This is the final installment in a three-part series that began with A Nation's Pride and Too Much To Ask. If you haven't already read the first two parts, you might want to do so. My apologies to those who have been waiting ever so patiently for this final installment. Life got a little hectic during and after the holidays. Thank you for tagging along for the ride.
After defeating yet another army and setting the gods straight, Xena and Gabrielle now face their most difficult challenge yet-and one that will rock the very foundation of everything they hold dear. Not only must they save the Amazon Nation and set them on a path to a brighter future, but our heroines must find a way to keep the past from swallowing them whole.
Disclaimers and other stuff: XWP and its characters belong to MCA/Universal. I didn't create them and am just borrowing them for a little side trip through an alternate Xenaverse. This storyline is mine, however. Please don't reproduce it or send it somewhere else without permission. Thank you.
Adult content: This story explores loving relationships between women. There's nothing terribly graphic. If you are under 18 or this type of story is illegal where you live or you don't like reading this kind of thing, fly, fly away and best wishes for a happy, prosperous life. Maybe you'll come back again when the world as we know it becomes more tolerant-or you turn 18.
Violent content: Yes, there is graphic violence in this story. If you read the last one, same type of thing here. I'm also of the notion that the world needs an occasional swift kick in the butt from time to time.
Note: If you haven't yet read A Nation's Pride or Too Much To Ask, you'll probably want to read those first before you delve into this one any further. I managed to throw our two heroes for a little loop after some events in Season 3 and they're not…um…in Kansas anymore. J
Feedback is much appreciated and will be read and responded to if sent to email@example.com.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day with not a single cloud in the sky. The sounds of battle rang through the air, along with the first sweet songs of the few birds that were willing to brave the early spring chill in order to make their presence known.
"Watch…Ugh! That's gonna leave a mark!" Ephiny slapped a hand over her eyes and shook her head in consternation. Her fingers parted slightly and hazel eyes peeked through them. "You okay?!?" She called in the general direction of the two combatants.
"Peachy!" The shorter of the two answered with a playful smirk.
"I was talking to Eponin!" Ephiny called from her place in the shade of an oak tree that bordered the Amazon practice field. She lowered her hand from her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. "Amazons," she muttered.
It was spring and the air was thick with the scent of new growth. Wildflowers lined the edges of the practice field and let off their fragrant scent, filling the air with a sweet aroma that chased away the last vestiges of winter's hold on the earth. Green shoots of new grass were sprouting everywhere, thanks to several spring rain showers that had fallen over the last half-moon.
The regent shaded her eyes from the bright sunlight streaming through the leaves and branches above her. It was the first sunny day in a while and everyone was out on the field, taking advantage of the beautiful weather. Everyone, that is, except the twenty pregnant Amazon warriors who were convalescing in the warm sunshine of the village center.
It had been a long, quiet winter for the Amazons. They had enjoyed the stories told by their queen and many had benefitted from Xena's expertise. But no one was happier to have Gabrielle and Xena there than Ephiny. With the queen in residence, Ephiny was able to step away from her usual double duties as acting-queen and regent. She enjoyed the winter for the first time in…Well, since Gabrielle had assumed the queen's mask after Melosa's death.
Ephiny turned to the taller woman next to her. Xena was dressed in a modified version of her normal leather outfit. Rather than the skirted dark leather ensemble, the warrior wore a doeskin sleeveless tunic and long pants that were intricately embroidered with thousands of tiny colored beads. The outfit had been a solstice gift from Gabrielle, who had requisitioned several of the village seamstresses to create something that would still allow Xena to wear her armor over it. Although it was sunny out, the early spring chill still clung to the air. Even Ephiny still wore her winter leathers, rather than the summer ones she preferred during the rest of the year.
Ephiny noticed that Xena was holding in a chuckle, as light blue eyes took in the two combatants on the practice field. The regent returned her attention to the pair. Even from this distance she could see they were sweating from their exertions.
"Laugh it up, Xena," the regent shot the warrior a sidelong glance. "Just wait 'til she's skilled enough to take you on with that practice sword."
Xena gave the regent a wry smirk. "Not gonna happen anytime soon, Eph."
"Oh, yeah?" Ephiny turned to face the taller woman with her hands on her leather-clad hips. "You really think she won't surpass even your skills in a few moons' time?"
Xena shook her head. "Gabrielle's skills are improving exponentially, but she still has a lot to learn about sword fighting."
"You wanna make a wager on that?" Ephiny smirked. "I give her a moon before she's kicking your butt around that field. I certainly don't envy Eponin these sessions." She glanced at the two combatants and winced when Gabrielle managed to duck the weapons master's guard and land another blow to her exposed midsection. "Believe me. I've seen the bruises first-hand."
Xena glanced at the two women facing off against each other. Gabrielle was certainly a fast learner and had far surpassed even her expectations in the six moons since they had decided to remain with the Amazons. It had been a relatively quiet time for both of them. They had explored their burgeoning relationship in ways that surprised even Xena. And Gabrielle had stubbornly taken up sword fighting in deference to her sudden violent revulsion to wielding the weapon in the wake of what Ares did to her.
It happened during the Thesmophoria-the festival to Demeter the Amazons used to kick off their first Market Day. Salmoneus was there to offer his expertise, as were more than half the available men from the surrounding villages. Gabrielle volunteered to start the festival off by taking up the queen's sword and raising it high overhead. She began the speech with a few words of welcome to the guests invited to share in the festivities. Unfortunately, she'd barely gotten the sword over her head when a violent wave of nausea hit her. She'd barely managed to turn aside in time to lose her entire midday meal to one side of the raised dais.
Xena remembered the moment as clearly as if it had happened just yesterday. Gabrielle was beyond embarrassed at her stomach's sudden and violent rebellion, but shrugged it off with as much aplomb as she could muster. The bard quickly handed the sword off to Ephiny, who took it with a concerned glare meant to communicate a silent question to her queen. Gabrielle merely shrugged and resumed her speech without further incident. She didn't touch the sword again and suffered no lasting effects after that-at least that anyone could tell.
It wasn't until the bard happened to pick up Xena's sword, in order to move it from one side of their shared hut to the other, that another bout of nausea hit her. When Gabrielle mentioned the second incident to Xena, the warrior put two-and-two together and did her own little experiment.
They were on the practice field during one of their daily sparring sessions, when Xena suggested they try their hand at swords. Gabrielle agreed and they each chose a well-worn, dull-edged practice sword. The instant Gabrielle held hers in front of her Xena noticed a sudden change come over the bard. The change was so unexpected, in fact, that Xena barely recognized her partner in that moment.
The bard turned three shades of green, dropped the sword and ran to the nearest tree, where she proceeded to rid herself of the rather large morning meal she had consumed just a candlemark before. Xena consoled her partner and stood by until the bout subsided, then explained to Gabrielle her theory. Gabrielle finally admitted that she was still dealing with the guilt over killing all those men during the night Ares had visited her in the guise of Xena.
It took four moons and a great deal of patience on both their parts for Gabrielle to finally overcome the sudden unexplainable bouts of nausea that came over her every time she picked up a sword. Gabrielle had even suggested they seek advice from Aphrodite on the subject. But Xena adamantly refused to call on any of the gods. They argued about it for a full week, until Gabrielle finally conceded the point and they let the matter drop.
Xena still remembered the look in the bard's eye when Gabrielle had tried to convince Xena that the Goddess of Love had always been on their side, even when the other gods were against them. But Xena didn't want to involve any of the gods-especially not after what happened to Gabrielle when Ares used his powers on her. Those moments were still so vividly etched in the warrior's memory that she couldn't bring herself to trust even the seemingly-benign Love Goddess.
"Hey, you two," Gabrielle's voice brought Xena out of her reverie. "How'd I do?" She looked expectantly up at Xena, as the warrior handed her a cloth to wipe the sweat from her face. "Did I pass muster this time around?"
"You're still dropping your right shoulder," Xena answered with a gentle smile. "Same shoulder you used to drop when you were sparring with the staff."
Gabrielle frowned. "You'd think I'd learn not to do that anymore." She wiped her face and then wrapped the cloth around her neck.
"You sure kicked my butt," Eponin added with a wry smirk. "Not that I'm complainin' or anything, yer maj. It's a real honor to have you beat the crap out of me every morning." She took the cloth Ephiny handed her and shot the regent a raised-brow smirk. "What? Don't you think so, Eph?"
"I think you're nuts," Ephiny shook her head with a tolerant smirk. "And now you have the honor of joining the youngsters and trying to save face with them, while you teach them how not to drop your guard against Xena, here."
Eponin glanced at the smirking warrior. "Uh, yeah," her bravado faltered. "Guess I forgot about that little detail, eh, Xena?" She moved to the warrior's side and punched Xena's shoulder. "You ready to kick my butt, too?"
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, who nodded her acquiescence. "Don't worry, Pon, I'll try to go easy on ya." She shot Gabrielle a conspiratorial wink, as she steered the reluctant weapons master toward the far side of the practice field, where a group of young Amazons were doing some warm up exercises. "See ya back at the hut," she called over her shoulder.
"Definitely," Gabrielle said, as she put a companionable arm around the regent's shoulders and steered her toward the village. "Time to do some queen stuff, I suppose."
"Try to sound a bit more enthusiastic about it, will ya?" Ephiny shot Gabrielle a teasing grin. "It's not like you get to do this while you and Xena traipse around the countryside, righting wrongs and doing the hero thing."
"Oh, I am beyond excited, let me tell ya," Gabrielle snorted. "It's my life's dream to spend candlemarks of my day arguing with a bunch of post-menopausal…"
"They're our elders, My Queen," Ephiny quickly injected before the bard could say more. "You'd do well to remember that little detail when Ignesia gets on her high horse and starts riling them up into a feeding frenzy against you. She's getting more vocal these days, by the way. You should do something about it or she'll walk all over you and take the mask from you out of spite."
"Believe me when I tell you I know how to respect my elders just as much as the next person, but…" Gabrielle shot the regent a warning glare. "Those women can't hold a candle to some of the people or immortals I've had to deal with during my travels with Xena. Ignesia is nothing more than a pesky gnat in the face of what we've gone through with Athena-or even Artemis." She scowled at the thought of those two goddesses. "Ugh, Artemis is a real piece of work. Her temper matches that red hair of hers perfectly."
Ephiny eyed the woman with a measure of reluctant respect. She'd never heard the bard talk about the gods with such disrespect before. She was a little surprised that Gabrielle mentioned them at all, especially since neither Gabrielle nor Xena seemed inclined to talk about the Olympian deities. As a matter of fact, it seemed to be a taboo subject ever since the two had decided to remain with the Amazons through the long winter.
"Please don't discount Ignesia's influence with the elders, Gabrielle," Ephiny warned. "The woman may be nothing more than a gnat to you, but she's managed to gain a strong foothold with the village council. She wields a lot of power and influence with those women, which goes a long way to elevating her in their eyes. If it continues, there's no telling what she might do. And if there's one thing I've learned about Ignesia, it's that once she gets her teeth into something, she doesn't let go until she's chewed it up good or gnawed it right off completely."
"Nice visual, Eph," Gabrielle shot the regent a sidelong glance. "You make her sound like a rabid mama badger protecting her young."
Ephiny smirked and shrugged. "If the leathers fit…"
Gabrielle set her shoulders confidently. "I'm not afraid of Ignesia or her feather-headed cohorts. She's just another fly in the ointment, as far as I'm concerned."
"And the ointment is…?" Ephiny asked, as they approached the porch of the queen's hut and stopped.
"Did those messages go out to the twelve tribes?" Gabrielle turned to face the Amazon.
Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest. "Yep."
"Good," the bard nodded. "Any responses, yet?"
"Four so far. They said they'll be sending contingents by the next new moon," Ephiny answered. "Three are unsure if such a meeting is worth their time. And we have yet to hear from the farthest reaches."
"That's not all of them," Gabrielle eyed her curiously. "Which ones are we missing?"
"The northern tribes," Ephiny replied. "They refuse to come, no matter who we say we are or why we've requested their presence."
"We didn't request their presence," Gabrielle countered. "I invited them to come for a gathering of the tribes. It's time we all share our stories and our collective heritage. We need to appoint scholars to record the tribal information. It's sorely lacking, in my opinion. We need a central library of Amazon lore, traditions, ceremonies and rituals, and stories for future generations. I'd like our tribe to be the one to build it."
"Riiiight," Ephiny shifted uncomfortably. "There's more, but…"
"Spill it, Eph," Gabrielle said firmly.
She watched her friend and noted that the regent no longer made eye contact with her. That usually meant there was something the woman was too uncomfortable to say. Gabrielle waited patiently for Ephiny to continue, carefully watching for signs that she wouldn't.
"They say they won't set foot on the land where their greatest enemy resides," Ephiny finally said. "The only way they will come here is with an army of warriors. And only then it will be to wage war against us."
"War?" Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears. "What in the world did we ever do to deserve such a response?"
"Not we," Ephiny looked away uncomfortably.
"Who, then?" Gabrielle prodded.
Ephiny glanced away, before her gaze returned to a pair of curious green eyes watching her intently. "Xena."
Gabrielle thought about that for a moment, until it finally dawned on her. "Oh, yeah. I forgot about that."
Now it was the regent's turn to be confused. "Forgot about what?"
Gabrielle sighed, as she climbed the steps to the porch to escape the growing heat of the day. "I'll tell you about it after I change into something a little more comfortable." She stopped at the door and turned to face the regent. "Meet me in the war hut in a candlemark. I'll tell you what I know."
"All right," the regent agreed with a slight nod. "I'm not exactly sure what's going on, Gabrielle."
"It'll all be clear once you hear what I have to say," Gabrielle said, as she ducked inside the hut that she shared with Xena.
The place had a much homier feel than it did when they'd first arrived all those moons ago. Now, rather than just a few sparse pieces of furniture, there was actually a table with four chairs, a desk with her writing materials scattered on top of it, an intricately carved trunk at the end of the bed, two rocking chairs by the fireplace and a black bear rug on the floor between them.
Several colorful weavings hung on the walls, including Gabrielle's favorite-a landscape scene in which two figures are sitting beneath the shade of a tree near a bright blue stream. It was her favorite because Charila had given it to her and Xena as a token of her appreciation for the part they'd played in rescuing her from the slavers.
Gabrielle remembered the young woman's proud smile when she'd presented her queen with the gift. It was the same day several other artisans had arrived to redecorate the queen's hut. The women had worked from sunup till dusk, cleaning, rearranging and hanging things to make the place homier and more welcoming. Over the long winter months, Xena had worked on an addition to the one-room hut and eventually completed a small bathing room next to the stone fireplace.
When asked why she had decided to build the small room, Xena merely shrugged and said the queen should have her own private bathing room. Truth be told, Xena and Gabrielle had both become tired of sharing the communal bathing area at the far end of the village.
The room was small, but cozy. There was a beaded opening just off the main room that afforded a certain measure of privacy, as well as a single window high up on an outside wall that allowed light in and kept prying eyes out. Xena had opened the fireplace up enough to allow water to be heated right inside the bathing room, so it didn't need to be carried far. The spacious tub was built out of sturdy hardwood that had been cut, cured and sealed to prevent leaks.
A slatted floor was built a step above the main floor and allowed any spillover to drain onto the ground below. Xena had also dug a trench outside in order to allow them to just pull a plug in the tub and drain it easily. The trench extended behind the hut and carried the water away into the forest beyond. It was quite an ingenious setup and the envy of everyone in the village.
The privacy factor alone was enough to have Ephiny begging for a chance to use the bathing room almost the instant it was complete. After breaking the room in themselves-which they did with more enthusiasm than either would freely admit-Xena and Gabrielle had finally given in to the regent's incessant pleas and allowed her to use the private bath. But the queen drew the line at allowing anyone else into their private domain.
Gabrielle surveyed the interior of the hut with a grateful sigh, as she quickly divested herself of her winter leathers and stood in only a thin cotton shift. She knew her morning workout with Eponin had caused her to sweat profusely in the heavier leather garb that she tossed over the back of a chair. The weapons master was becoming more aggressive with their sparring sessions, as she realized Gabrielle's skills were improving daily. The thought put a proud smile on the woman's lips as she crossed the room to the bathing room.
The bard lifted the lid on the trunk at the foot of the bed and rifled around inside for her summer top and skirt. She'd seen Xena pack those away with the warrior's dark leathers when the chill of winter finally had them donning their winter wear. Gabrielle lifted the dark leathers out of the trunk and set them aside, then dug further down in the trunk. She came upon a cloth-wrapped bundle and lifted it out curiously.
The bundle was tied with a leather thong that Gabrielle quickly untied. She briefly eyed the bundle before unwrapping it to reveal a pair of strange daggers. Tossing the cloth back into the trunk, Gabrielle held the twin daggers up in her hands. They seemed to fit her hands perfectly, as if they had been made for her. She twirled them with expert precision, amazed that she never once cut herself on the razor-sharp blades. The blades moved in a blur, as she continued to spar against an imaginary opponent.
The blades became extensions of her arms, as Gabrielle moved around the room with practiced ease. She imagined that one rocking chair was an attacker with a sword raised to strike. She spun around and released the blade from her right hand, letting it fly into her opponent's midsection. The blade found its mark in the carved back of the rocking chair, where it stuck fast.
Gabrielle stared in amazement and then glanced at the other blade in her hand. She instinctively spun around and let the other blade fly with an overhand toss. The blade embedded deeply in the door behind her with a satisfying thunk. Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and smirked in satisfaction. She would have to ask Xena about the twin weapons, but then she thought better of it. She had no idea why the warrior had hidden them away in the bottom of the trunk or if they were even meant for her.
She quickly pulled the blade from the door and examined the deep mar in the wood, before she walked over to the rocking chair and did the same with its twin. She frowned at the gash the weapon had made in the carved back and hoped Xena didn't notice. Putting all thoughts of the weapons from her mind, Gabrielle quickly wrapped them in the cloth and retied the leather thong to her satisfaction. She shoved the bundle back into the trunk, found her summer clothes and replaced Xena's leathers, as she shut the trunk lid.
She parted the hanging beads and padded into the small room on bare feet. She smirked and was not a bit surprised to see steam still rising from the water in the tub. Xena made it a habit to ready the tub before they headed to the practice field each morning. Her need to wash off the morning grit in a hot bath was becoming so ingrained in her daily routine that Gabrielle often wondered what she would do when they returned to life on the road. Bathing in an ice cold stream or sponging off with water that had been left out all night was becoming less and less appealing to her.
The bard quickly divested herself of the last remaining piece of clothing, which she carelessly tossed into a corner of the room. She then climbed the three wooden steps that Xena had made especially for her and eased into the still-hot water.
"Ungh," Gabrielle exhaled loudly as the hot water enveloped her and the steam penetrated every pore.
Aching muscles quickly relaxed, as she sat down on a hidden bench that Xena had also added in deference to her partner's shorter stature. Of course, they both enjoyed just sitting next to each other on those occasions where they shared a bath together. The bench only took up one side of the oblong tub that was large enough for Xena to stretch out comfortably. The bottom of the tub also sloped for better drainage and to allow one to lay flat.
Gabrielle knew she didn't have much time to waste and quickly grabbed a cake of soap from a small shelf built into the wall. She sniffed the soap and savored the aroma of sandalwood, pine, palm oil, with a hint of orange and olive oil, all infused into a cake the size of her hand. Without further ado, she ducked underwater and immediately came back up. She rubbed the soap into a good lather on her short-cropped hair and dropped the cake back onto the shelf.
Gabrielle had considered letting her hair grow out again during those long, lazy winter months. The harsh northern wind was sometimes cold on her exposed ears, but she had merely shrugged off the idea and donned a fur-lined hat, instead. She'd grown quite used to not having to deal with long hair and was glad to just keep the short, wash-and-wear style that Xena had inadvertently given her when she'd been so deathly ill all those moons ago.
She remembered waking up and feeling so light, so free. And then she'd lifted a hand to her hair and discovered the reason for the strange feeling. The look in Xena's eyes was priceless and was forever burned into her memory. The warrior had had such an abashed look of expectancy that almost made the bard laugh aloud. She hadn't laughed. She had, however, asked what happened to her hair.
Gabrielle dunked her head underwater again to rinse the soap away and came up again when she felt the water shift unexpectedly around her. She wiped the water from her eyes and opened them in time to find herself in the arms of said warrior.
"Xena?" The bard exclaimed in surprise. "What on earth…"
A smirk played at the corners of the warrior's soft lips, as she closed the distance between them. She silenced the bard's protests with a lingering kiss that carried all the love she felt in her heart for the woman. When Xena pulled back slightly and gazed into green eyes glazed with passion, she smiled.
"Thought you could use a royal back scrubber," the warrior suddenly traded positions with the bard and sat down on the bench with Gabrielle seated on her lap.
Gabrielle turned and smirked up into laughing blue eyes.
"You're such a charmer, Xena," the bard said. "It's one of the many things I love about you."
"Hm," Xena leaned forward for another kiss. "Wanna clue me in on some of the others?"
Gabrielle thoughtfully considered the question for a moment. A playful gleam in sea-green eyes was the only indication that she was playing with the warrior.
"Let's see," the bard tapped a wet finger against her chin. "There's this," she leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss against Xena's jawline. "And this," her lips trailed over to an earlobe. "And definitely this…right here," she flicked her tongue against the warrior's pulse point and smiled at the indrawn breath.
"Okaaaaaay," Xena managed to utter as she felt her pulse quicken.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the woman and let her hands explore the submerged body, while her lips tested and tasted the warrior's damp skin above the water line. Her explorations continued until Xena couldn't stand another moment. In one swift motion, the warrior lifted Gabrielle from the water and carried her to their bed.
They continued the shared the intimacy that only they knew with each other. Hands and lips explored, while bodies melded in a dance of love that soon had them both breathless. They came together in mutual passion, until they both plunged headlong into pure bliss. Their cries of release rang through the hut and joined the morning birdsong in an unending chorus. And then the world slowly came back into focus, as they rode the last vestiges of their passions back to reality.
"That was…" Gabrielle panted breathlessly, as she tried valiantly to catch her breath.
"Fun," Xena finished for her, as she pushed a wet lock of hair out of the bard's eyes.
Xena propped herself up on an elbow and stared down into her lover's glazed eyes. They were breathing heavily from their exertions and it took several moments longer for them to recover enough to speak.
"Fun?" Gabrielle quirked a brow. "That was…fun?"
"I love you?" Xena tried to salvage the situation, as she watched irritation flare in Gabrielle's eyes. "I really do love you, Gabrielle. You're my soul's mate, my love and partner for life."
The brow hiked higher into the bard's hairline. "You just went from charming to passionate to completely clueless to poetic in the space of a few heartbeats, Xena."
"I still love you," Xena continued with an innocent smirk, as she brushed the bard's cheek with a finger. "That's gotta count for something." Then her expression turned thoughtful. "Passionate?"
Gabrielle snorted. "What I was trying to say is that it was incredible, mind-blowing, fantastic!"
Xena shrugged. "It was good."
"Just…good?" Gabrielle's expression fell.
"Well," Xena continued, "it wasn't…you know…" she shrugged. "Let's just say, I could have done much better. I shoulda gave you…um…We could have…It's…" Her face scrunched as she tried to find the right words.
"You're not a performing monkey, Xena," Gabrielle deadpanned. "Besides, lovemaking isn't a competition. It's not about trying to outdo each other. It's about sharing a part of ourselves because we want to show…because I want to show you how much you mean to me." She stroked the warrior's cheek. "I want you to know how much you-and this-means to me."
"Okaaaay," Xena conceded. "I guess that makes sense, because that's how I feel, too."
Gabrielle rested her chin on the warrior's chest. "Besides, I don't really have anything else to compare this with. Except maybe our other…um…well, you know." A blush suddenly suffused her cheeks. "Those other times were…well, good, but…"
"I know," Xena blew out another breath. "I think we're actually getting better at it."
"Do you think starting in the water had anything to do with it?" Gabrielle cocked her head to one side and glanced at the doorway to their bathing room.
"Not sure," Xena replied, as she absently ran lazy fingers up and down the bard's spine.
Gabrielle smirked, as she lifted her head enough to place a gentle, exploratory kiss on the warrior's lips. The kiss deepened until they were both eager and aroused again.
"You wanna…?" Xena looked expectantly at the bard when she finally pulled away.
"I kinda promised Eph I'd meet her at the war hut," Gabrielle's expression mirrored the warrior's instant disappointment. "I'm sorry, Xena. I didn't know you were going to show up and…"
"Yeah," Xena said. "Got it."
Gabrielle shifted positions until she was on top of the larger woman. It was a new position for them and one that she wasn't hesitant to explore further. She felt a rush of warmth wash over her, as she gazed into expectant blue eyes.
"Are you sure about this?" Xena shot the bard a questioning look. "Not that I'm complaining or anything, but I don't think Ephiny will appreciate finding us in this rather…um….compromising position. And I don't think getting dressed is an option right now."
Gabrielle planted another kiss on her lover's lips and slid off the warrior until she was lying next to Xena. She couldn't seem to motivate her rebellious body to completely break contact with the taller woman, though. She wanted…more, so much more.
The kiss deepened and became more insistent, as Gabrielle once again melded her body to Xena's. And then Gabrielle found herself on top of the warrior. The chill from their wet bodies and the air seemed to drive them both into a fevered frenzy, as they came together again with heated abandon.
Neither woman cared that it was the middle of the morning and they both had responsibilities that awaited them. They simply gave into their mutual need for each other and closed themselves off from any thoughts of the outside world, as they became lost, once again, in their lovemaking.
"You're late," Ephiny shot Gabrielle a wry smirk, as the bard entered the war hut and took a seat in one of the chairs across from the regent.
Gabrielle couldn't help the blush that suffused her cheeks, as she kept her gaze from meeting the regent's in an effort to keep from giving away the reason for her tardiness. When her eyes finally met Ephiny's gaze, she realized the jig was up.
"Okay, so I got a little distracted and lost track of time," Gabrielle explained lamely. "Xena…"
"Xena found you," the regent nodded sagely.
"How'd you…" Gabrielle's words trailed off, as another blush suffused her cheeks.
"Eponin returned to our hut while I was changing out of my winter leathers," Ephiny answered with a sly grin. "Don't worry, I just got here myself." She shot the bard a knowing look. "We…um…shared a little…um…snuggle time together." Her companion suddenly snorted loudly. "What?"
"Look at us, Eph," Gabrielle smiled. "We're acting like a couple of girls caught up in our first crush."
Ephiny chuckled. "Yeah," she nodded. "I'm so happy when I'm with Eponin that I just want to run around the village proclaiming my undying love for the big lug. It's embarrassing, let me tell ya. Makes me wanna throw up."
"I know exactly what you mean," Gabrielle nodded. "If Xena happens to casually brush against me while we're out and about, it's all I can do not to jump her right then and there. I've never experienced anything so explosive before. It's a little unnerving, to say the least."
"We're just a couple of sex-crazed nut balls," Ephiny shook her head in consternation. "Next thing you know we'll be having a double joining ceremony at one of Sal's market festivals."
"Ugh, don't remind me," Gabrielle groaned. "My head is still reeling from all the spirits I consumed at the last one."
Ephiny snickered. "You are such a light weight, Gab. That one was moons ago."
"Three," Gabrielle corrected. "I distinctly remember telling Salmoneus to go peddle his wares elsewhere for a while, so we could use what was left of winter to recover."
"He was really offended that you would even suggest such a thing," Ephiny chuckled. "I swear the man is insatiable when it comes to making a dinar."
"As insatiable as a couple of Amazons I know," Gabrielle winked conspiratorially.
That earned the bard a teasing glare. "Speak for yourself, queenie."
"Ooo, disrespect from the common masses," Gabrielle teased. "I could really be offended, ya know. So much so, in fact, that I might just have second thoughts about allowing you to continue as regent."
"As if," Ephiny shot her a quirked-brow look. "You know there's no one else crazy enough to take the job. No one wants to be stuck playing go-between with this hormonally charged hornet's nest of Amazon leather-heads."
"Do you regret taking the job, then?" Gabrielle suddenly sobered.
"Nah," Ephiny smiled reassuringly. "I actually enjoy a good challenge. Keeps me on my toes and helps me appreciate these moments when you return to take the reins. I'm really happy you chose me to be your regent, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle leaned forward and placed a companionable hand on the regent's bare knee. "I'm really glad you accepted the challenge," she said, as she gave the knee an affectionate pat and then sat back in her own chair again. "Now, let's get down to business."
Ephiny was a little surprised by the instant surge of desire that shot through her at Gabrielle's touch. It was really strange and totally unexpected. The feeling caught her so totally off guard, in fact, that it took her more than sixty beats of her racing heart to finally recover enough to speak again.
"What was that?" Ephiny asked in confusion.
"What?" Gabrielle innocently eyed her friend.
"Didn't you feel it?"
"Feel what, Eph?" Gabrielle returned. "I didn't feel anything."
"When you t-touched…" The regent glanced down at her knee, as if she were looking for some residual clue as to what had happened. She shook herself and returned her gaze to her clueless companion. "Tell me what's going on with you, Gab. There's something really…um…different about you."
Gabrielle shrugged. "I don't know what you mean. I'm the same person I was this morning."
"Yeah…not," Ephiny shot back with a skeptical glare. "There's something…strange about you. When you put your hand on my knee…um…I suddenly felt…Ugh!" She breathed out an exasperated sigh. "I do not have the hots for you, Gabrielle!" She shot up out of her chair and started pacing in agitation.
"Okaaaaay," Gabrielle watched her friend in utter bewilderment. "Wanna explain what you mean by that, Eph? 'Cause I don't have those feelings for you, either."
Ephiny rounded on the bard and glared at her. "You touched me and I had this sudden, overpowering urge to jump you, right here, right now!" She ran an agitated hand through her curly hair and frowned at her friend. "What in Hades was that? Why did I suddenly want to push you down right here and do things to you that only Xena should do to you?"
Gabrielle's eyes suddenly widened. "You what?" She asked quietly. "Ephiny, I…"
"No!" The regent held up a staying hand, even though Gabrielle wasn't moving toward her. "It's gone now-disappeared the instant you pulled your hand away-but…"
"I…" Gabrielle shook her head at the implications of Ephiny's words.
"What is going on with you, Gab?" Ephiny kept her distance, but couldn't help the insistent tone of her words. "Ever since we fought against that army, you've…you're not the same woman you were when we returned to the village and found out about the attack. You're not even the same woman who charged out of here to rescue those girls. I don't know what it is about you, but…" She just shook her head and sat back down in her chair. "Talk to me, Gabrielle. Tell me what happened to you between that time and now to change you so much. You don't even fight the same way you used to. It's like you're not the same woman, and yet…"
Gabrielle sighed heavily, as she realized what Ephiny was asking of her. To explain things properly she would have to relive the whole sordid tale. She didn't know if she could do it without losing herself in memories that she had tried so very hard to forget. Even after all this time, she still had nightmares about what she'd done.
"Oh, Eph," Gabrielle sighed again. "I don't even know where to begin."
"Maybe you should start at the beginning, then," Ephiny cocked her head to the side and gave her friend an encouraging half-smile.
"Okay, I told you about Britannia and what happened with that demonic entity, Dahak," Gabrielle started the tale and then launched into it with all the skills of the seasoned bard she was.
She explained what happened with Hope and didn't wipe away the tears that fell unheeded down her cheeks when she got to the part where Xena rode into the Amazon village and dragged her away behind her horse. Ephiny merely nodded knowingly and only barely winced when Gabrielle mentioned that dark time.
Then Gabrielle fast-forwarded to the illness that had nearly taken her life right there in the village. She explained in minute detail the scene of the trial involving the gods. She didn't even leave out the part about Xena's part in the murder of the leaders of the Northern Amazons. The regent merely swallowed past the lump in her throat and continued to listen with rapt attention.
Three candlemarks later, Gabrielle finally brought the tale to Ares' open betrayal in the tent she was being held in. She left out all the particulars of what he had almost accomplished, but did mention that he had somehow infused her with his godly powers and awakened something sinister inside her. She then told Ephiny about her own part in the deaths of several soldiers who attacked her. She still couldn't figure out where the sword had come from, even though she and Xena had speculated that it was probably Ares' doing. Gabrielle didn't go into a great deal of detail concerning the battle, but did mention that she still occasionally felt some residual effects from the experience.
Gabrielle then shared what had happened in the queen's hut after Ephiny, Eponin and Salmoneus left. She told Ephiny about the sudden and unexpected fury that overtook her. Then she told her about Xena's attempts to neutralize the uncontrollable bloodlust that suddenly turned her into something akin to a berserker. Gabrielle then smirked when she mentioned that Ares showed up, tried to egg her on and ended up on the receiving end of her uncontrollable fury. Ephiny actually chuckled at the vivid mental picture that the bard's words conjured, until she realized Gabrielle was no longer laughing with her.
"Did I do something wrong?" Ephiny asked and just managed to stifle the urge to put a comforting hand on her friend.
"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "I was just thinking…"
"About?" Ephiny prodded when the bard didn't immediately continue.
"Ares supposedly removed the power he infused me with," Gabrielle explained. "But maybe he didn't quite take it all away."
"What do you mean?" A confused look passed over the regent's features, before it dawned on her what Gabrielle was saying. "Uh, do you really think that's possible?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "What else would explain why I can still fight so well, and why one bout of lovemaking with Xena has me throwing sparks at my best friend?"
"Has that happened since Ares?" Ephiny added.
Gabrielle considered the question thoughtfully. "No, not that I know of. This was the first time that we …um…Every time we…um…do it, it gets better." She looked away from the regent's expectant gaze. "It's like we're getting closer-like we're becoming…um…I don't know," she shook her head and met the hazel gaze. "It's like we're becoming one."
"I think something's up, Gabrielle," Ephiny sighed. "I really can't fit my head around this whole thing with you, Xena and the gods. What are they trying to do to you? Why the sudden interest?"
"Gods blood," Gabrielle said simply. "Hades told me Xena has some of it running through her veins, although she doesn't possess enough to make her an immortal."
"Dahak and Hope," Gabrielle shrugged. "When he…um…implanted his…um…demonic essence inside me…" She shuddered at the thought of what Dahak had actually done to her. The mere memory of those long, agonizing moments brought a wave of nausea to her, even after all this time. "Anyway," she managed to continue, "according to Hades, I was somehow…um…Hope somehow…" She shrugged. "I'm still not exactly sure what happened. The gist of it is that we shared the same blood during the time I carried her-which wasn't very long, by the way. I guess it was long enough, though, for her to pass some of her-demonic power, I guess you would call it?-on to me."
Ephiny could only nod in response to the extraordinary explanation her friend had just given her. It was hard enough to accept that Xena and Gabrielle associated with the gods on a regular basis, but to hear that the gods-and other beings-actually sought them out and openly interacted with them was beyond staggering.
"S-so, you're saying that you actually share the same blood as your demonic daughter?" Ephiny finally found her voice again, but eyed the bard with a measure of trepidation.
"I'm not a demon, Eph," Gabrielle said, as she watched her friend's reaction. "I'm the same person I always was, just…" She shrugged again and sighed heavily, as her head dropped forward and her chin rested on her chest. "I'm not a demon."
"Okaaaay," Ephiny pushed down her fear and moved closer to her friend.
She wanted to comfort Gabrielle, but didn't know what would happen if she touched her again. So, she just made a decision to do it anyway. She put a hand on the bard's shoulder and waited for the overwhelming feeling of desire to wash over her again. It didn't. So, she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders and held her, while the bard cried. Sobs of confusion, pain and unassailable memories wracked Gabrielle, as Ephiny just held on tight and rode the waves of misery until they finally subsided.
"By the gods," Gabrielle finally sighed, as she impatiently wiped her cheeks and sat up again. "Sorry about that, Eph. I didn't mean to go all blubbery on you like that."
"It's okay, kiddo," the regent smirked, as she wiped the remainder of the wet from the bard's cheeks with her thumbs. "We all need a good cry from time to time. It keeps us sane."
Gabrielle chuckled. "I must be one of the sanest people in the world, then. I've cried more over the last few moons than any crazy person has a right to. Xena probably thinks I'm nuts."
"Xena loves you, Gabrielle," Ephiny lifted the bard's chin and smirked into teary green eyes. "She probably doesn't care if you're nuts. She loves the whole package, warts and all."
Gabrielle nodded. "Hey, you touched me," the sudden realization hit her.
"Yep," Ephiny said confidently. "Your little residual spark must have…I don't know…dissipated somehow."
"You mind if I…" She reached over and put a hand on the regent's knee and watched Ephiny's face. "Is it…"
"Gone," Ephiny nodded with a smirk.
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank the…" She quickly stopped herself from finishing the thought.
"My sentiments, exactly," Ephiny chuckled and was happy when Gabrielle joined in.
They shared a companionable moment together, before they both realized they had other things to take care of. Gabrielle slumped in her chair at the prospect of having to face the council elders and do her queenly duties. There was nothing pressing that needed their attention at that moment but…
"Do you want to grab Eponin, and I'll go get Xena, and we can go on a picnic, just the four of us?" Gabrielle suggested.
"You do know we have a council meeting in a candlemark, don't you?" Ephiny shot the bard a raised-brow look. "You're the queen and…"
"That's right, I'm the queen," Gabrielle interrupted. "And I'm taking royal initiative and skipping the council meeting to play hooky with my friends and my partner for the rest of the afternoon."
Ephiny eyed the bard skeptically. "Okay, who are you and what have you done with my friend, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle put a companionable arm around the regent's shoulders and squeezed. "Easy, Eph, don't lose any brain matter over this. I just want to take a day away from all this," she waved a hand around the hut and then ushered them toward the door. "We're entitled to a little time away, you know. And it's such a gorgeous day out there that we can't waste a single moment."
They stepped out into the bright sunlight and just stood there for a moment to let the sun's rays warm them.
"See?" Gabrielle rounded on the regent expectantly. "Come on, Eph. Go get Eponin and join Xena and me for a little Rho and Rho."
"Rho and Rho?"
"Rest and relaxation," Gabrielle smirked. "Even Amazon regents need to take a little break from the pomp and circumstance from time to time. It's time we spend a little quality time enjoying nature and good friends."
"Charmer," Ephiny conceded with a wry smirk. "Okay, I'll fetch Eponin and bring her along for giggles and grins."
"It's a double date, then," Gabrielle called over her shoulder, as she made her way towards the hut she shared with Xena.
She knew she probably wouldn't find the warrior lounging around the hut, but that didn't stop her from hoping. As she entered the quiet hut, she knew Xena wasn't there. Checking the empty bathing room, Gabrielle returned to the main room and sat down on the bed. She put a hand on the top cover and felt a residual dampness there. It brought a smile to her lips to realize what she and Xena had done there just a short time ago. Then the smile turned to a frown, as she suddenly remembered what she'd done to Ephiny. She sighed heavily and resolved to discuss the strange incident with her partner. Xena might be able to come up with a reason why Gabrielle had somehow transferred her feelings to the regent.
Xena stood a few paces away from two seasoned warriors who were attempting to pummel each other with chobos. The club-like sticks were made of cured hardwood and the idea behind them was to beat an opponent into submission. Melosa, the former queen before Gabrielle, had chosen the weapons in her challenge against Xena, once upon a time. Xena remembered that day like it was yesterday. The shorter dark-haired queen was a force of nature as she wielded the weapons against Xena. But Xena was far more skilled with any weapon she chose to use, even the chobos. In the end, Melosa was no match for the Gabrielle's champion.
But neither of these Amazons was the equal of either her or Melosa. The two combatants fighting before her were equally skilled, but lacked the finesse that she and Melosa possessed when wielding the wooden club-like weapons. The loud crack of a chobo hitting bone rang out in the still air and Xena watched the taller of the two women grab her injured forearm.
"Shaila!" The other woman cried out, as she dropped her chobos and moved to stand next to the injured woman.
Xena also joined the pair and examined Shaila's arm. "Yep, it's broken," she said with a nod, as the woman gritted her teeth against the pain. "You should probably have Nissia set it in a splint for you."
Shaila nodded once, unable to speak through the pain her injury was causing. The other woman gingerly guided the taller Amazon off the practice field and toward the village proper. Xena just stood there for another moment and shook her head.
"Rough day at the forum?" Eponin approached her friend and slapped the warrior's shoulder armor.
"Twenty warriors in the final stages of their pregnancies, several others down with a minor fever and now I broke Shaila's arm," Xena sighed. "Gabrielle's gonna kill me when she finds out about this latest catastrophe."
The weapons master shot her companion a raised-brow look. "It's not your fault Shaila dropped her guard and gave Jala the opening she needed to strike that blow. I saw what happened. Is it a bad break?"
"No," Xena answered. "It's a clean break and should heal nicely in a moon and a half or so. It all depends on whether she listens to Nissia or not." She smirked. "You Amazon warrior types can be so pigheaded."
Eponin huffed. "Everyone listens to that old woman, even when they don't want to. She's more than a healer to these women. She's practically a goddess." She voice lowered as she looked around. "Shhhh, don't tell Artemis I said that."
Xena nodded and then stiffened. "Hello, Eph," she said as she turned to greet the newcomer. "Are you here on business? Or is this a social call?"
Ephiny shot both women a cheery smile. "I've come to invite the both of you to play hooky with Gabrielle and me."
"Hooky?" Eponin stepped up next to the regent and looked at her in confusion. "What's hooky?"
Xena hid a chuckle behind her hand, as she absently rubbed her mouth, instead. Ephiny just rolled her eyes and put an arm around the weapons master's waist.
"We're going on a picnic," the regent explained and then met Xena's amused glare. "You coming?"
"I go wherever Gabrielle goes," the warrior said with a wry smirk.
Eponin shrugged. "I guess I'm in, then."
"Okay," Ephiny said. "Then, Xena, we'll meet you at the stables with horses and a picnic basket. Please don't take too long."
The regent turned away and guided Eponin along with her. Xena watched them for a moment and then headed for the queen's hut. Her long strides took her to the front steps in no time. She climbed the steps two at a time and entered the hut without ceremony.
"Honey, I'm home!" Xena announced in a singsong voice, as she closed the door behind her.
As she turned, however, the sight that greeted her stopped her dead in her tracks. Gabrielle was standing near the open trunk with a pair of daggers in her hands. She held the silver blades in the palms of her hands and extended them toward the warrior.
"Whose are these, Xena?" Gabrielle asked in a tone that was slightly accusing.
Xena glanced at the weapons and then met the bard's icy glare. "I had them made for you, Gabrielle."
It was Gabrielle's turn to glance at the weapons, as she spun them around until the hilts faced outward and the blades pointed back at her. She did several lightning fast maneuvers until she had one of the blades pressed against Xena's throat. The warrior didn't even bat an eyelash as she waited for her partner to reveal her game.
"Why didn't you give them to me, then?" Gabrielle hissed between clenched teeth. "Seems a little strange for you to just pack them away and never mention that you had them made for me." She removed the blade from Xena's throat and spun them both in her hands several times. "They're really quite…exquisite." She extended a finger and spun one of the blades on it. "Whoever made them obviously knows his craft. They're very well balanced." She caught the spinning weapon by its hilt and examined it more closely. "What are they called?"
"Sais," Xena answered.
The warrior was a little surprised that Gabrielle was able to wield the weapons with such skill. Xena knew that her partner's skills with weapons were improving daily, especially her skill with the sword, but for Gabrielle to take up a totally new weapon with such skill was unheard of.
"Sais," Gabrielle let the name roll off her tongue, as she continued to examine the twin blades. "I've never heard you mention such a weapon before. Are they used here in Greece? Or did you run across them during your extensive travels?"
"They're from a distant land to the east," Xena replied. She watched her partner's every movement and noticed several things that alarmed her slightly. "How did you find them, Gabrielle? I packed them away at the very bottom of that trunk." She motioned toward the open trunk. "I was saving them for your birthday."
"My birthday isn't for a while, Xena," Gabrielle ran a finger down the edge of one blade. "Why didn't you just give them to me during our Solstice celebration?"
"Because," Xena answered slowly. "I didn't think you were ready to use them yet."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena out of the corner of her eye. "Don't you think my skills as a warrior have improved greatly over the long winter moons?"
"They have," Xena acknowledged. "You've improved a lot with the practice sword, Gabrielle."
"I have, haven't I," Gabrielle nodded. "Does that surprise you, Xena?" The bard stalked closer to the taller woman and circled Xena predatorily. "I'm sure it does. After all, your little protégé is no longer just a mouthy sidekick."
"You never were, Gabrielle," Xena said, as she watched the smaller woman step back in front of her. "You've always been a valued member of this team. You've just always seen yourself as something less."
"And you don't bother to set me straight, is that it, Xena?" Gabrielle hissed, as she got right up in the warrior's face again.
"What is with you, Gabrielle?" Xena asked calmly. "Why are you acting like this?" A dark brow quirked, as she glanced around the empty hut. "Did Ares visit you again?"
Gabrielle scoffed. "Ares," she shook her head and eyed the taller woman. "If I ever see that godsforsaken bastard again…" Her green eyes flashed with anger that cooled instantly. "No, Ares hasn't been here. Haven't seen him or any of them, for that matter. May they all rot in Tartarus for what they did to me."
Xena couldn't figure it out. She surveyed her otherwise even-tempered partner, but, try as she might, she couldn't quite put a finger on what was going on with Gabrielle. It wasn't like the bard to get upset over something as trivial as a hidden birthday gift. Xena wondered again if the gods weren't somehow involved. That thought just made her cringe. She was sooooo over the gods.
"Okay," Xena crossed her arms over her chest. "So what gives?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out slowly. That seemed to help dispel some of the anger she was feeling. She glanced at the weapons in her hands and then up at Xena. Sudden dawning came over her and she dropped the weapons from her hands. They landed on the wooden floor with a loud clatter. Gabrielle just watched them fall and felt a rush of relief overcome her.
Xena saw the instant change in her partner's demeanor the moment the weapons left her hands. She didn't even bother with them as she closed the distance and wrapped protective arms around Gabrielle. The bard collapsed against her and clung to her with all her might.
"Gabrielle?" Xena finally pulled back enough to look into the shorter woman's face. The anger was no longer there and was replaced with a look of confusion. "Are you okay?"
"I'm…" Gabrielle swallowed down the bile that suddenly rose in her throat. Not trusting that she wasn't going to be sick, she simply nodded.
Xena held the bard's bare shoulders and pushed her away slightly. "What happened?"
"I…I don't know, Xena," Gabrielle shoved a hand through her short hair. She glanced down at the twin blades still lying on the ground and then up at the warrior. "I found them earlier today." She swallowed down a sudden lump in her throat. "I just wanted to look at them again. So, when I came in here for…" She looked around the hut and frowned. "I don't even know what I came in here for. Anyway, it was like they were calling to me, drawing me to them. I opened the trunk, dug down for the bundle, came up with it and…"
"And?" Xena prodded.
"I…I don't remember," Gabrielle looked away. "I vaguely remember unwrapping the bundle and holding them in my hands, but…" She shook her head. "What's going on, Xena? What happened?"
Xena didn't know, but didn't want to take a chance, either. She had a good idea that the weapons were somehow enchanted with some kind of charm or spell or something, but there was no telling by whom. She briefly wondered if Cletus had somehow managed it, but then disregarded that notion. Amphipolis' smith had no reason to put Gabrielle in danger. He had only met her the one time, when he covertly took the bard's measurements for the weapons. No, there was definitely something going on and it probably had something to do with the gods-again.
Xena sighed and pulled Gabrielle into her arms. "Someone's messing with us and I intend to find out who it is." The warrior kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "That's a promise, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle groaned into the warrior's shoulder. "Oh, tell me it isn't so, Xe. I really can't take anymore of the gods and their damned games. I thought we took care of all that when Hera and Zeus were here. I really did."
"I know, love," Xena said. "I know." She rested her chin on top of the bard's head. "I love you and we're gonna get through this, just like we always do."
Gabrielle sighed. "I know. I love you, too, Xena." Her head came up and she looked at the warrior. "Um, did I mention we're supposed to go on a picnic with Ephiny and Eponin?"
Xena snickered. "I was coming to get you. Yeah, I know. Eph said she and Eponin would get the horses and a picnic basket. You sure you can take time out of your busy schedule for a picnic?"
"More than ever," Gabrielle leaned into the warrior again. "I really don't want to deal with Amazon elders right now. Especially not after what just…happened. I really feel like I could take someone's head off by accident-or even on purpose, for that matter."
"I hear ya," Xena chuckled. "I had that same urge this morning, when three of Ignesia's minions challenged me to take them all on at once."
"What did you do?" Gabrielle looked up into laughing blue eyes.
"Walked away," Xena shrugged and watched Gabrielle's eyes widen in surprise. "What? Don't you think I have it in me to just walk away from a couple of mindless idiots?"
"No," Gabrielle answered honestly. "I just…It would have been interesting to witness."
"Left 'em all with their mouths gaping," Xena chuckled. "I guess they thought I'd actually fall for the bait."
Gabrielle patted the warrior's leather-clad belly. "Let's go see if Ephiny and Eponin are still waiting for us. I'm in the mood for that picnic."
Xena put an arm around the smaller woman shoulders. "Okay. You're the boss."
"Right," Gabrielle snorted. "Tell me that when I have another one of these stupid episodes, will ya?" She glanced at the sais on the floor. "What should we do about those?"
Xena grabbed the cloth and wrapped both blades in it, tied it and set the bundle back in the trunk. She slammed the lid shut with a resounding thud and turned to Gabrielle.
"Not taking any chances with 'em, not until we know what we're dealing with," she said as she resumed her position next to the bard and ushered them out of the hut. "Let's go forget about all this for a while."
Eponin was pacing for the nth time in…
"Would you please stop that!?!" Ephiny had finally had enough. "It's really annoying!"
"What!?!" Eponin rounded on the curly blond leaning casually against a rail.
The horses were tied next to the regent's shoulder and she absently ran a hand up and down the white nose of the gelding closest to her. She smirked, as the weapons master came over to lean against the fence next to her. The sun was high overhead and it was getting unseasonably warm for early spring. But the regent was enjoying the sunshine, no matter how warm it was.
"Relax," Ephiny said. "They'll be here when they get here."
"They're probably enjoying a little…you know," Eponin shrugged. "While we stand out here and sweat our asses off."
Ephiny shot the woman an incredulous glare. "Seriously, Eponin? Is that what you think of our queen?"
Eponin looked chagrined and actually shot her lover a pouty glare. "Don't tell me it didn't cross your mind, sugar lips."
"Do…not…call me that in public," the regent growled. "It's bad enough you have to do it when we're…"
"Heeeey!" The weapons master suddenly jumped forward to greet the new arrivals. "What in Hades took you two so long?" She wiggled her brows and shot Xena and Gabrielle a conspiratorial look. "Or should I ask?"
Xena glared at the Amazon, while Gabrielle just shook her head and blushed in embarrassment.
"See, toldja they were enjoyin' a little somethin' somethin'," Eponin said in a low voice to the regent, as she turned to grab the reins of two of the horses.
"Wrong again, Amazon," Xena said over the backs of the horses, as she untied the reins to the other two and handed a set to Gabrielle. "Your ride, My Queen."
Gabrielle glanced up at the big black gelding and sighed. "Do I have to?"
"They gave him to you, not me," Xena said, as she affectionately patted the neck of her Palomino. "Besides, he must be a pretty good boy if Argo can tolerate him." She patted the black gelding on the neck. "Aren'tcha boy?"
"He's a full hand taller than Argo. She's probably as scared of him as I am," Gabrielle groused, as she mounted the horse with a great deal of effort. "One thing's for sure, I'll be as tall as you in the saddle, Xena."
Xena mounted the mare's back and adjusted her seat. Then she glanced over and cocked a dark brow. "You're right. You are as tall as me on Black's back."
"Please don't call him by that name. It's way too close to the name of that goat Ares disguised himself as." Gabrielle adjusted her own seat and noticed a sword sheathed to the saddle. "What's this?"
"What?" Xena glanced at her partner.
Gabrielle pulled the sword from the sheath and held it up for Xena's inspection. "Since when do I carry a sword on my saddle?"
Xena glanced over at Ephiny and Eponin with a quirked brow. "Ladies?"
"Um," Ephiny shot Eponin a look. "You wanna answer that? Or should I?"
Eponin leaned forward in the saddle enough to see all three women at once. "We thought it would be a good idea for you to carry some kind of weapon with you, yer maj. You seem pretty comfortable with the practice sword these days, so Eph agreed to give you one of your own."
Gabrielle removed the Amazon sword from its sheath and held it in front of her. The sword was slightly smaller than the heavier practice sword and fit her hand nicely. She briefly wondered if it had been made specifically for her. The silver blade was sharpened to a razor-sharp edge and gleamed in the bright sunlight. The hilt was made of wood and bore cross slashes for an easy grip.
"And why not just give me another staff?" Gabrielle shot back. "I'm sure there are plenty of them around here. You could find me a suitable one to replace the one I lost."
"Well," Ephiny decided to take the proverbial bull by the horns. "We thought you were a little beyond that particular weapon, My Queen."
Gabrielle shot Xena a questioning glare.
"Don't look at me," Xena raised her hands in surrender. "They didn't ask my opinion on the subject."
"No, but you have an opinion," Gabrielle softened her expression to take the sting out of her tone. "Let's hear it."
"I think you need to carry something while we're out there," Xena said. "You could take a staff. It makes no difference to me what you use at this point. But you're finally comfortable enough with a sword to use it in a fight."
Gabrielle glanced at the hilt that fit her hand perfectly. "I'm still not sure I want to use one, though." She re-sheathed the sword and guided the horse away from the fence. "Let's just hope we're in for a quiet outing and leave it at that."
She kicked her mount into a trot and left the other three women in the dust as she guided the gelding toward the gate.
Ephiny glanced from Eponin to Xena. "Did we do something wrong?"
Xena shook her head, as she guided Argo away from the fence and nudged the mare into a canter. Ephiny and Eponin brought up the rear and just shrugged at each other, as they raced to catch up to the other two.
"I asked you here for a reason," Ignesia stood before an assemblage of more than fifty Amazons.
"Then get on with it, Ignesia!" Someone shouted from the back of the stuffy hut. "It's damned hot in here!"
Several others nodded and mumbled their agreement, as Ignesia shot a glare at the one who had shouted at her. She wasn't to be deterred, even by one of the few in her growing following who were still holding out to see if she had the courage to stand up and lead them. She was finally ready to take the first step.
"Many of you have waited patiently for this moment and it has finally arrived," Ignesia continued.
"'S about time!" The rabble-rouser shouted. "You promised us a swift rebellion against Gabrielle and her dwindling following." The woman rose to her feet and raised a fist into the air. "I say we take out the Usurper now! It's time for you to issue the Challenge!"
Ignesia held up a staying hand to quiet the crowd packed so tightly into the small hut. They had been meeting all through the winter months in the hopes that they would finally have a plan strong enough to mount an uprising against those still loyal to Gabrielle and Ephiny.
"Patience, Amazons," Ignesia said and then held up a folded parchment. "We have new allies in our silent war against the Usurper. Amazons, just like us, who want nothing more than to see Gabrielle and her warrior bitch dead." She waited for the loud roar to die down again. "The Northern Amazons will be here in no more than two moon's time."
Another woman stood up. A single thin braid hung next to her forehead, while the rest of her flaming red hair framed a face thoroughly kissed by the sun. "Death to the Usurper!" She shouted at the top of her lungs, as she raised a fist to the ceiling.
"Death to the Usurper!!" A mutual cry rang out from the gathering.
"Why would the Northern Amazons join our illustrious cause, Ignesia?" The woman asked in a quieter tone.
"Because we share a common enemy, Rena," Ignesia answered. "The warrior bitch that travels with the Usurper killed a number of their leaders many years ago and they are ready to take their revenge against her."
"How many of them are there?" Another woman rose to her feet and faced Ignesia. "Will there be enough to mount an uprising?"
"Combined with our own numbers, there will be more than enough, Shraia," Ignesia nodded. "They are sending more than a hundred armed warriors to join our cause and destroy our enemies, once and for all!"
"I know we've discussed this before, but…" Another Amazon stood up. The woman was thirty winters old and had been one of Velasca's followers. "What will happen after the queen-I mean, the Usurper-is dead? Who will become our new queen?" She glanced around at the women in her midst and then returned her attention to Ignesia. "Will you lead us, Ignesia?"
The tall Amazon braced her shoulders and crossed her arms over her ample bosom. "Is that what you want, my sisters?"
Several heads nodded, but the majority remained still. Rena stood up again and surveyed the assemblage. She put her hands on her wide hips as she turned.
"Are you all cowards that you won't speak up, then?" She asked with an angry snarl. "Ignesia has been instrumental in orchestrating this entire rebellion and you would just cast her aside once the chips are down? What kind of Amazons are you?"
A young Amazon stood up and drew her sword. "Some of us aren't quite convinced that this rebellion is worth our lives. What happens if we fail?" She looked around at the other young women around her. "And if we die? What then?"
"SIT DOWN, PATRICE!!!!" Ignesia shouted above the din the younger woman's words created.
Patrice shot a glare at the tall Amazon. "You have yet to earn my respect or the use of my sword arm, Ignesia!" She said with less bravado than before. "Queen Gabrielle and Queen Ephiny have kept the Amazons at peace for a long time-long enough for me and my sisters to become Amazons like the rest of you. We have a voice, too."
Ignesia stepped into the gathered throng and stopped in front of the young Amazon. "Peace is overrated, Patrice. You of all Amazons should know what happens when we become complacent. Wasn't Daeria your blood sister?"
Patrice lost more of her bluster and re-sheathed her sword. "Yes, she was."
"And what happened to her when that army attacked the village?" Ignesia put a hand on the younger woman's shoulder.
"She died," Patrice answered flatly.
"And who was the army really after?" Ignesia added. "Who were they searching for when they burned a path to our southern border and killed your sister?"
"Queen Gabrielle," Patrice swallowed and lowered her eyes.
"Queen Gabrielle," Ignesia acknowledged with a nod. She then turned to the assemblage and spread her arms wide. "How many more skilled warriors will we lose to the complacency that has befallen us because of our peace-loving queen and her pacifist regent? Hmmm? What will happen to the Amazons when our warriors are no longer effective against our enemies? That was what Velasca tried to instill in us! That's what we must fight to reclaim!!" Her voice rose with each declaration. "We must not stop until we are once again a force to be reckoned with!!!" She raised a fist high in the air. "TO A STRONG AMAZON NATION!!!!"
"TO A STRONG AMAZON NATION!!!!" The entire assemblage rose to their feet and shouted.
"…and that's how Xena saved me from being burned alive inside a cramped sarcophagus," Gabrielle finished and popped a grape in her mouth.
She was lying with her head in Xena's lap and glanced up at the warrior. Xena's eyes were closed and she appeared to be napping.
"Hey," Gabrielle slapped the warrior's belly.
"Not asleep," Xena growled. "And you forgot the part where I regained my eyesight."
"Oh, yeah," Gabrielle patted the flat stomach affectionately. "And Xena regained her eyesight," she finished with a wry smirk and a wink to the two Amazons.
"Nice," Eponin commented. She had her head in the regent's lap and was thoroughly enjoying the fact that Ephiny was running her fingers through her hair. She opened an eye and peered at the warrior propped against the boulder across from them. "Didn't know you had superpowers, Ace."
Ephiny snorted. "Oh, please."
"How else could she figure out where those guys were without seeing 'em?" Eponin challenged.
"Xena has many skills," Gabrielle answered with another wink and accepted another grape from her grinning partner.
The two Amazons chuckled.
"This was a great idea, Gabrielle," Eponin sighed in contentment. "It sure beats the snot outta watchin' a bunch of kids beatin' the snot outta each other."
Ephiny held another sweet pastry up for the weapons master, who grabbed it in her teeth and chewed enthusiastically. "It also beats listening to a bunch of elders go on and on about the glory of an indestructible Amazon Nation, hands down," she wiped the crumbs from Eponin's lips with her thumb and stuck the thumb in her own mouth. "Mmm, Pony drippings." She wiggled her eyebrows a few times.
"Hey, what were we supposed to discuss today, anyway?" Gabrielle shot the regent a questioning look.
"Um, the upcoming Gathering, I think," Ephiny answered. "The elders have been going on about some historic convergence or something."
"Convergence? Of what?" Gabrielle rose up on an elbow to meet Ephiny's gaze.
"Something about the stars aligning in perfect synchronicity on the evening of a full moon and the election of a high queen if I remember right," the regent answered. "It only comes around every fifty years or so. The elders have been chittering about it for weeks-ever since you sent out those invitations."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena. "Let me guess, it's an Amazons-only affair?"
"Yep," Ephiny nodded and then caught the warrior's glare. "Sorry, Xena."
Xena shrugged and glanced at her partner. "They gonna slather you in mud and make you howl at the moon?"
"You wish," Gabrielle scoffed and then shot Ephiny a sidelong glance. "That's not part of it, is it? Please tell me I won't have to dance naked in the moonlight."
Ephiny was thoughtful a moment, and then, "No naked dancing and no howling. Just a ceremony to appoint a collective leader of the entire Nation."
"And how is this leader chosen?" Gabrielle inquired.
"She's elected," Ephiny answered. "During several days leading up to the final night's festivities the queens compete in various contests designed to test their leadership and warrior skills. Then all the elders from the tribes meet and choose one queen to become High Queen of the Amazon Nation."
"And what does that entail?" Gabrielle eyed the regent skeptically. "What is the High Queen supposed to do?"
"She visits each of the tribes in their home villages," Ephiny explained. "She also sits in judgment over any pressing matters during her visits and deliberates between opposing parties."
"And how long does this High Queen serve in this capacity?" Xena inquired.
"Not sure," Ephiny shrugged. "We haven't had a High Queen of the entire Nation since before I was born."
"So, why have one now?" Gabrielle added.
Ephiny cocked her head as she considered the question. "I guess because it's time." She shrugged. "Sorry I can't be more informative about it, Gabrielle, but I'm just not sure of the particulars, myself. I guess we'll both need to read up on it and figure out what it's all about."
"Read up?" Gabrielle was intrigued, now.
"Yeah," Ephiny nodded. "We keep archives in a cave near the Temple of Artemis. There are more than a thousand scrolls hidden in there. The dry air helps keep them preserved."
"The Amazons have a library?" Now the bard's interest was piqued. "Why haven't I heard about this before?"
"Oh," Ephiny had the grace to look slightly abashed. "Didn't I mention the archives to you before now?"
Gabrielle just rolled her eyes and lay back down on the warrior's lap. "I can't believe you're just telling me this, Eph. How long have I been queen?"
"Long enough to learn about the archives on your own," Ephiny smirked. "All you had to do was ask, Gab. You were laid up for more than a moon during that freak illness. You could have asked someone about them then."
"If I'd known they existed," Gabrielle shot back. "I spent hours and hours and hours cooped up in that damned hut with nothing to do but stare up at the ceiling and count the knots. There are 362, in case you were wondering," she added as an afterthought.
"Sorry, Gabrielle," Ephiny said. "I rarely think of the archives, unless I need to look up some pertinent tidbit of information I can use for ammunition against the elders. They're just a bunch of dusty, boring old scribbles to me, otherwise. I don't read 'em if I don't have to and, when I do, I just skip to the good parts."
"So what exactly do they entail?" Gabrielle prodded.
"History of the Nation, mostly," Ephiny shrugged. "There's also several scrolls on the inner workings of the different tribes, a few on horticulture and herbology and healing and…I even found one that describes, in intimate detail, different positions two women can…um…er…nevermind."
"Oh, I think you should bring that one back to our hut for a little late night research," Eponin smirked. "Sounds intriguing."
"Pig," Ephiny snorted.
"Oink," the weapons master deadpanned.
"Are you two lovebirds finished?" Xena put in. "Because I think we're about to have company."
"Company?" Gabrielle jumped to her feet and waited for Xena to do the same. "Should we be ready for something?"
Xena pulled her sword from the scabbard on her back and rested it on her shoulder. "You might want to go get that sword those two yahoos tied to your saddle."
"Hey, I resemble that remark," Ephiny snorted, as she reached for her own sword and pulled it free from the scabbard lying on the blanket near her hip.
"Me, too," Eponin said in a hushed tone at a signal from Xena.
Gabrielle was just pulling her own borrowed sword from its scabbard on the black gelding's saddle, when a dozen men burst from the bushes near their picnic area. Several of the men headed straight for the three women waiting patiently for the attackers to reach them, while three others veered off toward Gabrielle and the horses.
Xena met two of the men head-on, literally. She nailed one of them in the head with the butt of her sword, turned and head-butted the second one between the eyes. Another tried to flank her, but she swung her sword around and took him down. A fourth guy charged her with a loud yell. She grabbed the dazed guy closest to her, swung him around and used him as a shield against his comrade. Guy #4 didn't have time to break off his attack and ran his friend through with a surprised grunt, before Xena sent him to Tartarus, too.
Ephiny and Eponin were busy with their own bunch of attackers. Ephiny blocked an overhead strike from a short, bald guy with tattoos all over his head. The guy sneered at her and revealed grungy teeth sharpened to little points.
"Ugh!" Ephiny winced as the guy got right up in her face and breathed his rancid breath on her. "What the Hades did you eat? A donkey's ass?"
The guy growled low in his throat and tried to bite her. She punched him in the nose and watched in satisfaction as he grabbed his face and stumbled backwards. That gave her the opening she needed to kick him in the crotch, which she did with all her might. He doubled over in agony and dropped like a stone, writhing in pain as blood continued to run freely from his broken nose.
Ephiny turned to find Eponin engaged in a heated battle with two opponents. The weapons master was holding her own against the two men, as she swung a sword and her small eating dagger to fend them off. The regent decided that her lover was actually having a good time fighting the two men and didn't want to deprive the Amazon of her fun. She turned to see where Gabrielle was and couldn't see the bard anywhere.
"Where's Gabrielle?" Ephiny shouted above the sounds of swords clanging together and men grunting.
"Horses!" Xena shouted back, as she engaged three more attackers who seemed to appear from nowhere.
Ephiny raced toward the spot where they'd left the horses. Two guys were engaged in a fight with Gabrielle, while the third sat on the back of the big black gelding with the reins of the other horses in his hand. He spotted Ephiny racing toward them and kicked the gelding hard in the sides.
Ephiny knew, from a conversation with one of the Amazon horse trainers, that kicking the gelding like that was a sure way to end up on the ground. The idiot found that out, first hand, as the black gelding suddenly reared, kicking his front hooves high into the air. The guy on his back tried valiantly to grab a hold of the black's mane, but wasn't quite fast enough. He tumbled to the ground in a heap and lay there for a moment, dazed and confused.
It only took Ephiny three heartbeats to reach the horses. She grabbed all their reins and led them far enough away that she could return to help Gabrielle. When she reached the bard, she could see that the woman was sweating profusely from her exertions, but was holding her own.
"Need some help?" Ephiny asked as she jumped right in and distracted one of the two men.
"Thanks!" Gabrielle called, as she lifted her sword high to block the downward arc of a blade.
The two women managed to maneuver their opponents and themselves until they were fighting back-to-back. It was a good thing, because the third guy recovered enough from his fall to join the fray. And he was joined by three others who appeared out of the bushes.
"Where in Hades are these guys coming from?" Gabrielle observed breathlessly, as she swung her sword in a circle above her head and brought it down in a slashing motion across the chests of two men.
As one of the men fell, he managed to drop his sword right at Gabrielle's feet. She quickly got a toe under it and kicked it up into her free hand, but found that it was far too heavy for her to wield effectively. So, instead, she hefted it like a spear and threw it with all her might at one of the men near her. The sword embedded deeply into the surprised attacker's chest and he fell backwards-dead.
A blond brow rose on the regent's face. "Nice," she commented with a proud smirk. "Didn't think you had it in you."
"You'd be surprised what I have in me these days," Gabrielle met another blade aimed for her head, but missed the second aimed for her midsection.
She managed to sidestep the second blade, but not enough for it to completely miss her exposed skin. The blade sliced into the same spot where one of the soldiers from Hades' army had wounded her. The tangy smell of her own blood wafted up and ignited her senses. Gabrielle felt her blood surge and knew a moment of intense panic and confusion.
"Eph!" She shouted.
"Yeah?!?" The regent shouted back. "I'm a little busy here, Gab!"
"Get away from here, NOW!!!" The bard fairly screamed, as she felt the bloodlust pound through her again.
"What?" Ephiny stepped back until she was standing next to the heaving bard. One look in Gabrielle's eyes and she knew fear she had never known before. "Wh-what's happening, Gab?" She was about to reach out toward the woman, but thought better of it.
Gabrielle knew she only had heartbeats before all Hades broke loose and she went into that feeding frenzy that had overtaken her on the battlefield before. She had no idea how it could be happening again, since Ares had removed his seductive spell on her in the queen's hut. But it seemed he hadn't been as thorough about it as they'd thought.
"GO!!!" Gabrielle screamed to her friend, as she spun around to run the regent's opponent through with her blade.
Having seen the crazed look in the bard's eyes, Ephiny didn't wait to ponder her options. She just spun away from Gabrielle and ran. When she was a safe distance away, she turned in time to watch a scene that she couldn't believe was playing out before her.
Gabrielle felt that strange detachment overtake her as the bloodlust kicked into high gear. It was like watching that moving picture show in the arena, when Athena had shown her what Xena had done to the Northern Amazon leaders. Except that she was inside one of the players, watching herself move like a berserker against six armed men. Her body was no longer her own.
The men didn't seem to notice when the woman in their midst suddenly transformed into something inhuman. She was still a woman in their eyes-all soft curves and golden hues. But her sword moved in a blur and two of the men lost their heads to her blade before their comrades knew what was happening. The cry of a wildcat tore from her throat, as she rounded on an attacker behind her and thrust her blade through his sternum, then yanked it up through cartilage and bone until he was almost rended in two. Blood spewed from his mouth and bathed Gabrielle in warm stickiness that fed the fires of the power that possessed her.
Her heightened hearing picked up the shocked gasps of several people around her, as a feral grin split her features and she turned crazed eyes on the three remaining men.
"GABRIELLE, NO!!!" Xena shouted from Ephiny's side.
The warrior watched in shock as the woman she knew tore through the three men like a beast. The tang of blood mixed with the cries of Gabrielle's victims reached the warrior's senses and sent fear racing through her. But Xena could do nothing except watch the scene play out before her, as Ephiny and Eponin held her back from charging into the fray.
"Don't, Xena!" Ephiny hissed into her ear. "She'll kill you, too! That's not Gabrielle!"
"But…" The warrior struggled to free herself from the Amazons' hold on her, but soon gave into the rush of emotion that washed over her. "NOOOOOOOO!!!!"
Tears coursed down the warrior's cheeks, as she realized what this latest episode would cost her partner. Nightmares, flashbacks, overwhelming bouts of guilt-those were the least of her worries. She knew the emotional toll the last episode had taken on the younger woman. Gabrielle had cried for weeks, as Xena just held her and rocked her and whispered words of encouragement to the distraught woman. Now they would have to face it all over again.
Green eyes fluttered open and blinked several times in an effort to focus. Gabrielle took in her surroundings and sighed. She was in the queen's hut. She glanced to her right and saw a pair of worried blue eyes watching her intently.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena tried valiantly to keep her face composed in an indifferent mask, but failed when a tear slipped from one blue eye to track down her cheek. She had cried enough for the both of them, as she held a vigil at her partner's bedside. She reached over and touched the bard's cheek with the backs of her fingers.
"What do you remember?" Xena asked in a voice husky with emotion.
Gabrielle breathed in and winced at the sting in her side. "Ouch!" She exclaimed quietly. "I guess I've still got a lot to learn about avoiding injuries," she quipped with a playful smirk that didn't get the desired reaction she was looking for. "Xena, what's wrong? Am I dying? Did Eph…"
Xena shook her head and covered her mouth with a hand, as she tried to get her errant emotions under control. "Eph and Eponin are fine. You're the only one of us who was injured."
"Oh," Gabrielle breathed out a sigh of relief. "So, is it that bad?"
"A flesh wound, mostly," Xena answered, as several tears escaped and she sniffed loudly.
Gabrielle girded herself and gingerly rose until she was leaning on an elbow to face the warrior. "Xena, what's wrong, then? Tell me what's going on, will you? You're scaring me."
Xena impatiently wiped the tears from her cheeks and tried to smile, but the smile didn't reach her watery eyes. "You still haven't answered my question, Gabrielle. What do you remember?"
Gabrielle considered Xena's question for a moment. She went back over what she could recall. They'd shared a picnic with Ephiny and Eponin, talked about trivial things and she'd told a few stories.
"The last thing I remember is telling that story about nearly dying in Apex's furnace," Gabrielle answered with a confused scowl.
"Do you remember the attack?" Xena prodded.
"Attack?" Gabrielle shook her head. "No, but I think I went to check on the horses for some reason."
"You went to get the sword that Eponin had made for you," Xena said.
Gabrielle shot Xena an incredulous look. "I don't use a sword, Xena. You know that. I don't kill people. Swords kill people. That's why I use a staff."
"You haven't used a staff all winter, Gabrielle," Xena tentatively explained.
"Winter?" Gabrielle shot Xena a confused glare. "It's not winter, Xena. It's not even autumn yet."
Now it was Xena's turn to be completely confused. "Gabrielle, we've been here for six moons. Don't you remember? We celebrated the harvest with the Amazons and decided to stay through the winter. It's early summer."
Despite the wound in her side, Gabrielle shot up until she was seated on the edge of the bed. "What?" She ran a hand through her hair and stopped. "Xena, why is my hair so short?"
Xena blew out a frustrated breath. "I cut it when you came down with that lung fever last summer, Gabrielle." She grasped the bard's arms and held her. "How can you remember the picnic and not remember the last six moons?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle shook her head. "I just…" She winced again at the pull in her side. "Ugh! My side really hurts, Xena. What happened?"
"It happened during the attack," Xena answered and rubbed the bard's arms. "One of them must have gotten past your guard. Ephiny says that's when you suddenly…changed."
A blond brow rose. "Changed?"
Xena nodded. "She says you told her to get away from her and then suddenly…you weren't you anymore." She met curious green eyes watching her in fascination. "I saw you, Gabrielle. You were you, but…"
"I'm the same woman I've always been," Gabrielle lifted a hand and touched the warrior's tear-streaked cheek affectionately. "Nothing's changed. I still love you, Xena. I love you with all my heart and soul."
Xena brushed a hand through Gabrielle's hair. "Nothing, except you can't remember the last six moons."
Gabrielle shrugged with a wry smirk. "We've been with the Amazons all this time. What's there to remember?"
They shared a companionable chuckle.
"I'll be right back," Xena said as she jumped to her feet and headed to the door. "I'm just going to bring someone here who might be able to shed some light on what's happened."
"Okay," Gabrielle nodded and scooted back into bed. "I'll wait for you."
Xena nodded and left the hut. She was crossing the village center when Ephiny joined her.
"I can't keep stalling, Xena," the regent ground out between clenched teeth. "It's been three days and we have important visitors who need an audience with our queen."
"Not now, Eph," Xena shot back, as she continued on.
"If not now, when?" Ephiny grabbed the warrior's arm and halted her. "I can't keep stalling with these women, Xena. They will leave and we'll never settle anything with the other tribes. What am I supposed to tell them?"
Xena rounded on the woman and glanced at the hand on her arm, which Ephiny quickly removed. "Tell them she's ill. Tell them she's injured. Tell them she's possessed. I don't give a rat's ass what you tell them, just keep stalling until I figure out what's the matter with her."
The regent shot her a quirked-browed look of confusion. "Is Gabrielle finally awake?" She watched the warrior's eyes leave hers. "She is, isn't she?" A smile broke out on her face. "That's great, then…"
"It's not great, Ephiny," Xena countered. "She doesn't remember what happened the other day and she can't remember the last six moons."
"What?" The regent exclaimed loud enough that several Amazons turned to look at them curiously.
Xena grabbed the regent's upper arm and steered her toward the hut that she'd been heading toward when Ephiny had so rudely cornered her. She stopped when they reached the healer's door and turned to face the woman.
"I know this is hard for you to believe, but…"
"Hard to believe?" Ephiny exploded. "Are you as crazy as Gabrielle seems to be these days? I can't believe you think a little memory loss is hard for me to believe after what I witnessed out there and what she told me the other day. That was not our innocent little Gabrielle who tore those men limb-from-limb like some kind of crazed, rabid beast, Xena!" She hissed. "That woman was…She did things…I have never seen another human being do the things she did to those men. It was…inhuman, to say the least."
"Are you done?" Xena put her hands on her hips and glared at the woman. "Because the woman who woke up in that hut just now is the same, relatively sane woman I know and love. She isn't anything like what we witnessed out there the other day."
Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest and eyed the warrior skeptically. "Are you sure the beast isn't just dormant somewhere inside her, waiting for the chance to make another appearance?" She rolled her tongue in her cheek. "I can't put her before the other queens until I know for sure she isn't going to go into full Amazon berserker mode again, Xena. We have to do something."
"I'm working on it," Xena replied. "Believe me, I'm just as worried about this as you are, Ephiny."
"But your existence and the existence of your people doesn't rest on the shoulders of a woman who could suddenly turn into a crazed animal," the regent shot back. "Mine does."
"Stop calling Gabrielle an animal and a beast, Ephiny," Xena growled a warning in a low tone that brooked no argument from the regent. "She's the same person she's always been, and right now she's confused and probably a little scared."
Ephiny lost some of her bluster at the warrior's words. "Okay," she held her hands up in surrender. "I'm sorry. It's just been a very frustrating couple of days."
"I know," Xena conceded. "This hasn't been easy on any of us who were there that day."
"No," Ephiny shook her head. "I can't help seeing her do those things and it makes me sick that it was Gabrielle, ya know?"
Xena nodded sadly. "I know. Me, too." She breathed out a heavy sigh and patted the regent's arm. "I'll figure this out and get our Gabrielle back. I promise."
Ephiny nodded. "I know you will, Xena," she smiled sadly. "You always seem to figure these things out and resolve them to everyone's mutual satisfaction."
"It's just one of my many skills," Xena quipped with a smirk.
"I'll leave you to it, then," Ephiny slapped the warrior's upper armband and walked away.
Xena took a deep breath, let it out slowly and then tapped on the door.
"Come," a muffled voice beckoned her inside.
"I need your help, Nissia," the warrior said as she entered the hut and closed the door behind her.
Ephiny, Eponin and Chilapa sat on the raised platform in the village center, sharing the evening meal together in relative silence with several queens and their advisors. A bonfire blazed in front of them and a lively group of Amazons from the six tribes present in the village were dancing and showing off their talents to those who sat watching. It wasn't a celebration so much as it was a communal gathering for a shared meal.
Twenty hunters from the various tribes had gone out that day to track game and provide meat for the entire gathering. Out of the twenty, not one had returned empty-handed. Three of the hunters from Gabrielle's village managed to fell five large bucks and one feisty boar. A party of five Macedonian Amazons managed to find several quail nests, which the cooks stuffed and presented to the queens with a flourish.
Another party that had traveled with their entire tribe all the way from Thebes found Eponin's favorite watering hole and managed to catch a large number of juicy trout and bass with nets they created out of some vines they found nearby. The Thebans, who were camped in the forest outside the Thracian village, had proudly raised their baskets of fish in triumph. Loud cheers from their sisters ushered them toward the Thracian village and continued to echo through the otherwise quiet forest. As the Thebans entered the gates of the village, the entire tribe followed the successful fisherwomen and chanted with spears and bows held high. It was quite the spectacle and one Ephiny wouldn't soon forget.
"Dinar for your thoughts," Eponin shifted closer to the regent and laid a hand on Ephiny's bare thigh, as she leaned on an elbow and glanced around at the gathered throng.
"Not really worth that much," Ephiny shot back with a wry smirk. "I was just thinking about how well the hunters did today."
"Yeah, we have enough food to last a few days, at least," Eponin chuckled. "Didn't know there were that many fish in that little lake of mine, that's for sure."
Ephiny grinned and then turned her eyes toward the queen's hut. She could just see the flicker of candlelight emanating from the hut and wondered if things were going well.
"Queen Ephiny," a large woman with an elaborate headdress decorated with huge feathers that made the woman's head look twice its actual size sat down next to her. The woman had dark skin, curly dark hair that hung down to a generous waist and dark piercing eyes that were nearly black in the daylight. "You honor us with this wonderful meal."
"Thank you, Queen Mashuka," Ephiny bowed her head and lowered her eyes in deference to the other woman's higher status. "The honor is truly ours, though. Your Amazons brought with them the finest wine and ale we've ever sampled."
Queen Mashuka's entire body seemed to undulate with good humor as she chuckled. "Only the best for our esteemed hostesses, Queen Ephiny." She glanced around the dais and returned her attention to the regent. "Speaking of hostesses, we have yet to meet your mysterious Queen Gabrielle. I see she has not yet deemed us worthy of gracing us with her presence."
The meaning of the woman's words were abundantly clear to the regent, who glanced at the hut again and noticed two figures walking toward them. She knew instantly who the two were and sighed inwardly with relief, as she stood up to greet the women.
"That is soon to change, Queen Mashuka," Ephiny stepped down from the raised platform and bowed low. "Queen Gabrielle!"
Silence quickly descended on the assemblage and all eyes turned to the two women who stepped into the light of the torches that surrounded the dais. Gabrielle wore her Amazon leathers, complete with the intricately designed bracers and a woven leather thong tied around her head to keep her overgrown bangs out of her eyes. A single eagle feather was braided into the hair on one side of her head and dangled against her cheek.
Xena stood next to and just a half-step behind her in deference to her status as queen. The warrior wore her dark leathers and brass armor, which she'd shined enough that the flickering torchlight reflected off it. The stoic warrior watched her partner mount the dais and greet the visiting queens with a confidence that fairly astounded her, especially after what she knew Gabrielle had just gone through.
As soon as Xena and Nissia entered the queen's hut, they found Gabrielle curled up in a ball, sweating profusely and convulsing uncontrollably. The bard was deep in the throws of some kind of nightmare-induced fit and nothing they did could bring her out of it.
They tried talking to her and yelling at her, but neither did anything to penetrate the bard's consciousness. Then Nissia tried shaking her and discovered, far too late, the folly of that action, when the convulsions increased and Gabrielle's legs kicked out and caught the older woman unawares. The healer was unprepared for the violence of the assault and was knocked back into the arms of the warrior who just managed to keep her from hitting the wall.
Xena was undaunted, as she set the healer back on her feet and reassured herself that the woman was unharmed. The warrior approached the bed, lay down on it and quickly pulled the still-convulsing woman against her, holding Gabrielle tightly with all her might. It took every ounce of her strength to keep Gabrielle from throwing them both off the bed and onto the floor, but Xena maintained her hold. At last, when it seemed that the convulsions would never end, Gabrielle finally-slowly-stilled in Xena's arms, until she was completely relaxed and her breathing returned to normal. It took a full candlemark after that for the bard to actually stir.
When Gabrielle awoke from whatever had overtaken her, Xena was still wrapped around her and Nissia was staring at her with a deep frown of worry creasing her aged brow. The first words out of Gabrielle convinced both Xena and the healer that the bard remembered nothing of what had just happened. The fit had sapped the bard's strength and left her dazed and confused for the better part of a candlemark, but other than that she was fine. It also surprised the two women when Gabrielle actually remembered that there was supposed to be a gathering of the Amazon tribes.
Xena and Nissia exchanged bewildered looks, when Gabrielle asked the healer if the tribes had arrived. And when Xena questioned her about her inability to remember what had happened over the last six moons, Gabrielle merely shrugged it off and said she remembered everything, including their picnic the other day. She even remembered going to fetch her sword from the horses and fighting off three attackers. But then things got a little fuzzy after that, Gabrielle frowned. She then glanced at the bandage around her middle and rolled her eyes. Her next words made both Nissia and Xena chuckle: "Oh, please, not again," Gabrielle had muttered with a heavy sigh.
"You okay?" Ephiny's voice beside her brought Xena back to the present.
"Yeah," the warrior answered.
"Is she okay?" Ephiny added with a questioning glance at the warrior's face.
She noticed Xena wore her usually stoic mask, but there was something in the warrior's pale eyes that caught the regent's attention. Xena's shoulders were also more tense than usual, as if she were waiting for something bad to happen.
Xena shrugged. "She seems fine. I guess only time will tell, though."
"Are you sure it's a good idea to bring her out here?" Ephiny continued. "I mean, she seems normal, but…"
"We're not staying long," Xena cut in. "She wanted to come do her duty, despite my protests to the contrary. She knew the other tribes were here and didn't want to saddle you with the responsibility of making her excuses."
Ephiny glanced up at Xena with surprise. "She remembers?"
Xena nodded. "When Nissia and I arrived at the hut, Gabrielle was having some kind of fit. She was convulsing uncontrollably. Long story short, it finally subsided and she woke up with her memories mostly intact."
"What caused the convulsions?"
"No idea," Xena answered. "But it was like her body and mind were fighting for control over what happened to her the other day. I think everything that's been happening to her lately is all connected somehow."
"And you think her mind won out over whatever power this is that's trying to control her?" Ephiny glanced skeptically at the woman in question, as Gabrielle conversed with the taller Queen Mashuka and the two women laughed at something that was said between them. "Is that why she remembers?"
"I don't know," Xena shrugged. "I've never run across anything like it in all my travels, except…" She shook her head. "But that's not possible."
"What?" Ephiny turned to face the warrior, whose pale eyes reflected the torchlight.
"India," Xena said quietly. "It's also called the land of Indus. It's a place many, many leagues to the south and east, where demons are known to possess people and make them do…unspeakable things."
Ephiny returned her attention to the bard, who was now surrounded by the other queens and was gesturing animatedly as she spoke. Gabrielle seemed to be in her element as she made the queens laugh with her at something she said. Sensing eyes on her, Gabrielle suddenly turned and met Ephiny's gaze with a warm smile.
"Do you really think she's possessed by a demon, Xena?" The regent asked quietly.
"I don't really know what to think anymore, Ephiny," Xena said, as Gabrielle waved them both to join her on the dais. "I've sure never heard of anyone being possessed by a demon here in Greece. Have you?"
Ephiny shook her head. "Nope."
Xena walked over to the platform and hesitated, as she turned back to the regent. "I guess there's a first time for everything."
"Leave it to Gabrielle," the regent muttered, shaking her head in dismay.
"No and that's final, Gabrielle!" Xena rounded on the smaller woman. "I will not stand idly by while you risk succumbing to yet another episode like the last two. No! No! NO!"
"You can't tell me what to do or what not to do, Xena!" Gabrielle shot back angrily. "We're partners! I am not your helpless little sidekick anymore."
"No," Xena softened her tone, as she gently grasped the bard's upper arms and looked into green eyes ablaze with anger. The formerly-even-tempered bard's ire was becoming almost as inflammatory as her own, except that Gabrielle seemed unable to control it. "You never were helpless, nor were you ever my sidekick, Gabrielle. But the simple fact of the matter is I'm one of your healers and…"
"I'm fine!" Gabrielle shot back and then let her expression soften. "It's been a full moon since you removed those stitches, Xena, and I'm really tired of playing the smiling, gracious hostess, while everyone else has all the fun! I just want to do a little sparring with Eponin," her tone turned pleading. "Please? I promise not to overdo it and I'll stop immediately if I feel even a slight twinge in my side…or the rest of me, for that matter." She cocked her head and looked pleadingly at her partner. "Please?" And then she applied the puppy-dog pout for good measure. "Pleasepleasepleaseplease…"
"Oh, for the love of…" Xena threw her arms up in resignation and found herself with an armful of smiling bard.
"Me?" Gabrielle cocked her head with a playful smirk and wrapped her arms around Xena's waist. She leveraged herself up on her toes to plant a smoldering kiss on the warrior's warm lips. "I love you."
"I can't believe I fell for that look," Xena said, as she pulled the smaller woman's head toward her and planted a chaste kiss on Gabrielle's forehead. "You'd think I'd learn by now."
"Works every time," Gabrielle stepped out of Xena's embrace and quickly divested herself of her ceremonial Amazon leathers.
She tossed the outfit over the back of a chair and turned around in time to see Xena staring at her with open longing in eyes gone smoky gray with desire. The warrior's smoldering look deepened, as Gabrielle used her body to its best advantage and cocked a firm, bare hip. The naked bard knew just how to reward her partner and lover for yielding to her wishes.
With slow, deliberate strides, Gabrielle padded over to stand before the taller woman. She leaned in close, until she brushed against the taller woman. A titillating chill ran through her as she looked up into eyes smoldering with passion. Gabrielle quickly worked the ties and buckles that held the warrior's armor in place. With nimble fingers that were used to undressing the taller woman, the bard made quick work of the rest of Xena's clothes, until the warrior was standing before her in only her boots and knee bracers.
Xena closed the distance between them and kissed Gabrielle with all the passion she was feeling in that moment. Mouths and bodies danced in perfect synchronization, as they both gave in to the desire ignited between them. Soon they were lying on top of their bed, exploring each other and reveling in the love that drove them deeper into a place that only they knew.
"Please, Xe," Gabrielle inhaled deeply of the warrior's scent and reveled in all the sensations coursing through her body.
A twinkle of mischief entered smoldering blue eyes, as the warrior dipped her head and circled the bard's belly button with her tongue. The bard responded by raising her hips to urge her lover on. Gabrielle knew she was on the brink and it would take very little to send her over the edge into complete bliss, but Xena was having none of it. The warrior kissed and nipped her way down one bare hip, while her hand drew slow, gentle circles around the other.
Gabrielle groaned loudly in frustration. "Xena…" she gasped. "This really…isn't the time…"
Xena raised her head and cocked a dark brow. "And what is it you really want?" She asked in a sultry tone that she knew would drive her lover wild.
"By the gods, Xe…" Gabrielle panted and grasped the blanket with white-knuckled fists.
Xena decided to have pity on her lover. She brought Gabrielle to the brink and joined her at the edge of bliss. Waves of exquisite pleasure washed over both of them as Xena and Gabrielle plunged over the abyss of love.
That love bound them together into one soul and was worth more to them than their own pleasure. They were complete for the first time ever. They shared the same air, moving as one and tasting each other in ways they never had before. It was exquisite. Intoxicating. And then…
"Xena…Oh…GODS!!!" Gabrielle cried out her release, as her hips bucked and her entire world shattered into a thousand tiny pieces of exquisite delight.
Xena held on for dear life, anchoring herself to her soulmate, as wave upon delicious wave rolled over them both and carried them across a sea of tumultuous bliss. Then they plunged down into a whirlpool of sensations that coursed through them both. Hearts beat as one and they both gasped in unison at the intensity of the mutual awareness that cascaded over them. No words could adequately describe the intoxicating harmony they felt. They were one-body, mind and soul. Two halves inexorably joined in blissful union.
But cold reality soon came crashing back in like a refreshing waterfall, as they returned from their rapturous journey and lay spent in each other's arms. Xena somehow managed to collapse lifelessly beside the panting bard, instead of on top of her. And Gabrielle simply wrapped flaccid arms around her lover and rested her cheek against Xena's soft hair, as she tried valiantly to catch her breath and slow her racing heart.
"Gods, Xe," the bard exhaled against the warrior's hair. "What just happened?"
"Not…sure," Xena replied, as she shifted her head just enough to rest her lips against a round, firm breast. "Nothing in Elysia could compare to this." She kissed the soft skin, fondled it playfully with her tongue and inhaled deeply of the bard's distinctive scent.
"This beats the afterlife by leaps and bounds," Gabrielle sighed contentedly. "And that tickles," she added with a squirming giggle.
"Is this better?" Xena shifted again. "Mmmm…"
Gabrielle felt a rush of insatiable desire flow through her. "Definitely worth every moment," she managed to say.
Xena basked in the glow of their shared desire. It occurred to her suddenly that becoming one with the woman she loved was something that she had never anticipated in her wildest dreams. She just tossed the notion aside and concentrated on the feelings that were overwhelming her, instead. And those feelings were incredible. Extraordinary. Fantastic. Orgasmic.
A drop of sweat ran into her eyes as she raised the practice sword high overhead to block yet another blow and then quickly pushed off and swung for her opponent's exposed midsection. The slightly taller Amazon anticipated her move and jumped back in time to avoid a painful blow to the ribs.
Gabrielle didn't wait for her opponent to counter the attack and, instead, quickly thrust her weapon toward the Amazon's head. Eponin cocked her head to the side, again in time to avoid a blow that probably would have knocked her unconscious. But Gabrielle wasn't done. Muscles bulged, as Gabrielle spun around and met the weapons master's blade with swift, sure strikes in a combination that would have found its mark with any other opponent-except one.
The bard made the mistake of glancing over at the two women standing on the sidelines. The taller warrior had her arms crossed over her chest and was glaring right at her with unconcealed apprehension. The other woman was simply shaking her head.
And then Eponin found an opening and whacked her a good one on the side.
"Oof!" Gabrielle caught the blow just above her recently-healed wound and instinctively pulled her arm into her side to protect it.
"Sorry, my queen!" Eponin abruptly stopped and stared in surprise. "I didn't…"
"It's fine, Eponin," Gabrielle sucked in a breath and let it out slowly, as the pain subsided to a dull ache. "I think you hit me with the flat of the sword anyway."
"Yeah," Eponin agreed, as they were suddenly joined by two concerned women. "She's fine. I just caught her ribs."
"Let me see," Xena bent forward to examine the slightly-raised red mark just above the raised pink scar.
"It's fine, Xena," Gabrielle only winced slightly when the warrior prodded the area with strong fingers. "She just caught me off guard a little. It surprised me more than anything," she shot the weapons master a quick smirk. "I didn't see that one coming."
"You were distracted," Xena chided. "You're not supposed to look away from your opponent during a fight, Gabrielle. Eye contact is essential. You need to read your opponent's next move in her eyes."
Gabrielle cocked her head and smirked, as her partner straightened back up and scowled at her. "I couldn't help it," she said, affectionately patting Xena's leather-clad hip. "You're a definite distraction."
"Okay, then," Ephiny cleared her throat and looked around at the women who were starting to congregate around them, many of whom were strangers or mere acquaintances. "Show's over, people! Queen Gabrielle is fine! Go back to whatever you were doing! Nothing to see here!"
The crowd quickly dispersed, as the Amazons-both visitors and residents alike-shuffled back to their own sparring sessions. Several muttered their disapproval at being shooed away, while others just took it in stride. The latter were mostly used to seeing their queen sparring on the field right alongside them and knew the blond could hold her own, even against the weapons master.
"You two seem to draw a crowd, like bees to honey," Ephiny scoffed.
"Yeah," Eponin agreed. "Our guests can't get enough of the two of you doting on each other around here like a couple of animals in heat."
That got a raised-browed glare from a certain warrior. "Animals?" Xena growled.
"Um," Eponin nervously scratched the back of her neck. "Oh, you know what I mean, Champ."
"Nice," Gabrielle nodded in annoyance. "Next thing you'll suggest is that we have a joining ceremony and consummate our relationship in front of the whole damned Amazon Nation." She glanced at Ephiny, who remained silent, but had a twinkle of mischief in her hazel eyes. "Don't even go there, Eph. I am not coupling in front of an audience, no matter what history and tradition states."
"I wouldn't dream of it, My Queen," the regent smirked. "But…" Both Xena and Gabrielle rolled their eyes in consternation. "Hey, it would do you both good to make it official. What better way than to do have the ceremony right here while the tribes are gathered." She leaned toward Gabrielle conspiratorially. "And it might just add to your burgeoning popularity enough to get you elected High Queen of the Nation."
"Xena and I aren't…um…putting an Amazon seal on or consummating our relationship," she couldn't help the blush that infused her cheeks, "in front of the tribes, Eph. I don't care how much you try to badger us into doing so. We're very private people and we're going to keep it that way."
"Then maybe you should stop…um…" Eponin started, then thought better of continuing.
"Stop what?" Gabrielle looked at her innocently.
"Um…" the weapons master tried to stall while she came up with a suitable explanation.
"Just spit it out, Eponin," Xena glared at the woman.
"You're a little…um…loud…um…when...uh…during…um…" Eponin blushed to her roots and tried hard to hide a nervous giggle.
"What Eponin is trying so eloquently to say," Ephiny shot the weapons master an impatient glare, "is that the entire village can hear what you two are doing in your hut. You're not exactly quiet about it, if you know what I mean."
"Oh, gods," Gabrielle turned beet red and ducked into Xena's shoulder.
Xena wrapped her arms protectively around her partner and glared at the two Amazons over Gabrielle's head. "So?"
"So," Ephiny continued, undaunted by the intimidating glare. "We thought you should know that your sexual exploits are not at all a secret to us," she glanced at Eponin and then at the women on the practice field. "To any of us," she added with a wink.
A muffled groan from Xena's shoulder let them know the bard was still listening. Both Amazons couldn't help but snicker at the smaller woman's discomfort. Not even when Xena let out a warning growl did either woman cover their chuckles.
"I'm going to die of embarrassment right here and now," the bard's words were still muffled but clear enough for them to understand. Then she raised her head to look at the warrior, who was smiling affectionately down at her. "I can't…I don't…Ugh!" And she buried her face in the familiar space again.
Xena stroked the bard's hair. "It's all right, Gabrielle. They're just jealous." She shot the two women a 'come-on-argue-with-that-one' look, to which they just laughed all the harder-until Xena gave them the cold glare that could stop Zeus in his tracks. That got them. "Let's leave these two nitwits to their inappropriate amusement, shall we?"
Xena kept an arm around the bard's shoulder, as she steered them away from the practice field and a couple of laughing Amazons.
Gabrielle was sitting in the middle of their bed, with her bare legs stretched out and her ankles crossed. A worn scroll lay in her lap, as she scanned the section before her. Her hair was still damp from the bath she'd shared with Xena and she was dressed only in a light shift. Xena had donned her leathers and armor and headed over to the meal hut to grab something for them to eat. It was quiet in the hut, as Gabrielle continued reading.
The scroll was one of a series of scrolls she'd taken from the archival cave, where they were kept. After Ephiny had told her about the place, Gabrielle had gone exploring. With the help of an elderly Amazon, whose job it was to preside over the archives, Gabrielle discovered a treasure trove of interesting historical documents, as well as a number of scrolls that expounded on the many intricacies of Amazon Law.
Gabrielle had been amazed that the cave, which ran quite deep into the side of a low hill on the outskirts of the forest to the north of the village, was quite dry and relatively well-hidden. The mouth of the cave was covered by green vines that hid the place from view, while large bushes obscured the cave from prying eyes. It was only because of Ephiny's description of the place that Gabrielle was able to find it at all.
When she'd navigated the short tunnel that led from the mouth to the vast interior of the cave itself, Gabrielle marveled at the graphic depictions of Amazon warriors and hunters artistically displayed on the walls. The artwork, which was done in colorful dyes, was a pictorial depiction of Amazon history, various ceremonies, and battles fought and won. The artwork even extended into the interior of the cave itself and circled around the walls and up onto the ceiling.
Torches evenly spaced at intervals along the main cave itself threw light on the artwork, as well as the many scrolls tucked into niches carved into the walls. Gabrielle had even noticed several smaller offshoots from the cave and had been told that those were rooms that held archives of special value to the Amazons. One of those rooms contained the scrolls that Gabrielle was now immersed in.
She unrolled the scroll further to reveal more of the text. She had been a bit surprised to find that even these ancient texts were written in the common language. Actually, each original scroll had been painstakingly updated over the years to reflect any changes in the language or even to make something a bit more comprehensible. The Archival Mother, as the elder Amazon was called, told Gabrielle the story behind each room and each section of scrolls found in the main room itself. Gabrielle had been so fascinated by it all that she spent countless candlemarks just marveling at what she saw.
The Archival Mother had suggested that Queen Gabrielle start her actual reading with a history of the original nation itself. Those scrolls had taken her weeks to finish and she couldn't help but feel connected to those early warrior women. They were brave, unselfish and just wanted to create a community where women could thrive and love without judgment or recrimination. Of course, there were those who wanted much more.
The second scroll she'd read was about a rebellion that arose out of one queen's desire to keep the peace and another's desire to wage war against the enemies of the Nation. The queen in favor of war, Eritreius, finally got her wish when a tribe of cannibals attacked the village and killed the peaceful queen. Many of the peaceful queen's followers watched in horror as their queen was ripped apart by the voracious savages, who then devoured her flesh right before their shocked eyes.
When Eritreius and her followers returned to the village from a successful hunting foray, three-day's journey to the north, the story of what the cannibals had done to their sister spread like wildfire. Eritreius and her followers stripped themselves naked and painted their bodies with black and white dye and set off in search of their prey. The warrior women easily tracked the cannibals back to their encampment on the open plains and swooped down on them like enraged demons.
The men, who wore blue and gray paint upon their fur-clad bodies, were unprepared for the ferocity of the attack. The War Queen, as she was eventually dubbed, raised her war club high overhead and let out a high-pitched scream, as she led her warriors into the midst of their enemies, catching the men completely off guard.
The battle was the bloodiest the women had ever waged. When it ended, not a single cannibal was left alive. Blood soaked the ground and coated the women's feet, staining them red and adding to their mystique. Eritreius, who had engaged the cannibal leader in hand-to-hand combat, finally overtook him and beat him to within an inch of his life.
As he lay at her feet, bloody and nearly lifeless, she hefted her long blade high into the air in triumph and plunged it into his chest. The razor-sharp blade cut right through bone and cartilage with ease. Eritreius then pulled his still-beating heart from his chest and held it in one hand. She lifted the heart into the air to an answering roar of triumph from her followers and then sank her teeth into the still-pulsing organ.
Blood spewed from the heart and splattered bright red against pale white on the War Queen's painted torso. A surge of power seemed to infuse her at that moment and she threw back her head to cry out to the heavens above. Her cry became a plea to the heavens for ultimate power and dominance over her enemies. Blood ran bright red down her chin as the heavens opened up and answered her with flashes of lighting and booming rumbles of thunder.
One of her followers, Simonee, her favorite and the woman closest to her in age, approached her, took the heart from her hand, and bit into it, too. The two women then made love right there on the battlefield in front of everyone.
Gabrielle had been quite overwhelmed by not only the detailed descriptions scrawled in ink before her, but the intensity of the emotions shared by the writer. She wondered briefly who had been there to witness such carnality, such raw battle lust, without participating in the debauchery. Then she realized the writer was none other than Eritreius herself. The woman had done a masterful job of depicting the scene from a detached point of view, without losing any of the intensity of what transpired her.
Briefly wondering if her own actions of late were running parallel to those of Eritreius and her followers, Gabrielle quickly dismissed the notion as completely ridiculous and utterly preposterous. She had no desire to strip naked and paint her body before running off into battle. She also had no desire to eat someone's heart or taste blood on her tongue again. Her thoughts turned briefly to the soldier whose ear she had ripped completely off with her teeth, and she shuddered at what she'd done. She still had nightmares about the men she'd killed that night. The nightmares were strange-detached. In them she was more a spectator than an active participant.
Gabrielle returned her attention to the scrolls laid out in front of her. She shook off thoughts of nightmares and death, instead concentrating on the written word. The written word was safe-distant-unlike her errant thoughts.
The ten scrolls that followed the first two were filled with ceremonial rites of passage, bloody battles with a number of different armies, the rise of the centaurs and tensions that developed between the two communities. There was mention of the numerous queens and their ideas of how the tribe should be ruled and on and on. One scroll went into minute detail on the joining ceremony of a queen who believed in multiple partners and eventually took a total of nine consorts. The scroll read like a diary and went into great detail about the sexual diversity of her nine mates. Each one offered something that the others didn't. The nameless queen appreciated each one of her mates for their differences and claimed to love them all equally.
"Yeah, right," Gabrielle scoffed. She was about to toss the scroll aside when a name caught her eye. "What the…"
Gabrielle quickly skimmed through the boring details to the meat of the scroll. She discovered it was the queen's first and favorite consort, a woman named Issa, who was the one to give the queen her greatest miracle-a child to carry on the line of succession. Issa was a warrior in the queen's elite guard. She was a true warrior in every sense and protected the queen with a passion born of her role as First Consort. She was also the Queen's Champion.
When war broke out between the centaurs and Amazons, Issa led the charge to protect the village proper. She was injured and captured by one of the men who fought with the centaurs. The man dragged her back to the centaur village and staked her in the village center for all to see. He then raped her repeatedly in front of his comrades. The Amazons were finally able to rescue Issa and free her from her captors.
When she returned to the village, beaten and broken, the queen herself took care of the woman-nursed her and never left her side. Issa eventually recovered from her physical injuries, but her emotional wounds ran far too deep. They eventually discovered that Issa was with child. She lived to carry the baby to term and gave birth to a beautiful dark-haired child that the queen named as her successor. The child grew up to be an able Amazon warrior, a beautiful princess and an intelligent leader of her tribe. Her name was Melosa. Issa died shortly after Melosa's birth. She never fully recovered from the emotional toll her ordeal had taken on her.
Gabrielle stared intently at the scroll before her for a few moments, then tossed it into the pile of scrolls she'd already finished. She then picked up one of the scrolls that cited and explained the many laws that her tribe adhered to. The content of the scroll was dry and boring, but really wasn't paying it much attention. Her thoughts kept returning to Melosa. The woman hadn't exactly accepted her with open arms, but… Gabrielle tried to concentrate on the scroll in front of her, but finally gave up.
Melosa's story wasn't really what she'd expected. Then again, she didn't quite know what to expect anymore. These women weren't exactly your normal everyday peasant women who allowed their fathers to marry them off to the highest bidder. Amazons were a culturally diverse array of people from all walks of life. Some of them had been born into the tribe, while others…well…Gabrielle wondered how many of them were the product of abusive relationships. Is that why they turned to other women for love and companionship? Or was there something more?
Her thoughts invariably turned to her relationship with Xena. She couldn't help asking herself: What made two women fall in love? Then she realized she would probably never find the answer to that particular question. People fell in love for a number of reasons. Her relationship with Xena was beyond complicated most days and very simple others. Xena was the other half of her soul. When they were together Gabrielle felt complete. There was no other way of explaining it. Xena completed her.
"So, what would happen to you if you ever lost her?" Gabrielle asked herself quietly.
Boot steps on the front porch brought her instantly out of her dark thoughts.
"I'm baaaack," Xena called out, as she pushed the door open to reveal a tray piled with covered dishes. "You hungry?"
"Starving," Gabrielle smiled warmly-a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "Got any goat's cheese sauce and cherries in there?"
Xena gave the bard a confused look. "Uh," she glanced at the tray and tried to remember what it contained. "I…I don't think so." The warrior set the tray on a side table and uncovered the dishes. She quickly surveyed the contents of each plate and shook her head. "Nope, no goat cheese sauce with cherries."
"Drat," Gabrielle said and then saw the apologetic look cross the warrior's features. Gabrielle shrugged, "I guess I'll just have to do without."
"I could go back and get some for you," Xena offered.
"No, that's alright," the bard shook her head, set the scroll aside and hopped from the bed. She winced slightly at the twinge in her side. "Gods, I should remember not to do that."
"Ribs still sore?" Xena asked, as she watched the bard pad over to the feast spread out before her.
"They're fine," Gabrielle replied, as she absently rubbed the spot where Eponin had gotten in a lucky blow. "Just a bruise."
"Bruised ribs can sometimes hurt worse than broken ones," Xena commented and generously piled a plate full of food for the smaller woman.
"I guess," Gabrielle shrugged and took the plate. She glanced from the pile of food to the warrior. "Are you trying to fatten me up? Or is Aristia responsible for all this? I swear she's trying to make me as big as Mashuka."
"You said you were hungry," Xena defended, as she piled another plate equally as high as the first. "I figured you wanted a variety, so I asked Aristia to give us a little of everything she had."
"Apparently we're both hungry," Gabrielle commented as she eyed both plates with a raised brow.
"Gotta keep my strength up," Xena said, as she sat down in one of the rockers near the empty fireplace and proceeded to tear the meat off a chicken leg. "Not bad."
"For what?" Gabrielle asked, as she sat down in the chair opposite her partner and dove into her food with gusto.
"Games," Xena answered between bites.
"Oh," Gabrielle chewed on a marinated olive and tossed the pit onto her plate. "Yeah, Eponin's looking forward to kicking your butt." She smirked. "Says she can beat you in at least one of the competitions."
"As if," Xena replied. "She does too good a job telegraphing every move she makes. I'm surprised you haven't picked up on that, yet. You're usually pretty good at reading people."
Gabrielle shot her partner a look. "What makes you think I haven't?"
Xena shot back a raised-brow look aimed at the bard's side. "That bruise, for one."
"That was a fluke," Gabrielle countered. "She got past my guard when I was occupied with other…um…things."
Xena waved the denuded chicken bone at the bard. "That's why you can't let your guard down during a fight, Gabrielle."
"You gonna hit me with that chicken bone?" Gabrielle teased with a smirk.
Xena glanced at the bone in her hand, then set it back on her plate. "I'm just telling you. Stay focused. You can't let your guard down when you're out there. It could mean the difference between life and death."
"Eponin won't kill me, Xena," Gabrielle sighed dramatically. "She gets totally freaked out when she even hits me, much less when she actually draws blood." She lifted her elbow and showed the warrior a small cut that was scabbed over. "She nearly fell over herself with apologies when she got behind me and nicked me last week. Even Ephiny couldn't stop apologizing for Eponin's clumsiness. It's a damned scratch. What is it with those two?"
"They're a little…um…" Xena popped an entire stuffed quail egg in her mouth and tried to finish speaking. All that came out was a muffled, "ffffjjj."
"What was that?" Gabrielle shot the warrior an admonishing look. "I couldn't hear you over that glob of food in your mouth."
"They're a little afraid," Xena said, when her mouth was empty.
"Afraid?" Gabrielle thought about that a moment. "I'm the queen. I'm not some…" It suddenly dawned on her. "Ohhhhhh," she said. "I guess I didn't…I really never thought about how killing those men looked to the rest of you."
"You scared the crap out of me, Gabrielle," Xena openly admitted. "I've never seen you go nuts like that. I nearly flew out there, except that Ephiny wouldn't let go of my arm. Kept insisting that I not try to intervene."
Gabrielle's head snapped around as she looked at the warrior in shock. "What?"
"No, I heard what you said," Gabrielle continued. "I'm just not sure why you said it. You're not scared of anything, Xena."
"I'm scared of losing you," the warrior admitted over the sudden lump in her throat. "Again," she added.
"I'm not…" Gabrielle shook her head as tears sprang to her eyes. She wiped them away impatiently and met the warrior's intense gaze. "I guess that goes both ways."
"Yeah," Xena smirked.
"So," Gabrielle said after several tense moments of silence. She glanced at her plate of half-eaten food, but was no longer hungry. "Ephiny tells me the Northern Amazons finally responded to the invitation she sent them."
"Oh?" Xena shot the woman a curious look, as she pushed her own food around on her plate.
Gabrielle popped another olive in her mouth and absently chewed. "They don't want anything to do with our gathering."
"Not surprising," Xena shrugged absently.
"No," Gabrielle said. "Do you think they know…about…"
"Me?" Xena finished for her. "I'm sure they're chomping at the proverbial bit to eventually sink their teeth into my leather-clad hide." She smirked wryly. "I would have been, before I met you."
"Not anymore?" Gabrielle prodded.
Xena considered the question a moment and shrugged. "Nah. I can't hold grudges anymore. It just eats at you, all that anger simmering and smoldering inside like that." She smirked. "I'm much more a here-and-now, get it over and done with, kinda gal. Can't keep the anger bottled up inside or it just festers and grows."
"Live in the moment," Gabrielle nodded. "They're not us, though."
"No, they're not," Xena said. "I just hope they don't try anything stupid while we're here."
Xena shrugged. "Women do stupid things in the name of vengeance." Her expression turned thoughtful. "I remember this one time…"
"Everyone does stupid things in the name of vengeance, Xena," Gabrielle interrupted, as she lifted a pocket sandwich to her mouth and took a huge bite. "Mmmmm…"
Xena watched in amusement as Gabrielle quickly devoured the entire sandwich and licked the sauce from her fingers. She reached over and lifted a dribble of sauce from the woman's mouth, stuck her finger in her own mouth and smirked playfully.
"Mmmm," Xena uttered. "You still…" She leaned close to the woman and licked the remainder of the sauce from the corner of her mouth. "Tastes better on you," she said with her face still close to the bard's.
Gabrielle closed the distance between them and met Xena's waiting lips. The kiss deepened as they explored each other and savored the flavors they had both sampled.
"Gods!" Gabrielle exclaimed breathlessly as she pulled away first. Her eyes met Xena's and she saw the raw desire in the warrior's eyes. "Why are we so…"
"Don't know," Xena shook herself and leaned back in her chair with a heavy sigh. "I just can't…seem to get enough of you, love."
"Me, either," Gabrielle admitted on a heavy sigh, as she tried to slow her racing heart. "It's like…"
Xena glanced at the woman when Gabrielle didn't immediately continue. "Like what?"
Gabrielle glanced at the pile of scrolls on the other side of the room. "I've been reading scrolls from the archives. Some of them were…um…" She blew out a breath. "Their history is pretty…Is it getting hot in here?" She fanned herself as her eyes met Xena's.
"Oh?" Xena shot Gabrielle a questioning look. "That good, huh?"
"Well, let's just say I have a better understanding of how some of their traditions and ceremonies came into being," Gabrielle answered. "The howling at the moon tradition, especially." She stifled a shudder.
Xena's brow rose higher. "So, they really do howl at the moon?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Naked, painted from head-to-toe, but now they don't cover themselves in the blood of their enemies." She actually shivered noticeably at the memory of that particular story and its outcome. "Some of it is quite barbaric and rather disgusting."
"Sounds…um…" Xena shook her head. "I got nothin'. Sounds like the Amazons have some interesting history."
"You've no idea," Gabrielle shot back. "I did learn a little something about Melosa."
"Yeah, she was born into the tribe," Gabrielle replied. "Her birth mother was the queen's consort-her first mate. She was also a seasoned warrior and leader of the elite guard. She was captured during a war with the centaurs and raped during her captivity. The Amazons rescued her and brought her home. Issa gave birth to a daughter nine moons later and died shortly thereafter.
"The queen raised the child as her own and named her as successor to the throne," Gabrielle continued. "Melosa became queen when her second mother died in another brutal war with the centaurs." She met Xena's gaze. "That probably explains why Melosa had such an aversion to centaurs and was so quick to pass judgment during that whole debacle with Terreis, Tildus and Phantes."
Xena nodded slowly. "Probably." She smirked. "Good thing we stepped in, eh?"
Gabrielle snickered. "Really good timing, I guess. Butting into other people's affairs sometimes really pays off."
Xena considered that for a moment. "I'm not so sure about the timing. I just don't believe in coincidence anymore."
Gabrielle eyed her curiously. "What do you mean?"
"Bare with me a moment," Xena continued. "What if someone or something interfered to get us involved in this whole sordid affair?"
"Okaaaay," Gabrielle still looked at Xena curiously. "Not sure I'm following you, but go on."
"What happened before we came here that first time?" Xena added. "What were we doing?"
Gabrielle considered that for a long moment. What had they been doing? She thought back to the days before she and Xena decided to take that fateful trip through Amazon territory.
"We rescued Celesta from crazy, old Sisyphus," Gabrielle finally answered. "That's when I met Talus and you sent Toxeus to the Underworld. Boy, was that a real mistake. He was such a troublemaker down there in Hades' realm."
"Exactly," Xena said with a quirked brow. "Two gods owed us favors after that one selfless act."
"And Talus died," a look of sadness came over the bard. "He was the first boy who didn't treat me like a possession."
"Okay," Xena's expression went neutral. "And what did we do before we saved Celesta?"
"Oo, Prometheus," Gabrielle perked right up. "You saved him from being chained on top of that mountain." She gave the warrior an exasperated eye roll. "I swear I thought you were going to sacrifice yourself to free him. Even Hercules and Iolaus were worried about you the entire time. Herc was ready to step in and use the sword to cut through the chains that bound Prometheus. I think he was a little surprised when you did what you did. Clever."
"Yeah, yeah," Xena waved a negligible hand. "Can't get rid of me that easily." She shot the woman a smirk. "Chalk another favor up for us. Okay, so what happened before that?"
"The Titans," Gabrielle answered. "You helped me…um…you know."
"It was an accident, Gabrielle," Xena chastised. "You didn't mean to free them. Get over it and move on."
"No, but I still feel responsible for what happened," Gabrielle shrugged. "Hyperion was a real piece of work, too. All he wanted was to awaken the rest of the Titans and destroy all humanity. I'm just glad you were there to save the day-again."
"And what is Zeus' father?" Xena asked.
"His name was Cronos. He was a Titan," Gabrielle replied matter-of-factly. "Xena, what's that got to do with the here and now?"
"Stay with me, here," Xena put up a staying finger. "Okay, and which god did we help before that?"
"Morpheus," Gabrielle shrugged. "If you call almost getting killed or becoming the bride of the God of Dreams helping."
"We helped, despite what the gods think," Xena said. "That makes four favors to none."
"Okay," Gabrielle still wasn't following, but decided to hear Xena out. It wasn't often that the warrior expounded on something with such thoughtfulness. "So?"
"So," Xena continued, as she gnawed on an olive. "The gods don't appreciate owing mortals favors, especially someone like me. We've managed to rack up at least four favors over the last few years. What does that say to you?"
"That the gods owe us big time," Gabrielle stated the obvious.
"That someone on Olympus is messing with us and has been for some time," Xena concluded. "It was no accident that Terreis died in your arms, Gabrielle."
"No," Gabrielle replied. "It was that arrow that killed her and almost started another war with the centaurs. Krycus was the mastermind behind that whole fiasco. He admitted it."
"We never found out exactly who shot Terreis," Xena popped another olive into her mouth. "For all we know it could've been any number of people who were there… or someone else entirely."
Gabrielle's expression turned incredulous. "Xena, really. The gods interfered? Come on. That's ridiculous and you know it. Besides, Terreis was an Amazon princess."
"Exactly," Xena continued. "What better way for you to become an Amazon? You become an Amazon princess and eventually become queen, especially after I won that challenge against Melosa."
"She retained the queen's mask when I left," Gabrielle clarified. "I wasn't queen, even though you won the challenge in my name. I made sure of that."
"Did you?" Xena glanced over at the smaller woman. "You made her your regent, but you still retained the mask's ultimate authority. For all intents and purposes you've been queen of the Thracian Amazons for the better part of almost three years now. You've learned things on the road that you never would have learned here in the village. You're a very well-rounded person and a born leader. Now that you've returned, you suddenly fall ill and have to remain in the village until you fully recover from that lung fever. And who gave you the illness in the first place?"
"Artemis," Gabrielle answered with far less confidence. "But…Xena what's her game, then? Why spend the last three years waiting for me to return? What is she trying to accomplish?"
Xena popped the last olive in her mouth and wiped her hands together. "I don't know, but if it is her, she's been screwing with us for far too long, Gabrielle. I'm sick of it and it's time to get to the bottom of this whole thing, once and for all."
The warrior rose from her chair and crossed the room in a few long strides. She set her plate on the sideboard and glanced back at the woman still seated in the chair in front of the empty fireplace with a smile. Then she left the spacious hut without a backward glance.
"I need your advice," Xena said as she sat down at the queen's table next to the curly blond regent.
Ephiny looked at the warrior over the rim of her ale mug and a blond brow rose in question. "My advice?"
Xena nodded and poured herself a mug of ale. She gulped down half the mug, set it down, then took it up and downed the remainder. She poured another full mug, downed half the mug again, set it down and looked at the regent.
"I want to know what it will take for me to become…um…Gabrielle's…" She surveyed the Amazons seated around them who were eating their evening meal. "What?" She caught the look in the woman's eyes.
Ephiny couldn't help the smile of triumph that lit her features. "You want a joining ceremony?"
Xena fidgeted uncomfortably. "Yeah," she answered and downed the remainder of her ale.
Eponin chose that moment to sit down on Ephiny's opposite side. She glanced from the warrior to the regent. "What's going on?"
Ephiny turned to greet the newcomer with a huge grin. "Xena wants to have a joining ceremony with Gabrielle."
Solari sat down across from them all and overheard Ephiny's words. "The queen and Xena are going to have a joining ceremony?"
Xena just rolled her eyes. "Oh, for the love of…" She met each gaze with her customary glare, until her gaze rested on the regent's. Then she pushed away from the table and rose to her feet. "Amazons," she growled as she left the table.
She was halfway across the village and headed to the queen's hut, when Ephiny caught up to her. "Xena," the regent was out of breath trying to keep up with the warrior's longer strides. "Slow down, will ya?"
Xena rounded on the woman. "What?"
"I'm sorry, Xena," Ephiny conceded. "I'm just really happy for you both. I didn't mean to upset you."
Xena breathed out an exasperated sigh. "It's okay, Eph. I'm just not used to having my personal business discussed in front of others."
"Hey," Ephiny patted the leather shoulder guard on Xena's armor. "I understand, Xena. I really do. But you have to understand that having our queen take a consort is a really big deal. It's…" She put her hands by her head and spread them wide. "It's bigger than this gathering, even." Her expression turned thoughtful. "Of course, the queen becoming pregnant with the heir to the throne is…" Her gaze met Xena's and she stopped.
"Not within my power," Xena stated flatly.
"Okay," Ephiny's gaze shifted and she saw a gathering of Macedonian Amazons near a huge bonfire, then she glanced up at the cloudless sky. "You have to become an Amazon, Xena."
Xena stopped and it took the regent a few strides to realize the warrior was no longer beside her. Ephiny finally stopped and turned back to the tall warrior.
"You said you wanted to know what it would take to become the queen's consort," Ephiny said. "That's your answer."
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek as she stepped up beside the woman. "I'm not the Amazon type, Eph."
Ephiny cocked her head. "And what does that mean, exactly? You're more Amazon than you might think, actually. You have the warrior skills down pat and you're a woman. What more is there?"
Xena considered that for a moment. "I'm not a joiner."
"A what?" Ephiny snorted. "What's a joiner?"
"I don't do crowds," Xena attempted to clarify. "I never…I lead…I don't…"
"You led an army, Xena," Ephiny shot the warrior a raised-brow glare. "You were surrounded by an army of men. How is becoming an Amazon any different? You won't be queen, just her consort. You sit by her side, offer advice when she asks for it, bed her when…okay, I don't even want to go there right now. Anyway, you two would be a couple, a team-partners in every way. You would still be Queen's Champion and face anyone who tries to challenge her. She would still rule the tribe-the entire Nation, if she becomes High Queen. The two of you could travel the countryside, righting wrongs and doing your thing. The only difference would be that your union would be sealed in the annals of Amazon history."
"When I led the army," Xena began, "I didn't interact with them more than I had to. My orders were filtered through my commanders down to the men and I…I remained separate from them whenever possible. The only one I had any intimate contact with was Borias."
"Borias?" Ephiny's expression turned hopeful, as she waited for the warrior to elaborate.
"Solon's father," Xena explained and received a nod of understanding from the shorter woman. "He and I were…He was…" Xena finished with a shrug. "Everything fell apart after I gave birth to my son-our son. Borias was killed and I gave the baby up to Kaleipus to raise as his own son. Solon never knew me in this life as more than a friend of his father's. It wasn't until Gabrielle and I went to Illusia that he called me Mother." She shook off the memories. "Anyway, I'm not a joiner. I don't do the whole join-this-or-that group in order to fit in."
"Would you do it for Gabrielle's sake?" Ephiny asked.
"I would walk through the fires of Tartarus for eternity for Gabrielle," Xena answered emphatically.
"And people say you're not the poet in the duo," Ephiny smirked.
"They do?" Xena shot the woman a skeptical glare.
"Not really," Ephiny deadpanned. "They're really only impressed by your fighting skills. They don't talk about much more than that."
"Okay, so how do I become an Amazon?" Xena asked. "What's it gonna take?"
"Actually, the whole thing is fairly simple," Ephiny continued. "We have several youngsters scheduled for initiation into the tribe at the next new moon. I'm sure the priestesses would welcome one more addition to the ceremony."
"Does it entail naked Amazons, paint and howling at the moon?" Xena asked with reluctance.
"New moon, Xena," Ephiny clarified. "There won't be a moon in the sky that night."
"Ah," Xena nodded, then thought about it. "You didn't…"
"Down, Xena," Ephiny chuckled and patted the woman's arm. "I'm just teasing." Her expression sobered. "I'll let the priestesses know you're interested in becoming a member of the tribe and ask them to run you through the paces in time for the next new moon."
Xena glanced up at the sliver of moon and mentally calculated the time until the next new moon. Not long now, she mused silently.
"Are you sure it can happen by then?" Xena asked.
"Trust me," Ephiny smirked. "You're already well on your way to becoming an Amazon, Xena. The priestesses will explain what the ceremony entails and your part in it. It is all fairly straightforward and simple." She glanced up at the woman with a wry smirk. "You can do simple and straightforward, right?" She watched the warrior nod. "Good, then you'll have no problem."
Xena watched the regent walk away with a jaunty spring in her step and could only shake her head in consternation. She didn't know if she really wanted to join the ranks of the women she was so used to making fun of. Of course, her partner was a member of the tribe, so how bad could it really be? Xena shuddered to think of what she was getting herself into, then glanced over as a trio of very pregnant Amazons walking by her. The women glanced in her direction, waved friendly greetings and continued on their way.
Xena shuddered again and headed toward the queen's hut with purposeful strides.
The games began with a flowery speech from each of the six queens who were present at the Gathering. Queens Besine, Trika, Jalile, Sherina, and Mashuka had already expounded on the skills of their warriors in battle and their own skills as a leaders and warriors of their tribes. Mashuka's speech had, which lasted a full candlemark and was met with cheers and jeers from those gathered, was the last to be given by the visiting queens. Gabrielle barely paid it any heed, as she gathered her own thoughts and waited patiently for the large woman to finish.
Gabrielle had spent the better part of two days preparing her speech. Ephiny gave her a heads-up just a few days prior to the impending games, letting her know that she was to be the last queen to speak and the one to open the games. Gabrielle wasn't worried. As a matter of fact, she was completely in her element. It was the games themselves that worried her just a little.
She'd been sparring with Eponin for the better part of a moon without incident. Her skills with the practice sword were unmatched by any of her sparring partners and she'd finally challenged Xena to a session, much to the warrior's dismay.
Summer was in full swing on the bright, sunny day that Gabrielle walked up to her partner-who she hadn't seen very much of in recent days-and issued a challenge. Eponin merely shrugged when the tall warrior glanced her way.
"Don't look at me, Xena," the weapons master said. "I didn't put her up to this. She came up with it all on her own."
Xena then returned her attention to the smaller woman in front of her. "Are you sure about this?"
"I am," Gabrielle answered with confidence and a touch of cockiness. "After all, this is what we've been working toward."
Xena walked over to the array of practice weapons kept at the edge of the practice field and chose a sword that fit her hand rather well. She then returned to her protégé with reluctant strides and stood in front of the smaller woman.
"I promise to go easy on you, Gabrielle," Xena said in a hushed voice.
Eponin snickered. "Can't say she'll do the same."
The two combatants raised their weapons and set their stances. Xena was mildly surprised to see how well-balanced and relaxed Gabrielle appeared. She would have thought their first sword session together would be like their first staff session.
Gabrielle had been the tentative one that first time out and had actually thought the taller woman would hurt her. Xena had been the modicum of patience. She had used the session to teach the younger woman how to hold a staff more firmly and use her smaller stature to her advantage against a larger opponent. By the end, Gabrielle gained confidence and put Xena through her paces with a skill that was mildly surprising to them both.
But the woman facing her now was far different than the one wielding a staff. This Gabrielle exuded confidence right from the get-go. She even took the initiative and began the session with a combination series that had Xena instantly on the defensive. Not only had Gabrielle gained strength over the last few moons, but she had also learned to anticipate her opponents' moves by watching their eyes. Her intense, green gaze never faltered, even when Xena did a flip over her head and ended up behind her.
The warrior attempted to bring the flat of her sword against her partner's backside, just to teach her a lesson, but was surprised when Gabrielle actually spun away from her in time to catch her blade on Xena's. Their swords clashed with a resounding clang that carried across the practice field and to the ears of everyone in the area.
Neither woman realized when a large crowd of onlookers quickly gathered around them, including several curious queens, as well as Ignesia and several of her followers. Gabrielle only had eyes for the woman trying valiantly to disarm her. While Xena was beginning to realize that her opponent was far more skilled than she'd originally given Gabrielle credit for. The warrior stepped up her attack, deciding to put her smaller partner through paces she had yet to face against a real opponent.
Gabrielle took the increased pace in stride, as Xena took their session to the next level. Gabrielle felt her heart rate and breathing increase, but kept her focus on the woman before her. Her mind anticipated Xena's moves and she countered them with equal quickness and managed to deliver a few counter moves of her own. It became a battle of wills, as each woman moved in a blur of thrusts, parries, attacks and counterattacks.
Xena was amazed that Gabrielle actually kept her head during the entire session, while Gabrielle merely let the moves she'd been taught flow through her. Both were amazed how easily and skillfully they sparred together. It was as if they were one and they were simply sharing a dance that they both knew by heart. Neither woman moved without the other countering the exact move. Neither stepped out of time to a beat that Gabrielle suddenly realized matched her own heartbeat.
And as soon as the realization hit her, the spell was broken. The jeers and cheers of the crowd came pouring through her mind and her eyes left Xena's to glance at the huge crowd that she suddenly became aware of. Xena took advantage of the opening to gracefully flip Gabrielle's sword from her hand into the air. The warrior caught the sword by its hilt with a triumphant smirk and nodded at her opponent.
The crowd roared a deafening cheer.
Then Gabrielle realized the roar of the crowd was actually real as her thoughts returned to the present. Queen Mashuka was bowing to the gathered throng and raised clasped fists in triumph, as she moved aside to allow Gabrielle the floor. The bard girded herself for her speech and stepped into the center of the dais. She raised her hands to quiet the crowd and waited patiently for them the roar to die down to a few murmurs. She scanned the crowd and met a pair of amused blue eyes watching her intently from the last very back.
It warmed her heart to know that Xena was actually there, even if the warrior wasn't right beside her. They had agreed before the start of the games that Xena would be there, but would keep her distance from the woman she loved. After all, Xena wasn't an Amazon and was not allowed near the queen's dais, at least according to protocol.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, was ready to throw protocol out the window. She wanted nothing more than to feel the presence of her partner right there with her. And feel her she could, at least when they were in close proximity. Over the last few moons they had developed a bond of sorts and could tell when the other was near. There was no explaining it. They just knew.
Gabrielle reluctantly pulled her gaze from her partner and let it wander over the gathered throng. Several of the pregnant warriors were absent, she noticed, while others were standing by with hands held to their aching backs and protruding stomachs. They were all in the last days of pregnancy and not one of them had yet to give birth. The entire tribe seemed to be on edge and were waiting with baited breath for that first arrival-an arrival that had yet to come.
A hush fell over the crowd, as Gabrielle lowered her hands in preparation for her speech. And then a loud, high-pitched cry suddenly pierced the silence. The cry lasted only a moment, but all heads turned expectantly toward the healer's hut from whence the cry came. At that same instant Nissia emerged from the hut with a cloth-wrapped bundle held high in her gnarled hands.
"Behold!" The healer shouted in a voice loud enough to carry over the entire gathering. "Artemis be praised! New life has blessed the Amazon Nation!!!"
The crowd erupted in cheers, applause, whoops and hollers of triumph, as the healer carried the screaming babe back inside. A broad smile lit Gabrielle's features, as she mentally changed her speech to include this latest development.
"Sister Amazons!!!" She finally shouted over the continuing noise and clamber before her. She waited several heartbeats until the noise died down to a more manageable level, then continued in her strong bardic voice, "Today is a day of new beginnings!" The crowd cheered again, and again Gabrielle patiently waited. "We have gathered here to experience a rich tradition set forth by our foremothers, to share our rich stories and to fellowship together as sisters, united in our rich heritage and our diversity…"
Her speech continued, as she touched on the blessing of a new generation of Amazons who would someday take their place as leaders for a new age. She also touched upon the history that had brought them all to this point in time. There were cheers in appropriate places and loud groans in others, but all in all Gabrielle's speech far surpassed the speeches given by the other queens. She used her bardic talents to their fullest measure and took them on a journey heaped in tradition and filled with strong images of unity, peace, and prosperity.
Gabrielle glanced out over the crowd and saw Ignesia watching her through hooded eyes. The woman stood a head taller than others around her and was amongst a group of her tribeswomen. As Gabrielle's speech reached its last crescendo, she gazed intently at Ignesia, who stood opposite her partner in the crowd. Gabrielle noticed something in the woman's eyes that sent a shiver of warning down her spine. She then glanced over at Xena and saw a proud smirk on the warrior's lips.
"TO A STRONG AMAZON NATION!!!" Gabrielle shouted, as she raised a fist into the air.
The crowd erupted in cheers and chants. "To a strong Amazon Nation!" reverberated through the entire assembly and continued, as Amazons raised their fists and danced around to the beat of the insistent chant.
Gabrielle raised her hands above the assembly one last time and felt the hush that settled over the women. She smiled over them, "May the games begin!"
More cheers and chanting followed, as the assembled women went off in different directions. Gabrielle waited patiently for the crowd to break up and accepted accolades from her fellow queens. Then Ephiny stepped up beside her with a wry grin.
"Interesting timing," the regent commented. "Played right into your hands, I'd say."
Gabrielle glanced at the woman. "Please don't say it was anything more than coincidence, Eph."
"I'm just sayin'," Ephiny held her hands in front of her. "Couldn't have come at a more opportune time, if you ask me. Gave you the opening you needed to really get them into the swing. You're a real pro at using the unexpected to set a tone, let me tell ya."
"I learned from the best," Gabrielle shrugged, as Xena joined them on the dais. "Hey, stranger." The bard's face lit up, as the warrior stepped in and put an arm around her shoulders. Gabrielle patted the leather-clad belly and wrapped a protective arm around Xena's waist. "You ready to go show these Amazons what a real warrior can do, Tiger?"
"Grrr," Xena deadpanned, much to Ephiny's amusement.
"Go easy on my girl, there, will ya, Xena?" Ephiny shot the warrior a pleading look. "I would really like to celebrate a victory or two, rather than have to listen to her go on and on about how you totally kicked her butt in every event. Eponin's ego is sometimes dwarfed only by her…um…insatiable appetite."
Gabrielle's brow hiked into her hairline. "I thought I was the one who ate anything and everything in sight."
Xena and Ephiny couldn't help but chuckle and tried to hide their sudden amusement behind their hands.
"Ohhhhh, I get it," Gabrielle suddenly said. "You weren't talking about that kind of appetite." She scoffed. "You'd think I'd learn not to fall into those verbal traps anymore."
"Like you've learned not to let your focus suddenly falter during inopportune moments?" Xena shot back. "I don't think so."
"Hey, I'm getting better at that," the bard defended. "We actually gathered quite a crowd during our last sparring session, before I suddenly realized we had so many onlookers. My concentration only faltered when I looked around at them all."
"You wouldn't make it as a gladiator, let me tell ya," Xena just shook her head. "One loud cheer from the crowd and it would be all over. You'd be dead."
Gabrielle slapped the warrior's belly. "I'm not that bad." Then she shot Xena a questioning look. "Am I?"
Xena just shook her head. "Are you ready to preside over an event or two, my queen?" She bowed low and offered an arm to her smaller partner, who rolled her eyes in exasperation.
"Please don't do that, Xena," Gabrielle took the warrior's arm anyway. "I'm not your queen and you don't bow before anyone, especially me."
Xena just smirked. "I would spend an eternity in Tartarus, if only to see that spark of love reflected back at me through your eyes, Gabrielle."
"Which of us is the bard in the family?" Gabrielle snorted. "I think you missed your calling, Warrior Poet Laureate."
"Nah," Xena returned with a wry grin. "I just have many skills."
They both laughed as they made their way to a small group of women armed with bows and arrows and gathered on the archery range.
The celebration that night was in full swing. Amazons were deep in their cups, sharing stories, dancing by the light of the blazing bonfire and laughing together like old friends. Ignesia sat amidst her most loyal followers and kept her eyes half-trained on the raised dais before her. She'd had to bite her tongue in order to keep from speaking out during the opening speeches that afternoon. It had been especially difficult to remain silent when Gabrielle had launched into a flowery and rather nauseating spiel about the glorious Amazon history and heritage that Ignesia held so dear.
But she endured the speech in silence and managed to slip from the crowd without anyone the wiser. That's when she met up with her contact from the Northern Amazon tribe. The woman was dressed in full Amazon regalia and wore long pants and a long-sleeved tunic, despite the sweltering heat of mid-summer. They met in an obscure area of the forest, far from spying eyes and prying ears.
Ignesia let a small smile of triumph play at the corners of her lips, as she sipped her wine and continued to watch the antics of the women on the dais. But her jaw stiffened at the sight of Gabrielle in the arms of Xena. The warrior was practically wrapped around the smaller woman like a second skin. It was a problem and one that would soon be dealt with in good stead.
"Drakma for your thoughts, Iggie," a hand played on her bare thigh at the edges of Ignesia's leather skirt and she looked down at it before meeting the eyes of the woman it belonged to. "What?"
Ignesia set her cup aside and put her own hand on the other woman's, then guided it beneath the leather until the woman's fingers brushed her sex. Ignesia then gazed deeply into Rena's pale gray eyes, as she snaked a hand through the woman's flaming red hair and firmly grasped the back of her neck. She could see the passion flare in those gray eyes, as she closed the distance between them and took the woman's mouth in a kiss that was more domineering than sensual or seductive.
The kiss deepened, as Rena moved closer and thrust strong fingers inside the woman. She set a steady cadence and brought Ignesia to a quick climax, reveling in the feel of the woman against her hand. When Ignesia finally pulled away, Rena gazed into eyes that were darker than the night around them.
"Are you pleased?" Rena asked in a tone barely above a whisper, as she felt her own body react to the woman's nearness.
In answer, Ignesia took Rena's mouth in another bruising kiss and effortlessly lifted the woman onto her lap. She'd had a special device sewn into her leather skirt for just such occasions and now shifted it into position until she felt the woman gasp against her lips.
Ignesia pulled back slightly, just enough to gaze into Rena's startled eyes, as she began to thrust in time with the beating of the drums. "You are a beautiful woman, Rena," Ignesia said, as she continued to thrust the hard, leather phallus into the young woman. "You deserve to feel me inside you-to know what no other has known before."
Rena couldn't wrap her mind around what she was feeling. It wasn't possible that the woman possessed a man's appendage, yet that was exactly what she was experiencing. Her mind was awhirl with the sensations that were coursing through her, as Ignesia recaptured her bruised and swollen lips possessively.
The redhead just held on for dear life as Ignesia brought her to the pinnacle of a climax that had her screaming above the sounds of the drumbeats and chanting. No one appeared to pay them any heed, as Rena slowly returned to earth and collapsed against the woman whose lap she still occupied.
"How…" the redhead panted breathlessly, as she tried to catch her breath.
"Shh," Ignesia gently lifted the woman off of her and discreetly tucked the device back into the folds of her short skirt. "It's our little secret," she whispered the words against the young woman's neck, as she laid Rena on the fur next to her.
The celebration taking place all around them seemed to disappear from both women's minds, as Ignesia gazed down into gray eyes shining with wonder. Ignesia, who was larger than the redhead, covered Rena with her body. She was careful not to reveal anything to the woman, as they continued their mutual explorations.
Ignesia suddenly jumped to her feet and held out a hand to the redhead. "Come with me," she beckoned to the startled woman. "I want to show you something."
Rena merely nodded and took the outstretched hand. Ignesia deftly pulled her to her feet and strong hands steadied her when she nearly toppled from a swift bout of vertigo that overcame her. When she nodded that she was okay, Ignesia led them away from the village center and they disappeared into the darkness.
"She's up to something," Ephiny commented to Gabrielle, who was once again wrapped in her partner's embrace.
"Who?" Gabrielle eyed the regent.
"Ignesia," Ephiny said, as she nodded towards the crowd. "I just saw her disappear with Rena a moment ago."
"Maybe they're just…" Gabrielle shrugged and hid her embarrassment in her mug of sweet mead. The heady brew tickled her tongue and she knew she was already slightly drunk, if not totally sauced. "There seems to be a lot of that going around."
"'Cept wif our new mudders," Eponin snorted and nearly fell over sideways, except that Ephiny managed to right her in the nick of time. "Can't believe 'leven of 'em gave birth in a same day," she hiccupped loudly after the last word. "'S really an-an-any…um…weird to haf Nississa wavin' thos' babies 'round all day." Her speech was really slurred, but she managed to lift her mug of ale to her lips and down the rest of it in one, loud gulp. "Artemish was with us this day!" She raised her tankard and downed its contents.
"Time to pour you into bed, I think," Ephiny announced, as she stood up and reached down to grab her erstwhile lover by the arms. "Come on, Pon, let's go."
Pony tried to wave the woman's hands off her, but only managed to let her empty tankard fly, instead. "'S not time fer bed, s-shrugar lips. 'S time fer this wild stallion ta ride me a buckin' bronco."
Ephiny managed to get the woman to her feet and steady Eponin enough to keep them both from toppling headlong off the raised platform.
"Say goodnight to everyone, Pony," Ephiny said, as she lifted one of the drunken woman's arms and wrapped it securely over her shoulder.
"G'night, Pony," Eponin snickered, as she let the regent lead her to the stairs and guide her away from the festivities.
"See you in the morning, my queen!" Ephiny called, once they were safely down the steps and walking to their shared hut.
Gabrielle glanced at the other queens who were watching her with varied expressions that ranged from intensely amused to utterly exasperated. She just shrugged.
"I don't think there will be much more than sleeping going on in the regent's hut tonight," Gabrielle joked.
"Well, I guess I'll retire, as well," Mashuka hefted her girth out of the chair that had been provided for her in deference to her inability to sit on the floor with the others. "I'm looking forward to another day of entertainment, before we queens have our own fun." She nodded to the others and then turned to Gabrielle and Xena. "Queen Gabrielle, as always, it was a night to remember."
Gabrielle didn't move from the warm cocoon she was wrapped in. "Queen Mashuka, I'm glad you enjoyed our hospitality once again. I'm also pleased that your warriors did so well in their respective events."
Mashuka smiled down at the couple. "Not half as well as your warrior did. Eh, Xena?" She chuckled and her entire body shook.
"I did okay," Xena answered with a smile.
Mashuka laughed aloud and slapped her sides with her pudgy hands. "Warriors!" She pointed a beefy finger at Gabrielle. "Rest well, Queen Gabrielle."
"And you, Queen Mashuka," Gabrielle nodded.
They sat in companionable silence for a while longer, watching the young dancers gyrating around the bonfire and sipping their respective drinks. Xena was content to just wrap her arms around the smaller woman and hold her. Their shared warmth chased away the unseasonable evening chill and the warrior could smell a summer storm on the slight breeze.
"Queen Gabrielle," a woman with tawny eyes set wide in a round face sat down next to her.
"Queen Sherina," Gabrielle nodded to the woman. "I was pleased to see so many of your warriors entered in the archery events. They have remarkable aim."
The woman nodded her straight blond head and smiled warmly. "We pride ourselves on developing the finest longbow archers in the land. I am very pleased by this year's group. They have far surpassed our highest expectations."
"Maitus is especially skilled," Gabrielle added. "She also resembles you in looks."
"Maitus is my younger sister," the woman nodded with a twinkle in her eyes. "I am pleased that you would notice the resemblance, Queen Gabrielle. Many see only her skills with a bow."
"I pride myself on my powers of observation," Gabrielle smirked. "It's one of my many skills." She felt the warm leathers behind her shift with laughter and knew their little joke didn't miss Xena's acute hearing. "So what word do you bring from the western coastal regions?"
"Things are quite prosperous for us," the woman answered. "We cannot complain, I dare say. Although there is always a threat of invasion from our Roman neighbors. Especially now that they have a new ruler."
"Julius Caesar," Xena growled just loud enough for Gabrielle's ears to catch.
"I've had my own dealings with the man," Gabrielle said. "He's a pompous ass."
"Oh, really?" Sherina's interest was piqued. "How do you know of him?"
Gabrielle could tell the woman was being rather condescending toward her, but managed to ignore the rather snide tone. Sherina reminded her of the snobby elitists in Athens who liked to look down their noses at everyone, even if they knew nothing about a person. Gabrielle had experienced that type of behavior first-hand during those weeks she'd stayed at the Academy and plied her trade as a bard.
"We were in Britannia when Caesar's men captured me and hung me on a cross, per his orders," Gabrielle explained. "And then he ordered his men to break my legs. As always, Xena came to my rescue just in the nick of time." She absently patted the warrior's bare knee.
The woman's eyes grew larger than they already were and she gasped. "What did you do to earn his wrath, Queen Gabrielle?"
"Nothing." It was Xena's turn to answer. "Julius Caesar is an arrogant puissant who only believes in his own destiny." Then she smirked. "He also thinks very little of women, except when they suit his…um…purposes." She popped a grape into her mouth and then offered one to the woman in her lap, who leaned forward and managed to nip one of the warrior's fingertips with perfect white teeth. Xena ignored her partner's playful tactic. "You can never trust him to keep his word, nor can you turn your back on him for a single moment."
"Then he truly is a dangerous man," Sherina marveled with a gleam of something akin to intrigue in her eyes.
"I wouldn't be surprised to hear some day that one of his close associates grew tired of his inflated ego and stuck him like the pig he is," Xena said with a wry smirk. "Wish it could be me," she added in a hushed whisper, as she kissed the top of the blond head resting against her chest.
"You know him, as well?" Sherina asked with a raised brow.
"Xena has even more reason to hate him than I do," Gabrielle answered with a wry smirk. "He actually broke her legs after he had her hung on a cross."
"Tsk, tsk," the Amazon queen shook her head in sympathy. "I am sorry to hear that. I watched you compete in the games and did not see that his treatment left any lasting effects."
"Xena has amazing recuperative powers," Gabrielle headed off her partner's reply when she felt the body tense behind her. She knew Xena was only tolerating the woman's attitude to humor her. She patted the bare thigh and this time she let her fingers draw circles on the warm skin. "And she met a woman in Chin who healed her."
"Chin?" Sherina's brow rose into her hairline and her tone became obnoxious. "I don't believe I've heard of that province. Is it to the north?"
"Chin is a land to the east," Gabrielle explained with a tight smile, as her patience ebbed quickly with the woman's tone. "The woman who healed Xena was the wife of one of their emperors and mother to the heir to his father's throne."
"I see," Sherina nodded.
"My Queen," another Amazon approached Sherina and knelt next to the blond queen.
The young woman was gangly, but had a certain grace about her that Gabrielle immediately recognized. The newcomer was one of several Amazons on the dais who was not a queen, but who had the bearing to eventually take up the mask in the future.
"Gwyn-Teir," Sherina glanced from the dark-haired, dark-skinned Amazon newcomer before she returned her attention to Gabrielle and Xena. "Have you met Princess Gwyn-Teir, Queen Gabrielle? She carries my right of caste and will make our people proud when she assumes the throne one day."
Gabrielle nodded at the young woman with the shining gray-blue eyes. "Very nice to meet you, Princess."
"The honor is mine, Queen Gabrielle," the young woman bowed her head to Gabrielle and then smiled. "I have had the honor to hear your stories. They are quite wonderful and fascinating. Do you really travel with the one called the Warrior Princess?"
Gabrielle glanced up at her partner and smirked. "Princess Gwyn-Teir, this is Xena, also known to many as the Warrior Princess."
The young woman's eyes got as round as saucers as she suddenly realized she was in the presence of one of her greatest heroes. She swallowed down the lump in her throat and grinned from ear-to-ear.
"I am truly honored, then," Gwyn-Teir gushed, as she held an arm out and Xena shook it. "I believe we are to compete in the footrace tomorrow, Xena. It will be a great honor to just stand at the starting line with you."
Xena merely smiled. "I'm sure you'll do fine, Princess. You're young. That alone will give you an added advantage over us geezers."
Gwyn-Teir leaned toward the couple with a conspiratorial grin. "We may be the only two there who won't be running that race with a roaring hangover." Then she snickered like a little kid.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance and shrugged. The young woman was probably right, so neither argued her valid point. Xena finished the ale in her mug. Gabrielle took her cue from her partner and finished hers, too.
"Time for us 'geezers' to retire," Gabrielle said as Xena hoisted her to her feet. "It was a pleasure, ladies."
Sherina eyed them, as Xena put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. The look the woman gave Xena said more than words ever could. And then she glanced at Gabrielle and saw the smaller woman snake a protective arm around the warrior's waist.
"If the two of you ever…" Sherina began.
"Not a chance in Tartarus," Xena growled and protectively wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's bare shoulders. "I'm a one-woman kinda gal."
Xena steered her partner toward the steps and took them two at a time. Gabrielle kept up with her partner's longer strides, as Xena practically raced toward the welcome privacy of their hut. When they were safely inside the dark hut, Xena immediately moved to the fireplace and stoked the fire.
"You okay?" Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the kneeling woman's shoulders and squeezed.
"I'm good," Xena said, as she fanned the fire and watched it spark to life, casting a warm glow around the room. She turned in the woman's arms and wrapped her own arms around Gabrielle. "How about you?"
"Mm," Gabrielle made to consider the question thoughtfully, then smirked. "I wanted to kick that woman's butt for coming on to you like that, but…" She shrugged.
Xena pulled Gabrielle closer, until they were sharing the same air. "I'd much rather be here with you."
"Me, too," Gabrielle added.
Their kiss was gentle and exploring at first, but soon turned as heated as the fire behind Xena. The warrior effortlessly rose to her feet, picking the bard up in her arms and depositing Gabrielle on the furs of their bed. She then quickly divested herself of her armor and leathers.
Gabrielle sat up and watched the warrior-her warrior-undress until Xena was standing before her in all her naked glory. It amazed her to have such a perfect specimen of female glory all to herself. And it sometimes threatened to overwhelm her.
"Gorgeous," the bard muttered with utter awe.
"You're a little overdressed, don't you think?" Xena smirked down at the smaller woman.
The warrior leaned forward and grabbed the ties of Gabrielle's top in her teeth. With slow and careful deliberation she used her teeth to loosen the ties enough to lift the top over the bard's head. She tossed it near her armor and leathers, then proceeded to the belt of Gabrielle's skirt.
Gabrielle was enjoying the attention, but her need to feel Xena against her ruled out over her better sense. With impatient hands, she removed her clothing. Once her clothes were shed, she pulled the warrior down on top of her with an impatient growl.
"Oo, I like it rough," Xena growled in return.
Their lovemaking was heated and intense. They tasted and caressed each other with all the love held within their hearts, showing each other exactly how they felt about the other. Their kisses were all-consuming and they were soon lost in the carnal need to meld their souls together.
"Xe…" Gabrielle groaned and panted breathlessly. "Please…"
The warrior was nonplussed by the pleading in her lover's tone. She knew exactly how to please Gabrielle and wanted to show her exactly how much love was bursting from every pore of her being. Slowly and deliberately, Xena drove Gabrielle to the brink.
Strong hands kneaded soft flesh while warm lips explored every inch of Gabrielle's body. Gabrielle felt the world fall away as her entire being centered on Xena's ministrations. Every touch, every caress sent flames of desire shooting through to the very core and back out into every fiber of her being. She was on fire with desire.
And then Xena brought her to the pinnacle of sweet ecstasy and plunged them both over the great chasm. The world around them exploded into a million shards of cosmic dust that suddenly reassembled into two breathless lovers.
And then they were floating on a cloud of Elysian bliss far beyond the heavens themselves.
Xena felt like her entire world centered on the woman in her arms. They were one again-body, mind and soul. It was strange, yet blissful at the same time. Never having experienced anything like it in all her life, the warrior was at a loss as to how to deal with all the feelings and emotions that suddenly threatened to overwhelm her.
Without waiting for the last vestiges of their coupling to abate, Xena plunged right back in for another go. She poured everything into pleasing her lover with all of the vast knowledge she had acquired during her travels. Nothing was taboo as she used her skills to bring them both to the edge of that exquisite abyss once again.
Sweat-slicked bodies shuddered in perfect unison, as they shared a mutual release that rocked them both to the very core. It lasted for an eternity as they held on for dear life and moved together in perfect union. They touched each other's souls. Their hearts beat as one.
In her mind's eye, Xena saw the light of Gabrielle's soul like a beacon in the darkness that surrounded her. She desperately tried to cling to her darkness and wrap it around her like a shroud. But it was no match for the light emanating from the smaller woman joined completely with her. And then Xena was engulfed in a warm glow that cleansed her very soul. It surrounded her and washed over her, touching every fiber, every nerve of her being. She experienced all the love the bard poured into it and knew her own love matched Gabrielle's. The whole experience lasted mere moments and was like nothing she had ever known. It was ethereal. Surreal. It was pure bliss.
And then they were again floating together on a cloud, as they slowly descended back to earth and found themselves returning to their earthly bodies tingling with residual electric energy. They lay there together in a tangle of limbs. Panting. Limp. Spent. Silent, except for their shared breathing and the synchronous beating of their hearts.
"Wha…?" Gabrielle tried to speak, but found she could barely form a coherent thought.
"Still…not…sure…" Xena managed, though she was just as overwhelmed as her lover.
They lay there for almost an entire candlemark, just reveling in the afterglow of that incredible experience. Neither woman spoke, neither moved. They just lay there, until Gabrielle finally shifted slightly and managed to break the spell.
"Xena?" The bard finally said, as she blew a lock of dark hair away from her nose.
"I don't know," was the warrior's stilted answer.
"You've had more…um…experience than I have," Gabrielle continued. "Has that…ever…"
"Never," Xena responded. "Nothing comes even remotely close to what just happened."
"Even when you…um…were with Ares?" Gabrielle prodded further.
Xena snorted. "Ares was never interested in pleasing anyone but himself. So, no."
Xena shifted until she was lying next to Gabrielle with her head propped on her hand. "The only thing Borias and I shared was Solon. Otherwise, we took what we could from each other and gave very little in return." She brushed the bangs back from Gabrielle's eyes. "You just gave me a gift more precious than anything even the gods could conjure."
"Tastes like dirt in comparison." Xena smirked.
Gabrielle smiled broadly. "I guess that describes it best. Because I don't know what just happened, but it was…Amazing doesn't even come close to what I just experienced. Remarkable pales in comparison. I don't even think the gods would understand what we just experienced."
"The Elysian Fields sure can't hold a candle to it," Xena added with a wink.
Gabrielle absently ran her fingers along Xena's bare hip and felt the warrior's skin shiver at her touch. She gazed into the blue eyes watching her intently and then glanced at the swollen lips just inches from her own. She licked her own lips and wanted nothing more than to kiss them again. She just couldn't get enough.
With a firm but gentle hand, Gabrielle pushed Xena onto her back and proceeded with her own assault on the warrior's body. She put everything she had learned into her ministrations, as she took her lover to the same plain they had left only moments before. It was as exquisite as before and more.
Xena was right. It wasn't ambrosia at all. Ambrosia paled miserably in comparison to what they experienced together. The gods themselves could never know such ecstasy, Gabrielle was sure of it. Why else would the immortals always clamor for a taste of mortal existence? Why else would they deign to join with those they treated like dogs?
Nothing could have prepared either woman for the sudden and unexpected release that seized them both in that moment. The world suddenly spun completely out of control and a wave of pure ecstasy engulfed them both. Wave after exquisite wave rolled over them both, as they gave into the overwhelming sensations and rode the tide of their mutual passion.
When the warrior finally collapsed against the furs, panting heavily from her efforts, she was completely spent. She barely managed to move her arm in order to allow Gabrielle to crawl into the nook of her shoulder. Xena felt the bard's slow and deliberate movements, as Gabrielle finally made her way into her favorite spot.
"Is this normal?" The bard asked in low purr.
"Not that I know of," Xena managed to utter, as sank down into the arms of sleep. "Thank…you, love."
"Yer welcome," Gabrielle settled her head onto a warm shoulder with a soft sigh. "'Night, Xe."
"'Night, love," Xena said as she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
"Ignesia," Rena panted, as she tried to keep up with the taller Amazon's longer strides.
Ignesia practically dragged the redhead through the forest at a pace that would have put a good lather on even the heartiest horse. They'd been traveling for the better part of two candlemarks and were almost to their destination. Her sexual ardor temporarily sated by Rena's ardor back in the village, Ignesia was charged to begin the ceremony that would set her plans into motion.
"Almost there," Ignesia answered the woman's unspoken question.
They were deep in the heart of the woods that set the northern boundary for her people's lands. That's where she had told the Northern Amazons to await her arrival. They had set up camp several leagues farther north in an effort to remain hidden from any scouts who happened to patrol those woods. Ignesia made sure the Northern Amazons stayed well hidden and had even volunteered to lead the northern patrols to ensure no one found out about them. She had chosen her most loyal followers to make up the patrols, despite Solari's protestations to the contrary.
Ignesia saw a soft glow of torchlight ahead and slowed her pace. She kept a firm hold on Rena's arm as they approached the small clearing. It was the perfect place for her to meet up with Cyane and her retinue of advisors. The Northern Amazon queen was her main contact and was very impatient to finally put their plans into motion. But she was also very superstitious and wanted her priestesses to sanction their endeavors.
Ignesia broke through the underbrush and stopped at the edge of the clearing, pulling Rena up next to her.
"What's going on?" Rena's eyes grew large and round at the sight before her.
Twenty leather-clad women with antlers on their heads stood on the other side of the open space. The women wore winter leathers with long tunics that hung to their knees. The front of each woman's tunic was decorated with a unique design and their antlers were from a variety of different animals. The blond woman at the center of the group stepped forward and eyed the newcomers with open suspicion.
"Ignesia," the blond glanced at Rena.
"Cyane," Ignesia acknowledged the queen's presence with a waist-deep bow and pulled her companion down with her. As they straightened, Ignesia continued, "I have what you need for your ceremony."
Ignesia turned a menacing smile on Rena that sent a shiver of dread down the smaller redhead's spine. Ignesia then returned her attention to the group of women and watched someone else step forward to stand next to the queen. Ignesia yanked Rena forward with her until they were both standing in front of the women. The shorter of the two Northern Amazons eyed Rena with a mixture of anticipation and skepticism.
"Is this the sacrifice?" The woman next to the queen asked.
Ignesia shoved Rena toward the elaborately-decorated woman. Colored beads and bones decorated the shorter woman's outfit. A skull the size of a small baby's dangled from a leather thong around the woman's neck. Ignesia saw realization register in Rena's eyes right before four women stepped forward at a silent signal from the shamaness and grabbed Rena's arms and legs. The women lifted a struggling Rena into the air and carried her over to a flat stone situated behind the others.
"NOOOO!!!" Rena screamed until a thick strip of leather was shoved into her mouth and tied firmly.
The Northern Amazons began chanting in a low, hushed murmur, as the four women firmly held Rena on top of the cold slab. The cadence of the chant remained the same, but the volume soon grew, as several of the women writhed and danced around the boulder in eerie syncopation.
Ignesia looked on with rapt attention, as the two Northern Amazons before her slowly walked toward the sacrificial altar. The shorter of the two, who she knew was their shamaness, pulled a long, curved dagger from beneath her tunic and held it up high above her head with a loud yell.
"I call upon the spirits to guide my hand and make my aim true!" The shamaness said as she stopped in front of the altar.
Rena's eyes widened and she struggled valiantly all the harder to free herself from the firm, unyielding hands grapsing her. Her screams were muffled by the thick leather strap tied around her mouth, but scream she did. She knew what was going to happen and so did Ignesia. Rena's eyes met Ignesia's and pleaded silently for help from her Thracian Amazon sister. But Rena soon realized the futility of her silent request. The look in Ignesia's eyes told her that the woman would allow the Northern Amazons to do anything they thought necessary in order to carry out her plans.
Ignesia moved into the circle of dancing Amazons and took her place at Rena's head. She looked down into the frightened eyes of the woman who had given her carnal pleasure only a few short candlemarks ago. A pang of guilt hit her, but she quickly pushed it aside and concentrated on the goal in sight now. The Northern Amazons would see that her wishes were carried out as soon as they performed their ritual. It was only a matter of time now and the Usurper would fall, as would the bitch that traveled with her.
"Don't worry, sister," Ignesia said, as she gently stroked Rena's pale cheek. "Soon you will be dancing with our sisters in the eternal hunting grounds. Your sacrifice will go down in the annals of history as one of the greatest deeds our sisters have ever known. We will sing of your heroic sacrifice until we meet again in the afterlife." She bent forward and kissed the still-struggling woman's forehead.
Ignesia's gaze lifted and took in the strange trancelike demeanor of the women around her. They were all chanting now. The torches flickered eerily and cast strange shadows around them. Ignesia could feel her own heart beating in time to the chant that was gaining strength and growing louder.
The shamaness held the dagger high overhead and spoke in a clear voice that rang out over the loud chanting. "Spirits! Guide my hand and walk with me on my journey to the Land of Our Mothers! Give me strength to see and accept the visions that you would show me! Breathe the breath of life into my being as I offer this creature and use her essence to travel into your bosom!"
And with that she plunged the dagger into Rena's chest. Ignesia watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as her sister writhed in agony and eventually stilled. The shamaness extracted the dagger and plunged her hand into the bloody opening she'd created. Then she yanked her hand out and held up Rena's still-beating heart for all to see. The chanting stopped and the dancers stilled. A hush fell over the clearing, broken only by the crackle of the torches.
One of the women stepped forward with a wooden bowl in her hands and her head bowed. The shamaness deposited the heart in the bowl and returned her attention to the body before her. She plunged her hand into the open cavity again and produced another bloody organ. Another woman stepped forward with a wooden bowl in her hands as well and the shamaness repeated the process.
Ignesia could not tear her eyes away from the bloody scene as the shamaness cleared out Rena's entire body of its vital organs, each one deposited into a separate bowl until each Amazon held a bowl. Then the shamaness handed Ignesia a bowl that contained a dark-red organ. The bowl was warm in her hands and smelled of fresh blood.
"My sisters!" The shamaness announced, as she held up the bowl with the heart in it. "You will be my link to the world of the living!" Each woman held up her bowl and Ignesia followed their lead. "Your strength will guide me back from my journey!"
"Go with the spirits!" The women all said in unison.
They then lifted their bowls to their lips and drank the blood. In unison, they dropped their bowls to the earth and began to chant again. This chant was much different than the first chant. It was more spiritual-more guttural-and took on a more urgent cadence.
When the sharp tang of the blood hit her nostrils, Ignesia felt nausea overwhelm her. She was only able to sip a tiny bit of the blood before she dropped the bowl to the ground with the others. A strange feeling of euphoria suddenly came over her and she felt the blood rush through her veins with the tempo of the chant. Her head pounded and she watched the world tilt before she was on the ground and all was completely still. She didn't fight the darkness that suddenly washed over her. She just let herself sink into the oblivion that welcomed her.
Gabrielle gasped and sat bolt upright with her fist held tightly to her bare chest. Strong arms quickly engulfed her, and she sank gratefully into the embrace, but her heart continued to pound wildly in her chest. Each beat seemed to bring with it a surge of energy and a blinding stab of pain.
"What is it?" Xena's voice was raspy with sleep. "Gabrielle?"
The room was dark, except for a few glowing embers that cast an eerie reddish tint around them. Gabrielle breathed in deeply and let the breath out slowly in an effort to calm herself enough to speak. The last vestiges of the nightmare were still fresh in her mind and seemed to stay with her, even though she was now fully awake.
"I…" the bard began and then felt a sudden rush of bile rise in her throat. "Argh!" She groaned loudly and broke free of Xena's hold, then frantically scrambled over to the side of the bed.
She made it to the edge in time to heave onto the floor. Her entire body shook violently and she lost herself momentarily to the waves of nausea that washed over her. Her body continued its rebellion until dry heaves wracked her.
Xena patiently rubbed her lover's bare back, as she watched Gabrielle with growing concern. Her lover's sudden illness was alarming, to say the least, and Xena could only silently wrack her brain for a reason behind it. They had both shared a trencher of venison stew and a loaf of freshly-baked brown bread at the evening meal, so that couldn't be the reason for the sudden illness. Xena felt perfectly fine. She also knew they'd been sleeping peacefully in each other's arms after their exhaustive lovemaking.
When it appeared that the worst of the nausea was finally past, Xena waited a few moments longer to make sure. Then her lover collapsed in a boneless heap beside her. Xena gently stroked Gabrielle's side and hip and wondered briefly if a conversation with the gods wasn't in order.
"You okay?" Xena said when Gabrielle didn't speak.
"Ungh," the bard groaned blearily.
"What happened?" Xena asked with concern. "Talk to me, Gabrielle."
"Water first," the bard croaked softly.
Xena scooted to her side of the bed, grabbed the pitcher off the small table and poured water into a small cup. She returned to the bard's side and gently lifted Gabrielle into her arms.
"Here," Xena said as she lifted the cup to the bard's lips.
Gabrielle finished the cup's contents in three huge gulps, the last of which she swished around in her mouth until she could no longer taste the bile still lingering there.
"Ugh," she groaned at last. Her bleary eyes met Xena's and she saw the concern in their blue depths. "I had a really bad dream."
"Nightmare?" A dark brow lifted.
Gabrielle nodded. "Weird, too."
Silence reigned in the small cabin, as the glowing embers continued to cast eerie shadows on the walls. Gabrielle just lay there for a long while, as she collected her thoughts. The nightmare was already quickly fading, and she didn't know if she could really describe it all before it faded from her consciousness altogether.
"I was suddenly pulled into the forest," she said in a quiet voice that quivered slightly. The bard took a deep breath and continued. "It was dark, really dark. And then I saw a light. In an instant I was standing in a clearing with several Amazons. I didn't recognize any of them. They all wore strange ceremonial dress, antlers on their heads and winter leathers, as they stood beside a large boulder. And then…"
Xena's brow furrowed at the woman's words. "Winter leathers and antlers?" She repeated. "Sounds like Northern Amazons to me." She kissed Gabrielle's bare shoulder and wrapped protective arms around the bard. "Then what happened?"
"I'm not sure," Gabrielle shivered unconsciously at the fading memory. "They were all chanting and then…" She swallowed down the bile that suddenly rose in her throat. "They all fell to the ground and I saw…" She shook her head in an effort to dispel the graphic vision.
Xena moved in closer and spooned her body against the bard's, offering her silent support. She had no idea what Gabrielle's nightmare meant, but the woman in her arms was definitely affected by the intensity of it.
"They all had bowls in their hands," Gabrielle continued in a small voice. "There was a body on the boulder."
Gabrielle nodded. "I recognized her. She's one of the women from our village. Her name is Rena." She swallowed down another wave of nausea. "I saw her leave with Ignesia after…"
Xena leaned up on her elbow and looked down at Gabrielle with deep concern. The bard's face was lined with tension and a frown creased her otherwise worry-free brow.
"I saw them," Xena said. "Tried to ignore what they were doing, but they seemed not to care if anyone was watching. When they were done, they took off. I thought nothing of it."
"Ignesia was there," Gabrielle added barely above a whisper. "She was one of the women lying on the ground."
"Okay," Xena said. "So then what happened?"
"Then I wasn't there anymore," Gabrielle said as she blew out a frustrated breath. "I was somewhere else altogether. It was lighter, but…weird? Everything was so vivid, so sharp-creepy, like in a strange painting. And then I turned and saw…" She shook her head. "A skull hung from a leather thong around her neck and her antlers were different from the others. She looked right at me, and then she was suddenly standing right in front of me. She glared at me and grabbed my throat." Gabrielle lifted a hand to her throat and winced. "It was so real."
Xena peered down at Gabrielle's throat. The last vestiges of faint red fingerprints were barely visible on the woman's skin. Alarm bells suddenly went off in the warrior's head as the full impact of the bard's words hit her.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, as she lifted the woman into a sitting position and gazed deeply into her eyes. "Tell me what you saw."
"She was choking me and I…" Gabrielle considered what she'd done in the dream. "I punched her in the face, I think. Clobbered her hard enough to give her a bloody nose. She jerked away and…" Gabrielle shook her head.
A grin broke out on the warrior's face. "And?"
"She disappeared and reappeared beside me," Gabrielle said. "Then she grabbed my chest, no…" She glanced down at her left breast and then back up into Xena's eyes. "She tried to put her hand right through my chest."
"It was real," Xena said as she eyed the purpling mark just below Gabrielle's left breast.
"It…It was?" Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears. "How…?"
"You somehow got caught up in her vision walk," Xena explained. "The only person I know who can pass from this existence into the next is a fully-trained shamaness, like Alti."
"Alti?" Gabrielle considered the name for a moment. "That name sounds vaguely familiar. Why?"
"She was the shamaness who helped me…um…kill the Amazon queens," Xena said. "It was her idea to trap them in the trees and skewer them on the branches. She wanted to use their blood-especially Cyane's blood-for one of her sick rituals. Cyane had spiritual powers that Alti needed to harness for her own ends. She was big on blood ceremonies, vision walks and harnessing fear."
Gabrielle shuddered. "I think I remember her. She had dark eyes and hair, and wore antlers similar to the ones worn by the woman in my…er…dream."
"Alti was evil incarnate," Xena sneered. "May she rot in the bowels of Tartarus for what she made me do for her."
"It wasn't Alti, though," Gabrielle shook her head. "The woman who attacked me wasn't Alti. This woman was smaller, slighter, and she had light-brown hair. Her eyes were different, too. Lighter. The color of violets in bloom."
"That's a good sign, at least," Xena breathed out an exasperated sigh. "I really don't want to deal with Alti just now. We have enough going on here already."
"What about the shamaness I saw in my dream, Xena?" Gabrielle asked. "And how did I get sucked in there with her?"
"First of all," Xena took the woman's hands into her own. "I don't think it was a dream. I think it was a vision. And I have no idea how you ended up there with her. As far as I know, the only way for you to walk a vision quest is for you to drink the blood of a fresh kill during a ritual. Sounds like the women you saw at first-the ones with bowls of blood near them-were part of the ritual."
"All I had to drink was cider, Xena," Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears. "There's no way that would cause this to happen, is there?"
"No clue," Xena answered, as she squeezed the hands in hers. "Maybe this weirdness you've been experiencing lately has something to do with what happened. Maybe it's all connected."
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hands one last time, hopped off the bed and quickly donned her leathers and armor.
"Xena?" Gabrielle glanced out the window and then back at the warrior, who was pulling on a wrist bracer. "Where do you think you're going? It's the middle of the night." She jumped from the bed and helped Xena tie the bracer.
"I'm gonna get to the bottom of this," Xena answered with conviction. "It's time I had a little chat with a certain someone."
Gabrielle glanced up from the bracer she was tying. "And why can't you just call on-I'm assuming you're gonna call on Ares, right? Why can't you just…"
"Can't," Xena answered before the bard could continue. "He won't step foot inside the village because the Amazons…"
"Are Artemis' people," Gabrielle finished for her. "We're under her protection."
"We really need to stop…"
"…finishing each other's sentences?" Gabrielle glanced up again and caught the raised-brow look.
"You'd better put on some clothes," Xena ogled the bard's body. "Ephiny is on her way over here and…" She raised her brows several times. "You're a little under-dressed for visitors, love. I'll be back as soon as I get some answers, even if I have to chop him into little pieces and feed them to his damned dog to get them," she finished the last by shoving her sword into the scabbard at her back. "I may just start with a certain appendage that he values so much." She smirked.
Xena pulled Gabrielle into a hug, then kissed her deeply. When they finally broke apart again it was to the sound of a light tap on the door.
"Hang on, Eph!" Xena called and eyed her lover with a knowing look.
Gabrielle quickly grabbed the shift she'd thrown over the back of a chair and donned it. Xena then opened the door and waved a hand inside.
The regent stepped into the hut with a confused look from the fully-clothed warrior to her semi-clothed queen.
"Going somewhere, Xena?" Ephiny commented, when the warrior backed into the doorway.
"Gabrielle will explain," Xena answered and then pulled the door closed behind her.
Ephiny stood there for a moment with a look of utter confusion. She glanced around the cabin and noticed that the fire had burned down to lowly embers. Then she took in the sight of something on the floor. Her gaze met Gabrielle's.
"Well?" Ephiny eyed Gabrielle with a mixture of curiosity and expectancy.
"First, tell me why you're here," Gabrielle shot back with a raised brow. "It's the middle of the night, Eph. Shouldn't you be in bed with…um…well, you know."
"I was in bed with…um…you know," Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest. "But then I got a little midnight craving and decided to head over to the meal hut for a snack." A blond brow rose on her features. "That's when I heard the commotion over here and decided to investigate."
"Commotion?" Gabrielle was confused now. "What commotion?"
"Not sure," Ephiny shrugged. "I heard a high-pitched scream and then it sounded like something crashed against your outside wall."
Gabrielle padded over to the window and looked outside. All was quiet, except for the incessant sounds of the crickets. Not completely satisfied with her quick glance out the window, Gabrielle padded over to the door and walked outside in her bare feet. There was a slight chill in the air, but it wasn't enough for her to run back inside for her boots.
"Gabirelle!" Ephiny hissed, as she followed the woman outside. "What are you doing out here dressed like that?"
"What?" Gabrielle hissed back. "You think my green top and skirt offer more coverage than my shift?" She plucked at the fabric.
Gabrielle walked around the perimeter of the hut and surveyed the ground. She had no idea what she was looking for but figured she'd know it when she saw it. She couldn't see very much in the inky darkness. The moon had already set and the stars didn't offer much light to see by.
"What exactly are you looking for out here?" Ephiny said from right beside her. "And why is there vomit on the floor next to your bed? Are you okay?"
Gabrielle jumped slightly, but managed to quickly recover from her startled reaction. "Shh."
"Why?" Ephiny whispered loudly.
"Do you mind?" Gabrielle quickly finished her assessment and climbed back onto the porch. "I'm trying to work here."
She'd stepped in something warm and sticky with one bare foot and glanced down at it. Gabrielle sucked in a breath when she noticed that her pale foot was covered in something dark. She couldn't tell what it was, even in the minimal light coming through the open door to the hut.
"What's that?" Ephiny verbalized the question in Gabrielle's mind.
"Not sure," Gabrielle answered, as she stepped closer to the door and lifted her foot to get a better look.
"Blood," Gabrielle quickly cut in, as a shiver of dread raced down her spine. "I stepped in it over there." She pointed to the side of the hut that faced the village.
Ephiny went inside and returned with the pitcher of water. She then poured some of the water over Gabrielle's upraised foot. With the blood washed away, Gabrielle walked inside the hut and quickly dressed in her everyday wear. She was just donning her boots when Ephiny stepped into the doorway holding a large black thing dangling from one hand.
"What the…??" Gabrielle stopped what she was doing to look more closely at the dangling object.
"It's a raven," Ephiny eyed the rather large bird dangling from the tip of the wing she was holding. "I found it near your window. Looks like it tried to fly through the window but missed and hit the outside wall, instead. The impact broke its neck and there was a pool of blood running from its mouth. That's probably what you stepped in."
"Why didn't we see it when we walked past there, then?" Gabrielle shot a look of confusion to the woman.
"There's a small bush just below the window and to one side," Ephiny answered. "It was caught in the bush and I had to wrestle it out."
"It's dead then?" Gabrielle shuddered again.
"Yep," Ephiny said. "Probably died the instant it hit the wall. Not sure why it would try to fly through your window, though. We don't get many birds trying to do that around here. And your window was covered. It's not like it thought it could fly into the hut." She looked distastefully at the creature. "Not a good omen, either way."
"What do you mean?"
"According to legend, ravens are harbingers of death," Ephiny tossed the carcass off the porch. "I'll send someone by later to clean up the mess and bury that thing." She walked inside the hut, wiping her hands on her leather skirt with disgust. "Can't believe I touched it."
"Why don't you use the cake of soap in our washroom and some of that water in the pitcher to wash your hands," Gabrielle suggested. "In the meantime, I'll make us some tea."
The two women went about their tasks with equal focus. Gabrielle couldn't help wondering why a raven would try to fly through the covered window of their hut and when the creature had actually tried to do it. She finally came to the conclusion that it was probably about the same time she woke up from the nightmare she'd been having. That brought another shudder, but she just tucked the thought away and went about her task.
"ARES!!!" Xena shouted at the top of her lungs once she was safely away from prying ears and eyes. "ARES!!! I KNOW YOU'RE OUT HERE SOMEWHERE!!! SHOW YOURSELF, YOU SPINELESS…"
She waited and waited for a response. Nothing moved in the forest around her. There was no bird song and not a single cricket chirped anywhere nearby, nor were there the customary night noises that were usually present on a calm summer's night. It was deathly still and eerily quiet all around her.
"He can't come," Aphrodite was suddenly standing behind the warrior, who spun around at the sound of the goddess' voice.
Aphrodite was bathed in a soft, pink glow that illuminated them both. The glow extended a few paces in all directions, but not far enough to light up the forest completely.
"And why not?" Xena ground out between clenched teeth. She wasn't accustomed to having the Goddess of Love pop in on her, so her senses weren't attuned to anything but Ares' presence. "Where is he?"
"He was sent away," Aphrodite said with a dour look. "Daddy was furious when Artie and Athena told him about what Ares tried to do to the little one. So, Daddy sent Ares to a place where he can't get into any trouble until after you two babes have lived out your lives and moved on. He said it was the least he could do."
"Zeus banished his own son because of us?" Xena gave the goddess an incredulous look that turned into a full-fledged smile. "Seriously?"
Aphrodite held up a hand. "Hey, I'm so totally not, like, thrilled about it. Ares is my brother, ya know? He doesn't deserve to be thrown aside like yesterday's garbage."
Xena sobered instantly. "Enough about Ares," she said, as she crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't give a rat's ass about that…"
"Zip the lip, warrior-babe," Aphrodite held up a staying hand. "I'm here 'cause you called and the Gabster is, like, a friend. So?"
Xena's brow hiked, but she decided not to comment on the goddess' last words. She knew the gods had no idea what friendship and love were all about, but maybe, just maybe, Aphrodite was a little different. After all, she was the Goddess of Love. So, Xena decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
"Did Ares leave a residual mark on Gabrielle?" Xena just dove right in.
"Residual mark?" Aphrodite considered that for a moment. "No, I don't think that's possible at this point. He doesn't…um…He isn't…Erg!…How can I put this?" She gazed up at the inky canopy above for a moment and then met Xena's expectant gaze. "Ares doesn't have it in him right now. So, the answer is no."
"Could he have put a curse or something like it on an object, then?" Xena continued.
Aphrodite considered that a moment. "Do you mean, like, the dagger of Helios? That kind of curse?"
"Similar, yes," Xena nodded. "Is it possible for you guys to put a curse or spell or something on an object that would cause a mortal to do crazy things?"
Aphrodite shook her head and her blond curls flounced around her face. "Not possible. Nope."
"What about the dagger of Helios, then?" Xena decided to try a different tact.
"Not one of ours," Aphrodite answered. "Seriously, none of us can, like, even imagine how that one popped into existence. Coulda been an ancient sorceress. Probably one of Daddy's old flames," she scoffed, rolled her eyes and absently flicked a blond curl. "He always was one to piss off the ladies. Not sure how he manages to keep the Crones in line, though. Those three seem to love him to pieces. The Fates, too."
"What about demons?" Xena ignored the jibe and continued. "Are there any here in Greece?"
"Shaaaa, as if," the goddess scoffed. "They know we don't put up with their kind on our turf. Daddy caught one trying to hone in on our eastern border once and fried the little pipsqueak with one intsy little spark. That spark dried up the Pelonios River and took out an entire forest. All that's left now is a little patch of green near the beach. A beach I love to frequent, I might add." She gave the warrior a playful wink.
"Okay, what about Dahak?" Xena knew she was getting nowhere fast, but decided one more question couldn't hurt. "He could be considered a demon."
"Urgh!" The goddess actually cringed at the name. "Not a nice guy, let me tell ya. He makes Ares look like the poster child for love and peace."
"He snuck up on us and managed to weasel his way into earning a following before we could, like, catch him," Aphrodite scowled. "Daddy tried to kick his butt back where it belongs, but…"
"But?" Xena prodded when the goddess didn't immediately continue.
Aphrodite huffed. "He's gained strength and his followers are multiplying like rabbits."
"Even with Hope dead?" Xena couldn't believe her ears.
"Hope?" Aphrodite was bewildered by the name.
"That's what Gabrielle named the child Dahak…planted inside her." It was Xena's turn to blow out an exasperated breath.
"Seriously? She named that little she-demon?" Aphrodite dropped her hands to her hips and scowled. "Thought she of all mortals would know better than to name the offspring of evil incarnate. Naming it gives it strength, ya know? That's why those folks down in Indus have so much trouble with the little buggers. Idiots keep naming them and giving them power."
"Gabrielle didn't know Hope was evil until…after," Xena defended her partner's error in judgment. "So what happened to Dahak after Hope died?"
"Didn't seem to phase him a bit," Aphrodite said. "He's still chalkin' up followers and they're still holding secret rituals all over the countryside. Daddy's having fits about the whole mess. Says he should just smoke the demon out and blow Dahak to pieces, like he did with that other pipsqueak."
"Can he do that?"
"Not sure," the goddess shook her head. "Dahak might actually be too powerful for any of us to handle at this point. It would take a much stronger force to defeat the big ugly." The goddess twirled a lock of hair around her finger. "But Hercules is on the case, so I'm sure he'll come up with something to put the beast back in its cage."
"Hercules is taking on Dahak?" Xena tried to wrap her mind around that revelation. "Alone?"
"Yep," Aphrodite nodded. "Little bro'll figure out what makes the beast tick." Then a gleam came into her eyes. "Why all the 4-1-1, warrior-babe?"
"What's with all the questions?" Aphrodite clarified.
"Oh," Xena said. "There's something going on with Gabrielle and I'm trying to figure out if one of you is responsible or if it's something altogether unrelated."
"What's up with the Gabster?" Aphrodite's demeanor actually reflected genuine concern. "Is she sick again? Are you two…um…having…" She smirked, wagged a finger and wiggled her eyebrows several times, "…problems in the sack?"
"Noooooo," Xena couldn't help the blush that suffused her cheeks.
"Okaaaaaay, so what gives?"
"Strange things have been happening to her lately," Xena said after she cleared her throat. "Really strange things."
"Demonic strange? Or just your bargain-basement everyday kinda regular strange?" Aphrodite suddenly had a pair of eyeglasses in her hand, which she perched on her nose. "It's hard tellin' with you two. One never knows what to expect." She cocked a hip. "Then again, big bro isn't around to harass you, so…"
A thin chain dangled down one cheek and she looked like a scholar, except for all the frothy clothing and curly blond hair. She snapped her fingers and a pink lounge chair appeared, as well as a small pink divan and a Tiffany lamp that cast a soft golden glow around the quiet forest.
"I really don't know," Xena answered, as she eyed the goddess' new look and just shook her head. "Could be most anything."
"Sit, sit, sit. I'm tired of craning my neck to see your face," Aphrodite stretched out on the lounge chair and waved Xena to the divan. "So, exactly what kinds of things are we talking here?"
The warrior hesitated a moment, before taking a seat. "She picked up a pair of weapons I had made for her and knew how to use them," Xena explained matter-of-factly. "Then she picked up a sword and went berserk against a bunch of guys who attacked us during a picnic."
"Awww, you took Gabbie on a picnic? How romantic," the goddess gushed with a huge grin. "Didn't know ya had it in ya, champ. Was it romantic? Did you…"
"Focus, Aphrodite," Xena growled and then cleared her throat again. "When she woke up three days later, Gabrielle didn't remember what she'd done or anything that had happened for six moons prior to the picnic. Then I left to fetch the healer and when we returned, Gabrielle was having a strange convulsive fit. She finally woke up from that and remembered everything, except the fight. And then there's the incredible, mindblowing…um…"
"Sex?" Aphrodite zeroed in on that like a bat to bugs. "Oooo, share what that's been like," she actually clapped her hands together several times and grinned from ear to ear in anticipation. "I want all the juicy details. Don't leave anything out."
Xena blew out another exasperated breath and just girded herself. "It's like we're climbing inside each other and sharing the same skin-maybe even the same soul. I don't know how else to explain it."
Aphrodite's expression fell. "You're definitely not the bard in the family, Tau Delta Delta."
"Tau Delta Delta?"
"Tall-dark-and-deadly," Aphrodite smirked and adjusted her specks with a flourish. "Or would you prefer warrior-babe?"
"It's just Xena," the warrior actually rolled her eyes.
"Oooookay," Aphrodite nodded sagely. "So, you two are having rockin' sex and this alarms you…why, exactly?"
"It's not…It doesn't feel…It feels too…erm…" Xena slapped a hand to her eyes and trailed it down her face, as she leaned forward and rested her arms on her knees. "Just trust me when I tell you it's not normal, okay?"
"Abnormal sex, mmhm," the goddess nodded, as she popped in a quill and scroll and began making notes. "Go on."
"Then there was the dream she had tonight," Xena managed to continue without laughing at the goddess' antics. "Actually, I think it was more of a vision."
"Gabs is having visions?" The goddess rounded on the warrior and confronted her. "Why didn't you tell me this right off the bat?"
"Is this the first vision she's had? Does she have them often? Have you ever seen her have one?" The goddess rattled off the questions in rapid-fire succession. "What are the visions about? Who is in them? When do they occur? Are they always at night or does she have them during the daytime, too?"
"I…I'm not sure," Xena managed to say, as the goddess stared at her with an expectant look in her blue eyes. "She has dreams and nightmares, but…"
"How do you know it wasn't just a nightmare, then?"
"She told me about it," Xena answered. "Said she was pulled into a clearing with a bunch of Amazons and then she suddenly jumped into someone else's vision quest. I'm fairly certain the woman was a shamaness. At least that's what I deduced from the description Gabrielle gave me. The woman tried to choke her and then tried to grab her heart. I think she wanted to kill her."
"Then what happened?"
"Gabrielle woke up," Xena shrugged.
"Just like that?"
"Yes," the warrior nodded. "Then she threw up all over the floor next to our bed."
"Ew!" Aphrodite removed the glasses and scrunched her face. "Totally gross."
The goddess stood up and started pacing in front of the lounge chair, as she thoughtfully considered what was going on with her mortal friend. Xena watched Aphrodite move back and forth several times, until she'd finally had enough.
"You have no idea what's going on with Gabrielle, do you?" Xena finally interrupted the goddess' pacing.
Aphrodite turned to face her with the ridiculous specks back on her nose and the small chain dangling against her cheek. Xena managed to keep a straight face, but was hard-pressed to do so.
"I…" Aphrodite held up a finger, as if she were going to say more. "I'll get back to you on that."
Before Xena could reply, Aphrodite and her furniture disappeared in a shower of glowing and shimmering hearts and sparkles that illuminated the forest for a moment and then winked out. Xena managed to stand up before the goddess vanished and just stood there for another moment, as she tried to reason through what had just happened. Then she shrugged and started back toward the village. The forest around her suddenly came alive and she was able to hear the usual night sounds again. She just kept right on walking, as if she hadn't heard a thing.
Gabrielle threw the last of the soiled cloths into the wooden bucket and carried everything to the door. She set the bucket outside and saw one of the younger Amazon women passing by.
"Hey there, Cherise," Gabrielle waved to the young woman.
"My Queen," the young woman altered her course and walked up onto the porch. "May I dispose of that for you?"
"I'd really appreciate it if you would," Gabrielle said, as she handed the bucket over to the woman. "You probably want to hold your nose while you're carrying it, though."
Cherise glanced down at the bucket and then at her queen. "I'll take care of this, right away, My Queen."
"Thank you, Cherise," Gabrielle smiled warmly at the young woman and received a smile in return.
Gabrielle stepped back inside the hut, closed the door behind her and leaned against it with a tired sigh. After she and Ephiny had shared a pot of tea together and discussed the night's activities, Gabriele had suddenly realized there was a very rancid smell emanating from the far side of the room. Quickly ushering Ephiny out of the hut with a promise to join her for the morning meal, Gabrielle filled a bucket with water and set it on the fire. She then proceeded to clean the floor on her side of the bed.
A full candlemark and an entire cake of stringent soap later, Gabrielle was finally able to rid the hut of the smell. She now leaned tiredly against the rough wooden door, glad that the chore was complete and wanting nothing more than to crawl back into the bed in front of her. She ran a tired hand through her disheveled hair and sighed as she crossed the room to the washroom. Two full buckets of water sat on the floor near the fire. She glanced at them, then decided to make good use of them, rather than give in to her desire for more sleep.
With purposeful movements, Gabrielle put both buckets over the fire to heat. She then grabbed two empty buckets near the door and headed outside to fill them from the rain barrel just off the porch. She hauled the full-to-overflowing buckets into the hut and added them to the fire to heat.
Half a candlemark later, Gabrielle lowered herself into a tub full of steaming water and sighed audibly in relief. She scrubbed away the grit from her hair and body, then just sat on the small bench to soak away the tension knotted between her shoulder blades. She closed her eyes and let the heartbeats tick by without a thought to what the day would bring.
"I know you're there," Gabrielle said quietly.
"I'm here," Xena said, as she leaned against the door jam and just watched her partner for a few more heartbeats.
"How'd it go?" Gabrielle's brow quirked, but the rest of her remained perfectly still. "Did he show up?"
Xena shrugged and then realized the woman couldn't see that response. "It went."
"Did you talk to Ares?"
Gabrielle's eyes shot open and she gazed at the tall woman leaning casually in the doorway with a lazy grin on her face. "Why were you gone so long if…"
"Aphrodite showed up," Xena cut her off.
"Dite was there?" Gabrielle shot her a confused look.
Xena nodded. "Yep. Said Zeus banished Ares to…Well, she didn't really say where he went, but he won't be bothering us anymore."
"That's something, anyway," Gabrielle let her eyes drift closed again. "What else did she say? You were gone quite a while. You two must have had quite the conversation."
"Well, the basic gist is that Olympus isn't responsible for what's been happening to you," Xena answered, as she pushed off the door jam and quickly divested herself of her clothing. She waded into the tub, careful not to make waves on the calm surface, as she scooted in behind the smaller woman and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. "Aphrodite has no idea what's going on."
"Great," Gabrielle the bard relaxed against her human pillow and enjoyed the feel of Xena's body against hers. "So we're back to square one, then?"
"Apparently," Xena gently stroked the firm muscles of Gabrielle's stomach and blew out a frustrated breath. "I'm really tired of it all."
Gabrielle nudged a bare shoulder with her chin. "I'm just tired."
"Tired enough to bow out of the games today?" Xena shifted the woman in her arms until Gabrielle was sitting sideways against her with her head on Xena's shoulder. The warrior looked at the sleepy woman in her arms, as she stroked a downy cheek. "You feeling any better?"
"I'm fine," Gabirelle answered, as she snuggled closer to the warrior. "Just tired. I'll be fine by the time the queens are ready to compete. That doesn't happen until after noontime, anyway."
"Do you know what your first event is?" Xena asked, as she absently brushed the wet hair back from the bard's face.
"Eph didn't say," Gabrielle murmured.
It wasn't long before Xena heard the soft snores of her partner. She lifted the woman from the tub, wrapped the sleeping woman in a warm blanket and placed her back in bed. Gabrielle didn't even stir the entire time.
"Sweet dreams, love," Xena placed a quick kiss on the bard's forehead.
Ignesia awoke to eerie silence and the pungent smell of rotting meat. She sat bolt upright and glanced around in confusion. The sun was just peeking over the treetops and she was completely alone in the clearing. A rush of memories assailed her and she turned around to look at the boulder behind her. Blood ran down the sides of the flat rock, but there was no sign of a body anywhere. She briefly wondered where the Northern Amazons were and what they had done with Rena's body. The stench was unbearable and she had to breathe through her mouth in order to dispel the nausea that washed over her.
The caw of a large black bird in a tree nearby was answered by another caw and then another, until a chorus of caws broke the silence around her. The first black bird spread its wings and flew toward her, but merely landed on the flat rock with a louder cry that seemed to beckon its companions.
Ignesia watched as nearly a dozen large black birds-ravens, by the looks of them-landed on or near the boulder. They seemed to look intently-even accusingly-at her, before their leader dipped its head and nibbled something on the boulder's surface.
The Amazon quickly stood up on shaky legs and stumbled away from the scene. She only made it a few steps inside the tree line before a wave of nausea drove her to her hands and knees. She heaved violently into the tall grass and continued to heave until the entire contents of her stomach was emptied. Her ears rang and her head spun wildly, but she somehow managed to regain her feet and continue on through the forest.
She stumbled into a low bramble bush and cursed the Fates for her unsteadiness, as several thorns dug into her bare legs. She could still hear the incessant cawing and chattering of the ravens behind her and put her hands to her ears in an effort to shut out the noise. The ringing in her ears intensified and she wondered if her head would eventually explode and end her misery.
Ignesia just continued heading in the general direction of the village on legs that didn't seem to want to carry her. The effects of the night's activities seemed to finally wane enough for her to get her bearings, as she continued putting one foot in front of the other.
She found a small stream and decided to wash the grit from her. Kneeling at the water's edge, Ignesia looked down into a small pool gathered between some rocks. The sight that greeted her made her gasp in surprise. Her chin was covered in dried blood and dark circles below her eyes gave her a gaunt, emaciated look.
Plunging shaking hands into the icy water, Ignesia quickly washed her face, scrubbing her chin vigorously to remove the blood-Rena's blood. Stark memories of the previous night's activities and the part she'd played in it came rushing back into her mind's eye. She saw Rena's pleading eyes intermingled with the sounds of chanting and the upraised dagger that took the woman's life with one downward thrust.
The salty tang of blood intermingled with the taste of bile on her tongue. She plunged a numb hand into the pool and lifted water to her lips. But the water suddenly turned red in her hand and trailed blood-red rivulets down her arm. She flung the water away and jumped to her feet with a loud gasp. She glanced around the scene of stillness and serenity, but could only see Rena's pleading eyes begging silently for help.
"Leave me be!" Ignesia screamed, as the ringing in her ears suddenly increased to an intolerable level that drove her to her knees. "PLEEEEEEEASE!!!!" The scream tore through her very being, as the world around her narrowed to a pinpoint and went black. She collapsed to the ground in an unconscious heap.
"So, are you ready for your first event?" Ephiny stepped up next to Gabrielle, who was standing on the sidelines of the final event of the regular games.
Xena and one of the Amazons from a western tribe were the last two contestants still standing on the field. They were locked in a heated battle with chobos and neither woman was willing to give the other quarter. Gabrielle watched her taller partner land a blow to the other woman's arm that sent a loud crack reverberating across the entire field. There was a collective gasp from the gathered onlookers, as the Amazon stumbled back several paces and held her arm against her side. Everyone could see that the woman was in excruciating pain, but the Amazon merely stepped back up to face her taller opponent.
"Yield!" Xena shouted to the woman, who faced her with a look of determination.
"I will not yield to you, warrior," the redheaded Amazon gritted out between clenched teeth. "I fight for the pride of a strong Amazon Nation!"
"The Amazon Nation needs you whole and hearty, not broken," Xena took a step backward as the woman advanced another step closer. "You've proven yourself to your sisters, Amazon. Now, yield!"
"Never!" The slighter woman raised her chobo high overhead and charged.
Xena was ready for the attack and merely waited for the woman to get within two paces of her before she launched herself into the air, somersaulted forward and landed behind the surprised Amazon. The crowd cheered loudly as the Amazon spun around to face Xena.
The warrior merely grinned at the seething woman. "Yield. Now."
The woman gritted her teeth and raised both chobos in front of her, despite the pain in her arm. "Fight me, coward!"
A dark brow rose. "Seriously? You really wanna go there?"
"Amazons do not yield to commoners," the woman ground out between clenched teeth. "Better to die on the field of battle than yield to a murderer."
Another collective gasp erupted from the crowd. Murmurs spread around the perimeter of the cordoned area, as the gathered Amazons discussed this latest revelation.
"And what makes you think I'm a murderer?" Xena merely crossed her arms over her chest and stood casually.
The woman raised her good arm and addressed the gathered crowd. "Behold, my sisters! The murderer of the leaders of the Northern Amazons!"
A cacophony of upraised voices suddenly erupted. Some asked what the Amazon meant by her accusation, while others grumbled about having a non-Amazon participating in their festivities and games.
Ephiny glanced at Gabrielle and noticed a tightening of the bard's shoulders. She knew how much the bard loved Xena and could only imagine what was running through the woman's mind at that moment.
"It was bound to come out, eventually, Gabrielle," Ephiny said, as she placed a comforting hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Don't take it personally."
Xena didn't seem phased in the least by the accusation. She merely stood there and waited for the uproar to die down and her opponent to face her. Outwardly she was calm, cool and collected. But she was seething inwardly and wanted nothing more than to pound her opponent into submission. That, however, was not an option. The Amazons needed every able-bodied warrior-even the ones with big mouths.
"You done with your grandstanding?" Xena commented with a wry smirk. "'Cause I think the queens are itchin' to get out here and show you a thing or two."
"What?" The woman turned to face Xena. "No witty comeback, warrior?"
"I'm not really one for witty repartee," Xena shrugged. "I leave that to my partner." She glanced at Gabrielle and gave her a wink, before returning her attention to the Amazon. "She's much better with words than I am anyway."
The Amazon looked at Gabrielle and gave her an appraising glare. "She's not even a true Amazon," the woman sneered. "I don't know why she was named queen of the Thracian tribe. Or why no one has yet challenged her claim."
Xena's expression hardened. "Someone tried."
"I tossed her sorry ass in a lava river," Xena answered with a satisfied glare.
"So you fight Gabrielle's battles for her?" The Amazon prodded. "How pitiful that she is unable to do so herself."
"Gabrielle is more than capable of defending herself," Xena shot back. "She could kick your sorry ass all over this field, as a matter of fact." She cocked a dark brow at the woman. "Are we gonna finish this? Or are you just gonna keep flappin' your useless jaws like a damned magpie?"
The woman answered with a high-pitched squeal as she charged toward Xena and launched herself at the warrior. Xena was ready for whatever the woman could throw at her and merely deflected the attack with a series of quick-as-lighting counter strikes. Each strike reverberated across the field loudly. And just when it seemed that the Amazon might actually gain the upper hand, Xena launched her own offensive.
The redhead suddenly found herself completely outclassed and overpowered, as Xena's lightning-fast reflexes increased to a blinding pace. Sweat poured into the Amazon's eyes as she tried her best to fend off the powerful attack. But her skills, as well as her injury, were no match for Xena's far superior skills. Blow after crushing blow landed against the Amazon's tender flesh, leaving huge red welts all over her body.
The Amazon kicked out at Xena, but the warrior simply slammed a chobo into the woman's ankle bone with a loud crack. The Amazon stumbled forward and fell to her hands and knees. A hush fell over the crowd and all around them women waited with baited breath for Xena to land the final blow. The competition was not a fight to the death, but the Amazon's earlier words still hung over the gathering.
"Do you yield?" Xena's low voice finally broke the silence, as the Amazon managed to straighten enough that she was kneeling before the warrior.
The Amazon bowed her head. "I yield before you, warrior."
Xena put the two chobos into one hand and reached out to the woman. "I accept."
The woman glanced up and saw the hand hovering in front of her face. She hesitated a moment and then put her good arm into Xena's grasp, allowing the warrior to help her to her feet. With a look of confusion mixed with pain, the Amazon balanced on one foot and stood facing the taller woman.
"I may have misjudged you, warrior," the woman conceded. "You spared me when you had every right to end my life for what I said."
Xena smirked. "If I killed every person who ever said a bad word about me I really would be a murderer," she quipped and moved to the Amazon's side to offer her shoulder for support. "Let's get you to the healer, so she can fix you up in time to watch the queens do their thing." The Amazon actually allowed Xena to help her off the field. "The name's Xena, by the way."
"Margalena," the woman said with a tentative half-smile. "My sisters and I hail from…"
"The western coast," Xena nodded and then waved to Gabrielle. "I'll come back in time to catch you in your first event!" She called to the bard.
"No need to hurry, Xena!" Gabrielle called back. "Take care of your new friend! I'll be fine!"
Gabrielle watched as Xena continued helping the injured Amazon slowly off the field and toward the village. She knew Nissia already had her hands full with several other injured contestants, as well as a few pregnant warriors who had yet to give birth. It didn't bother her that she was on her own for the first event. She was sure she was ready for anything they wanted to throw at her.
"So," Gabrielle turned to the regent. "What's the first event on today's agenda?"
Ephiny grinned. "Oh, I think you're gonna like this one," she answered, as she guided Gabrielle toward the far side of the field in the general direction that the rest of the crowd was moving in. "You'll be facing off against Queen Besine with staffs."
They reached the edge of the practice field and Gabrielle glanced around them. Queen Besine, who she knew was about her size and a little on the heavier side, was nowhere in sight. The bard put her hands on her hips and quirked a brow at the regent, who merely answered by looking and pointing up.
Gabrielle glanced up into the trees above. "You have got to be kidding," the bard mumbled, as Eponin approached and handed her a staff similar to the one she'd lost.
"Tree fighting with staffs, My Queen," Ephiny smirked. "It adds a degree of risk to the challenge, don't you agree?"
Gabrielle took the staff from Eponin with a wry half-smile. "Your idea?"
"We're Amazons, yer maj," the weapons master smirked. "It's what we do."
Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut and tried to keep her breathing normal, as her heart rate suddenly skipped into overdrive. She swallowed past the sudden lump in her throat and continued to concentrate on her breathing. It was a technique Xena had taught her and one she had used many times during the long winter moons. They had also spent many afternoons during those long months trying to cure the bard of her total aversion to tree climbing.
Unfortunately, even Xena's indomitable patience had finally worn thin after several long weeks. Gabrielle had only managed to advance as far as the next level of branches, before she was completely immobilized by the fear that constantly plagued her. No matter how hard they tried or how many days they spent up in the trees, Gabrielle still could not overcome that fear enough to climb any higher.
"Are you okay, Gabrielle?" Ephiny's quiet voice in her ear brought Gabrielle back to the matter at hand.
"I don't think I can do this," Gabrielle muttered just loud enough for the two Amazons closest to her to hear, as she opened her eyes and looked up at Queen Besine waiting casually for her.
"Yer kidding, right?" Eponin replied. "Tell me yer not afraid of a little tree."
Gabrielle glared at the weapons master. "I don't do trees," she growled. "They scare the hades out of me."
Ephiny grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulders and turned her until they were face-to-face. "You have to do this, My Queen. If you don't, then you forfeit the contest and the others will continue on without you. Your chances of becoming High Queen will vanish in an instant."
Gabrielle saw the determination in the woman's eyes and swallowed with difficulty. She glanced up into the canopy overhead and cringed.
"Then I forfeit, I guess," Gabrielle shrugged. "I'm not fighting up there. No way, no how."
Ephiny shook the woman and glared at her. "You will get up there and you will do this, Gabrielle. I will not suffer the humiliation of having our queen forfeit the very first event. The Thracian Amazons are a proud people and we could never live that down." She got right up in Gabrielle's face. "Now get your feathered butt up into that tree and show that woman who she's dealing with. You travel with the Warrior Princess, for cryin' out loud. You've outwitted gods, faced down Death and fought against monsters. You're not afraid of a little tree fighting."
Gabrielle wanted to protest further, but her mouth was suddenly bone dry and she couldn't conjure any saliva, no matter how many times she swallowed. She glanced up at the nearest tree and then returned her gaze to the woman staring intently at her.
"Fine," Gabrielle managed, as she girded herself for the battle ahead.
She marched over to the tree that Queen Besine stood confidently in. The squat woman held a staff similar to her own in the crook of an arm, as she leaned casually against the tree's trunk. Gabrielle gulped audibly, as she realized just how high up the tree was.
"You sure you wouldn't rather jump down here and do this?" Gabrielle called up to the woman, who merely grinned at her.
"Here," Eponin said behind Gabrielle. "Let me give you a leg up, yer maj."
Gabrielle barely had time to consider the folly of what she was about to do, as Eponin stood expectantly next her with her hands linked. Gabrielle put a foot in the makeshift stirrup and was unceremoniously launched up to the closest branch. She awkwardly grabbed on and pulled herself up onto the thick branch and tried not to look down.
"You okay up there, yer maj?" Eponin called from below. "Here, you might need this."
Gabrielle glanced at the end of the staff hovering next to her. She reached out and grabbed it, all the while keeping her eyes tightly shut against the panic that was threatening to send her toppling to the ground below-far, far below. A snicker to her right made her stiffen and open her eyes. Queen Besine was smirking at her.
"Problem with heights, Queen Gabrielle?" The woman chuckled.
"Just a little," Gabrielle answered with a slight half-smile. "Trees, mostly."
"And you call yourself an Amazon?" The woman straightened and twirled the staff in her hands while balancing on the branch expertly she was perched on.
Gabrielle felt her ire rise and grabbed onto it with all her inner fortitude. She planted her feet firmly beneath her and managed to stand with relative ease. Once she was standing on the branch, which quivered slightly with her movements, she resolved to push her fear as far from her mind as she possibly could. Once the fear was safely tucked away, she lifted the staff and used it to balance herself on the branch.
"I do," Gabrielle finally turned and met the chuckling woman's gaze. "I just don't understand what the deal is with Amazons and trees."
"Ahhhhh," Besine's tone was condescending. "Poor widdle baby. Maybe you should just trot on back to the nursery and let the adults continue without you."
Gabrielle was prepared for the woman to strike her staff, but wasn't quite prepared to have the branch she was on sway so treacherously beneath her. She let her arms absorb the first strike and bent her knees in an effort to find her center of gravity.
Besine was only getting started. She and Trika had resolved to show this upstart Amazon exactly what being queen entailed. Neither woman was convinced that Gabrielle was really worthy of the honor of wearing a queen's mask, much less wearing the High Queen's mask. That honor was reserved for those with experience and training and Amazon blood running through their veins. From stories she'd heard of the bard who traveled with Xena, Besine was sure Gabrielle wasn't a true Amazon, much less a queen.
Besine decided to see just how far she could push the blond before she took a header that she hoped would actually break the woman's neck.
"You do know that the first of us to touch the ground is the loser," Besine challenged, as she launched an attack against her opponent of quick strikes meant to throw the bard off balance. "You don't have a chance in Tartarus, Queen Gabrielle."
Gabrielle met each strike instinctively, as she concentrated on her precarious footing. She was an expert with the staff-something her opponent obviously didn't know-so it was just a matter of putting her efforts into staying on the branch and keeping her balance for as long as possible.
"What's wrong, Queen Gabrielle?" Besine taunted. "Don't you have any imagination when it comes to tree fighting?"
The woman suddenly hopped from the branch she was on to another one. She walked the length of that branch until it bowed under her weight, then she hopped to another. Gabrielle noticed that the woman was trying to outflank her. She also knew she had three options open to her. One: she could remain where she was and let the woman come to her. Two: she could move to another branch and meet the woman's attack. Or, three: she could climb up higher and attack the woman from above.
Gabrielle quickly ran through the options in her head. She knew she only had heartbeats before the woman was within striking distance, so she girded herself, swallowed down the rising bile in her throat and climbed higher. Gabrielle pushed all thoughts from her mind, including the thought that she would go plunging to her death in front of more than two hundred avid Amazon onlookers. She just climbed higher until she was sure she had a prime position.
The trees had been trimmed in preparation for this particular event. Gabrielle noticed several fresh knots still dripping sticky sap and managed to inadvertently run her hand through one. The sap stuck to her fingers, but she ignored the discomfort and concentrated on facing the woman who was now below her.
"Ah," Besine looked up and saw Gabrielle above her. "Getting your tree legs, I see."
"Do you always talk this much during a fight, Besine?" Gabrielle purposely dropped the woman's title in order to annoy her. After all, she reasoned, Xena always said talking was her best asset. Time to use what she knew. "Or do you just get chatty when you realize you're about to lose?"
Several Amazon onlookers hooted and hollered below them, while others either jeered or laughed at Gabrielle's words.
"Why, you little whelp!" The squat brunette growled.
Gabrielle was sure the woman would stay on the lower branches in deference to her weight. She was a little surprised when Besine actually climbed higher, scaling the branches easily until they were almost at eye level. They both heard the branch Besine stood on protest her added weight, but the Amazon merely stood her ground.
Gabrielle carefully maneuvered out onto her branch and met Besine halfway. The sounds of their staffs connecting reverberated throughout the forest around them, as cheers from below encouraged each woman on. Where Besine was skilled at fighting in the trees, Gabrielle was equally as skilled with the staff. They were evenly matched and managed to meet each other's blows and counter blows without faltering.
Ephiny held her breath as she watched the two women slam their staffs together in a frenzy of heated blows that made her own head spin just thinking about how high up they were. She knew Gabrielle was no match for any Amazon fighting in the trees, but the bard appeared to be holding her own against the other queen. It actually surprised Ephiny slightly to see Gabrielle at work.
"So, what'd I miss?" The regent's eyes widened at the familiar voice that joined her and Eponin.
"Hey, Xena," Ephiny pulled her gaze from the two combatants and looked at the warrior.
"Who's up there?" Xena squinted slightly in an effort to see who the two women were. "And where's Gabrielle?"
Ephiny glanced up and noticed that Gabrielle was partially hidden behind a tree trunk.
"Her maj and Queen Besine," the weapons master supplied, as she stood casually gazing up at the two combatants. "They're fighting with staffs."
Xena's eyes widened when she finally caught a glimpse of her partner's familiar profile. "That's…She's…" She rounded on Ephiny with anger flaring. "You sent her up into the trees to fight?"
"Yeah," Ephiny took a cautious step back. "Hey, relax, Xena. She's doing fine."
"Hey, chill, Xe," Eponin tried to grab the warrior and almost flew into a tree herself when Xena violently shrugged her off.
"Gabrielle is deathly afraid of heights!" Xena ground out mere inches from the regent's face. "She's never climbed higher than the first set of branches. What possessed you to send her up there?"
Ephiny tried not to cringe, but was finding it hard not to with the imposing warrior towering over her. "She's doing great, Xena. See?" She pointed up.
Xena turned and looked up at the two combatants. Gabrielle wasn't holding onto anything and was actually using her legs to absorb the bouncing of the branch beneath her. Her focus was entirely on the woman she was fighting against, and she seemed not to be paying attention to where she was. The warrior was actually impressed that Gabrielle was doing so well.
Xena watched as Gabrielle deftly countered several quick and successive swings from her opponent. Gabrielle's opponent was the same height but slightly more rotund than the bard. Xena could see that Gabrielle's slighter build and lighter weight made it easier for her to remain balanced on the branches. The warrior briefly wondered why she hadn't tried this particular tactic with the bard during all those long candlemarks they'd spent trying to alleviate her fear of heights.
"She looks at home up there, doesn't she?" Ephiny's voice next to her brought Xena back to the matter at hand. "It's like she was born to fight like an Amazon."
Xena shot the regent a glare. "And when she falls?"
There was a sudden, collective gasp from the crowd. Xena glanced up in time to see Gabrielle dangling precariously from a branch that was several levels lower than she'd been only a moment before. The bard still had a grip on her staff, but seemed to have the wind knocked out of her.
A moment of sheer panic washed over Gabrielle as she realized she'd nearly plunged to the ground below. It was only by sheer force of will that she managed to throw herself onto the branch she was currently bent forward over. She waited a moment for the breath to return to her lungs and then breathed deeply of the pine-scented air.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk! Poor little storyteller," Besine's patronizing tone grated on Gabrielle's nerves and helped her push the panic back down.
Gabrielle felt the branch she was on shake violently, as the Amazon queen landed on it. Rather than allow the woman to best her, though, Gabrielle used her position on the branch to her best advantage. With her staff firmly gripped in one hand, she held firmly to the branch with the other and slid her body off. She pumped her legs with as much power as she could muster and managed to swing to another branch. Gabrielle never gave a thought to what she was doing. She just did it.
As soon as she had a firm perch on the new branch, Gabrielle climbed to her feet and turned to face her opponent. Besine's staff came at her head and Gabrielle just managed to get her staff into position in time to block the blow. But Besine wasn't to be deterred. She used the staff like a spear and tried to thrust the tip into Gabrielle's exposed midsection.
Gabrielle was tired of being on the defensive. She swiped her staff down and across her body in time to knock Besine's staff thrust away and launched an attack of her own. It was time to put everything Xena had taught her into play and she pulled out every stop. Gabrielle's staff whirred in an arc-swing-thrust combination that took the Amazon completely by surprise.
The bard danced from one branch to another without a thought to where she was. She just put her mind into fighting mode and let her feet find purchase on the branches, as if she were standing on uneven ground or fighting on top of boulders. She was no longer up in the trees. She was in her element with a weapon that was an extension of her arms and as familiar to her as her own skin.
Besine watched the change come over the woman before her. It was as if the tentative younger woman suddenly transformed into a seasoned fighter right before her eyes. Gone was the hesitation. Gone was the unsure footwork. This woman slamming her staff into Besine's with a force and skill born of long candlemarks of practice was someone else entirely.
The branches above and around her didn't allow for the kind of staff fighting Gabrielle was used to. So, she adapted her swings to account for the smaller space she had to work in. She also adjusted her body and used more-compact, spring-like motions to deliver the blows needed to continue her assault against the stout woman. Her tactics were working and Besine was hard-pressed to keep a firm grip on her weapon.
And then Gabrielle saw the opening she'd been waiting for. Besine dropped her shoulder and inadvertently left the side of her head exposed for an upward swing of Gabrielle's staff. The bard delivered the blow with all her might and connected with a resounding crack.
Besine saw stars explode in her head at the sudden impact from her opponent's wooden weapon. She knew a moment of complete confusion and felt the world tilt around her. And then she was falling. The Amazon queen grabbed for the nearest branch and missed it completely. Panic washed over her as she tumbled sideways.
With a look of utter shock, the Amazon grasped empty air and fell. Four stout branches broke on impact under Besine's weight. And then the woman hit the ground hard. The breath rushed from her lungs and she lay still.
The crowd erupted in chaos. Several Macedonian Amazons rushed to Besine's side and tended their fallen queen, while the rest of the crowd cheered and raised fists to the triumphant queen still standing in the trees above. Several Thracian Amazons danced around the base of the tree Gabrielle gingerly climbed down from. The women caught their queen on their shoulders before she could touch the ground and carried her toward the practice field with loud whoops, hollers and triumphant cheers.
Gabrielle patiently allowed her Amazon sisters to carry her across the practice field and toward the village center. As soon as they deposited her on the raised dais, she raised her staff overhead and issued a triumphant battle yell all her own.
The crowd roared.
Many of the visiting Amazons taunted the Thracian women and shouted encouragement to their own queens. While the Thracian Amazons danced and cheered in triumph.
Ephiny, Eponin and Xena elbowed their way through the raucous crowd until they reached the dais where several of the queens now stood. Gabrielle caught sight of the three women and something in her eyes gave them pause. Instead of the expected smile of triumph, the bard was actually scowling down at them. Her glare rested on Ephiny, as she raised the staff one last time.
"To a strong Amazon Nation!" She shouted above the din without breaking her gaze from Ephiny's.
Then Gabrielle tossed the staff to Eponin, turned and hopped down from the dais. She marched across the village center toward the queen's hut and didn't stop or look back until she was standing on the porch, reaching for the door. Then she paused a moment and felt a familiar presence at her back. Pausing only that brief moment, Gabrielle pushed the door open and rushed inside without a backward glance.
"You okay?" Xena's calm voice behind her was her undoing. "I gotcha," the warrior said, as she quickly caught Gabrielle and kept her from falling in a heap to the wooden floor.
Xena picked the smaller woman up in her arms and carried Gabrielle over to the bed, depositing the smaller woman on it with gentle, caring movements. When the warrior tried to pull away, however, she found the bard still clinging to her, as if she were a lifeline.
"Please," Gabrielle whispered, as the panic finally set in and she panted breathlessly. Shudders suddenly rocked her, as the full import of what she'd just done hit her unexpectedly.
"I'm here," Xena scooted in beside the woman who was shaking uncontrollably. "Shhhhh," Xena soothed, as she gently stroked and rocked Gabrielle in her arms. "It's over. You're safe. I'm here."
The warrior continued to mutter nonsensical platitudes, as she held Gabrielle and patiently waited for the panic attack to subside. Even after she finally felt the smaller woman relax against her, she still continued to sooth her partner.
"Promise me," Gabrielle finally managed to utter when her breathing finally returned to normal and the shaking subsided.
"Promise you what, love?" Xena asked, as she stroked the bard's short hair.
"That you will never let me do that again for as long as we both shall live," Gabrielle pulled back enough to meet the warrior's gaze.
Xena couldn't help the smile that touched her lips. "Oh, I don't know…"
"Xena," Gabrielle cut her off with a stern glare. "That was the most asinine thing I've ever done in my entire life. It was also beyond terrifying. I hate trees. You and I both know how deathly afraid of them I am."
"If it's any consolation, you didn't look a bit terrified," Xena said, as she brushed the bard's bangs from her eyes. "You really looked like you were completely in control up there."
Gabrielle blew out a breath. "I was too busy trying to keep Besine from knocking my head off to really think about anything else. It didn't hit me until I walked in that door," she nodded toward the door to their hut. "Then…" She swallowed audibly. "Promise me, Xena," Gabrielle raised pleading eyes to the woman beside her. "Promise me you will do whatever it takes to keep me from ever doing that again."
Xena raised a hand and tried to retain a serious expression, "I promise."
Ignesia awoke and glanced around at her surroundings. She was in her hut and the sun was just setting beyond her window, casting the one-roomed interior in reds and golds. She glanced toward the woman watching her curiously from the side of the bed.
"How did I get here?" Ignesia asked.
"Does it matter?" A gray brow lifted on the healer's craggy face. "The better questions would be what were you doing in the forest by yourself, and why were you unconscious?"
The healer folded her gnarled hands in her lap, as she waited for her charge to answer the question. Nissia was not pleased to have to sit with someone she considered of little or no consequence. But the two Thracian Amazons who had carried Ignesia into the village would have no one else see to the woman.
"I…" Ignesia began, as she sat up against the wall behind her. "I'm not sure what happened, old woman."
"Pfft!" Nissia shook her head and rose to her feet. "I have other patients who need me more than you do. I will send your friends in here to see to your care."
"Friends?" Ignesia called to the healer's back, as the woman waddled toward the door.
Nissia didn't reply. She merely opened the door and waved the three concerned women inside. She didn't give them more than a cursory glance, as she continued on her way towards her hut and the three pregnant women who still needed her attention.
Patrice, Shraia and another younger woman entered the hut. The trio walked over to Ignesia and gazed intently at her.
"You look well, sister," Patrice shot Ignesia a wry smirk. "For a dead woman."
"Dead?" Ignesia repeated.
"You were near death when we found you," Shraia said. "Patrice breathed life back into you. At least, that's what Nissia says happened-the old bat."
"Is this true?" Ignesia looked to Patrice for confirmation.
The woman nodded her auburn head and gazed at Ignesia with shining gray-green eyes dancing with mischief. "It was the least I could do for the woman who will lead us into a new age," Patrice said, as she took Ignesia's hands into hers. "We simply await your command, Ignesia. Your followers are ready to wage war against the Usurper and grind her followers into dust."
Ignesia saw the spark of rebellion smoldering in the woman's gray-green eyes for the very first time. It was somewhat surprising, since Patrice was one of her most skeptical followers. The woman's constant questions and nay-saying had become a serious concern for Ignesia over the last few moons. She had even considered running the woman through with her own sword a few times, just to shut her up.
When Cyane, queen of the Northern Amazons, had come to Ignesia just the week prior to tell her they needed a young Thracian Amazon to participate in a ritual sacrifice, Ignesia had seriously considered calling on Patrice for the job.
But then Rena had dropped into her lap the previous night and all thoughts of Patrice fled her thoughts. Ignesia stifled the shudder that threatened to bring all the horrible memories flooding back to her. She didn't want to think about what had happened or the incredible guilt that still lingered over her part in Rena's death. She also didn't want to think about the voices that seemed strangely silent at that moment.
"Do the rest of you feel as Patrice does?" Ignesia looked to the two other women in turn.
"We are ready to fight to the death for a strong Amazon Nation!" Shraia stepped forward and placed a hand over Patrice's. "I pledge my honor to you, Ignesia. We shall succeed and the Usurper shall fall."
"I, too, pledge my honor and my life to you, Ignesia," the smaller woman stepped forward with the same spark of rebellion in her eyes.
"You are not yet a full Amazon, Maeriska," Ignesia pointed out to the young woman who was barely thirteen summers old and would soon join the ranks of the Thracian Amazons.
Maeriska held a fist to her heart. "I was born in this village thirteen summers past and will participate in the ceremony two nights hence. When I am a full Amazon, I shall pledge myself to your service, Ignesia, my word on it."
Ignesia nodded her approval. "We have much work to do, then," she said, as she slid to the edge of the bed and stood facing the three women. "Our northern sisters await word that we are ready to begin our campaign. In three day's time, during the Ceremony of the Full Moon and before a High Queen of the Amazon Nation is named, we shall strike the Usurper down and all her followers with her." She grabbed the women's hands in hers and raised them toward the sky. "To a strong Amazon Nation!"
"TO A STRONG AMAZON NATION!!" They repeated in unison.
"Knock, knock," Ephiny called, as she opened the door to the queen's hut just enough to peek her head inside. She'd already knocked twice before and received no answer in return. "Gabrielle? Xena? Anyone home?"
Xena padded out of the smaller bathing room in bare feet and was toweling her hair dry. "Hello, Ephiny," the warrior said, as she tossed the damp cloth onto the foot of the bed. "What's up?"
"I came to let you know Eponin and Chilapa are ready when you are, Xena," Ephiny stepped fully inside the hut and stood near the door. She shot the warrior a knowing look.
"And where, pray tell, are they taking her?" Gabrielle emerged from the bathing room, toweling her own hair dry.
Both women were fully clothed, except that neither had their boots on. The bard stopped toweling her hair long enough to glare at the regent.
"I…um…" Ephiny was caught flat-footed. "We need to borrow her for the next couple days."
"For what?" Gabrielle shot the woman a skeptical look. "Come on, Eph. Give me a little credit here, will ya?"
"Okay, fine," Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest. "Xena volunteered to play chaperone for a group of youngsters during their first hunt."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance. Xena just shrugged.
"Eponin asked and I said yes," the warrior said, as she raised a questioning brow to her partner. "If it's all right with you."
Gabrielle shrugged and tried to appear nonchalant. "You don't need my permission to trek through the wilderness with a bunch of kids, Xena. Go have fun."
"I'll meet you outside, Eph," Xena dismissed the regent and turned to her partner. "You gonna be all right here without me for a couple days? No tree climbing. And try to play nice with the other queens while I'm gone," she pecked the woman on the forehead. "Try to stay out of trouble. And don't play with the sais until I get back. I don't think these women are prepared to have their hostess turn berserker on them."
They both chuckled.
"You are not leaving me for two days with only a measly kiss on the forehead, warrior," Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist, got up on her tiptoes and planted a searing kiss on the warrior's lips.
"Mm," Xena felt her toes curl with the intensity of the feelings that suddenly washed over and through her. "You keep that up and I'll never go anywhere."
Gabrielle smirked. "It's just a little reminder to make you want to come home to me."
Xena placed her hands on either side of the bard's face and planted her own searing kiss on the woman's lips. The kiss deepened until they were both breathless.
"Just a little something to help you remember who'll be coming home to you very soon," Xena grinned. "Just remember, absence makes the heart grow fonder."
"In whose eyes?" Gabrielle smirked teasingly.
Xena moved away, grabbed her boots and bracers and quickly donned the rest of her attire. Gabrielle helped her tie her wrist bracers and adjusted the brass breastplate to her satisfaction. She couldn't help the grin that played at the edges of her lips, as she stood back to survey the warrior's attire.
"Well? Do I meet with your approval, My Queen?" Xena held her hands out to her sides.
"Mm," Gabrielle shook her head. "I'm not sure I can let you go for two whole days, Xena. It's gonna be incredibly lonely sleeping in that bed all by myself," she finished by wrapping her arms around the taller woman and just holding her.
Xena placed a chaste kiss on the top of the bard's head. "Not as lonely as sleeping on the hard ground, out under the stars, without you in my arms to keep me warm. Not to mention chaperoning a bunch of green-behind-the-ears kids with only Eponin and Chilapa there for protection."
Gabrielle looked up into eyes gone misty in the twilight. "Do you really have to go?"
"Can't really stay here anyway, love," Xena shrugged. "Your queens have an Amazons-Only rule for this particular celebration, so it's better if I play tour guide to the kids and teach them a few things, instead." She smiled. "Besides, maybe I'll learn a thing or two about dealing with kids."
Gabrielle snickered. "Yeah, and I'll enjoy dancing naked in the light of the nearly-full moon, too."
"You never know," Xena teased. "Maybe we can both dance naked in the light of the moon after I get back."
"When you get back with those youngsters, it'll be time to do this High Queen thing," Gabrielle scrunched her nose. "I'll also be overseeing the ceremony to accept those youngsters into the tribe as full-fledged Amazons. It was supposed to happen at the new moon ceremony, but, for some reason, Ephiny decided to change the schedule. Not sure what was up with that." She shrugged. "Guess I'll have to ask her. I'm not thrilled about having to oversee that huge intertribal joining ceremony that's supposed to kick off the end of all this hoopla. I'm especially not looking forward to calling upon Artemis to bless those unions, let me tell you. I'm still really pissed at her for what she did to us."
Xena stroked the woman's hair. "Don't worry about it, Gabrielle. Maybe you can just have one of the other queens do that part of the ceremony, instead."
"Now there's a thought," the bard conceded. "I'm sure Mashuka would love to put that booming voice of hers to good use."
"See?" Xena stepped out of the bard's embrace and quickly grabbed her travel gear from the chair where she'd dumped it earlier. She turned and tapped a finger against her temple. "Now you're thinking like the High Queen." She winked playfully.
Gabrielle snorted. "Oh, please," she scoffed. "Don't you start trying to put that one in my lap, too. I've had just about enough of that from Ephiny to last a lifetime."
Xena paused with her hand on the door latch. "You would make a great High Queen, Gabrielle."
"It would sure add a mouthful, wouldn't it?" Gabrielle said, as she leaned in for one more kiss. "Xena, Warrior Princess, and Gabrielle, High Queen of the Amazon Nation and Bard of Potidea."
Xena rolled her eyes and opened the door. "Then again…" She said as she headed outside and was greeted by an impatient Ephiny.
"Just make sure Eponin watches your back," Gabrielle said with a smirk from the porch. "And don't let the kids get on your nerves too much."
"About time," Ephiny said, as the warrior hopped down the steps. "You two finally finish your goodbyes? You know you'll only be gone for two days, right?"
"Two days is a lifetime," Xena muttered as she strode purposely toward the village center.
The celebration was in full swing. A huge bonfire burned brightly before the dais and dancers were gyrating to the beat of several drums and a chorus of chanting. The queens had all made speeches about the might and fortitude of the Amazons, as well as reiterated the histories of their individual tribes. Food and drink were passed around and shared by all. The drink was especially bountiful. Wine, ale, mead and cider were plentiful and not a single mug was allowed to go dry before it was refilled to the brim.
Gabrielle gazed at the sights and sounds laid out before her, as she slowly sipped her hard cider. She was ever careful not to imbibe too freely of the sweet drink, having had her share of adverse experiences. She was being especially vigilant on this night, because she knew Xena wasn't there to carry her to their hut. It also wouldn't do to have the others see her in a drunken state, not with the way they were eyeing her on this night.
She had been triumphant at her first event, despite her initial trepidation. Overcoming her fear of heights and especially her fear of trees, she had managed to somehow win. Besine, her opponent, was effectively eliminated from the competition and would spend the remainder of the games on the sidelines. The woman had broken her arm at the elbow when she'd fallen from the tree. She now wore a splint and had her arm in a sling, thanks to Nissia and her helpers.
Mashuka had also won her event, a contest of strength and will. A platform had been erected above a warm mud pit and the two women wrestled against each other for the better part of two candlemarks. They were evenly matched in strength and build, making their contest that much more challenging. When Mashuka finally caught her opponent around the waist and tripped her, Jalile was unable to recover her balance enough to stop her headlong plunge into the sticky mud.
Mashuka danced in triumph on the narrow platform, which then gave out under her weight and toppled her into the mud alongside her mud-encrusted opponent. The two women continued their battle until they were both covered from head to toe in the warm, gooey substance, much to the amusement of the gathered crowd. Jalile finally ceded the victory to Mashuka, however, when Jalile's ankle turned and she could no longer stand.
The event that Trika and Sheria competed in later that same day was not as entertaining as the other two competitions. An obstacle course had been set up within the southern forest. The two women had to maneuver through the trees on horseback as they shot at moving targets with bows and arrows. The event took a great deal of skill and precision, something both women were equally blessed with. When the final tally was taken, Sherina came out just two scores ahead of her opponent, who immediately called for a recount. A recount was taken and Sherina was declared the winner by three scores, instead of two.
Gabrielle pondered the outcome of the events of the day and smirked as she reached up to touch the laurel crown atop her head. Two other queens-Sherina and Mashuka-also wore similar crowns. She glanced at the other queens near her and caught Trika watching her with open hostility. She wondered briefly what the woman was thinking and then dismissed the notion. If there was one thing she was learning about these women, it was that there was always something that could set them off, no matter what that something might be.
Gabrielle returned her attention to the dancers and took another sip of her cider. The even tempo of the drums, combined with the low chants of the singers, was mesmerizing, as were the suggestive gyrations of the dancers. Because the older youngsters were away on their first hunt and the younger ones were safely tucked into a communal hut with a few young overseers, there were only adults present at this particular celebration.
The drink flowed in abundance and the dancers enjoyed the chance to let go of any inhibitions. Many of them had painted their entire bodies in preparation for this celebration. As the beat of the drums increased and the chanting became more insistent, several of the dancers shed their leathers and danced in only the paint that decorated their bodies. Sweat glistened and the firelight shimmered off their painted skin, as they undulating in time to the steady beat.
Gabrielle found herself entranced by the sight spread out before her, as she sipped more of her cider and savored the flavor of fermented apples on her tongue. The beat of the drums seemed to match the beat of her heart and the low chant seemed to penetrate to her very soul. She lost track of how many times she lifted the mug to her lips, until only a drop touched her tongue.
"More cider, My Queen?" Someone took her mug and replaced it with a full one before she could react.
"Are you enjoying the festivities, Queen Gabrielle?" Trika's voice in her ear had Gabrielle's head snapping around.
"It's…interesting," Gabrielle gave the woman a reserved smile. "The cider's excellent, by the way. Thank you for bringing such a plentiful supply."
"We pride ourselves on only choosing the very best apples for our celebration cider," Trika tipped her head slightly to acknowledge the compliment. "I'm glad you're enjoying it."
In the back of her mind Gabrielle knew she was enjoying it a little too much. The sweet cider was finally starting to affect her, and she knew she should stop drinking the stuff, right then and there. But…
"Are you enjoying yourself, Queen Trika?" Gabrielle asked, as she took another sip from her mug.
Trika glanced out at the dancers, who were joined by Amazons from the other tribes present. Most of the dancers were now completely naked, while others encouraged the newcomers to shed their leathers in celebration.
"Queen Mashuka's celebration wine is quite good, too," Trika said, as she kept her eyes on the dancers. "It has been far too long since we've had a celebration of this magnitude. So many Amazons in one place. It's a wonder more fights haven't broken out."
"Solari prides herself on keeping order, even amidst this kind of chaos," Gabrielle said.
Gabrielle felt the initial buzz in her head. She was drunk, but didn't care anymore. She continued to sip her cider and let the heady brew dance on her taste buds, as she watched the dancers. The drum beat was now perfectly in time with her own heartbeat and the chanting was no more than a low hum vibrating throughout her being. The experience was intoxicating and made her feel the urge to join in the dancing.
It occurred to her that she'd done that once before. When was it? She shook off the urge and just sat there, instead. No, Xena wouldn't want her to be out there dancing with those sparsely-clad and naked women.
Finger tips lightly brushed the hair from the side of her face and tucked it behind her ear. She turned and saw Trika's face just inches from her own. Silent alarm bells went off in her head at that moment.
"What the…" Gabrielle exclaimed, as she jumped unsteadily away from the woman.
"It's all right, Queen Gabrielle," Trika purred, as she moved closer still and put a hand on the bard's bare thigh. "We're Amazons. It's what we do."
"No!" Gabrielle put up a staying hand to ward off the woman's advance. "I'm flattered, but…"
"Flattery has nothing to do with it," Trika closed the distance to Gabrielle's lips and pinned the bard with a hand behind her head. "This is about celebration. We are Amazons! We celebrate life! We revel in the pleasures of the flesh."
Gabrielle froze in shock, as Trika's lips met hers in a searing, bruising kiss. Her alcohol-befuddled mind couldn't quite comprehend what was happening, as a wave of heat shot through her and settled in her center. The drum beats increased with the beating of her heart and that low hum seemed to ignite something deep within, until she realized she was passionately kissing the woman in return and enjoying it.
Her eyes closed, as she shut out the entire world around her and became consumed in the feel of the woman's hands and lips on her. It was a heady experience. She couldn't think. She could do nothing except allow her body to respond to the touch and feel of the other woman. The kiss became more demanding, as Gabrielle gave in to her baser urges and let herself sink further into the carnal desire pounding incessantly within her.
Suddenly the world around her exploded with sights and sounds again, as Trika was torn away from her and summarily tossed aside like a sack of potatoes. Gabrielle's eyes flew open and she saw the angry face of her regent glaring down at her.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny's voice appeared calm and controlled, though her breathing revealed something altogether different. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Uh," Gabrielle sat up and tried to shake off the last vestiges of desire that was still lingering throughout her entire body. "I…uh…What…"
Ephiny grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulders and shook her. "Are you crazy? What would Xena do if she found you kissing another woman?" She glared directly into Gabrielle's eyes. "Are you drunk? Oh, for Artemis' sake! That's it! Celebration's over for you, My Queen. Time for bed."
The regent steered Gabrielle off the dais and marched her in the direction of the queen's hut. Without pause she guided the inebriated bard up the steps and inside, pushing Gabrielle onto the bed without ceremony. She quickly removed Gabrielle's sandals and tossed them in a corner. But then she paused and decided to stoke the fire, instead of removing Gabrielle's clothes.
Gabrielle felt the world tilting precariously around her, as she sat there in the darkness. Her drink-befuddled mind tried to make sense of what was going on. The mere mention of Xena's name had her almost feeling guilty for kissing the Amazon queen. Didn't it?
"I…um…" Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair. "It was just a kiss, Eph. Relax, wouldya? It's not like we did anything."
"Just a…" Ephiny blew out an irritated breath, as she fanned the fire to life. "Artemis' left tit, Gabrielle! She was on top of you with her hand between your legs. Who knows what that bitch would have done if I hadn't shown up when I did?"
Gabrielle just sat there for a moment, as Ephiny's words echoed through her spinning head. The buzz was still there, but the loud drum beats and chanting were so distant now that she could no longer feel them inside her. The empty feeling that washed over her was almost unbearable, as she sank back onto the bed.
"Ugh!" Gabrielle let out a groan.
"Yeah, ugh," Ephiny echoed in exasperation, as she stood over her queen with her hands on her hips. "I can't leave you alone for even a candlemark without you getting yourself into a whole heap of trouble. How does Xena put up with that?"
"With what?" A green eye popped open to look at the aggravated regent.
"With your magnetic attraction to trouble?" Ephiny added with a wry smirk.
Gabrielle smiled, as she scooted to the head of the bed and climbed under the covers. "She loves me."
"That she does," Ephiny just shook her head. "Sleep well, My Queen."
"You, too, Eph," Gabrielle murmured, as she snuggled beneath the covers and drifted off to sleep.
"Can't believe you dragged me out here with you, Eponin," Xena grumbled, as she sat on a log sharpening her sword.
"Part of your initiation, there, Ace," Eponin shrugged, as she absently chewed on a blade of grass. She glanced at the sleeping lumps beyond the light of the campfire. "'Sides, it's good for the girls to learn some stuff from someone besides me."
"And me," Chilapa piped in with a smirk.
Xena concentrated on the sword in her hand, as she ran her sharpening stone along the worn blade. Her thoughts turned to a certain blond bard and she wondered what Gabrielle was doing at that moment.
"Relax, Xe," Eponin said, as if in answer to an unspoken question. "Eph'll take good care of Gabrielle for you. She won't let nothin' happen to her maj."
Xena shot the weapons master a raised-brow glare. "What makes you think I was even thinking about Gabrielle?"
"You had that look in your eye," Eponin winked. "You know, the one you get when you think nobody's looking at you and you're looking at or thinking of her?"
Chilapa snickered, but instantly caught herself when Xena glared at her. The Amazon instantly hid her amusement behind a feigned cough.
"I think I'll just…" Chilapa ducked away and climbed into her bedroll without another word.
"Heh," Eponin watched the warrior turn her signature glare on her. "Not buyin' it, Xe. I know you better than she does. Been there, seen that look."
Xena lifted the tip of her blade until the sword rested in front of her. "You think so, eh?"
"I…" Eponin caught the crazed look in Xena's eyes and decided to err on the side of caution. "Okay, so maybe I'll head off to bed, too. Big day ahead of us tomorrow and all. I'd like to get a good night's sleep in before I gotta face all these overenthusiastic kids again." She paused before climbing into her bedroll. "'Night, Xena."
"Goodnight, Eponin," the warrior replied, as she resumed sharpening her blade by the light of the campfire.
She had volunteered for first watch in anticipation of the lonely night ahead. She knew she wouldn't be getting much sleep, not without Gabrielle there in her arms. It still amazed her that the smaller woman had become such an important part of her life over the past year. Their hearts seemed to beat in sync when they slept together. They often shared the morning meal, stealing food from each other's plates and sampling the flavors on each other's lips. They were becoming so close, in fact, that they had started cycling at the same time each moon. The only thing they didn't seem to share were each other's thoughts. Those still had to be spoken aloud.
Xena glanced up at the stars overhead and smirked. "Are you seeing them, too?" She quietly muttered.
She shook her head and returned her attention to the sword, allowing her thoughts to wander as she absently ran the stone along the worn edge of the blade. It soothed her soul to do such a mundane thing in front of the crackling fire. It was also one of the few things that had helped calm her after a day of fighting. It still calmed her and gave her a sense of peace. But without her partner there to share the time with her, it just wasn't the same.
"Sweet dreams, love," her soft voice called to the darkness.
"Is it over yet?" Gabrielle put her fingers to her temples in an effort to dispel the headache that was raging incessantly behind her eyes.
She'd awakened late that morning to a hangover and the cheery disposition of a certain blond regent. After Ephiny handed her a steaming cup of willow-bark tea-which she drank as quickly as the searing heat would allow-Gabrielle took a quick bath and changed into her green top and brown skirt. Ephiny had asked why she wasn't wearing her Amazon leathers, and she'd answered that she didn't want to wear them again after having slept in them all night.
"Not yet," Ephiny answered with another cheery smile. "These two seem to be evenly matched in skill, if not in size."
"You really need to tone down the enthusiastic attitude, Eph," Gabrielle groused. "I insist."
Ephiny just smirked and shook her head.
They were watching Mashuka and Sherina from the edge of a small lake. The two queens were locked in a heated battle with chobos, as they each balanced on a log in the shallow part of the water. This particular contest was designed to showcase not only the skills of these particular queens, but their balance, too. Mashuka's log was mostly submerged within the dark water and only the very tops of her bare feet were visible above the waterline. Sherina, who was of slighter build than her opponent, was actually floating almost a foot taller than her opponent.
Both women had been going at it for the better part of half a candlemark. The sounds of their chobos connecting, combined with the cheers of the crowd, just added to the pounding in Gabrielle's head. She was nearly to the point where she just wanted to excuse herself and return to the village alone. But duty forbade her from leaving the event.
Gabrielle glanced to her left and was slightly surprised to see Trika staring intently at her. The woman was actually glaring at her, as much as she was…
"Why is Queen Trika looking at me like I'm her next meal?" Gabrielle whispered to Ephiny.
Ephiny glanced at the Amazon leader and frowned. "Probably wants to finish what she started last night." She caught the confused look in the bard's eyes. "You seriously don't remember, do you, Gabrielle?"
"Should I?" Gabrielle shot back in a hushed whisper, and rubbed her aching temple. "Ugh! I hate hangovers."
"She tried…" Ephiny just rolled her eyes. "Never mind. You don't want to know. Just stay away from her, if at all possible. That woman's a real piece of work, ya know?"
"I'm not really sure I remember very much that happened last night," Gabrielle said thoughtfully. "It's all a blur right now." She massaged her temple harder and felt her stomach turn. "Ugh! Now I know why Xena makes me stop after just one drink."
"You're such a lightweight, Gabrielle," Ephiny snickered.
"Tell me about it," the bard agreed.
A roar from the crowd caught both women and brought their attention back to the competition. Mashuka was waving her chobos in the air and Sherina was nowhere in sight. The log she had been fighting from was spinning and bobbing in the water.
"Oh, great," Gabrielle groaned aloud at the unexpected outcome. "Please tell me Mashuka didn't just win that contest."
"Okaaaay," Ephiny answered. "But you're not gonna like it when you finally wake up and smell the humus." A teasing smirk graced her features. "By the way, it stinks like a three-day-old carcass left rotting in the late summer sun."
Gabrielle just glared at her and gritted her teeth against a wave of nausea the woman's words conjured.
"Shall I make the announcement? Or would you prefer to do the honors this time, My Queen?" Ephiny snickered.
"You are enjoying this a little too much," Gabrielle accused and then her expression turned thoughtful. "I think I feel a bout of nausea coming on."
The regent crossed her arms over her bosom. "Don't even try to weasel your way out of the final contest, Gabrielle. Not when we are this," she held her fingers an inch apart, "close to victory."
A blond brow rose on the bard's features. "I like a good challenge as much as the next girl, you know." And then Gabrielle just turned and walked away without a backward glance.
"Urgh!" Ephiny groaned, as Mashuka stood dripping in front of her and all eyes were suddenly upon them. "Queen Mashuka," the regent bowed low and then straightened up to face the woman towering over her. "The great goddess, Artemis, shines on you this day!"
Half the crowd cheered, while the other half groaned or booed. Several women from Mashuka's tribe danced around the beaming victor, as she waved her arms and whooped in triumph. Ephiny could only stand there and hope that the earth would open up and swallow her whole.
Xena signaled for her small group to remain silent and drop down into the bushes where they were standing. Three of the girls dropped immediately, while the other six just stood there and gaped at the sight laid out before them. It was Eponin who knocked the legs out from under the nearest girl still standing that got the rest to act.
Xena kept her eyes on the scene laid out before them. Her mind went through all the possibilities, until she came up with an answer.
"The Northern tribe?" Eponin whispered next to her right elbow.
"Yep," Xena whispered back. "And then some."
"Artemis' left tit!" The weapons master hissed. "There must be…"
"Nearly three hundred warriors," Xena supplied when Eponin continued to silently count.
"Why'd we…" Chilapa dropped down beside the pair, her face mirroring her surprise. She'd been the rear guard for their little hunting group and hadn't seen the Northern Amazon encampment. "By the gods!" She hissed.
"Yeah, welcome to it, Chi," Eponin whispered. "Not something you see every day, let me tell ya."
"Shh," Xena held a finger to her lips, as two Northern Amazons approached their position.
The Northern Amazons were carrying on a casual conversation and didn't appear to notice the small group hiding just a few paces away from them. The two women stopped and turned their backs on the group. Xena glanced at Eponin and with silent hand signals let the weapons master know her intentions. Eponin just nodded.
The two Northern Amazons didn't know what hit them as they were suddenly grabbed from behind and dragged down into the bushes. Xena wasted no time and put the pinch on the Amazon closest to her. She watched with satisfaction as Eponin summarily knocked the other Amazon out with a blow to the head. The weapons master nodded.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain," Xena whispered loudly enough for the woman to hear her. "You only have heartbeats to live, so you better talk fast."
The Northern Amazon's eyes took in the expectant faces around her. "I…I don't…Who…"
"Not what I'm after," Xena glared at the woman, who was struggling to breath and had a trickle of blood running from her nose. "What are you doing here?"
"Gathering," the woman gasped. "Amazon tribes. Came to…join…"
Xena shook her head and glanced at Eponin, who was silently ticking off fingers. "You've been camped here more than a moon by the looks of it. I seriously doubt you're joining the Gathering anytime soon."
The woman's eyes rolled back in her head and convulsions overtook her. Xena jabbed her fingers into the release points on either side of the woman's neck and watched the Amazon go limp. Xena's eyes met Eponin's.
"Was that supposed to happen?" The weapons master asked in a hushed whisper.
"Is she dead?" Chilapa put in.
Xena slapped the Amazon's cheek and waited. Then she put her fingers to the Northern Amazon's neck.
"Damn!" The warrior hissed.
"You killed her?" Eponin asked in a louder whisper.
Xena glared at the weapons master. "She's not dead, just unconscious. She'll wake up with one Hades of a headache, though."
"Oh," Eponin breathed out. "Gods, Xena. Don't scare my leathers off like that."
Xena just rolled her eyes and slapped the cheek of the other Northern Amazon. "Wake up, sunshine," she said just loud enough for the dark-haired woman to hear her. She met Eponin's chestnut eyes. "How hard did you hit her?"
The weapons master shrugged. "Hard enough to knock her out, I guess."
Xena shook her head and then looked at the two girls closest to her. "Eustine and Aestia, you two drag these women deeper into the forest and tie them to a tree. Gag them, too. We don't want them alerting the patrols until we're far away from here."
The two girls nodded silently and proceeded to carry out Xena's orders.
"Now what?" Eponin looked expectantly at the warrior.
"Now, we get the Hades outta here before someone figures out those two are missing," Xena answered, as she kept her gaze on the encampment. "There's something going on here…" She suddenly put up a hand and pointed.
Eponin and Chilapa looked in the direction Xena was pointing. They all watched silently as a small group of women emerged from a makeshift hut-the only semi-permanent structure in the entire encampment. Two of the Amazons were deep in conversation, while the rest seemed to be guarding the pair.
"The shorter one is their shamaness," Xena whispered.
"And the tall blond?" Eponin whispered.
"Their queen, probably," Xena answered. She turned to the seven girls gathered behind them. "Go join the other two and we'll be there shortly. Stay low and remain completely silent. If you run across any patrols, stay low and don't engage them."
Maeriska remained behind when the others slunk back into the woods. She'd waited for the perfect opportunity to serve the woman who would be their new queen. Ignesia would be so proud when she delivered Xena right into the hands of the Northern Amazons.
"Maeriska?" Eponin hissed, as she glanced back to find the youth still there. "Get your feathered butt moving, girl."
Maeriska didn't hesitate and jumped to her feet. "XENA'S HERE!!" She yelled at the top of her lungs.
Xena didn't have a chance to stop the youth. Maeriska had placed herself on the far side of Eponin and Chilapa, far enough away that Xena would have to dive over both of them in order to tackle her.
"Ares' left nut!" Eponin exclaimed, as all Hades broke loose.
The encampment was suddenly alive with Northern Amazon warriors who grabbed weapons and headed in their general direction. Eponin and Chilapa turned tail and ran, while Xena grabbed the Amazon youth who had set off the alarm.
"Are you suicidal, kid?" Xena hissed into Maeriska's face.
Maeriska just smirked. "Are you, Xena?" She glanced at the Amazons bearing down on them. "They want your head, you know. It will decorate the queens' dais when Ignesia takes her place as High Queen of the Amazon Nation."
Xena let go of the smirking kid and back-flipped into the nearest tree. She quickly maneuvered and swung through the branches of several trees, until she dropped down behind the Amazon kids. Several of the girls spun around to confront her with raised weapons, but relaxed when they saw who stood in front of them.
"Xena!" Eustine breathed a sigh of relief. "How'd…"
Eponin and Chilapa showed up and glared at Xena in confusion.
"Never mind," Xena said, as she waved them all deeper into the woods. "We're about to have company. Ladies, shall we?"
Eponin didn't hesitate and took off at a quick sprint through the trees. The eight youths followed, while Xena and Chilapa took up positions at the rear.
"What's going on, Xena?" Chilapa asked, as they continued on through the trees.
"I'll explain after we put some distance between us and that angry mob," Xena answered, as she mentally worked to come up with a plan. "Eponin!"
"Yeah?" The weapons master called without looking back.
"Alpha Pi Kappa!" Xena exclaimed. "We need to split up!"
"Got it, Ace!" Eponin raised a fist. "Pi team, with me!" She called as she veered off and three girls followed suit.
"Kappa team, this way!" Chilapa veered off in the other direction with three girls following her.
"Meet you at the waterfall in two!" Xena shouted, as she caught up to Eustine and Aestia. "To the trees, girls," she said, as she did a quick somersault into the nearest tree.
Xena waited for the two girls to join her and then they veered north. She knew the Northern Amazons were as skilled at maneuvering in the trees as she was. While many of them would give chase on foot, others would take to the trees. Xena had the girls climb higher into the thinner branches, as they continued in a northerly direction. She had no intention of outdistancing her pursuers.
"There," she pointed to a fir tree just ahead that would suit her plans nicely, as her excellent hearing picked up the sounds of their pursuers.
They made it to the tree in a few short heartbeats, then Xena silently signaled for the girls to climb higher. The girls did exactly what they were ordered to do without argument. As Amazons by birth, if not yet by initiation, they were well-acquainted with following orders and doing exactly what they were told to do.
Alpha Pi Kappa was the emergency contingency plan Xena had come up with for just this kind of situation. She hadn't known there would be an army of vengeful Amazons waiting for her when she'd come up with the plan. It was just something she and Eponin had agreed upon when they'd camped that first night. Having several inexperienced Amazon youths with them who would be a liability in a fight was their first concern.
Xena put her fingers to her lips and signaled for the girls to remain hidden in the pine branches. She then vaulted several trees away until she was sure her charges would remain safely hidden. When she was far enough away, she dropped from the tree she was in and crept through the bushes to await her prey.
Three Northern Amazons came charging through the bushes directly in front of her and Xena waited patiently for the right moment. Then she stood up in front of them.
"Hello, ladies," she smirked, as she unsheathed her sword and stood facing them.
The three women stopped and fanned out with swords drawn.
"Come quietly and we'll let you live, warrior," a stout brunette with wary gray eyes said. "We know who you are, Xena."
"Not really in the mood for chitchat," Xena glared at the woman, while she kept her peripheral vision trained on the other two Amazons trying to flank her. "I'm training some newbies to add to the Thracian ranks, you see."
"You're…training Amazons?" The brunette sputtered. "What blasphemy is this? You murdered our sisters and now you would train other murderers?"
Xena was ready for the tall Amazon's attack from her left and merely met the woman's blade with her own. She followed the block up with a swift kick to the woman's midsection. The woman had barely dropped when the woman to her right attacked. Xena met the attack with ease and quickly disarmed the surprised Amazon, who tried to charge her like a bull. Xena merely sidestepped the woman and let her slam head-first into the tree next to her.
"That all ya got?" Xena returned her attention to the woman in front of her.
Xena knew where the others were and just waited for them to drop from the trees and show themselves. She met a sword strike from above and caught two arrows in one hand before they could pierce her side. She then sidestepped a sword thrust and launched herself into a somersault that took her over the head of the brunette. Standing behind the woman, she put her blade to the Amazon's throat.
"Back off!" Xena shouted to the converging women, who instantly stopped in their tracks.
"Step away from Etiene, Xena!" A voice behind Xena made her turn to meet blazing blue eyes of the blond she'd seen emerge earlier from the makeshift hut. "You don't stand a chance against my warriors! They all have orders to kill you if you don't surrender."
More than a hundred Amazons stepped from the trees to surround her. Xena could tell there were more still hidden. She knew the jig was up. She also knew she could fight her way out of the situation. After all, she'd fought off more than a hundred Persians not all that long ago. But these weren't Persians and she hadn't set up any booby traps to catch them in. These women were part of a heritage that her partner shared and one that she was soon to join. She had to face them-had to face this latest demon from her past.
Xena tossed her sword to the ground and backed away from the woman with her arms raised in surrender. Several Amazons stepped forward and grabbed her, while Etiene picked up Xena's sword and handed it to the blond. Maeriska stood next to the blond with a satisfied grin on her young face. Xena's eyes never left the blond's.
"Impressive, Xena," Cyane walked right up to the warrior and glared at her. "Do you know who I am?"
"You're their queen, I presume," Xena answered casually with an upraised brow.
"I am Cyane, Queen of the combined Northern tribes," the woman crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the slightly taller warrior. "Named for the great queen who stood against you and lost her life by your hand." She spat at Xena's feet in derision. "My sisters," she raised her hands and turned a slow circle to take in the women around her. "I give you the murderer of our esteemed queens! Xena! Also known as the Destroyer of Nations!" Her eyes met Xena's. "Alti's minion and the woman who single-handedly laid waste to the leaders of the Northern tribes!"
A loud cheer went up from the warriors, who raised weapons and waved them in triumph, as they continued to cheer.
Gabrielle felt her heart constrict, as she faced the large woman towering over her. A wrestling match. That was the final event. A wrestling match. She swallowed down the lump in her throat and tried not to tremble at the prospect of besting Mashuka. The woman was huge. She probably weighed five times more than Gabrielle.
"My ass is grass," the bard muttered, as Ephiny vigorously massaged her shoulders.
Gabrielle was dressed in a simple leather top and high-cut leather skirt. Her feet and hands were wrapped tightly in stiff leather thongs covered with cloth. The wrappings were meant to protect her hands and feet. This was more than a simple wrestling match. As Ephiny had hurriedly explained, the idea was to incapacitate one's opponent using whatever means necessary-including punching, jabbing, or even kicking.
"You'll do fine, Gab," Ephiny encouraged in a tone that was somewhat less than encouraging. "Just remember everything that Xena taught you about this type of fighting."
"Like, don't let your opponent take you to the ground?" Gabrielle shot back sarcastically.
"Exactly," Ephiny didn't quite catch the sarcasm in the bard's tone. "And don't turn your back on her."
"If she knocks me to the ground and gets on top of me," Gabrielle continued in the same tone. "You'll be the sole queen of the Thracian tribe, you know."
Ephiny's hands stopped. "Uh…"
"Exactly," Gabrielle turned to face the dumbstruck regent. "If I go down, I'll be dead. Have you seen the size of that woman?"
Ephiny recovered enough to shrug. "Then don't let her take you down, My Queen," she smirked.
"I should let you fight in my place," Gabrielle glared at the woman. "It would serve you right."
"Not in the rules," Ephiny resumed massaging the bard's tense shoulders. "Relax, will ya? You'll do great."
"Just in case," Gabrielle continued with little enthusiasm, "you have my right of caste-again. It's all yours, Eph. Solari, you bear witness. Ephiny, I give you my right of caste. You are now sole ruler of the Thracian Amazon tribe."
"Ugh!" Ephiny rolled her eyes. "Your wit has no end, Gab. Just win, will ya? Keep the damned right of caste and just kick her butt."
"Kick more than her butt, my queen," Solari responded with a smirk.
Gabrielle eyed both of them in turn, the sighed. "Let's just get this show on the road, shall we?" Gabrielle turned away from the two women and bounced on the balls of her feet as she did some warm-ups to loosen her muscles.
They were on the practice field, surrounded by a large crowd of eager onlookers. The crowd was situated in a perfect circle, as several Amazons with long staffs stood around the perimeter of the inner fighting arena.
Mashuka wore a similar outfit to Gabrielle's, but hers barely fit the woman whose girth nearly matched her height. The Southern queen's hands and feet were similarly wrapped and her dark, frizzy hair framed her round face in wild disarray.
"…if I should die before I wake…" Gabrielle muttered softly, as she stepped into the center of the cleared space and continued dancing on the balls of her feet. "I pray to Elysia my soul shall take…"
Mashuka followed suit and the Amazons with staffs snapped their weapons horizontally to form a circular barrier. The crowd suddenly erupted in loud cheers and jeers, while the two opponents made their way to the center of the makeshift arena.
Gabrielle and Mashuka tapped their wrapped fists together. Mashuka hit Gabrielle's fists with a bit more force than expected, and Gabrielle winced.
"May the best Amazon win," the Southern queen grinned.
"Go easy on me, Queen Mashuka," Gabrielle quipped, as several onlookers chuckled.
Mashuka's grin broadened. "I might, Queen Gabrielle. You are such a small woman compared to me. I don't really wish to produce bad blood between our tribes by breaking you in half." She finished with a wry smirk.
Gabrielle took several steps away from the larger woman and set her stance. Xena's advice rang through her head at that moment: "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." Gabrielle's strategy was simple: Stay as far away from the woman's meaty fists as possible.
And then Mashuka charged toward her with a loud, angry growl. Gabrielle watched the woman barreling down on her and waited until the last possible moment. Then she sidestepped the charge and let the larger woman fly past her. Mashuka's momentum took her several steps past Gabrielle. She finally managed to stop and turn to face a grinning Gabrielle.
Mashuka growled and charged again. This time her arms were outstretched as she barreled down on the dancing bard. Gabrielle merely ducked beneath an outstretched arm and let the woman barrel past her again. But Mashuka wasn't to be deterred. She rounded her enormous girth with surprising speed and landed an unexpected blow to the bard's side.
Gabrielle felt the breath rush from her lungs, as she stumbled forward and grabbed her side. Her breath returned with a gasp, as she leaned heavily against a staff barrier.
"You're supposed to stay away from her, Gabrielle," Ephiny chided from nearby.
"Ya think?" Gabrielle panted breathlessly, as she turned to face the center of the arena.
"Here she comes again," Ephiny advised, but Gabrielle was already on the move.
The bard decided on a more direct approach and launched herself, feet first, into the charging Amazon. Her feet impacted solidly in the middle of the larger woman's chest. Both women fell backwards and Gabrielle was the first to recover. She got to her feet and pounced on the larger woman. But Mashuka just tossed her over her head like a sack of potatoes.
Gabrielle landed flat on her back and moved quickly to the side. She was in time to avoid having the larger woman slam her into the ground. Instead, Mashuka landed in the dirt with a grunt. Gabrielle just kept rolling until she was completely clear, then jumped to her feet. She launched herself high into the air with a hand on her fist and an elbow poised to strike Mashuka between the shoulder blades. But Mashuka rolled away in time to avoid the blow and managed to get to her feet before Gabrielle could.
A grunt warned Gabrielle that the southern Amazon was about to strike. Gabrielle did a backwards somersault and just avoided Mashuka's body slam. Dust billowed up around the enormous Amazon, who quickly climbed to her feet and faced Gabrielle with a low growl. Mashuka crouched low and stalked her prey more slowly this time.
Gabrielle felt herself backed into the barrier behind her. Mashuka just kept right on coming toward her. She knew the woman's intention was to trap her against the barricade. But Gabrielle had no intention of giving in that easily.
With her own war cry leaving her lips, Gabrielle closed the distance between them and launched herself into Xena's signature forward flip. It was the same move she'd demonstrated to her erstwhile partner the day the Persians showed up. Unfortunately, she still hadn't quite mastered the landing.
"Ugh!" Gabrielle groaned as she cleared the Amazon with ease, only to land awkwardly on the same foot she'd sprained not so long ago. Her ankle twisted painfully and she went down in a heap. "Gods on Olympus!" Her anger flared and she felt her heartbeat quicken in time with her painfully throbbing ankle.
Gabrielle knew her opponent was charging toward her again. In less than a heartbeat, she hopped to her good foot and turned to face the woman. A loud howl of triumph erupted from the larger woman as she barreled down on Gabrielle with purposeful strides. Victory was assured as Mashuka watched Gabrielle favor her injury.
But Gabrielle's anger was not something to be trifled with at that moment. It continued to surge through her until she planted both feet firmly on the ground. The pain just added fuel to a fire that was already surging into an uncontrollable wildfire raging deep within her smaller frame. The intensity of her rage released the demon and Gabrielle threw back her head to cry out to the heavens above.
Ephiny watched the change come over her friend and a feeling of dread shot through her. She watched as Gabrielle's muscles suddenly tensed in anticipation of the larger woman's attack. Then the bard actually did throw back her head and scream to the heavens. The noise was enough to send a shiver of dread through Ephiny's entire being.
Continued in Part 2.
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