, point blank. “I mean, you're not exactly a seasoned warrior and you haven't even trained to use a sword yet. It just won't work to have you there in the thick of things.”
Gabrielle considered the woman's words thoughtfully for a moment. No, she wasn't a seasoned warrior. She wasn't even all that confident in her abilities. And it was true that she still had yet to learn how to use a sword and wasn't sure if she even wanted to kill people. She remembered the look in the eyes of the man who'd stood over Terreis. She didn't have time to think when she picked up the injured woman's sword and ran him through. She'd just reacted to the threat. Gabrielle wondered if she could consciously go into battle and knowingly kill others.
“What are you suggesting, then?” Gabrielle met Solari's brown-eyed gaze. “I'm an Amazon queen, Sol. I can't just wait here and let my tribe traipse off into battle without me. Melosa sure wouldn't do that and neither will I.”
“I do have another idea. You might actually like it better,” Solari smiled, as she felt the woman next to her warm to the idea that she could be of use elsewhere.
“What do you think about liberating Surra?”
Gabrielle considered the keep and the friends she'd left behind. She knew Draco had set up shop there and often wondered how the servants were faring under his rule. Were things the same as they'd been when Xena had used the place as her base of operations? Was Traecus still in charge? Was Maida overseeing the kitchen and housekeeping staff in Gabrielle's absence? Or had things deteriorated and fallen into disrepair?
The questions whirled around in her mind, until Gabrielle really wanted to find out the answers for herself. Yes, that was a good place for her to test the waters of her limited warrior skills.
And then her thoughts turned to Xena. She wanted nothing more than to be there at the rendezvous point to meet up with her lover and share in the happy reunion they were both anticipating. Would Xena understand if Gabrielle wasn't there to greet her? And who would she send in her place?
The answer to the last question popped into her head with perfect clarity.
“Ephiny will lead our sisters into battle against Draco,” Gabrielle said absently. “As queen's regent, she has the power and authority to make decisions in my absence. I think it's time she proved her worth.”
Solari nodded sagely. “You're very wise, yer maj.” She smiled. “Not that we haven't learned that over these last few weeks.”
“I guess I'm going to Surra, instead,” Gabrielle sighed, as her heart ached painfully in her chest at the prospect of not being there with Xena. “I just hope this doesn't come back to bite us all in the butt,” she sighed wistfully. “So, how do we warn Xena that her allies might be planning a coup against her once Draco is out of the picture?”
“I could send a couple messengers ahead as a covert advance,” Solari smiled.
“And who do you have in mind for this covert mission?” Gabrielle shot her companion a raised-browed look.
“Rayna and Margalene,” Solari replied and received a curt nod. “Who will you take with you on your mission to liberate Surra, My Queen?”
“Hm,” Gabrielle considered that question thoughtfully. “With Ephiny going off with the main force, I guess that leaves you, Sehran, Eponin—who probably should go with Eph and the main force. I don't know. Who else is there? With Draco and his army gone, do you really think I'll need all that many with me?”
“We don't know what Draco will do once Xena puts her plan into action and lures him away from Surra,” Solari shrugged. “He might just leave a skeleton detachment to guard the keep in his absence. Or he could leave more than a hundred men behind. There's no telling.”
“From what little Xena's told me about him, he'll want to squash her like a bug and will take as many men with him as possible,” Gabrielle added. “He hates losing and won't want to take a chance that she could possibly get the upper hand against him. That's why he allied himself with Pompeii and Rome. He wanted to wipe out her entire army in one fell swoop.”
“So, that means he won't be worried about Surra, then,” Solari nodded. “He'll leave a skeleton detachment there and let the servants fend for themselves.”
“Probably,” Gabrielle agreed. “He's just arrogant enough to think that there won't be a threat there, anyway.”
“Then a dozen of our best warriors and your guard should do the trick,” Solari suggested. “And please don't try to protest against it, My Queen. Your life is worth the price of a few seasoned warriors in the army's main ranks.”
“Okay, fine,” Gabrielle smiled. “You win.”
“Only when we reach Surra, secure the keep and clear out all the riffraff,” Solari added.
“So, you're going with me, then?” Gabrielle shot the woman a knowing gleam. “Won't you miss out on all the bloody and gory fun?”
“I've seen my share of blood and gore, yer maj,” Solari shrugged. “It isn't all it's cracked up to be. Believe me.”
Gabrielle snickered. “No, I suppose it isn't.”
They sat there in companionable silence for a while longer, until the orange sun dipped toward the horizon and turned several shades of fuchsia and gold. The wispy clouds above blazed with the same bright colors, as well as with shades of blue and purple. It was a picturesque ending to an otherwise uneventful day, as two horses munched on the late-summer grass and their riders mulled over the days ahead.
Xena was frustrated, angry and wanted nothing more than to rip someone's heart out. And the most likely candidate was standing in front of her with his arms over his linen-clad chest and a smug smile on his thin lips. Eyes the color of a clear blue sky stared back at her from a face framed in dark, shoulder-length hair. He stood not quite a head taller than her and looked for all the world like the cat (yes, she'd seen them in Egypt) that ate the proverbial canary.
“You're not going to get us to agree to your terms without making some real concessions, there, sister dear,” Toris said in a tone that grated on her last nerve. “We have no reason to trust that you will not take the Athenian army and run rampant throughout all of Greece again. No concessions, means no army. No army, means you are on your own, sis. And I don't think you can go up against Draco's army with a few scraggly warrior women and a handful of mercenaries and actually win.” He chuckled at his last words. “Not that I don't think you aren't willing to try it. I just don't think even the infamous Conqueror of the Known World is that good.”
“You were a shit when we were growing up and you're still a shit, Toris!” Xena hissed, as she jabbed a finger in his face. “I don't know how you managed to weasel your way into the good graces of the Athenian council, but I do know you for who you really are, you little coward. And if you know what's good for you, brother dear, you'll convince the council that it is in their best interests to release the army into my command. I'm not going to go traipsing off on a rampage with those troops. I just need them to put my plan into action. Then you and your damned cronies can go back to your political games and I can go on my merry way.”
A dark brow quirked on his features. “Are you seriously trying to convince me you're not going to run off with the army and leave Athens undefended?” He burst out laughing. “That is the funniest damned thing I've heard since you defeated Cortese and left Amphipolis to conqueror the world, little sister.”
“You wouldn't know what happened after Cortese, brother dear, you weren't there,” Xena shot back. “You were too busy running away with your tail tucked between your damned legs.”
His eyes narrowed at her. “I was protecting innocents from your violent machinations.”
It was Xena's turn to laugh. “You seriously want me to believe you ran like a coward in order to protect the innocent? What kind of bullshit excuse is that? I watched you turn tail and run with the rest of the women, Toris. When Cortese's men came over that rise toward the village, you took off in the other direction without a backward glance. You disappeared into the trees and no one saw you again—not even Mother.”
His face reddened, as his own temper flared. “You've no idea what you're talking about, Xena. You were too busy playing hero to know what was going on behind the scenes.”
“And you were too busy running with that yellow streak down your back to stand up for your fellow countrymen like a real man,” she hissed. “Just like you're too cowardly to stand up in front of that council and convince them that Draco needs to be stopped, once and for all. You don't know what it's like out there, brother dear. There are people starving and entire villages being destroyed by the raiders who are even now running rampant throughout Greece. Draco hasn't lifted a finger to stop any of it and he is just starting to use his men to squeeze what little taxes he can out of the populace. What do you think he'll do when his reach extends to Athens? Do you think you and your council of geezers will be immune to his tyranny? He won't stop until he presses his boot heels against even your scrawny neck, brother dear.”
“I'm not scared of a bully like Draco, Xena,” Toris responded. “I'm no more scared of him than I am of you, sister dear.”
Xena snaked out a hand, grabbed him by the throat and leaned in close, until only he could hear her. “I'm the least of your worries, Toris. There are warlords out there, as we speak, who are just awaiting the chance to fill the vacuum of power that has been left in my wake.”
She let him go and grinned menacingly when he gasped and took a step away from her. Putting a hand to his throat, he glared at her with far less bravado than he'd had before.
“I'll…talk…to…the…council,” he rasped through his bruised windpipe. “But I won't …make…any…guarantees.”
“We'll talk to them together, brother dear,” Xena growled low. “Not that I don't trust you, but…” She shrugged. “Well, I don't trust you—simple as that.”
“I always knew you'd grow up to be a real bitch, Xena,” Toris groused, as they made their way toward the austere council chambers at the end of the hallway.
Xena just smiled.
“Are you ready, My Queen?” Ephiny eyed Gabrielle anxiously, as the woman stood across from her with her staff held at the ready.
They were in the middle of a makeshift arena of avid onlookers on the practice field and it was several candlemarks into another beautiful, cloudless morning. After eating a meal of palatable gruel flavored with brown sugar and honey-coated nuts, the two women had agreed to a sparring session on the practice field. Eponin stood by as referee, just in case things got a little too heated against the two combatants.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I'm ready.”
“You sure?” Ephiny twirled the staff in her hands. “I promise to go easy on ya, yer maj.”
“Come on, sisters!” Queen Marena cheered. She stuck her fingers between her lips and whistled loudly, eliciting cheers from the rest of the crowd.
Gabrielle glanced around at the gathered throng and felt her nerves kick in.
“Just ignore ‘em, yer maj,” Eponin was right there beside her in an instant. “It's not about them. It's just the two of you doing a bit of sparring together.”
Gabrielle set her stance and glared at Ephiny. “We gonna get this show started? I have things to do today.”
Ephiny moved in closer and raised her staff in front of her. “I'm ready when you are, Gabby.”
Gabrielle felt her hackles rise at the use of the nickname. She'd always hated when the kids in the village called her Gabby. And it especially irked her that a simple word could still bother her. She tapped her staff against Ephiny's a bit harder than necessary.
“Let's do it,” Gabrielle threw several offensive strikes against the regent's staff, which Ephiny easily blocked.
“That all you got?” Ephiny teased. “I've seen the kids put more into this than you just did. Are you sure that crossbow bolt to your leg didn't affect your arms, too?”
Gabrielle knew what Ephiny was doing. She was baiting her and trying to get her to lose her temper. It was one of the strategies she and Eponin had talked about during a few of their sessions. Eponin's advice rang through her head, however—stay focused and keep a cool head. And return the favor whenever possible.
“I don't know, Eph,” Gabrielle slammed her stick against the regent's in a combination that had the woman on the defensive. “Is your new position as queen's regent giving you such a big head that you're having trouble focusing on the task at hand?”
Those closest to the action actually chuckled at the jibe, as did Eponin.
“Good one, yer maj,” Eponin smiled, receiving a glare from the curly-haired blond.
“Grrrrr,” Ephiny rose to the bait and immediately went on the offensive.
Gabrielle felt her instincts kick in, as Ephiny threw several offensive combinations at her that Eponin had never used before. It was all she could do to keep up with the lightning fast strikes the woman hit her with. Gabrielle suddenly realized she was out of her regent's league, at least as far as her fighting skills were concerned.
She didn't even realize that a hush had fallen over the crowd from those first few strikes. Beads of sweat appeared on her brow, as Gabrielle narrowed her focus to the woman in front of her. She used every defensive maneuver in her repertoire and a few moves even Eponin hadn't taught her. Her mind raced ahead to each new strike, as she started seeing a pattern develop in her opponent's moves.
When she finally had Ephiny's rhythm down, she saw the holes in the woman's defenses. Without missing a beat, Gabrielle managed to throw in a few unanticipated moves of her own.
Surprised hazel eyes suddenly met green, as Ephiny realized Gabrielle was no longer completely on the defensive. The tide began to shift, ever so slowly, as Gabrielle found her own rhythm and used some offensive combinations that astounded even the weapons master, who stood at the edge of the makeshift arena in stunned silence.
And then Ephiny accidently dropped her guard for a split second and Gabrielle took advantage of the opening she'd been waiting for. A quick jab to the midsection had Ephiny doubling over in a heart-stopping instant. Then Gabrielle followed it up with a quick sweep of her staff behind the knees. Ephiny landed on her back the next instant and lay staring up at the tip of Gabrielle's staff just inches from her face and the queen's grinning features beyond.
Cheers erupted from the crowd, as Gabrielle quirked a brow at her opponent and reached out a hand. Ephiny hesitated for only a heartbeat, before she grasped Gabrielle's forearm and allowed herself to be hoisted to her feet. More cheers followed and suddenly the crowd was pushing in towards the two sweat-drenched combatants.
“Yeah, yeah. BACK OFF!!!” Eponin moved in to shield Gabrielle from the press of bodies.
The well-wishers congratulated Gabrielle on her victory and many moved off. The crowd wasn't long in dispersing, as Amazons went back to their various activities.
“Geez, next time we outta charge admission,” Eponin groused when only a few of the Thracians still lingered. She then shot them a glare. “What? You girls ain't got nothin' better to do than hover around her maj like a bunch of wide-eyed puppies?”
Gabrielle ducked her chin and chuckled at the woman's protectiveness, while Ephiny put an arm around her shoulders.
“Okay, so I'm highly impressed, now,” Ephiny conceded with a wry smile. “Can't believe you took me down with such an elementary move, My Queen.”
Gabrielle shot the curly-haired blond an incredulous look. “Elementary, Eph? Really?” She looked over at Eponin, who handed her a water skin. “Is she trying to say she wasn't putting everything she had into that match?”
Eponin snorted. “Is that what you're saying, Eph? ‘Cause it looked to me like her maj had you dancing around like a badger on a feeding frenzy. She even used some moves I've never seen her use in our practice sessions.” Eponin shot Gabrielle a proud grin. “Nicely done, yer majesty. It was one of the best matches I've seen in a long time.”
Gabrielle drank half the water in the skin and poured the rest over her head. She shook the water free, spraying her companions. “Thank you, Eponin.”
“Ugh!” Ephiny held her hands up in surrender. “Was that really necessary, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle grinned innocently. “Thought you needed a good cooling off. You seemed a little hot under the collar, there, Eph.”
“Yeah,” Ephiny looked down at her cleavage. “My collar is ever so tight these days.”
“Okay,” Gabrielle glanced at Eponin and saw her snickering behind a hand. “So, anyway. Here's the deal, you two.”
“Uh oh,” Eponin shifted uncomfortably, as they moved off the practice field and stepped under a shade tree in a secluded area. “Why do I get the feeling we ain't gonna like what you're about to say, yer maj?”
Gabrielle stood with her back against the tree and stared out at the practice field. Several Amazons were doing drills, sparring or engrossed in all-out matches in preparation for the coming war. She marveled at the way they moved. They made it all look so effortless.
“I'm not going with you to meet up with Xena,” Gabrielle blurted after a moment.
“WHAT?!?” The two exclaimed in unison.
“You're not considering staying here…”
“No,” Gabrielle cut Ephiny off. “I'm not staying here. I'm going to Surra.”
“Surra?” Eponin ran a hand through her hair and looked at Gabrielle in confusion. “Isn't that where Xena used to…”
“It's where the keep is, yes,” Gabrielle interrupted. “I'm going there with a small group of warriors. We're going to liberate the keep and prepare it for Xena's return.”
Both Amazons stood there silently for a moment, as they pondered Gabrielle's words.
“Whose bright idea was that? What if Draco doesn't take the bait and ends up staying behind, instead?” Ephiny frowned. “What if he sets a trap? You could be walking into something you're completely unprepared for, Gabrielle.”
“That's why Solari is going with me,” Gabrielle replied confidently. “I trust her judgment and I trust her. Besides, there's another reason I'm not going with you to meet up with Xena.”
“And what's that?” Eponin piped in. “You afraid Xena won't be receptive to you? ‘Cause I got it on good authority she's head-over-heels in love with ya.”
“No,” Gabrielle couldn't help but smile. “But thanks for that, Pon. No, it's just that I don't want to be a distraction. And there's something else.”
“Solari and her spies are hearing some disturbing things from the other tribes,” Gabrielle went on and then glanced around to be sure they were truly alone. “There are grumblings from some that they don't want Xena back in power once Draco is taken care of. Solari couldn't put anything specific to the rumors. She just thinks the other tribes might turn on Xena when Draco is defeated.”
“You think an Amazon will try to kill Xena?” Eponin looked skeptical.
“I don't know what to think,” Gabrielle said. “But Solari is concerned that having me right there in the thick of it might be too much of a distraction for the rest of you. That's why she thought it would be better if I take a group to Surra, instead.” She looked pointedly at Ephiny. “That means you'll be in charge of our warriors, Eph. I guess this will be your first official act as regent of the tribe.”
Ephiny looked like she was about to choke. “Me?” Her voice actually squeaked.
Eponin elbowed the woman in the ribs. “What's wrong, Eph? Not up to the challenge of playing queen for a day?”
Ephiny glared daggers at the woman. “You'll be right there with me, Pon. Don't get too glib about it.”
Eponin's eyes widened. “Buh…”
Gabrielle slapped a hand over her mouth, but it didn't stop the giggles that escaped. “You two are priceless, you know that?”
“Laugh it up, Gabs,” Eph smiled. “At least we'll have Xena there with us.” She wiggled her eyebrows a few times. “Could be interesting, just the three of us.”
Gabrielle's laughter stopped instantly. “Keep your mitts off her, Eph. If I even hear that you made eyes at Xena, I'll…”
“You'll what?” Ephiny shot back with a teasing grin. “You gonna come all the way from Surra and kick my butt?”
“Um, Eph?” Eponin shot her companion a worried look. “I don't think you'd hafta worry about what Gabrielle'll do if you make eyes at Xena. ‘Cause I think Big Xe'll just squash ya where you stand.”
“Good point, Eponin,” Gabrielle nodded sagely and caught the look of terror in Ephiny's eyes. “Oh, don't worry, Eph. I'm sure Xena'll go easy on you. She's pretty good about that.” She finished by patting the regent's shoulder, as she walked past her and made her way back toward the village.
“You don't think—” Ephiny shot Eponin a questioning look.
“What? You worried that Xena'll figure out you have a certain blond queen in your crosshairs?” Eponin grinned slyly. “Nah. I'm sure she's none the wiser.”
Eponin then patted Ephiny's shoulder and followed in Gabrielle's footsteps toward the village. Ephiny just stood there for a moment, trying to figure out if the weapons master was playing with her or if she was serious. Then it occurred to her what Eponin had actually said.
Xena was finally feeling good about the mission she had set out on all those weeks ago. She stood in a clearing with more than three thousand men spread out before her. Some were Athenian infantry, others were Corinthian cavalry and still others were mercenaries she'd recruited from cities and towns she'd visited. It helped that she'd tacked up a few posters around Athens and Corinth, requesting seasoned warriors for an important and secret mission.
It wasn't her usual way of doing things and she wasn't going to pay the mercenaries until all was said and done. That had earned her some grumbles, until her signature glare shut them up. She was even mildly surprised when several members of her former army stepped forward to offer their services, for old time's sake. She'd put those men to work sifting through the riffraff to find the real warriors.
“Eh, Xena,” a gruff soldier in worn leather approached and stood next to her. He crossed his bracered arms over his muscular chest and watched the activity in front of them with a discerning eye.
“Braes,” Xena greeted the man, who was her height and wore his graying hair shaved close to his head. “Report?”
“Found us a blacksmith and tanner to uniform the men,” he replied. “Still looking for a sword smith to make some extra weapons. The Athenians and Corinthians brought their own, as did the mercenaries. The rest'll need what we can muster. Right now they're using old practice swords and wooden shields we found in that armory you told us about. There were a couple dozen spears, some battle axes and several crossbows, too.”
“Good,” Xena nodded without taking her eyes off the scene spread out before her. “I want the men assembled and ready for drills at dawn tomorrow, Braes. We don't have a lot of time left before the Amazons arrive and we have to put this all together.”
“You think it'll work?” Braes shot her a quick glance.
He knew Xena was the Conqueror. He also knew she hadn't been fighting the Persians for the last several moons. Those were just rumors. After arriving in Corinth and securing the keep there, Xena had paid out a good deal of coin to spread rumors throughout the land that the Conqueror was back and was readying her army to confront Draco. Braes, who had been at the keep at the time, was the first soldier she had recruited for her new army. She promoted him from palace guard to general that very day. It was one of the proudest of his life.
“Can't believe the Athenians just marched in here and took over, as if they own the damned place,” he commented, as they both watched one of the Athenian commanders lose his temper with a group of mercenaries and shout at the top of his lungs.
“I think they need a taste of Corinthian steel to temper their enthusiasm,” Xena smiled. “Maybe you and your men can schedule some sparring matches to pit the Athenians against the rest. I don't want any serious injuries, unless it can't be helped. But some friendly competition might be in order.” She grabbed the sword hilt at her back and pulled it free, then twirled it expertly. “If you get any lip from any of ‘em, send ‘em my way and I'll take care of it. I didn't get to be Conqueror of the Known World by sitting on my throne and making everyone else have all the fun.”
“Right, you are, Xena,” Braes pounded a fist to his leathers in salute and nodded.
“Let's put the final touches on this charade, shall we?” Xena glanced his way with a note of finality in her eyes. “It's time to drop the informality and put this plan into action.”
He saluted in earnest this time. “Yes, Lord Conqueror,” he bowed his head slightly.
She nodded austerely as he left her. She then set her posture to that of the woman she had been before Rome and Draco had entered the picture. As she straightened to her full height, she felt her confidence return tenfold. Her heart swelled as she realized things were really starting to come together. Now all she had to do was wait for Gabrielle and the Amazons to show up.
Thoughts of her young lover brought a smile to her lips and warmed her heart. She couldn't wait to hold Gabrielle in her arms again. That thought alone had her heart pounding wildly in her chest and it was all she could do not to dance with glee. Yes, for the first time in her life she was truly happy. It was strange and foreign and made her feel like a young girl again.
“Conqueror,” a man in Athenian armor stepped up beside her with a stern expression on his bearded face. “A word?”
“Yes, General Griggs,” Xena pulled herself out of her musings to address the stocky man who stood a full head shorter than her. “What is it?”
“My men are not used to dealing with…”
“Your men are no longer yours for as long as I say, General,” Xena cut him off impatiently. “Their services were bought and paid for by me. They are now part of my army and will learn to fit in with the rest of these men without anymore whining or sniveling from you or anyone else. Understood?”
She rounded on him with a lethal glare and a hiss that had him instantly thinking twice about the protest he was about to voice. He took a step back and held his breath, as he waited for her next words or the blow that seemed forthcoming. He'd already seen a handful of his fellow commanders fall under swift blows from the steely-gazed woman. And she had already proven how deadly she could be when her ire was raised.
As a matter of fact, his promotion to general came after his predecessor's head was lopped from his shoulders by the very blade she shoved back into the scabbard at her back. Those images still haunted his dreams and made him shudder when in her presence.
“No buts, General,” Xena barely contained her anger at the man's insipid tone. “I am in charge of this army, not you. I decide what happens and when. Not you. You, General Griggs, will follow my orders to the letter without complaint or I will replace you with someone else. Do I make myself clear?”
“Y-yes, Lord Conqueror,” he stammered with far less bravado than before.
“Is there anything else you wish to add to this discussion, General?” Xena ground out between clenched teeth.
“N-no, Lord Conqueror,” he answered. “My apologies for bothering you, m'lord.”
He put a fist to his chest and bowed before her, then turned on his heel and strode away with his blood-red cape billowing behind him. Xena barely spared him a glance, as she rolled her eyes in indignation. She was tired of the Athenian commanders. There wasn't a decent one in the bunch and she was tempted to clear the lot of them out and replace them with their mercenary counterparts.
Now, those guys could follow orders without question, as long as you promised to pay them handsomely for their services. But at least they provided results and didn't whine about not receiving preferential treatment. The Athenians, on the other hand, just kept whining about everything—the food, the fact they had to sleep on the hard ground, bugs in their bedrolls, the latrines and the list went on and on.
Xena caught movement out of the corner of her eye and turned to see something that took her completely by surprise. Four women on horseback and dressed as Amazons trotted towards her from the trees. They had feathers in their hair and swords strapped to their backs, just like Amazons, but Xena knew full well Amazons weren't known for their equestrian skills.
Several groups of men stopped what they were doing to watch the women ride toward the lone Conqueror at the edge of the clearing. Once the women reached Xena, they dismounted and gathered around her.
“Lord Conqueror,” the woman in front put a fist to a breast and bowed. The others followed suit.
Xena crossed her arms over her chest. “Last time I saw Amazons on horseback they were riding out of Amphipolis toward the Amazon village and their queen was with them.”
“Queen Gabrielle sends her regards,” Elys stepped up next to Margalene and gave another quick salute.
“Oh, she does, does she?” Xena eyed the youth with the long straight blond hair tied back with a leather thong. She wasn't quite dressed like the others. She wore a pair of leather pants, instead of the short skirt the others wore. Xena figured it was to protect her legs while riding. “And you are?”
“My name's Elys,” the youth grinned. “I take care of the horses. Queen Gabrielle appointed me chief wrangler shortly after her arrival in the village. She wanted someone to take care of Ebony for her.”
A dark brow quirked on Xena's features. “She named him Ebony?”
Elys smiled. “No, actually I did. She just kept calling him Black or Boy. He much prefers Ebony, though.”
“Are you done, Elys?” Ashante, the messenger, growled.
“Hey, Ashante,” Elys playfully threw a shoulder against the shorter woman. “Queen Gabrielle told me to tell Xena that she sends her regards.” She then looked at the imposing woman standing before them. “And she also asked me to do this.” Elys approached Xena and gave her an enthusiastic hug.
Margalene and Rayna didn't bother to hide their snickers, as the youth took Xena completely by surprise. The hug lasted less than five heartbeats, but that was enough for Xena to take a step away from the kid and glare.
“Are you suicidal or just plain stupid?” Ashante slapped Elys on the arm, as the youth backed away to stand with her sisters.
“It's what Queen Gabrielle said to do,” Elys shrugged.
“She told you to do that in the privacy of the Conqueror's quarters, you idiot,” Ashante shot back. “Not out here in the middle of the damned camp.”
Elys scratched her head. “Ooooh, yeah, that's right. I forgot. Sorry, Lord Conqueror.”
Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Kids, she mused. Then she realized the kid was just delivering a message from Gabrielle. A rather personal message, but a message just the same.
“Come with me,” Xena said, as she strode toward a group of tents situated at the far end of the field.
They reached the largest tent in the group and were greeted by a young, clean-shaven soldier in brand-new armor. He glanced from the Conqueror to the four women and then back again.
“My liege,” he bowed his head. “How may I serve you?”
“Take the horses and give them food and water,” Xena ordered, as she pulled her tent flap aside and motioned for the women to enter. She then turned to the two guards standing at rigid attention. “See that we're not disturbed for any reason.”
The guards saluted, as Xena ducked inside. The tent was spacious enough to house a small bed, a large table piled with scrolls, two chairs and a clothing trunk. A hand-drawn map of the area hung near the table and was dotted with symbols for trees, streams, hills and other topography.
Xena walked over to a smaller table tucked into one corner of the room and returned with a pitcher and several wooden cups. She handed each of the women a cup and poured dark ale into them.
“I figured you'd need something to quench your thirst,” Xena said, as she held her own cup up in salute and downed its contents.
The others did the same.
“Make yourselves comfortable,” Xena said, as she motioned to the chairs. “And let's just drop the formalities, for now. I'm not really in the mood for a lot of bowing and scraping from Gabrielle's friends.”
“Xena,” Ashante said with a wry grin. “Queen Gabrielle sent us with an urgent message to be delivered into your hands alone.” She pulled a small scroll case from the pouch at her waist and handed it over to the taller woman. “She said you should read it in private.” She glanced at the women near her. “We are to await a response and then return immediately to the village.”
Xena glanced at the scroll case in her hand. “There's a vacant tent right next door, if you want to go there and rest up. I'll have my men bring you food and drink, so you're set for the return journey.”
“Thank you, Xena,” Ashante nodded. “Queen Gabrielle said that you would sense the urgency of the situation, even before reading the missives.”
The Amazons didn't wait for Xena to acknowledge Ashante's words. They simply filed out of the tent and left Xena to read the messages in private.
Xena sat down with one leg thrown casually over a chair arm. She popped the end of the canister open and removed the scroll packed tightly inside. As she unrolled the small parchment, she discovered that there was at least one other inside the first.
She set the canister aside and read the first scroll. It was an official message from the Queen of the Thracian Amazons. She scanned through the official greeting and flowery opening that basically summarized the treaty signed between Melosa and the Conqueror. The rest of the message was a reaffirmation of relations between the Conqueror and the Thracian Amazons. But it also included some extra signatures that Xena didn't recognize, foremost of which was that of Queen Grenella of the Amazon tribe near Thermopylae. Xena knew that name from conversations with her aunt. Agatha talked about the spunky queen all the time and Xena had met the woman once.
Xena finished reading the scroll and wasn't impressed, even though Gabrielle had obviously penned it. But it basically just formally thanked the Conqueror for her continued adherence to the treaty and assured her that two of the tribes would support her efforts for a peaceful Greece. Fairly benign stuff. Xena figured it was Gabrielle's way of hiding the real missive, in case something happened to the messengers and someone somehow got their hands on the information within.
Before Gabrielle returned to the Thracian village, Xena schooled her in ways to send covert messages that wouldn't be discovered if someone were to intercept them. She showed Gabrielle how to compress two thin scrolls together to create one scroll that could later be pulled apart to reveal a hidden message underneath. She then went over some key words Gabrielle could use to clue Xena in to the hidden message.
“Okay, so let's see if Gabrielle remembered,” Xena muttered, as she set the first scroll aside and unrolled the second one.
This scroll brought a smile to her features, as she read the personal note that Gabrielle had penned to her alone. It talked about the time they would soon be spending together and hinted at the possibilities to come. Then Xena saw the telltale hints that Gabrielle had weaved into the written word. Several of the words were repeated, including the words “find”, “treasure”, “greet”, and “first”. She smiled proudly. Gabrielle remembered.
“Good girl,” she set the second missive aside.
Xena grabbed the first scroll and saw the small nick at the bottom of the parchment. She carefully peeled back the two pieces until the hidden message was revealed.
“That's my girl,” Xena beamed, as she scanned the third message.
A frown replaced the smile, however, when she read the message all the way through.
“Not coming?” Xena let the scroll drop to her lap, as she tried to absorb the impact of the words. “What the…” She reread the entire scroll again and the frown deepened. “She isn't coming because she's going to Potidea? Or is she going to Surra?”
She read the missive a third time and let the final words ring through her mind: It pains me greatly that I shall not be by your side, my love. But we shall meet again at the place where life changed for us forever. There are many for the light who see a different outcome than what is planned. They envision freedom without interference. But there are also those who know the truth. Trust in those who signed on with us. They hold the truth of what is to come. And be on guard when the darkness falls and it seems the light will prevail. For you are my one true love and I cherish every moment of our life together, more than anything else in this world.
Xena mulled the words over again and again, listening in her mind's eye for Gabrielle's voice behind the words. When she realized what the message really meant, she smiled sadly.
“You'll wait for me at Surra, my love,” Xena kissed the thin parchment. She then carefully folded it and tucked it into the hidden pouch in her belt. “So,” she quietly mused, as she stood up and paced the confines of her tent. “The Amazons are planning a coup after we deal with Draco. Gabrielle is liberating Surra and sending a few trusted allies along for the ride.” She sat back down and grabbed a blank piece of parchment and a quill. “Time to put this damned plan into action and give them all a little surprise they won't soon forget.”
Gabrielle was only half listening to the monotonous ramblings of the Amazon council. Three women—all of them older than dirt, at least in her eyes—had already expounded on the need to remain true to Amazon ideals and stick with the outmoded traditions of old. The current speaker was one of Gwyn-Taleen's tribal elders, an ancient woman by the name of Daellis. The woman had been at it for the better part of half a candlemark and had yet to say anything of importance. It was aggravating that they were merely wasting time.
“Elder Daellis,” a younger voice interrupted and had all eyes suddenly turning toward the crowd to see who had dared interrupt one of the elders. “As enthralled as we are by your sage words of wisdom, we really need to get to the point of this meeting.”
An Amazon in her mid-to-late twenties, with auburn hair and eyes the color of a stormy gray sky, stood up to address the assemblage. She walked with a queen's bearing, but only wore a warrior's band around one arm and sported a long bow across her chest.
“Who are you?” Daellis glared at the newcomer with angry eyes. “How dare you speak before this assemblage without being called upon to do so.”
“I dare, because I am the rightful heir to the Thracian queen's mask,” the newcomer stepped forward and glared directly at Gabrielle. “She,” a slender finger pointed toward Gabrielle, “is the one who dares sit upon a throne she has no right to claim.”
Gabrielle stood up and crossed her arms over her chest. She felt Ephiny step up behind her, but put a hand up to forestall any interference.
“Velasca, I presume?” Gabrielle said in a calm tone that belied her irritation.
Velasca looked down her nose at her adversary. “Terreis was obviously not in her right mind when she named you as her successor,” she sneered. “You're not exactly worthy to wear that mask, now are you?”
Gabrielle felt her hackles rise, but quickly let the tension go. “My name is Gabrielle and I'm queen of the tribe now.”
“Says you,” Velasca looked Gabrielle over like a horse trader assessing new stock. “If you were half the queen you're supposed to be, these proceedings would not be allowed to drag on and on like so much monotonous drivel.” She glanced around at the assemblage. “Why are you Amazons sitting here, listening to this crap, when there is a war brewing and tyrants to destroy? It's time to act. The time for talk ended long ago.”
“You are not recognized here, Velasca,” Queen Grenella stepped forward with her ceremonial staff. “You are neither a queen nor an elder of a tribe.”
Velasca raised her arms at her sides. “I am an Amazon. That alone gives me a voice on this council.”
“You are an Amazon without a tribe,” Gabrielle added. “You were banished from our tribe when you and your followers tried to take the queen's mask from Melosa.”
“Melosa was weak,” Velasca hissed. “She didn't deserve to wear that mask.” She moved to within inches of Gabrielle. “And neither do you, little girl. Do you really expect these women to allow you to lead them into battle alongside the infamous Conqueror, herself? You're nothing.” She chuckled. “You're not even a true Amazon.”
There was a collective gasp from those assembled.
“Good point,” Gabrielle shrugged. “Not the part about me not being an Amazon, though. My adoption into the tribe was witnessed by our elders the same day I accepted the mask. But maybe you think you're a better leader than I am, Velasca?”
Velasca smirked. “You would give up the mask and step aside as queen of the Thracians, just like that?”
Gabrielle snorted. “Hardly.”
Velasca's eyes narrowed. “What game do you play, little girl?”
“No game,” Gabrielle answered. She glanced at her regent and caught the confusion in Ephiny's expression. “There's only one way you'll ever get this mask, Velasca.” She mouthed the words “trust me” to her regent and then turned around to face the other woman. “You'll have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers. And somehow I don't think you're up to the task.”
A rumble of murmured voices followed Gabrielle's words. Velasca glanced around at the Amazons in the room and then returned her attention to the woman standing defiantly before her.
“Oh,” Velasca smirked, “I think I'm more than up to the task, little girl. As a matter of fact, I do believe a challenge is in order.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
More murmurs from those in the room followed Velasca's words.
“Are you issuing a challenge for the queen's mask, Velasca?” Queen Grenella piped in.
“I am,” Velasca lifted her chin defiantly.
“Do you accept the challenge, Queen Gabrielle?” Grenella glanced from one woman to the other.
Gabrielle shot Velasca a wry half-smirk. “That depends.”
“On what does your acceptance depend?” Grenella asked.
“On whether I get to choose the weapon,” Gabrielle returned.
“That is your right as the who has been challenged,” Grenella shot Velasca a hard glare. “Do you accept the terms, Velasca?”
Velasca shot Gabrielle a pointed look. “You're not planning on talking me to death, are you?”
Gabrielle ignored the snickers around the room and shook her head. “No.”
“Then I accept,” Velasca said.
“I accept, as well,” Gabrielle kept her gaze locked on Velasca. “And I choose to fight with the staff.”
Velasca turned a pout on those around her. “Oh, a child's weapon?” She shot Gabrielle a raised-browed glare. “What? Didn't Eponin teach you to use a more challenging weapon, like, say, chobos? I haven't had to lower myself to using a staff since I graduated to a practice sword. And I was ten when that happened.”
“The weapon has been chosen for the challenge, Velasca,” Grenella said. “As challenger, it is your right to choose a suitable venue.”
Velasca pretended to consider that for a moment. “Oo, goody,” she sneered. “So, what will it be? Shall we go for the standard arena setting on the practice field? Or do we make this a bit more challenging?” She glanced around with a wry smirk, as she tapped a finger against her lips. “Hm, let's see.” She cast Ephiny a bored scowl. “A little birdie once mentioned that our little queen, here, has an aversion to climbing trees.” She rounded on Gabrielle with a knowing gleam in her dark-gray eyes. “Is that true, little girl?” Velasca added with a tilt to her head. “Are you afraid of heights?”
Gabrielle kept her expression neutral. “I'm not sure swinging a staff in a tree will be all that easy for either of us, Velasca.”
“No, I don't suppose it will,” Velasca seemed to consider thoughtfully. “But it will make things quite interesting when you lose your balance up there and fall to your death. Don't you think? I'm sure not adverse to you breaking that pretty little neck of yours.”
“Yeah, I'm sure,” Gabrielle shot back.
“Has the venue been chosen, then?” Grenella glanced from one woman to the other. “Am I to understand you'll be taking your challenge to the trees?”
“Then a challenge has been issued,” Grenella slammed the end of her staff onto the floor twice. “No further business shall be conducted until the challenge for the mask of the Thracian tribe is resolved. We are adjourned until then.”
“See you out there, little girl,” Velasca shot Gabrielle a smug grin, as she turned and marched from the room without a backward glance.
The room erupted in a cacophony of voices, as most of assemblage filed out in Velasca's wake. When the room was nearly empty, Gabrielle felt a presence at her shoulder and glanced over to find Ephiny standing next to her with a frown.
“Well, that went well,” Ephiny said. “We knew it would eventually come to this, I guess.”
“Yes,” Gabrielle nodded, as she swallowed down the bile threatening to choke her. “I'm a dead woman.”
Ephiny put a comforting hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. “Not yet, you're not. You can beat her, Gabrielle.”
“I second that,” Marena said, as she came up on Gabrielle's other side. “You can beat her to a bloody pulp with that little stick of yours. And you will.”
“Um, guys,” Gabrielle stepped forward and turned to face them. “I haven't climbed a tree in—” She considered that thought for a moment. “Oh, for the love of the gods, you two, who am I kidding? There's no way I'm going to beat her. She's a seasoned warrior and I'm just…”
“You can beat her, Gabrielle,” Ephiny grabbed Gabrielle's upper arms. “You just have to use something Velasca doesn't have.”
Gabrielle eyed Ephiny skeptically. “And what's that, Eph? I don't think talking her to death is really going to work, in this instance.”
“No, it won't,” Ephiny put a finger against her temple. “But you're not stupid, Gabrielle. You just have to outsmart her up here. Don't let her get to you and make her fight on your terms, not hers. Use your head.”
“And if all else fails,” Marena added with a grin. “Knock her into next week.”
Gabrielle slapped a hand against her eyes. “Ugh! You two have no idea how impossible this is going to be.”
Ephiny sobered. “You have to win, Gabrielle. Your life depends on it.”
The words hung there like a heavy pall as the full impact hit Gabrielle like an enormous boulder. This wasn't about a simple sparring match and a few bruises. This was a life or death struggle—kill or be killed. There was no middle ground. Either she killed Velasca and ended the threat once and for all or she died trying.
“I can't,” Gabrielle shook her head. “I won't kill someone over something so, so petty. Isn't there another way?”
“Gabrielle, like it or not, you're an Amazon now,” Ephiny's expression remained serious. “You're also the queen of our tribe. If you don't take this seriously, then you don't deserve to wear that mask. You don't deserve to be queen.” Her expression softened. “But both Terreis and Melosa saw something in you that the rest of us have yet to see. I don't think even you know what that is, yet.” She took Gabrielle's hands in hers. “Have faith that you'll come through this a stronger person for having risen to the challenge. And know that we'll all be pulling for you.” She squeezed Gabrielle's hands and smiled. “Or just do it for Xena.”
“Xena?” Gabrielle met Ephiny's gaze. “What does she have to do with this?”
“Well,” Ephiny shrugged, “if you die, where does that leave her? Eh? Without you here to temper the Conqueror's rather volatile disposition, who knows what might happen? She may just go on another violent rampage and wipe us all off the face of the earth.”
“Or turn into a complete mushball,” Gabrielle chuckled wryly.
“I'm actually with Ephiny on this one, Gabrielle,” Marena added. “Rumor has it the Conqueror doesn't do well at holding her temper when those she loves are taken from her. Look what happened when her brother was killed during the skirmish with Cortese.”
“You know about that?” Gabrielle shot the woman a bewildered look. “How could you possibly know it was her brother's death that set her on the path to her rise to power?”
“The bards' tales aren't all complete nonsense,” Marena shot back. “There has to be some truth to all the hogwash they come up with. Besides, I have a reliable source in her hometown that can vouch for the truth of that rumor.”
“How do you know where the Conqueror is from?” It was Ephiny's turn to glare at the woman. “No one knows that. I didn't even know until just recently.”
“Melosa wasn't the only one to use spies to ferret out information, Regent,” Marena answered. “And my source is quite reliable—enough so that I know the Conqueror is none other than Xena of Amphipolis.”
“And what do you gain by that information, Marena?” Gabrielle glanced at Ephiny and saw that she was thinking along the same lines. “Why would you want to know who the Conqueror is?”
Marena's brow shot up. “Oh, please, Gabrielle. You don't think there are any number of Amazons in the Nation who weren't curious enough to put a few feelers out there when Melosa signed that treaty, do you? Her actions don't just affect you Thracians. They affect all of us—because what happens to one tribe generally affects the entire Nation.”
“It was you,” Ephiny couldn't keep the indignation out of her tone. “You were the one who slipped the poison to Queen Melosa—the poison that killed her.”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Marena answered. “Why would I poison a fellow Amazon queen? Whatever would I gain by her death?”
“You knew about Xena and Gabrielle,” Ephiny continued. “Your spy clued you in about their relationship and you figured you would find a way to capitalize on that—use the information to your advantage. All you had to do was get Melosa out of the picture and make sure Gabrielle took her place as queen. So, you had someone slip something into either Melosa's food or her drink that would make it look like she died of a sudden illness. Did you count on Velasca issuing this challenge? Because if Gabrielle dies by Velasca's hand, you have a much bigger problem on your hands than having Xena resume her role as Conqueror. Velasca will take over and find a way to get herself declared over-ruler of all the tribes. It's what she wants. It's what her mother wanted and never had the chance to accomplish.”
Gabrielle's eyes widened at Ephiny's words. “You knew and didn't tell me?”
“Sorry, Gabrielle,” Ephiny cast an apologetic half-grin Gabrielle's way. “I really didn't want to scare the crap out of you with all this.”
“Speculation,” Marena added with a wry smirk. “Because you have no proof.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and shook her head in consternation. “Seriously, Eph? You really need to fill me in on more than just those particulars that you feel won't throw me into a complete tailspin and send me over the edge into complete insanity! I mean, isn't it enough that I fell into this with very little warning? Now I have to find out that my nemesis is a complete psycho Amazon with delusions of grandeur?”
“Hey, calm down, Gabrielle,” Ephiny chastised. “It's not like you've been all that stable over these past few moons, yourself. What with the attack at Surra, Terreis' death, your leg injury, Melosa's untimely death and your subsequent rise to power? That's way more than even I could handle, ya know?”
Gabrielle shot her a raised-browed glare. “And a little heads-up about Velasca coming here to take over the entire Nation isn't something I can handle—on top of everything else?” She hissed the last.
“It was part of your plan all along, wasn't it?” Ephiny turned her attention on Marena. “Is Velasca your girlfriend, then?”
Marena smirked. “Lover.”
Gabrielle could feel it coming together. She watched a smug grin split Marena's features. The woman was insufferable, but the plan had worked. Ephiny was right. Marena was an easy target and her faith in Velasca would be her undoing.
“I thought you were on our side, Marena,” Gabrielle shot the woman a disappointed glare.
“If there's one thing I've learned over the years, Gabrielle,” Marena added, “it's to keep my friends close and my enemies closer.”
Gabrielle watched as the redhead turned on her heel and strode from the room. She then rounded on her regent with a scowl of frustration. She was angry, but not at Ephiny. The woman had actually figured out who was responsible for Melosa's death, after all.
“You okay?” Ephiny put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders.
“You were certainly right about both of them.”
“Well, we exposed Velasca's ultimate plan and got Marena to admit that she's been part of it all along,” Ephiny confirmed with a sad smile. “I wasn't really counting on her giving it away that easily. I thought it would take a lot more than that to break her. I was really just trying to get her to admit that she's got someone on the inside in Amphipolis. But you played your part well, My Queen.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle leaned against the regent. “And now I have to go out there and face off against Velasca in a fight to the death.” She sighed heavily. “Sucks to be queen.”
“On the bright side—”
Gabrielle lifted her head and looked at Ephiny. “There's a bright side?”
“There's always a bright side,” Ephiny grinned. “You just have to dig a little deeper for this one.”
“We didn't tell her the whole plan when we thought she really was on our side,” Ephiny said. “Thank goodness Solari and her little troop of spies managed to figure out who killed Melosa.”
“Do you think Velasca knows it was Marena who killed Melosa?” Gabrielle walked to the doorway and stared outside. “They're lovers, after all.”
“I don't really think Velasca cares,” Ephiny shrugged. “Melosa was just an obstacle in her path. She probably celebrated when she found out.”
“Probably,” Gabrielle sighed.
“You have to kill her, you know,” Ephiny added, placing a hand firmly on Gabrielle's shoulder. “There is no middle ground on this one, Gabrielle. She has to die.”
“I know,” Gabrielle placed a hand over Ephiny's. “I don't have to like it, though.”
“Like it or not, she won't hesitate to knock your head off up there,” Ephiny added. “She will kill you if you don't kill her first.”
“I get it,” Gabrielle's tone hardened. “I know what needs to be done, Eph.”
“Okay,” Ephiny gave Gabrielle's shoulder a final pat and then moved in front of her. “Artemis bless you, My Queen.”
Gabrielle wasn't quite prepared for the hug Ephiny wrapped her in, but returned it with gusto. “Artemis bless us all, Eph.”
“You can do this, Gabrielle,” Ephiny said in the queen's ear, as she rubbed the tension from stiff shoulders. “Don't think about the tree. Just concentrate on everything Eponin taught you and use your head.”
Gabrielle tried not to think about what she was about to do, as she stared up at the imposing tree in front of her. Velasca was standing on a thick branch about ten paces off the ground and the redhead was smirking down at her. Velasca already held a staff similar to hers in one hand, as she casually leaned up against the thick trunk.
“I'm waiting, little girl,” the challenger's tone dripped impatience and sarcasm. “Are we going to do this or not? I have things to do today. There's the masking ceremony to plan and we certainly can't forget to give you a proper funeral pyre. Artemis help us if you don't have a proper sending off to the Land of the Dead. Of course, we could just let Hades take you and be done with it. After all, you're not really an Amazon, now, are you.”
Gabrielle pulled her gaze from Velasca and glanced around at the many faces watching her expectantly. Some were sympathetic, while others beamed with anticipation at the coming fight. One woman actually seemed lick her lips. Then Gabrielle noticed a leg of mutton in the woman's hand and couldn't help but chuckle.
“What's so funny, yer maj?” Eponin came up on Gabrielle's other side.
Gabrielle shook her head. “Nothing. Just thinking how stupid this all is.”
“Okay, then let's get this started,” Ephiny stepped away from Gabrielle and gave her a little push toward the two Amazons waiting at the base of the tree.
They bent forward and clasped hands in anticipation of Gabrielle's approach. Then they looked at her expectantly. Gabrielle knew they were waiting to give her a boost up into the lower branches. She'd just seen Velasca step easily into their hands and hop up into the tree.
And then she heard something that gave her pause. The murmured voices around her seemed to quiet for a heartbeat and she caught the sound again. Hoof beats?
The distant sound of a galloping horse grew louder and a woman's high-pitched cry rang out across the field behind them. Gabrielle turned around and caught a black blur heading right toward the gathered crowd. She squinted in an effort to see who it was.
“My Queen?” Ephiny watched Gabrielle turn around and gaze toward something behind them all. “What is it?”
Gabrielle took a few steps toward the approaching figure and nearly fainted with relief when a woman on horseback pulled her mount to a halt at the edge of the parting crowd.
“Xena!” Gabrielle shouted, as she dropped her staff and darted toward the imposing woman in black and gold leather and armor.
Xena only had a heartbeat to brace herself before Gabrielle launched herself into her arms. She wrapped Gabrielle in a welcome hug and let everything else just fade into the background.
“Oh, Gabrielle,” Xena breathed in her lover's scent and reveled in the moment. Then she let Gabrielle slide slowly to the ground and looked into eyes the color of the Aegean, as she bent forward and met the soft lips beckoning invitingly. “Gods, I missed you so much.”
“Me, too,” Gabrielle couldn't help the tears that streamed down her cheeks, as she gazed up into the face of the woman she loved. “Are you really here?” She tentatively reached up and let her fingers trace the angular features and dark brows, then her thumb rested on those full lips. “You're really here.”
“I was going to send a message back with your Amazons,” Xena shrugged. “But then I figured I'd do the next best thing.” A wry grin lifted one corner of her mouth. “Besides, I really missed you.”
“Okay, if you two love birds are finished…” Ephiny's words cut into the moment, as two pairs of eyes suddenly turned her way. “Hey, it's not just you guys here, you know.”
Gabrielle met the expectant gazes of more than a hundred interested Amazons, while Xena's expression turned into a dark glower.
“What's going on here?” Xena returned her attention to Gabrielle. “Why are all these Amazons gathered around a damned tree? Did I interrupt some fertility ceremony or something?”
“Or something,” Gabrielle put a hand behind her neck and felt the tension return ten-fold.
Xena noticed the change come over the woman. “What is it, Gabrielle?”
“I've been challenged,” the words came out as barely more than a whisper. “Or, rather, my right to be queen is being challenged.”
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged a look.
“And,” Ephiny stepped forward with a conspiratorial grin, “as queen, it is also your right to appoint a champion to fight in your stead.”
Gabrielle's and Xena's gazes both snapped to Ephiny's.
“You're serious?” Gabrielle squeaked out.
“She is not only serious,” another voice joined the small group, “but what she says is true. Queen Gabrielle has the right to appoint a champion to fight for her, especially if said queen is not quite the skilled warrior she ought to be.”
Xena looked at the old woman now standing next to them. There was something familiar about the woman that Xena couldn't quite put a finger on, but she also noticed the queen's mask perched atop the gray head.
“Hello, Xena,” the woman smiled. “I see you're trying to put a name to this old, weathered face. Does Agatha's Grenella ring any bells for you?”
Sudden dawning lit a pair of azure eyes, as a grin split Xena's features. “Aunt Gren?” She received a nod and wrapped the old woman in a hug. “Gods, it's been years.”
“Yes, it has, child,” Grenella returned the hug and then pushed back enough to take in the confused faces of the others. “And don't give me that look, you three. Xena was just a little girl the last time I saw her.”
Xena wiped an errant tear from the corner of her eye. “Agatha brought Grenella to Amphipolis for a visit, once. She wanted my mother to meet the woman who had taken her as her consort.”
“I'd been queen for only a moon and had named Agatha as my champion,” Agatha added. “She was the most beautiful warrior in the entire tribe and could take on anyone who crossed her path.” She chuckled wryly, as she glanced from Xena to Gabrielle. “I guess the apple didn't fall far from the tree.”
“Oh, this is rich,” Velasca's snide voice had them all turning to look at her as she dropped from the tree and sauntered toward them. “The Conqueror herself, I presume?”
Xena crossed her arms over her chest. “And you are?”
“Why, I'm the true queen of the Thracian tribe, of course,” Velasca stood several paces away with a confident smirk. “You're just in time to see your little slut die by my hand.”
Xena took a menacing step forward and was stopped by three pairs of hands on her arms.
“No, Xena,” Grenella said. “This is in Gabrielle's hands.” Her gaze met expectant sea-green eyes. “You have only to say the words, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle glanced around at the faces watching her intently and then turned to the one that mattered the most to her. She took Xena's hands in hers and kissed each one, in turn. Then she looked up into shining blue eyes filled with love.
“Will you be my champion, Xena?”
A radiant smile broke out on features framed by midnight black hair. “It would be an honor, Queen Gabrielle.”
“I protest!” Velasca's shrill cry rose above the cheers from those closest to the small group. “Xena isn't even an Amazon! She can't be champion to this…this…”
“Enough!” Grenella shuffled over to stand before the woman. “There is nothing in Amazon law that says the queen must appoint another Amazon to be her champion. She may choose whomever she sees fit. And Gabrielle has made her choice. Xena has accepted and is now Champion to the Thracian Queen. Therefore, your protest is in vain, Velasca.” Grenella then let her next words carry over the assemblage. “Queen Gabrielle, do you choose to allow your champion to fight this challenge in your stead?”
Gabrielle turned around to face Velasca. She felt Xena move in behind her and place her hands on her shoulders in support. “I do, Queen Grenella.” She put a hand over one of Xena's and squeezed. “I ask my champion to defend my honor and fight Velasca in my stead.”
“It is settled, then,” Grenella glared triumphantly up into angry gray eyes. “You will fight Queen Gabrielle's Champion, instead.” She turned away from Velasca and looked at Xena. “Do you need some time to prepare, Xena?”
Xena shook her head. “Let's get this over with. I have more important things to do than stand here and waste time playing games.”
Snickers and chuckles followed her words, as the small group moved back into the trees. Grenella took the lead and stopped at the base of the same tree.
“Amazons!” She let her voice drift over the crowd. “There has been a slight change in plans. Queen Gabrielle has appointed a champion to fight in her stead. Xena of Amphipolis, formerly known at the Conqueror of the Known World, will be the one to defend the Thracian mask against Velasca's challenge.”
“What?!?” Marena stepped from the crowd and moved to Velasca's side. “Velasca? What in the name of Artemis is going on here? And why is she here?”
Velasca looked around at those closest to her. “This is just the first step, sisters! I warned you! Queen Marena warned you that this would happen!” She lifted her arms. “When will this end? Xena will stop at nothing to reclaim her former glory and see that our Nation is wiped from the face of Greece forever! She will even stoop so low as to sleep with one of our queens and use little Gabrielle, here, for her own dark ends!” She shot Gabrielle a sly smirk. “What will she do next, I ask you?!?”
“Velasca! Enough!” Grenella interjected. “Inciting the Nation against Xena won't change the fact that you challenged Queen Gabrielle's right to rule the Thracian tribe. Do you still wish to go forward with your challenge? Or do you withdraw?”
Velasca glanced around at the expectant faces watching her, then met Xena's gaze. “A fight to the death with the infamous former Conqueror—the woman who was bested by that slimy snake, Draco? I relish the chance to prove to the world, once and for all, that this woman is nothing more than a fraud and a pretender.”
Eponin tossed Gabrielle's staff to Xena, which she caught easily. “Let's stop jawing, then, and get this over with.”
“Fine,” Velasca stepped forward, until she was standing right in front of Xena and Gabrielle. She glared up at Xena and then turned her angry glare on Gabrielle. “When I'm finished with her, little girl, I will take care of you, just like I took care of Melosa.” Her smile was menacing. “There will be no one to protect you once your champion is dead.”
“Are you done grandstanding, Amazon?” Xena growled.
“Oh, I'm just getting started,” Velasca smirked, before she turned her back on the pair and ran toward the tree.
The two Amazons closest to the tree didn't have time to react, much less clasp their hands together in preparation for Velasca's approach. The redhead merely sprang past them and vaulted up into the branches. Velasca climbed higher with a maniacal laugh that echoed in the treetops above, until she stood on a branch high above.
“You coming, Xena?!?” Velasca shouted. “I'm waiting!”
Gabrielle gave Xena a quick hug and a peck on the lips. “Go get her, tiger. I'll be counting the heartbeats until you're back in my arms.”
A dark brow quirked and Xena cocked her head. “Tiger?” She grinned and caught the impish twinkle in Gabrielle's eyes. “You been talking to my mother?”
Gabrielle patted Xena's leather-clad hip. “Just go take care of Velasca and then we'll talk about what your mother has or has not told me. ‘kay?”
Xena kissed Gabrielle's forehead. “I'll be right back, love.”
With that said, Xena used the staff like a pole vault to launch herself up into the lower branches. She did a quick somersault in midair, grabbed a branch and twirled around it several times, then launched herself even higher. She then easily landed on her feet on a level with Velasca. She made it all look so effortless that those on the ground below were left in awe.
“She really knows how to make an entrance, doesn't she?” Ephiny commented next to Gabrielle.
“Yeah,” Eponin agreed with a nod. “Makes me want to take lessons. I mean, how the Hades does she do that, anyway? I've never seen nothin' like it and I've done my share of tree fightin', let me tell ya.”
“She's Xena,” Gabrielle shrugged, as if that said it all.
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged wry looks.
“If you say so,” Ephiny snorted.
Up in the trees, Xena twirled the staff in her hands as she balanced on the branch she'd landed on. She watched with a measure of satisfaction as Velasca's eyes widened at her impressive display.
“So, any rules I should know about? Or are we just gonna beat the snot outta each other until one of us falls to our death?” Xena smirked, as she stopped twirling the staff and let one end rest on the branch next to her booted foot.
Velasca didn't say a word, as she launched an offensive against Xena with an angry snarl. Xena easily dodged the first strike and lifted her staff to block the second.
“I guess that answers that,” Xena commented, as she easily blocked several more strikes and countered with a few of her own. “That all ya got, Amazon?” She knew her goading was having the desired effect on the redhead when Velasca growled again and practically lunged toward Xena. “Ah, ah, ah. Don't want to throw yourself off balance and go plunging head-first to your death.” She glanced down to emphasize her point. “It's a long way down.”
Velasca took the bait and recklessly launched another offensive against the woman towering over her with a triumphant smirk. She used every combination of moves she'd learned during her years as an Amazon warrior and even threw a few in that she hoped would catch Xena off her guard. Her frustration only mounted with each easily blocked blow. She briefly wondered why Xena wasn't launching her own offensive. Then it occurred to Velasca that Xena's skills were way out of her league.
Growing tired of the game she was playing with the woman, Xena finally decided it was time to give the Amazon a taste of what she'd been holding back. She let Velasca get close enough that she appeared to be about to breach her defenses and then Xena let loose her temper. She felt the bloodlust roil within her, as instincts honed to a razor's edge over years spent fighting abroad suddenly kicked in and took over. Xena's movements were a blur of precise strikes that quickly breached the surprised Amazon's defenses.
Xena moved from one branch to another with little effort, as she went after Velasca like an angry Minotaur. Her staff penetrated the redhead's defenses again and again, as she landed a number of painful blows that had Velasca reeling. One blow, in particular, slammed into the Amazon's face and sent a spray of blood from Velasca's mouth and nose. The redhead faltered and slammed into the tree trunk. She barely managed to remain upright and was panting heavily from her exertions.
“You chose the wrong woman to pick on, Amazon,” Xena hissed in a barely-controlled whisper. “No one threatens Gabrielle and gets away with it.”
Velasca spat out a bloody glob and chuckled maniacally. “You think there aren't others who won't step forward to take my place if you kill me, Xena? Your little slut will never be safe as long as she remains with the Amazons. My followers will hunt her down until she breathes her last. And there's nothing you or anyone else can do about it. She will die.”
Xena felt her temper snap like a twig, as she launched another offensive. She didn't even feel the few blows that Velasca managed to slip past her own defenses, as she rained blow after painful blow down on the redhead with blinding speed. They were like two dancers in a deadly contest, as they remained precariously balanced in the branches of the tree.
And then Velasca stumbled onto a branch that broke instantly under her weight. She toppled to a lower branch and landed across it on her stomach, knocking the wind out of her. She tried desperately to breathe, as she scrambled to keep a hold of the staff that fell from her hand and tumbled to the ground below.
Xena easily dropped to the same level as the Amazon and stood over Velasca. She peered at the obviously-injured woman with an angry scowl.
“It doesn't have to end like this, Amazon,” Xena said, as she reined her temper in and pushed the bloodlust down. “You can save yourself by leaving Greece forever.”
Velasca managed to right herself enough to get to her feet. She stood on unsteady legs and straightened enough to face Xena with a defiant lift of her bruised and bloody chin. She then reached into a hidden pocket in her skirt and pulled out a short dagger. The blade was sharp and gleamed in the sunlight that filtered through the trees.
“I am a true Amazon,” Velasca spat, as she held the dagger in front of her. “Unlike that little slut down there who can do no more than warm your bed. Is she really that good, Xena? Does she satisfy your needs? Or are you ready for a real woman to show you just what you're missing? Hm?” Her eyes held a manic gleam as she chuckled humorously and twirled the dagger in her fingers. “Seasoned warriors, like us, have needs that can never be satisfied by puny little wimps like Gabrielle. Eh, Xena?” She hopped a branch closer to the imposing woman. “I'll just bet your little slut doesn't have what it takes to make you writhe in pleasure.” And then she laughed out loud at the look of menace in the ice-blue eyes. “I didn't think so.”
Xena let the raging monster inside her erupt, as she swung with all her might at the laughing woman's head. The staff connected with a resounding thwack that rang through the trees and pierced the silent pall below. Velasca's head whipped around so fast that the bones in her neck shattered and she died instantly. The dagger flew from her lifeless fingers and embedded in the ground below, while all eyes watched in horror. A moment later, her lifeless body toppled from the branches and fell with a resounding thud to the ground below.
Everyone held a collective breath, as Xena easily dropped to the ground and stood over the lifeless body. She looked down into Velasca's unseeing eyes and smirked.
“You lose, Amazon,” she said in a tone devoid of emotion. Then she looked up and locked gazes with Gabrielle. “My Queen,” she bowed her head and dropped to a knee. “Victory is yours.”
Gabrielle slowly made her way over to where Velasca's twisted body lay. She glanced down at the gruesome sight and then closed her eyes tightly against the scene. She then glanced at the dark head bowed in front of her, completely ignoring the stunned faces of those around her.
“Please,” Gabrielle waited for Xena to look up at her, “The Conqueror does not bow before anyone. Nor does she take a knee before the queen of the Thracian Amazons.”
Xena stood up and took one of Gabrielle's hands in hers. She lifted her other hand and ran her fingers through Gabrielle's hair. “The Conqueror would gladly bow before the woman who has stolen her heart and made her life complete.” She closed the distance between them and took Gabrielle's lips in a searing kiss that left them both breathless.
And then several snickers and chuckles brought both women back to the matter at hand. They glanced sheepishly around them and saw smiles on the faces of those they knew.
“Are you two done?” Ephiny's words cut through the silence that hung over the crowd.
More chuckles followed and soon a loud cheer went up from those closest to the pair. Gabrielle blushed to her roots and ducked her face into Xena's leather-clad and armored chest.
“This is so embarrassing,” she muttered.
“This ain't nothin' compared to what goes on at a joining ceremony, yer maj,” Eponin piped in with a sly grin.
“Oh, gods,” Gabrielle squeaked and heard a growl out of her taller companion.
“Relax, your majesty,” Ephiny patted Gabrielle's back and then caught the deadly gleam in the ice-blue eyes glaring down at her. “Okay, okay, Xena, I can take hint. Why don't you take her back to the queen's hut and let us take care of…um…things, here,” she glanced at Velasca's body and then at the still-lingering crowd. “All right, everyone!” She waved her hands for them to disperse. “Go back to what you were doing before all the excitement started! Nothing else to see, here! Go on! GO!”
The crowd of Amazons slowly dispersed with mumbles and grumbles from those who were reluctant to leave the area. A few hung to one side—chief among them a tearful Marena. Her eyes never wavered from Velasca's still and broken body, as several members of her tribe consoled her and offered her words of comfort.
“Come on, Gabrielle,” Xena wrapped a protective arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, as she steered her away from the scene and guided them toward the village. “You okay?”
“I'm fine,” Gabrielle said, as she looked up at Xena. “How about you?” She checked Xena over for any obvious injuries, as they continued walking. “Any bumps or bruises I should know about?”
“Nah,” Xena shrugged. “Nothing worth worrying over. She really didn't get close enough to put anything behind the few blows she did land.”
Gabrielle noticed a small purple bruise on the forearm wrapped around her shoulders. She pulled the arm close and kissed the mark. “Glad she didn't do any real damage,” she said and smiled up at her companion. “'Cause I have plans on how we can spend the rest of this afternoon and evening.”
“Oh?” Xena shot her a raised-browed look. “I think I'm intrigued.”
“You should be,” Gabrielle grinned.
Night had fallen by the time they actually made it to the queen's hut. A small celebration was held in honor of Xena's victory over Velasca. One of the large hogs was butchered and roasted for the occasion. There was also plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and other delicacies. Everyone was amazed at the sumptuous fare and Eponin proudly related the story of their queen's confrontation with the Thracian cooks.
Anxious to be alone with each other, though, Xena and Gabrielle eventually bade the rowdy group farewell. They made their way to the queen's hut and entered the dark interior in relative silence. After lighting a single candle next to the bed, they quickly divested each other of their clothing and reveled in the skin-on-skin contact.
“Gods, I missed you,” Gabrielle placed a kiss on Xena's bare shoulder.
Xena took the shorter woman's face in her hands and kissed her. Their tongues danced and vied for dominance, as the kiss turned heated and deepened. When they finally came up for air, they were both breathless with need.
“I want you, now,” Xena breathed, as she rested her forehead against Gabrielle's and played with her hair.
Gabrielle let her hands wander up and down Xena's bare back, tracing the ridges of her spine until her hands rested on her muscular backside. Her fingers splayed and she drew their bodies closer.
“Take me?” She looked up into blue eyes gone dusky in the low light.
Xena picked Gabrielle up in her arms and carried her over to the bed. She didn't let go as she slid beneath the covers with Gabrielle still in her arms. Raining kisses along the skin of her lover's jaw and down her throat, Xena's attentions grew steadily more heated, until Gabrielle was panting with need.
“Please, Xena,” Gabrielle whispered breathlessly, as warm lips found her breast. “Oh…Gods!!”
Desire stabbed through to her very center as those luscious lips latched onto a rosy nipple and suckled. Every nerve ending came alive and she writhed in anticipation of what she knew was coming. She whimpered as Xena's lips trailed lower and her tongue traced the valleys and curves of Gabrielle's body.
When Xena's mouth found her center, Gabrielle was on fire with need. Her hips bucked and the whimpers turned to cries of pleasure. Every thought centered on those lips and that tongue as they brought her such acute ecstasy that she could hardly breathe.
“Xe…” Gabrielle panted breathlessly, as she felt the pressure build to a fevered pitch. “Oh…Sweet…”
She never finished the thought, as a rush of molten fire burst forth and sent her spiraling into a sea of mind-blowing sensations. A final cry of pleasure tore from her lips and she rode those exquisite waves that poured through her being over and over.
When Xena was sure she had pulled the last possible rapturous orgasm from her responsive lover, she finally ceased her ministrations and slowly made her way back up Gabrielle's length. Soft kisses and licks marked her progress, as she savored every sweet moment. She smiled when the sensitive skin beneath her lips and tongue quivered from her touch.
“You're beautiful,” Xena said as she lay next to Gabrielle and propped her head up with a hand. “Do you know that?”
Gabrielle breathed out a heavy sigh and smiled. “I do now, I guess.”
Xena lightly brushed the hair from Gabrielle's eyes. “You need a trim.”
Gabrielle looked over at her smiling lover and then turned to face Xena. “I really don't think a haircut is in my immediate future. Do you?”
Xena chuckled. “No, I don't.”
Gabrielle moved closer, until she was lying against Xena's chest. She loved the feel of the skin beneath her cheek and marveled at the muscles that bunched and relaxed beneath her. It was the best feeling in all the world, as far as she was concerned.
They lay silently in each other's arms for a while. Gabrielle lay sprawled on top of Xena in a tangle of limbs. A fine sheen of sweat covered her body and a sated smile played across her features.
“Mmm,” she fairly purred, as she placed a few feather-light kisses on her lover's bare chest. “I think I just died and went to…Well, I've been to the Elysian Fields and it wasn't really all it's cracked up to be.”
Xena glanced down and met the green eyes watching her. “You died?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle nodded. “Not something I want to repeat anytime soon, though.”
Xena frowned. “When did you die?”
“Not sure,” Gabrielle placed several more kisses on the top of Xena's breast. “I just remember it was really vivid, bright, colorful and there were kids playing. People seemed happy enough to be there.”
“But not you?” Xena brushed the hair away from Gabrielle's face.
Gabrielle shook her head. “Nothing holds a candle to this,” she smiled and propped her head up on a hand. “This is Elysia to me, Xena. I love you and just can't seem to get enough when we're together.” She traced lazy circles on Xena's stomach and marveled at how soft the woman's skin was. “You're more perfect than all the gods on Olympus, faults and all.”
The last words had Xena's brow quirking. “Faults?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “We all have ‘em. They're what make us human.” Her finger traced a scar the size of a dagger blade on Xena's ribs. “Your imperfections make you all the more perfect in my eyes, Xena.” She leaned over and replaced her finger with her lips and traced the scar with her tongue. “I love you—all of you.”
Xena lay back and gave in to the sensations that coursed through her at Gabrielle's touch. The woman's lips burned a searing trail to her very center and set her entire body on fire with the simplest of touches. It was all she could do to lay perfectly still and let Gabrielle have her way. But then a muscular thigh brushed against the wet curls between her legs and all was lost.
Xena grabbed Gabrielle's firm buttocks and pressed herself against the woman, until their bodies were melded together. Her hips bucked, as she set a rhythm that soon had her panting with the need for more.
“Ga-Gabrielle,” Xena couldn't keep the pleading from her tone. “Please.”
Gabrielle knew exactly what Xena was asking of her and didn't hesitate to satisfy the need burning in her lover. She moved her thigh aside enough to fit her hand between them and plunged her fingers into the silky wet depths. Her fingers were instantly coated with Xena's juices and slid in and out with practiced ease. She wanted nothing more than to taste her lover and share in the climax she knew was coming, but also knew she had to be patient. Xena had warned her that the first orgasm after her bloodlust was ignited was far too powerful for Gabrielle to risk injury.
Gabrielle used both her thigh and her hand in tandem, as she felt Xena's body throb and move in time with her ministrations. She heard the increase in the woman's breathing that signaled Xena was very close to the explosive release yet to come. Strong hands suddenly grasped her upper arms and held on painfully, as the pressure built to a fevered pitch. Gabrielle knew her lover's release was near and watched the pulse point at Xena's throat jump erratically.
And then the explosion came so suddenly and with such violent force that it was all Gabrielle could do not dive off the bed in terror. A loud scream tore from Xena's lips, as her entire body convulsed around the fingers buried deep within. The orgasm was so powerful, in fact, that Gabrielle could feel the muscles contract painfully against her fingers, until she felt one twist painfully. And still she held on and rode the powerful waves that rocked her lover and tossed Xena over the edge of an abyss that only she could see.
“I got ya,” Gabrielle wrapped her free arm around Xena's shoulders and gently pulled her other hand free, as the tremors slowly subsided. She tucked her throbbing fingers into a fist and just lay there next to the still-panting woman. “I'm here, Xena. I'm here, love.”
Xena heard the words, as she drifted back to herself. She drifted up from that dark-red place in the back of her mind where the bloodlust lived. It was finally safely tucked away in that place where it resided and wouldn't emerge again until she needed it. She felt her breathing slow and return to normal, as her body shook off the final remnants of her rage.
“Did I…Did I hurt…”
“I'm fine, Xena,” Gabrielle reassured her lover with a few chaste kisses.
Xena turned onto her side and propped her head on her hand. “Are you sure…” She looked into Gabrielle's eyes and stopped. “Where are you hurt?” She instantly sat up and noticed the bruises on Gabrielle's arms. “Oh. My. Gods!”
“I'm fine, Xena,” Gabrielle sat up and put the one hand out, keeping the other tucked behind her. “They're just bruises.”
Tears sprang to the blue eyes, as Xena stared at the marks in abject horror. “I-I h-hurt you.” And then she burst into tears.
“Xena, come on…”
“NO!” Xena bounded off the bed so fast that her legs got tangled in the covers and she toppled face-first onto the wooden floor. “ Oof! ”
“Xena, are you okay?” Gabrielle poked her head over the side of the bed and almost burst out laughing at the sight that greeted her—almost. “Come on, don't do this. Come back to bed. Please!”
“NO!” The dark-haired woman managed to disentangle herself from the covers enough to stand up and face the woman still lying there. “I hurt you and I shouldn't have. I know better, Gabrielle! And yet I let you…It wasn't supposed to be like this!”
“Xena, please,” Gabrielle dropped her voice to a pleading tone. “Please don't run away from this—from us. I need you. I love you. Please.”
Slapping a hand over her eyes in frustration, Xena turned away and then spun back around the very next instant. “Tell me I didn't hurt you. Tell me!”
“No,” she shot a finger out and hissed. “Tell me I didn't hurt you.”
Gabrielle sat up and scooted to the edge of the bed. She bowed her head and lifted her hand up to Xena.
“I think one of my fingers is broken,” Gabrielle said and then glanced up through wet lashes. “It was an accident, Xena. It's not like you intentionally hurt me.” She let a lazy smile lift one corner of her mouth. “It was as much of an accident as, say, sparring with Eponin and getting my knuckles cracked. And that has happened more than once over the course of my training. I've also been hit in the jaw, the ears and more times on the arms than I can count. I've had more bruises from a hot and heavy sparring session than I got from you, just now.” She fluttered her eyelashes several times. “And sparring with Eponin isn't nearly as fun as this.”
Xena blew out a heavy sigh and flopped down next to Gabrielle. She took the woman's hand in hers and examined Gabrielle's fingers closely. She then grabbed the middle finger and yanked on it.
“Yeow!” Gabrielle yelped and pulled her hand free of Xena's grasp. “What the Hades was that for?”
“It wasn't broken,” Xena gave her a sheepish half-grin. “It was just dislocated. I put it back in place, so it should be as good as new in no time. You might want to get a splint from the healer and wear it for a few days, just to make sure you don't reinjure it. And it's gonna swell a bit.” She glanced down at the finger in question. “Oops, too late.”
Gabrielle chuckled, even though her finger was throbbing painfully. “You are really something, you know that?”
Xena shrugged. “You sure you want to be with someone who might hurt you every time we…um…Well, you know.”
“Oh, Xe,” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's shoulders and pulled her head down. “I'm not going to run away just because you dislocated my finger and left a few bruises on my arms. So you got a little…um…over-enthusiastic. You really need to understand that I'm not going anywhere. I'm in this for the long haul. I love you.” She brushed Xena's bangs off her forehead and placed a kiss there. “I even love that crazy manic look you get in your eyes when you're about to fight someone. What is that, anyway?”
“Bloodlust,” Xena rolled her eyes and blew out another exasperated sigh. “I can't really help it—can't control it once it rears its ugly head.”
“What causes it? Do you have any idea?” Gabrielle shifted back and pulled Xena with her, until they were both comfortably lying on their sides and looking at each other again.
“Ares,” Xena kept her eyes lowered and drew little circles on Gabrielle's bare abdomen, watching as the skin jumped beneath her finger. “I made a deal with him, once upon a time. I served him for a while and was actually one of his chosen warriors. He marked me and infused me with bloodlust.”
“Marked you?” Gabrielle looked at Xena in confusion.
Xena lifted the hair off the nape of her neck and turned enough so that Gabrielle could see the raised red scar in the shape of a wolf's head there. Gabrielle tentatively traced the outline of the scar, until Xena dropped her hair back in place.
“I'm one of Ares' chosen,” Xena stated. “I no longer serve him, but the scar is a permanent reminder that I once belonged to him.”
“Ah,” Gabrielle nodded, as she tried to wrap her mind around this latest revelation. “Did you…um…Have you ever met…”
“Ares?” Xena nodded. “Yes, he used to visit me at least once a day—sometimes more. He issued orders and…um…stuff. He's a fairly hands-on god. Doesn't like to leave things to the Fates. He even gave me a weapon that set me apart from others he had named as his chosen warriors. Told me I was his special project.”
“Were you…” Gabrielle swallowed down a sudden lump in her throat. “Did you sleep with…um…him?”
“Sleep? No. But we had sex,” Xena added matter-of-factly and couldn't meet Gabrielle's gaze. “It was part of the bargain. It didn't mean anything. It was just sex.”
Gabrielle was silent for several long moments as she mulled that over. Xena and the God of War. Whoa. No wonder she had such a successful campaign against the warlords of Greece and managed to wipe most of them from the land. Xena had the God of War on her side—and in her bed.
Xena placed a finger under Gabrielle's chin and lifted it until their eyes met. “I'm not that woman anymore, Gabrielle. I changed. He doesn't visit me anymore. Probably moved on to someone else who could give him what he always wanted from me, until I wouldn't give it to him anymore. After I built the keep at Surra and settled down there, I told him in no uncertain terms to take a hike. He was none too happy that I gave up fighting and turned to diplomacy, instead. But I just didn't have that in me any longer. I was sick of all the blood and the fighting. And I still hate the thought of going to war. I want to settle down with someone. I want to be with you.” She closed the distance between them and kissed Gabrielle. “I want this and so much more.”
Gabrielle let a smile tug at her lips. “I don't know what scares me more. This?” She cupped Xena's cheek and kissed her again. “Or the fact that Ares could show up unexpectedly to reclaim his Chosen.”
“Ares can't hold a candle to this,” Xena said and took Gabrielle's mouth in a heated kiss that left them both gasping for air. “You make me feel more alive than Ares or his bloodlust ever did, Gabrielle. You make my heart sing and my senses soar. I was never complete until you came into my life. I was never half the woman I am now, when I'm in your arms. You complete me. You're the other half of my soul and my search is finally over.”
“Now who's the bard?” Gabrielle grinned teasingly. “Oh, Xena,” she ran her fingers through the dark hair and pulled the woman close again. “My life was never complete until that day you rescued me and set me on a new path.”
“And now look where we are,” Xena snorted, as she glanced around the hut. “I never imagined I would one day be Champion to an Amazon queen, much less sharing her bed.”
“I never imagined I'd be an Amazon, much less queen of a tribe,” Gabrielle chuckled. “I won't even go there on the whole lover of the Conqueror thing. And I have you to thank for all of this. Because of you, I'm so much more than I ever dreamed possible.”
“Well,” Xena ducked her head again. “It hasn't been all wine and roses.”
“No,” Gabrielle lifted Xena's chin again. “But it also hasn't been all blood and broken bones, either.” She grinned and stroked Xena's cheek with the backs of her fingers. “I'm glad you're here, Xena.”
Xena dropped a kiss on Gabrielle's nose. “Me, too. I'm really over hanging with an army of sweaty, dirty men.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle propped herself on her elbow. “How is the army coming along?”
“Ugh!” Xena groaned and flopped to her back. “Tell me again why I care if Draco lives or dies?”
Gabrielle crawled on top of Xena and set her chin on a fist on the woman's chest. “Because he's a dirtbag who locked you in a dank, dark cell and doesn't deserve to live?”
“Yeah,” Xena nodded. “But I'm really not interested in raising another army and doing the whole Conqueror thing again. Been there, done that. It wasn't real fun the first time around. I've become quite fond of the people around me taking a bath at least once a week. The mercenaries haven't seen water since the last rain. And don't get me started on the Athenians. Pee-ew!”
Gabrielle snickered. “So, you're saying you'd rather stay with a bunch of cycling Amazons?”
“Um, no, not really. I need to get back as soon as possible. I left your Amazons in charge,” Xena said. “What do you think will happen if I don't return?”
“I think your men might be in trouble already,” Gabrielle couldn't hide her amusement and didn't try. “These women can be vicious when it comes to battle tactics and fighting skills. But they can also go off like a bunch of crazies when the cycling starts. Those men don't stand a chance.” She held up her swollen finger. “This is nothing compared to some of the cuts, scrapes, bumps, bruises and broken bones that go through Leisa's hut on a daily basis. We even had one sparring match that resulted in a death.”
“One of the combatants get her leathers in a twist and kill the other?” Xena asked.
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head. “One of them threw the other into a crowd of onlookers and killed someone in the crowd, by accident.”
“Anyone from your tribe?” Xena's brow quirked.
“No,” Gabrielle replied. “I think the woman was either from the Thessalonians or the Macedonians. I don't remember, exactly. It happened weeks ago.”
“Any other interesting tidbits I should know about?” Xena rested her temple on a closed fist. “Other than the fact that Velasca was responsible for Melosa's death and almost goaded you into a fight to the death.”
“She didn't goad me into it,” Gabrielle said.
“I'm the queen,” Gabrielle explained. “It was my duty to accept the challenge.”
“And if I didn't show up when I did, you'd be the one lying dead at the base of that tree, Gabrielle,” Xena couldn't keep the catch from her voice. “I couldn't live with myself, then.”
Gabrielle traced Xena's lips with a finger. “I'm not completely incompetent when it comes to fighting, Xena. I can take care of myself when I have to.”
“Velasca wasn't your run-of-the-mill fighter, Gabrielle,” Xena added. “She tried a few sneaky moves that got past even my defenses. She would have killed you in the first few heartbeats. That was how determined she was. I saw it in her eyes, especially when she pulled that dagger on me.”
“She pulled a dagger?”
“Yep,” Xena nodded. “I didn't let her get close enough to make her final move, though.”
“That's when you killed her,” Gabrielle confirmed. “I saw how hard you hit her and heard her neck break on impact. I'll never forget that sound.” A shudder passed through her.
Xena put a hand on Gabrielle's hip in comfort. “It's not easily forgotten.”
They were silent for a few heartbeats and merely enjoyed being near each other.
“Getting back to our imminent departure from the village,” Gabrielle finally breached the silence. “When are you planning on leaving?”
“Tomorrow,” Xena said, as she gently stroked the hip beneath her hand. “I'll be taking the Amazon army with me, too. If that's all right with you.”
“Better talk to Ephiny and Eponin about that,” Gabrielle replied. “The other tribes will want a say, too. You're moving the timetable up.”
“Only by a week,” Xena shrugged. “I want to get them used to the rest of the troops, and vice versa, before we face-off against Draco.”
“Your plan is set, then?”
“Do you think he'll take the bait?”
“No doubt in my mind, whatsoever,” Xena answered confidently. “The bastard is just that full of himself. He won't pass up the chance to kill me with his own hands this time. And he'll bring his army, just in case.”
“I kinda wish I could be there to see it,” Gabrielle said. “I'll be missing all the fun.”
A dark brow lifted on Xena's features. “And leave the servants at the keep to fight Draco's goons off all by themselves? We both know what will happen when he leaves Surra, Gabrielle. The men he leaves behind will rape and pillage, then clean the place out before they take off on their merry way.”
Gabrielle ducked her chin and nodded. “Yeah, you're probably right.”
“I am,” Xena lifted Gabrielle's chin and kissed her lips. “But it doesn't change the fact that I'm gonna miss you so much it'll probably hurt.”
Gabrielle smiled. “Me, too,” she crawled into Xena's arms and snuggled close. “I'm gonna miss this the most. I love being close to you—listening to your heartbeat. It's my favorite sound in all the world.”
Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders and held her close. “Get some sleep, sweetheart. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.”
“The longest, especially when we both leave,” Gabrielle agreed and then she yawned. “Good night, Xena.”
“Sweet dreams, Gabrielle,” Xena answered, as she snuffed the candle out and plunged them into darkness.
Continued in Part 6
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