For disclaimers and other stuff see Part 1 . Angst level is a little higher in this part. Thanks for sticking in there with our girls.
“Oh, sweet Artemis! No!” Ephiny exclaimed, as she tried to breach the barrier that separated the onlookers from the two combatants. “GABRIELLE, NOOOOOO!!!!”
The regent looked on helplessly as the southern Amazon queen bore down on Gabrielle with surprising speed. But that wasn't what had Ephiny's attention. The look in Gabrielle's eyes had changed—hardened. It was the same look that had come over her friend in the clearing shortly after they'd enjoyed a picnic together and some men had attacked without warning. It was a look that meant certain death to any who opposed the diminutive warrior-bard and queen of the Thracian Amazons. It was also a look that the southern Amazon queen was completely ignoring.
Mashuka had no idea what was happening to the woman in front of her, nor did she really care. Her charge was bringing her closer and closer to an assured victory over the last obstacle in her way. Soon she would be celebrating her appointment as High Queen of the Amazon Nation. She tasted the sweetness of her assured victory. The entire Amazon Nation would bow down before her and grant her the authority to pass judgment on them. Adrenaline drove her forward, until she was within a hand's breath of her smaller opponent.
And then she was flat on her back, staring up into the face of something altogether inhuman. The smaller Thracian queen snarled, as her fist descended with lethal force and connected painfully with Mashuka's jaw. A loud crack filled the hushed silence and sent a jolt of agony through the larger woman's entire head. Blow after blow rained down on her from fists that felt as hard and unyielding as small boulders. Mashuka tried to throw the she-devil off her, but Gabrielle just rode her like a wild colt.
A hush fell over the crowd, as Gabrielle rained blow after blow down on the larger woman's unprotected face. Mashuka continued to writhe beneath the small wildcat, until she finally lost consciousness. But, even then, Gabrielle continued to use the larger woman's head as a punching bag. The wraps on her hands soon turned red with Mashuka's blood, as Gabrielle continued her unyielding assault.
“GABRIELLE!!!” Ephiny shouted, as she finally managed to push through the barrier and charge toward the two combatants. “NOOOOOOOO!!!!”
Gabrielle felt, rather than saw, the new threat. Her entire body sprang off the bloody and bruised woman beneath her, as she spun around to meet her next adversary. She had no idea who was heading toward her, but every fiber of her being was poised to strike out at the newest threat.
Ephiny stopped just out of the bard's reach. “It's over, Gabrielle,” the regent held out a staying hand, as she warily eyed the crazed woman staring intently at her. “I'm not going to hurt you.” Her tone was low and calm, as she warily stood her ground. “You won. You beat her—literally.”
The rage was quickly ebbing and with it that surreal detachment that had come over her so suddenly that she hadn't had time to realize what was happening. Then Gabrielle glanced behind her and saw the beaten woman lying utterly still on the packed earth. A cry of anguish tore from her lips and her legs gave out beneath her. She dropped like a stone to her skinned knees and fell forward onto fists red with the southern queen's blood, as a violent wave of nausea hit her.
“Stay back!” Ephiny shouted to the gathered throng that suddenly surged inward.
Ephiny never gave a thought to what she did next and was by the bard's side instantly as the crowd poured in around them. Gabrielle heaved violently, completely unaware of the press of bodies around her, as Ephiny tried to push the crowd back far enough to give them room to breathe. Several southern Amazons jumped them with angry glares, their intentions quite clear.
“She killed our queen!” A woman equally as dark as Mashuka, but with a much slighter build, shouted.
“Death to Queen Gabrielle!” Someone else's voice rang out above the murmurs and grumblings that followed the outburst. “Death to Mashuka's murderer!”
Ephiny's eyes met Solari's an instant before the crowd seemed to fall in on them with one massive surge. Ephiny landed on top of Gabrielle and heard the woman's dry heaves. She tried her best not to squash the bard, but felt the press of bodies pushing down on them both.
“They're trying to kill us,” Ephiny gasped, as more bodies joined the pile and forced her down on top of the bard. “Gabrielle, get pissed, really pissed! NOW!!!”
Gabrielle's head was spinning with all that was happening. Her stomach was still trying to rebel against the sudden waves of guilt that had washed over her as soon as the rage subsided. And her senses were still heightened from the fight. The crush of bodies on top of her pushed the air from her lungs and suddenly she couldn't breathe. Panic assailed her and then the rage flared back to life.
It came over her so suddenly and violently that she was completely conscious of the moment she lost control. This time her mind didn't have time to detach itself, as she felt her muscles surge and her entire body launch itself upward. Bodies flew in all directions and landed in a tangle of arms and legs, as Gabrielle's bloodlust resurged with a vengeance. The experience was completely different from those other times, however.
This time Gabrielle was completely conscious the instant she lost control of her body. Something—or someone—suddenly took control. The difference this time, however, was that she was right there inside her body. She wasn't in control, but Gabrielle was completely aware this time. She was an unwilling participant, but a participant nonetheless.
It was surreal. Her entire body was pulsing with energy and she felt her heartbeat quicken. Several Amazons—she knew they weren't her Thracian sisters—rushed her with weapons drawn. Her body met each attack with a warrior's precise movements, as her body kicked, punched, and jabbed. She landed a blow to one woman's jaw and heard the crack of bone, as the woman fell away from her in a spray of blood. Another woman swung a sword at her head. She watched herself duck the blade and slam a fist into the woman's ribcage with enough force to shatter bone on impact.
Her body threw that attacker over her shoulder in time to meet the next, who thrust her blade toward Gabrielle's exposed midsection. Instinct seemed to drive her onward, as she grabbed the sharp blade in one wrapped hand, ignoring the pain as the blade sliced right through the wrappings and the leather thong protecting her hand. The salty tang of her own blood hit her nostrils like a physical blow. But the demon sharing her consciousness had already surged to life within her. The beast was in complete control.
“NOOOOOO!!!” She silently raged, as she felt completely helpless within her own body. “I WILL NOT YIELD!!!”
Her hand ripped the sword from her attacker's hand and slammed the hilt into the surprised woman's face. A spray of blood shot from the woman's mouth as she fell. Gabrielle felt, rather than heard, the beast laughing within her, as the Amazon's blood showered her in its sticky warmth. The beast seemed to feed on the heady aroma of blood that covered her, but Gabrielle was no longer simply a passive observer.
“Who are you?!?” The bard struggled to regain control of her body. “What do you want with me?!?”
“YOUR SOUL!!!” The beast screamed in a high-pitched tone that echoed inside her head. Gabrielle dropped the sword from limp fingers and grabbed her head. “YIELD TO ME OR DIE, MORTAL!!!” The demonic voice screamed again.
“NO!!!” Gabrielle shouted aloud with her hands still on either side of her head. “I will not yield to you or anyone! This is my body. DO YOU UNDERSTAND???”
“THEN DIE!!!” The demon screeched loud enough for all to hear.
Gabrielle felt as if her head was about to explode as the high-pitched screech ripped through it with such force that she saw red only behind her eyes. Sparkles of light danced in her vision and the world around her spun wildly. A gust of wind whipped up and swirled through the air, while storm clouds moved in and cast dark shadows all around her.
“Leave me be, Eritreius!” Gabrielle ground out between gritted teeth. “I am not your minion! I will not yield. You will no longer use me for your evil ends! These are my Amazons! This is my nation! Be…GONE!!!”
Ephiny stared in shock at her friend, as Gabrielle shouted at some unknown and unseen entitity. The bard was holding her head and tottering on unsteady legs. The rest of the Amazons lay scattered on the ground around the woman and an eerie wind swirled around the bard.
“Gabrielle!!!” Ephiny shouted above the din, but her voice was lost in a sudden gust of wind that engulfed her friend.
Ephiny could only watch in shocked silence as the storm clouds converged on the bard. No sound, except the roar of the wind, pierced the silence. But Ephiny knew something was not right. Something had taken hold of the bard and was struggling for control over her friend. It was then that the regent realized the true danger that faced them all. Gabrielle was no longer in control and had to be stopped.
“YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME, MORTAL!!!” That irritating chalkboard-grating voice squealed in its otherworldly tone. “YOU ARE MINE!!!”
“ERITREIUS!!” Gabrielle shouted again. “GET THE HADES OUT OF MY HEAD!!!”
Gabrielle bent down, lifted the sword and turned the blade until the tip was resting against her bare midsection. She lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “Leave me alone this instant or I will kill myself and send your miserable soul to the Underworld where it belongs.” She waited for a response. “NOW!!!”
“Okay, okay!!!” The voice finally ceded with far less vehemence.
The windstorm died down to a mere whisper of a breeze and the world seemed to suddenly right itself. The sky cleared as suddenly as the storm clouds had converged, quickly parting to reveal the blue sky above and the sun dipping toward the western horizon.
“Why are you doing this?” Gabrielle lowered the sword tip to the ground, as she felt her equilibrium return. “Why did you take control of me like this?”
“It's the only way,” the voice said with far less bravado than before.
The high-pitched tone was lost and the voice sounded much more human. Gabrielle breathed out a relieved sigh as she realized she'd finally managed to thwart her internal adversary. But the victory was short-lived when it occurred to her that Eritreius was still there.
“The only way for what?” Gabrielle prodded.
“To accomplish what I set out to do all those seasons ago,” Eritreius said. “I made a deal—sold my soul for a chance at immortality—and I must carry out my end of the bargain.”
Gabrielle shook her head and closed her eyes against a sudden wave of nausea. “Ugh!” She groaned. “Isn't there another way for you to accomplish this…whatever…without you being inside me?” She felt another wave of nausea roll over her again. “I can't continue like this. There has to be another way. I'm not a killer, Eritreius. Every time you take over and use me to kill people, you taint my soul. This has to stop. You have to stop.”
“I have nowhere else to go,” Eritreius said. “You were the perfect conduit—the perfect host—and I the rage you keep bottled inside you.” The voice suddenly brightened. “Yours is the first I have run across that I can so easily manipulate. Your rage is so very pure and…unchecked. And your blood is infused with such power, such strength. You are almost immortal.”
“What?” Gabrielle glanced around at the women slowly stirring around her. “I don't understand.”
“Your anger manifests itself in your blood. When you don't release the anger it just smolders inside you until it grows into pure, unadulterated rage,” Eritreius said in childlike awe. “My mistress gave me the ability to tap into mortal rage and use it come alive. I never dreamed I would find such a wonderful gift obscured in such an unassuming package.”
“Mistress? Goal?” Gabrielle put a hand to her brow. “What are you talking about?”
“You have little time for idle chitchat,” Eritreius said. “Our sisters awaken. They will not be pleased that you killed so many of their own.”
Gabrielle threw up her hands in frustration. “Just tell me what you want. Maybe I can help you accomplish it, so you can cross over to be with those sisters who have already passed from this life.”
“Impossible,” Eritreius answered flatly. “My bargain was for an eternity of existence. Immortality. It was only because of the Mother Goddess' interference that my body ceased to live the instant the bargain was struck. And now that my soul has found the perfect vessel in which to reside, I refuse to seek release until my task is complete—or you die, whichever comes first.”
“WHAT?!?” Gabrielle blurted, startling several nearby Amazons who were sitting up and gazing around in confusion. “You can't be serious. What kind of crap is this?” She hissed in a lower tone.
“Gabrielle?” Ephiny approached her friend with caution, as she glanced at the women around them.
“Eph, this really isn't a good time,” Gabrielle spun to face the regent. “I'm kinda in the middle of something here.”
“Then I'm afraid I must insist, My Queen,” Solari suddenly appear with her sword held on Gabrielle, as did several other Amazons.
“What's going on?” Gabrielle gazed around her at the armed women. “Eph?”
“Drop the sword, Gabrielle,” Ephiny said cautiously. “You're not… yourself.”
“Drop the sword and let Solari escort you back to your hut, Gabrielle,” Ephiny cut her off. “As your regent and the bearer of your right of caste, I hereby relieve you of your duties as Queen of the Thracian Amazons.” Ephiny glanced around pointedly at the women who now stood around them. “You are all witnesses to this moment. Gabrielle, Queen of the Thracian Amazons, is hereby under house arrest for her crimes against the Nation.” She returned her gaze to Solari. “Take her to her hut and post an armed guard.” She returned her gaze to Gabrielle. “You will remained confined until I figure out what's going on.”
“Are you serious, Ephiny?” Gabrielle asked incredulously. “After all we've been through together…”
“I'm sorry,” Ephiny interrupted. “I'll come by to see you as soon as I can.” She nodded to Solari. “Take her.”
“Yes, My Queen,” Solari nodded to the regent-turned-queen. She then grabbed one of Gabrielle's upper arms and nodded to another Amazon who grabbed the other. “Let's go, My…Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle went quietly and did not respond to the voice that continued to ramble nonsensically in her head, as if Eritreius had no idea what was happening. Gabrielle knew no one else could hear the voice inside her head. The Amazon's words were scathing, as Eritreius tried to ignite Gabrielle's ire. But the bard merely pushed all her emotions down and locked them safely away in the back of her mind, as she allowed herself to be escorted toward the hut she shared with Xena.
Eustine glanced over at Aestia. They were both still sitting in the pine tree Xena had left them in more than a candlemark ago. Unable to see or hear much with the pine boughs surrounding them, the two youths just sat there and waited for the warrior's return.
Toe-headed blond Eustine raised a brow at her Amazon sister. “You think we should go ahead without her? The others should be at the rendezvous point by now.”
“Do you think something happened to her?” Aestia raised a slender, black brow on her alabaster face. Violet eyes gone dusky in the late afternoon sunlight looked expectantly at her best friend. “Maybe she got caught.”
“It's possible, Tia,” Eustine nodded. “Haven't seen any Northerners pass below us in a while now.”
“Let's go, then,” fourteen-year-old Aestia said to her younger friend, as she climbed down several branch levels. “Besides,” she glanced at the sun dipping towards the horizon, “I really don't want to be searching for that waterfall in the dark.”
“Right behind ya, Tia,” Eustine said.
“Xena, Destroyer of Nations and murderess of the Northern Amazon queens,” Cyane held a sword high above her head, as she stood in the midst of her Amazon sisters.
A cheer went up from the women that surrounded her, as the queen turned a knowing glare on the tall warrior. Xena's hands and arms were bound tightly behind her back with stout rope and a leather collar was secured around her neck. Another rope bound her ankles tightly together as she stood in the midst of the cheering and jeering Northern Amazons.
“Do you have any final words before we carry out your sentence?” Cyane glared at the taller woman, then yanked hard on the rope attached to the leather collar strapped tightly around the warrior's neck.
Xena winced, but remained silent and just stared straight ahead. She said a silent prayer that Gabrielle would eventually find her, then thought better of that. She didn't want her loving partner to experience an eternity in Tartarus because of her. That would be totally unacceptable.
“Nothing to say in your defense?” Cyane hissed close to Xena's face. “No words of pleading before we carry out your sentence for your crimes against our sisters, Xena?”
Xena's eyes met the eyes of her judge, jury and executioner. Blue to blue, both women just stared at each other for a moment. Xena knew if Gabrielle had been there she would find a way to convince Cyane that Xena's future deeds would far-outweigh any punishment these women could wield against the warrior. But Gabrielle wasn't there. And then a thought occurred to her.
“I request a stay of execution,” Xena said simply.
Cyane just stared at Xena for a moment. Then a smile broke out on her face, followed by a low chuckle that soon turned into a guffaw of laughter. The women surrounding them suddenly burst into laughter, as well. But the laughter soon subsided, as Cyane returned her attention to the warrior.
“And why would I grant a stay of execution to someone who showed our queens absolutely no mercy?” Cyane's blue eyes just glared at Xena. She raised her arms and slowly circled the warrior, before returning her gaze to Xena's. “You left them in those trees to rot, Xena. Their bones still remain exactly where you left them, as a testament to your butchery and a reminder to future generations not to trust a female warlord who would ally herself with us.”
“I ask to be judged by the High Queen of the Amazon Nation,” Xena said in a loud, clear voice that rang out across the assembled Amazons.
Cyane's eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Our tribes do not answer to the High Queen. We are Northern Amazons!”
The crowd cheered, but then fell silent when the shamaness stepped forward.
“Xena has a right to seek final judgment from the High Queen,” Yanush waved her shamaness' staff. “I saw in a vision that she has taken the initial steps to become a member of the Thracian tribe. She is thereby bound by our laws, especially those of the Thracian tribe.”
Cyane rounded on the shamaness. “Yanush, you speak treason against our sisters! Xena is our prisoner and is bound by our laws, not theirs. She killed our sisters. She must pay the price for her crimes against those women she wronged.”
“I do not disagree with you, My Queen,” Yanush stepped up next to the taller blond and the even-taller warrior. “I, too, seek justice for our sisters. But I also know that Xena is one step away from being a Thracian Amazon. Her past misdeeds and future actions all reflect on the woman who would become her bond-mate.” A smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “Besides, punishment before the entire Nation would be much more satisfying, don't you think?”
A blond brow quirked. “Who shares the burden of the warrior's guilt as her bond-mate, then?” Cyane asked curiously.
The shamaness smirked wryly. “None other than your would-be hostess, the woman who issued the invitation to the Gathering of the Amazon tribes—Queen Gabrielle of the Thracian Amazons.”
Cyane's gaze met Xena's. “Oh ho! You would bond yourself as consort to the Queen of the Thracian Amazons? What game do you play this time, Xena? What do you hope to gain? Will you use her as you used our sisters?”
“It's not a game,” Xena answered matter-of-factly. “I love Gabrielle with all my heart, soul and being. She is my soulmate.”
Cyane's eyes narrowed suspiciously again. “And she shares the same feelings as you?”
Xena shrugged. “She does.”
The two Amazons took several steps away from the taller warrior to converse. Xena just stood there and waited, hoping beyond hope that these women would see the wisdom of escorting her back to the village. She also hoped Gabrielle had somehow held up her end of the bargain. Her entire plan hinged on the bard being named High Queen of the Amazons. Otherwise, well, she was essentially screwed.
“Okay,” Cyane returned to stand directly in front of Xena with her arms crossed over her chest. “I will grant you a temporary stay of execution, Xena.” A groan from the gathered women went up and Cyane held her hands up to quiet the crowd. “Long enough for us to travel to the Gathering and present our case to the entire Nation.” She glanced at Yanush with a sly grin before returning her attention to Xena. “I'm sure they are completely unaware of your crimes. It will be quite interesting to find out what the High Queen comes up with as a form of execution. Maybe they'll decide to draw and quarter you.”
Cyane merely smirked, as she returned to her tent with Yanush on her heels. The queen's advisers also followed in the queen's wake. The Northern queen paused just inside the small space and turned on the women.
“Send a messenger ahead to the Thracian village,” Cyane ordered. “Let them know we will be there to present our case against Xena. Tell them we have already passed judgment and expect Amazon justice to prevail in the punishment that shall be carried out in front of the entire Nation. We leave immediately.”
“I will send our swiftest messenger, My Queen,” one of the advisors—Resharia—bowed low to the taller blond.
Cyane turned her back on the women, as she thoughtfully considered something else. “Leave us,” Cyane ordered to her advisors, as she turned to place a staying hand on Yahush's shoulder. “I seek your wisdom, shamaness.”
The group of four advisors hesitantly bowed before their queen and left the tent.
“My Queen?” Yanush gazed expectantly at Cyane. “What wisdom do you seek?”
“Send a messenger to Ignesia,” Cyane gave the shamaness an intent look. “Tell her our plans have changed and we bring the Usurper's lover to her before the next new moon. If she is going to issue her challenge, it better happen soon.”
“You know that this Gabrielle knows of my existence,” Yanush said. “She has seen the ritual slaying of her sister, the one called Rena. What if she uses that as an argument against Xena's execution, My Queen?”
Cyane reached out and caressed the shamaness' cheek with her hand. “Oh, Yanush,” she said. “You must have faith that I am prepared to handle anything Xena and her lover will throw at us. We shall kill two birds with one stone as we unite our tribes under the mask of the High Queen.”
“You have changed your mind about this farce, My Queen?” Yanush eyed the blond skeptically. “We both know our traditions do not include uniting with the other tribes. It has never been done, even during the dark days of the Utma.”
Cyane crossed her arms over her chest and lifted a finger to her chin thoughtfully. “I believe we can use this to our advantage, Yanush. We unite the tribes under one queen, execute the murderer of our esteemed sisters and declare war on those unwilling to follow us into battle against our enemies.”
Yanush smirked. “And our enemies—those who would see us wiped from the face of the earth?”
Cyane slammed a fist into her open palm. “We crush them all!!!”
Gabrielle paced for the nth time. On her way past the window that overlooked the path leading to the village center she glanced outside and noted a golden glow and sparks emanating from the bonfire in the center of the village. She could also hear the whoops and cheers of the gathered Amazons. They were celebrating.
They weren't mourning the death of Queen Mashuka. No. The large woman had somehow survived her injuries and was recovering in the healer's hut. Ephiny had sent a messenger over to tell her that much. It was something positive, at least.
But the whole talking-to-herself thing wasn't sitting well with any of the women who had witnessed her sudden uncontrollable rage. Bloodlust. That's what they were calling it. Demonic bloodlust. Several Amazon passersby had whispered the labels loud enough for Gabrielle to catch the gist of what they said.
Gabrielle impatiently ran a hand through her hair and winced when she realized she'd used her bandaged left hand. She glanced at the injury and frowned. She didn't remember being hurt during that whole debacle on the practice field, until one of her guards pointed out the blood on her hand.
Nissia had been summoned and had tsked over the wound as she cleaned it thoroughly and wrapped it a bit tighter than Gabrielle would have liked. The elder healer had looked up from her completed task and met Gabrielle's eyes for a moment, before she gathered her supplies and left without a word. The woman was so strange that way, Gabrielle mused.
Her thoughts returned to her present situation, as she ran her other hand impatiently through her hair and briefly noted how much it had grown out since her last trim. Time for Xena to give her a haircut. The thought barely registered before she realized Xena was missing. That thought brought her up short. She knew her partner—knew Xena better than she sometimes knew herself. What would motivate Xena to just up and abandon her charges like that?
That thought just frustrated and irritated Gabrielle. It was one thing for her to be under house arrest for allowing her anger to get the best of her. It was quite another for Xena to just up and disappear without a trace.
Gabrielle's thoughts returned to her present situation and she sighed. No, they weren't holding her in the village stockade—which was little more than a storage hut with metal bars over the windows. But she was still being held against her will. It rankled that she hadn't been able to talk her way out of her present situation. Ephiny refused to listen to her arguments, citing Gabrielle's unpredictability as a reason to keep her safely away from the other Amazons.
Add to that the arrival of a mysterious messenger from the Northern Amazons and things were just downright unacceptable. The fully-leather-clad woman sprinted into the village just after dusk. But no one seemed inclined to share the message with Gabrielle.
“Urgh!” Gabrielle flopped onto her back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. “One, two, three…”
A knock at the door brought her up short and had her sitting up to face her visitor with eager anticipation.
“You decent?” A muffled voice said through the door crack.
“I'm not naked, if that's what you're wondering,” Gabrielle shot back with a wry smirk.
Ephiny opened the door and glanced around, then stepped inside when she saw Gabrielle sitting on the edge of the bed. Her hesitation rankled on Gabrielle's last nerve.
“I'm alone, Eph,” Gabrielle said. “The ‘demon's' gone.”
Ephiny entered with an apologetic half-smile. “Sorry,” the regent said as she grabbed a chair and sat down facing Gabrielle. “How're you holding up?” She glanced at the bard's bandaged hand. “The hand okay?”
“It's fine,” Gabrielle glanced down at the appendage in question. “But I gotta tell ya, I'm not a big fan of being cooped up inside for very long, Eph. You know how antsy I was when I was recovering from that fever.”
“I hear ya.” Ephiny nodded.
“So, how long is this going to last?” Gabrielle met the hazel eyes gazing intently at her. “How long are they gonna make you keep me here? I'm not a danger to anyone, especially now that I know a little more about what's been going on with me. I'm not contagious, Eph. You can't catch it.”
Ephiny shrugged. “Honestly? I'm not sure what's going to happen, Gabrielle. When I asked you to get angry, I just thought you'd get pissed enough to find the strength to get us outta there in one piece. Didn't know it would actually unleash that…um…thing inside you.” She sighed heavily and raked a hand through her blond curls. “You really did a number on Queen Mashuka, by the way. Her tribe is seeking restitution.”
“Restitution?” Gabrielle scowled. “Or retribution?”
Ephiny frowned and shook her head. “They want blood for blood. You almost killed her, Gab. These games aren't supposed to get that intense. Injuries are expected, but not the kind that Mashuka suffered.”
Gabrielle's heart sank. “It wasn't really my fault, Eph. Eritreius…”
“And that's not all,” Ephiny interrupted flatly.
Gabrielle eyed the regent. “What more could there be?”
“A messenger from the Northern tribes arrived,” Ephiny continued.
“Yes, I know. I saw her running through the village earlier,” Gabrielle said. “No one will give me a clue as to the message she delivered.”
“Xena's in their custody,” Ephiny said flatly. “They captured her two days ago in the forest just beyond our border.”
Gabrielle swallowed hard. “And?”
“The message was from their queen, Cyane. She wants us to come up with a suitable means of execution for Xena,” Ephiny explained. “Something about Xena's crimes against the Northern tribes and murders committed several years ago.”
“WHAT?!?” Gabrielle suddenly jumped to her feet.
Ephiny remained seated, but eyed her friend warily. “Calm down, Gabrielle. You're not exactly out of the woods here, either.” She leaned forward and rested her arms on her thighs. “Ignesia is talking about challenging you for the queen's mask. Of course, since you aren't really queen anymore…” She shrugged.
Gabrielle sat back down with a heavy sigh. “Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?”
Ephiny shot the bard a sad grin. “If Ignesia does challenge you and you lose the mask, my tenure as regent is finished. On the bright side, you'll be off the hook for what you did to Mashuka,” Ephiny added with a wry smirk. “Okay, so that's not really funny. But if you do lose, Ignesia will choose her own regent and enforce her own agenda on the tribe. It won't be pretty, I assure you. She is one of Velasca's cronies, after all.”
Gabrielle absorbed that for a moment. A change of leadership? How would that affect the tribe? And what would Ignesia do as queen? Gabrielle pretty much knew the answer to that question.
“She wants to undo everything we've accomplished over the last few years,” Gabrielle muttered absently. “She wants the tribe to go to war.”
“Velasca in a nut—and I emphasize the nut—shell,” Ephiny groused. “It'll be the end of us, for sure. It will certainly mean an end to all the peaceful negotiations we accomplished. Those treaties won't hold up with Ignesia declaring war on everyone within a hundred leagues of our borders. And don't think she won't. She's convinced the encroachment on our lands is an abomination.” She smirked. “Sound familiar?”
Gabrielle ran a hand over her face. “I can't let her take the mask, now, can I?”
“You aren't exactly in a position to defend your position as queen, Gab.”
“And why not?”
The regent shot Gabrielle a raised-brow look. “There's this little matter of your,” she held up her hands and mimed quotes, “demonic bloodlust.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “I am not a demon, Eph.”
“I know that, you know that, but…”
“I told you, it's Eritreius.”
“Eritreius,” Gabrielle sat up. “She's one of your—our—Amazon ancestors. A real wacko who did some…um…interesting things to defend her tribe against some neighboring cannibals, way back when. She also apparently endeared herself to a goddess or two in exchange for immortality. Unfortunately, she also lost her body in the bargain, which is why she needs mine in order to exist.”
Ephiny's face scrunched. “Cannibals?”
“They kidnapped several of Eritreius' sisters and…well, let's just say cannibals aren't really choosy about what—or who—they eat, as long as meat is on the menu,” Gabrielle finished. “Eritreius rallied the warriors and went after the cannibals—killed every last one of them and then she ate their leader's heart. I don't know when the rest of it happened, though. None of this immortality bargaining stuff was in her scrolls.”
“And she's inside you?” Ephiny shot the bard a skeptical look. “Is she the one who's been causing you to go all berserker when you fight?”
Gabrielle nodded and tapped her temple. “I'm not sure how she got in here, but she uses my rage to…um…take over my body and make me do those things—at least, that's what she told me.”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head. “She's not aware when I'm calm and relaxed. Apparently she can only assert herself into my consciousness when I'm angry or upset. She also mentioned she's feeding on the power in my blood—or some such nonsense that I really don't understand.”
“Is she there when you and Big Xe…um…?” The regent snickered.
“Laugh it up, Amazon,” Gabrielle growled. “And the answer's no. That's definitely all me.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “Or, at least I think it's me.”
“Okay, then,” Ephiny cleared her throat at the look she got from the bard. “Sounded like the two of you were having a really intense discussion back there on the practice field. Did you work things out—come to an agreement? Will she let you fight your own battles from here on out?”
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped and she sighed heavily as she collapsed back onto the bed. “Not really, no. I really don't know what to do about her at this point. She says I'm unable to control my rage, which is why she can so easily assert herself when I fight.”
“So, don't fight,” Ephiny shrugged matter-of-factly.
“And what about Ignesia?”
“Er…um…yeah, that could be a problem,” the regent conceded. “On the upside, Xena will be here tomorrow. She's still your champion and all.”
“And the downside?”
“Xena won't be able to fight in your place this time around,” Ephiny frowned.
“What?!?” Gabrielle sat bolt upright.
“Sorry, Gabrielle,” the regent gave the bard her most apologetic look. “If that messenger was correct—and I don't see any reason to doubt the message she delivered—then Cyane has a claim against Xena. She's essentially under arrest and awaiting final judgment…”
“From a High Queen that hasn't yet been named,” Gabrielle added.
Ephiny nodded. “Yep.”
“So, what you're saying…”
“Is you have to fight Ignesia on your own when she issues the challenge,” Ephiny finished for her.
Gabrielle swiped both hands down her face. “Oh, boy.”
“Yeah, my sentiments exactly,” Ephiny sighed. “Hey, maybe I can keep her off your back for a few days…at least long enough for you and Xena to figure out how to get rid of that thing inside you.”
Gabrielle shot the regent an incredulous look. “Seriously? And would your plan entail keeping me cooped up here until you clear Xena of murder and a High Queen is named? Or are you just planning to lock Ignesia in the stockade for those few days?”
“Uh,” Ephiny paused to consider the bard's words. “Not such a good idea?”
“I'm climbing the walls in here, Eph,” Gabrielle rested her chin on an upraised fist. “I can't stay locked away here for much longer. This hut might not survive another bout of,” she mimed quotes with one hand, “demonic bloodlust.”
Ephiny chuckled. “I'm sure it will survive a few candlemarks longer.” She leaned forward and patted her friend's knee. “Just hang in there, Gabrielle. I'll bring over some stuff from the archives for you to read. I'm sure the Archival Mother can recommend something that will help clear some of this up for us.”
“Sounds…dry,” Gabrielle huffed and then pouted. “I want my warrior pillow.”
Ephiny sniggered. “Xena know you're calling her a pillow?”
“Don't tell her I said that,” Gabrielle sobered. “She'll kill me and hide the body.”
This time Ephiny actually laughed aloud. “You two are priceless.” Then she sobered. “Did she?”
“Did she what?”
“Hide those bodies.”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head emphatically. “She would never do that, not even back when she was a ruthless warlord.”
“She just left them then?”
Gabrielle glared at Ephiny but managed to keep a tight hold on her anger. “Xena wasn't the only one involved, Eph,” she clarified evenly. “There was someone else there with her.”
“Alti,” Gabrielle nodded and then breathed out a tired sigh. “Gods, this whole thing is so…” She blew out another breath. “Why can't any of this ever be simple?”
“With you two?” Ephiny scoffed. “When is anything ever simple where you're concerned, Gabrielle? Huh?”
“You'd think I'd learn,” Gabrielle groused and just shook her head.
“There's certainly never a dull moment when the two of you are around,” Ephiny let her expression soften.
A loud cheer followed by several loud whoops drifted in through the open window.
“Sounds like they're having a good time out there,” Gabrielle commented dryly.
“They're all drunk off their feathered asses,” Ephiny frowned and then stood up to leave. “I better get back over there before Pony gets it in her head to issue her own challenge.” She sighed and tiredly rubbed a temple. “Damned woman thinks she's invincible when she's had a few.”
Gabrielle smiled sadly. “Enjoy the celebration. I'll just be sitting here,” she glanced up at the ceiling, “counting the knots in the ceiling.”
“You need me to send anything over?” Ephiny glanced over at the sideboard, where Gabrielle's untouched meal still sat. “I could have Aestia whip you up something hot that you will actually eat. Xena would kill me if she thought I wasn't taking care of you in her absence.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I'm fine, Eph. I think I'll just turn in early and try to get some sleep before tomorrow. I'm sure I'll need to be at my best when all this finally blows up in our faces.”
Ephiny noted the bard's defeated posture and the sadness in her tone. It wasn't like Gabrielle to give up so easily, but then again…
“You gonna be all right, Gab?”
Gabrielle shot the regent a reassuring smile and nodded. “I'll be fine after some sleep.” Then she yawned. “Sorry ‘bout that.”
“Don't worry about it,” Ephiny smirked. “I gotta…” she motioned toward the door with a thumb.
“Go, yeah I know. Don't worry. I'll be fine,” she motioned toward the door. “Go have fun and take care of that big lug of yours. Eponin will probably need you more than I will tonight.”
“See ya in the morning, Gabrielle,” Ephiny said on her way out the door.
“I'll be here.”
Gabrielle waited until her friend was gone before stripping off the light chemise she'd donned after cleaning off the grime and blood from the fight with Mashuka. She still shuddered when she remembered what she'd done to the woman and how Mashuka had looked when Gabrielle was finally able to stop Eritreius from using her to beat the woman into a bloody pulp.
The bard doused the candles in the room, then climbed beneath the furs and pulled them up to her chin. The soft glow from the banked fire cast eerie shadows on the pine ceiling above her and she sighed heavily. She wanted so much to have Xena there with her. She longed to feel the warrior's strong arms wrapped around her.
“Sleep well, Xe,” Gabrielle muttered softly, before letting her eyes close as she drifted off to sleep.
Xena was doing anything but sleeping. She was hanging by her bound wrists from a tree. The limb that Cyane had hung her from was high enough that her feet were unable to touch the ground. She dangled there by her numb hands and tried to breathe. Having one's arms extended above one's head was tantamount to crucifixion. But Xena knew how to deal with that particular punishment and this one, as well.
Her eyes were closed and she was concentrating on each shallow breath. Her arms hurt—no, ached unbearably. The muscles were stretched beyond their limits. Cyane had only snickered at her, as she told Xena to enjoy dangling there for the entire night—if she survived the night.
Xena slowly breathed in and lifted herself slightly to account for her expanding ribcage. It was the only way to allow her lungs to fill with much-needed air. The effort cost her, but there was no help for it.
“I can't believe she's still alive,” a voice nearby caught Xena's attention.
“We should cut her down,” another voice said.
“Are you suicidal?” The first voice exclaimed in a hushed whisper. “You cut her down and Cyane will have your head on a platter.”
“I'm a princess,” the second speaker stated confidently. “She won't kill a member of the royal line. Not if she knows what's good for her.”
“And what if the warrior kills you, Otere?”
“Are you serious, Yakut? She's barely breathing,” Otere scoffed. “Like I said before, she's lucky to still be alive. I ain't never seen someone survive one of Cyane's tortures.”
“Me, neither,” Yakut agreed. “Here.”
Otere took the bone-handled dagger from Yakut's outstretched hand. “Thanks.”
“Least I can do,” Yakut smirked. “You did save me from that boar the other day. Thought the thing would gore me right there on the spot. Your aim was perfect, sister.”
“It always is,” Otere smirked back at her younger friend.
Xena watched anxiously as two girls emerged from the bushes and stood gawking at her. The taller girl looked to be no more than ten, while her companion actually looked close to thirteen. Xena glanced from one to the other. She wondered if they would just stand there gawking all night.
“You two gonna…cut me down…from here or just stand there…flappin' your…lips,” Xena's low voice caught both their attention. “If you just…toss the dagger up here…I'll cut…myself down.” Her stilted speech let them know how difficult it was for her to breathe.
“Well, what're you waiting for?” Yakut glanced at her shorter friend. “Toss it up there, Tere.”
Otere took several steps toward the dangling warrior and carefully took aim. She tossed the dagger into the air, just inches from Xena's bound hands. Miraculously, the warrior caught the hilt of the dagger between her outstretched fingers. With agility born of desperation, Xena quickly sawed through the coarse ropes and dropped from the tree. She glanced around to see if anyone had heard her and noticed that all was quiet.
“Thank you,” Xena nodded to the young woman standing before her and handed over the dagger. She gingerly rubbed her chaffed wrists and winced slightly as the circulation returned with excruciating tingles. “You two shouldn't be here. Go on, get back to your sleeping furs before someone figures out you had a hand in cutting me free.”
“What are you going to do now, warrior?” Otere asked, as she handed the dagger back to its original owner.
“Wait for morning,” Xena said as she sat down at the base of the tree with her knees pulled up to her chest and her arms resting on top of them.
Yakut gave her a disbelieving look. “You're not going to escape?”
“And risk having Cyane send all three hundred warriors into the village with weapons drawn in retribution?” Xena shot back. “No, I'll take my chances right here.”
The two young women glanced at each other sardonically.
“Okay, it's your funeral pyre,” Yakut shrugged and walked away.
“Don't say we didn't warn ya,” Otere shot down to the warrior, as she hesitantly walked away.
Xena just rested her head against the rough bark of the tree behind her. She was grateful for the reprieve from the torture of dangling from the tree. She just hoped Cyane appreciated the fact that she didn't run when she had the chance.
It was time.
Ignesia spent the better part of the night watching the festivities going on around her. She had fully recovered from her strange ordeal, but it was disconcerting to have that Northern Amazon messenger enter the village. The messenger wasted little time and found Ephiny before Ignesia could intercept the woman. It was an oral message and Ignesia hadn't been close enough to hear what was said.
Then the woman had looked pointedly at her and winked just before she turned and left. Ignesia had merely stood there for several moments, pondering what turn of events had prompted someone to deliver a message to the Thracian regent. And then Ephiny had turned to glare at Ignesia. The look in the regent's eyes alone could have melted stone.
“Are you prepared?” A sultry voice next to her brought Ignesia back to the matter at hand.
Ignesia pulled her gaze from the bonfire burning brightly before her and met Patrice's intense gaze. Amber eyes met gray-green as the two studied each other. Then Queen Trika passed in front of them and the spell was broken.
“A celebration to rival celebrations!” The drunken queen yelled at the top of her lungs and continued on. “Too bad the little Thracian queen is missing all the fun!!!” She stumbled as she mounted the dais and managed to sprawl next to one of the other queens.
Ignesia ignored the woman and concentrated on her companion. She was not a queen or a queen's advisor and, therefore, could not be on the dais without an invitation from one of the royals. It grated on her to be so easily thrust aside. She hadn't been a part of the royal proceedings and the council was barely being consulted while their queen resided with them.
Erg! Gabrielle, the Usurper, was doing very little in regards to protocol. The elders and council members had only been briefly introduced during the first days of the Gathering. And none of the queens seemed inclined to correct their hostess' breaches in protocol.
“What are you thinking?” A hand touched Ignesia's bare thigh and her Patrice's intense gaze. “Are you all right?”
“Just thinking how nice it will be to take my place among the other queens,” Ignesia put her hand over the hand caressing her thigh. “And…” She moved Patrice's hand higher while her eyes smoldered with desire and she closed the distance between them. “I was thinking how perfect it would be to have you there by my side.”
Their lips met in a bruising, searing kiss. Tongues sparred and Ignesia took control. She pushed Patrice to the ground and trailed kisses down the smaller woman's leather-clad body. When she reached a leather-clad breast, she yanked the covering aside and continued her assault. Patrice cried out as Ignesia's teeth bruised her tender flesh. But when Ignesia pulled away, Patrice merely shoved her hands into the woman's hair and yanked her back down.
Their coupling was swift and fierce. There were no pleasantries as they gave and took with equal abandon. It was over within a few short heartbeats, as Ignesia tucked her device back into her skirt with practiced ease. But Patrice wasn't quite ready to let her lover go so quickly.
“I've a question for you, Iggie,” Patrice smiled into questioning amber eyes, as she continued to clasp her legs around the woman to keep her from bolting.
“And if I choose not to answer? Or I choose to lie to you?”
“Would you deny me an honest answer? Is that how you would begin your reign as our queen?”
Ignesia frowned. She wanted nothing more than to leave the woman and return to her own musings. Ignesia isn't one for connecting to those she shared sexual encounters with. But Patrice's legs were well-muscled and strong. She had a firm hold on Ignesia.
“What do you want, Patrice?” Ignesia growled.
“Do you also find pleasure from the appendage you keep hidden in your skirt?” Patrice gave the woman above her a knowing smirk. “Or were you merely pretending when you joined me in climax?”
“Does it matter?” Ignesia quirked a brow at the woman.
Patrice wrapped her arms around Ignesia's waist and pulled her closer. “It excites me to have you inside me, Iggie. I feel as if we are one. I…It's a wonderful device and brought us both such pleasure.”
Ignesia leaned in and stroked the woman's dark brow. “You know it really isn't me.”
“I do,” Patrice nodded, as she pulled Ignesia closer. “But I don't care. I enjoyed it more than having a man inside me. You are more exciting to me than any man.”
Ignesia eyed Patrice skeptically. “Have you had many men, Patrice?”
“I gave birth to a healthy baby boy just six winters ago,” Patrice answered with a wry grin.
“So, that would be a yes,” Ignesia deadpanned. “And your son?”
“Lives with his father in Treidius,” Patrice's expression turned sorrowful. “He's a fine boy and takes after his father in looks and temperament. He has blond hair and blue eyes just like Keldon.” She smiled sadly. “Bryce even knows how to hunt and fish. He is very much like his father. Keldon told Bryce his mother died of a fever shortly after he was born. He'll never know me and I'll only see him in passing, if I ever choose to visit Treidius. It's a mutual arrangement. It's how it must be.”
Ignesia pulled away and sat back. She moved to Patrice's side and leaned on an elbow. This wasn't at all what she'd been expecting when she'd engaged Patrice in conversation. She certainly hadn't counted on actually feeling something akin to sympathy for the woman.
“Did I say something wrong?” Patrice sat up. “I'm sorry, Iggie.”
Ignesia ran a hand through her hair. “It's not you, Patrice. It's me. I'm not worthy of your attentions, I'm afraid.” She met the woman's gray-green eyes. “You deserve better.”
Patrice stroked the woman's cheek with the backs of her fingers. “Better than the future queen of our tribe?”
Ignesia grabbed the hand in an iron grip and held it firmly as she searched Patrice's eyes. “Is that all I am to you?”
“N-no,” Patrice shook her head. “You're so much more. You are strong, brave, and worthy of leading our sisters into a new and brighter future. You're not afraid to lead us to war against our enemies. I admire you for your courage, Iggie. I wish…I wish I could be more like you. You're so sure of yourself—so confident. You are a born leader.”
Ignesia held the woman's wrist for a moment longer, then let it go and turned away. She ran her thumb absently along her low lip, as she watched the flames dance high into the sky and the dancers move to the beat of the drums. Could it be the woman had feelings for her that went deeper than she had originally thought? She glanced at Patrice and saw the small pout on the woman's swollen lips.
“Are you angry with me, Iggie?” Patrice's low voice in her ear almost unnerved her. “Did I displease you?”
“No,” Ignesia shook her head and placed a hand on Patrice's bare thigh. “You didn't displease me at all.”
“Then what is it?” Patrice said, moving her body closer to Ignesia's. “Please. Tell me what I can do to please you.”
Ignesia considered the offer a moment. She then stood up and put a hand out to Patrice.
“Come with me,” Ignesia commanded in a gentle voice.
Patrice didn't hesitate. She took the taller woman's hand in hers and let Ignesia pull her to her feet. The two made their way through the crowd of sprawled Amazons, some of whom were busy with their own entertainment. Neither woman glanced down or appeared to do more than navigate the sea of bodies, as they made their way to Ignesia's hut.
Morning dawned bright and hot. It was midsummer in Thrace and the humidity level was matching the heat. The Gathering was winding down and no High Queen had yet been named. Gabrielle had been the most likely candidate, but her incarceration raised questions no one wanted to delve into.
Said bard was pacing at that moment. It was the morning that Xena would arrive in the village. She knew that from her conversation with Ephiny. Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to see her warrior, but knew the likelihood of that was slim. She might catch a glimpse from the porch, but that was all.
Gabrielle felt the heat pressing down on her from all sides. She wasn't supposed to venture from the hut's interior, but couldn't stand to be indoors any longer. She yanked open the door, stepped out and leaned on the porch railing.
“Queen Gabrielle,” one of her guards—Chalinda—turned and glared at her. “You're not to be out here.”
“I need some fresh air,” Gabrielle said, as she defiantly remained at the railing and inhaled deeply of the pine-scented air. “It's too stuffy in there.”
Chalinda glanced at her counterpart and they both shrugged. “I don't see how it could hurt,” she muttered to her companion.
“No skin off my nose as long as she stays on the porch,” the other woman said, as she returned her attention to the area surrounding the hut. “They told us to keep her here. They didn't say she couldn't sit on the porch and enjoy the morning air.”
Gabrielle gazed around at the quiet surroundings. There weren't many people up and about, despite the increasing heat of the day. It was only a few candlemarks past dawn, so many of the villagers were probably still asleep in their beds. The hint of a smile touched her lips.
“Chalinda?” Gabrielle softly addressed the guard closest to her.
“Yes, My Queen?” Chalinda turned deep brown eyes to her.
Gabrielle actually stepped off the porch and approached the woman. “I need to run an errand. It's very important.”
“M-my…” The woman didn't see the blow coming until it was too late.
A quick strike to the temple and Chalinda went down in a heap. Gabrielle didn't take time to feel anything, especially guilt. She just turned to the other woman, whose back was to her. With her body coiled for action, she watched the woman turn toward her.
“Wh…” The other woman went down just as quickly, as Gabrielle rounded on her with a swift kick to the head.
Gabrielle glanced around to see if anyone had heard the commotion, but there wasn't a soul in the area. She quickly dragged both guards into the shade under the porch. She reemerged and adjusted her normal traveling outfit—the green top and brown skirt. Without a backward glance, Gabrielle silently crept away into the woods behind the hut, careful not to be seen or make a sound. It was one of the things Xena had taught her well.
The bard knew exactly where she was going. She carefully picked her way through the dense undergrowth. Sunlight filtered down in small patches—enough to see by, but not enough to provide the stifling heat that permeated the village. She could take the well-worn path to the Temple of Artemis, but she didn't want to chance meeting anyone by accident. Two unconscious Amazons were enough for her to explain for one morning. She was on an important mission and desperately needed to consult with the priestess.
As Gabrielle reached the clearing where the temple stood, she crouched in some bushes and waited. Several Amazons entered and exited through the imposing stone structure. Gabrielle patiently waited and counted those who entered and exited. She knew when the last of the worshippers finally left to return to the village. Several heartbeats later she emerged from her hiding place and slipped soundlessly inside the temple.
Muted torchlight lined the dark hallway off the main entrance. Unlike all the other worshippers, Gabrielle didn't wait in the entryway for an acolyte to grant her an audience with the priestess. She merely slipped down the darkened hallway toward the priestess' chambers and paused before the single wooden door.
With a quick knock, Gabrielle pushed the door open and entered the room. The priestess' quarters were spacious, yet sparsely furnished. A single bed occupied one corner of the room and a small table with two chairs sat near a small window set high up in the wall. The window allowed some sunlight to peek through, but the room was mostly lit by two torches set in sconces on opposite walls. The bare walls of the room were the same bleached white stone as the rest of the temple, which gave it an open feel and kept the temperature bearable, despite sweltering temperature outside.
“Hello, My Queen,” a woman greeted her from the far side of the room in a silky voice that seemed to resonate throughout the space. The woman was tall and willowy, with auburn hair in a single braid that hung down her straight back. She wore a simple, white gown indicative of a priestess of the Order of Artemis. “I have been expecting you.”
Gabrielle stood her ground. “Oh?”
The woman slowly turned piercing gray eyes to meet Gabrielle's. “It was foretold to me.” She nodded, as she seemed to flow toward the table. “The goddess has been quite curious about you, lately.”
“I need to speak to her,” Gabrielle decided to throw caution to the wind. “Where is she?”
“I'm afraid that's not possible,” the priestess bowed her head, as her golden-ringed fingers deftly poured the contents of a pitcher into two wooden cups. “Would you care for refreshment?”
Gabrielle took a step toward the woman, then stopped and held up a hand. “Myrindia, I need to speak to Artemis about what's happened to me. It's urgent. I don't have time for games.”
“I know what troubles you, My Queen,” Myrindia held out a cup to her guest. “You wish to know if the goddess is responsible for the being that possesses you.”
Gabrielle's eyes widened imperceptibly before she quickly hid her reaction behind an indifferent mask. “How do you know?”
“The goddess knows,” the priestess answered, as she lifted her gaze to meet Gabrielle's. “She is not.”
“Does she know why Eritreius' spirit is here?” Gabrielle prodded. “Or at least how to get rid of it?”
Myrindia gazed at her long and hard for a moment. “The being told you its name?”
“I guessed,” Gabrielle huffed. “She didn't deny it.”
“It spoke to you?” A dark brow rose on the priestess' alabaster face.
“We had a brief conversation,” Gabrielle confirmed. “Now, answer my questions.”
Myrindia glided—yes, glided—across the room to a hidden doorway that merely looked like it was part of the wall. She raised a hand and silently beckoned Gabrielle to follow.
They made their way through a small descending corridor that eventually opened into a small chamber. The chamber was lit by a hundred pure-white candles. There were candles everywhere and the wax from them dripped in puddles on the floor and tables. The room smelled like burning wax and acrid smoke.
Gabrielle followed the priestess to a small raised platform on the far side of the chamber. There was another hidden doorway and Myrindia merely passed through it into a larger chamber. The second chamber had an array of plush pillows scattered all over the stone floor. Some were piled in the corners, while others had been haphazardly thrown about in seemingly wild disarray. Each pillow was made of plush velvet with gold piping. The velvet was dyed in a myriad of dark tones—burgundy, navy blue, black, forest green.
“Nice,” Gabrielle muttered with an eye roll.
“It suits its purpose,” Myrindia commented. “The goddess is quite particular about the furnishings. She expects only the best when she visits.”
“Her modesty was never in question,” Gabrielle commented under her breath.
Myrindia stepped to the center of the room and raised her hands, palm upwards. She then let her head tilt back as she muttered some words in a language Gabrielle didn't understand.
A bright flash announced Artemis' presence. Gabrielle merely stood there waiting for the immortal to speak.
“You should kneel when in my presence, mortal,” Artemis sneered as she arrived in a blinding flash. “Your continued disrespect knows no bounds.”
“I don't kneel before the gods,” Gabrielle answered snidely. “You should know that by now.”
“My Goddess,” Myrindia quickly dropped to her knees and bowed before the white-clad immortal. “How may I serve?”
“Leave us,” Artemis commanded, without even glancing at the kneeling woman.
“By your command,” Myrindia quickly rose to her feet and exited the chamber.
“So?” The goddess raised a red brow to the shorter mortal. “You didn't come here and seek my council simply because you enjoy my company. What do you want?”
Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest to keep her trembling hands from giving away her fear of the immortal standing before her. She had never faced the gods alone before. Standing before Artemis' intense gaze was quite intimidating. But Gabrielle merely swallowed her fear and set her shoulders confidently.
“Why is Eritreius taking control of my body when I'm angry?” The bard blurted.
“Eritreius?” Artemis actually looked perplexed by the question. “Do I know this…I assume it's a mortal. You wouldn't be here otherwise.”
“One of the first queens,” Gabrielle explained. “She led her people against a horde of cannibals and wiped them from the face of the earth. Then she ate their leader's heart. Your priestess seemed to think you knew who I was talking about. I guess she was mistaken.”
“Fine, I know who you're talking about,” Artemis growled testily. “She was never one of mine, I assure you.”
“Before your time?” Gabrielle shot back with a wry grin.
“No,” Artemis glared at the blond standing defiantly before her. “I just wasn't…The Amazons were a…primitive race in those early days, so…”
“Not worth your time,” Gabrielle nodded sagely with a slight twinkle of mischief in her green eyes. “I understand.”
“Do you?” Artemis glared skeptically at Gabrielle for a moment.
“You're a god,” Gabrielle shrugged in answer. “It's in your nature to look down on those you deem unworthy of your attentions. It's what you do.” She smirked. “Like right now. You think I should be respectful towards you just because you could kill me right here where I stand. At least, that's what you believe. But Xena and I don't respect the gods, because the gods don't respect human life. We're just pawns to you. You don't really care about your worshipers, either, as long as they continue to keep you in power. What you seem to miss, though, is that you have a symbiotic relationship with us. Without us you would cease to exist.”
“Mortals have their uses,” Artemis eyed her a moment longer, then shrugged. “Besides, history is fickle. Sometimes there are those who are worthy of our…attentions, as you put it. Others,” she shrugged and lifted her chin smugly, “not so much. Being immortal has its advantages, like not having to put up with someone like you.”
Gabrielle snorted her derision. “Or playing with people's lives and using those same people for your own amusement.”
Artemis shot her another irritated glare. “If you were one of us, you would truly understand,” then she smirked. “But, alas, you are sorely lacking, mortal. You merely have the taint of a demon's blood coursing through your veins. The more's the pity.”
A blond brow shot into Gabrielle's hairline. “Eritreius?”
Artemis waved a dismissive hand. “Not my concern.”
“So, you won't tell me how to get rid of her?”
“It's a spirit,” Artemis shrugged, as if that were answer enough.
Artemis sighed in exasperation and stood with her hands on her hips. “You need someone to exorcise it from you.” Then she crossed her arms over her chest and glared smugly. “In a word, you need a shamaness to perform the ritual. Duh, as Aphrodite would say.”
“Ask your…lover,” Artemis shot back. “She knows all about them. Matter of fact, she might even know one willing to do the deed…for a price.” The smirk that lit her features was not one of amusement. “You remember that little scene I showed you? Ask her who the shamaness was.”
“Alti?” Gabrielle asked.
“Ah, so Xena told you about Alti,” Artemis tried to hide her disappointment. “No matter. You'll need her or one like her to release the spirit and send it on its way. Of course…”
The goddess paced for several moments, pleased to see the raised brow of inquiry on the bard's face. It irked her to have to deal with someone like Gabrielle, but there was more going on than she cared to admit. Artemis also knew she couldn't jeopardize her tenuous truce with Aphrodite—and Dite loved the brat for some reason that Artemis couldn't fathom.
Gabrielle's brow rose. “Of course, what?” She asked hesitantly.
“Oh, just some stories I've heard,” Artemis answered cryptically, enjoying the mortal's frustration. “An exorcism can be a nasty affair, if the person performing the ceremony lacks experience. Rumor has it the results of a bad exorcism can actually leave the foreign spirit inside the body and exorcise the soul of the original owner.” Artemis snickered. “Pity.”
“And where does the owner's soul go?”
“Pft!” Artemis snapped her fingers. “Gone.”
“Gone, as in no longer in existence. No afterlife. No reincarnation. Just…poof! Gone,” Artemis answered smugly. “A soul cannot exist once it leaves its body, except when said body dies. Then the soul is released into whichever afterlife the person's beliefs dictate. Amazons go to the Amazon Land of the Dead. Those who reside in Greece and are under the judgment of the Greek gods go to Hades for final judgment. Those in other lands…well,” she waved a negligent hand. “They go where their gods dictate. I try not to keep up with all the other realms. Some are quite complicated and require one to follow too many rules and regulations.” She shook her head, as if to clear it. “Needless to say, a soul released from its body before death is doomed to non-existence.”
Gabrielle felt her legs giving out and just managed to sit down on the nearest pillow. She put her hands on either side of her head and held it as the goddess' words echoed through her mind. Non-existence. That was one possibility for her if she were to go through with an exorcism. Otherwise, her other option was to carry Eritreius around inside her until the end of her life.
“And you're sure there's no other option?” Gabrielle asked without looking up at the goddess towering over her.
“Death,” Artemis shrugged. “But you can't kill yourself. Suicide will only doom your soul to an existence that far surpasses even non-existence.” Artemis shivered involuntarily. “I've seen what happens to those who take their own life. Nasty business.”
Gabrielle sat there with her head in her hands. She didn't know how long she'd been there until a gentle hand on her shoulder made her look up into Myrindia's compassionate eyes. She glanced around.
“The goddess has left us,” the priestess said with a gentle smile. “Come.”
Gabrielle absently followed the priestess down a corridor. She had no idea where they were going and didn't really care. Her options at that point were limited. Regret washed over her as she mindlessly put one foot in front of the other. And her thoughts turned to Xena.
“You do not appear pleased by what the goddess told you,” Myrindia said conversationally, as they rounded a corner and ascended a set of stone steps.
Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. “I—”
They had emerged into bright sunlight near the entrance to the temple. A squad of armed Amazons quickly stepped forward, then parted to reveal a stern-faced Ephiny. The regent had her arms crossed over her chest and looked none-too-pleased with Gabrielle.
“Gabrielle,” the regent bowed her head slightly, while keeping her eyes trained on Gabrielle's. The hint of a smirk played at the corners of Ephiny's lips, while a stern scowl marred her brow.
Gabrielle conceded a defeated smile. “Eph,” she said in a tone devoid of emotion. She glanced over to see Chalinda glaring at her. “I'm sorry I deceived and hurt you, Chalinda,” Gabrielle apologized softly. Chalinda merely nodded once and kept her stance. “Shall we?” Gabrielle turned back to the regent with a tired sigh.
They walked along the path through the woods toward the village, but then they veered onto another path. The new path would take them to the center of the village. Gabrielle glanced at Ephiny walking beside her.
“We're not going back to the queen's hut?” The bard inquired.
Ephiny shook her head. “I was coming to get you when I discovered Chalinda and Rylla tucked neatly beneath your porch,” she glanced at the bard and let the smirk play out a little more. “She's really pissed at you for knocking her out so easily, by the way. I think you hurt her pride more than that thick head of hers.”
Gabrielle straightened her shoulders. “She'll get over it.”
“Let's hope she doesn't hold a grudge,” the regent returned her attention to the Amazons surrounding them on all sides.
“Dare I ask why you were coming for me in the first place?” Gabrielle finally asked after several tense moments of silence.
“Ignesia is demanding your presence in the gathering area,” Ephiny's expression turned serious. “I think she's finally ready to issue the challenge.”
Gabrielle felt nothing at that point. This entire situation was getting on her last nerve, but the prospect of spending her life with the spirit of a dead Amazon inside her was disheartening. All she wanted to do was find Xena and bury herself in the warrior's warmth—despite the oppressing heat of the day.
Gabrielle sighed. “Figures.”
“Did you learn anything in the temple?” Ephiny asked, noting the defeated set to the bard's shoulders.
“I'm doomed,” Gabrielle gritted out between clenched teeth as they cleared the woods and entered the village.
A crowd of all the tribes were gathered, including the hulking Mashuka. The southern Amazon queen's face was still quite swollen, especially around the eyes. Her lip was sported a scab where it was split and her entire face was much darker than it normally was. Deep purple bruises were a testament to what Eritreius had done to the Southern queen through Gabrielle.
Mashuka stood up and turned to face the small group that approached. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of Gabrielle walking in the midst of the armed detachment. Then she saw Ephiny and her stance relaxed slightly.
As the group stopped before the dais, the warriors in front parted and stepped aside to let Ephiny and Gabrielle mount the raised platform. Gabrielle glanced down at the assemblage and saw Ignesia standing to one side, a confident smirk on her features. She also saw an unfamiliar group of Amazons standing opposite Ignesia and her cohorts. The newcomers were dressed in long tunics and leather pants decorated with bone, beads and feathers. Despite the oppressive heat, they seemed comfortable in their attire.
“Gabrielle of Potidea, Queen of the Thracian Amazons!” Ephiny's voice carried over the murmurs and grumblings of the crowd. “Queen Mashuka demands…”
“I demand the challenge!” Ignesia's voice drowned out Ephiny's, as she jumped up on the dais without preamble. She raised her fist and turned to the gathering. “I issue the challenge to this woman who claims she is queen of our people! She is not and never has been Queen of the Thracian tribe! She is a fraud! A usurper! She is no more an Amazon than the woman who travels with her!”
A cheer went up from Patrice and the rest of Ignesia's supporters. Gabrielle glanced in their direction and noticed that there were more women than there had been before. Ephiny was right. Ignesia was definitely gaining a considerable following.
Ignesia suddenly turned to face her. “What say you, Pretender?”
Gabrielle glanced at Ephiny and then met Ignesia's icy glare. “I say so be it,” she shrugged.
The crowd erupted loudly. Some cheered. Some grumbled their dissent. While still others—mostly the foreigners—murmured amongst themselves.
“Do you accept the challenge, My Queen?” Ephiny stepped between the two.
“I accept,” Gabrielle nodded with more confidence than she felt.
“Do you wish your champion to fight in your stead?” Ephiny's voice was loud enough to carry over the assembly.
“Your queen has no champion!” Another voice rang out over the crowd as Cyane jumped up onto the dais. “We lay claim to your queen's champion!” She glanced back at her sisters. “We lay claim to Xena, Destroyer of Nations!”
Ephiny's eyes widened, as she turned to address the newcomer. “And what claim do you have over our queen's champion?”
“Bring forth the murderer!” Cyane shouted vehemently.
The crowd parted to reveal a small group heading toward the dais. Xena towered over the women who surrounded her. She was bound hand-and-foot with stout rope and was being led by another rope attached to a thick leather strap around her neck.
Gabrielle's anger flared, but she managed to get it back in check immediately. She had no wish to unleash the spirit within at that moment. Eritreius fed off her anger and especially her rage. That just wouldn't do in this situation. She had to maintain her composure, especially her temper.
“What is the meaning of this?” Gabrielle turned her icy gaze on Cyane. “Who are you?”
“Please excuse my manners and our intrusion, Queen Gabrielle,” the blond woman bowed her head slightly, never taking her eyes off the bard's. “I am Queen Cyane, sole ruler of the combined Northern tribes.”
Gabrielle glanced over at Xena and silently appraised the warrior to be sure she was unharmed. Xena gave her a slight smirk and winked, as she was summarily yanked up onto the dais. The warrior didn't falter nor miss a single step as she mounted the steps to the platform.
“What crime is Xena accused of?” Gabrielle shot at the taller blond queen standing before her.
“She killed the Northern Amazon queens—murdered them all with the help of an accomplice,” Cyane answered loud enough for all to hear.
“Were you an eyewitness to these supposed crimes?” Ephiny raised a blond brow to the Northern queen. “What proof do you have that Xena was involved?”
“My predecessor, also known as Cyane, escorted Xena to a gathering of the queens in the forest near our village,” Cyane folded her arms over her ample bosoms. “My sisters and I were witnesses to their departure. Xena returned, candlemarks later—alone. The queens were discovered several days later—all dead. They were skewered on the branches of the trees. Their blood was dry by the time their bodies were discovered. Every one of them died a vicious, gruesome death.” She turned an accusing finger. “And Xena's responsible!”
The crowd cheered.
“Regardless of those supposed facts,” Gabrielle shouted to be heard above the din. “And they don't prove anything, I might add. Those deaths occurred more than ten years ago. The spirits of those dead women no longer cry for justice. They went to the Amazon Land of the Dead long ago.”
Cyane regarded Gabrielle for a moment and then stepped in closer. “What do you know of this?”
“Xena and I were already put on trial by the gods for this very thing,” Gabrielle leaned forward and lowered her voice so only Cyane and Ephiny could hear her. Her gaze met the other two and she could see confusion and disbelief staring back at her. “Xena was exonerated by Artemis herself, Cyane. Do you wish me to call on the goddess herself to back me up on this?”
“You speak blasphemy!” Cyane hissed.
“She speaks the truth,” Ephiny countered. “It happened when Artemis infected Gabrielle with an illness last autumn.”
Eyes the color of a summer sky shot to the regent's face. “You're her regent. I would expect nothing less than your loyalty and…”
“Artemis!” Gabrielle shouted unexpectedly. “Artemis! I call on you to appear before your chosen people!”
Gasps from the crowd were followed by a bright flash of light that suddenly coalesced into the red-headed goddess. Artemis rounded on Gabrielle.
“Oh, please,” Artemis glared at Gabrielle. “You think I'm Ares or Aphrodite and you can just…” Her words died on her lips as she surveyed the stunned faces staring in open-mouthed awe at her. “What is the meaning of this, bard?”
“Artemis, patron goddess of all the Amazon tribes,” Gabrielle smirked. “May I present your chosen people.”
Gabrielle waved a hand in the direction of the general assembly of Amazons. Those gathered were still staring in dumbstruck awe. Not a sound was uttered and no one moved as they suddenly found themselves in the presence of their patron goddess.
“You called me here for this?” Artemis put a bejeweled hand on a cocked hip and glared daggers at Gabrielle. “I don't do public appearances, bard. That's why I have temples and priestesses and…” She stopped herself in mid-rant. “How in the names of all the gods on Olympus did you manage to call me here, anyway? You don't have that kind…”
“We don't have time for the how's and why's,” Gabrielle interrupted. “I need you to tell Cyane, here, that you exonerated Xena in the murders of the Northern queens.”
“I did no such thing,” Artemis defiantly crossed her arms over her ample, gossamer-clad bosom and glared icily at Gabrielle. “She murdered those women as surely as we are standing here.” She shot the bard a smug smirk, as gasps erupted from the onlookers close enough to hear the exchange.
“You held her responsible, yes,” Gabrielle clarified. “But you also conceded that she paid a terrible price for what she did. You agreed that the death of her son was punishment enough for her misdeeds.”
“You also lied to me,” Artemis sidestepped the implication, as a red brow rose on her alabaster features. “You told me you weren't queen,” she glanced at Ephiny, “because you'd given your right of caste to your regent.”
“She did,” Ephiny jumped in with a firm nod. “She gave it to me just before she died in Thessaly, during the war with the Mitoans.”
“Enough!” Artemis' voice boomed so loudly that the platform actually shook under their feet.
Silence descended over the gathering like a heavy pall. Even the hushed whispers of conjecture and speculation stopped in an instant. All eyes were suddenly trained on the small group gathered on the dais. Ignesia stood to one side, afraid to say or do anything that would bring attention to her. Ephiny just stood her ground next to Gabrielle. And Mashuka, Cyane and Xena waited for the goddess' next move.
Artemis paced thoughtfully for a moment and then returned to stand before Gabrielle and Ephiny. “All right,” a glimmer of superiority shown in Artemis' otherwise-unreadable eyes. “I'll concede that Xena is no longer held responsible for her past deeds—at least as far as the Amazons are concerned.” Another gasp—this time from Cyane—had the goddess lifting her chin and looking down her perfectly-sculpted nose at the bard. “On one condition.”
Gabrielle eyed the red-headed goddess dubiously. “What's the condition?”
“You go ahead with the challenge,” Artemis glanced at Ignesia and back again, “without your champion, without using the spirit that resides within you and to the death. If you win, you keep the queen's mask and Xena is exonerated. If you lose…well, let's just say I don't think all the minions of the Underworld will be able to keep Xena from tearing apart Hades' realm in order to find you.” She smirked. “It might be interesting to see how far she'll go to get you back.”
Xena had managed to keep her expression completely neutral up to that point. But the goddess' words struck a chord inside her that actually sent a shiver of real fear running through her entire being. What game was Artemis playing at? Why a fight to the death? And, more importantly, what was this about a spirit residing in Gabrielle? What spirit?
“Fine,” Gabrielle answered confidently. “But…” Her expression turned thoughtful. “How am I supposed to fight without awakening Eritreius' spirit? It's not like I can control when she makes an appearance.”
Artemis smirked slyly. “You'll figure it out, I'm sure,” she said with a catlike gleam. “Break the rules in any way and Xena will face the consequences of her deeds against the Northern Amazons. And I'm sure they will seek an appropriate punishment for the loss of so many of their leaders.” She glanced at Cyane, who was watching with a combination of fascination and incredulity. “Do those terms meet with the approval of the Northern tribes?” Cyane merely nodded. “Good. And do I have your word that you will abide by any decision that is made here,” she asked Xena directly.
“I have no problem with it,” Xena answered nonchalantly, despite the fact she was seething internally over the goddess' interference. Her gaze met Gabrielle's and she smiled confidently. “I trust Gabrielle with my life.”
A blond brow shot up on the bard's face, before she quickly composed her features into a semblance of Xena's indifferent mask. Her heart was pounding so loudly in her ears that she was surprised she could still hear what was being said. She was also a little surprised no one else could sense the uncertainty and dread that suddenly overcame her like a dark pall of doom.
“Then I'll leave you to it,” Artemis said, before she lifted a bejeweled hand and snapped her fingers.
A loud crack of thunder sounded overhead, the wind suddenly blew in a gale and the goddess disappeared in a shower of silver and gold sparkles that quickly dissipated. A hushed silence once again fell over the gathering, followed by a cacophony of low mutters and murmurs.
Gabrielle and Ephiny exchanged a glance. Cyane rejoined her sisters, pulling Xena with her. And Ignesia stood where she was in utter disbelief.
“Well, you got what you wanted,” Ephiny glared at Ignesia. “Hope you're happy about it.”
Ignesia turned her dumbfounded gaze on the regent. “I…” she swallowed with noticeable difficulty. “That was the goddess, Artemis.” She glanced from Ephiny to Gabrielle and received nods from them both. “Does that sort of thing happen often around you?” She directed the question to Gabrielle.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Gabrielle shrugged. “Except that it's usually Ares and he's trying to seduce Xena into returning to him. Aphrodite shows up on occasion, too. But she's usually just around because Ares is causing trouble.” She glanced at Ephiny and saw the surprise in the regent's hazel eyes. “What?”
“You just hang around the gods and talk about them as if it's no big deal?” Ephiny asked.
“Hey, when you travel with Xena, anything's possible,” Gabrielle threw up her hands in dismissal. She turned her gaze on Ignesia and let her expression show how pissed she was. “One of us has to die, now, thanks to you.”
“I…” Ignesia began and then glanced away from the bard's intense gaze. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “I'm confident that I will be the victor in this challenge, Pretender.”
A blond brow rose. “Oh, you think so?” Gabrielle responded. She then shot a glance at Xena, who was watching her from amidst the Northern Amazons. “Do you truly realize what's at stake here, Ignesia? This isn't just about you becoming queen of the Thracian tribe.”
“No,” Ignesia let the initial bewilderment subside, as her courage returned. “This is about avenging Velasca and setting things right for all of us.” She, too, glanced at Xena. “It's also about seeing that justice is carried out and that a murderer is no longer allowed to roam free.” Her expression took on the confidence that she suddenly felt welling up inside her. “I will be queen and you will die, Gabrielle. All will know you for the charlatan you truly are.”
“This isn't just about the Amazons,” Gabrielle took a step toward the woman. “This is about so much more. Xena does so much good out there,” she pointed beyond the heads of those still gathered. “She's a hero to the helpless, a vindicator for those seeking justice.”
“You make her sound like Hercules,” Ignesia scoffed, then glanced again at the bound warrior. “She looks more like a trussed cow than a hero. You sure she isn't the helpless one?” She chuckled and felt her confidence boosted when Patrice stepped up beside her. “Our Northern sisters deserve justice!”
“Xena is never helpless,” Gabrielle said. “I assure you, she's only bound by those ropes because she allowed it to happen. If she was of a mind to escape her bonds, those ropes would be lying in a puddle at her feet in less than a heartbeat and there isn't a soul present who could put them back on her without serious consequences.” Her gaze turned pointed and intense, as she lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “And if I die by your hand, Ignesia, no amount of rope or leather or steel will keep her from avenging my death. She won't care if she dies in the process. Nothing will matter to her except seeing your head mounted on a pike for all to see.”
Ignesia met Gabrielle gaze defiantly. “Is that a threat?”
“It's a promise,” Gabrielle stated flatly.
Ignesia searched Gabrielle's expression for some sign that the woman was bluffing, but found nothing but certainty in the green gaze staring back at her. She kept the defiant expression plastered on her face, even though she was rethinking her options at that point. What had she gotten herself into? How had things gone so utterly awry?
After several long moments, Ignesia stepped back from the smaller woman and glanced over to her allies. Cyane was watching the scene intently from her place amidst the Northern Amazons. Xena was also standing there with more confidence and assurance than a prisoner should exude. Ignesia swallowed the lump in her throat.
The entire assembly seemed to be holding its collective breath, as Ignesia struggled internally for some way to extricate herself from the situation.
“What do you suggest we do about this dilemma?” Ignesia finally asked. “I take it you've come up with a way for this to be resolved to our mutual satisfaction?”
Gabrielle just managed to keep from cutting an I-told-you-so glance at her regent. “I think I can come up with something by morning. Why don't we share an evening meal together with our latest guests,” she did glance at Cyane, “then get a good night's sleep. I'll give you my answer first thing in the morning. Is that acceptable?”
Ignesia considered her options for a moment before nodding her head. “I suspend my challenge until the morrow, then,” she said in a voice loud enough for all to hear.
“Then we shall reconvene again right here after the morning meal,” Gabrielle nodded.
Ephiny and Gabrielle waited for Ignesia to gather her followers and leave the gathering area. Then they both breathed a heavy sigh of relief—and found both their shoulders summarily patted by a beaming Mashuka.
“Well played, sisters,” the Southern Amazon nodded. The purple bruises were almost lost on her dark features, but could be seen from that close up. “I was beginning to wonder how this would end. The arrival of our esteemed goddess was quite a nice touch, I must say. Wonderfully played, Queen Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle put a hand on the woman's beefy hand on her shoulder. “Queen Mashuka, I am so terribly sorry for what I did to you. It was not my intention…”
The woman chuckled. “Queen Gabrielle, I do not hold a grudge against you for my own shortcomings. I entered that contest with every intention of making you the one to wear these colors,” she indicated her bruises. “Instead, you beat the stuffing out of me. It has taught me a valuable lesson that I shall not soon forget.”
Gabrielle raised a blond brow in question. “Oh?”
Mashuka chuckled, then sobered. “Never underestimate your opponent, especially if said opponent appears much smaller and weaker than you. It might just turn out that they have a hidden strength that matches or even surpasses your own.”
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” Gabrielle nodded sagely. “Xena taught me that lesson during our first year together.”
“Your consort is a wise woman,” Mashuka said.
“Oh, she's not my consort yet,” Gabrielle corrected.
“Oh?” Mashuka gave both women an incredulous look.
“No,” Ephiny piped in. “Our illustrious queen here,” she put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and squeezed, “has yet to name Xena as her consort.”
“Xena's not an Amazon,” Gabrielle shot the curly blond an annoyed frown.
Mashuka glanced from the two women to the warrior in question. “Xena is not an Amazon?” She received two firm head shakes in answer. “How is this so? She wears the bearing of an Amazon like a second skin. I find it hard to believe she is not one of us.”
“Xena isn't a joiner,” Gabrielle answered, as if that explained everything.
“A joiner?” Mashuka asked in confusion. “I don't understand.”
“She isn't one to tie herself down to a particular cause or a people,” Ephiny explained.
“She has never associated herself with one group or one people?” Mashuka continued.
“Once,” Gabrielle answered. “She was a warlord and the head of an army. They turned on her and tried to kill her—made her walk the gauntlet.”
Mashuka glanced at the warrior, who was still silently standing amidst the Northern Amazons, her blue gaze, however, meeting Mashuka's. Mashuka's glance took in the ropes and bindings that held the warrior—or at least, that she believed held Xena for all intents and purposes. She was sure the warrior could dispose of them with barely a shrug, if the occasion arose. Then she returned her attention to Gabrielle.
“Was she a warlord and leader of the army when she killed the Northern leaders?” Mashuka's dark brow rose, as her eyes conveyed more than her words did.
Gabrielle's expression reflected a hint of understanding, as she asked, “Exactly what are you getting at, Queen Mashuka?”
Mashuka shrugged nonchalantly. “It's none of my concern, but if one is leader of an army and were to kill the leader of our tribe, that would be considered an act of war, not a criminal act. Our laws for dealing with prisoners of war are far different from those dealing with crimes committed against fellow Amazons. Since Xena was not—and is still not—an Amazon when she killed those women, she is not subject to trial and conviction as a murderer. Her acts fall under the rules of war, instead.”
Gabrielle mulled that over for a moment. “So, you're saying Xena isn't a murderer, but a war criminal?”
“Why was she kicked out of her own army in the first place?” Mashuka continued.
“She saved the life of a child,” Gabrielle answered. “Her men, especially her lieutenant, Dagnon, felt it was a sign of weakness. They granted her request to leave the army, but not before they made her go through the gauntlet.”
Mashuka's eyes widened, before she caught herself. “I've heard tales of those forced to experience that punishment. Not a gentle one, by any means. Many do not survive the injuries they sustain from the initial blows, even if they make it through the entire length of the gauntlet without losing consciousness.”
“It was the only way Xena's army would allow her to leave,” Gabrielle added. “They didn't count on her will to survive or her recuperative powers. And rued the day she walked through their ranks for the last time.”
Mashuka nodded, her eyes reflecting a newfound respect for the warrior. “Sounds like her army meted out the justice for our Northern sisters the day she walked their gauntlet, Queen Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle and Ephiny exchanged a quick glance, as they both realized what Mashuka was saying. “Can it be that simple?” The bard asked her most-trusted advisor and friend.
Ephiny shrugged. “Amazons are a warrior people. We understand the ways of armies and the codes that an army upholds. The argument sounds very sound to me.” She waved for Eponin to join them and addressed the weapons master as soon as she arrived. “We need your expertise on something, Eponin.”
“Okay, shoot,” the husky weapons master crossed her arms over her chest and waited for the three women to explain their position.
“If the leader of an army wishes to leave said army—basically is forced to walk the gauntlet as a condition of release and survives—is that person then exonerated of all decisions, right or wrong, made during their reign as the army's leader?” Gabrielle inquired.
Eponin put a finger to her lip, as she carefully considered Gabrielle's words. “Are we talking Amazons? Or is this just a general question about armies?”
“Either, or,” Ephiny put in.
Eponin tapped the finger against her lips thoughtfully. “I'd have to say there's a very good argument for exonerating Xena of her crimes against the Northern tribes, if that's really what you're asking,” she said with a knowing gleam. “If her army made her walk the gauntlet to earn her release—a feat I know many do not survive—then she has more than earned her release from her actions while she was leading said army.” She stopped tapping against her lips and raised that finger to her audience. “The question would then be was she acting as the army's leader when she actually attacked those Amazons?”
Gabrielle stepped away from the small group and turned to address the Northern Amazons. “Queen Cyane,” she waited for the taller blond to turn around and face her. “Are you considering Xena a murderer or a war criminal in the matter of the deaths of your tribal leaders?”
Cyane's face scrunched in confusion. “Why does it matter?”
“Because we've been discussing the issue at some length,” Gabrielle motioned toward Mashuka, Ephiny and Eponin. “And it seems you may be holding Xena without just cause.”
Cyane quickly mounted the dais and stood before Gabrielle. “Ignesia warned us you would try to talk your way out of allowing Xena to be properly punished for her crimes against us.”
“I asked a simple question,” Gabrielle kept her tone firm and loud enough for the entire assembly to hear. “Did you try Xena as a murderer or a war criminal?” She lowered her voice. “Did you even try her at all?”
Cyane pointed an accusing finger at the woman in question. “Xena is a murderer! She admitted to killing our queens in cold blood…”
“While she was the leader of an army,” Gabrielle added in a voice that carried over the assemblage, before Cyane could continue further. “Did you know that her army was camped only a few leagues from your border? Did you know that Alti was one of her personal advisors?”
Cyane didn't hide her surprise at this turn of events, as she glanced back at Xena. “Is what she's saying true? Was your army camped near our border?”
“They were,” Xena nodded, her eyes straying to Gabrielle's for a brief instant. “I ordered Borias to have them wait for me while I took care of some business with the Amazons.” Her expression remained neutral. “I took care of my business and met up with them a few days later.”
“What business did you have with the Amazons, Xena?” Gabrielle stepped around Cyane to address Xena directly. “Other than killing their leaders, of course.”
“Killing their leaders was a strategic maneuver designed to weaken them and make it easier to bring them to heel,” Xena answered flatly. “It worked better than expected. They never gave me or my army a problem as we went about subduing the surrounding area.”
“It was an act of war, then,” Gabrielle stated.
“Yes,” Xena answered flatly.
“And Alti's part in what happened?” Gabrielle continued. “Was she acting as your war advisor when she collected the blood of those dead Amazons to use in her rituals? Did you know what she was planning?”
“Alti was an agent of her own devices,” Xena spat out with derision. “She used me to further her agenda and wasn't interested in serving the army. Her interest was in leaching power off the dead, especially Queen Cyane.” Xena glanced at the Northern Amazon queen. “According to Alti, your predecessor had strong mental abilities that were special enough to peak the shamaness' interests.”
“So you didn't order her to do what she did to those women?” Gabrielle kept her expression completely neutral.
“No,” Xena replied with a firm shake of her head, as she met Gabrielle's gaze. “I had no idea what she was going to do with them once they were dead. She rarely shared her intentions with me or anyone, for that matter. I didn't know what she'd planned until she started collecting their blood.”
“Then why did you want the queens dead?” Gabrielle continued. “Why not simply ally yourself with them and bring them under the control of your army?”
“I wasn't interested in having Amazons in my army,” Xena shifted her stance. “Women are,” she glanced around at the women surrounding her, “unpredictable and difficult to control. Men are much easier to manipulate and bend to one's will.” The hint of a smirk touched her lips, as she cocked her head slightly and once again met her partner's gaze. “All I wanted to do was ensure that the Amazons wouldn't interfere in my plans to subdue the area. So, I cut off the head and left the body intact, so to speak. Alti was the one who took it one step further.”
“I just told you, she took their blood,” Xena explained. “She probably altered their fate—their place in eternity—when she did that. I have no way of knowing. No one does.”
Now it was Gabrielle's turn to look confused. “How do you mean?”
“Artemis shouldn't have been able to call them away from the Land of the Dead,” Xena continued. “It is my understanding that once an Amazon enters the Land of the Dead, they can never return to the land of the living. Their eternity is cut off from the rest of the Underworld by very powerful magic.”
Ephiny, Cyane and Gabrielle exchanged quick glances.
“She's right,” Yanush stepped forward. The shamaness wore her ceremonial garb, including the antlered headdress that distinguished her from the rest of the Northern Amazons. “Xena speaks the truth.”
“And you are?” Gabrielle raised a skeptical brow.
“She's my shamaness,” Cyane answered. “Yanush keeps the history of our people and performs the rituals that mark us as Amazons.”
“Wasn't Alti a shamaness?” Ephiny put in.
“She was,” Yanush moved to the edge of the platform, but did not deign to join them. “She used her powers for selfish and evil purposes. That's why she was banished from her tribe. She is no longer considered Amazon.”
“She was wandering the forest alone when she showed up in my encampment,” Xena added. “She told me she'd been banished for attempting to help her people see the light of a new future.” She scowled. “She gave them a new future, all right. And used me to do her dirty work.”
“Getting back to the whole Land of the Dead thing,” Gabrielle tried to steer them back on the course she had set. “What has that got to do with your army, Xena?”
“Nothing,” Xena answered. “I just think Alti may have stranded Cyane and the others, somehow keeping them from reaching the Land of the Dead. In which case, I'm responsible for more than just killing those women. They're stuck in limbo because of what I did.”
A warning bell went off in Gabrielle's head. “You just said you didn't know what Alti was planning, Xena.”
“I didn't have to kill them, Gabrielle,” Xena said.
As soon as the words were out, Gabrielle knew Xena was doing it again. She was trying to take full responsibility for her actions and accept complete blame for what she'd done. But Gabrielle wasn't about to let her partner, the woman she loved more than life itself, go down that road this time. They had come too far—done too much, gained too much ground—for Xena to just throw it all away now.
“No,” Gabrielle ceded the point. “But war isn't about being nice or leaving a potential enemy at your back, either. I've seen warlords kill or maim just for the sake of it. I've also seen others who were willing to do whatever it took to bring their enemies down, including assassinating those who would eventually gain a foothold in a warlord's region.”
Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She knew what Gabrielle was doing and why. But she also couldn't reconcile the guilt of what she'd done. She'd never paid for what she'd done—not really. She didn't count Solon's death as punishment for her actions—not really. Then again.
Cyane stepped forward again. “Xena, did you kill my sisters as an act of war?”
There it was, plain and simple. Did she? Had that been her plan all along? Was Gabrielle's tactic a sound one? Xena pondered the question for a long moment, as she tried to reconcile her guilt over the past with her choices in the present. This was also one of those choices, she realized. It would make the difference between her life with Gabrielle and the Amazons, and a death that would serve no real purpose.
“Yes,” Xena answered simply and honestly.
“Why?” Cyane prodded.
“Because Cyane made it perfectly clear she would never ally herself with a non-Amazon,” Xena answered. “She wanted me to join her tribe and I refused.”
“So, she would have lived and the others, as well, if you'd become an Amazon?” Cyane continued.
“I told her I wasn't Amazon material,” Xena said.
“And why not?”
“It wasn't in my nature,” Xena shrugged.
“I understand you're going through the steps to become an Amazon now,” Cyane's eyes met Xena's and challenged her to deny it.
Gabrielle couldn't help the almost imperceptible gasp of surprise that escaped her. This was the first she'd heard that Xena was pondering such an act. She turned inquiring eyes on Ephiny, who had the grace to look slightly abashed.
“You knew?” Was all Gabrielle said quietly.
“She asked me to keep it quiet,” Ephiny answered just as quietly.
Gabrielle's eyes met Xena's and the warrior saw the hurt in their green depths. It cut Xena to the quick to realize that Gabrielle would take it as another secret between them.
“Gabrielle…” Xena began, but was cut off when the woman in question raised a staying hand in her direction.
“Xena's petition to join the Amazon Nation has nothing to do with her actions during the time in question,” Gabrielle said in a voice devoid of emotion. “Our Northern sisters accuse Xena of murdering their queens, when in actuality Xena's actions were an act of war, not murder.” She turned her gaze to Cyane. “Do you agree?”
Cyane glance from Gabrielle to Ephiny and finally turned her gaze on Xena. “Unfortunately, I believe Queen Gabrielle's argument is sound, despite my own personal misgivings. Xena was, as head of an army at the time, acting in the strategic interests of those under her command. Putting myself in her position, I probably would have done the same.”
A collective gasp went up from the crowd, followed by a flutter of murmurs and a few shouts of protest.
“Silence!” Gabrielle shouted above the din and waited for the noise to die down. “Queen Cyane and her Northern sisters have come here seeking justice for the wrong committed against them. But in seeking justice, one must also accept the truth. And the truth of this matter is Xena was a warlord who led an army. Her actions against the Northern Amazons were those of a leader trying to immobilize a potential threat. She was doing what a leader at war does, not simply murdering people at random.” Several isolated shouts rang out among those gathered. “I am not excusing her behavior…”
“No, you're justifying murder because you're sleeping with the accused!” Someone shouted from the back of the crowd.
Gabrielle absorbed the jibe and kept her composure. Deep down, she kept the niggling thought in the back of her mind that Eritreius could rear her ugly head at any moment. So she just didn't let the accusation affect her.
“That's true,” Gabrielle said. “I love Xena with all my heart and soul. I have traveled with her, fought side-by-side with her and discovered what it means to set aside your own thoughts and feelings in the interest of the Greater Good. I would like nothing more than to put her past completely behind us and forge ahead into the future. But I also take my responsibilities as queen of the Thracian tribe very seriously.” She met Cyane's gaze again. “Are my arguments out of line, Queen Cyane? Do you feel that my relationship with Xena has clouded my judgment in this matter?”
Cyane shook her head. “No,” she answered honestly. “Your arguments are sound, Queen Gabrielle. As much as I hate to say it—and I really hate to say it in front of this entire gathering—I might have been hasty in my judgment against Xena.” She turned her attention to the Northern Amazons. “My sisters,” she continued in a tone that bordered on pleading. “I believe it is in our best interests to reevaluate our decision in this matter.”
“What exactly are you saying, my queen?” Yanush spoke loud enough for the assemblage to hear, as she glared at Xena. “We must not allow the deeds of this—this murderer—to go unpunished. That is completely unacceptable. Queen Cyane and her fellow queens would not wish for anything less than justice.”
“Xena already paid for the deeds she committed as head of her army,” Gabrielle stepped forward until she was standing even with Cyane at the edge of the dais. “Xena was forced to leave the army after she showed compassion to an innocent child. Her lieutenant accused her of losing her edge—of granting lenience to an innocent. She isn't a murderer. A murderer doesn't grant lenience to anyone, including an innocent child. But Dagnon saw that Xena had changed and was already well on her way to becoming something other than a crazed warlord bent on committing needless acts of violence against the innocent. She isn't that person anymore.”
“And what manner of payment excuses her crimes?” Yanush shot back.
“Her army forced her to walk the gauntlet as a condition of her release from service,” Gabrielle's gaze met Xena's, as a collective hush fell over the crowd. “She survived and has served the side of good ever since.
“Is this true, Xena?” Cyane addressed the warrior directly.
“It is,” Xena nodded.
Cyane's eyes narrowed. “And you renounced your claim on your army, just like that? You didn't fight to remain in their ranks?”
“I walked the gauntlet and survived,” Xena stated flatly.
Cyane raised a skeptical brow. “I've heard that the injuries sustained in the gauntlet are quite severe and more often than not fatal. Either that or they leave one permanently disfigured. And yet you survived with little to show for it?”
“I did,” Xena confirmed. “I nearly succumbed to my injuries on more than one occasion, before I fully recovered from the ordeal.”
“Xena has amazing recuperative powers,” Gabrielle added with a smirk and a quick wink to her partner.
“And the army?” Cyane asked out of curiosity.
“It no longer exists,” Xena answered. “I took care of the ones responsible for ousting me and the rest just left to pursue other ventures.”
“So,” Cyane crossed her arms over her chest as she continued to address the warrior. “You would have us believe that the punishment your army meted out was sufficient to excuse you from the crimes you committed while leading them?” She glanced back at Gabrielle. “Is that the gist of your argument, Queen Gabrielle?”
“It is,” Gabrielle answered. “If you know anyone who has experienced a beating during the gauntlet, then you know exactly how painful and how emotionally devastating the experience is. One does not easily recover from such an ordeal.”
“No, they do not,” Cyane hesitantly agreed. “Most do not survive the walk itself and are summarily beaten to death as they lay at the mercy of their tormentors. Apparently, Xena possessed the strength, will and courage to survive unscathed.”
“Xena is an extraordinary woman,” Gabrielle couldn't help the proud smile that graced her features. “She will also make an amazing Amazon.”
Cyane watched the interplay between the two women for a moment. She could see that the smaller woman was enamored by her dark counterpart. And she could also see the love that passed unchecked between them. She studied Xena for a moment and wondered if the warrior had changed as much as the rumors said she had. Then she realized that the love shining in Xena's eyes was enough to confirm that she had. No ruthless warlord loved anything or anyone as much as they loved power and control. Xena no longer appeared to care about either.
“I ask the indulgence of our hostess, as well as of this gathering,” Cyane finally said in a voice that boomed over the crowd. “I would like to take some time to confer with my advisors in regards to our judgment in this matter?”
Gabrielle sensed the request in the woman's words. “How much time do you need?”
Cyane glanced up at the sun just starting its descent in the sky. “We should have a decision by sunset, if that meets with your approval?”
Gabrielle darted a look at Xena. “Then I would request that the accused be allowed to return to the queen's hut under heavy guard—both Northern and Thracian.”
“Agreed,” Cyane nodded to the woman holding the rope attached to the collar at Xena's neck. “Take the accused to the queen's hut and remove her bindings.” Cyane nodded to several women surrounding Xena. “Accompany her and stand guard outside the hut.”
“Yes, My Queen,” one of the women stepped to Xena's side, while several others followed suit.
“Eponin,” Gabrielle motioned for the weapons master.
“Understood, My Queen,” Eponin acknowledged Gabrielle's unspoken command.
The group made their way through the crowd that parted quickly to make way for them. All eyes watched as Xena was led away by not only the Northern Amazons, but a contingent of Thracian guards, as well. Gabrielle looked on as Xena's dark head disappeared from sight, before she turned her attention back to Cyane.
“Thank you,” Gabrielle flashed the taller blond a warm smile.
The Northern queen leaned close to Gabrielle and spoke for her ears alone. “You and I both know she's perfectly capable of escaping anytime she chooses.”
Gabrielle smirked. “Xena is an honorable woman, Cyane. She…”
“I know,” Cyane quickly countered. “She had the ideal opportunity to escape the other night, but chose not to.” She glanced at the warrior's retreating back. “Xena isn't the woman she once was.”
“No, she isn't,” Gabrielle agreed.
“I don't quite buy into the whole hero thing, though,” Cyane added. “Despite the tales circulating about the things she's done.”
“Just take some time to get to know her,” Gabrielle said. “You might find that you actually like her.”
Cyane eyed Gabrielle for a moment. “I'm not blinded by love.”
“Neither am I,” Gabrielle shook her head slightly and smirked. “Believe me. I've seen what Xena is capable of doing. I also know that she holds herself to a higher standard than most people. And her guilt over what she did in her past far outweighs any punishment that you or anyone else could mete out.” She sighed. “We all make mistakes. Xena's just seem that much more monumental than others.”
“I shall carefully consider everything that you've brought before us here, Queen Gabrielle,” Cyane finally said. “I'll give you a decision before the sun has completely set.”
“I anticipate a just resolution for all of us,” Gabrielle said with a firm nod of her head.
Cyane didn't say another word as she joined her sisters and they made their way across the village center toward their encampment. Gabrielle stood there a moment longer, watching the rest of the women disperse.
“I sure hope you have a plan,” Ephiny's quiet voice brought Gabrielle out of her reverie.
“What makes you say that?” Gabrielle asked, as she continued to stare off into the dwindling crowd.
“Because we're all going to be in a heap of centaur crap if you don't,” Ephiny said.
Gabrielle turned and placed a hand on the regent's shoulder. “Oh, ye of little faith,” she said and patted Ephiny's shoulder affectionately.
Ephiny shot her a raised-brow look. “Faith has absolutely nothing to do with the mess we're in right now.”
“Faith has everything to do with it, Eph,” Gabrielle said before she, too, turned and walked in the direction of the queen's hut.
“She talking in circles again?” Eponin stepped up beside the regent.
“I really don't know,” Ephiny just shook her head and watched Gabrielle stride confidently in the direction of the hut she shared with Xena. “I hope those two can come up with something,” she turned to face the weapons master, “or we're all screwed.”
Gabrielle entered the queen's hut without ceremony. She found Xena sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting patiently for her with her hands clasped in front of her and her arms resting on her bare thighs. The bard silently closed the door behind her and leaned against it with a tired sigh.
“I let you go off with Eponin for a couple of days…” she started, then stopped when Xena raised her eyes to meet Gabrielle's.
“I leave you here by yourself for a couple of days…” Xena returned with a teasing smirk.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle closed the distance between them and sat down next to the warrior. “We sure are a couple of sots, aren't we?” She rested her head against Xena's shoulder.
They sat there in silence for several heartbeats. Neither one spoke. They just reveled in the silence. It was so rare for them to share a moment together like this.
“You're possessed?” Xena finally decided to just plow ahead and broach the subject.
Gabrielle nodded. “Eritreius, the woman I told you about. The one who defeated the cannibals and ate their leader's heart.”
“Ah,” Xena nodded. “How?”
“Don't know,” Gabrielle answered. “I put the pieces together during the last bout with Mashuka. I just…” She shrugged. “My consciousness was right there with her when she asserted her control over my body, and I just knew.” She shook her head this time. “It's really hard to explain.”
“Sounds about right,” Xena put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and squeezed. “She with you now?”
“Nope,” Gabrielle answered. “She only pops in when I get pissed. The anger is a trigger, apparently.”
“Ah,” Xena said. “You can't fight Ignesia with this Eritreius unexpectedly showing up to take over, I take it.”
“No, I can't.”
Gabrielle glanced up to find Xena watching her expectantly. “I thought maybe you could offer a suggestion or two.”
Xena shook her head and looked away. “I got nothin'.”
Gabrielle sat up and glared at Xena. “What?” Her voice nearly squeaked with incredulity. “You're not serious.”
“Contrary to popular belief—which I thank you for spreading so thoroughly throughout all of Greece with those stories of yours—I don't have all the answers,” Xena said with a teasing smirk. “This whole thing is a bit more complicated than even I anticipated.”
“You're telling me,” Gabrielle blew out a frustrated breath and resumed her place against Xena's shoulder. “We have Amazons seeking retribution for something you did long ago. I've been possessed by a spirit with an unknown agenda. Ignesia wants to be queen. Artemis doesn't know anything or just isn't saying anything. Ares has been banished to some unknown land,” she ticked off each incidence on her fingers. “Am I missing anything?”
“No, I think that about covers it,” Xena put her arm back around Gabrielle's shoulders. “At least there aren't any goats around this time. And most of your Amazons have finally given birth. I think Nissia said there were only three left.”
“Only one left,” Gabrielle corrected with a wry smirk. “There were nearly twenty girls in the bunch, by the way. Who woulda guessed? That plan of yours really paid off. Fifteen summers hence we'll be twenty Amazons richer.”
Xena grinned. “That's a bit of luck, I guess.”
They were silent again.
“So?” Gabrielle turned expectant eyes on her partner.
Xena blew out a frustrated breath. “We could just sneak out from under all their noses and leave them to their problems,” the suggestion earned her a glare. “What?”
“Seriously, Xena?” Gabrielle just shook her head.
“Okay,” Xena continued. “So it's not one of my better ideas.”
“It sucks,” Gabrielle agreed.
“Hey,” Xena feigned insult before she composed her expression again. “I could have said I have a plan.”
“Really?” Gabrielle perked up. “You have a plan?”
“No, but I could have told you that just to keep you thinking I do,” Xena watched Gabrielle's expression fall.
“We said we weren't going to lie to each other anymore,” Gabrielle said.
“I know,” Xena squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder. “That's why I didn't say it.”
They sat there in silence for a while longer, each lost in her own thoughts. Xena's thoughts were on the woman she was holding and how they could remove the spirit that resided inside Gabrielle. She had an idea, but was hesitant to suggest it. After all, there really wasn't a foolproof way of exorcising a spirit.
“You have something to say,” Gabrielle raised expectant eyes to the silent warrior.
Xena nodded. “I have an idea.”
“It's too dangerous,” Xena placed a gentle hand on Gabrielle's face. “I don't think we should risk it.”
“If it means ousting Eritreius, I'm all for it,” Gabrielle put a hand over Xena's. “I've already spoken to Artemis about the possible ramifications. She wasn't real encouraging, but that's not saying much. The gods haven't been very mortal-friendly these days and Artemis sure isn't the exception. She told me I might have to die in order to release Eritreius.”
Xena turned until she was facing Gabrielle. She took the bard's hands in hers and looked up into the eyes of the woman she loved. Xena attempted a smile of reassurance, even though her insides were actually churning. The smile never reached her eyes, and she knew Gabrielle could see it.
“I can't lose you,” Xena said in a voice that faltered noticeably. A tear fell from one corner of her eye. “I can't even contemplate life without you here with me. It would be unbearable—intolerable. I couldn't go on without you.”
Gabrielle cocked her head slightly. “You won't lose me, Xena. You'll bring me back again, just like you did that time in Thessaly.” She reached up and caressed Xena's cheek with the backs of her fingers, wiping the tear streak away with the action. “I have faith in you, Xena. Always have and always will.”
Xena sniffed. “Is it really enough?”
“It is for me,” Gabrielle answered with confidence. “There isn't another soul on this earth that I trust more than I trust you. And the gods…” She shrugged. “I stood up to Artemis and could see she wanted nothing more than to shoot me with one of her arrows. It irked her that I wasn't afraid of her.”
“I'll bet,” Xena blew out another breath. “There might be another way.”
“The shamaness?” Gabrielle preempted Xena's suggestion and shook her head. “I asked Artemis about it and she said the risk far outweighs the result.” She squeezed the hands in hers. “Besides, I don't trust—Yanush, was it?—anymore than I trust Ignesia. That woman had a look in her eyes that made my skin crawl.”
Xena swiped at another tear on her cheek. “I wasn't suggesting Yanush for the job, actually.”
A blond brow rose. “Oh?”
“There's another shamaness with them,” Xena explained. “Her name is Yakut. She's a member of one of the other Northern tribes and traveled with Cyane and the others as a favor to her tribe's leader, Otere. She's young, but…”
“No,” Gabrielle pulled away.
Gabrielle looked Xena in the eye. “How old are we talking here?”
“No,” Gabrielle rose to her feet and paced the floor.
“Xena, don't you understand?” Gabrielle rounded on the still-seated warrior. “If she makes even one little mistake the whole thing is…” She ran a hand through her hair. “I could lose my soul.”
“What?” Xena chuckled, then sobered instantly. “Gabrielle, what are you talking about?”
“Artemis,” Gabrielle stopped and faced Xena. “She told me—no, she warned me—that if the exorcism wasn't done right—if something happens—my soul is lost forever.”
“For one who didn't say much, Artemis sure told you a lot,” Xena said.
Xena stood up, walked over to Gabrielle and grabbed her upper arms. They stared into each other's eyes for a moment, until a lone tear escaped Gabrielle's eye to trail down her cheek.
“I'm scared, Xena,” the bard finally admitted. “I don't like having Eritreius inside me, but…”
Xena pulled Gabrielle into her arms and held her. “Shhh, it's okay.”
“No, it's not,” Gabrielle shook her head as the tears fell freely onto Xena's brass breastplate and leathers. “Why is this happening? Why does this stuff always happen to us? We're not bad people. We actually do pretty good in the greater scheme of things. So, why us?”
Xena lifted the bard's chin until their eyes met. “I don't know. What I do know is that we're going to get through this, just like we always do, love.” She placed a gentle kiss on Gabrielle's lips and watched the bard's expression transform instantly. “See? Better already.”
Gabrielle dipped her head to hide her embarrassment, as she swiped impatiently at her wet cheeks. “Sorry about that. I think it was meltdown time. It's been a long couple of days and…” She looked up. “Have I told you how much I missed having you around?”
Xena smiled. “No, not lately.”
“I did,” Gabrielle put her arms around Xena's waist and hugged her tight. “I missed this, too.” She rested her cheek against Xena's bare chest above her breastplate. “I missed it a lot. Gods, I am so head-over-heels in love with you. It's crazy.”
Xena rested her chin on top of Gabrielle's head and chuckled. “Me, too.”
“Can we start over?” Gabrielle pulled back enough to look into the familiar blue eyes that she loved so much. She almost chuckled aloud when the familiar dark brow rose above one blue eye. “I don't mean from the beginning, hon. I mean, can we start over from when I walked in here?”
“Ah,” Xena nodded. “What do you have in mind?”
“Let's forget about Eritreius, the Amazons, Ignesia's challenge,” Gabrielle hugged Xena tighter. “I just want to spend some time with my favorite warrior. I want to be with you, Xe.”
Xena appeared to consider the request for a moment, then shrugged. “I guess that's a reasonable request, considering…”
“How crappy this whole situation is,” Xena answered. She ran a hand through Gabrielle's short-cropped hair and brushed the bard's cheek with the tips of her fingers. “There are too many variables playing out in all this. I'm beginning to wonder if the gods really aren't sticking their greasy fingers into our business again.” The last was said in an irritated growl.
“I'd agree with you on that assumption, except…” Gabrielle shook her head. “Artemis seemed genuinely confused. She didn't really seem to know the reason behind what's been happening.”
“Yeah, she actually seemed a little put out by the fact that you could call her to you like that,” Xena agreed. “Nice touch, by the way.”
“Thanks,” Gabrielle said. “Didn't know if it would work, but I figured, what-the-hay.”
“What the hay?” Xena looked down at the woman in her arms. “What kinda phrase is that?”
“Short for what-the-hades,” Gabrielle briefly explained. “I think the youngsters are rubbing off on me. They love to shorten phrases like that. I've even caught Ephiny using a few of them from time to time.”
Xena moved them over to the bed. “Thought we weren't gonna talk about Amazons and all that other stuff.”
“You started it,” Gabrielle accused with a smirk. She deftly worked the clasps of Xena's armor until it came free in her hands. “I thought we could use what little time we have to…” She placed a kiss on the small scar just above Xena's left breast.
“Mmm,” Xena quickly divested the bard of her green top and went to work on the ties to the belt at Gabrielle's waist. “You sure we have time for this?”
“Cyane said she'd have her decision by sunset,” Gabrielle glanced out the small window. “Sun's only midway toward the horizon.”
“Then we definitely have time,” Xena said as she finished her task and felt Gabrielle's skirt drift to the floor at their feet.
Xena's hands wandered over Gabrielle's soft flesh, as her lips explored the bard's with practiced ease. They soon found themselves on top of the bed and in each other's arms, as they made love by the light of the setting sun.
Ephiny knew not to interrupt Xena's homecoming too early. Previous experience had taught her to give the two women time to reacquaint themselves. Memories of one such an untimely interruption were still fresh in the regent's mind, and she didn't want a repeat of the tongue lashing she'd received from a certain short, blond fireball.
It really hadn't been her intention to walk in on Gabrielle and Xena at all. But she hadn't been thinking, either. Ephiny had managed to slap a hand over her eyes the instant she'd realized her mistake. She tried to make a hasty retreat, but Xena's words stopped her dead. The warrior told Ephiny to deliver her message and then leave. It wasn't the words that froze Ephiny in her tracks. It was the tone. At that moment it appeared that Xena would actually kill her where she stood. Little did she know that a tongue lashing from Gabrielle was much worse.
The picture of the two women was forever burned into her mind's eye and had been the topic of more than one conversation between her and Eponin. She'd never seen anything like it in all her experience with women and was not quite sure how the two had managed to pretzel themselves into such a position. Then again, she'd reasoned at the time, they were Xena and Gabrielle.
Ephiny glanced at the setting sun, as she tried to push those errant memories from her mind. She was sitting on one of the vacant thrones on the dais, waiting. Waiting for Cyane's decision. Waiting for Gabrielle and Xena to finish their…homecoming. Watching what little activity was happening in the village center. There wasn't much to do, which made the regent wonder where everyone was.
“You up for some company?” Eponin's voice brought Ephiny out of her reverie.
“Always,” the regent turned a warm smile on the weapons master.
“It's quiet around here,” Eponin commented, as she took a seat on a low bench next to the throne Ephiny sat on. “Where is everyone?”
“I think they all went back to their respective encampments,” Ephiny shrugged. “At least the other tribes can escape when things get ugly.”
“And her maj?”
“With Xena,” Ephiny shot Eponin a knowing look.
“Ah,” the weapons master nodded. “I guess there's no point in interrupting that little reunion anytime soon.”
“Nope,” Ephiny sat back and stared out at nothing in particular.
“You think they're…”
“I'm really trying not to think about what those two are up to right now,” Ephiny cut her off. “It's not exactly something that I enjoy thinking about, ya know?”
Eponin nodded. “I hear ya.” She shrugged. “Glad I wasn't the one to walk in on ‘em that time.” She shuddered slightly. “Eewwww!”
“Yeah, ew,” Ephiny cringed slightly. “Thanks, by the way.”
“Now the picture of the two of them is as clear as that stream you like to fish in,” Ephiny glared at her companion. “Seriously. I was trying not to think about it.”
“Sorry,” Eponin had the grace to look slightly abashed. “Maybe we should talk about something else.”
They sat there in companionable silence for several moments. Neither one spoke. They just watched the sun dip farther toward the horizon, as the occasional Amazon or group of Amazons passed by. A group of youngsters passed by, giggling and gossiping, before they saw the regent and weapons master and clammed up. Wide-eyed, the girls continued on in complete silence. Eponin noticed Maeriska was not with the group. She'd seen the youngster with Ignesia's cronies and was disappointed to learn it was the youth who had sounded the alarm on Xena.
“You think this thing with the Northies'll eventually blow over?” Eponin finally broke the long silence.
“Don't know,” Ephiny shrugged. “Queen Cyane seems pretty determined to seek retribution against Xena for that whole damned mess, but...”
“Hey, sisters,” Chilapa sat down next to Eponin. “What are we discussing?”
“Whatdya think?” Eponin answered as she scooted over a smidge to make room for the newcomer.
“Her maj and Xena?” Chilapa guessed.
“Who else?” Ephiny just rolled her eyes. “Aren't you supposed to be making sure our security isn't breached or something, Chilapa?”
“Our security is just fine, other than the occasional spat and those southerners trying to horn in on the baths every chance they get,” Chilapa shot Eponin a questioning look. “What's up with Eph?” She mouthed to Eponin.
Eponin leaned close to the Amazon. “Close to that time of the moon,” she mumbled.
“Are you two finished?” Ephiny shot them both an irritated glare.
“Hey, it ain't our fault her maj and Xena always bring this kinda drama with ‘em wherever they go,” Eponin defended. She got up and walked down the steps. “I gotta get back to the practice field, before some of them young'uns get it in their heads to try sparring with real weapons. See you ladies at the celebration tonight!” She waved as she marched off toward the practice field.
Ephiny didn't bother to wave. She just sat there in quiet contemplation.
“You okay, Ephiny?” Chilapa gave the regent the once-over. “You look a little tired.”
“I'm fine,” Ephiny smiled reassuringly. “Was there anything you wanted to tell me? Or did you just happen to see us sitting here, enjoying the sunset?”
“Selene and Estraia overheard something you might want to be aware of, My Queen,” Chilapa's bearing turned formal.
Ephiny sighed. She knew the two women were on active patrol near one of the entrances to the village.
“What is it?” Ephiny asked.
“Not all of the northern tribes are happy that Cyane has proclaimed herself their sole ruler,” Chilapa said in a low voice not meant to carry. “It seems she and her cohorts took it upon themselves to carry out this quest to punish Xena for her crimes against them. Most of the others just want to live in peace and leave the past in the past. They've heard the stories—Queen Gabrielle's stories—about Xena's heroic deeds, and they believe she's changed for the better.”
Ephiny let the ghost of a smile touch her features. “So how many are we talking here?”
“I'm not sure,” Chilapa answered. “The younger women follow a leader named Otere and come from a village far to the north. They only joined Cyane's party so they could see how things play out here at the Gathering. I talked to one of Otere's advisors, Yakut, and she says there's no reason Xena should be put to death for something that happened well before most of ‘em were born.”
“So who's pulling Cyane's strings?” Ephiny glanced at her companion.
“Yakut seems to think both Ignesia and Yanush have been swaying Cyane's opinions about Xena,” Chilapa said. “She thinks Ignesia's challenge will be the telling sign of whether the northern tribes remain part of the Nation or completely break free to live separate from any ties to the Amazons as a whole.”
“That's not exactly encouraging news,” Ephiny ran a hand through her blond curls.
“It's not exactly the worst news, either,” Chilapa shrugged. “Regardless, I've doubled the guard on that side of the village, just in case someone gets any bright ideas.”
Ephiny patted the woman's shoulder. “You read my mind.”
Chilapa shrugged again. “It's what I do, My Queen.”
Patrice paced restlessly back and forth inside Ignesia's hut, while the taller woman lounged on the unmade bed. The two women had just spent the better part of a candlemark engaged in some rather heated physical activities. Ignesia seemed unconcerned by the day's events, while Patrice was frustrated and impatient.
“Come back to bed, Patrice,” Ignesia patted the empty space next to her. “There's no reason to be so upset.”
“No reason?” Patrice rounded on the woman. “You could die tomorrow, Ignesia! Doesn't that bother you?”
Ignesia sat up, allowing the coarse coverlet to pool at her bare hips. “Living, dying—it's all part of life, Patrice. Whatever happens, happens,” she shrugged nonchalantly. “Who am I to argue with whatever the Fates decree?”
Patrice returned to the side of the bed and leaned toward her taller companion. Her bare breasts hung close enough for Ignesia to touch and she knew the woman's gaze was fastened on them. “I don't want you to die, Iggie.”
Ignesia reached up to cup one firm mound in her hand. She liked the feel of Patrice's skin and wanted nothing more than to continue where they'd left off. It was becoming her one weakness—the only weakness she would allow herself. She pulled her gaze from the woman's body and met Patrice's intense gaze.
“I won't die,” Ignesia assured her. “The Fates have already assured my destiny. I will lead the entire Amazon Nation into a new era.” She smiled. “And once I've won the challenge and am named queen of this tribe, I will greatly reward those who are loyal to me. I shall be especially generous to you, Patrice.”
Patrice's gray-green eyes met Ignesia's gaze. “Oh?”
Ignesia pulled the woman down on top of her, shoved a hand through Patrice's hair and pulled the woman's lips to within inches of her own. “I don't play games, Patrice,” she hissed breathlessly. “I want you by my side and in my bed from this moment on.”
Patrice smiled. “As your consort?”
“As my consort,” Ignesia answered and closed the distance between them.
Their lips met in a bruising kiss that left them both breathless. Ignesia let her hands wander over Patrice's bare back and lower, until she held the woman's firm buttocks in both hands. She reveled in the feel of the woman and enjoyed Patrice's lips on her own.
It occurred to Ignesia in that moment that Patrice was her match in every way. They were so perfect for each other. Patrice's passion matched her own and the woman never once complained when Ignesia became a bit too rough during their couplings. Ignesia knew she'd left noticeable bruises on Patrice on more than one occasion, but Patrice never once said a word about it.
“I want you, Iggie,” Patrice breathed the words softly against her ear. “I want to feel you inside me and I want only to please you.”
The mere words ignited Ignesia's passion, as she switched positions with Patrice and straddled the woman. “Tell me how much you want me, Patrice,” she whispered against the woman's cheek. She ground her hips against Patrice and was satisfied to hear a low groan of pleasure escape Patrice's lips. “Tell me you need me.”
Patrice panted breathlessly as her gray-green gaze met eyes gone almost black in the waning light. “I need you, Iggie. Please?”
Ignesia took Patrice's mouth in a bruising kiss, as her hands roamed the woman's lush body. She knew she was being rough when Patrice suddenly cried out in pain as Ignesia bit her.
“Shh,” Ignesia placed a finger over Patrice's swollen lips. “Pain is just another means of pleasure.”
“P-please, Iggie,” Patrice gently licked her lips. “Take me now. I'm ready.”
Ignesia seemed to consider the request for a moment. “I want you, too, Patrice. But I want you to fully surrender yourself to me. Can you do that?”
“You have only to tell me what you want,” Patrice said and earned a pleased smile from her lover.
The two lovers took their lovemaking to the next level, as the sun set, the golden glow faded and the room was in complete shadow.
“The queen sent for me,” Yakut stood in front of a scantily-clad young woman with wide-set brown eyes that glared at her intently.
“I have my orders,” T'laia growled. “No one enters or leaves the queen's hut without the regent's express orders.”
Yakut's nape hairs bristled. “Did you not hear what I just said? I was sent for,” she crossed her arms over the intricately beaded leather overshirt she wore. “I'm not leaving until I'm allowed to go in there.”
T'laia eyed the spunky young woman who matched her in stubbornness and age, as well. “Why was I not notified?”
“Ask your regent,” Yakut insisted. “All I know is that a messenger came to me and told me to report immediately to the hut of the Thracian queen.”
T'laia eyed the Amazon for a moment, gauging her intent. The young woman didn't appear to be a threat to Queen Gabrielle. Then again, Xena was also inside the hut. There was really no reason not to let the northerner pass. “Okay, fine, but I will hold you personally responsible for anything that happens.”
It was Yakut's turn to eye the woman whose short, spiky hair was tipped in henna. “Okaaaaay?” Her hands went to her hips. “Just like that?”
T'laia shrugged. “It ain't up to me to make the rules. If Queen Ephiny says it's okay for you to visit her maj and Xena, then that's good enough for me.” She smirked slightly. “Nice headpiece, by the way. You make that thing yourself?”
Yakut bristled again. “What's that supposed to mean?”
T'laia loved to tease people when she was bored. It was one of her favorite pastimes and one that had endeared her to her promised, Eustine. Eustine was three years her junior and hadn't yet become a full Amazon, but she had a great sense of humor. She also understood T'laia's slightly warped and often sarcastic tone, which was why they were so good together.
T'laia shrugged. “Nothin'. It's just,” she looked around and then leaned in conspiratorially. “It's gotta be hotter'n the Underworld with all that fur and stuff. Don't it make ya sweat like a pig?” She sniffed and winced. “Ya don't exactly smell like a bed of roses, Amazon.”
Yakut pulled back and glared at the taller woman. “I'm a shamaness, Thracian. You'd be wise to steer clear of insults in my presence. I might get angry and curse you with nightmares for the next moon.”
T'laia's brows shot into her auburn roots. “You can do that?”
Yakut brushed past the armed woman, paused and turned back with a knowing smirk. “A shamaness has many tricks up her sleeves.” She motioned to the beaded sleeves of her tunic then eyed T'laia's bare arms. “Of course, you wouldn't know anything about sleeves, now would you?”
T'laia watched the woman climb the steps to the queen's hut and then returned her attention to the area surrounding the hut. She heard a throat clear from her companion and looked over to see that Selene was smirking.
“She got your goat, Tee,” Selene chuckled. “Never thought I'd see the day.”
“Laugh it up, Selene,” T'laia crossed her arms over her chest and just stared out at nothing in particular.
“I woulda paid a fine shekel or two for Eustine to have been here,” Selene continued to chuckle. “You never give that kid a moment's peace, just ‘cause she can't get the jump on you. But now I believe you've finally met your match. And a shamaness, no less. I'm impressed.”
“She ain't that big a deal,” T'laia huffed.
“She's a shamaness,” Selene reiterated, as if that said it all.
“I'm not really a shamaness,” Yakut said to the two women standing before her. “I'm only an apprentice—an apprentice practicing to be a shamaness.”
Gabrielle shot Xena a hesitant glance. “I don't think…”
“And who are you apprenticing with?” Xena noticed her partner's glance but chose to ignore the warning look.
“There's an old shamaness back in our village, far to the north of the Peloponnese range,” Yakut let her gaze take in the contrasting auras emanating from the two women.
The taller and darker of the two was projecting intense dark red, green and purple auras that clearly marked her as a hard woman who had been through many trials, imposed her will on a great many people and still had a long road of hardship ahead of her.
Her counterpart, on the other hand, cast a deep blue aura with an accompanying golden halo. Yakut was drawn to the smaller blond and felt at relative ease in her company, but couldn't discount the strength and power emanating from her taller companion.
Xena wasn't quite what she'd expected. At least, that was her impression when she and Otere had freed the warrior from the torture of hanging from a tree. Yakut had been very vocal with both Yanush and Cyane over that whole messy incident. Yakut wasn't quite old enough or experienced enough to offer up a convincing argument, but that didn't stop her from trying. Unfortunately, Cyane wasn't of a mind to listen to a “youngster” who had yet to gain the title of full shamaness.
“And who is this old shamaness?” Xena prodded impatiently when Yakut didn't immediately continue.
“Her name is Brashivia,” Yakut answered, looking directly into eyes the color of frigid ice. “She…”
“I've heard of her,” Xena interrupted. “She was the one who instructed Alti, before the witch turned against everything the Amazons stand for.”
Yakut nodded. “Brashivia never fully recovered from the mental and emotional toll Alti took on her. She regrets ever taking that woman under her wing. Unfortunately, Alti was very good at deception and hid her intentions well from my mentor's initial assessment. Brashivia is a seer, as well as a shamaness. But Alti somehow managed to block her dark intentions.”
“That begs the question, then,” Xena crossed her arms over her chest. “How much has Brashivia taught you and how far have you come in your studies?”
“That depends,” Yakut was no longer able to meet that intense blue gaze and, instead, turned her attention to the shorter woman standing silently next to Xena. “What happened during your bout with Mashuka?”
Gabrielle's eyes widened slightly at the directness of the question. “Excuse me?”
“It is my understanding that you almost killed her, Queen Gabrielle,” Yakut watched a wide array of emotions play out on Gabrielle's features. “Your aura suggests you are incapable of such violence against your fellow sisters, and yet…” She glanced again at Xena. “You've seen her become violent before. I can see it in your eyes. You feel the pain of each encounter, as much as she does.”
“I'm possessed by the spirit of a dead Amazon,” Gabrielle blurted. “Her name is Eritreius and she…”
“Uses your suppressed anger—your rage—to take control of your body,” Yakut finished for her. “I've seen it once before and I've heard stories from Brashivia. Demons, evil spirits and…others use a person's suppressed anger or other strong feelings to infiltrate their bodies.”
“You say you've seen it before?” Xena narrowed her eyes at the younger woman.
“Yes,” Yakut nodded. She'd removed her headpiece upon entering the hut and felt slightly naked without it, especially since it made her appear taller than she actually was. She felt like a dwarf next to the imposing warrior. “One of our sisters was possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor. Neither survived the exorcism, though.”
A dark brow shot up on Xena's face. “What?”
“The spirit was too strong and ripped the host soul from its body the instant Brashivia performed the ritual,” Yakut explained. “The body collapsed and died shortly afterward. Both souls were lost forever in the Void. It is a space—a place of nothingness—that exists somewhere the lands of the dead and the living.”
“Oh, that does not sound encouraging,” Gabrielle muttered dejectedly. “Xena…”
Xena put up a staying hand to her partner. “They went into the spirit realm?”
Yakut considered her answer for a moment. “Not exactly. The spirit realm is an actual place, while the Void is…well, it doesn't. Once a lost soul enters the Void, rather than passes through it, that soul is trapped forever.” She shuddered slightly.
“And what happens to souls that are trapped in this Void?” Gabrielle inquired.
“Nothing,” Yakut responded. “They just cease to be. Nothing exists in the Void. It just…isn't.”
Gabrielle paced a few steps away from the two women and stopped to stare out the window of the hut. “So, what you're saying is either I live with Eritreius in my head for the rest of my life, never knowing when she's going to make an appearance and take control of my body or…” Gabrielle turned to face the two women.
“We do an exorcism and risk losing you both forever,” Yakut finished for her.
Xena's piercing gaze met Gabrielle's. “I won't lose you like that.” Xena stated. “I can't.”
Gabrielle sighed and walked back over to stand in front of Xena. She took the warrior's hands in hers and looked up into blue eyes swimming with tears and pent emotions.
“Would you rather have me hide away somewhere?” Gabrielle confronted her taller partner. “I can't continue to kill people just because Eritreius pops into the picture whenever I get angry. And what about this quest she's on? What happens when she actually fulfills it and it's time for her to move on? Does she keep my body and kick my soul out? Think about it, Xena. I can't live with the idea that I'm killing and maiming people, even if it really isn't me who's doing it.”
“No buts, Xena,” Gabrielle cut her off. “I know you don't think it's a big deal that I can actually fight like a warrior now and rip people's heads off like you do, but it's not me. It's not who I am. I'm not a killer, just like you're not a murderer.” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her taller partner and leaned in close, despite the presence of the shamaness' apprentice. “I want Eritreius out and that's final.”
Xena held Gabrielle, as her eyes met Yakut's over the top of Gabrielle's head. “We need a plan.”
Yakut straightened her shoulders as her resolve kicked in. “Okay,” she nodded. “I may have an idea that will help us increase the chances of success.”
A dark brow lifted. “Oh?” Xena said.
“I'll need to speak to my sisters,” Yakut said as she grabbed her headdress from where she'd placed it. “Send word to anyone you trust completely with your life,” she watched as Gabrielle turned her head enough to meet her eyes. “Your regent and any other trustworthy souls—have them meet us in the village center when the moon has risen to its zenith. I'll gather my sisters and be there in time for the ceremony.”
Both Xena and Gabrielle merely nodded, as Yakut left the hut without a backward glance. They just stood there silently in each other's arms for several long moments. Neither wanted to be the first to speak. Neither wanted to move.
“And if this is our last moments together?” Xena said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“I love you,” Gabrielle said.
“I love you, too,” Xena said and smirked. “I just can't lose you.”
Gabrielle bowed her head and then looked up into blue eyes swimming with unshed tears. “You won't, Xena.”
Ephiny, Eponin, Chalinda and Nissia sat across the table from a stoic Xena and Gabrielle. The expressions on the Amazons' faces reflected varying degrees of confusion, disbelief, utter shock and consternation, as they heard the last of Gabrielle's rather long and unbelievable explanation.
“So, you're saying you're…possessed?” Chalinda was the first to break the uncomfortable silence.
“In a nutshell, yes,” Gabrielle answered and took a sip from her mug of cider. “Her name is Eritreius. Her story is in the annals and involves some rather bloody rituals that we've incorporated into our traditions—minus all the blood, of course.”
Ephiny sat back with her arms crossed over her chest and shook her head. “I don't like it.”
Eponin nodded. “Me neither.”
“I have to agree with Eph and Pony,” Chalinda piped in. “This exorcism thing sounds way too dangerous, my queen. What happens if this Yakut doesn't succeed? Is she even qualified to perform this kind of ritual?”
“It's not up to Yakut,” Xena spoke up for the first time since sitting down with all of them.
Ephiny glanced from Xena to Gabrielle. “What does that mean?”
“I'm the one who has to do this,” Gabrielle wrapped her hands around her mug to keep her friends from seeing them shake. “I have to travel this road alone.”
Eponin slapped a frustrated hand on the table. “No! We won't lose you like this! Ain't gonna happen, yer maj.”
Ephiny put a staying hand on Eponin's shoulder. “Down, Pony,” she said and then turned stern eyes on Gabrielle. “She's right, you know. As much as I agree that you can't have the spirit of an ancestor hanging around inside you, I also can't condone a ritual that could end your existence forever. You're our queen, Gabrielle. Regardless of your feelings about that, it's a really big deal to us. We don't take this kind of thing lightly. And what happens if this whole thing goes wrong? What then, huh? Who will rule the tribe in your stead?”
Xena took one of Gabrielle's hands in hers and met Ephiny's gaze. “You will.”
Ephiny shook her head emphatically. “No.”
“Ephiny,” Gabrielle reached across the table with her other hand and grasped Ephiny's hand firmly. “You're the one who receives my right of caste if anything should happen. It's not any different than when I'm not here. I just…” she swallowed down her own fear and slapped a reassuring smile on. “I will do my very best to come back to all of you.” She squeezed the two hands in hers and met Xena's gaze. “My life is too full to just give up without a fight. Eritreius doesn't stand a chance.”
A throat cleared and all eyes turned to Yakut, who was standing near the entrance to the meal hut where they were all gathered. Gabrielle let go of the hands in hers and sat up straight, while Ephiny waved the shamaness apprentice toward their table.
“Queen Gabrielle, Queen Ephiny,” Yakut greeted the two queens with a quick nod. “Xena,” she nodded toward the warrior. “May I have a word with you, Xena?”
After a quick nod from Gabrielle, Xena followed the young shamaness apprentice to the doorway. She glanced back to see that Ephiny was watching her intently. The regent had granted both she and Gabrielle special permission to leave their hut and share the evening meal in the meal hut. As Xena stepped into the doorway, she noticed several guards glance her way and instantly become alert to her presence.
“That's far enough,” Xena said as she leaned against the door jam. “I'm really not supposed to go anywhere without an escort. So, what did you want to talk about that you couldn't discuss with the rest of the group?”
Yakut touched her forehead and breathed out a frustrated breath. “We have a problem.”
Xena crossed her arms over her chest and just waited for the young woman to continue.
“I have several willing participants ready to join us for the ritual, but…” Yakut met Xena's intense gaze and swallowed. “I really don't think this is a good idea, Xena.”
Xena let her expression soften just a bit. “If you're afraid that something will go wrong…”
“I'm not qualified to do an exorcism of this…magnitude,” Yakut paced in agitation. “I discussed it with Otere and she agrees with me. I don't have enough experience in this kind of thing to do it on my own. Do you understand what I'm saying, Xena? I know how much Gabrielle means to you, but…” She finished by shaking her head.
Xena glanced off into the distance, as her thoughts whirled. “And Yanush?”
“Oh, she's more than qualified, but—” She shook her head. “I don't trust her anymore than I trust Cyane. There's something going on between those two that I can't put my finger on. Cyane essentially proclaimed herself queen of the Northern tribes without seeking approval from the central council or any of the other queens. She just declared it and no one has stepped up to challenge her claim.”
Xena's brow furrowed. “She doesn't strike me as the tyrant type.”
“She's not,” Yakut replied. “She's actually very reasonable, which is probably why no one has yet challenged her. They follow her because her decisions so far have been relatively sound. She also seems to keep the interests of all the tribes at the forefront of her decisions—except in regards to this rather personal vendetta she has against you. I have yet to learn why she is so dead-set against you. She wasn't even related to any of the queens who were killed that fateful day.”
“Okay, so getting back to the situation with Gabrielle,” Xena said. “Exactly what are you telling me?”
“I…” Yakut began and then shifted uncomfortably. “I don't think…” She shook her head again. “If something happens…”
“Are you afraid I'll kill you if something happens to Gabrielle? Is that it?” Xena asked, point blank.
“N-no,” Yakut squared her shoulders and met Xena's gaze. “I know how much she means to you, Xena. I just don't think…”
“You don't think I know what's at stake?” Xena groused, as she stepped to within inches of the woman. “Listen to me and listen well, Yakut. Gabrielle and I have literally been to Tartarus and back together. We've shared experiences that no couple has ever shared. And we've managed to stay together through the very worst that the Fates and the gods have thrown our way. Ours isn't a casual, meaningless fling. What we have is very real and runs much deeper than any relationship on earth.
“Do you understand that I would do anything in my power to reverse the circumstances and be the one who carries this burden?” Xena continued. “Gabrielle is everything that is good and right and pure between us. She is my light—a beacon that points out the very best in me every day. So, please don't ask me if I know what's at stake. I know it with all my being and to the very depths of my soul. I know that if she ceases to exist, my life ceases, too. Despite what everyone thinks, I am not the stronger of the two of us. If our roles were reversed, Gabrielle's inner strength would help her survive and move forward into a brighter future, even without me. But for me there is only darkness without her.” A tear trailed unheeded down Xena's cheek. “She is the other half—the better half—of my soul.”
Silence reigned between them for several long moments, as Yakut absorbed everything Xena said. The younger woman stared intently into the careworn face of a warrior who had seen many battles and survived. Xena's strength and skills were the stuff of legend, yet she was still just a mortal woman. And it was evident that she was deeply in love with the Thracian queen.
“Am I interrupting something?” Gabrielle's cool voice broke the still silence.
Xena quickly swiped the tears from her cheeks, while Yakut met Gabrielle's questioning stare.
“We were…um…just discussing…” Yakut began.
“Let me guess,” Gabrielle interrupted. “You two were discussing the exorcism.” Her glance strayed to Xena and she could see the tears still swimming in the warrior's eyes. “Xena?”
“Yep,” Xena nodded with a reassuring smile. “Yakut was expressing her reluctance to do the ritual.”
Gabrielle glanced skeptically from one to the other. “And?”
“Xena has assured me there is nothing to worry about,” Yakut quickly answered. “We will proceed with the ritual, just as soon as the first star appears in the sky.”
Gabrielle's gaze met Xena's and a silent message passed between them.
“Well, then,” Gabrielle said. “I guess we'll see you shortly, Yakut.” She took Xena's arm and steered her toward the queen's hut, mindful of the detachment of guards that quickly surrounded and escorted them.
They were silent on the short walk across the village, until they were inside the hut and the door was closed behind them. Then Gabrielle rounded on the tall warrior.
“Spill it, Xena,” Gabrielle stated flatly.
“She's worried about what might happen,” Xena moved to the edge of the bed and sat down heavily. “Truth be told, so am I.”
“I can't…” Gabrielle breathed out a frustrated sigh and ran a hand through her hair. “Xena, I really can't think about that right now.” She moved to the window and looked out at the twilight quickly descending over the village.
Xena got up and moved to stand behind Gabrielle, wrapping strong arms around the woman she loved. “I know,” she said, placing a light kiss on top of Gabrielle's head. “I just can't help worrying about the possibility that something might go wrong.”
Gabrielle turned and gazed into eyes gone smoky in the twilight. “I know, Xena. I know what could happen, but I still…I can't continue living on eggshells like this. Our life together is constantly plagued by confrontation and fights and…I'm not going to constantly live with the possibility that at a moment's notice I could suddenly turn into that monster that's always lurking inside me. And the anger? I just don't think anyone has the kind of restraint required to reign in every nitpicky flare of temper. What if I get angry at you? Huh? What happens then? We already had one such confrontation and I nearly sent you through a wall. I don't want to hurt you, Xena. Can you understand that?”
Xena stroked a thumb against Gabrielle's cheek. “Okay.” She conceded as she leaned forward until their foreheads touched. “I love you so much that I just can't bear the thought of losing you forever.”
Gabrielle closed the distance and met the lips only a hair's breadth from her own. The kiss lingered as they explored and shared the love they both felt coursing through them. Gabrielle was the first to pull away. She placed a hand over Xena's heart and reveled in the feel of the steady heartbeat.
“I will always be with you,” Gabrielle whispered. “Not even the gods themselves could ever separate us, Xena. I will always be here.” She placed a hand over Xena's heart and took comfort in the steady beat.
Patrice didn't bother to knock as she barged into Ignesia's hut without preamble. “Are you out of your mind?” She asked as she caught sight of the woman's shadow near the rear of the hut. “What is wrong with you, Iggie? Why did you let them talk you into postponing your challenge like that? What are you afraid of? ”
Silence filled the dark interior of the hut as Patrice awaited an answer. She wanted to at least light a candle and shed some light on her silent companion. But patience wasn't one of her strong suits.
“Ignesia? What's the matter?” Patrice moved closer to the still figure and gasped, as she realized the reason for Ignesia's continued silence. “Oh, dear Artemis, no.”
Even in the darkness, Patrice could see the rope secured somewhere high above and the odd angle at which Ignesia's head was cocked. Patrice reached up and closed eyes staring lifelessly at nothing in particular, as tears coursed unheeded down her cheeks.
“We have a problem,” Ephiny said, after she announced her presence with a single knock on the closed hut door.
Two heads turned in her direction at the same time, as two women glared incredulously at her. They were sitting opposite each other in front of the hearth. When Ephiny barged inside the hut, both Xena and Gabrielle were on their feet and ready to confront the woman.
“Another one?” Gabrielle didn't hide the sarcasm in her tone. “Tell me it isn't so.”
“Ignesia's dead,” Ephiny stated. “She hung herself. Or, at least, that's what it looks like. Patrice found her a little while ago. Eponin and Solari are there now and Nissia, too. She's examining the body.”
“Examining the body for what?” Xena spoke up.
“Signs of a struggle,” Ephiny shrugged. “Patrice thinks someone killed Ignesia and made it look like she killed herself.”
“And why would she think that?” Gabrielle said.
“There wasn't any furniture in the area for Ignesia to jump from in order to hang herself,” Ephiny stated. “The rope was tied to a rafter high up in the ceiling—too high for her to reach without help.” Xena started towards the door, but Ephiny stepped into her path. “Whoa, there, Xena. Where do you think you're going?”
“I want to see for myself,” Xena said. “I should be able to tell you if she hung herself or if someone had a hand in her death.”
“Can't let you do that,” Ephiny kept a firm hand on the warrior's arm, despite the glare she was receiving from Xena.
“And why not?” Gabrielle moved to Xena's side. “Come on, Eph. You and I both know you can't keep Xena under guard forever. Just let her go. She's not gonna make a break for it. There's no reason for her to do so.”
Ephiny glanced from the taller woman to her shorter companion. “Okay, fine,” the regent conceded. “I'll go with you.” She held up a staying hand when Xena started to protest. “I want answers, too. No arguments, from either of you.”
“Fine,” Xena shrugged.
They walked to Ignesia's hut in silence, escorted only by Chilapa and Solari, per Ephiny's orders. The regent didn't feel the need to have an entire contingent of guards following them through the village, especially since Gabrielle's argument made perfect sense. Xena hadn't tried to escape once since Cyane and her people had captured her. Cyane had even told her about hanging Xena from a tree one night, only to find her sitting at its base the very next morning. Of course, Ephiny hadn't been pleased to learn that her friend had been treated poorly by the Northern Amazons, no matter what Xena had done to deserve such harsh treatment.
They reached the hut and entered without preamble. Ignesia's body was laid out on a table in the center of the hut with several women surrounding it. They all looked up at the unexpected intrusion. Patrice charged toward the newcomers with malice glaring in her eyes.
“What in the name of the Olympian gods is she doing here?” Patrice stopped in front of Ephiny, her eyes never straying from Gabrielle. “This is your fault, Usurper!!!” She pointed an accusing finger at Gabrielle and completely missed the glare from Xena.
Ephiny held the feisty woman back, as Patrice struggled to get her hands on Gabrielle. Xena just moved past the woman and walked over to Ignesia's body. She carefully examined the dead woman, glanced at Nissia and nodded.
“Someone murdered her and then tried to cover it up by making it look like she killed herself,” Xena stated flatly.
“You see it, too, warrior?” Nissia moved in on the other side of the table and pointed to Ignesia's neck. “I thought I was the only one who would notice the telltale signs.”
“Her neck was broken before she was hung,” Xena nodded, as she pointed to the deep purple ring around Ignesia's neck. “Whoever killed her wanted to hide the real reason for her death.” She lifted Ignesia's head slightly and felt underneath. “There's a bump back here, too. She was hit from behind before her neck was broken.”
Ephiny and Gabrielle stepped up on either side of the table, ignoring the muttered protests of the other occupants of the room. Patrice just stood where she was and glared at them all.
“Murder?” Ephiny asked.
“Yep,” Xena nodded and received an eye roll from the regent. “Probably happened shortly after she left the gathering. I'd say no more than a candlemark or two after.”
Ephiny put her hands on her hips and sighed. “Great, just great,” she shook her head in consternation at this latest turn of events. “Any speculation as to which of us is responsible?” Her gaze met Xena's. “I'm assuming you didn't do it.”
“Well, we know it wasn't either Gabrielle or me,” Xena smirked. “Your guards can vouch for us. Oh, and so can you.”
“Nice,” Ephiny just shook her head. “That leaves only…say…five hundred other Amazons as possible suspects.” She waved a negligible hand.
“Only a handful of us actually knew Ignesia, though,” Gabrielle piped in. “You could probably eliminate most of the southern, eastern and western tribeswomen. I wouldn't rule out anyone from the northern tribes, though. I think Ignesia was in league with a few of them.” She turned an inquiring gaze on Patrice. “Isn't that right, Patrice?”
“Well, I know it wasn't me,” Nissia shuffled toward the door. “I was helping Jenta deliver our latest arrival. Trilla gave birth to a healthy baby girl just before sunset. Mother and baby are doing fine, in case any of you were interested.” She grabbed the door handle and paused. “I'll leave this in your capable hands, Queen Ephiny. I'm sure you don't need an old woman around to get in your way.” She glanced at Xena and added, “Especially when you have the infamous Warrior Princess here to play constable.” She opened the door and shuffled out without a backward glance.
“She's right,” Ephiny smirked at Xena and Gabrielle. “I hear you're pretty good at solving mysteries, Xena.”
Subdued chuckles greeted the regent's remark. The humorous moment was short-lived, however, as all eyes turned to Patrice.
“I didn't do it,” Patrice hesitantly moved next to Ephiny, placed a hand on Ignesia's and gazed down at the dead woman. “We were—” She looked up and met curious blue and green eyes waited expectantly. “Ignesia and I were lovers. I would never—” She put a hand to her mouth and let the tears flow freely. “I can't believe this happened. Why? Why would someone kill her and make it look like she took her own life?”
Patrice squeezed Ignesia's lifeless hand as the tears continued to flow. Patrice's companions, who had been standing silently by, stepped up behind the woman and offered comfort. They ushered her out of the hut with whispered words of comfort and assurances that justice would prevail.
“Well? What do you two think?” Ephiny asked, once the hut was quiet again. “Was it Patrice?”
“No,” Gabrielle answered before Xena could. “I didn't get that vibe from her. Besides, why would she kill the one person who was going to make her the queen's consort?” Both Ephiny and Xena looked at Gabrielle. “Hey, I'm not an idiot. I pretty much knew what Ignesia was after all along. I could see the writing on the parchment, even with everything else going on around us.” She glanced at the still figure on the table. “I can't believe she actually backed down today. That was unexpected.”
“Okay, so who had a reason to kill Ignesia and why?” Ephiny folded her arms over her chest. “She issued the challenge and now she's dead. Seems a little suspicious, if you ask me.”
“Ya think?” Xena shot the regent a wry smirk. “And why make it look like a suicide? Why not just try to frame one of us? After all, who would benefit most from having Gabrielle or me out of the picture?”
“It happened spontaneously,” Gabrielle answered. “Whoever killed her didn't intend to kill her? Maybe the killer got angry and stuck her when she turned her back on them?”
“The knot on the back of her head definitely backs you up on that assumption,” Xena nodded. “I think our killer argued with Ignesia, hit her a little too hard, then broke her neck to shut her up and tried to cover up the deed by hanging her.”
“What's the point?” Ephiny's eyes narrowed skeptically. “Again, why make it look like she killed herself? She issued the challenge and came back here—”
“And changed her mind,” Gabrielle added. “Did you see her face before she left the gathering? I did. She was having second thoughts. I think she was going to back out on the challenge.”
“But who would benefit from Ignesia issuing a challenge in the first place?” Ephiny asked. “And what do they gain by faking her suicide?”
“Who stands to lose the most if Ignesia backs out of the challenge?” Xena added.
They all considered that for a few moments.
“Ignesia was in contact with one of the Northern Amazons,” Ephiny said. “Solari has been doing some quiet reconnaissance and discovered that there's more going on there than meets the eye. She thinks Cyane and her advisors are up to something that might just be connected to this whole Gathering. After all, didn't they flatly refuse our initial invitations? Why show up now?”
Gabrielle nodded. “They wanted us off our guard, maybe?”
“They show up with more than three hundred able-bodied warriors,” Ephiny added with suspicion. “Sounds like they were planning a coup. But to what end? We're all sister Amazons. There's no point in dividing and conquering. The Nation stands a better chance if we're united, not divided.”
“They were camped there for three weeks before the girls and I stumbled onto them,” Xena said. “I think a certain northern queen needs to answer a few questions.”
Gabrielle's expression turned thoughtful. “You two get some answers from Cyane. I have something I need to look into.”
A dark brow rose, as Xena watched Gabrielle stride toward the door. She glanced at Ephiny and saw the confusion in the regent's eyes and shrugged. “I've learned that it's better just to let her go with whatever is on her mind,” Xena muttered.
“I thought you were the one who did that whole keep-‘em-all-guessing-until-I-decide-to-let-‘em-in-on…”
“Are you done?” Xena interrupted with a droll expression.
“I—” Ephiny was caught flat-footed. “Okay, fine. Shall we go grill Cyane, then? Or do you want to do that by yourself? I can fetch Eponin and meet you at the village center in less than a quarter candlemark. Pony loves a good interrogation.”
Xena shrugged. “Gabrielle is better at talking than I am. But I'm game if you are. I think we'll be able to get to the bottom of all this tonight—especially if Gabrielle comes through with her hunch.”
“Oh, so now you're telling me you know what Gabrielle is thinking?” Ephiny couldn't believe her ears. “Since when do you read each other's thoughts?”
“We don't,” Xena chuckled. “But I have an idea she's onto something good. Saw it in her eyes.” She saw the disbelief in the regent's gaze. “Hey, you travel with someone long enough, you're bound to pick up a thing or two.”
Xena started for the door.
“And what about her?” Ephiny's words stopped Xena with her hand on the latch.
Xena turned to see that Ephiny was pointing at Ignesia's body.
“Prepare a pyre,” Xena shrugged. “She deserves the honor of a proper funeral, despite her misguided ambitions. I'm sure she thought she was acting in what she believed was the best interests of her tribe. No one deserves to be punished for acting in the best interests of those they love.” She shot the regent a knowing smirk before closing the door behind her.
Ephiny glanced at the lifeless body laid out before her one last time. Ignesia's neck was at an odd angle and there was a large purple ring around it. Ignesia's eyes were closed as if in sleep. Ephiny, however, knew better. She breathed out a frustrated sigh, as she realized they'd lost another Amazon sister. She then shook her head as she followed in Xena's wake.
Gabrielle strode confidently along the well-worn path. She'd found what she was looking for, and then some. And she was right. Yanush really was the key. She was the key to everything. Who knew?
Her visit to the archival caves had yielded much more than just a missing scroll or two, Gabrielle realized. The Archival Mother had told her about an entire missing section of ancient texts that dated back to the time of Eritreius and her lover, the first shamaness, Simonee. When Gabrielle asked when the texts had turned up missing, the Archival Mother just shrugged. No one knew exactly when the scrolls disappeared. And no one knew where the texts went—not to mention who took them.
Gabrielle was so intent on the implications of her discovery that she was unaware she was being followed, until a figure stepped from the shadows in front of her. By then it was too late. The blow to her head took her down so quickly that she never saw it coming. It took less than ten heartbeats for Gabrielle's attacker to hog tie her and drag her into the underbrush.
Xena glanced around—again. She felt the heat from the modest bonfire in front of the dais. This was not a night for celebration in the Thracian village. Ignesia's body was already prepared and lying on a funeral pyre near the bonfire. Several Thracian Amazons stood sentinel near the burning logs, awaiting the return of their queen. One woman held a lighted torch in her hand in anticipation of the ceremony.
Xena's intense blue gaze took in the gathered crowd of eager Amazon representatives, as well as the dais full of anxious queens. Gabrielle was not among them and the others seemed to sense something amiss. Xena sensed it, too. Something wasn't right.
“You okay?” Ephiny stepped down from the dais and joined the tall warrior.
“I'm…” Xena glanced at the regent and blew out a frustrated breath. “She should have been back by now.” She crossed her arms over her chest armor and shot a glare in Cyane's direction. “Something's happened. I can feel it.” Cyane glanced in her direction and Xena caught something in the woman's eyes, before Cyane looked away. “She knows something.”
Ephiny's brow rose. “Who?” She glanced in the direction of Xena's gaze. “Ah, I see. You think Cyane would actually try something right here in our midst? It's more likely that Gabrielle was just—I don't know—delayed? She probably just got caught up in her investigation and lost track of time. Gabrielle wouldn't intentionally keep us all in suspense when there's so much at stake.” She put a comforting hand on Xena's shoulder. “She'll be here, Xena.”
“I know,” Xena nodded and followed the regent onto the dais.
Ephiny moved to the front of the platform to address the crowd. She raised her arms for silence and waited for a hush to fall over the gathered Amazons. It only took a moment for the women to settle into relative silence, as they waited expectantly for the regent of the Thracian Amazons to speak.
“It is a sad day for all of us as we bid a final farewell to another fallen sister,” Ephiny began in a voice that carried over the crowd. “Ignesia strongly believed in the spirit of sisterhood that infuses our daily life here in the village of the Thracian Amazons, as did her mother and her mother's mother.” Her eyes scanned the crowd until they rested on Patrice. “She was loved by many and was willing to stand by her convictions.” Low murmurs of agreement from the crowd greeted her words and she waited for them to die back down. “Earlier today, Ignesia boldly challenged Queen Gabrielle for the queen's mask. After our patron goddess appeared before us, it was decided that the challenge would be postponed until tomorrow.” Ephiny met Patrice's gaze. “Ignesia is dead. Unless there is another to take up the challenge in Ignesia's stead, her claim to the mask dies with her.”
Ephiny waited an appropriate amount of time for a response from the gathered crowd. Her gaze remained fixed on Patrice's, until the woman finally looked away. No one else seemed inclined to step forward, either. Ephiny scanned the crowd for any additional takers and decided there wasn't another to take up Ignesia's torch. She was just about to resume her speech, when the crowd parted and Yanush approached the dais.
“I would speak before our sisters!” The shamaness stopped a few paces from the platform and waited expectantly.
Ephiny motioned for the shamaness to join her. “Will Queen Cyane be joining us, as well?” The regent shot a quick glance towards the tall blond standing to one side of the dais.
Yanush mounted the platform and faced Ephiny defiantly. “Queen Cyane no longer speaks for the northern tribes!” She glanced at Cyane with derision and then returned her gaze to the Thracian regent. Yanush took a step closer to Ephiny and spoke in a hushed tone for the regent's ears only. “Just as your queen no longer speaks for your tribe and is no longer in the running for the honor of being High Queen.” A smirk of triumph crossed the shamaness' features. “She will be lucky to ever speak again.”
Ephiny's eyes widened, as she felt, rather than saw, Xena suddenly grab the shamaness by the throat. Ephiny knew the warrior's hearing was beyond exceptional and was absolutely sure Gabrielle was not embellishing that fact in her stories. The hatred in those icy blue eyes was enough to urge Ephiny to take a step back, but she stood firm.
“Xena, don't,” Ephiny placed a staying hand on the warrior's arm and felt the muscles bulge beneath her fingers. “We need to find out what she's done with Gabrielle. Killing her won't help us get the answers we need.”
Xena continued to squeeze the woman's throat, despite Ephiny's words. The rage was raw and her entire body hummed to life with the anger pulsing through her. Strong fingers dug into the shamaness' tender flesh, as she felt Yanush's pulse quicken and her breath catch.
“Where is she?” Xena hissed. “Tell me or die.”
Yanush opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Not even a squeak passed her lips as she felt Xena's fingers tighten painfully around her throat.
“Xena, you're killing her!” Ephiny tried to shake the immobile arm beneath her hand. “Stop it!!!”
In an instant, Xena let go and shoved the shamaness away from her. It all happened so fast that no one had a chance to react. Yanush gasped, staggered back and grabbed for her bruised throat, as she sucked in a much-needed breath. It didn't take long for her to recover enough to stand upright and face down the taller warrior who was glaring back at her.
“You'll both pay for that, warrior,” Yanush rasped.
“Where's Gabrielle?” Xena took a step toward the shamaness and felt a sense of satisfaction when Yanush retreated a step. “Where is she?”
Yanush rubbed her throat and swallowed painfully. She then glanced at the funeral pyre laid out near the dais. “She doesn't deserve a proper Amazon funeral,” she scoffed and spat to show her derision. “Ignesia was a coward—a disgrace to the might and strength of the Amazon Nation!”
Ephiny pushed past Xena to confront the shamaness. “Where is Gabrielle?”
No one noticed that Cyane had joined them on the platform and was glaring openly at the shamaness, too.
“What did you do to Queen Gabrielle, Yanush? Where is she?” Cyane stepped up next to Ephiny, grabbed the shamaness' shoulders and shook her. “Tell us!”
Yanush just stared at the blond queens in turn, as a wry half-smirk appeared on her features.
“Leave her alone!”
Everyone turned toward the new arrival, as Gabrielle stepped from the shadows and mounted the dais. Xena closed the distance between them in three short strides, until she towered over her smaller partner. Relief washed over her after she checked the smaller woman over for injuries and realized Gabrielle was indeed safe and unharmed.
“Are you okay, Gabrielle?” Xena placed her hands on Gabrielle's upper arms and checked her over. “Did she hurt you?”
“I'm fine, Xena,” Gabrielle answered without meeting the taller woman's gaze. She shrugged off Xena's hands and strode confidently toward the group of queens. She pushed between Ephiny and Cyane, then wrapped a protective arm around Yanush's shoulders and turned to face the stunned women. “Yanush is not to be harmed in any way, by anyone.”
“Gabrielle, what's going on?” Ephiny eyed the bard warily. “Since when does a lone Amazon, much less a complete stranger, mean that much to you?”
Gabrielle squeezed the shamaness' shoulders affectionately. The significance was not lost on those standing closest to the pair. Xena bristled, as she realized something was definitely off about the whole situation.
“You're not Gabrielle,” Xena stated, as she pushed past the two queens and stood directly before Gabrielle. She watched a sly grin lift the corners of lips she was intimately familiar with and had her answer. “Where's Gabrielle?” Xena moved to within inches of the two women and glared into familiar eyes the color of the Aegean . “What did you do with her?”
Gabrielle glanced at Yanush, who nodded imperceptibly. “Harm either of us, Xena, and you will never know where your precious lover's soul is.”
Xena didn't even think. One moment her mind was awhirl with the implications of this latest development and in the next instant she had “Gabrielle” on the ground. A heartbeat later she'd applied the pinch to the one person in all the world she would never dream of harming.
“Where's…Gabrielle?” Xena hissed angrily. “You have thirty seconds left, Eritreius. Then this body dies and your worthless soul is released into the Underworld, where it belongs.”
“NO!” Yanush dove onto Xena's back and tried ineffectually to subdue her. “Don't kill her!PLEEEEASE!!!”
Xena wasn't listening. Her attention was focused on the woman beneath her. She could see it in the eyes now. This wasn't her Gabrielle. She watched Eritreius weigh her options and struggle against the effects of the pinch, as blood slid from Gabrielle's nose.
“Fine!” Eritreius hissed. “Release me and I'll tell you.”
Xena waited another moment, her eyes never leaving Eritreius' as she heard someone counting down from thirty behind her. She had no idea if she could trust the spirit that now resided in her partner's body, but she had no choice. Raising her fingers above Gabrielle's throat, she quickly released the pinch and felt Yanush slide off her back at the same time.
“Eritreius!” Yanush cried her relief, as she knelt beside both women.
Eritreius gasped for air and quickly propped herself up on an elbow. She felt the shamaness next to her and looked up into eyes full of concern. The face that greeted her would take some getting used to, but the spirit inside was as familiar to her as her own soul. They had once been soulmates, partners in life. But the bargain she had struck so long ago had changed everything. She ran her palm against the shamaness' cheek, reveling in the warmth she found there. So alive.
“It's okay, Sim,” Eritreius said. She continued caressing Yanush's cheek before turning her attention to Xena. “You knew.” It was a statement of fact, rather than an accusation.
“Not right away,” Xena answered. “I took a wild guess.”
“Still,” Eritreius said, as she stood up and faced the women glaring at her. Some of the women around them wore confused expressions, while others merely glared at her. Xena was one of those glaring at her. “I know what you're thinking…”
“You've no idea what I'm thinking,” Xena cut in. “I want Gabrielle back.” She glanced at Yanush. “This was your doing, wasn't it?”
Xena's hands were grasping the shamaness' throat in an instant. “I should just kill you where you stand,” she hissed into the woman's face. “Where is Gabrielle?”
Eritreius tried to step in and urge Xena to release her mate, but found her attempts completely futile. “Xena, please—”
The familiar voice penetrated Xena's consciousness, even though she knew it wasn't really Gabrielle's. Still, she granted the woman's wish without conscious thought. Her gaze locked on Eritreius' and she couldn't help but see her Gabrielle staring back at her. The face was so familiar, except for those unfeeling eyes. They were all wrong.
“I want Gabrielle back,” Xena stated flatly. “Bring her back or I'll—”
Eritreius put up a staying hand. “Just settle down, warrior,” she said and quickly realized her mistake. “Okay, okay!” Eritreius knew when to concede the point. “I gave you my word and I intend to keep it.” She glanced at Yanush, who was watching her warily. “You know who I am,” she placed a hand on Yanush's shoulder. “This is my mate, Simonee.”
“What?” Cyane couldn't believe her ears as she stepped up next to Xena. “Yanush?” Her expression reflected her confusion, as she searched Yanush's expression. “What's going on here?”
“I'm not Yanush,” the shamaness wrapped an arm around Eritreius' waist. “My name is Simonee and this is my mate, Eritreius.”
It was Ephiny's turn to step forward. “Okay, spill it,” she ordered impatiently. “Enough games, you two. Tell us what's going on. Why are you taking over the bodies of our sisters?”
“I made a deal with our patron goddess long before Artemis became patron to the Amazons,” Eritreius explained. “Simonee and I were life mates. We swore to be together in life as well as death. One day I went hunting with our warriors and our enemies attacked. I got separated from my sisters and was captured by the very animals I had spent my entire life trying to eradicate. They tortured and raped me.” She paused and glanced at Simonee. “Simonee knew my pain, because our souls were linked by a bond that transcends our earthly bodies. Our souls were joined for eternity.”
“They were killing her—body and soul,” Simonee interjected. “I had to do something. I could no longer allow the half of my soul that is Eritreius to suffer such horrible agony. And I couldn't stand to go on without her.”
“She used what she'd learned from one of their shamans to find me,” Eritreius took up the story. “We met in the spirit realm. She witnessed firsthand what they were doing to me.”
“I knew we wouldn't be able to reach her in time to save her,” Simonee said. “Her spirit was so…broken. She was dying. Her pain was too much for me to bear. I wanted nothing more than to release her from her suffering, even if it meant we would no longer be together in this life.”
“I used what strength I had left to call upon our patron goddess,” Eritreius said. “I asked her to release my spirit into the afterlife and she agreed,” she glanced at each of them in turn. “But there was a catch.”
“I didn't know,” tears streamed down the shamaness' cheeks. “How could I know what would happen?”
“What happened?” Xena asked when neither woman seemed inclined to continue.
Eritreius sniffed. “The deal was struck, but not before the Mother Goddess discovered what we'd done.”
“I had no idea I was opening a window to the heavens,” Simonee shot Eritreius a teary glance. “I'm so sorry.”
Xena glanced impatiently from one woman to the other. “And?”
“The Mother Goddess struck my body down at the exact instant that our patron goddess released my soul,” Eritreius said. “My soul's link to my body was severed. My soul had nowhere to return to. I no longer felt that connection to Simonee. In an effort to keep my spirit from being sucked into the Void, our patron goddess sent my soul into the body of my greatest enemy. It was an unspeakable horror.”
“As a bodiless spirit, Eritreius had no control over the beast's actions,” Simonee shuddered. “She watched helplessly as he and his people consumed what was left of her body.”
“Cannibals,” Eritreius spat on the ground in disgust. “It was their practice to become one with their enemies by eating their flesh. I learned a great deal while I was trapped inside that animal. I also learned that I could take control of his body when he unleashed his rage. It didn't take long for me to turn him against his own people. But I made a fatal error—one that would cost me everything.”
“He discovered the truth,” Simonee nodded. “I don't know how he figured it out, but he knew Eritreius' spirit was inside him. He vowed to take his revenge against her.”
“He led his people against our village and they attacked without mercy,” Eritreius continued. “I watched his people decimate my sisters with cold and calculated precision, while he stood idly by. He dared not let loose his rage after discovering the truth.” She swallowed visibly. “Simonee was targeted. He captured her and took her back to their filthy lair.”
“I asked our patron goddess for mercy,” Simonee continued in a shaky voice. “I had no idea what had become of Eritreius. I had no idea she…”
“There are no words to describe what I felt when that monster put his filthy hands on her. All I could do was watch helplessly,” Eritreius shook her head. “I don't know how, but he must have known how much she meant to me. He raped her repeatedly. And I used every curse imaginable to let the gods know how furious I was.”
“He kept me tied up in his yurt,” Simonee picked up the story when Eritreius could no longer continue. “He used me whenever he returned from a raid or a hunting foray. Unlike Eritreius, however, I wasn't tortured. I don't think he wanted a repeat of what happened after her death. Their shaman performed various rituals to discover Eritreius' identity and in an attempt to free her spirit from the cannibal. Nothing worked.” She glanced at her mate and her expression softened. “I knew the only way to release Eritreius from her prison was to kill the host body. I don't know how long it took before I had a chance to do just that. And by the time my chance came I was heavy with the beast's offspring.”
“He never stopped using her,” Eritreius said. “Even when she was heavy with child he still…He was nothing more than an animal. There was absolutely no humanity in that beast.” She swallowed down a fresh wave of tears. “I couldn't let him continue to use her like that. I couldn't bear the thought of watching her give birth to another monster like him.”
“When he…” Simonee closed her eyes against the memories and then opened them to the rapt stares of her audience. “My hands were always tied to a post behind my head when he forced himself on me. But one night I wasn't bound. I think he was drunk. I don't know. It was either that or he probably thought I was too heavy with child to fight back.” She shook her head. “I'd managed to get my hands on a piece of bone that I'd sharpened to a razor's edge. It was as good as any dagger, and I kept it hidden within the folds of the rags he kept me in. When he was occupied with other…things, I pulled the bone dagger from its hiding place and plunged it into his back. But…the blade didn't go in very deep. The wound wasn't enough to kill him at that point.”
“His sudden rage unleashed me,” Eritreius interjected. “It was so unexpected that I had little time to think, much less react. I yanked the bone dagger from his—my—back, but something his shaman had done prevented me from taking complete control of his body. He reasserted his will and plunged the dagger into Simonee before I could stop him.”
“I'd learned a few tricks from his shaman during the moons of my captivity,” Simonee said. “One thing I learned was how to slip into the spirit realm with another spirit that was crossing over. He had plunged the dagger into the child in my womb. As its spirit slipped from this world, I was able to follow it into the spirit realm. What I didn't count on was my own body dying at almost that exact instant. I was trapped. But that's also when I found Eritreius. Our reunion was short lived. The dagger wound in his back must have bled out quickly, because soon Eritreius' host body was dead. Her soul disappeared and I was left wandering the spirit realm alone.”
“It took Simonee several lifetimes to find a shamaness who could restore our spirits to appropriate hosts,” Eritreius said. “But we soon learned the terrible price we would pay in order to live.”
“Your story is beyond fascinating and quite worthy of Gabrielle's attention, but none of this explains what happened to Gabrielle,” Xena growled. “I want some real answers and I want them now!” She took a menacing step toward Eritreius. “What did you do with her?”
“She didn't do it,” Simonee moved in front of Eritreius. “It was me.”
Xena crossed her arms over her chest and glared. “Okay, talk.”
Simonee shrugged. “It's quite simple, actually.” She stared up at the imposing face. “I sent her into the spirit realm.”
“You—” Xena's hand shot out, but this time Ephiny managed to grab it and pull her back before she could grasp the shamaness by the throat.
“Xena, no!” Ephiny exclaimed. “Kill her and we'll never get Gabrielle back.”
Xena reigned in her temper as she considered her options. “Tell me why I shouldn't just kill you right here and now.” She glared at the shamaness.
“Because I'm the only one who knows where to find your soulmate,” Simonee answered glibly.
“I know how to get to the spirit realm,” Xena replied. “Another shamaness taught me that the hard way.”
“But you don't know where Gabrielle is in the spirit realm,” Simonee replied smugly. “You could wander there for an eternity and never come close to finding her.”
Ephiny shoved in front of Xena and glared daggers at the shamaness. “You're Amazons, for Artemis' sake! Why would you do this to one of your sisters? And to a queen, no less.” She threw her hands in the air in frustration. “Do you have no honor? Are you so cowardly that you would doom one of your own to an eternity in the spirit realm simply to satisfy your own selfish needs? You lived your life—had your chance at love. Let them have theirs.”
Eritreius stepped forward. “It wasn't like that!”
“Then explain it,” Xena added. “Why Gabrielle?”
“It was a mistake,” Simonee finally answered after a short silence. “I—” She glanced at Cyane. “I really can't explain what happened when I performed the ritual or, rather, when Yanush performed the ritual. She found some scrolls and read a message I had one of our ancestors place in the text. The incantation brought me back in Yanush's body, but—”
“You had no idea where Eritreius's spirit went,” Xena finished for her.
“She was supposed to appear in Cyane's body,” Simonee glanced again at the tall blond. “I'm sorry. You would never have known what happened. The ritual would have released you into the afterlife with Yanush. You would have crossed over, just as if you had died. That's usually how it works. Our patron goddess made sure of it.”
“But that didn't happen,” Xena prodded. “So how did she end up in Gabrielle's body? And why was Gabrielle's spirit not released into the afterlife?”
“I…I don't know,” Simonee shook her head. “I didn't even know that Eritreius was still on this plane of existence until we arrived and I sensed her spirit nearby. It didn't take me long to discover in which body Eritreius was residing.”
Xena grabbed the front of Simonee's tunic before anyone could react. She lifted the woman off the ground and glared into her eyes. Xena's temper flared and she was very close to snapping the woman's neck.
“Tell me how to find Gabrielle,” Xena shook the woman like a rag doll. “Tell me or I'll snap your scrawny neck right here and send your worthless soul to the Underworld where it belongs.”
“I…I can't,” Simonee answered with difficulty, as she felt her tunic pressing against her windpipe. “I tried to reproduce the ritual and failed.”
Xena practically threw the woman off the platform as she released her hold on Simonee's tunic. Her frustration was mounting and she was finding it harder and harder to control her temper. Gabrielle's soul was caught somewhere in the spirit realm and there was no way to find her without the help of an uncooperative spirit that was talking circles.
Eritreius in Gabrielle's body moved to assist her mate to her feet. The two women waited for their fates to be decided by the women standing before them.
“You're the one who pulled Gabrielle into the spirit realm the other night.” Sudden realization dawned in Xena's eyes. “You performed the ritual and needed a living soul to carry it off.”
“Ignesia brought me a redhead,” Simonee said. “I was prepared to use the soul of a deer for the ritual, but…”
“Her name was Rena,” Ephiny ground out between clenched teeth. “You had no right to take her life. She may not have been important to you, but she was one of my sisters.”
“Ignesia told me Rena was willing to give her life for our cause,” Simonee said.
“She lied,” Ephiny stated flatly.
“No matter,” Simonee shrugged. “The ritual was a complete failure.” She met Xena's gaze. “Gabrielle's spirit is quite strong. She almost trapped me there with her.”
Dark brows rose. “So how did you manage to trap her there this time?” Asked Xena.
“She wasn't asleep,” Simonee answered. “I knocked her out—hit her a little harder than I intended, actually.”
Eritreius rubbed the front of Gabrielle's head, where a purple bruise showed along her hairline. “Yeah, hurt like the fires of the Void, let me tell ya.” She grimaced when she touched the spot. “You knocked us both out cold.”
“Sorry, love,” Simonee gingerly touched the bruise and watched Eritreius pull away.
“Enough!” Cyane stepped closer to the two women. “You've dishonored our heritage and everything that we stand for.” She was seething with her own anger over the tale that had unfolded before her. “You conspired to banish my soul to the afterlife and take over my body, as well as the body of my shamaness. Those are acts of treason punishable by death.”
No one saw the blade until it appeared in Cyane's hand. And not even Xena was fast enough to stop the sudden act of violence that happened in the blink of an eye. Cyane slashed the dagger across Simonee's throat in the space of half a heartbeat. A moment later the shamaness was lying on the ground in a pool of dark blood.
“What the…” Ephiny stepped forward and grabbed the Northern queen's hand before she could use the blade on Eritreius, too. “STOP!!”
“They've made a mockery of our sisters!” Cyane turned on the Thracian regent. “They both deserve to die!”
“You'll kill Gabrielle!” Ephiny shouted into the woman's face. “Cyane, I'm warning you. Make another move toward Eritreius and I won't stop Xena from tearing you limb from limb.”
Xena stepped in anyway. She took Cyane down with one swift kick to the head and smiled in satisfaction as the woman dropped like a stone at her feet. It was a great way to release some of her pent-up tension and gave her a brief sense of accomplishment.
“Was that really necessary, Xena?” Ephiny felt Cyane's pulse, satisfied that the woman was still alive.
“She pissed me off,” Xena growled, as her anger subsided.
“Thank you,” Eritreius turned her emerald gaze on the warrior.
Xena turned on Eritreius and grabbed her by the throat. She never gave a thought to what she was doing, as she squeezed the soft flesh beneath her fingers. All she knew was that the woman wasn't her partner, despite the body she occupied.
“You're not Gabrielle,” Xena hissed mere inches from the face she knew so well. “Gabrielle would never take another life to save her own. She is all that is good and decent in this world.”
Eritreius tried to free herself from the iron grip on her throat, but Xena wouldn't let go. It was only by the grace of the gods that Ephiny chose that moment to intervene.
“Xena, let her go,” Ephiny's cool words seemed to barely penetrate the warrior's resolve. “You'll kill her and then Gabrielle will have no body to return to. Let her go!” Xena hesitated only a moment before releasing her hold on the woman.
Eritreius gasped for air, as her feet touched the ground again. Placing a hand to the injured throat of her host body, she lifted wary eyes to the woman towering over her. What she saw in those pale blue eyes sent a shudder of fear down her spine. She had faced the worst humanity had to offer and yet nothing compared to the rage boiling in the warrior's glare.
“What do we do now?” Ephiny glanced down at the body lying lifelessly at her feet. “The shamaness was the key to finding Gabrielle.”
“Not the only one,” Xena turned and walked off the platform with purposeful strides. She stopped and turned back. “Don't let either of them out of your sight.” Then she turned and continued on her way.
It took Ephiny longer than anticipated to catch up to the warrior. When she finally did, they were standing just outside the queen's hut.
“Xena,” Ephiny grasped the taller woman's arm and held on for dear life as the warrior continued on for several paces.
Xena rounded on the regent and just kept from lashing out at the woman. “Ephiny—” She growled a firm warning. “Don't—”
“Xena, please,” Ephiny countered. “Tell me what you're going to do, and I'll make sure you have whatever you need. I want to help.”
“I have to do this alone,” Xena shook free of the regent's grip on her arm and entered the hut. She knew Ephiny followed but chose to ignore the woman.
“She's my friend, too,” Ephiny stated.
Xena sighed. “You won't like it, Eph.” She turned to look at the woman and set her expression into that indifferent mask she used when she didn't want anyone to see the pain in her eyes. “It's better that you just stay out of my way and let me do what I need to do.”
“Where are you going?”
“The same place Yanush—I mean Simonee—used for her ritual,” Xena said after several moments.
Xena opened the trunk at the foot of the bed and rummaged around in it. She came up with a pair of winter leathers, Gabrielle's sais , a short bow and a quiver of arrows.
“Are you going hunting?” Ephiny asked in confusion. “At a time like this? What about Gabrielle?”
Xena quickly divested herself of her warrior attire and donned the doe-skin leathers. She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on a pair of matching doe-skin boots that laced all the way up her shins and tied near her knees. After pulling the leggings down over the boots, Xena paused to address the regent.
“I know why the shamaness failed, Eph,” Xena stated, as she put one arm and her head through the bow and adjusted it across her chest. “I won't make the same mistake.”
Her long strides took her past the bewildered regent and to the door in less than a heartbeat. She paused with her hand on the latch and turned to meet Ephiny's gaze.
“Find Yakut,” Xena said. “Tell her to gather those she trusts and meet me in the clearing in a candlemark. Ask her to bring whatever she needs to perform an exorcism.”
But Xena was already out the door.
“Xena! Wait!” Ephiny raced outside and caught sight of the warrior striding purposefully toward the woods. “Is there anything else?”
“Round up your most trusted Amazons and meet us in the clearing—” Xena's voice trailed off as she disappeared into the woods.
Ephiny leaned against the railing of the porch for a moment longer. Xena had left her with more questions than answers. And an exorcism? What in the world was that about? The regent ran an impatient hand through her curly blond locks and blew out a frustrated breath, as she descended the steps and turned back toward the village center. She realized the answers would come eventually. Time enough later to sort it all out.
It was dark and quiet. And her head was pounding. Gabrielle shifted slightly and winced, as pain ripped through her skull. She was lying…on the ground? Why was she on the ground? And why did her head hurt so much? The smell of decay and dirt drifted up from the damp earth beneath her. It wasn't at all unpleasant, just earthy and natural. She was definitely outside. But where?
Mustering enough resolve to open her eyes, Gabrielle realized instantly that she was indeed outside. She was also lying on a bed of leaves in a clearing. And it wasn't dark. But it wasn't really light, either. She lifted her head and instantly regretted doing so. Daggers seemed to pierce the backs of her eyeballs, as a dull ache radiated through her skull and down her neck.
“Ugh,” she groaned, as she pushed herself up into a seated position and held her head in her hands. “Where am I?”
Slowly glancing around the quiet clearing, she realized she vaguely recognized the place. No. Not the place itself, exactly. She recognized the strange muted lighting and the feeling of being disconnected from reality. It was that dream world she had been pulled into by the shamaness. The colors were all weird and the place seemed unearthly quiet.
“The spirit realm?” Gabrielle muttered to herself, as she continued to get her bearings. “How—” Her words died on her lips as she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. “Hello? Is someone there?”
She managed to slowly stand and then assessed her situation. She looked around, trying to figure out where in the spirit realm she actually was. Nothing moved and the world around her was eerily silent. It was as if everything had stopped. There was no birdsong. No crickets chrirping. Nothing.
“Creepy,” she muttered. “It's like existing without existing.”
“A conundrum,” a voice behind her made Gabrielle spin around to confront the source of the voice.
“Hello?” She called when she found that she was still alone. “Who's there?” She completed a full circle, surveying the area around her for any sign that someone was there. “Who are you?” Nothing.
Gabrielle walked a few paces in the direction she thought the voice had come from. When she came to a dense wall of thorny undergrowth, however, she stopped. She peered into the densely packed vines and tried to see beyond it, but saw nothing.
“Hello?” She called toward the wall of vines. “Is someone there?” No answer.
Blowing out a frustrated breath, Gabrielle turned and walked back the way she'd come, only to find that the place she had awakened in was now covered in the same thorny growth that now surrounded her on all sides. She turned a complete circle and found herself trapped within a living cage crawling vines.
“What the—” she quietly exclaimed, as she glanced up at the gray sky peeking through the dense canopy high overhead. Panic seized her as she realized there was no way out. “Xeeeeena!!!” She screamed at the top of her lungs. But she soon realized her cry was being swallowed by the dense growth around her. “Oh, gods,” she sat down on the cold ground and held her head in her hands. “Am I dead?”
An eerie chuckle permeated the very air around her and then slowly faded away, as Gabrielle sat there in dejected silence in a world gone horribly wrong. Her heart ached for her soulmate, as she watched the thorny vines slowly creep in on her.
“Did Xena say why she wants us here?” Eponin asked for the nth time in a candlemark, as she irritably adjusted her stance.
“Relax, Pon,” Ephiny chided. “You're making me nervous.”
“It's a simple question, Eph,” Eponin replied. “Throw me a bone, will ya? I'm not as savvy as you are when it comes to this stuff—especially when it comes to her maj and Big Xe.”
Ephiny gave her companion a raised-brow look. “Big Xe?”
Eponin shrugged. “It goes along with her maj, ya know?”
Ephiny shook her head. “There are days—” She sighed heavily. “I don't know what Xena,” she looked pointedly at Eponin, “is up to. She just said to meet her here.”
“She's preparing for the ritual,” Yakut and several Northern Amazons approached the clearing.
Both Ephiny and Eponin, as well as the other Thracian Amazons, turned toward the approaching northerners. The Thracians set their stances with weapons held at the ready. They weren't taking chances, not when their queen was missing.
“Thank you for coming, Otere,” Ephiny stepped forward to greet the newcomers. “Did you relay—” Yakut took that moment to step forward. “Oh, I see you brought Yakut, as Xena asked.”
“I also gathered those most loyal to me,” Otere said, as she went down to one knee before the Thracian regent. “We are your humble servants, Queen Ephiny.”
The rest of Otere's group also went to a knee and bowed their heads in deference to the Thracians. Even Yakut, who stood just a step behind Otere, went to a knee. The shamaness kept her gaze locked on Ephiny's.
Ephiny's brow shot into her hairline. “Amazons don't kneel before each other, Queen Otere,” Ephiny said. “Rise.”
The northerners stood up as one and proudly faced their Thracian sisters.
“We only meant to show you the respect you deserve as an elder of your tribe,” Otere said.
Ephiny's brow rose higher. “Elder?”
Otere couldn't help the smirk that touched her lips. “I mean no disrespect, Queen Ephiny. But our ways are not your ways, I'm afraid.”
Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest and continued to play along. “Apparently not.” She heard a snicker behind her, knew who it was and chose to ignore her weapons master's inappropriate display of humor. “Did you bring what you'll need for the ritual, Yakut?”
“She did,” Otere stepped aside and motioned for Yakut to step forward. “Yakut is familiar with the rituals and ceremonies of our tribe. She is also an apprentice of our elder shamaness, a wise woman of the northern tribes. I take it Xena wants her to perform an exorcism on Queen Gabrielle?”
“That's right,” Ephiny nodded.
Just then three armed youths pushed Eritreius in Gabrielle's body forward. The woman's hands were bound in front of her and her upper arms were tightly bound to her sides. A gag had been shoved in her mouth and her eye sported a dark purple shiner.
Ephiny eyed the shiner. “Was that really necessary?”
Otere nodded to the three young women, one of which removed the gag. “Despite her resemblance to your queen, this is not her. She tried to escape, so we took appropriate action.”
“I know this isn't our queen,” Ephiny chided. “But the body still belongs to Gabrielle. She'll want it back in one piece.”
“I welcome you to try and exorcise my spirit from this body,” Eritreius growled. “Nothing but death will free me.”
Ephiny took a menacing step toward the familiar figure and glared into eyes that held none of the warmth that characterized the Gabrielle she knew. “You took something that doesn't belong to you,” she said flatly. “You'll be lucky if we don't banish your miserable soul to Tartarus for all eternity.”
Gabrielle's chin lifted in defiance. “Banish my soul and this body dies,” Eritreius sneered. “You've no idea what you're dealing with.”
“You see why we gagged her?” Otere smirked at the regent. “She never shuts up.”
Another snicker had Ephiny shooting Eponin a warning glare. “Not a word,” she growled.
Eponin mimed zipping her lips and throwing away an imaginary key. Ephiny simply frowned in disapproval. The others shifted uncomfortably at the interplay between the two women.
“It's time,” Yakut interceded. “Xena will cross over soon and we have to be ready when she does.”
“Exactly what is it you want us to do?” Ephiny asked. “I assume Xena needs our help in some way?”
“Yes,” Yakut nodded. “There really isn't time to explain everything, so please just bear with me on this.”
Ephiny glanced around at the Thracians behind her before returning her attention to the shamaness. “We'll do whatever it takes to get Gabrielle back into her body. Right, Amazons?”
A collective shout of agreement rose up from the Thracians.
Low chanting filled the still clearing, as a leather-clad figure danced around a modest campfire. The figure wore an impressive set of antlers from a freshly-dressed stag. The stag's lifeless carcass had already been consumed by the flames, after its lifeblood had been drained in preparation for the ritual that was already underway.
The chanting suddenly stopped and the figured dropped to her knees on furs laid out next to the fire. She raised a cup of the still-warm blood and threw her head back. In a clear voice, Xena resumed the chant to call the spirits to her.
She lifted the cup of stag's blood to her lips and drank a generous mouthful. The cup dropped from lifeless fingers, as the effects of the chanting and the stag's warm blood flowed through her with each beat of her heart. The world as she knew it fell away and darkness consumed her, as the fire crackled and her body sank to the furs in an unconscious heap.
Gabrielle lay on her side in the damp loam. One arm covered her head and protected her face. Her legs were pulled up tight, but nothing seemed to help. The thorn bushes covered her entirely and she was finding it hard to breathe. Thorns poked her from all sides, and she could feel a few piercing the exposed places on her body. She was trapped and had no idea how to extricate herself from the overgrown bramble.
“It's not real,” she murmured for the nth time. “This is not real. This is not real. This is not…” The mantra died on her lips.
A sharp thorn pierced her side and she sucked in a breath at the very real pain. Tears sprang to her eyes and she tried not to breathe too deeply as the thorn pierced deeper.
“Gods!” She hissed. “This can't be happening.”
“Oh, it is,” that irritatingly disconnected voice echoed in the silence. The voice turned into a raspy chuckle that grated on Gabrielle's last nerve. “Poor little bard. Who will rescue you now?”
“Who are you?” Gabrielle searched the brambles without moving and saw nothing. “What do you want from me? Why are you doing this?”
“Fear,” the voice sneered with derision. “I can feel it oozing from every pore of your soul.” That raspy chuckle surrounded her, as the vines continued their slow progress. “Your fear will give me great power, little one.”
Gabrielle shut her eyes tightly against everything and concentrated on the one thing that was the anchor in her life—her love for Xena. She put every ounce of her being into the love she had for the warrior. She felt it flow through her and surround her, shutting out the voice and the thorns that penetrated her spiritual flesh.
The shout sounded as if it came from a great distance, but still she heard it. That voice was as familiar to her as her own. Gabrielle felt hope rise, even as the thorns continued closing in.
“Xena!!!” Gabrielle shouted in a voice as loud as her prison would allow. “Hurry!!”
“I'm coming, Gabrielle!” Xena shouted back, her voice seemingly closer than it was before. “Hang in there, sweetheart!!”
“Hurry,” Gabrielle called breathlessly as the vines closed around her. She felt a brief instant of panic that Xena wouldn't reach her in time.
And then the vines and thorns around her slowly fell away. Light penetrated the darkness, until she was finally able to make out a shadow working frantically from above.
“I'm coming, Gabrielle,” Xena breathed heavily from her exertions. Gabrielle didn't care. Just the mere sound of that voice was a balm to her weary soul. “Hang in there, love. I'm almost there.”
“Xena—” Gabrielle gasped, as one particularly thorny branch came free to reveal a welcome face.
“Hey,” Xena smiled, as she continued clearing the remaining branches away.
Gabrielle was summarily lifted from the small space by a pair of strong arms. She found herself engulfed in a fierce hug and could do nothing more than hold onto Xena in return. Relief flooded her and it was all she could do not to collapse right there.
“Gods, I am so glad to see you, Xena,” Gabrielle held on for dear life. She had absolutely no desire to let go of the woman in her arms. Tears coursed down her cheeks. “I knew you'd come.”
“We don't have much time,” Xena said, as she reluctantly pulled away enough to look Gabrielle in the eye.
“Xena, what's going on?” Gabrielle asked, as Xena set her on her feet beyond the thicket that had grown up around her so suddenly. “I thought this was the spirit realm, but…”
“Let's get out of here first,” Xena answered, as she grabbed Gabrielle by the hand and led her away from the still-growing thicket. “This place isn't safe.”
They made their way back along a winding path that only Xena could see. Gabrielle noticed that the world around them had dimmed and was far less vibrant than when she'd first awoken. The place still held an eerie otherworldly glow to it, but the light was fading fast.
“We're in the spirit realm, aren't we?” Gabrielle commented, as she managed not to stumble over a fallen log that Xena easily vaulted.
“Yes,” Xena answered without missing a beat.
Satisfied with Xena's answer, Gabrielle decided against asking any further questions. It was enough for her to concentrate on traversing the uneven ground behind her partner. Xena was moving at a quick pace in a seemingly random direction, but Gabrielle trusted the warrior to guide them. Besides, she was not quite up to talking while trying to keep up with Xena's longer strides.
“Xe—” Gabrielle stopped to catch her breath after they emerged from a particularly dense section of undergrowth.
Xena heard the pleading note in Gabrielle's voice and stopped her headlong flight. She turned back to see that Gabrielle was leaning forward and breathing heavily from their exertions. Without hesitation she returned to the bard's side and rubbed her back.
“Are you okay?” Xena asked with concern, as she maintained contact with the woman. “I know how difficult this is, but we really need to keep moving, Gabrielle.”
“Just…let me catch…my breath, Xe,” Gabrielle panted, as she continued to lean forward and hold the stitch in her side.
While Xena stood there, she assessed Gabrielle for any obvious injuries. The bard's exposed skin was scratched and there were a few puncture wounds slowly seeping blood, but otherwise she appeared okay. Xena knew from experience that any injuries one received in the spirit realm would carry into the world of the living and vice versa. But she tucked those thoughts away for later. Now was not the time to dwell on minor injuries.
Gabrielle finally straightened up, sucked in one last deep breath and let it out slowly. She nodded to Xena.
“You sure?” Xena couldn't keep the concern from her tone.
“You said we need to hurry,” Gabrielle confirmed with a nod. “I'm good. Let's get out of here before something else goes wrong.”
Xena didn't hesitate further. She took off into the next stretch of dense undergrowth with Gabrielle following close behind. Gabrielle had no idea where they were going. This was the spirit realm. Where could one go? Her thoughts whirled as they moved through what appeared to be a forest. The trees, however, bore no leaves. They actually looked dead.
“If we're in the spirit realm,” Gabrielle said as she stuck as close to Xena as the terrain would allow. “Why are we…running?”
“To get away,” Xena answered without looking back. She dodged around a sapling and stopped. “Whoa!”
Gabrielle nearly plowed into the taller woman who stopped suddenly in front of her. But Xena just caught her and held on.
“Why…are…we stopping?” Gabrielle panted in an effort to catch her breath again.
Xena didn't answer right away. Instead, she scanned their surroundings and listened intently to the muted sounds around them. She held a finger to Gabrielle's lips and signaled for the smaller woman to remain quiet.
Gabrielle nodded her understanding. And waited. She heard nothing, but that didn't mean that Xena didn't hear something. The warrior's senses were much more astute than the average person's. Gabrielle was used to relying on Xena to sense danger. Obviously this was one of those moments when the warrior's senses were on the mark.
Xena spun around and saw Yakut standing across the field from them. The shamaness lifted an arm and waved them toward her.
“Come on!” Xena grabbed Gabrielle's hand and practically dragged her across the clearing toward the northerner.
They heard rather than saw the disturbance before it actually hit them. Gabrielle saw Yakut's eyes widen in shock at their approach and noticed the woman wasn't actually looking directly at them. She was looking up and to Gabrielle's right. There mere thought of an attack had Gabrielle ducking instinctively.
And then something hit her from behind so hard that she pitched forward and went sprawling headfirst into the hard ground. It happened so quickly that she didn't even have time to put her arms out to soften the blow. The force of the impact knocked the wind out of her and left her dazed. Gabrielle tried to lift her head to see where Xena was, but her vision was unfocused and fuzzy.
“Xena?” Gabrielle called, hoping her soulmate was not incapacitated, too.
Xena's voice seemed so far away that Gabrielle could barely hear her. She knew they'd been running right next to each other only moments before, but there was no way the warrior was there anymore. She shook her head to clear her vision, but it didn't help. As a matter of fact, it only made matters worse. Darkness enveloped her and closed in with surprising speed.
“Xena, what's happening?” Gabrielle couldn't keep the panic from her voice.
“I'm here, Gabrielle,” Xena answered, but Gabrielle had no idea where the voice was coming from.
“There's no hope for you, little one,” another voice—this one raspy and frighteningly familiar—spoke directly in Gabrielle's ear. “That's right. We're not quite finished. We have so much work left to do before I banish your pitiful soul into the never-ending oblivion of non-existence. I have waited ages for a soul as pure and untainted as yours. Now I have exactly what I need to complete the circle.”
Gabrielle heard Xena shouting her name from a great distance and felt the darkness close in. She forced her mind to focus on Xena's voice and tried to will the other voice away. Her entire being was concentrating so intensely that she barely registered the intense agony that hit her.
“What the—” A scream tore from her throat unexpectedly as the intensity of the pain ripped through the very core of her being. Gabrielle felt as if a thousand needles were piercing her flesh. “Arrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!”
“I think she's…Queen Gabrielle?”
She couldn't think beyond the intense agony threatening to overwhelm her and drive her into unconsciousness. The agonizing scream continued as the pain intensified and ripped through every fiber of her being. She felt her throat go raw from it, but could not stop.
“Gabrielle!!!” Ephiny's voice called to her and barely penetrated the darkness and pain enveloping her. “Can you hear me?”
She could hear but could no longer respond. It was too much. The pain. The darkness. Everything. Her mind began to shut down and gave in to the seductive pull of unconsciousness.
“Xena? Where'd you come from?” The surprise was evident in Ephiny's voice, as she glanced around to see that the northern and Thracian Amazons were still lying unconscious all around her.
“I'm here, Gabrielle,” Xena said as she rushed to the bard's side. With an impatient hand, she threw off the stag antlers that she'd been wearing. “Come on. Come back to me!” She propped Gabrielle up and quickly cut the ropes that bound her.
“Xena, we don't know—” Ephiny began but stopped instantly at the look in Xena's eyes. “Okay,” she nodded to Eponin who was about to intervene. “Leave her alone.”
“You sure ‘bout that?” Eponin questioned. “We don't know if that's really Gab—”
“It's her!” Xena barked. “It's her,” she said in a calmer tone.
Eponin glanced at Ephiny, who merely shrugged.
“Okay,” the weapons master conceded. “But don't blame me if that other chick suddenly rears her ugly head and starts shootin' Gab's mouth off again.”
Xena finished cutting Gabrielle loose and tossed the ropes aside. She took Gabrielle in her arms and held her close, hoping beyond hope they weren't too late. Gabrielle was still breathing, but she was completely limp in Xena's arms.
“Come on, Gabrielle,” Xena stroked the blond hair from Gabrielle's closed eyes. “I know you're in there, sweetheart. Come back to me.”
Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's blond head, oblivious to the stares of the few women regaining consciousness around her. She just didn't care. The only person who mattered to her was lying unconscious in her arms.
Voices murmured just out of earshot. The darkness was all-consuming. Flashes of memory surfaced, but nothing made sense. She wanted to open her eyes. She wanted to see. The voices grew louder. Disjointed snatches of meaningless phrases that made no sense. Whispers. Murmurs. Shouts. A warning screech pierced the cacophony. And then—silence.
A bright light suddenly flared to life and pierced the darkness. But the light did nothing to illuminate her surroundings. The light only touched the immediate area around her. Gabrielle shaded her eyes against the brightness and tried to see beyond the place where she was.
“Hello?” She called into the darkness. “Is anyone there?”
A hundred whispered voices responded, but Gabrielle couldn't make out a single intelligible word. She gazed out into the darkness beyond the bright light that seemed to emanate from above her. She could see nothing. The whispers grew louder, but remained elusive.
“Who's there?” Gabrielle called again. “Hello?” She spun around in a circle and tried to get her bearings. “Is anyone out there? Where am I? Why am I here? Where's here?” The last was said on a heavy sigh, as she impatiently ran a hand through her hair and noticed she wasn't quite corporeal. “What the—?” She raised both arms in front of her and looked more closely. Then she brought her hands to her face and could see right through them. “Please! Someone tell me what's going on!” She called into the darkness, as the whispers seemed to echo her every word. “Where am I? What's happened?”
And then she heard that distinctive low raspy chuckle amidst the whispers.
“I told you,” the voice remarked.
Gabrielle spun around, but saw no one. “Who are you?”
“Does it matter?”
“I want answers,” Gabrielle's ire quickly rose. “I swear—”
“You swear what, little one? Do you swear to give yourself to me? Or will you retaliate against me, instead?”
Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Why am I here?”
Gabrielle groaned in frustration. “Is this some little known level of Tartarus or something? Are you going to torture me for eternity with meaningless answers to my every question?”
“Or something,” the voice stated with another low chuckle.
“Why can't I see you?” Gabrielle decided on a change of topic. “What are all those whispers? What's going on?”
“You no longer have eyes to see,” the voice said, as if that explained everything. “The whispers are remnants of souls long past. They call to those who would join them.”
“Souls long past?” Gabrielle asked. “What does that mean?”
“Ghosts—shades—shadows of those gone before,” the voice explained matter-of-factly.
“Into the Void,” the voice stated. “You will soon add your voice to theirs.”
“Is that where I am?” Gabrielle could feel the panic setting in again. “Is this the Void?”
“Not the Void, no,” the voice replied.
Gabrielle could feel her senses adjusting to her surroundings. She could also make out a shadowy form standing just beyond the light that bathed her. She took a step toward the shadow, in the hope that the light would illuminate whoever was standing there. The shadow merely moved away.
“The place between,” the voice responded with a low chuckle.
“Are we trapped here?” Gabrielle asked, as she took another step toward the shadowy figure.
“No,” the voice answered, as the shadow retreated farther.
Gabrielle decided to throw caution to the wind and lunged for the figure. She threw her arms out in front of her as she leaped forward. Her incorporeal arms grasped nothing but thin air as she landed on the hard ground that wasn't really ground at all. She quickly pushed up to her feet and spun a circle to see if she could find the shadow in the darkness.
“Pointless endeavor,” the voice chuckled. “But I applaud your initiative, little one. You are proving to be one of my most challenging prospects. I have never encountered one so resilient as you.”
“Who are you?” Gabrielle didn't bother to disguise the anger in her tone. “Tell me what's going on!!!”
“Ahhhh, that's right,” the voice continued. “Let the anger flow. Feel it welling up inside of you. Embrace it. Cherish it. It will guide you to me just as assuredly as if we were already one.”
Gabrielle caught herself and reined in her frustration. She took several deep breaths and let them out slowly. Her thoughts turned to her and Xena at one of their favorite places. It was one of the many waterfalls they had discovered in their travels and one that had given them both a sense of real peace.
“You can't fight it forever,” the voice intruded on Gabrielle's concentration. “One way or another I will have your soul, little one.
“There's only one person on earth who holds my soul,” Gabrielle said in a calm tone. “And you're not Xena.”
“Ah, Xena,” the voice continued. “Her attempt to rescue you from the spirit realm was quite unexpected. Only a fully-trained shamaness has ever successfully passed into the spirit realm without dying first. Her abilities are quite impressive.”
“Xena has many skills,” Gabrielle deadpanned.
“Yes, I know,” irritation dripped from every word, as the shadow moved closer. “Her interference has created some rather…interesting and unforeseen…complications.”
The shadow was close enough that Gabrielle could actually sense a presence there with her. She reached out to touch the figure, but her hand passed right through it. Frigid cold air engulfed her, so she took a step back.
“Xena won't stop looking for me,” Gabrielle warned. “She'll travel the depths of the Underworld and beyond to find me. You can't keep me here forever.”
That low raspy chuckle pierced the darkness. “Do you honestly think she'll find you here?”
“She will.” Gabrielle answered firmly. Then she added with less conviction, “She has to.”
“Xena may be many things, but an oracle is not one of them,” the shadow snidely replied. “But, alas, even the greatest oracle to walk the earth could not find you here. You are beyond the reach of any but me.”
Gabrielle knew the shadow was within reach. She couldn't help but take a swipe at it and felt her hand pass through that frigid cold again. “Why? Because I'm no longer on earth?” Gabrielle prodded.
Another chuckle. “Nice try, little one,” the chuckle continued. “Time is running out for you.”
Gabrielle felt it again. A cold feeling of dread washed over her and threatened to send her into another fit of panic.
“Tell me what you want,” her voice was calm, despite the rising panic. “Maybe I can come up with a way to satisfy us both.”
“I want you,” the voice was right beside her and she could feel an icy presence pressing against her side. “Your soul will keep me alive for at least another generation, if not longer.”
“Alive?” Now Gabrielle was really confused. “How is that possible when Eritreius hijacked my body?”
“I don't need your body,” the shadow moved even closer. “I will have your soul.”
A shiver of dread ran down Gabrielle's spine at the ominous words. She closed her eyes against the presence and willed it away. But the cold remained, no matter how hard she concentrated. It was a part of her now.
Xena's every attempt to bring Gabrielle out of unconsciousness failed. Nothing worked. Not screaming at her or slapping her cheek or even crying to the heavens. The woman in her arms remained deathly still. Xena checked for a pulse and found a slight flutter beneath her fingers. She looked up and met the expectant faces watching her.
“She's dying,” Xena said flatly.
“Nissia—” Ephiny started.
“There's nothing she can do,” Xena cut her off. Tears sprang to her eyes but she refused to let them fall. “This is Gabrielle's fight now. Only she can bring herself out of this.” She glanced down at the still woman. “She'll find her way back to us. She has to.” The last was said with less conviction.
Eponin and Ephiny exchanged looks of confusion. Then Ephiny stepped closer to the stone tabletop that Xena sat on.
“Xena, you of all people know there's still a chance,” Ephiny placed a comforting hand on the warrior's shoulder. “I heard what you did for her at Thessaly . You didn't give up then. Why give up now?”
Xena's teary eyes met the regent's intense gaze. “I'm not giving up and she's not dead yet.”
“Maybe I can help,” Yakut stepped forward in full Northern Amazon regalia and all eyes turned to her.
The young shamaness wore a headdress similar to the one Xena had discarded earlier, with a smear of blood beneath the decorative beats that hung down over her forehead. The difference between their outfits was the beaded bone breastplate adorning Yakut's front. On closer examination, one could see that the breastplate was crafted of bone hairpipe from a large porcupine. Twin eagle feathers hung on either side of the breastplate, the leather ties decorated with colorful beads and stones that all held symbolic meaning.
“How?” Xena's expression reflected her skepticism.
Yakut moved next to Ephiny and extended her arms toward Gabrielle. Her eyes closed as she chanted something in a long-forgotten language no one understood. She continued chanting as she slowly moved her hands from the top of Gabrielle's head to her feet and back up again.
Xena and Ephiny exchanged a curious look, as Yakut continued her assessment.
“Adanata agisdi,” Yakut said when she finished and opened her eyes to look at them. “The Soul-eater.”
“What?” Ephiny and Xena said in unison.
“Her soul was taken by the Adanata agisdi,” Yakut clarified. “I was afraid something like this might happen.”
Xena blew out a frustrated breath. “You never said anything about a soul-eater in all of this.”
“There was a slim chance—” Yakut's words were instantly cut off.
It happened so fast. One second Xena was sitting on the boulder holding Gabrielle and the next she was lifting Yakut off her feet. Xena's ice-blue gaze bored into her own, as the warrior searched Yakut's for answers.
“Xena, please,” Ephiny's plea broke the tense silence around them.
“I want answers, Yakut,” Xena growled in a low tone, as she slowly lowered the shamaness back to the ground. “And I want them, now.”
“Easy, Xena,” Yakut held up her hands to ward off the angry woman and knew there was nothing she could do to protect herself if Xena chose to kill her outright.
Xena was actually a full head taller than she was and towered over her like one of the Titans of old. Yakut took several steps back and felt the presence of her northern sisters moving in behind for support. But she wasn't afraid. Despite her youthful years, she was a shamaness and had faced far greater challenges than Xena.
“Just tell me what I need to do to get Gabrielle back into her body before she dies,” Xena said in a calmer voice.
Most of the Thracians and Northern Amazons were on their feet at this point. The Thracians moved to stand behind the boulder where Xena and Ephiny stood, while Yakut, Otere and the Northern Amazons faced off in front of them.
Yakut held up a staying hand and glanced at the woman who moved up next to her. “Stand down, Amazons.”
“Yes, stand down,” Ephiny held up her own hand and glanced at Eponin and the others behind her. “Our first concern is Queen Gabrielle.”
Yakut returned her gaze to Xena. “How far are you willing to go to get her back, warrior?”
The question took Xena by surprise, but she hid her reaction behind her stock mask of indifference. “As far as I have to,” she answered in a tone devoid of emotion. “There's nothing I won't do to bring her back.”
“Are you willing to lose your own soul or exchange it for hers?” Yakut continued in the same even tone.
“Yes,” Xena stated.
Yakut scanned the women behind Xena before her gaze rested on Ephiny. “Are you also willing to do whatever it takes to bring your queen back?”
Ephiny only hesitated a moment before speaking. “I am.”
“And those with you?” Yakut prodded.
Xena put her hands on her hips and scowled. “They don't need to be a part of this. Just tell me what you need me to do and I'll do it.”
“Xena,” Ephiny turned to the woman next to her. “I think she's saying this is bigger than any of us. Please, just hear her out.”
Xena glared at the regent, then let her expression soften. “Fine,” she sighed in resignation.
“Adanata agisdi is very powerful,” Yakut explained. “My people first encountered him several generations past, when he arose from the ashes of one of our most powerful shamanesses. He can change his appearance and become anything or anyone he can use to steal someone's soul. Adanata agisdi feeds on one's weaknesses to gain a hold over them. His ways are mysterious, but essentially he must acquire at least one soul in a generation in order to remain in existence.”
“So, you're the reason he's here?” Xena accused. “You're the ones who brought him into our midst?”
“Yanush,” Yakut stated simply. “She uses the dark mysticism in her rituals. She probably awakened him when she traveled to the spirit realm and accidently pulled Gabrielle in with her.” She paused to gauge Xena's anger and noted the firm set to the warrior's jaw, as well as other signs that the warrior was controlling her anger. “I didn't tell you because I didn't know if he would become a factor. He rarely leaves his realm. It's only when he needs a fresh soul that he leaves the domain he resides in.”
“So why didn't he just take Eritreius' soul when you released her during your exorcism thingy?” Ephiny asked. “Why latch onto Gabrielle, instead?”
“You don't know, do you?” Yakut glanced from Xena to Ephiny and back again.
“Know what?” Ephiny placed her hands on her hips and glared at the young shamaness. “Please, enlighten us, Yakut. Just give it to us straight, without all the mystical mumbo jumbo.”
Yakut met Xena's gaze. “Your interaction with the Olympian gods has made you both quite powerful,” Yakut explained. “Gabrielle, especially. She carries both darkness and light within her that cannot be discounted. Both sides now affect everything that she is and does. The taint in her blood has touched her very soul, which was once as pristinely pure as that of a newborn babe.” Her gaze met Xena's. “Your actions in Britannia—your inability to protect her from the demon—made her a target for the evil that exists in this world. She will never be free from that taint, no matter how long she lives. I do not lay the blame solely at your feet, Xena. I merely state a fact.”
“You're saying Xena's darkness tainted Gabrielle?” Ephiny couldn't quite wrap her mind around this latest revelation.
“I'm saying the damage occurred in Britannia when evil planted its seed within her,” Yakut said. “Past choices and the path that Gabrielle now walks will not change her ultimate destiny. She will never walk the path of truth and light again. Her path now resides in both the light and darkness that dwell within. And the darkness draws strength from the evil that is attracted to it. Like bees attracted to honey, evil will always find her and leave a mark on her soul. But she also finds hope in the light that guides and protects her.”
“Oh, that's encouraging,” Ephiny scoffed sarcastically. “Just tell us what we need to do to bring her back—minus all the doom and gloom.”
“Kill her,” Yakut stated flatly.
A collective indrawn breath greeted the shamaness' words. More than a dozen expressions of anger glared back at her, but Yakut kept her gaze firmly locked on Xena's. She watched the warrior's expression and noted firm resolve in Xena's eyes.
“Seriously?!?” Ephiny's voice rose until it fairly squeaked. “You want Xena to kill her soulmate? What kind of witch are you?”
“You know her soul is still linked to her body, Xena, no matter how tenuous that hold is at the moment,” Yakut chose to ignore the regent's outburst and forge ahead. “You also know that if the body dies, then the soul can be released into the afterlife and Adanata agisdi's hold on her will be no more. He will lose his grip and will no longer be able to draw her into his realm.”
A hush fell over the group and the only sound in the clearing was the incessant chirping of a thousand crickets. Everyone waited with baited breath, as Xena turned to look at the still body of the woman she loved.
A hundred thoughts raced through Xena's mind, foremost of which was the love she knew she could not live without. To kill Gabrielle would mean that she would no longer be able to carry on. And then it occurred to her that she had no idea which afterlife Gabrielle would go to. Would she be sent to the Amazon Land of the Dead? Or would she be banished to Tartarus? And where would she—Xena—go when her time was up? Would they even have a chance to be together again? Too many questions without answers.
“I can't,” Xena answered in a voice barely loud enough for Ephiny to hear, as she shook her head against the inevitability of what her heart knew must be. “I just can't.”
“Xena…” Ephiny watched her friend struggle with a decision that she would never want to make herself. “What choice do we have?”
“There is no other choice,” Yakut moved up next to the warrior. “Kill her or allow her soul to be lost forever in the grip of Adanata agisdi. And, believe me; an eternity in his realm is a thousand times worse than spending eternity in the deepest, most agonizing pit of Tartarus. There are no words to describe the suffering that Gabrielle will endure while he feeds off of the goodness that remains within her. It is not a fate I would wish on my worst enemy.”
Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as she opened her eyes and came to a decision. She turned to face Yakut with a look of determination in eyes gone dead and emotionless.
“I take it you need their help to pull this off?” Xena asked the shorter woman, as she indicated the women surrounding them with a quick flick of her hand. “I'll do my part. You do yours.”
Yakut nodded and glanced at Ephiny and her retinue. “Will you help, even at the price of your own lives?”
Ephiny's gaze glanced over each of her Amazons, in turn, and they nodded their acquiescence. When her eyes met Eponin's there was firm resolve from the weapons master. “Well?”
“She's our queen,” Eponin shrugged. “We swore an oath, and I, for one, don't intend to go back on my word.”
Ephiny turned her attention back to Yakut. “Count us in.”
Yakut then turned to those gathered behind her. “And you, my sisters?”
Otere stepped forward without hesitation. “We brought this on Gabrielle and her tribe, even if it was unintentional. We are willing to do whatever it takes to set this right.” Nods from the Northern Amazons gathered behind her sealed her words.
“Okay, then, let's begin,” Yakut said as she turned back around to face Gabrielle's inert form.
Gabrielle sat with her forehead resting on her knees. The bright light had waned to an eerie grayish glow that barely illuminated her, much less her surroundings. The stale tang of death surrounded her and the whispers had returned in full force. It was impossible to concentrate on anything in this place. She'd tried to close her eyes and imagine herself in another place—a peaceful place—but the whispers just grew louder, as if they were trying to drive her crazy.
Crazy. This whole thing was crazy. She was trapped in unending darkness with no hope of escape. She had no idea where she was. All she knew for sure was that there was a being trying to take her soul. Her thoughts turned to Xena, and she tried to feel the love that connected them, but even that was slipping from her grasp. The whispers grew louder and more incessant. Some sounded as if they were echoing in her head, while others sounded far away. None of them made sense. Nothing made sense anymore.
“UGGGGGGHHH!!!” Gabrielle cried out in frustration, as she jumped to her feet and spun around in a circle. She held her ears in an attempt to shut out the murmurs, but that didn't help. Nothing helped. “STOP!!! STOOOOOOOP!!!!” Her words echoed around her and the murmurs increased in volume. “I SAID STOOOOOP!!!” She threw her head back and let out a frustrated scream that just echoed in the darkness. Then she grabbed her head again and collapsed onto her side.
That eerie disjointed chuckle penetrated the whispers and drove them back. Gabrielle just lay where she'd fallen. She couldn't fight it any longer. It was too much. She felt nothing but anger, frustration and a sense of loneliness that was all-consuming. A cold pit of despair grew steadily inside her, as she realized she was losing the battle for her very soul.
“Poor little one,” a deep male voice purred around her. A shadow approached the edge of the soft grayish glow and halted just beyond her reach. “Your mortal body will soon pass away from the living world and then you will be mine. It is only a matter of time. The body cannot live long without the soul.”
“Why are you doing this?” Gabrielle's voice came out as barely more than a whisper, while tears of anguish flowed freely down her face and pooled on the dark stone beneath her. “Why me? What evil did I commit that deserves this kind of punishment?”
The shadowy figure moved into the muted light and stood next to Gabrielle. The shadow wore a dark shroud that was there, yet wasn't. A hood hid the shadow's features from view, as tendrils of the shroud seemed to dance in and out of Gabrielle's vision. The figure knelt next to her, and Gabrielle gasped in shock. Where a face should have been there was only a dark void. She gazed into the void and felt herself being pulled into it.
“Yessssss,” the voice hissed. “Join me, little one. Be one with me and know an existence like no other. Let go of it all. Yield to me. I will show you things you never dreamed. I will take away the pain you're feeling. It will be no more.”
Cold dread washed over her, as she shut her eyes in an attempt to shut out the shadow's hypnotic influence. It worked, to some extent. She no longer felt herself being sucked into that endless void, at least. But the cold still penetrated her soul and kept her from being able to think about anything except for the shadow looming so close to her.
“You can't fight me forever, little one,” the shadow said. “We will be one, just as surely as you are here with me now. I will have you. You are mine.”
Gabrielle curled into a tight ball and held her head in her hands. The whispers returned with a vengeance, as the creature retreated back into the darkness. His eerie chuckle faded, only to be replaced with those incessant whispered murmurs that threatened to drive her mad.
“Xena,” she gasped, as the tears of despair flowed freely. “Please…” The single-worded plea came out as a soft whimper between clenched teeth.
Xena listened with half an ear as the chants grew louder around her. The Northern and Thracian Amazons were gathered in a circle around the flat-topped boulder. She and Yakut stood on either side of the boulder that Gabrielle's body occupied. Xena noticed that Gabrielle's breathing was so shallow that it was barely discernible. She also knew that the bard's heart was barely beating. With a frustrated sigh, she pushed the worry to the back of her mind for the umpteenth time. Xena knew she needed every ounce of concentration she could muster if she was to pull this off.
Yakut's chanting crescendoed and pulled Xena out of her reverie. She glanced at the shamaness and saw that the woman was watching her intensely. At a signal from Yakut, Xena moved right up next to the boulder and looked down at her soulmate. Gabrielle's skin was as gray and pale as death, even though she merely appeared to be sleeping. Xena took in the tears that flowed from the still woman's eyes. The tears and shallow breathing were the only indications that Gabrielle was still clinging tenuously to the world of the living.
“Now, Xena,” Yakut's voice penetrated the eerie silence that hung over the clearing. “It's time.”
Xena glanced around her one last time and took in the still figures waiting expectantly for her to do her part. She lifted her hands toward Gabrielle's exposed throat and hesitated. Her fingers mechanically moved into position just above the pressure points that would stop the flow of blood to Gabrielle's brain. Every instinct told her to do what needed to be done, but still she hesitated. What if Gabrielle died instantly and no amount of resuscitation could bring her back? What if her soul was already beyond their reach? What if…
“We call the spirits to help this soul find its way back to us!!!!” Yakut's sudden outburst brought Xena back to the task at hand.
The low chanting resumed, as the other Amazons took up the cadence set by the shamaness. And then Xena's fingers found the pressure points with practiced ease. Gabrielle's body reacted instantly and she gasped. Her eyes shot wide open and stared unseeingly up into the sky above.
“Gabrielle?” Xena couldn't believe it could be that simple. She moved to release the pinch, but found her hands held firmly in an iron grip. “What…”
“Don't, Xena!” Yakut met her gaze. “Wait!”
Gabrielle's mouth worked of its own volition, as green eyes continued to stare up into the lightening sky. Another gasp escaped the bard's lips and her body convulsed violently before it lay as still as death. A trickle of blood slid from one nostril, as Gabrielle's eyes slid slowly closed.
Xena and Yakut remained poised over the bard's still body. They exchanged a brief look of indecision, before Xena pulled her hands from the shamaness' firm grip.
“Not yet,” Yakut thought she knew what Xena was about to do before the warrior could react.
Xena put the fingers of one hand to Gabrielle's neck and pressed firmly against the pulse she knew should be there. Nothing. Her own heart skipped a beat, as the realization hit her that Gabrielle's heart had stopped. She swallowed down the bile that suddenly rose in her throat. It took every ounce of self-control for her not to jab her fingers into Gabrielle's neck and release the pinch.
Yakut placed her own hands over the still figure lying motionless on the slab of rock. She said another incantation, as she moved her hovering hands over Gabrielle's body.
The despair was too much. Gabrielle couldn't bear it another moment. Curled up in a tight ball, she was already beyond tears and felt her soul growing colder and colder with each passing moment. The gray glow had faded to the point that it was barely-discernible, leaving her in almost complete darkness. Utter desolation washed over her and she felt herself slipping away. The whispers were all that she knew, as they flowed through her being and remained in the forefront of her mind.
The low chuckle returned. “That's it, little one. We are almost one. Do you feel me inside you? Your mortal heart barely beats now. I will soon have it all—your soul and the demon blood that flows through your veins. It is sooooo sweet, so very sweet.”
Gabrielle felt the cold seep to the very depths of her being. But she also felt something else, too. Freedom. For the first time since Dahak had planted his seed within her, she could feel that irrevocable link she'd shared with Hope slipping away—replaced with the empty cold of something far more sinister and frightening. It was a void—a lack of self. An existence without love. And she was slipping ever so much deeper into its deadly grip.
“Yessssss,” the voice hissed again. “So close. Just a little…”
But his words were suddenly cut short by a hideous scream that tore through Gabrielle like an all-consuming wildfire. Every pore of her spiritual being was suddenly ablaze. Agony couldn't even remotely describe the torture that ripped through her. The world twisted and spun around her, as every fiber of her ethereal being was suddenly tossed and turned on several planes of existence at once. The world as she had once known it came crashing in on her and then exploded into a million fragments in the space of one final heartbeat.
As suddenly as it began, it stopped. And Gabrielle succumbed once again to the dark oblivion of nothingness.
“Did it work?” Yakut's voice pierced the silence that reigned. “Is she alive?”
Yakut managed to pull herself to her feet as she glanced down at the prone figure lying on the stone slab. Unconscious Amazons lay all around her. Only she and Xena were still conscious in the aftermath of the explosion that knocked them all off their feet and caused a residual aftershock. The concussion downed trees and sent birds flying off in all directions. Even the incessant cricket song was completely silent at that moment.
“I don't know,” Xena replied as she stood with some effort and resumed her place next to the boulder. She put her fingers to Gabrielle's pulse point and felt a slight rush of excitement race through her when she noticed a heartbeat. “Her heart is beating.”
“That's something at least,” Yakut said, as she took in Gabrielle's pale features. She looked up and saw the expectant look in Xena's eyes. “I don't know,” she said in answer to the unasked question. “I've never done this before, Xena. I suppose only time will tell.”
Xena sighed. “I suppose.” She lifted the bard into her arms and held her close. “Come on, Gabrielle. Let me know you're in there this time, sweetheart.” She sat down on the edge of the stone slab and squeezed the woman in her arms. “Gods on Olympus , hear my plea…”
“I hear ya, babes,” Aphrodite suddenly appeared in their midst. “What can I do to help?”
Xena lifted teary blue eyes to meet the concerned goddess' gaze. “We've done everything we can think of to bring her back. I don't…I don't know what else…” her voice caught on a sob, as she let the tears fall. They trailed down her cheeks and dripped onto Gabrielle's.
Aphrodite moved in close and placed a kiss on Gabrielle's forehead. “Wake up, little one. We're all anxious for you to come back to us.” The chaste kiss left a soft glow of residual energy in its wake, as the goddess met Xena's gaze. “I'm sorry, but that's all I can do for her. The rest is up to Gabrielle.”
Yakut stood in stunned silence, as a few of her sisters and a few of the Thracians stirred around her. She couldn't take her eyes off the sparsely-clad goddess who had appeared in their midst. It was one thing to use her gift to sense the aura of the people around her and quite another to have one of the Olympian immortals right there in her midst. Then the goddess lifted her azure gaze and looked right at her.
“You did good, shamaness,” Aphrodite said with a sad smile. “Keep doing your people proud.” The goddess nodded once and then disappeared in a spray of pink, red and gold heart-shaped sparkles that quickly dissipated.
The sky was lightening as the first rays of sunlight peeked over the treetops and caste a warm, golden glow over the still clearing. Bewildered Amazons continued to stir, as the last vestiges of darkness finally receded with the dawn of another day. A few birds returned to the trees that still stood sentinel over the clearing, while the crickets gave up their night's song in deference to the louder bird song. A light breeze blew and chased away the few puffy clouds that remained.
“Hey,” Ephiny managed to recover enough to join Yakut and Xena. “How is she? Did it work?”
“Don't know,” Xena answered on a heavy sigh, as she looked down at the still woman in her arms.
“Let's get her back to the village,” Ephiny suggested, as she took in the pale features of both Xena and Gabrielle. “You look like you could use some sleep, Xena.”
Xena glanced around at the Amazons who were finally on their feet and gathering around them.
“Yeah, okay,” Xena answered with a determined nod. She hefted Gabrielle higher in her arms and stood up. “I'll see ya back at the village.”
Xena didn't wait for anyone to follow her, as she took off across the clearing without a backward glance. Her mind was awhirl with everything that had just happened and all she wanted to do was escape to the quiet confines of the hut she shared with Gabrielle. No. That wasn't exactly true. She wanted Gabrielle to open her eyes and speak to her. That's what she wanted more than anything. It scared her to think that Gabrielle's soul was lost forever and that she would never again look into those green eyes that could see to the very depths of her soul.
Despite her own physical and emotional exhaustion, Xena forced her long strides to continue carrying them both through the dense woods and beyond in less time than it would take an Amazon to travel high in the trees. It wasn't long before Xena was mounting the steps and entering the quiet confines of the hut. It was exactly as she had left it, which wasn't surprising. No other Amazons were allowed to enter the place when the queen was in residence, unless Gabrielle expressly ordered it.
Xena gingerly laid her charge down on the bed. She then stripped out of her winter leathers and haphazardly tossed them aside. Entering the bathing room, she quickly doused her entire body with cold water from a pitcher on a side table. She grabbed a clean cloth and vigorously scrubbed the grime away until her skin shown pink and flushed. She concentrated on the stag's blood on her forehead and made sure it was wiped clean. She double-checked her reflection in a looking glass to be sure she'd gotten it all and then returned to the main room. A few heartbeats passed while she donned a clean shift and climbed into bed beside her still partner. She checked Gabrielle's pulse again and was satisfied that the steady beat was actually stronger than it had been earlier. Was that a good sign?
Xena sighed heavily as she wrapped herself Gabrielle and lay close. She took comfort in the feel of Gabrielle's body against her own and also from the fact that the woman was breathing evenly. Nuzzling her cheek against Gabrielle's hair, Xena allowed herself to relax and her eyes to close. She listened to Gabrielle's steady breathing, as she finally let go of the cares of the world and sank into a deep sleep.
She was standing in a meadow full of spring flowers. Sunlight bathed her in its golden glow, warming her skin and chasing away the last vestiges of a hideous nightmare that still gripped her to her very core. Despite the warm glow, she still felt incomplete--cold. A gray emptiness ran deep within her that could not be reached by the warm glow of the sun. It seemed a permanent part of her.
She took a few tentative steps and waited with bated breath for something to happen. The meadow reminded her of a long-forgotten memory. A strong sense of foreboding gripped her as she took several more steps in the tall grass. She waited for the dagger to appear in front of her, but it didn't. This wasn't the same meadow. There was no dagger and Meridia wasn't there, either.
“Hey,” a voice from behind made her spin around. The sight that greeted her took her breath away.
“Hey yourself,” she smiled warmly up into blue eyes shining with love. “Are we dead?”
Xena closed the distance between them and took Gabrielle in her arms. The warrior was fairly glowing, as the smile deepened. She was wearing a simple blue gown that sparkled in the sunlight. Her dark hair hung loosely around her shoulders and framed her strong features. Gabrielle had never seen the warrior look more beautiful and radiant than she did at that moment.
Xena lifted a hand and gently grazed Gabrielle's cheek with the backs of her fingers. “I don't think we're dead.”
“This isn't real, is it?” Gabrielle questioned, as she moved even closer until her body melded against her taller partner's. Strong arms wrapped around her and chased away the last remnants of the chill that still lingered. “Are you really here, Xena? Please tell me I'm not dreaming. I…I can't…”
Rather than answering with words, Xena leaned down and met Gabrielle's lips with her own. Their kiss deepened and became more insistent until they were both breathless with desire. When it seemed that the kiss would last into eternity, they broke apart and came up for air.
“Gods!” Gabrielle gasped, as she looked up into blue eyes filled to overflowing with love. Tears sprang to her own eyes as the enormity of the situation washed over her. “It is you!” She exclaimed, as she reached up and touched Xena's soft cheek with tentative fingers. “I…I never thought…”
“Shhh,” Xena placed her hands on either side of Gabrielle's face and closed the distance between them again.
This kiss was more urgent, more demanding, than the first. They both put every ounce of love they shared into it, until they were left wanting more.
“I still think we're dreaming,” Gabrielle said when they parted again. “This has to be a dream.”
“Probably,” Xena smirked. “But it's the best damned dream I've had in a very long time.”
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist and reveled in the feel of the woman. Her ear against Xena's chest picked up the warrior's steady heartbeat and she found comfort in the familiar sound. Nothing else mattered except the two of them and their love for each other. Nothing else existed but them.
“I don't want to wake up from this,” Gabrielle muttered against the softness of Xena's skin. “Ever.”
“It's okay, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “No matter what happens, we'll face it together.”
“I thought,” Gabrielle couldn't help the hitch in her voice. “Why does it feel like we've been apart for an eternity, Xena?”
“Shhhh,” Xena gently stroked the blond hair. “You're safe now. I'm here and I'm not leaving you again. That's a promise I intend to keep for the rest of our lives.”
Gabrielle pulled back enough to look Xena in the eye. “Are we? Alive, I mean.”
Xena shrugged. “I was when I fell asleep with you in my arms,” she answered. “I don't think that's changed at least.”
“Then…how…?” Gabrielle let the question hang, as she looked around them.
“You two deserved a little break,” another voice announced.
Both women turned toward the newcomer and found Aphrodite standing there with a cheery grin on her face. The goddess was dressed in her usual gossamer outfit, except that Aphrodite was glowing more so than usual. The goddess walked right up and stopped next to the two.
“Aphrodite?” Gabrielle shifted her position, but didn't break contact with Xena. She merely wrapped an arm around Xena's waist and was satisfied when Xena put her own arm around her shoulders. “What are you doing here? And, more importantly, where's here?”
Aphrodite gently stroked the bard's cheek with her thumb. “Just checking on my two best girls,” she glanced at Xena and winked. “We were really worried about you, kiddo. We almost lost you. I thought it best to give you a little breather, before the reality of it all comes crashing back in, ya know?”
“Do I want to know?” Gabrielle glanced up at Xena and noticed unshed tears swimming in the warrior's bright blue eyes. “Xena?”
Xena sniffed back the tears and composed herself. “Later, Gabrielle.”
“Why do I get the feeling I'm not gonna like any of this?” Gabrielle glanced from one woman to the other. Her gaze rested on Aphrodite. “You still haven't answered my other question. Where are we?”
“It's a little getaway,” Aphrodite answered a little too brightly. “I created it myself from one of Daddy's old castoffs. He has a few of these places tucked here and there around Olympus . He created them as hideaways and little vacations spots for the family. But then he discarded them for one reason or another. This one is the Paradise Meadow. There's a breathtaking waterfall just beyond those trees over there,” she pointed to a dense stand of fir trees. “I added a few extra little touches for you two that I hope you'll enjoy. Take all the time you need. There's no rush to return to the mortal realm.”
“And what happens when we do return to our world?” Xena asked before the goddess could do her disappearing act. “Will…Is…” She swallowed over the sudden lump in her throat and caught Gabrielle looking intently up at her.
“That's entirely up to Gabby,” a frown marred the goddess' features, as she reached out and lifted Gabrielle's chin ever so slightly. “I'm not gonna lie to you, kiddo. You had an incredibly traumatic experience back there and it's all gonna come back to you when you leave here. I don't know if you'll be able to handle what happened. You might not want to wake up and face it.”
Gabrielle heard the dire note in the goddess' words and saw the sincerity in those ageless blue eyes gazing back at her. She had no memory of what happened, but could sense that it wasn't good. Could she handle it? She turned her head and looked up into eyes blazing with love and compassion. Xena's eyes. Even behind the unshed tears, Gabrielle could see that Xena knew exactly what the goddess was referring to.
“You know, don't you?” Gabrielle asked softly.
Xena merely nodded.
“That bad, huh?”
A single tear slipped from the corner of the warrior's eye and slid down her cheek.
Gabrielle tore her gaze from Xena's and returned her attention to Aphrodite. “How long do we have here?”
“When the sun rises, you'll be back in your world,” Aphrodite answered. “I wish it could be longer, but…”
“It's all right, Aphrodite,” Xena said.
“Okay, then,” the goddess took a few steps back. “I'll leave you two alone. You should find everything you need by the waterfall. I'm off to catch a few waves and give my bro a hard time.” She grinned from ear to ear. “Don't do anything I wouldn't do, kids.”
And with that she was gone, leaving Gabrielle and Xena alone in the quiet meadow. They exchanged a brief glance, shrugged and headed into the tree line. When they emerged from the small forest, they found themselves in breathtaking paradise.
“Incredible, just like she said,” Gabrielle finished for her astonished partner.
A picturesque waterfall set the backdrop for a beautiful little bathing pool surrounded on all sides by majestic pines. The sun glistened on the surface of the pristine blue water that was so clear you could see the rocky bottom far below. A few boulders lined the edge of a sandy beach, where a soft blanket had been spread out. A basket sat on a small rock near the blanket and there were various dishes already laid out. Flowers of every kind added their perfume to the pine-scented air. It was perfect.
The two women made their way down to the white sandy beach and surveyed the spread. There was enough food to feed an entire army for a week, not to mention several pitchers of wine, hard cider and port. Eyes wide, the two lay down on the blanket and dug into the sumptuous fare. They consumed legs of lamb marinated in a delectable wine sauce. Venison, beef, pork and chicken in a variety of sauces, marinades and gravies. There were juicy purple and green grapes so big they were almost the size of small walnuts. Shish kabobs of mixed vegetables and meat barbequed to perfection on bamboo sticks passed their lips, as did candied figs and dates, raisins, and nuts of all shapes and sizes. They ate as if they hadn't eaten in weeks and downed mug after mug of the heady brews that accompanied their meal.
They lay together and shared bites of roast venison, as well as tangy oranges, mangos, pears and other delights meant to tempt the palate and tease the senses. Gabrielle slipped a bite of meat pie into Xena's mouth and playfully licked the residual sauce from the warrior's lips.
“Mmm,” the bard sighed in blissful satisfaction after she'd finished cleaning off the last of the sauce. “You taste good enough to eat.”
Xena pulled her partner on top of her and ran her fingers through Gabrielle's hair. “Your hair's getting longer. Time for a cut?”
Gabrielle snickered. “Is that all you can think about at a time like this?”
“I miss it,” Xena pouted.
“I thought you liked it short,” Gabrielle countered soberly.
“I do, but…”
Gabrielle playfully feathered Xena's dark bangs. “But you like it better long.”
“Yeah,” Xena admitted. “I miss being able to run my fingers through it. You used to love when I brushed and braid it for you.”
“I wish you'd told me that before I told you to cut it so short that last time,” Gabrielle said, as she climbed off the prone woman and sat next to her. “It would be down to my shoulders by now.”
Xena propped herself on an elbow. “I didn't say anything because you seemed to like it short. It's not a big deal, Gabrielle. Really.”
Gabrielle gazed out at the sparkling water. “Let's not spoil this time together by arguing over something so trivial. Okay?”
“Okay,” Xena nodded. “You up for a swim?”
A smirk teased the corners of Gabrielle's lips. “Only if we get rid of these clothes.”
That earned a brilliant smile in return. “I'm all for that,” Xena said as she stood up and quickly stripped out of the dress Aphrodite provided for her.
Gabrielle stood there a moment and took in the sight of Xena's muscular body. “The dress matched your eyes perfectly,” she said. “But I think you're even more beautiful without it. Glorious.” She smiled wistfully. “Perfect.”
Xena snorted and reached for the ties at the front of Gabrielle's dress. The colors of the dress were like the colors of the forest—greens, browns and tans. One particular shade of green matched the bard's eyes and made them even more vivid than usual.
“Beautiful,” Xena said as she finished with the ties and watched the dress slip down one creamy shoulder. “You take my breath away, love.” She ran her fingers along Gabrielle's temple and brushed the hair away from her face. “I love you so much…”
But Xena didn't have the chance to finish her thought before Gabrielle suddenly bolted for the pool, pulling the dress over her head and tossing it aside as she went. She reached the water's edge in a few short strides and dove in head-first. Xena wasn't far behind her elusive lover and soon they were both splashing and playing in the cool, clear water.
Their antics continued, as they enjoyed the warmth of the day. After sharing some chaste kisses under the thundering pristine waterfall, the two swam to the other side of the pool and back. Then another bout of splashing ensued, until Xena disappeared beneath the water's surface. Gabrielle searched the clear bottom for any sign of the warrior and felt several nips on her ankles. She wasn't surprised when Xena suddenly pulled her under and they came up in each other's arms. They shared a long, lingering kiss that soon blossomed into much, much more.
It wasn't long before they were making love, both above and below the surface of the rippling water. Soon they took their lovemaking to the blanket and reveled in the feel of the cool air on their wet skin. They explored each other, as if for the very first time and reconnected in mind, body and soul. The waterfall pounded in the background like the steady beat of a drum as the two took their lovemaking to new and greater heights.
Hours later they lay in each other's arms, staring up at the moonless sky above. Stars twinkled and winked in the clear night sky, as the two lovers rested in silence. The sun had set long ago and they never even realized that the night had descended around them until they came back up for air.
“How are you feeling, love?” Xena's low voice broke the silence around them.
“Mmmm,” Gabrielle purred, as she shifted positions slightly until she was half-draped over her warrior pillow. “'S perrrrfect. I could stay like this forever.” She lifted her head and looked into Xena's eyes. “I love you.” Her head then dropped onto Xena's chest and she nuzzled the skin beneath her cheek. “I can't say that enough, Xena. I just want to stay like this forever.”
Xena glanced down at the blond head resting just below her right breast. “Forever?” She asked incredulously.
“Never wanna move from this spot for as long as I live,” Gabrielle purred. “I'm sooooo happy. Nothing in the mortal world or beyond can compare to this.”
That brought a smile to the warrior's swollen lips. “I hear ya on that.”
They lay there in companionable silence for several heartbeats, until Gabrielle shifted positions again. She scooted up until her head was resting just below Xena's chin.
“Comfy?” Xena wrapped her arms around the woman and hugged her tight.
Gabrielle gently blew a thin stream of air onto the flesh just inches from her lips. She watched in fascination as the rosy flesh became taught. And then she felt her lover shift beneath her.
“Comfy?” Gabrielle shot back with a teasing smirk.
“Not fair, love,” Xena gently chided. “You have me at a disadvantage here. It's not like blowing in your hair's gonna get the same response.”
“All's fair in love and…” her words were cut off and she suddenly found herself looking up into eyes smoldering with renewed passion. “War?” She squeaked.
“Definitely,” Xena grinned seductively, as she took her lover's mouth in a bruising kiss that took the smaller woman's breath away. “All's fair, huh?” She asked when they came up for air. “You sure ‘bout that?”
Gabrielle shifted and brought her bare thigh up between Xena's legs. She rocked her hips in a gentle motion that she knew would drive the warrior wild with need. She was right. It worked—probably more so than originally intended. Soon they were both rocking to a rhythm as old as time.
“I'm sure of nothing but this,” Gabrielle answered, as they were once again lost in each other.
Their lovemaking continued long into the early morning hours, when both of them succumbed to exhaustion and they finally fell asleep in each other's arms. Light snores whispered on a gentle breeze that threw small ripples along the water at the shoreline.
A certain goddess popped in and found the pair fast asleep in other's arms. She snapped her fingers and another blanket appeared. As gently as possible, she covered the lovers and stepped back to admire her handiwork. Neither woman stirred, as the goddess watched over them for a few brief moments and then disappeared without a sound.
It was a noise that startled her from the first decent sleep she'd had in a long time. One eyelid popped open to reveal a bleary blue eye and a groan of resignation echoed in the still silence. The blue eye closed instantly and squinted open a heartbeat later then blinked several times against the bright flash of daylight that shone from the single window above.
“Rise and shine, champ,” Eponin's cheery constitution just added fuel to the dread that hit her.
“Ugh!” Xena groaned, as she shifted slightly and realized she was wrapped around a familiar someone.
“It's about time,” a chair creaked and suddenly Eponin's face was within spitting distance. Xena considered doing it—the spitting—for a moment, then thought better of it. “Thought you and Gabrielle were gonna sleep the rest of your lives away,” Eponin said. “It's bad enough you've been in the same position for the better part of three straight days, Xena.”
“What?” Xena gingerly rose from where she lay and eased her sleeping companion back down without waking her. “What the hades are you doing here, Ep?” She sat up on the edge of the bed and stretched aching muscles that felt as if they'd been stuck in the same position for days. “How'd we get here? What day is it?”
“Okaaaay,” Eponin moved back to give the warrior space. “To answer your first question, champ, I said you've been asleep for three days. Eph, Solari and I have been trading shifts watching over the two of you and making sure no one pops in for an unexpected visit. All this crap the two of you have been up to your asses in has us all totally freaked.”
Xena ran a hand through her disheveled hair and shot the weapons master a warning glare. “You wake up on the wrong side of Ephiny's bed this morning, Pon? Or is that just your way of adding a little morning cheer?” Xena glanced at the window. “Okay, late morning.”
“Your sarcasm is duly noted, Xe,” Eponin said as she took a kettle off the fire and poured herself a cup of tea. She poured a second cup and handed it to Xena. “Here, you look like you could use this more than me.”
“Thanks,” Xena graciously accepted the tea and winced at the bitter taste.
It wasn't her favorite brew and it didn't help that Gabrielle wasn't awake to add her special touches. Xena glanced at the sleeping figure buried beneath the covers and her thoughts turned to the previous day and night. Had it all been just a strange dream? Was it wishful thinking that she and Gabrielle had spent the better part of an entire day and night next to a beautiful waterfall? Then she realized they'd been asleep for three days and nights, which meant Aphrodite had somehow manipulated things. She really didn't want to know the details.
“Nissia came by earlier to check on her,” Eponin said. “Said her heart beat's stronger and she appears to just be sleeping. Can't believe you two could sleep like that. You didn't even move once. Not even when T'laia barged in here, tripped over a chair and fell flat on her face. She made enough noise to wake the dead. Yet, the two of you didn't even twitch a muscle. If you ask me, Xe, it's a little weird. Wanna tell me anything?”
Xena winced as she finished off the last of her tea. “I don't think I can explain what happened, Pon. I really don't know if it was real or a dream. But, yeah, something happened.”
Eponin surveyed her friend's expression for a moment before she sighed in resignation. “Well, whatever. I can't say you missed much while you were out like the proverbial torch. Nothing happened that Eph, Sol and me couldn't handle ourselves.”
A dark brow rose as Xena turned her gaze on the Amazon. “Wanna qualify that?”
“Well, champ,” Eponin pulled up a chair and took a seat. “The tribes collectively decided to call it quits and head home. We saw the last of them off yesterday. Queen Mashuka bids you and Gabrielle farewell and wishes you a long life together. Eph didn't have the heart to tell any of them what happened, so we just left it at that. And the northern tribes packed up and left, too.” A frown appeared. “Otere's a strange one. She told Eph and me that she's considering a complete break from the northern tribes. Said she's gonna take her tribe up to the plains beyond the mountains. Said Yakut has a ritual to make them all forget what happened here, so they can start fresh. What's up with that?” She scratched her head in confusion. “Can they do that?”
“Sometimes a fresh start is a good thing,” Xena said, as she glanced behind her at the still-sleeping figure in their bed. “And, yes, Yakut will be able to give them the fresh start they want.”
“Well, anyway,” Eponin continued after clearing her throat. “The warrior mothers are getting along pretty well. Nearly a dozen went to the surrounding villages to find new homes for their sons, once they're weaned. Eph seems to think it's a good thing and will further the good relations between our villages. I guess it can't hurt to have ties with the locals.” She shrugged. “And the warriors who had girls are doing great and settling in as mothers. All the kids are healthy and the mothers, too. The priestesses are going nuts and proclaiming the births miracles of Artemis.” She snorted. “Glad I'm not a priestess, that's for sure.”
Just then, the door opened and Ephiny peeked her head in. “Hey, there!” She exclaimed happily when she saw that Xena was up and awake. “Thank the gods you're finally back with us!” Shutting the door behind her, Ephiny made her way toward the bed and noticed the figure still sleeping there. She frowned, “Gabrielle?”
“Still asleep,” Xena answered. “She had a harder time of it than I did and deserves the rest.”
“Will she?” Ephiny shot a concerned glance at the still figure and then returned her attention to Xena. “Wake up, I mean.”
A dark brow rose. “She will,” Xena stated with certainty.
“I, uh, was just filling Xena in on what's been happening over the last three days,” Eponin piped in. “I let her know about the departure of the tribes and updated her on the warrior mothers.”
Ephiny pulled up a chair and sat down next to the weapons master. “You missed some very uninteresting stuff, Xena.”
“So I've heard,” the warrior smirked. “I'm sure Gabrielle will be completely devastated that she wasn't awake during all the fun.”
“Funny,” Ephiny caught the note of sarcasm in the warrior's remark. “I'm thinking she'll have her own issues to deal with when she finally does wake up.” She turned her concerned gaze to the still figure in the bed. “If she ever wakes up, that is.”
“She will,” Xena reiterated. “Gabrielle has never been one to run from a fight. She isn't about to start now.”
Ephiny looked pointedly at Xena. “And you? What will you do if she wakes up with scars that run so deep that we don't recognize her?” Ephiny leaned forward with her arms on her knees and searched Xena's expression. “Are you willing to abandon your own quest for redemption in order to shoulder the burden of caring for her?”
Xena thoughtfully considered the question for a long moment. “I won't abandon Gabrielle for anything, especially not some meaningless quest for redemption.”
Eponin sat back in her chair and crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “And if she's not there anymore?” She held up a staying hand at the sudden flash of anger in Xena's eyes. “Now, now, don't get your leathers in a bunch, champ. I'm just throwing it out there. It's not like we're not all wondering why you're awake and she's still—” she shrugged. “Well, you know.” She motioned toward the bed.
Xena blew out a frustrated breath. “You don't know what happened,” she said as she shook her head. “You weren't there with us.”
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged confused looks.
“So tell us,” Ephiny finally said.
Silence reigned for several long moments, as Xena considered what to say. Should she tell them everything? After all, these two women were close friends who knew more than anyone what she and Gabrielle had been through in the past. But…
“Aphrodite took us to Mount Olympus ,” Xena finally spoke in a hushed tone. “We went to a place…a sort of paradise.” She met their gazes. “Gabrielle and I—we had the chance to reconnect away from here, away from all that's happened. No distractions. No gods to interfere. Just the two of us—alone.”
“And did you?” Eponin shot the warrior a teasing gleam. “Reconnect, I mean.”
“Yes,” Xena answered. “We did.”
“Aphrodite took you to Mount Olympus ?” Ephiny couldn't keep the incredulity from her tone.
“Yeeeesss,” Xena answered. “Why? Don't you believe me?”
“Are you sure you didn't just dream the whole thing?” Ephiny prodded. “I find it a little hard to believe that the Goddess of Love would take such a personal interest in you.”
“She's not lying,” came an unexpected response from the bed.
Three pairs of eyes turned in the direction the voice came from. They watched in dumbfounded silence as the figure stirred and finally propped herself up on an elbow. Her features were drawn and her hair disheveled from sleep, but otherwise Gabrielle looked more alert than they had seen her in days—at least, more alert than Ephiny and Eponin had seen her.
“Hey,” Xena shifted until she was facing Gabrielle. “Sorry we woke you.”
“'S okay,” Gabrielle responded in a voice still gravelly from sleep. She ran a hand through her hair and merely messed it up all the more. “How long was I out?”
“Um,” Xena glanced back at the two Amazons and gave them a warning look before returning her attention to Gabrielle. “What do you remember?”
Gabrielle glanced at each woman, in turn, and measured the varying degrees of concern on each woman's face. When her gaze finally rested on Xena, she could see something in the warrior's eyes that set off warning bells in her head.
“Uh oh,” Gabrielle responded. “Why does this feel vaguely familiar? Like we've done this before?”
Xena couldn't help the play of emotions that flitted across her face. She felt like they were reliving events from the past all over again—events that she really didn't want to revisit under the present circumstances. She searched Gabrielle's features for some clue that the woman remembered what had happened recently and found only confusion in the expectant green gaze watching her intently. Xena took Gabrielle's free hand in her own and took comfort in the warmth she found in the contact.
“We're in the Amazon village,” Xena began.
“I know that, Xena,” Gabrielle shot the warrior a no-duh smirk. “Hello, Eph, Eponin,” she greeted the two silent women with a warm smile and received tentative waves from each of them. “Okaaaaaay, not exactly the greeting I was looking for, but…” She shrugged and returned her attention to Xena. “I'm assuming there's more to it than the fact we're staying with the Amazons, Xe.”
“Yeah, you could say that,” Xena sighed. “But first I want to know what you remember.”
Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as she searched her bleary and befuddled thoughts for some semblance of order. Her memories were a mess of disjointed images and snippets of vague conversation, most of which were trivial at best.
“I remember bits and pieces,” Gabrielle began. “I invited the tribes for a…a gathering?” She looked to Ephiny for confirmation and received a nodded response. “We had quite the turn out if I recall correctly. There were…” She paused thoughtfully. “Games or competitions or something like that.” Another nod from Ephiny encouraged her to continue. “Okay, so we had a lot of Amazons here,” her gaze met Xena's. “Must have been a little uncomfortable for you, eh?”
Xena squeezed the hand in hers. “I survived.”
“Well,” Gabrielle blew out another breath. “Wait. Did I get up in a tree and spar with someone?”
A snicker from Eponin, followed by a quick shushing from Ephiny, confirmed her words. A blond brow quirked, as Gabrielle looked to Xena for an explanation.
“You did,” the warrior shifted uncomfortably. “It was one of the events in the competition.”
“And you didn't stop me?” Gabrielle gave Xena an incredulous glare. “What the…Xena, you of all people know how much I hate the very thought of climbing trees!” She sat up and nearly toppled over when a wave of vertigo hit her unexpectedly. “Whoa!”
“Hey!” Xena reached out to steady the bard. “Easy, Gabrielle. You haven't exactly been upright for a few days.”
“Why?” Gabrielle recovered enough to meet Xena's concerned gaze. “Did I fall from a tree and hit my head? Is that why you three are sitting there staring at me as if I just came back from the dead or grew an extra head? What is going on, Xena?” She waited for the warrior's response and didn't see one forthcoming. “Come on, Xena. I want answers and I want them, now. What happened?”
“You had a run in with…um…” Eponin blurted and got another shush accompanied by a backhanded slap from Ephiny. “Ow! Whatja do that for?”
Ephiny stood up and pulled a reluctant Eponin up with her. “Come on, ya big lug. Let's leave these two alone for a while,” she fairly dragged Eponin to the door. “We'll come by later to see how you're doing,” she said as she pushed the weapons master out the door ahead of her and closed it behind her.
Silence reigned in the hut and between the two remaining women, as they both waited for the other to speak first. Neither woman wanted to break the uncomfortable silence.
“Well?” Gabrielle finally dove in.
Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as she grabbed one of the vacant chairs, moved it next to the bed and sat down. She adjusted the shift she'd been wearing since she'd returned to the hut with Gabrielle three days prior. Although she wanted nothing more than to shed the garment and take a bath, she also knew Gabrielle deserved an explanation. So, she girded herself and plowed ahead.
“The northern tribes showed up a few weeks ago, even though they'd sent word that they weren't coming,” Xena said.
“I…” Gabrielle's expression turned thoughtful. “Yes, Cyane and the others showed up here with you in tow, if I recall correctly. Didn't you leave here with Eponin and some kids, though?”
“Yeah,” Xena replied. “It was an initiation of sorts—a hunting trip with some of the girls who will become full-fledged Amazons with during the next moon festival.”
“Okay,” Gabrielle nodded. “I think I remember that. The Northern Amazons captured you and Cyane wanted to punish you for what you did to those queens all those years ago. I remember her demanding you receive a just punishment for your crimes. I also remember countering her arguments and tabling a decision until later in the evening.”
“And things went downhill from there,” Xena added. “You won the argument, but Ignesia issued the challenge. Do you remember that?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle nodded. “But she wasn't really the one behind it all.” Her expression suddenly turned sad. “She died that night. Someone hung her body from the rafters of her hut to make it look like she killed herself.”
Xena watched Gabrielle closely as the bard searched her jumbled memories for what happened next. She knew the very instant everything came flooding back into her partner's memory, because Gabrielle suddenly gasped and slapped her hands over her face.
“Gabrielle?” Xena placed a comforting hand on the bard's bare knee and gently stroked the warm skin with her thumb.
Gabrielle couldn't stop the images from washing over her. Her breathing quickened and she knew an instant of overwhelming panic as it all came rushing back at once. And then she felt a pair of familiar arms holding her, as Xena joined her on the bed and pulled her close.
“I…” Gabrielle tried to swallow over the growing lump in her throat. “Xena…” she couldn't stop panting and couldn't catch her breath, either.
“I'm right here, Gabrielle,” Xena tightened her hold on the woman and held her as a sob escaped Gabrielle. “It's over, love. You're safe with me now. Nothing can hurt you here.” She continued offering words of comfort as the dam broke and Gabrielle burst into tears in her arms.
“Oh, goooooooddds!” Gabrielle wailed, as every emotion washed over her from those horrible moments.
It all came back to her with such blinding speed that she was completely unprepared for the magnitude of the memories that assailed her. Emotions warred with the pain she felt during those awful moments when she thought her soul was lost forever. She rode the waves of anguish and took a certain measure of comfort in the arms that never wavered, as well as the murmured words of comfort. Xena really was with her. She had managed to weather yet another storm. And they were together.
When the tears finally subsided, Gabrielle sat up enough to wipe the residual dampness from her cheeks. She sniffed loudly and glanced at Xena through teary eyes.
“Better?” The warrior asked with an understanding half-smile.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle nodded and sniffed again, then noticed the damp stain on Xena's shift. “Sorry.”
Xena glanced down at the spot and shrugged. “I was hoping to get out of this thing soon, anyway.” She lifted the fabric, sniffed it and winced. “After three days and nights it's a little ripe and so am I.”
Gabrielle glanced down at her own attire, which was a little worse for wear. “I know the feeling,” she smirked, as Xena reached over and gently wiped away a stray tear with her thumb. “Thanks.”
“Not a problem,” the warrior said with a lazy smile. “Are you feeling more yourself now?”
Gabrielle leaned her head against Xena's shoulder. “It feels like a chariot ran over me—more than once.”
Xena chuckled and affectionately patted Gabrielle's cheek. “You wanna talk about it?”
Gabrielle sighed heavily. “I don't think I can, just yet. It's all still so raw and fresh, like an open wound that has yet to scab over.”
“I can relate to those,” Xena remarked. “Had more than my share over the years.”
“Yeah, I've had to stitch a few of them for you,” Gabrielle chuckled. “Not sure which one of us gets into more scrapes. You seem to carry the battle scars, while I carry…well…”
“Sometimes the emotional burdens are the tougher ones to bear,” Xena added soberly and put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. “I'm here when you want to talk, Gabrielle. I know it won't be easy, but it might help to get it off your chest.”
They were silent for several moments. Gabrielle thought of everything that was now so crystal clear to her. It was painful to remember, but not as difficult as facing the prospect of an eternity without Xena. That was the hardest trial she had ever faced. But, faced it she had.
Gabrielle sighed. “Were you really there?” The question came out barely above a whisper.
Xena pulled away to look into Gabrielle's eyes. “Where?”
“Was it you in the spirit realm?” Gabrielle lowered her head and couldn't meet her partner's gaze. “I thought it was you, but…”
Xena lifted Gabrielle's chin enough to meet her gaze. “I was there,” she answered as tears sprang to both their eyes. “I tried to get you away from there. It wasn't safe,” her voice caught. “And then suddenly you weren't there. I could hear your voice fading away, but I couldn't find you. I searched, but you were gone. I couldn't just leave you there. And then something yanked me back here. One instant I'm calling your name and the next I'm back in my body.”
“It was awful,” Gabrielle closed her eyes against the memory of those painful moments. “I couldn't see anything and…” Her mouth went dry. “The whispers got louder and then there was this eerie voice…” She swiped impatiently at tears that fell from her cheeks. “I tried to concentrate on us—to feel the love we share—but…” She shook her head and tucked her head against Xena's shoulder. “I couldn't.”
Xena wrapped her arms around the smaller woman. “It's okay, sweetheart.”
Gabrielle took courage in the warmth that enveloped her, as they held each other. This was what she'd longed for during those terrifying moments of uncertainty. She reveled in the love that flowed through her. In that moment she realized it was something she could no longer live without. This love was stronger than any power on earth and beyond.
“That's it!” Gabrielle suddenly sat up and exclaimed. “That's the key!”
Xena stared at her in confusion. “You wanna clue me in?”
“Love,” Gabrielle said simply.
“Yeeeeesssss,” Xena purred with a seductive half-smile.
“No, no, no,” Gabrielle held up a hand between them when Xena leaned toward her for a kiss. “Hang onto that thought and hear me out, Xena.” She watched a pout appear on the warrior's lips and couldn't help but smile. “No, I figured out what the Void is.”
A scowl marred Xena's features. “Oh.”
“Do you want to hear my theory?” Gabrielle cocked her head and waited.
Xena sighed in resignation and rolled her eyes. “I suppose.”
“You're incorrigible,” Gabrielle gently chided.
“It's all your fault,” Xena shot back with a saucy grin. “You made me fall hopelessly and utterly in love with you.”
“Made you?” Gabrielle's brow quirked.
“Yep,” Xena nodded. “There I was, minding my own business, and then you came along with your incessant chatter and your quirky personality and…”
Gabrielle did the only thing she knew would shut the warrior up. She kissed her. The kiss deepened and soon they both were lost in the display of love and the pleasure they shared. Gabrielle could have sworn that sparks actually flew before they broke apart and came up for air.
“Keep that up and we'll never leave this hut again,” Xena teased.
“I had to do something to shut you up,” Gabrielle shot back with a quirky grin. “Now, where were we?”
“Love,” Xena said and pecked the bard's lips several times, before she pressed her for more.
“Xena!” Gabrielle gasped as she pulled back breathlessly. “You keep that up…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Xena tried to lean forward again, but was stopped by a hand on her chin. “What?”
“My theory?” Gabrielle smirked.
“Oh—yeah,” Xena sat back and waited for Gabrielle to continue. “By all means, please continue.”
Gabrielle shot the warrior a skeptical searching look. “You sure?”
“Absolutely,” Xena answered with a nod.
Gabrielle settled into her favorite spot again, resting her head on Xena's shoulder and inhaling the scent that was all Xena. She collected her thoughts, as she took comfort in the arms that instinctively wrapped around her.
“It wasn't the anger or the pain,” her voice hitched slightly. “It wasn't even the prospect of being trapped there forever.” She let the surge of emotions wash over her and settle into a low ache in her chest. “None of that mattered as much as never being with you again.”
Xena placed a gentle kiss on top of Gabrielle's head. “I know the feeling. It's what drove me to find you.” She sighed. “I…I don't know what I would ever do if I couldn't find you again. I'd probably tear apart Hades' entire realm, Elysia and Tartarus included. I'd even travel to the Amazon Land of the Dead, if that's what it took.”
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's waist. “Let's hope it doesn't come to that, because I would probably do the same.”
“No,” Xena pulled back and sternly met Gabrielle's gaze. “If I go before you…” She swallowed over the sudden lump in her throat. “Don't you dare follow me, Gabrielle. You and I both know where I'm destined to go when this is all over…”
“Don't, Xena,” Gabrielle's expression hardened. “You don't know that, just as I don't know if I'll end up either in the Elysian Fields or with the Amazons. Besides, you always say we make our own destiny.”
Xena considered that a moment. “You're right,” she conceded with a shrug. “Not sure I'm likin' havin' my words thrown back in my face, though.”
A smile touched the corners of Gabrielle's lips. “Turnabout's fair play, hon.”
“Okay, so where does that leave us?” A dark brow arched.
“Right here together,” Gabrielle's head returned to its place against Xena's shoulder. “For eternity.”
“Eternity's a long time, love,” Xena remarked as she rested her cheek against Gabrielle's hair. “Don't know if the Fates or the gods or whoever is controlling all this will let us stay like this for all of eternity.”
“Well, as far as I'm concerned they can all go to Tartarus,” Gabrielle returned. “Besides, I think someone—whoever that might be—owes us for all the crap we've been through lately. I know I have an urge to call in a few paybacks on this crappy adventure alone.”
“Yeah,” Xena agreed. “My sentiments exactly. And I didn't even go through half the crap you did. Speaking of which,” she shifted to look Gabrielle in the eye. “How are you really feeling? Any differently than when Eritreius was…um…you know.”
“Not sure,” Gabrielle answered. “I guess time will tell. It's not like I felt different when she was inside me, except when she asserted her control. But even then I didn't really know what was happening. I think I just blacked out. It was like being kicked out of a room and then popping back in when she was done. I really wasn't aware when she took over those first few times. Not until I was fighting Mashuka did I actually feel like I was watching myself do those things. For some reason my consciousness stayed…well, conscious, for lack of a better word.” She shuddered involuntarily at the memory of what she'd done to the larger Amazon queen. “I still can't believe I'm capable of that kind of violence.”
“You're not,” Xena assured her. “Eritreius controlling your body may have done those things, but you would never consciously do that to another person without just cause. I just hope she left no lasting effects after Yakut exorcised her spirit.”
“Like I said, only time will tell,” Gabrielle said. “Speaking of which, did Yakut mention where she exorcised Eritreius' to, specifically?”
“Tartarus, I hope,” Xena growled. “But, no. She didn't say. Good riddance, as far as I'm concerned.” Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head again. “You never finished your theory, by the way.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle said. “Okay, so we were together in the spirit realm and then something happened to separate us from each other. That's when I found myself in a really bad place. The place was beyond creepy. People or spirits or something kept whispering, but I couldn't make out anything they said. And then there was this voice.”
“A voice?” Xena asked.
“Yeah, creepy shadow voice,” an involuntary shudder passed through her. “At first I couldn't tell if it was a man's voice or a woman's. It kept saying things like it wanted my soul and it was feeding off my fear. At first I was able to retreat inside myself and feel the love we share. But…”
Xena shifted to meet Gabrielle's gaze when the bard didn't continue. She caught a tear on her thumb as it trailed down Gabrielle's cheek. “Tell me,” she said in a hushed tone.
“The whispers got louder until I couldn't think,” Gabrielle continued with difficulty. “I started to lose that connection I always feel when we're together—the love we share. It was like a cold void was opening up inside me and I was losing myself—and us—to it.”
“Yakut mentioned something about a soul thief,” Xena nodded her understanding. “That was probably the voice you heard. I don't remember the name she used, but she admitted that the Northern Amazons—most likely Yanush—were probably responsible for his appearance. She also said the demon blood you share with Hope probably attracted it to you.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Sounds plausible, especially considering some of the things he said to me.” She shuddered again. “If I never again experience anything like that it'll be too soon. The more I lost my connection with you, the closer that thing came to me, until it finally showed itself completely. Terrified me when I realized I was looking into the depths of a world without love.” She lifted her eyes to meet Xena's. “Just when I thought it would suck me in completely, everything stopped—I stopped it.”
A dark brow rose in confusion. “Say again?”
“It had me,” Gabrielle tried to come up with words to explain what happened. “I felt the desolation washing over me and then…” Her own brow furrowed in concentration. “Then I was in that meadow and…you were there with me.” Another tear slipped unheeded down her cheek. “You were there and I felt more complete than I'd ever felt before.” Another tear slipped down her other cheek. “Love,” she whispered the word, as she reached up and caressed Xena's cheek. “We stopped him with our love. I remember that so vividly now.”
Xena let her forehead rest against Gabrielle's and ran a hand through the bard's hair. “I knew you would come back to me, sweetheart.”
“I realized my love for you was far stronger than the fear,” Gabrielle continued. “I used our love to push everything else out and that's when his hold disappeared. And then you were there and I knew I could face anything that's thrown our way.” She just held the back of Xena's head for a moment and reveled in their closeness. “As long as we have this, there is no power on earth or beyond that can ever separate us. We are as complete as two souls could ever be, Xena.”
Xena didn't say a word. Emotions strong and overwhelming welled up inside her and burst forth at that moment. They manifested themselves in the tears that trailed down her cheeks and joined those of the woman she shared the same air with. Gabrielle was right. They were complete. She could feel it to the very depths of her soul—a soul that, up to that point, had been battered and broken. But now they two were one through the love they shared, as surely as if they had taken marriage vows before the gods themselves.
“It's time,” the bard whispered the words so quietly that even Xena's exceptional hearing almost didn't catch them.
“Time?” Xena pulled back enough to look into the other half of her soul.
“We don't need to stay here any longer,” Gabrielle explained. “We finally discovered what it was we were searching for. And we don't need an Amazon joining ceremony to tell us what we already know. It's time to move on.”
Xena nodded. “Okay.”
“It's time to get back out there on the road, just the two of us,” Gabrielle continued. “I think we're finally ready to face any challenge that comes our way. Don't you?”
“Definitely,” Xena smiled warmly. “As long as I have you here by my side, there's nothing we can't do.”
Gabrielle closed the distance between them and kissed Xena with all the love she felt in that moment. The kiss deepened and soon they found themselves sharing much more than kisses. Their lovemaking was like nothing they'd ever experienced and when they finally came together, they were one in mind, one in body and one in soul. Two halves joined as one for all eternity. It was blessed. It was bliss. The Elysian Fields paled in comparison.
Gabrielle entered the meal hut and searched the seemingly deserted interior. The place was quiet, which wasn't surprising for the late hour. She spotted her target and walked over to the queen's table. Without preamble she sat down next to Ephiny. The sun had gone down several hours before and the regent was just digging in to a late meal of bread, cheese and roast venison left over from the evening meal. Ephiny glanced up in surprise at the sudden intrusion and then smiled.
“Gabrielle?” The regent addressed the newcomer. “What are you doing here? How are you doing? You and Xena get things squared away?”
Gabrielle grabbed a piece of bread, slathered it with butter and plopped a piece of cheese on top. She took a huge bite and chewed vigorously before swallowing.
“Can't a girl get something to eat without being grilled for information?” Gabrielle finally answered after a sip of cold cider that a lone kitchen woman set down in front of her.
“You could have just asked the cooks to deliver something to your hut,” Ephiny watched Gabrielle plow through her bread and cheese with gusto and then fix another with a slab of venison on top. “Slow down there, Gab. You're gonna choke. And I do not want to explain that one to Xena after all you put her through. Matter of fact, you scared us all beyond belief this time around.”
“Speaking of which,” Gabrielle set her untouched sandwich on Ephiny's plate and took another drink of cider. “I came to tell you we're leaving.” She looked to Ephiny for a reaction and got a shrug, instead. “You don't seem surprised.”
“I'm not, not really,” Ephiny replied with a resigned shrug. “It was bound to happen eventually.” She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. “I'm just glad things worked out and you're okay. I guess I should have known better, though. Right?”
“Truth be told, Eph, I'm really glad things worked out, too,” Gabrielle admitted. She leaned her head on the regent's shoulder and wrapped an arm around her waist. “I'm gonna miss you guys. I've gotten to know so many of the sisters that I finally feel like a bona fide member of the family.”
“You're a vital member of our family, Gab,” Ephiny smirked. “You and Xena, both.” She pulled away enough to look the bard in the eye. “You two staying long enough for the initiation ceremony at the New Moon Festival tomorrow night?”
Gabrielle considered that a moment. “We'd planned to leave first thing in the morning, but…”
“Oh, come on,” Ephiny cut in. “At least give us the chance to say a proper Amazon farewell before you two go traipsing off into parts unknown. It's the least you can do after all you put us through during these past few moons. Besides,” she shot the bard a wry smirk, “those girls are looking forward to having Queen Gabrielle initiate them into the tribe as full-fledged Amazons. They'll be crestfallen if you and Xena aren't there.”
“All right, all right,” Gabrielle conceded. “I'll talk to Xena and see what she has to say about it. I'm not promising anything, you understand,” she interjected quickly, before Ephiny could put in another plea. “We had a breakthrough earlier and we need to move forward. Getting back out on the road will give us the chance to do that.”
Ephiny slowly nodded. “Okay, I guess I can understand that. Any chance you two will allow us to throw a joining ceremony into the festivities tomorrow night?”
Gabrielle shook her head with a wistful smile. “We don't need a ceremony. Xena and I are joined in here,” she held a fist to her heart. “Besides, Xena's not an Amazon and I won't ask her to take that step for anything.”
“She hasn't told you?” Ephiny took a sip from her mug.
“Told me what?”
“The reason Xena went on that hunting expedition with Eponin and Chilapa wasn't just to share some of her vast knowledge with the girls,” Ephiny explained. “It's a stipulation of her initiation into the tribe.”
“I'm sorry, but did you just say…”
“Mmhm,” Ephiny nodded. “Xena's been covertly meeting with the priestesses and a few of the elders. She wanted to surprise you at the festival.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “So much for keeping it a surprise.”
“I can't believe she didn't tell me,” Gabrielle set her mug in front of her and stared out at the empty room. She glanced over at Ephiny. “Are you sure?”
“Ask Eponin if you don't believe me,” the regent answered with a nonchalant shrug. “Xena asked her to be her mentor for the initiation. Every initiate has to have someone within the tribe who will stand up for them. I guess Xena being a warrior and Eponin being our weapons master…well, the two do tend to speak the same language, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Gabrielle absently replied, still wrapping her mind around this latest development.
“You okay?” Ephiny asked.
“You look a little…um…I don't know…It's not like you to be at a loss for words,” Ephiny finished awkwardly. “You're usually the talkative one here.”
Gabrielle abruptly stood and nearly knocked her chair over in the process. “If you'll excuse me, Eph,” she said without meeting the regent's gaze, as she made her way around the table toward the door. “I'll see you tomorrow,” she called back over her shoulder on her way out of the hut.
Ephiny sat there for a moment just shaking her head at Gabrielle's unexpected departure. She nearly chided herself for spilling the beans on Xena's covert initiation into the tribe, but then shrugged it off. Whatever was going on between Xena and Gabrielle was certainly no concern of hers.
“Hey, there,” Eponin suddenly appeared beside her, as if from nowhere. “I thought you were just catching a quick bite and then coming home.”
Ephiny motioned for the weapons master to join her, which Eponin did with a curious look.
“What's up?” Eponin shot the regent a raised-browed look. “Hey, by the way, was that Gabrielle I just saw leaving here?”
“Yeah,” Ephiny pushed her plate away and sat back in her chair. She turned her scowl on Eponin. “They're leaving.”
Eponin downed the rest of Gabrielle's cider and winced. “Ugh! Cider. Who drinks this stuff? Tastes like centaur piss.”
“Did you hear a word I just said?” Ephiny shot the brunette an exasperated glare.
“I heard ya,” Eponin answered with a shrug. “Don't get your leathers in a twist, Eph. It was bound to happen eventually.” She grabbed the pitcher in front of Ephiny and filled her mug, then took a tentative sip. When she was sure it was ale in her mug, she downed the entire contents in a few gulps. “Now that's more like it,” she sighed as she slammed the empty mug onto the table and belched loudly. Then she caught her companion's scowl. “What?”
“Can you be any more disgusting?” Ephiny answered drolly. “I swear, sometimes I have no idea why I put up with you.”
Eponin leaned in close. “Come home and I'll show you,” she wiggled her brows a few times and grinned, earning an eye roll from the regent. “Come on, you know you love me,” Eponin said and emphasized the point with a puppy-dog pout. “Pweeease, Eph? I promise to be good.” She leaned on the regent's shoulder and glanced up. “Forget her maj and Xena for the rest of tonight. We'll sort everything out tomorrow.” She stood up and held a hand out toward the regent. “Let's go home, Eph.”
Ephiny reluctantly put a hand into Eponin's and allowed the weapons master to pull her to her feet. Time enough later to think about what tomorrow would bring, she thought.
Gabrielle entered the hut she shared with Xena and took a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the muted lighting. A few lit candles were scattered around the room and a small fire burned in the fireplace, casting the room in soft golden hues.
“Xena?” Gabrielle called into the seemingly empty place. “Are you here?”
Xena emerged from their bathing room, toweling her damp hair dry. She was dressed in a fresh shift and looked like she'd just taken a bath.
“Yep,” came the quick answer. “Just finished.”
Gabrielle walked over to one of the two chairs in front of the fireplace and sat down. She silently stared into the fire for a few moments, as she gathered her thoughts.
“Did you find Ephiny and let her know we're leaving?” Xena said as she puttered around the room.
“Mmhm,” came the absent reply.
Silence reigned again and this time Xena noticed the distant look in the bard's eyes.
“Something wrong, Gabrielle?” Xena asked, as she sat down on the arm of the chair next to Gabrielle's and continued toweling her hair.
Gabrielle looked over and met Xena's expectant gaze. “I thought we weren't keeping secrets from each other anymore.”
It was then that Xena caught the hurt look in Gabrielle's eyes. She had no idea what this was about, but felt her stomach drop at the unexpected look.
“What?” Xena stopped what she was doing in order to focus her full attention on Gabrielle. “What's this about, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle folded her hands in her lap and didn't meet Xena's intense gaze. “I spoke to Ephiny—told her we're planning on leaving in the morning. She asked that we stay until after the festival tomorrow night.” When she did meet Xena's gaze, she saw wariness there. “Ephiny wants me to initiate the new Amazons into the tribe.”
“Okay,” Xena said. “But what does that have to do with keeping secrets? I guess I don't know where you're coming from, sweetheart.” Xena sat down in the chair and waited for Gabrielle to continue.
“Ephiny told me you've been going through the initiation process,” Gabrielle said. “She said that's why you went on that hunting expedition with Eponin, Chilapa and the girls.”
Xena sat back and blew out the breath she didn't know she'd been holding. A low chuckle escaped as relief washed over her. “Is that all?” She finally met Gabrielle's eyes and saw the wariness in the woman's expression. “I'm sorry, love. I just…” Xena scooted her chair around until they were face to face. She then took Gabrielle's hands in hers. “I had no idea if I was going to go through with it or not, so I didn't tell you. I guess I figured you'd understand and forgive me, if and when I decided to show up to the actual ceremony. But I didn't know if I would actually go through with it and I didn't want to disappoint you.”
“So you really weren't keeping a secret, you were just…” Gabrielle shrugged.
Xena smirked. “It was supposed to be a surprise,” she said. “I swore Eponin to secrecy, just in case I got cold feet about joining this ragtag group of…”
Gabrielle placed a finger over Xena's lips to stop her. “Do you still want to go through with it?”
Xena's lips parted enough for her to stick the tip of her tongue out and lick Gabrielle's finger. Rather than pull her hand away, Gabrielle merely circled the warrior's lips with her finger. It was a seductive gesture that was not lost on either woman.
“Become a full-fledge Amazon?” A dark brow rose, as Xena appeared to consider the question thoughtfully. “Hm, not sure. I still don't know if I'm really cut out for this sedentary life. You and I both know what the northern tribes think about what I did to their queens. There's always going to be animosity from that quarter, no matter how many years pass. I don't want them using what I did against the tribe every time a dispute comes up. That's not fair to these women or you. We both know how hard you worked on those treaties with the surrounding villages. Peace is so hard to come by these days.”
Gabrielle leaned forward until their foreheads touched. “It's in the past, Xena. You're not that person anymore.” Her lips met Xena's and the kiss lingered. “I love the woman you are today and that's not going to change, whether you become an Amazon or not. It makes no difference to me. I will love you no matter what you decide. Our relationship won't change just because you decide not to take a step you're not ready or willing to take.” Gabrielle squeezed the hands holding hers, let one hand go and cupped Xena's cheek. “I love you.”
Xena nodded as best she could without breaking contact with Gabrielle's forehead. “I love you, too.”
They sat that way in companionable silence as they reveled in the shared moment. Then Xena pulled back suddenly.
“You didn't say we would stay, did you?” The warrior inquired warily.
“I told Eph I'd speak to you first,” Gabrielle replied. “Why?”
“Think about it,” Xena continued. “Another night of drunken revelry versus the two of us enjoying some quality peace and quiet near our favorite waterfall? Lying beneath the open night sky and counting the stars.” She wiggled her eyebrows invitingly.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle said. “When you put it that way…”
She shot to her feet and went to the foot of the bed. Without another word, Gabrielle started shoving things into their saddlebags and traveling packs. She even packed the bundle of wrapped sais away in the bottom of her own satchel. She would ask Xena to teach her how to use the weapons, even if she never actually wielded them in a fight.
“What are you doing?” Xena asked.
“Packing,” Gabrielle answered with her head buried in the trunk. “I figure we can catch a couple candlemarks of sleep and head out before midnight. That way we won't have to explain anything to anyone, because they'll all be sound asleep. Ephiny also won't have another chance to convince me to stay here and do my duty.”
Xena saw the logic in Gabrielle's words. She got up from her chair and went to stand behind the busy woman. Without warning, she grabbed Gabrielle from behind, spun her until they were facing each other and planted a smoldering kiss on the surprised woman's lips. The kiss lingered and left them both breathless with desire.
“Wha…What was that for?” Gabrielle finally found her voice after she had the chance to catch her breath.
“For being you,” Xena said, as she lightly brushed Gabrielle's overgrown bangs from her eyes.
“Okay, so maybe we can forgo sleep and just…um…” Gabrielle reached for the ties on her shirt and found her hands brushed aside by Xena's larger ones.
They quickly undressed each other and enjoyed the bed one last time. Their lovemaking was slow and deliberate. Neither woman was in any real hurry to have the night end. They reveled in the newfound depth of their love and wanted nothing more than to demonstrate that love in ways that left them both completely satisfied.
When their lovemaking finally came to an end several candlemarks later, they quickly donned their traveling clothes and snuffed the candles behind them as they left under the cover of darkness. Their only delay was a quick detour to the stables to grab Argo. The mare was happy to see them and seemed anxious to leave the stables behind.
The trio remained completely silent as they made their way through the quiet village. After passing the village center, where the imposing dais stood silent sentinel over the ashes of the last bonfire, they took a little-known deer path that Xena had discovered during her many forays through the village. Veering south and west, they slipped past one of the guarded gates and into the woods that edged the village. It wasn't an easy trek for Argo, but she seemed to sense the need for silence and continued on without protest.
When they finally emerged from the woods, they were well beyond the western gate and just south of a road that would take them toward Amphipolis. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a silent nod and skirted the road. Shortly before dawn they found a small stream and stopped to allow Argo a brief drink in the clear water.
“You okay?” Xena asked Gabrielle, as the bard fairly collapsed onto a fallen log to rest.
“A little tired,” Gabrielle accepted the skin of cider Xena handed her. She was a little surprised by the sweet taste that greeted her tongue as she took a sip. “Where…?”
“Had it stashed away for a quick escape,” Xena interrupted, as she took a seat next to Gabrielle. “Figured we'd need a few things, just in case.” She pulled a wrapped bundle from the saddlebag she was holding. “Grabbed these this morning.” She unwrapped the bundle to reveal a hunk of cheese, some roasted nuts, a loaf of brown bread and a pouch of dried grapes.
Gabrielle ripped the bread in two and handed half to Xena. She did the same with the cheese and then divided the nuts and dried grapes equally. At the look Xena gave her, Gabrielle shrugged.
“You need to eat, as much as I do,” the bard commented around a mouthful of bread and cheese.
“Slow down, Gabrielle,” Xena chided, as she ate her own share of the bread and cheese.
“Starving,” Gabrielle managed to say around another mouthful. She rested her head against Xena's bare shoulder and continued to eat with gusto. “Thank you, hon,” she said between bites.
“No problem,” Xena replied. “I'm just glad we escaped without a hitch.”
Gabrielle sat up. “Yeah, that was a little too easy, don't you think?”
“Don't jinx it, Gabrielle,” Xena chided.
“I'm just saying,” Gabrielle continued. “What are the odds…?”
“I don't know. I don't want to know. I don't care,” Xena finished her food and washed it down with a generous drink of the sweet cider. “Far as I'm concerned, we've managed to evade the Amazon royal guard and, more importantly, your nosey regent.”
Gabrielle's expression turned wistful. “Yeah, I'm kinda sorry about skipping out on Ephiny like that. I didn't even say goodbye.”
“We'll send her a message when we get to the next town,” Xena said.
“Town?” Gabrielle perked up.
“Yeah,” Xena put a hand on the bard's bare knee and squeezed. “I figured we'd spend the day shopping and then stay the night in an inn—get a good night's sleep before we embark on this new adventure.”
Gabrielle glanced up at the lightening sky and couldn't stop a yawn from escaping unbidden. “Maybe we should get the room first, take a nap and then go shopping.”
Xena smiled warmly. “Whatever Gabrielle wants…”
“Gabrielle gets,” the bard teased. “Yes, I think I've heard that before.”
Xena stood up and reached a hand out to help the smaller woman to her feet. “The sooner we get there, the sooner you get a nice, soft bed to sleep in, my bard.”
Gabrielle groaned softly as Xena helped her to her feet. “Why do I get the feeling I'm gonna be sore and stiff come tomorrow.” She stretched the kinks.
“You act like we've been on the road for a week,” Xena chuckled. “We haven't even met any thugs or marauders yet. I'm kinda looking forward to that first fight, let me tell ya.” She reached back, grabbed the hilt of her sword and yanked it free in one swift motion. As if she were facing a dozen men with swords, she feinted, parried, thrust and did a few flips for good measure. “Mm, feels good to be out in the open again. Too crowded in the village.”
“Good grief, Xe,” Gabrielle grabbed Argo's reins and just kept going without a backward glance. “You're making that bed more inviting by the moment. Come on, girl,” she said to the mare. “Let's find that town and a nice helping of fresh oats for you.” She gave the mare's neck an affectionate pat and received an answering snort in return.
In one swift move, Xena flipped her sword over one shoulder and shoved it back in the scabbard on her back. Then she brought up the rear with sure, long strides that had her next to the bard and mare in less time than it took for the pair to go ten paces.
“You two are no fun,” the warrior remarked, as they continued on their way.
The sun rose in the eastern sky and topped the trees, bathing the world in its golden glow and ushering in a bright promise of things to come.
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