For generals see Part 1 . No goats were harmed during…well, you'll see.
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“Gabrielle, are you sure about this?” Cyrene gazed up with hands shading her eyes against the intense glare of the sun high overhead. “You don't have to do this, you know. You can wait until Xena comes back and let her get that damned goat off the roof.”
“It's fine, Cyrene ,” Gabrielle slowly climbed the ladder, careful not to look down as she neared her goal. “Xena and I do this kinda thing all the time. It's not a problem.”
Truth be told, the bard was anything but fine. It was one thing to climb up into the hay loft or onto the lowest branch of a tree. This was higher than she'd climbed since childhood, and she could feel her stomach roiling from her stupidity. She realized how stubborn she was being, but was not about to let fear get the better of her. Xena was right. She had to conquer the unreasoning fear before it conquered her.
She reached the eaves of the sloped roof and peered around in search of her query. The black and white goat was nowhere in sight, which meant he was on the other side of the peak—probably sitting right above where she and Xena slept. Girding herself for what she was about to do, Gabrielle clenched her teeth against another wave of nausea and climbed the last few rungs. She pushed the fear from her mind as she stepped onto the roof and slowly ascended towards the peak of the weather-beaten, shingled roof.
“Are you okay, Gabrielle?” Cyrene called from the ground.
“Just peachy,” Gabrielle muttered without unclenching her teeth. Her jaw was starting to ache, but she just pushed that to the back of her mind and plowed onward. “I'm fine!” She answered loudly.
She reached the peak, but didn't want to scare the goat or have it come charging toward her. So she got down on her belly and scooted up enough that she could peek over the top of the roof.
“Where are you, you little spawn of Ares?” The bard muttered as she scanned the down-slope until black fur caught her eye.
The goat was standing near one corner of the roof and staring back at her with those white-gray eyes. His gray-tipped ears were twitching ever so slightly, and his gray and black tail was wagging back and forth like the beast didn't have a care in the world. He was also absently chewing on the other end of the coarse rope tied around his neck as he straight at Gabrielle. The end in his mouth was frayed where he'd managed to chew his way to freedom the night before.
Gabrielle blushed to her roots at the mere thought of what the animal had heard the previous night. She knew she'd been extremely pleased by her lover's ministrations and had let go of all restraint during their lovemaking. And Xena's cry of release was louder yet. It was a good thing they hadn't stayed another night in the inn. Cyrene would be chasing her around with a broom, rather than waiting patiently for her to come down from the roof.
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed at the animal, as she scooted forward enough for her whole head to be visible. She wasn't sure what the goat would do, but was convinced he still hated her enough to do something unexpected. His ears continued to twitch sporadically as he eyed her and chewed lazily.
“You wanna come over here, so I don't have to go all the way over there to get you?” Gabrielle said in an even tone. “Come on, Blackie,” she pleaded. “Gabrielle just wants to get you down from here, safe and sound.” She smiled sweetly. “I'll give you a nice…um…” She couldn't think of what a goat might want as a treat.
She rose to her knees and felt the rough wood of the shingles cut into the bare skin. Her entire body was shaking as she put a leg over the roof's peak and straddled it. There wasn't much to hold onto and if one of the shingles should let loose…well…Gabrielle swallowed down the bile that rose in her throat and tried to breathe evenly to dispel a sudden wave of nausea.
“Come on, Blackie,” Gabrielle waved the goat toward her. “Come to Gabrielle, so we can both get off this damned roof.”
The goat just glared at her as he continued gnawing on the rope in his mouth. His ears twitched and he shook his head.
“Are you still okay up there, Gabrielle?” Cyrene 's clear voice broke the silence.
“I'm fine, Cyrene ,” Gabrielle lied as she put her hands down on the peak and swallowed down another wave of nausea.
“Maybe we should try something else, Gabrielle,” Cyrene suggested. “I don't want you to get hurt.”
The bard squared her shoulders and tossed her head in defiance of the fear that was gripping her. “I will not be afraid. I will not be afraid. I will not…”
Those words of her mantra had no sooner left her mouth than the goat suddenly bolted toward her with his head down and his small horns leading the charge. Gabrielle jumped to her feet and planted them firmly to meet the eventual head-on impact. Adrenaline suddenly replaced her fear of falling, as the goat's fleet hooves scrambled up the slope toward her.
Gabrielle knew she had two choices. One, she could meet the charge and try to stand her ground. Or, two, she could sidestep the goat and let his momentum carry him past her. There was no telling what the second choice would yield, but Gabrielle wasn't prepared to explain her failure to catch the goat and bring him safely back to the ground.
In seconds, Blackie was bearing down on her. Gabrielle braced for impact, just as the animal let out an angry bleat and…
Gabrielle and the goat tumbled down the roof's slope in a tangle of arms, legs and fur. The bard felt splinters pierce her shoulders and back, as the goat's momentum carried them toward the edge of the roof. She knew a brief moment of panic just before she was free-falling toward the ground below. And then everything went mercifully black.
“Hey there,” a familiar voice said.
Gabrielle struggled to open her eyes and was finally able to clear her vision enough to gaze into a pair of worried baby-blues watching her intently.
“Hey,” the bard answered. “What happened?”
“You saved Blackie from a gruesome death,” Xena's smirk mirrored the teasing in her tone. “You broke his fall.”
Gabrielle struggled to sit upright and realized she was lying in bed. She glanced around and noticed they were alone in a room about the size of the one they'd shared in Cyrene 's inn. The place was sparsely furnished, but the bed she was lying on was covered with a beautiful quilt in all the colors of the rainbow. She glanced around, as she leaned back against the carved headboard.
“Where are we?” The bard ran a hand through her short-cropped hair. “How long was I out?”
“We're in Mom's room and you were only unconscious for a quarter candlemark,” Xena answered. “How do you feel? Anything broken? You've got some nasty splinters in your back that'll need attention. I would've done it while you were out, but Mom suggested we wait to make sure nothing's broken first.”
The realization suddenly hit Gabrielle that she'd fallen off the roof. She remembered sliding on her back with the goat perched triumphantly on her stomach. She even remembered the sudden free-fall and the feeling that she was flying. But everything after that was a complete blank.
“Where's that damned goat!?!” Gabrielle tried to shove past the taller woman, but Xena held her firmly back by her shoulders. “I'm gonna kill that little…”
“Take it easy, Gabrielle,” Xena kept a firm grip on Gabrielle's shoulders, careful not to touch the splinters. “Come on. Just settle down, will ya? The goat's locked in one of the old root cellars down the way. He isn't going anywhere and you can certainly take your anger out on him later. I promise. Just settle down so those splinters don't embed themselves deeper in your skin.”
“He tried to kill me, Xena!” Gabrielle exclaimed. “That goat is possessed! I'm telling you. I think Ares has cast some kind of spell on him or something. He came right at me, like he wanted to kill me!”
“Mom says it looked more like you lost your footing and just fell backwards,” Xena couldn't keep the smirk off her face. “She said the goat tried to catch you.”
“That stupid goat is the reason I fell onto my back and slid off the roof in the first place!” Gabrielle sat back against the headboard and winced. “Ouch!”
“Careful,” Xena said as she moved the bard to the side and checked her back. “Yep, you sure did a number on your back. Mom went to fetch some supplies. She's also boiling some water and getting her tweezers. She sent one of the girls over to the healer's to get a salve to use on the wounds after we get the splinters out.”
“She doesn't keep that stuff lying around here?” Gabrielle's tone was a touch sarcastic. “You'd think she would have something like that on hand while you're here. You do tend to collect more than your share of cuts, scrapes and splinters.”
Xena glared at the bard. “Watch it, Gabrielle,” she growled and then realized the bard wasn't buying it. “I know you're a little…um…prickly, but…”
“Oh, hardy har har, Xena,” Gabrielle rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Like I didn't see that one coming.”
Xena sobered. “Can we just get back to the matter at hand?”
“Okay, fine,” Gabrielle pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them.
“You wanna tell me what you were doing up on the roof with the goat in the first place?” Xena watched the woman look anywhere but at her. “The last place I expected to find you was on a roof.”
Gabrielle sighed in exasperation. “I was…I thought…” She sighed again and met Xena's expectant gaze. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I know it was stupid…”
“It wasn't stupid, just a little…um…unexpected,” Xena smirked. “Mom said she tried to talk you out of going up there. She feels a little responsible that she failed. I coulda told her how stubborn you can be sometimes.”
“It's not her fault,” Gabrielle nodded. “She did try to talk me out of going up there. But, like I told her, I am perfectly capable of getting a goat off a roof by myself. And, I succeeded…mostly.”
Xena placed a hand over one of Gabrielle's. “You could have waited for me to come back and help.”
Gabrielle turned her head away and stared at a carved wooden chest near the wall. “I wanted to do it by myself, Xena.”
“Why?” Xena gently grabbed the bard's chin and turned her head back. “We always work better as a team, Gabrielle. Why didn't you wait for me to at least make sure the goat didn't try to make a break for it?” Gabrielle mumbled something unintelligible that even Xena's acute hearing couldn't pick up. “Come again?”
“I said,” Gabrielle raised her voice louder than necessary. “This was something I had to do without your help, because I'm never going to conquer my fear of heights if you're always there to catch me when I fall. Okay? Is that what you wanted to hear, Xena? Are you happy now? You won't always be there when I need help, so it's high time I learned to do things on my own.”
Xena was stunned. “Okay, didn't see that one coming.”
“No, I'm sure you didn't,” Gabrielle felt the wind leave her sails at the hurt look in Xena's eyes. “But it's something I've had niggling in the back of my mind for some time now.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I love you with all my heart, Xena,” she said as she locked fingers with Xena's. “But if Britannia and Chin and our other adventures have taught me one thing, it's that I can't always rely on you to save me from things that happen when you're not around. I really need to learn how to figure things out on my own.”
“No, Xena,” Gabrielle shook her head and felt the tears spring to her eyes. “We do work well as a team. But we're not joined at the hip. There are going to be times when the only way to solve a problem is for us to go at it from different angles. And that means we might not be able to be in the same place at the same time or even in the same vicinity together. You can't always have that doubt in the back of your mind that I'm going to get into trouble and need saving.” Gabrielle's expression softened as she used her free hand to stroke Xena's cheek.
“As much as I like having you there to save me when I do get into trouble, Xena,” the bard continued. “I also need to learn to figure things out for myself. I'm not a child. I'm your partner. And it's high time I started acting like an equal member of this partnership.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I guess what I'm trying to say is that I want to move forward in our relationship, as your equal, not as your trusty sidekick.” Gabrielle caught a tear that escaped and ran down Xena's cheek. She swiped the tear away with her thumb. “I don't want you to always think you have to save me, Xena. It's about time I learned to take care of myself, so you don't have to worry so much.”
Xena snorted softly. “I'll never stop worrying about you, Gabrielle. That comes with the territory, I'm afraid.” She smiled and blinked away her remaining tears.
“Okay, but at least if I know what I'm doing out there,” she motioned toward an open window with her chin and returned her attention to the warrior, “then you won't have to worry that I won't be able to handle what comes our way.” She sniffed back her own tears. “Can we work on improving my skills, so we can at least move forward as more than just the hero and her trusty sidekick?”
Xena smirked. “You don't like having me as your sidekick?”
“I'd rather we were equals, Xena,” Gabrielle couldn't help the grin that lifted one corner of her mouth.
“Okay,” Xena conceded with a nod. “Equals it is, then. But it means you're gonna have to get over this annoying animal problem that's plaguing you, so we can get you a horse of your own. I think Argo needs a companion to keep her company. She was also a little miffed this morning that we got some action last night and she didn't.”
Gabrielle abruptly pulled away and winced when her back touched the wooden headboard. “Ouch!” She exclaimed as she sucked in a pained breath. “That really hurt.” She eyed the warrior. “You want me to ride a horse?” At Xena's nod, Gabrielle sighed. “Okay, I think I can do that.”
“You're also gonna have to be more honest about when you're either sick or you're hurt,” Xena gave the bard her best chastising glare. “No more holding back in order to spare my feelings.”
“Okay,” Gabrielle nodded. “I can definitely be more honest in that arena.”
“So,” Xena continued, “are you gonna answer my earlier question?”
“Which one is that?”
“Is anything broken?” Xena asked.
“No, just a few bruises, I think,” Gabrielle tested her arms, legs and back, just to be sure. “It was a lucky thing I fell off that side of the roof and not the other side where the hay loft is.”
“It was also a good thing you landed in that pile of dirty hay,” Xena smirked.
“Yep,” Xena answered. “Any farther to the left and you would have ended up in the manure pile, instead. Then we'd have a whole different issue to tackle.”
Gabrielle scrunched her face. “Ew.”
“Yeah, I don't think Mom would've been so quick to offer her bed, that's for sure,” Xena chuckled as she glanced around the room. “Hasn't changed much since I was a kid, at least not that I remember.”
“It fits your mother perfectly,” Gabrielle commented. “She's just the kind of person who keeps things neat and tidy. This room has a homey, comfortable feel to it—everything in its proper place.”
“She's not one for a lot of frills and extras, that's for sure,” Xena agreed. “She always said hard work, relationships and hospitality were more important than possessions. Besides, possessions get lost or stolen. She never placed much stock in collecting stuff.” The warrior picked a piece of invisible lint off the colorful quilt beneath them. “This was the only thing she brought with her from her own childhood. Her mother made the quilt for her when she was a girl. It was part of her dowry when she married my father.”
“It's beautiful,” Gabrielle ran a hand over the worn blanket. “Do you think she misses him? Even after…” She let the words hang, knowing what she knew about Cyrene 's part in the death of the man Xena considered her father.
“I think she misses having someone around that she can talk to,” Xena said. “She has Aris and the council members, but…” she shrugged, “I don't think it's the same as having a close friend or companion.”
Their eyes met and for a moment they just stared at each other. Then Xena took Gabrielle's face in her hands and was about to kiss the bard's lips when a knock suddenly interrupted the moment.
“Come in,” Xena called with a hint of irritation.
“I managed to convince Greta that…oh,” Cyrene entered the room, only to stop when she saw Gabrielle sitting up in her bed. “Hello, Gabrielle,” the woman's face brightened as she set some items on the nightstand next to the bed.
“Hello, Cyrene ,” Gabrielle couldn't help the blush that colored her cheeks. When she glanced at Xena and saw the conspiratorial grin on the warrior's face, she just swatted her.
“Did I interrupt something?” Cyrene glanced from one woman to the other, not missing the guilty blush on Gabrielle's face. “You two look like a couple of kids caught with your hands in the cookie barrel.”
“I…uh…” Gabrielle stammered and looked to Xena for help.
“Don't look at me,” Xena said softly. “You're the one who wanted to solve a few problems on your own.”
“Xeeeena,” Gabrielle growled low.
“Gaaabrielle,” Xena mimicked the woman with a teasing gleam in her baby-blue eyes.
Then they glanced over to find Cyrene standing there with her hands on her hips and a look of exasperation on her face.
“If you want me to leave, just ask,” Cyrene huffed. “I certainly don't want to be accused of being insensitive.”
Xena motioned for Gabrielle to stretch out onto her stomach. “You're not, Mom. We were just talking.”
Gabrielle did as Xena silently asked and propped her upper body up with a pillow. “Yeah,” she agreed, as she stared ahead at the carved headboard in front of her. “Xena and I were just talking about your quilt.”
Cyrene snorted. “Right,” she glared skeptically at her daughter. “Tell that to someone who didn't bring three children into this world. I know an interrupted moment when I see one.” She handed Xena a pair of small metal tweezers and a cloth she'd dipped into the steaming bowl of water. “I know it as assuredly as I know all three of my children were conceived and birthed right there in that bed.”
Xena had been leaning close to Gabrielle's right shoulder and had just managed to grab hold of a small splinter with the tweezers, when Gabrielle suddenly jumped. Xena sucked in a breath, but managed to pull the splinter free, while Gabrielle turned startled eyes on Cyrene . Xena's mother was standing next to the warrior's shoulder and met Gabrielle's startled gaze with a look of complete innocence.
“What?” Cyrene asked.
“Maybe we should do this somewhere else,” Gabrielle said as she squirmed out from under Xena's hovering presence and managed to get to her feet on the other side of the bed. She glance down at the colorful quilt and then up at the women watching her with a mixture of surprise and satisfaction. “There really isn't all that much light in here, anyway. And I really…” She moved toward the door and didn't hesitate as she said, “I need some fresh air.”
Cyrene and Xena exchanged a glance, as the bard hurried from the room. A smirk played at the corner of the innkeeper's lips, as her daughter glared daggers at her.
“What'd I say?” Cyrene shrugged innocently.
Xena just rolled her eyes. “Mother,” she chided as she grabbed the water and followed her partner out the door.
“Really, Xena,” Cyrene said as she followed the taller woman out of the room. “It's not like I don't know why you two suddenly decided to move your things from the room I put you in, especially after that talk we had. I know you're sleeping in the hayloft for a reason.”
“Mother,” Xena rounded on her parent. “Just let it go, will ya?”
“Really, what did I say?” Cyrene grinned up at the taller woman.
Xena put a hand on her eyes as she tried not to offend the woman who, as Cyrene had so bluntly put it, gave birth to her. “Please,” she held up a staying had, “just give us some space and let us work things out on our own. Gabrielle isn't really comfortable talking about our relationship with other people, and you're just embarrassing her when you bring up the whole sex thing.”
Cyrene crossed her arms over her chest and stood her ground. “It's not like I…”
“Mom,” Xena stopped her protest. “Please, just let me take care of her right now. I need to get those splinters out of her back so they don't embed themselves further and become infected.”
“Okay, fine,” Cyrene turned away and ducked into the kitchen without another word.
Xena walked through the nearly-empty main room and outside. She glanced around and noticed Gabrielle leaning over the rail with her back to the inn and an arm dangling in front of her. Argo had her head in one of the bard's hands, as Gabrielle affectionately rubbed the mare's face.
The sun was glinting off of two blond heads and turning their hair golden. They both looked like they were at peace, even though the warrior could see a tense set to Gabrielle's shoulders. The sight was enough to bring a tear to Xena's eye, but she quickly sniffed it away as she walked up to the pair.
“Hey,” Xena said. “Told you my horse doesn't hate you.”
Gabrielle turned at the sound of Xena's voice and met concerned blue eyes. “Not today, anyway,” she answered as she wrapped an arm around the mare's head on her shoulder and continued rubbing the long nose.
“I'm sorry about what Mom said back there,” Xena apologized. “I don't think she really understands how much that kind of teasing affects you.”
“You don't have to apologize for her, Xena,” Gabrielle said with the hint of a smile in her eyes. “I know she enjoys teasing us about our relationship.”
“Then, why did you storm out of there like your skirt was on fire?” Xena asked in confusion.
“It was just a little too much to take, I guess,” Gabrielle shrugged and winced. “Mm, not a good idea to do that until after we get these splinters out of my back. They're really starting to get on my nerves.”
“Come, sit on this barrel,” Xena patted a low barrel. She waited until the bard was seated, then went right to work removing the small splinters of wood from Gabrielle's skin. “Most of these aren't too bad,” she commented absently as she continued to pull the slivers of wood out one at a time and then clean the area with the cloth. “Only a couple of ‘em are big enough or deep enough that we'll have to keep an eye on ‘em.”
“Stings,” Gabrielle hissed when Xena pulled out one that was the size of a small blade of grass. “Ouch!”
Xena hid a smirk behind the bard's head. “Don't say I didn't warn ya.”
“I won't,” Gabrielle answered through gritted teeth. “I'm sorry about running out on you like that. I hope your mom didn't have a problem with it.”
“She thought it was her fault for teasing us about the quilt,” Xena answered as she finished with the tweezers and applied a fragrant salve to the bard's skin.
“It wasn't her fault,” Gabrielle said. “I'm just not really…” She swallowed down the lump in her throat. “I can't give you a child, Xena.”
“What?” Xena said as she finished her task and wiped her hands on the damp cloth. “Is that what this is all about?”
Gabrielle nodded. “She wants grandchildren, Xena,” Gabrielle said with deep sadness in her green eyes. “We can't give that to her and I'm afraid…I'm afraid she'll blame me for loving you, when I can't give you the children you deserve.”
“I frankly don't care what my mother wants,” Xena said as she slung the cloth over one shoulder and dumped the water on the ground. “If she wants grandchildren, she'll just have to get Toris to come back from Athens and provide them for her. It's not up to me to do it. I'm not a brood mare.”
A blond brow lifted. “You're her daughter, Xena.”
“So, you could have another son with those gorgeous eyes of yours,” Gabrielle answered with a slight smirk. “Look how handsome Solon was.”
“And a little girl with your green eyes would be just as beautiful,” the warrior leaned in close and swiped a finger on the tip of Gabrielle's nose, before she placed a quick kiss there. “It's just not meant to be, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I know.”
“Mom will have to be satisfied with another daughter,” Xena smirked. “She thinks of you that way, you know.”
“I know,” Gabrielle agreed.
“Well, then, don't worry about my mother and her thoughts on grandchildren,” Xena straightened up and tossed the tweezers and cloth into the empty bowl. “She can figure that one out on her own. My work here is done, at least.”
Gabrielle glanced at the sun. “You still want to go to the lake and check out the area around it?”
Xena nodded. “Let me run this back inside and then I'll meet you out here.”
“Sounds good,” the bard answered with a grin. “I'll just keep Argo company while you're gone.”
“You do that,” Xena shot over her shoulder.
“So, did you find anything that'll clue us in as to who came and took the bodies away?” Gabrielle asked when Xena was finished examining every square cubit of ground in and around the lake.
“Well,” Xena said as she stood with her hands on her hips and surveyed their surroundings. “It looks to me like we were just imagining things.”
“There's no sign that we were even attacked,” Xena answered with a heavy sigh. “No footprints to indicate that those guys were here, much less that their bodies were here.” She pointed to the spot near the boulder where they'd laid out their picnic supplies. “Our footprints are all over this place, as is the imprint made by our blanket and the picnic stuff. But there isn't a single stray footprint, other than ours.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Then it was one of the gods who came and cleaned up the mess.”
Xena sniffed their air and glanced around again. “It wasn't Ares, that's for sure.”
Gabrielle's brow furrowed in confusion. “How do you know?”
“He leaves a very distinct odor of rotten eggs behind after he disappears,” Xena answered as she examined something more closely near where Gabrielle stood. “I can usually smell him days after he's been somewhere, especially when he uses magic on other things besides himself.”
“Huh,” Gabrielle nodded and tentatively sniffed the air. All she could smell was the pine trees and water that surrounded them. “I don't really smell anything.”
“Me, either,” Xena said as she stood up. “But I did find a few obscure pieces of damaged foliage that tell me we weren't imagining that fight. It did happen and those guys were here. Someone just did a really good job of erasing all traces of what happened.”
“Athena?” Gabrielle suggested.
Xena shrugged. “Could be. She's a lot more careful, and I don't really have a bead on what traces she leaves behind when she's been someplace. I haven't had as much contact or interaction with her as I've had with Ares.” Xena absently wiped her hands together to get rid of the residual sand on them. “I don't really have much experience with any of the other gods. It could be any one of them who cleaned this up. It could also be more than one.”
“Great,” Gabrielle breathed out a sigh of frustration. “So we're back to square one.”
“Yep,” Xena nodded.
“But why?” Gabrielle said as she gazed out over the sun-dappled lake. “What do any of them have to gain by getting rid of a bunch of dead soldiers?”
Xena shrugged again. “I don't know. All I do know is that they went to a lot of trouble not to be discovered.”
“I thought you said you found traces of the fight,” Gabrielle said.
“Then they didn't do that great a job,” Gabrielle pointed out. “Not if you found evidence that something happened here.”
“I don't think whoever did this was worried about what I'd find,” Xena gave Gabrielle a raised-brow look. “I'm not the one they were hiding this from. Only a trained tracker would look as close as I did at a bunch of plants.”
“Okay, so that still begs the question—who?” Gabrielle reiterated. “Why go to all the trouble of hiding this if they knew you'd come looking anyway?”
“That's a question for the person—or god—who is responsible for the disappearance of those bodies,” Xena said.
They stood there in companionable silence for a few moments. Xena's eyes continued to scan the area around them, as she worked out the puzzle in her head.
“You have an idea, don't you?” Gabrielle caught the gleam in Xena's alert eyes.
“I do,” Xena nodded. “I just don't know why or who he's working with, yet.”
“Hades,” Xena put a hand on the bard's shoulder and squeezed.
“Hades?” Gabrielle snorted. “Doesn't that break your whole Alpha-Team of Olympus scenario?” She threw her hands in the air at the unexpected addition of another culprit in their godly troubles. “Besides, what would the Keeper of the Underworld gain by making a bunch of dead soldiers disappear? I'm sure he had oodles and oodles of dead soldiers down in the Underworld to play with.”
“Those particular soldiers were no longer associated with an army,” Xena said matter-of-factly. “Maybe he thought it would be best if they just left this earth without a trace.”
“They probably have families who still care whether they're alive or dead, Xena,” Gabrielle argued. “It's not like they left no one behind. Someone has to know who they were.”
“Not if they were conscripts,” Xena said. “If Athena's general, Varagus, forced those men to join his army in his usual way, then there isn't anyone left to care whether they're alive or dead. As far as the world is concerned, those men died the day their villages were razed to the ground and their families were sent to the Keeper of the Underworld.”
“Okaaay,” Gabrielle considered the warrior's words. “So what does that have to do with Hades? Why would he want to wipe their existence off the face of the earth? He gains nothing by their disappearance.”
“Because someone else has a use for the bodies,” Xena answered cryptically. “Or maybe he just cleans up after himself.”
“Xena, that makes no sense,” the bard answered, as they left the lake behind them and started back toward Amphipolis. “What use are a bunch of lifeless bodies?”
Xena shrugged. “Not sure yet, but I'm certainly going to find out.”
“Oh, goody, another mystery,” Gabrielle deadpanned, as they entered the shade of the trees. “Wake me when it's over.”
“Is everything in place, Malachae?” Kalgred stood in his command tent with his back to his shorter lieutenant. He was staring at a large parchment rendering of the land surrounding Amphipolis that took up one entire wall of his tent.
“Things are going as planned, Commander,” the greasy-haired man answered. He was sweating profusely in his rusted armor, but didn't dare wipe the sweat from his brow in the presence of his commander. “Word reached us that a detachment of General Varagus' soldiers tried to take Xena and her travelling companion, but failed. Four of the men survived to pass on your message, and they are no longer able to speak. As ordered, their tongues were cut from their mouths, before they were sent on their way, sir.”
Kalgred turned with a look of pure evil in his eyes. “Good.” His beady-eyed gaze returned to the map. “Tell the men we march again at first light. I want to reach the outskirts of Amazon lands by midday tomorrow. We'll set up camp and proceed with phase two of my plans at midnight, when the moon is high.”
“Yes, Commander,” Malachae answered with a nod. “Do you still want them to work on those catapults you ordered completed by tomorrow?”
“Absolutely,” Kalgred answered. “Those bitches won't know what hit ‘em when fire rains down on them from the sky and their forest buffer suddenly erupts in flames.”
His maniacal chuckle turned into evil laughter that carried out across the encampment and put a shiver of anticipation in the hearts of his men. Word quickly spread that they were finally about to carry out their commander's revenge on the Amazons.
Malachae bowed low before his commander and then left the tent without another word.
“You still here?” Kalgred muttered to a dark corner of the tent.
“I'm here, Commander,” the air shimmered and Athena appeared in her black cloak. She threw the hood back and glared at the man standing boldly in front of her. “Your plan sounds like it will work perfectly. But I'm not interested in vengeance against the Amazons. They aren't the ones who made me look the fool.”
“No,” Kalgred nodded. “But they've already sent word to Amphipolis. It's only a matter of time before Xena and Gabrielle run to their rescue. And then…”
“And then I spring my own trap on that meddlesome pair and take care of them, once and for all,” Athena nodded. “I like it.”
“I live to serve, Goddess,” the man tilted his head forward ever so slightly. “By this time tomorrow the Amazons will be a mere memory, and their queen will no longer hold any power.”
“Carry on, Commander,” Athena acknowledged. “I need to make sure there's no godly interference from anyone on Olympus . Ares has managed to steer clear of things, but Aphrodite's still poking her nose where it doesn't belong.”
“Yes, Goddess,” Kalgred nodded.
“Until we meet again, Commander,” Athena nodded and vanished in a shower of gold sparkles.
“Is she gone yet?” There was another shimmer from the opposite corner of the room and another cloaked figure appeared. “I didn't think she'd ever leave. She's such a…hag, sometimes.”
The hood of the cloak fell back to reveal Artemis in all her glory. Kalgred smirked and then he, too, wavered and transformed into Hades.
“I hate that disguise,” Hades groused as he shook out his black robes and adjusted the gold crown on his head. “Why I ever let you talk me into this whole sordid affair is beyond me, Arty.”
“Do not call me Arty, Hades. You know how much I hate that ridiculous nickname that Ares insists on calling me,” the goddess growled. “Speaking of Ares…”
“He's cooking up something, but no one seems to know what it is,” Hades absently said as he brushed invisible lint from his sleeve. “I'm guessing he's still trying to get Xena to help him conquer the world—again.” He rolled his eyes in exasperation. “I'd better prepare the Underworld for another wave of mass casualties.”
“Can it wait until after you help me save the Amazons from this convoluted mess Athena dumped them in?” Artemis untangled her cloak from the bow she has slung over one shoulder. “Why are you helping her, anyway, Hades? I thought you were helping me.”
“I am,” Hades adjusted his belt and paced in the cramped confines. “I only disguised myself as this Kalgred fellow to find out what plan she is hatching.” He glanced around at the sparse furnishings. “Good thing the fellow died with his brother in that last debacle.” He frowned. “Little did I know Athena would start hanging out here, eavesdropping on all the plans I've set in motion. I'm glad I discovered she was sniffing around these soldiers and riling them up against the Amazons. You owe me one, Sis.”
“Yes,” Artemis agreed. “I can't believe Athena went behind my back on this little revenge scheme of hers.”
“Good thing I owe Aphrodite a few favors,” Hades added. “Otherwise your Amazons would already be history and I'd have Xena running amuck in Tartarus. That is one scenario that just can't happen. We really need to get her hooked up with your Amazons.” He turned a glare on Artemis. “Now. The sooner she's bound by Amazon law, the better for all of us.”
“Would it really be that bad to have her in Tartarus, Hades?” Artemis gave him a raised-brow look. “She wasn't too hard on the eyes, if you know what I mean.”
“What?” He turned on her in bewilderment that turned into exasperation. “Seriously, what is it with you and Ares when it comes to that woman?”
“I think it's the leather and armor,” Artemis smirked. “What can I say? Xena has more sex appeal than any mortal I've ever encountered. No wonder Gabrielle can't keep her hands off the merchandise.” Her expression sobered. “Why is Zeus pushing for Xena to go to the Amazon Hunting Grounds when she finally dies anyway, Hades? Not that I'm complaining, mind you.” She smirked.
Hades just rolled his eyes in exasperation.
“Zeus wants a return to balance and order to his entire realm, including the Underworld. With Xena off my list Zeus ensures that she won't make a play for my throne when she eventually falls.” He quirked a brown brow at her. “It's just too bad you, Ares and Athena can't see the bigger picture here. Xena isn't just a piece of prime meat to bed, Artemis. She's a real player with a very real chance of tipping the scales one way or the other. But all you and Ares seem to do is consider the sexual possibilities.”
“Oh, please, Hades,” Artemis waved him off. “Tell me you haven't once thought about taking her to bed yourself. She's the most…intoxicating mortal we've run across in a very long time.”
Hades stood with his arms crossed over his robed chest. “My job isn't to bed the living, Sis.”
“It's to oversee the dead,” Artemis acknowledged, as she seductively approached and circled him. “But that doesn't mean you can't occasionally come up here and enjoy a little distraction from time to time.” She stopped in front of him and put her hands on her hips. “We all dabble in the mortal pot occasionally, Hades. You should give it a try sometime.”
“I'm too busy with the dead,” Hades countered. “I don't have time to…”
“You had time for this little venture,” Artemis approached him again.
“Back off, Arty,” Hades chided and got the desired result when she stepped back with a pout. “We have a job to do. Let's just do it and stop dancing around our obligation. I have to return to my realm and make sure no one is wreaking havoc with the dead.”
“Party pooper,” Artemis grumbled.
“Where have you been?”
Ares stopped and turned to find a scowling Aphrodite glaring at him. They were in one of the smaller corridors in the vast chambers occupied by the gods of Olympus . This particular corridor was so far off the beaten path and used so seldomly that Ares knew Aphrodite was targeting him specifically.
“What?” He held out his hands to his sides in surrender. “What is it now, Dite? Did I rain on your parade and break up two long-lost lovers who were hard at it like a couple of sex-crazed weasels?”
“Where have you been, Ares?” The blond Goddess of Love was anything but ditsy at that moment. She was dressed in her usual sheer, pink baby doll outfit, complete with heels that clacked loudly on the marble floor when she walked, but her arms were crossed over her heaving bosoms and a scowl marred her features. “I've been looking all over Olympus for you, Bro. I even went to your throne room,” she shivered in revulsion. “Must you keep all those bones around? It's disgusting.” She shivered again, but quickly sobered. “You're supposed to be overseeing that thingy in…well, I don't remember where Daddy said it was.”
“ Cyprus ?” Ares supplied in his best bored tone. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what ‘thingy' the old man wants me to keep my eye on. The question is why did he send you to find me? And why look for me here, of all places?”
“He said you dropped off his radar,” Aphrodite stood with her hands on her hips and glared. “What are you up to, Ares? I really hope it doesn't have anything to do with a certain Warrior Princess and her blond…um…”
“Bimbo?” Ares snorted.
“Partner,” Aphrodite shot back with an accusing glare. “Why do you have to be such a…”
“Fantastic guy?” Ares finished for her. “Hey, what can I say?”
“Jerk!” Aphrodite exclaimed. “What is wrong with you, anyway? You're acting like a jealous ex.” Her eyes suddenly went wide and she gasped. “Oh, you are jealous!” She exclaimed excitedly.
“I am not jealous,” Ares crossed his beefy arms over his chest and rolled his eyes in exasperation. “ Pfft! As if.”
“You are soooo jealous, Ares,” Aphrodite taunted. “I can see it in your eyes. You're still stuck on the warrior babe, even though she's in love with Gabrielle now. You still think…”
“ Pfft! Where do you come up with these ridiculous notions, Dite?” Ares rolled his eyes and turned away. “You been hangin' with the bard a little too much?”
“Ahhhh, Ares,” Aphrodite put her pouty face on, but couldn't hide the smirk in her eyes. “It's okay to admit that you're not half the man that Gabby is.” She chuckled at her jibe and watched his back stiffened.
He shot her a sidelong glare. “You're pushing it, Dite,” he growled.
“And you're avoiding the inevitable, Ares,” the blond huffed. “You know you don't have a chance at getting Xena back. Just leave her alone and move on to bigger and brighter things.”
“I'm to follow the advice of a woman who wears frilly underwear all day, every day?” Ares snapped.
Aphrodite flipped the sheer outer gown over her pink bikini. “Not underwear, brother dear. I'll have you know this is the latest fashion trend on the beaches of Spiros.” She waved a hand in his direction. “Not like that tired old black leather ensemble does anything to improve your image. You should try another color combo sometime, Ares. Maybe a nice blood red with black trim?”
He snapped his fingers and looked down at the red leather outfit, then up again. “Red just doesn't have the same effect,” he said and snapped his fingers again. He adjusted the black leather that fit him like a second skin. “Perfect.”
“Okay, so you're a god of limited imagination,” Aphrodite tossed an errant curl. “I guess that's why Xena decided to head for greener pastures.”
“Back to that tired rhetoric again, Dite?” He shook his head in exasperation. “I'm over Xena, okay? She's history.” He held up his hands and wiped them together. “I've washed my hands of her.”
Aphrodite eyed him skeptically. “So, then, where were you just a little while ago? I know you weren't up here. What were you doing?”
He crossed his arms defiantly. “I was taking care of…business.” He shrugged.
“What business, Ares?” Aphrodite asked suspiciously. “Come on. You can either spill it to me or face Daddy and explain to him what you're cooking up in that pea brain of yours. You know he can tell when you're lying to him.”
Ares considered his options for a moment. “Okay, fine,” Ares conceded with a knowing half-smile. “I'll tell you where I was, if you tell me why you've been spying on Xena and her little toy every night for the past moon.”
Aphrodite had the grace to blush. “I…uh…it's not what you think.”
“Isn't it?” He tilted his chin down and gave her the feral look of intimidations he was known for. “Hey, I'm not against enjoying a little somethin' somethin' vicariously, but, Sis, please…”
“Ares,” Aphrodite growled. “That is not…I'm not… UGH!!! You are sooooo exasperating sometimes!”
Ares actually laughed aloud at his sister's exasperation. “You are so hilarious when you can't finish a simple sentence, Dite.” He laughed so hard that he actually doubled over and wrapped his arms around his middle. “It's almost as much fun pushing your buttons, as it is messing with Hercules.”
“Ugh!!!” Aphrodite stomped away without a backward glance. “Have fun explaining to Daddy what you're up to, Ares!!” She shouted and then disappeared in a shower of pink and red hearts.
“Not likely,” Ares muttered as he, too, vanished from the halls of Mount Olympus .
The sun was beginning its dip toward the western horizon when Gabrielle made her way through the trees toward her destination. As she emerged from the sparse undergrowth, she paused briefly and surveyed her surroundings. She took a steady breath and let it out slowly, as she watched Xena make her way down the ladder leaning against the tall building in front of her. The bard moved closer to the building and waited for Xena to hop off the ladder.
“The storage shed is coming along nicely,” Gabrielle said as she glanced up at the nearly-finished roof overhead. “How much more work needs to be done?”
“Not much,” Xena said as she wiped her hands together and tossed a hammer in a nearby pile. “I think it'll be ready for grain on the morrow.”
“That'll make the farmers happy,” Gabrielle said.
“Don't think anything'll satisfy that bunch,” Xena commented under her breath.
“Trouble with the locals, Xena?” Gabrielle cocked her head and listened expectantly.
Xena smiled a smile that didn't reach her eyes. “Just getting that itch.”
“Yep,” the warrior put an arm over the shorter woman's shoulder, as they walked back toward the village.
“A little too much domesticity for your tastes, huh?” Gabrielle smirked.
“A little too much complaining and whining for my tastes,” Xena frowned. “Why can't people just be happy with what life throws their way?”
“Need I remind you we have the gods after us—again?” Gabrielle chided.
“Yeah, but that's a whole lot different than worrying over crops and fretting over whether or not the prize bull will be able to produce an offspring worthy of its owner's austere lineage,” Xena continued. “Like the bull cares one way or the other. He's only got one thing on his mind…”
“Simple people lead simple lives and worry over simple things,” Gabrielle shrugged. “My father always worried that he wouldn't make enough coin off the wool to keep us fed during the entire year. That's why my mother did some mending on the side to make some extra that she could sock away for those meager times.”
“And my mother worries that she'll lose guests because her daughter and her daughter's lover are too loud during…”
Gabrielle slapped a hand over the warrior's mouth just in time. “Please, Xena. Must you?”
Xena's eyes lit with a teasing gleam as she nipped playfully at the hand over her mouth. “Gotcha!” She smirked triumphantly when the bard pulled her hand away.
“You,” Gabrielle smirked as she playfully backhanded the warrior's leather-clad belly. “Were you serious that you're ready to leave, Xena?”
“Dead serious,” Xena deadpanned.
“Please don't say that,” Gabrielle shuddered unconsciously.
“Sorry,” Xena squeezed the bard's shoulders. “I forgot how much that still bothers you.” She kissed the top of Gabrielle's head, as they cleared the trees and emerged into the bright sunshine of the late afternoon.
“Xena! Gabrielle!” A familiar, and totally unexpected, figure rushed toward them.
“Hey, Eph,” Xena nodded a greeting to the blond regent of the Amazons.
“Ephiny,” Gabirelle gave her regent a quick hug. “What in the world brings you to Amphipolis? Is everything all right back in the village?”
“I'm so glad I found you,” the Amazon said breathlessly, her chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath. “I asked about you at the inn and got the third degree from the scrappy little innkeeper. She's a real ball of Greek fire, ya know?”
Xena smirked. “You met my mother, then.”
A blond brow quirked. “That's your mother?” Ephiny asked in utter disbelief. “No wonder you left home at such an early age, Xena. She could scare the feathers off our most seasoned warriors, not to mention what she could do to put the elders in their place. I wasn't prepared for a grilling and I came prepared for any eventuality.”
Gabrielle put a staying hand on the warrior's shoulder before Xena could react. “Why are you here, Ephiny?”
“Problems,” Ephiny smirked at the couple. “We flipped a coin and I won the honor and privilege of coming after you.”
“And who is the acting queen in our absence?” Gabrielle tilted her head to the side.
“Eponin and Chilapa are sharing the responsibility,” Ephiny smirked. “They send their best and wish us a swift return journey, by the way.”
“So, what problems would bring you cross-country on a two-day foot journey to Amphipolis?” Xena crossed her arms over her chest and quirked a dark brow. “It must be important to have the queen's regent leave the pregnant warriors behind to protect the village.”
“I seek the wisdom of our queen,” Ephiny quirked a brow at Gabrielle. “You up to the challenge, Gabrielle?”
“You want me to return to the village for an unknown reason and deal with problems that you won't identify?” Gabrielle crossed her own arms over her chest. “I'm sorry, but you have to give me something more to go on, Eph.”
“Men,” Ephiny threw her hands up. “We're being overrun by a bunch of village men looking to hook up with Amazons who aren't already pregnant. I tried resolving the problem myself, short of letting Eponin castrate them. But they're more stubborn than a pack of mules—a pack of horny male mules.”
Xena snickered and Gabrielle covered her mouth to keep from laughing.
“You want me to chase a bunch of men out of the village?” Gabrielle snorted. “You came all this way for that?” She shook her head. “I really don't think I'm qualified to deal with a problem of that magnitude, Eph.”
Xena snorted loudly.
“That's right, laugh it up, warrior,” Ephiny deadpanned and then her tone turned pleading as she looked to the smaller woman. “Please, Gabrielle? I really need your help. The stockade is full of horny men and Eponin keeps sharpening her dagger in the hopes of dangling a few of their balls on the trees near our borders. She says it'll deter any future pests, but I think it'll just incite the surrounding villages to raise arms against us. We could certainly handle a village uprising, except that all our warriors are busy with…other things.”
“You're probably right about the uprising, Eph,” Gabrielle agreed. “But I don't know what you want me to do about it. It's not like I carry around a scroll with all the answers to the world's most pressing problems.”
“No,” Ephiny said. “But you and Xena are pretty good at figuring out solutions to difficult situations—innovative solutions that no one else would come up with.” She quirked a brow at the tall warrior. “Right, Xena?”
“We have our own problems to deal with right now, Eph,” Gabrielle said. “The gods are still sore about what happened the last time we stayed with you.”
“Which gods?” Ephiny asked.
“We're not quite sure yet, but we've had a visit from at least one,” Xena answered. “Aphrodite warned us off Athena and then we were attacked by a bunch of soldiers.”
“Attacked?” Ephiny's brows shot into her hairline. “Why?”
“They were soldiers from Athena's defunct army,” Gabrielle answered. “Look, we really don't have time to travel all the way to the village to deal with a problem that you are perfectly capable of solving on your own, Ephiny.”
“And, frankly, I don't want to deal with a bunch of pregnant Amazons,” Xena added with a wry smirk.
“That, too,” Gabrielle nodded.
“Oh, so you're just gonna send me back empty-handed?” Ephiny turned sorrowful eyes on them. “What kind of friends are you, anyway?”
“The kind who stay out of Amazon affairs,” Xena shot back. She kept an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and put the other over Ephiny's, guiding them toward the inn. “Now, why don't you stay the night at my mother's inn, enjoy her gracious hospitality, and tomorrow you can head right back to the village to tell them you were unable to convince their queen to come to their rescue.”
Gabrielle smirked at the look of consternation on the Amazon regent's face.
“Are you two kidding me? ‘Cause I'm not really in the mood to play games right now,” Ephiny blew out an exasperated breath. “I just traveled all the way from…”
“We know where you traveled from, Eph,” Gabrielle interrupted. “And we know you'll make it back there just fine without us.”
“Oh, nonononono,” the regent stopped suddenly and pulled away from the tall warrior. “I am not going back there to all those crazy, pregnant women and those…” her face turned three shades of red as her ire grew. “Do you have any idea what kind of mess you left me to deal with? The council elders are in an uproar and the warriors are eating us out of house and home!!! Not to mention Ignesia is rallying Velasca's supporters in a bid for control!”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged wide-eyed looks and shrugged.
“You two dumped a whole load of centaur shit in my lap and then you just up and left me holding the feed bag!” Ephiny was on a roll. “It wasn't enough that Xena came up with that ridiculous…No! Wait! That was Eponin's ridiculous…No! Asinine is more like it! Who sends a bunch of Amazon warriors disguised as village women into a camp full of horny men???” Ephiny glared at both women. “YOU!!!” She pointed an accusing finger at the taller of the two. “You knew exactly what would happen and you let Eponin talk you into carrying out that cockamamie plan!!!”
They were standing just a few paces from the door to the inn and a small crowd was quickly gathering. Gabrielle glanced around at the onlookers and realized the spectacle they were making.
“ WHAT?!? ” The regent shouted and then realized Gabrielle was looking past her shoulder at something or someone behind her.
“Can we move this inside?” Gabrielle pointed toward the inn's entrance. “These people probably think we're a troop of actors putting on a play.”
Ephiny glanced around at the onlookers forming a semi-circle behind her, obviously noticing them for the first time. The proverbial wind left her sails as she entered the inn without a word. Xena and Gabrielle followed close behind and paused just inside the doorway to let their eyes adjust to the dim interior.
“Better?” Ephiny threw her hands in the air and then turned a scowl on the pair behind her.
“Not so crowded,” Xena cocked her head and folded her arms across her chest.
“I don't think the people of Amphipolis are quite ready to meet a scantily-clad Amazon warrior, much less the queen's regent,” Gabrielle commented, as she glanced out the window to make sure the crowd was dispersing. “We'll probably have the militia down on us next.”
“They'll live,” Xena commented.
“Please,” Ephiny gave the pair her best pleading look. “I really need your help.” She suddenly got down on both knees before Gabrielle and folded her hands in supplication. “I'm begging you, My Queen. Please come back to the village with me and help us solve our man problems.”
Gabrielle stared in shocked silence, while Xena just rolled her tongue in her cheek at the regent's ridiculous antics. It was at that point that Cyrene emerged from the kitchen. She saw the leather-clad figure kneeling before Gabrielle. She then glanced at her daughter and saw the amused smirk on Xena's lips. Cyrene didn't know who the kneeling woman was, but the scene certainly looked strange to her eyes.
“What in the name of Hera is going on here?!?” Cyrene planted her hands on her hips and glared at the trio. “Gabrielle? Why is that woman pleading for your help on her knees? She was over here asking about you a little while ago, so I sent her over to find you. Who is she?”
“Oh, this should be good,” Xena muttered under her breath with an exasperated eye roll.
Ephiny hopped to her feet and turned to face the newcomer. She took in the woman's obvious authoritative stance and the no-nonsense way she looked at them.
“Xena said you're her mother,” Ephiny stepped graciously toward Cyrene with an outstretched arm. “I'm Ephiny.”
Cyrene took the woman's calloused hand in hers and gingerly shook it. A tentative smile graced her lips as she realized who the woman was.
“You're Queen of the Amazons,” Cyrene said. “Gabrielle has told us some stories involving you and your people. It's very nice to meet you.”
“Oh, really?” Ephiny glanced behind her and found that Xena and Gabrielle were right there. She was a little disconcerted, but quickly recovered as she directed her next question to the bard. “You've been telling stories about us?”
Gabrielle gave her a smug nod. “Not all the stories I tell are about Xena, Eph.”
“How is your son, Ephiny?” Cyrene asked with an interested smile.
“He's…um…Xenon is good,” Ephiny stammered at the unexpected question. She glanced over to find Gabrielle smirking at her. “You talked about my son?”
“She's family, Eph,” Gabrielle answered. “Family generally talks about the people they care about with other family members.” She shot Xena a confused look. “Did that come out right?”
“I understood it,” Xena shrugged.
“So, tell me, Ephiny,” Cyrene said. “What brings you to my inn? Or, rather, what brings you back to my inn?”
“These two,” Ephiny answered. “They want me to stay the night and return to the village in the morning.”
Cyrene glanced at Xena, who nodded, and Gabrielle, who shrugged.
“So you need a room?” Cyrene deduced and received a curt nod. “May I ask why a lone Amazon traveled all this way just to stay the night in an inn here in Amphipolis? Are you sure there isn't more to it than that?”
Ephiny shot a glare over her shoulder at the two women flanking her. “I came to ask our queen to return to the village and help with a…a little problem we're having.”
Cyrene 's gaze remained on Gabrielle, as she asked, “And would this little problem have anything to do with a number of pregnant Amazon warriors?”
Ephiny rolled her tongue in her cheek as she glanced at all three women in turn. “She knows?” Her glare settled on Gabrielle.
“Everyone in Amphipolis knows, Eph,” Gabrielle smirked. “I did what you and Eponin wanted. I included the Amazons in one of my latest stories. The Amazons are now forever immortalized in the annals of history.”
Ephiny nodded. “So, we're a laughing stock?”
“It was a very tasteful tale of bravery and sacrifice,” Cyrene said. “She'll have to tell it to you sometime.”
“I can't wait to hear it,” Ephiny responded drolly.
“So, are you going with her?” Cyrene looked from Xena to Gabrielle.
“No,” Xena answered flatly.
“No?” Cyrene eyed her daughter skeptically. “Just like that? No? I thought you were always helping those in need.”
“Not this time,” Gabrielle added. “It's not our problem.”
“And why ever not?” Cyrene scowled. “Gabrielle, you're their queen. You should go help them. After all, isn't it your duty to be there for your subjects?”
Gabrielle cringed at the reminder. Xena just rolled her tongue in her cheek again and glared at her mother.
“Yeah, Xena's mom is right,” Ephiny agreed as she put an arm around Cyrene 's shoulders. “You do have a duty to your sisters, Gabrielle. We need your help and it's…”
“ Ephiiiiiiny ,” the bard growled a low warning.
“Yes, My Queen?” The regent shot back with an innocent smirk. “How may your loyal subject serve you?” She bowed her head without taking her laughing eyes off the bard. “I am oh so willing to do your royal bidding.”
Xena snorted and covered her smile with a hand.
Gabrielle exhaled loudly and glowered at the smug look on her friend's face. She knew Xena was enjoying the interplay immensely and vowed to make the warrior pay—royally.
“Okay, fine,” Gabrielle conceded. “I'll return to the village with you, Ephiny.”
“Yippee,” Xena muttered under her breath. “Can't wait to kick some pregnant Amazon butt.”
“Behave,” Gabrielle swatted Xena's midsection. “We'll talk later.”
Ephiny's expression lit with a triumphant smile. “I'll see you at first light, then?” She nodded to Xena and Gabrielle in turn. “Come on, Cyrene ,” she then turned to the woman who was her match in height, as well as in her powers of persuasion. “I'm ready to retire for the night in a nice, soft bed.”
“I think I can oblige you there, Ephiny,” Cyrene smirked, as the two women headed for the stairs. “A room with two beds just opened up yesterday, and I've been saving it for someone who will appreciate the peace and quiet it offers.”
The two women disappeared up the stairs without a backward glance, leaving the warrior and bard alone in the main room. The room was empty of patrons, which was unusual. There was usually a full house at that time of the day, especially since Gabrielle's arrival and her nightly storytelling.
“Apparently my mother's found an ally against us,” Xena commented, as she wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and steered her outside into the waning light of late afternoon.
Gabrielle clasped the hand dangling from her shoulder. “It must be a mother thing.”
“Probably,” Xena agreed.
“Sorry I gave in so easily,” Gabrielle said, as they crossed the distance to the stables in the last rays of the setting sun. She glanced up at the sky and noticed wispy orange and purple clouds high overhead. “The weather's perfect for a late-night ride. We could just slip away and leave Ephiny none-the-wiser.”
Xena glanced sidelong at the woman next to her. “Seriously?” She considered something for a moment. “I think I'm more interested to know why you agreed to go this alone. That is what I heard, isn't it?”
“Look, Xena,” Gabrielle turned to face the taller woman as soon as they were inside the dim interior of the stables. The earthy smell of horses and leather surrounded them both. “I know how you feel about the Amazons when the circumstances are relatively normal. They may not all welcome you with open arms, especially since they think you're responsible for all the warriors being pregnant. Why don't you stay here and continue with the rebuilding—maybe work some things out with your mother. I can go with Ephiny and see what solution I can come up with to deal with this stupid mess with the villagers. If I can't come up with anything, then I'll send word back here and let you know.”
“You want me to stay here? Without you?” Xena gave her an incredulous look, even though the mere idea of not having to deal with a bunch of pregnant Amazons was secretly quite appealing. “You seriously think I'm going to sit around here while you jump into that hornet's nest all by yourself?”
“It's not like I'll be alone, Xena,” Gabrielle's hackles were suddenly up and she stood with her hands on her hips in defiance of Xena's skepticism. “What? Don't you think I can handle the situation without you? Is this one of those moments where you think that anything you come up with will be far better than what I can? Is that it, Xena?”
Uh, oh. Xena suddenly realized she'd stepped in over her head this time. She could see that Gabrielle was gearing up to blast her with a verbal tirade and decided to just head it off at the pass.
“Okay, fine,” Xena conceded with her hands held up in surrender.
Cletus' words rang through the warrior's mind, and Xena knew she had to give Gabrielle the space she needed to work through this problem on her own. It was the only way the warrior could see to help Gabrielle gain the self-confidence she needed to move forward as a warrior in her own right. Echoes of another situation rang clearly in the back of Xena's mind, but she pushed the memory of Gabrielle's abrupt return to Potidea away. This decision was made and she was willing to see it through.
Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and glowered skeptically at the taller woman. “That's it, then? You're just giving up without an argument?”
“I think you can handle this just fine on your own, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “As a matter of fact, I know you can. So, just go ahead and I'll catch up with you in a day or two.”
Gabrielle felt the niggling echoes of another similar situation, but just shook it off and accepted Xena's decision.
“Okay, then,” the bard nodded with finality, as she turned to mount the ladder to the hayloft.
And then it dawned on both of them that they hadn't eaten anything since the noon meal. Gabrielle paused on the second rung and looked down at her partner.
“Dare we return to the inn and get an earful from your mother, just so we can have something to eat?” Gabrielle said from the second rung of the ladder.
“I'll sneak something from the kitchen,” Xena said as she patted the bard's butt. “Be back before you get too cozy.”
And then Xena was gone, leaving Gabrielle to climb the ladder with a shake of her head. It was times like these that the bard really appreciated having Xena around.
Continued in Part 5
Return to the Academy