Copyright Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules, Iolaus, Joxer and other characters mentioned in this story who appeared in Xena: Warrior Princess are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I may have borrowed a few lines from a couple of episodes too. It's just for fun! No profit is sought from this.
Violence Disclaimer: There is violence within this story. However it is certainly in keeping with show.
Subtext disclaimer: Gabrielle and Xena are lovers. There is no graphic sex in this Fiction. If this bothers you (the lovers' part rather than the lack of graphic action, but I am guessing that will bother some!) or is illegal for you to read in your neck of the woods, please do not continue.
Bad Language Disclaimer: There is bad language. Again not excessive and in keeping with the show.
Angst Disclaimer: There is angst, but not to the level of “Oil of Lanius.”
Author's note (1) Comments, tips, hints, constructive criticisms will be most welcome. Please send to firstname.lastname@example.org . I will reply. And thank you for the supportive e-mails I have received (You know who you are!). They are greatly appreciated.
Author's note (2) This story is the fourth in a series, the first three being “The Oil of Lanius”, “Long Shadows Cast” and “Journey of Discovery: Part One: Family Ties”. I strongly recommend you read them first as there may be situations and characters you do not recognise.
Author's thanks My thanks go to Norsebard who acted as my beta reader.
Tag Line: In the fourth and final instalment of the series (after “The Oil of Lanius”, “Long Shadows Cast” and “Journey of Discovery: Part One: Family Ties”), our favourite duo are adapting as life as a trio but scores will be settled and old enemies will return with devastating consequences.
Xena smiled as she entered the stable. She removed the bag from her shoulder and placed it on the floor and moved towards the tall Palomino who was eyeing her with suspicion. As she was close enough to reach out and stroke the fine animal, Argo nudged her face forwards towards Xena's chest.
There was a peal of laughter, and Xena found herself chuckling as well.
“Well Argo, you better not let on to the other war horses that you were so good with children or your reputation is shot,” she murmured and watched as the horse gently nudged the blond haired bundle that Xena was carrying in the sling across her chest. A small hand waved aimlessly and Argo gently butted it with her nose causing more laughter from both humans.
“Enough of this play,” said Xena in a light-hearted tone. “We're going on a ride.” She leant down and kissed the blond head and a wave of pleasure went through her as she felt Lyceus' head move to one side and he burrowed in closer to her.
With a practised motion she placed the saddle on the mare's back and ensured all the straps were tightened. She then picked up the previously discarded bag and attached it to the saddle.
“I commanded armies that didn't carry as much equipment as I need now,” she said and tickled Lyceus' cheek, “and it's down to you young man.”
Lyceus yawned in response and Xena again kissed his head, and led Argo from the stable.
Any thoughts of making a quiet and quick departure were ended as she was surrounded by several amazons. Lyceus perked up at the noise and attention and it was with a now alert baby that Xena left the Amazon village muttering to herself.
“I bet it's nice to know you still have got it. You'll always have the Xenites.”
Xena turned to see a smiling Epinon leaned up against a tree.
“It's not me they are interested in, believe me. Its little smiler here.”
Xena strode forward and gave her friend a handshake. “When did you get back?” she asked. Epinon returned the handshake warmly and then took one of Lyceus' small hands.
“I can't believe how big you getting, fella.” She shook his hand and then looked at Xena. “Late last night.”
Xena nodded and there was an awkward silence.
“Look you two are off for a ride. I'll catch-“
“Come with us, Pony. Argo won't mind.”
Argo snorted at this, but Xena merely patted the mare's neck.
Epinon sighed and nodded. She watched Xena mount gracefully, unperturbed by the extra weight at the front, and then got on behind the warrior. Argo ambled on at a slow walk for several minutes and neither women spoke until they reached a small stream.
Xena half turned to Epinon. “Here OK?”
“Fine by me,” and she swung her leg over the back of the horse and jumped down. Xena did the same and removed the bag and started to rummage through it. She pulled out a small bed roll and a blanket and knelt down on the ground. She then arranged the bedroll under a tree and lifted the now sleeping baby from her and laid him on the bedroll and covered him with the blue blanket. She then reached in the bag again and pulled out the miniature Argo that Athena had given Lyceus and tucked that under the blanket too.
“Ah Hoss,” said Epinon and sniggered.
Xena pinned her with a stare. “No cracks please, or your homecoming will not be a pleasant one.”
Epinon held her hands up in a defensive gesture. “No more comments, I promise.” She watched as the warrior's face softened as she kissed the little cheek and gently ruffled the blonde hair, before energetically springing up. She glanced at her friend whose mood she detected had darkened and braced herself to ask the question.
“How is she? How did it go?”
Epinon rubbed her palms of hands on her thighs and looked upwards, as if trying to gather strength before speaking. “About the same. She-she's staying with Hippocrates for a while.” Her voice was laced with emotion.
“D'wanna sit?” said Xena and pointed to a log. Epinon nodded wordlessly and sat down, head drooped. Xena said nothing, recognising her friend's anguish and knowing just how difficult it was to talk about the pain she was going through. Her mind flashed through the times when she too had to watch her soulmate injured or in pain while being powerless to help. The feeling of helplessness was destroying.
“I just can't believe it was such an innocuous hit. She didn't even lose consciousness.” Epinon stood up and started to pace up and down. “She's had worse, we both had. And now-“She slumped back onto the log and put her head in her hands. “Everything she's worked for, gone, just like that. Because of those slavers.”
Xena watched Epinon rub her eyes and saw the tears fall to the ground. She placed her hand on the Amazon's shoulder.
“Pony, it's not that long since it happened. Head injuries-“
“Are unpredictable, and often take months to recover from even seemingly minor ones.” Epinon recited the oft spoken words with sarcasm. “I have heard that, from you, Piri, Joxer and now Hippocrates,” she added with an accusing tone in her voice. “I feel like I am an expert now. And it's been three months-look at him. It happened the day before he was born.”
Xena glanced at Lyceus and then back to Epinon. She knew that Epinon was angry, frustrated and most of all worried about her partner. She had the pressure of trying to keep strong for Solari for so long and now could let it all go.
“Do you want to drill?” asked Xena. Epinon looked up and nodded.
They stepped away from the log and both drew their swords. “Don't go easy with me,” said Epinon. Xena raised an eyebrow, and brought her sword down.
They drilled for twenty minutes and Xena pushed Epinon to her limits. They were both covered in sheen of sweat and breathing heavily. Xena knocked Epinon's sword from her hand and shouted “yield.”
“No!” said Epinon and launched herself at Xena with her hands. Xena threw her sword away and they wrestled for several minutes until Xena had Epinon pinned to the ground with her right arm behind her back. Xena loosened her hold as she felt Epinon's body shake and then let go completely. Epinon lay on the ground crying and Xena sat next to her and stroked her dark hair.
After several minutes Xena got up and busied herself tending to Argo. She kept an eye on the Amazon who slowly hauled herself up to a sitting position. She bent her knees and kept her head low.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” she said eventually.
Xena stopped brushing Argo and walked over to where the stricken Amazon sat. She crouched down next to her. “You knew I needed to let go, blow up, didn't you?”
Xena nodded. “You did the same for me,” she said as she remembered fighting ten amazons when frustration over Gabrielle's withdrawal from her took over.
Epinon rubbed her eyes. “Thanks.”
“Pony it might not help, but Solari is with the best healer in Greece . It is only three months, and yes head injuries are unpredictable, and she could make a full recovery.”
“If she doesn't,” said Epinon fearfully. “I don't-“
“If she doesn't, well you approach that bridge when you come to it. Granted she won't be able to fight or be chief scout but there are other things she could do. She can still live a normal life, you just have to adapt.” Xena looked at the ground at that.
“Like you and Gab have,” said Epinon gently.
Xena glanced quickly at Epinon before staring at the ground again. “Yes,” she said quietly, “it might seem like the end of the world now-“she glanced across at Lyceus, “but I am sure you'll make it work.”
Epinon realised the depth of Xena's emotion as she heard several catches in her voice. “How's Gabrielle doing? Sol was worried about taking Piri.”
“She's fine. As fine as anyone can be having limited sleep.”
Epinon snorted, and Xena looked at her and grinned. “He still wakes up to feed. That's something I can't help with.” She looked at the baby who was stirring. “We better get the little Prince back before he gets too hungry. He certainly inherited Gabrielle's appetite!”
“Thanks Xena,” said Epinon sincerely.
“Anytime Pony. Don't be a stranger, eh?”
Epinon opened her mouth to speak but a cry came from Lyceus.
“See what I mean?” Xena strode to him and picked him up. She then threw him in the air twice to which Lyceus gurgled with joy. “Come on let's go and find Mummy.”
Gabrielle was busying about the hut when she detected the cry. Laughing to herself she turned around to face the door and sure enough within moments Xena entered carrying a now red face baby who was screaming.
“Nice trip?” Gabrielle asked sincerely, and took Lyceus from Xena. He carried on crying and she sat down and pulled down her top. She looked up and saw Xena watching her intently with a look of hunger and pain, as she always did when Gabrielle was feeding her son. Gabrielle dropped her eyes down and stared at Lyceus who was now feeding contentedly. “I'm sorry,” she whispered.
She carried on staring at her son until she sensed Xena approach her. She put a mug of juice on the table next to Gabrielle and the bard raised her head up. She saw no more anguish in Xena's eyes only contentment and the warrior leant in for a kiss.
“Did you manage to rest?” she asked sternly. She pulled a seat towards her and perched on the end of it leaning towards Gabrielle. She stroked Lyceus' blond hair although the baby was still feeding and took no notice.
“A bit,” said Gabrielle. Xena raised her eyebrow.
“You need your rest; he's still waking you up every night.”
“Us up, Xena. You are awake too, and then you look after us as well as drilling, hunting and everything else.”
“I didn't give birth a little over three months ago.” Xena's thoughts turned back to that bitter sweet day when Lyceus was born healthy, against all the odds, but complications had nearly cost Gabrielle her life. “You nearly died.” Her voice was laced with pain.
“Xena look at me.” Gabrielle voice was commanding and Xena stared into the green eyes. “I am fine and so is Lyceus. Let it go.”
Xena's eyes drifted towards the baby again. “I blamed him. I couldn't accept he would live and you would die.”
“That's not what my parents told me,” said Gabrielle gently. “They told me of a woman who was keeping her promise to do everything for a baby and did everything in her power to keep his mother alive.” There was silence and Gabrielle lifted Lyceus upright and put him over her shoulder. Xena gently rearranged Gabrielle's clothes and then cupped her face with her hand.
“Xena you have been the most wonderful parent and partner imaginable-believe me I have heard several jealous and envious comments from other mothers. Don't wrap yourself in needless guilt, please,” the Bard looked beseechingly at the warrior and she nodded. They then shared a laugh as Lyceus belched loudly.
“Don't say how much he is like me, warrior,” said Gabrielle with mock annoyance as Xena gave her an innocent look.
She rose and carried Lyceus to a blanket that had several cloth and wooden toys on.
Xena slapped her head and quickly moved to the bag she had taken with her on her ride.
“Here you go young master, Hoss and Blankie.” Xena laid the toy horse and blue blanket close to Lyceus who immediately grabbed the horse.
“Oh did you know Pony and Piri are back?”
“Yes Pony came on the ride.” Xena frowned, “it's not great for Sol. She stayed with Hippocrates.”
“We'll find out more from Piri. She popped in and wants to examine me and Lyceus later.” Gabrielle smiled broadly.
“What?” said Xena?
“Nothing,” said Gabrielle innocently. “Fancy a cup of tea?”
Before Xena could answer there was a knock at the door. The warrior shrugged and then walked to the door and opened it. Aella walked in, wearing an apologetic look, until she glanced at the gurgling baby on the floor and she smiled in his direction.
“Aella, what can we do for you?” asked Gabrielle.
Aella looked at her and bowed slightly. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and Xena smirked. “I'm sorry, Gabrielle but we could do with your input.”
Xena opened her mouth to argue but the bard spoke first,” Of course Aella.” She glanced at Xena who after giving her a long stare, nodded reticently.
“I won't be long,” she said quietly to Xena and moved towards Lyceus.
“Leave him here,” said Xena, “he's looking pretty tired.”
Gabrielle knelt on the floor and gave the gurgling baby a kiss. She then sprung up and turned to face Xena. Aella had walked discreetly to the door. “Thank you,” she said gently.
“Don't be too long, though,” said Xena. “You do need a rest.”
Gabrielle stroked Xena's cheek. “Always looking out for me.”
“Always,” said Xena, and they moved their heads together for a moment.
Gabrielle pulled away and walked to the door. “See you later.”
Xena turned and watched her leave. She then turned to face Lyceus, who was blinking sleepily.
“Now to tend to my armour, young man.” She grinned as his eyes shut and failed to open.
A pile of freshly cleaned and oiled armour lay on the table and the chakram was now being polished. Xena glanced down as she recognised the snuffling noises of Lyceus about to wake. “And he'll want feeding,” she said to herself. “We'll have to get your mummy, then.”
There was a rap at the door and then it was opened slightly and Piri's face appeared.
“Come in, Piri,” said Xena putting down the chakram and standing up.
The healer entered and quietly shut the door taking in the sight of the sleeping baby.
“How was the trip? Tea?”
“Yes thank you warrior. It was informative. The hospice that Hippocrates has is wonderful; doing so much good work for so many people. And the techniques he uses-from all over the world. Utterly amazing. We certainly learned a lot.” She eased herself down on a chair at the table and watched Xena busy herself.
“And Solari?” asked Xena.
Piri leant her elbow on the table and put her hand across her eyes. “No real change. The headaches are as bad and the vision comes and goes. Hippocrates thinks-“she stopped and looked straight at Xena.
“Please don't say nothing can be done,” asked Xena fearfully.
“He's unsure if anything will help her. She could recover without assistance, or not improve with the best treatments available.”
“So why is she staying?” asked Xena furrowing her brow.
“To take the pressure of her…and Epinon.” Piri saw the confused look on Xena's face. “This way every minute Epinon won't expect there to be a change in Solari's condition, and Solari can learn to become independent with Epinon fussing over her.”
Xena nodded. There was silence and Xena brought two mugs over to the table and sat opposite the healer.
Piri took a long sip from her mug and then placed it back on the table. “I can see from your tired eyes and The Queen's that he still isn't sleeping through.”
Xena snorted. “Chance will be a fine thing. Usually it's once a night although last night it was two.” She gazed at the baby with affection. Piri continued to stare at Xena and the warrior sensing this turned to face the healer.
“What?” asked Xena?
“Parenthood suits you,” said Piri softly.
Xena snorted again, and looked away.
“You seem content, almost at peace with yourself.”
Xena turned to look at her. “For too long I just pleased myself, took what I wanted, did what I wanted,” Xena stared past the healer. “Then Gabrielle came into my life.” She turned to look at Piri who watching her intently.
“Unconditional love, it's a wonderful gift,” said the healer with emotion.
“I know.” Xena stared aimlessly for several moments. “And now,” her eyes flicked over to Lyceus. “Things are so busy, so hectic I guess-“
“You don't have time to wallow in your own guilt,” said Piri.
“I wouldn't have put it like that, but yes. They are my total focus- as long as they are healthy and happy and then I am happy. I just-” She frowned and said, “He's easy to love-like his Mother.” Xena smiled although it left her face quickly. “It is hard at times-don't let anyone tell you having a kid is easy-but we're ok.”
Just on cue a cry came from Lyceus. Xena sprung up and went to where he was laying and bent down and picked him up. “Phew, I can understand why you are crying,” she said and carried him over to where his cloths were lain out. She started to take his clothes off and the offending nappy.
“Perhaps I can check him over now,” said Piri.
Xena spun around to face her, keeping her hand securely on Lyceus' chest.
“You should wait for Gabrielle,” she said.
“No you should wait for Gabrielle,” said Xena firmly.
Piri shrugged. “As you wish.”
Xena had just finished changing Lyceus when Gabrielle came through the door.
“Timed that right,” she said brightly, and she went straight to Xena and Lyceus. Lyceus gurgled with pleasure and Xena passed him to Gabrielle while she tidied up. Gabrielle's eyes followed Xena for a long moment before she turned to face Piri.
“Piri, who would you like first?”
“I think we'll have the young master,” replied the healer. She took Lyceus from Gabrielle and gently ran her hand over the baby's head, sticking her little finger into his mouth. Lyceus immediately started sucking it.
“Good appetite?” asked Piri as she moved to the bed and laid Lyceus on it.
Xena snorted. She moved to behind the older woman and was peering over her shoulder and pulling faces at Lyceus.
“Don't say it Xena,” said Gabrielle with mock sternness. She moved to Xena's side and the warrior put her arm around her shoulder.
“I take that as a yes, then,” said Piri. She carried on gently running her hands over the baby. “Other than waking up, any problems?”
“No, he's-he's perfect,” said Gabrielle with a catch in her voice. Xena squeezed her shoulder.
“He's perfect,” repeated Xena proudly.
“Well, he's growing well, developing normally, as you say, he's perfect.” Piri scooped him up and sat down on the bed with him, bouncing him gently. “Gabrielle, had you thought about introducing goats milk?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I hadn't thought about it, not until he started solids.”
“Just consider it. You can have a night off, a night to sleep.”
Gabrielle looked at Xena and then at Piri and said defensively, “Xena does so much, she doesn't sleep through either.”
“I wasn't just thinking of Xena, Gabrielle. I am sure there will be many offers to have him for the night.”
“You're joking, the whole camp knows how loud his cry is,” said Xena, and she reached forward, took the baby and held him high above her head much to his delight.
“As the warrior has the Little Prince I think it is time to see to you, your majesty,” said Piri. “On the bed, please.”
Gabrielle lay on the bed and lay her hands by her side. Piri leant across her and started to push down on her stomach. Xena had moved to Piri's side and was watching with a critical eye. The healer turned to her and raised an eyebrow at Xena.
“He's playing on the floor,” said Xena defensively. They stared at each other for a long moment, both asserting their role in Gabrielle's life, as they had done so many times before.
Piri flicked her eyes at Lyceus who was lying on a nest of blankets holding Hoss. She turned to Xena and said, “Fine, only remember who is doing the examination.” Her smile and twinkle in her eyes took any sting out of the words.
Xena replied in kind, “As if I could forget, oh healer one,” and grinned.
“Ahemm,” Gabrielle cleared her throat loudly, and looked expectantly upwards.
“My apologies my Queen, but sometimes the help does get out of hand.”
Gabrielle's mouth twitched especially as she saw the look of shock on Xena's face.
“Fine line, healer, fine line,” she growled in a low tone.
“I think we can let Piri have this one today,” said Gabrielle and gave Piri a knowing wink.
Xena looked between the two women and was about to open her mouth and speak, but Piri said, “Let's get back to the examination in question.” She glanced at the irritated looking warrior. “We can chat after.”
Xena begrudgingly nodded.
“Any pain or discomfort?” Piri directed her question at Gabrielle.
The bard shook her head. Piri continued to feel around her stomach.
“Feels fine. Cycling yet?”
“That's normal when feeding a baby; it'll come back in time.” Piri looked Gabrielle up and down. “You've certainly lost the weight you put on, not that it was much anyway. Any questions?” She also held her hand out for Gabrielle and the bard took it, and lifted herself up into a sitting position.
“Can I start training more?”
Piri glanced back at Xena and saw her face tighten and felt the tension in the room rise a notch.
Piri frowned. “What sort of training did you have in mind?”
“Staff work mainly, but walking and running. I want to get my fitness levels up so when we leave-“
“That's not definite Gabrielle. We haven't decided if we are going yet,” interrupted Xena.
“Xena if you can look me in the eye and say honestly you'd be happy here, or in Amphipolis, Potidaea or another place, we'll do it.” The bard looked at Xena.
The warrior looked down and sighed loudly, and closed her eyes. She then opened them and looked at Gabrielle for several moments.
“That's what I thought,” said Gabrielle gently. She got off the bed and walked to Xena and put her arms around her. Piri stepped back to give the couple their privacy.
They shared an embrace until Xena pulled apart. “OK, we'll start planning. And if Piri gives you the go ahead, we'll start sparring.”
“Thank you,” said Gabrielle softly, and turned to Piri.
“There is one other thing, though,” said Piri, and looked at Gabrielle's hand.
Gabrielle nodded and walked to the table and pulled up a chair. Piri and Xena joined her. Gabrielle laid both hands on the table. The difference between the hands was obvious. The left hand still looked deformed, the bones never quite growing back correctly and it was slightly withered. Piri picked it up and started to feel gently around, remembering the horror when she had first seen it.
“When it rains or is cold,” said Gabrielle, “and-“she looked down away from Xena's intense glare, “some times it suddenly feels weak and crampy and I can't hold anything.” She did look up at Xena's worried face. “Don't worry I haven't dropped the baby yet,” she said trying to add humour to the tense situation.
“The sparring and fitness work will help,” mused Piri. “Build up the muscles, and movement.” She looked at Gabrielle. “I can't see why you can't start training again but I'll leave it up to both of you to decide how much to do.”
“Thank you Piri,” said Gabrielle and looked at Xena who was staring at her intently with a concerned expression. “And Piri, would you like to share your news?”
“You haven't told her?” said Piri, surprised.
“It should come from you.”
The healer looked down and blushed slightly. Once she had composed herself she looked at Xena and Gabrielle and then back at Xena.
“When we were away, we-I mean Joxer, well he proposed and I accepted.”
“Piri, that's wonderful news,” said Xena and broke into a wide smile. “Congratulations. So when?”
“As soon as possible, we would both like that.”
“And afterwards, what will you do then?” Xena exchanged a glance with Gabrielle.
“What will we do when we are married?” Piri sighed, and spoke quietly, “not sure of that, Warrior. We both love our jobs but moving to each other's village is not really practical.” The healer looked despondent.
“I may be able to offer a suggestion, Piri,” said Gabrielle. “We-the council-wondered if you would like to build upon the clearing? It is still Amazon land but it gives you both easy access to your villages.” Gabrielle took the older woman's hand. “We don't want to lose you as a healer, or especially as a friend of this village and I know the centaurs feel the same about Joxer. This way you can both continue in your old roles, and start your new role as newlyweds-together.”
The healer looked stunned and bewildered. “I-I don't know what to say. We agonised about what we would do, or where we would live, I just don't know.”
“Don't decide anything now, but talk it over with your fiancé,” Gabrielle smiled at the last word. “There is one snag though.” Xena and Piri both looked at her. “You may have some neighbours, in time.”
Piri looked confused until she saw Gabrielle break into a wide smile. “You?” she asked.
Gabrielle smiled at Xena and then looked at Lyceus. “As he grows, it'll be harder to stay here.”
The healer nodded. “Yes you do need to protect him.” Both Xena and Gabrielle looked confused. “After all he is growing into a tall, blonde haired, blue eyed Amazon Prince. He'll have hordes of Amazons throwing themselves at him.” Piri's face was the picture of innocence but her eyes twinkled.
“What do you think?” asked Gabrielle to Xena.
“Perfect,” said Xena. “We'll have to start the planning for the houses.”
“And the wedding,” added Gabrielle.
Piri rolled her eyes. “I would like something simple, but Joxer has big plans. With the centaurs, amazons and no doubt my family, it'll be a circus.”
“No it won't,” said Gabrielle firmly. “It'll be your day. So celebrations tonight then!”
“Amazons and their celebrations,” muttered Xena.
Piri got up. “I must go, or Clonie will be wondering where I have got to.”
“Thank you, Piri, for everything,” said Gabrielle and gave the healer a warm hug.
“That goes from me too,” said Xena and looked pointedly at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle walked with Piri to the door and ushered her out. When she turned around she was met by a stern looking warrior princess. “Why didn't you tell me about your hand?” she hissed.
Gabrielle sighed. “There's been so much going on, Xe. You've been so busy-“
“Not too busy for you, or your health. Gabrielle you should have told me. I could have done something to help.”
Lyceus started to grizzle, and Xena walked over to him and scooped him up. She held him close but kept her eyes firmly on Gabrielle.
“I didn't want to bother you,” started Gabrielle, but stopped at the incredulous look on Xena's face. “I didn't mean it like that.”
Lyceus carried on crying and Xena bent her index finger and put the knuckle into the baby's mouth. He sucked it furiously. “I think he needs you, Gabrielle,” she said.
She waited for Gabrielle to sit down and walked over to her.
“This was why I didn't say anything,” said Gabrielle quietly.
Xena put Lyceus on Gabrielle's lap. “I don't understand,” she said.
“When I feed him, the look of pain you wear, Xe. I can't ever begin to make it up to you. I didn't want to add to it.”
Xena looked mystified for a moment. “Solon?” she gasped.
Gabrielle nodded and looked away. Xena rubbed her hand across her mouth. “That's why you say sorry,” she whispered.
“You are so wonderful with Lyceus, he is so lucky to have you. But my heart aches that you never had this with Solon,” sobbed Gabrielle.
Xena turned away and took several deep breaths in to collect her thoughts. She turned around and opened her mouth to speak then closed it again. She then repeated the action. She wanted-needed-for Gabrielle to understand the cause of her pain.
“It's not that,” Xena said finally, shaking her head. “It really isn't.” She looked at Gabrielle tear streaked face. “I miss Solon, of course I do, but I gave up the chance to be with him as a baby and it was the right decision. It had nothing to do with you-but me and who I was.” She knelt next to Gabrielle and stroked the feeding baby's head. “That's what causes me pain-that one day Lye will know what I was, what I did.”
“All he knows is a wonderful mother, who plays with him, takes him riding and gets up when he is sick. That other you is in the past, Xe.”
“The other me was the cause of why he is here,” said Xena sharply. She shut her eyes. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. I just sometimes-“
“See Lindos.” Gabrielle swallowed. “So do I.”
Xena took Gabrielle's hand. “Oh baby.” She then wrapped her arms around the two of them. “I didn't want that for you.” She waited several minutes until she could feel Gabrielle stopping her sobs and pulled away. “He's our child, and no one will ever change that.”
Gabrielle nodded, “so why didn't you let Piri examine him?”
Xena rolled her eyes. “I just thought it better you were here, as you can talk about his feeding.”
“Xena you can do that stuff too. You spend as much time with him as I do.”
“I know but you are better at it. I swear that was the only reason. But you still need to tell me when things aren't right. Deal?”
“Deal. I'm sorry.”
“Me too, Bri. So you really want to leave the village? We could stay in our nice new home.”
“It's what we do. I really miss travelling and this is just one of our homes; Amphipolis, Potidaea , we've got lots to catch up on.” Gabrielle smiled down at the sleeping infant and carefully stood up and placed him in his cot before adjusting her clothing.
Xena handed her a drink and a cloth and Gabrielle wiped her face and took several deep breaths in to compose herself. “OK, we'll start planning. But I'd like Lyceus to be eating before we leave and taking goats milk; I don't want to have to rely on finding milk if you are sick or something. And with the amount of stuff-“
“We're going to need another horse. I know.” Gabrielle smiled. “I'd thought of that.”
“So we are going to need a couple of months at least Bri, before we are leaving, to sort it all out.”
“Good that gives us enough time to help with the wedding!”
“Who's that?” said Gabrielle irritably. Lyceus merely gurgled and watched as his mother got up and walked to the door. She opened it to see an apologetic looking Regent standing there.
“I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I really am. But I wouldn't interrupt the two of you unless it was an emergency.”
“What is it Eph?” Gabrielle asked suspiciously. The regent didn't look harassed and there were no signs of excessive activity around the village.
“I've got a surprise for you,” said Ephiny and broke into a wide smile. From behind the door stepped…
“SOLARI!” Gabrielle shrieked and wrapped her arms around the swarthy Amazon. “When did you get back?”
“Literally a few moments ago. I wanted to surprise Pony-“
“But she's out with Xena,” said Gabrielle with a sigh.
“So I found Eph and she suggested I report to the Queen.” Solari broke into a warm smile.
“Come in, come in,” said Gabrielle and stepped back. She watched Solari use a staff and stood back to allow her access to the hut. She had yet to ask her friend's condition. Before she went to Hippocrates Solari's vision ranged from total blindness one day to tunnel vision the next. Added to the extremely painful headaches, it had been very debilitating to the former Chief Scout.
Solari walked to the table and sat down. She turned to the direction of where Lyceus was playing and smiled. “How is he?”
Gabrielle walked over to Lyceus and scooped him up and brought him to Solari. “Fancy a hold?”
Solari nodded and Gabrielle gently deposited him on her lap. Solari laughed as the baby looked at her intently.
“I have got vision,” she said in answer to the unasked question. “It's just restricted. Nothing to the sides and it's a bit blurry after ten feet or so.”
Gabrielle sat down in a chair next to her. “I'm sorry Sol,” she said genuinely.
Solari shrugged. “The headaches have gone at least.” She sighed. “Hippocrates thinks that maybe it'll come back, who knows.”
Ephiny sat the other side of Solari. “Whatever we can do, just ask.”
“Thanks Eph. And you too Gab. Hey this boy is getting big and strong.”
Gabrielle gave a mother's proud smile. “Finally going through the night too. So how did you get home?”
“Karys and Delia visited on their way back. I thought I'd catch a lift. Once they told me about the wedding of the year, I had to return.”
“So they're back from market then?” asked Gabrielle interestedly. Ephiny looked at her.
“Still wanting a horse?”
Solari looked at Gabrielle in surprise. “For you? But-does that mean you are leaving?”
“I thought you were building a place on the clearing, near Piri? That's what Delia said.”
“So are we,” added Ephiny.
Solari turned to Ephiny stunned.
“So we can be a family with Xenon. It'll be nice to live with him,” she added wistfully.
Solari put her hand on Ephiny's arm. She then turned back to Gabrielle. Lyceus held his arms out for her so she took him.
“Xena would never be happy in the village, in any village in fact, and we always planned to move on when he was big enough.”
“When?” asked Solari.
“A few months, probably. I need to build up my fitness and then we need to train the horse, but importantly be here for the wedding. I am not missing that.”
“We'll miss you,” said Solari. “I know Pony has been grateful for all the help Xena has been to her.”
“No more than you have done for us, Sol,” said Gabrielle warmly.
“So where are they?”
“At the clearing,” said Ephiny. “It's all hands to try and finish ‘ Honeymoon Palace ' before the big day.”
Gabrielle sniggered. “Joxer had these wonderful plans that if we had 1000 builders-“
“And 10, 000 dinars we may have been able to complete half of it,” finished Ephiny. “Luckily Iolaus and Herc returned and Iolaus drew up some doable plans and so between Hercules, Xena and anyone else they can bribe into helping, the house is about halfway done.”
“And how are Piri and Joxer?” asked Solari.
“Piri is her usual unflappable self but Joxer is a bag of nerves,” said Gabrielle. “Shall we go and visit them?”
Solari grinned. “I'm up for it.” The smile dropped off her face. “Don't treat me like an invalid, please.”
“Never,” said Gabrielle firmly and Ephiny also nodded. “You never did me.”
“But Pony, she'll be so disappointed. She feels responsible, even though she wasn't there.”
“That's why she feels responsible,” said Gabrielle. “It's going to take time, but you'll be fine.”
“I know,” said Solari. They all rose and Gabrielle handed Lyceus to Ephiny as she put on the sling and picked up a large bag.
“Ready to go?” Said Ephiny.
Gabrielle nodded. “What about swinging by the dining room and picking up a picnic?”
“I see nothing changes around here,” said Solari with a knowing smile to Ephiny.
“Watch out down below,” yelled Xena and waited a few seconds until Hercules looked up before dropping the waterskin safely into his hands. He smiled and gave her the thumbs up and she took the hammer into her right hand and started back to work. Xena was perched on the embryonic roof of Joxer and Piri's house. Hercules had just reached the site after cutting down what they hoped was the last of the trees to use in the house. Iolaus was directing operations and a dozen Amazon, centaurs and men from the centaur village were working on it.
Xena positioned the roof tile and looked up. She smiled when she spotted in the distance four figures. Her heart leapt as she recognised Gabrielle and could see a little blonde head perched on her shoulder. Gabrielle must have used the newly adapted sling on her back. “She'll be tired then,” muttered Xena, but interrupting her train of thought, she realised she recognised the person next to Gabrielle. She closed her eyes and gave a big sigh. She couldn't have been more pleased to spot Solari.
Friends had been in very short supply to Xena since she left Amphipolis. Lovers, associates, allies, subordinates, servants, yes she had all of those. But until Gabrielle came into her life she had few if any friends. Her relationship with Gabrielle had helped to open up new links, and one of the most important had become her friendship with Epinon. They were so alike in many ways, stubborn, proud warriors who found it hard to show their feelings. Yet both had found love with warm, vivacious women who encouraged this, and whilst the transition was rocky it was beginning.
Xena's heart ached for her friend as the consequences of Solari's injury became apparent. And in the month that Solari was gone, Xena made it her mission to ensure that Epinon had no time to brood; she had spent almost as much time with the weapons master as she did her partner. And now, Solari was back. Xena hoped with all her being that she had good news. She gave a wave, and saw Gabrielle wave back. She then glanced down and ensuring she had a clear spot to land, lazily jumped down.
“Got visitors,” she said to the small group working with Iolaus. “Pony, why don't you go and greet them?”
Epinon looked up, something in her friend's tone of voice made her frown.
“Shall I go?” asked Iolaus.
Xena shook her head and smiled. Epinon looked at Xena for a long moment and then spun around. She took several steps forward so she could see who was approaching. Xena also took several steps forward and everyone else had stopped working and was watching Epinon.
“Oh Gods,” she said when she realised who it was. “Oh my Gods.” She started to run to the small group. She saw Gabrielle place her hand on Solari's arm and whisper into her ear and Solari stop walking. Gabrielle, Ephiny and Aella continued to walk each wearing matching smiles. In a few moments she passed them and the three friends turned to watch Epinon stop a yard from Solari.
They stared at each other for a moment and Solari dropped her staff. They both reached for each other and kissed passionately. Gabrielle, Ephiny and Aella turned towards the house and started to walk and all the workers busied themselves.
“This is a nice surprise,” murmured Xena to Gabrielle, as the bard finally reached her. In a smooth movement she took the sling and the smiling baby off the bard's back.
“Phew, I can straighten up now,” said Gabrielle and stretched her back out. Hercules had already taken Lyceus from Xena and was throwing him up into the air.
“Good workout. Are you OK?” asked Xena trying hard but failing to convey her concern.
Gabrielle nodded and mouthed fine, and gave Xena a gentle kiss on the lips. “He's a lump though,” said the bard after they parted.
“Gabrielle,” said Aella with a laugh. “That's an Amazon Prince you are talking about.”
“Still a lump,” said Gabrielle with a smile and sat down on the grass. “A royal lump.”
“What about Sol?” asked Xena as she slid down next to Gabrielle? They glanced over to where Solari and Epinon were sitting under a tree, holding hands and talking.
Gabrielle took a deep breath in and shared a look with Ephiny. Hercules and Iolaus had also joined the small group and everyone else had stilled their activity.
“Her headaches have gone, but she has limited vision; nothing peripherally or long distance.”
There was a brief silence before Xena said, “Damn. What did Hippocrates say?”
“Could come back, who knows.” Gabrielle took Xena's hand and looked around at the concerned eyes staring at her. “Just treat her normally; that's what she wants.”
“Sure,” said Hercules and started to throw Lyceus in the air again, much to the baby's delight.
“I've got something for Lye,” said Iolaus and he hobbled off to his bag. When he returned he was clutching a beautifully carved replica of Argo.
“I know it will never replace Hoss, but thought he'd like it.” He handed it to Gabrielle.
“Thank you,” said the bard. “That boy is so spoilt.”
“He deserves it,” said Xena indulgently and watched as Solari and Epinon made their way to the group.
Hercules wrapped his long arms around Solari. “Great to have you back, Solari.” The demi God took a step back and looked the Amazon up and down. “You look wonderful,” he added.
“Hey don't hog her,” said Iolaus good-naturedly and bumped Hercules' shoulder. Hercules moved aside and Iolaus and Solari shared a knowing look before sharing a hug. “I know,” Iolaus whispered to Solari. “I'm here if you ever need to talk.”
Solari looked overcome when they pulled apart but she smiled as she saw Hercules fling Lyceus in the air.
“He likes that,” she said shakily. “Gabrielle, you are remarkably calm considering your son is flying high through the air.”
Gabrielle smiled, “At least he doesn't have my fear of heights. I'm not worried, if it looks like Herc would drop him, I am sure Xena's extra quick reflexes will come to Lye's rescue.” Gabrielle lowered her voice, “She never takes her eyes off him.”
“I noticed how protective she is,” said Solari.
“Great isn't it,” said Ephiny, her eyes following Xena as the warrior congratulated Epinon by giving her a punch on the arm.
Lyceus started to cry and Hercules warily sniffed the baby. He walked over to Gabrielle and placed the now red faced, screaming baby in her arms.
“Not that end, so maybe it's the other one.”
“It's about time,” said Gabrielle. “And for us too. We bought some food.” The bard smiled.
“What a shocker,” said Iolaus in mock surprise.
Gabrielle kissed the small blonde head, but Lyceus continued to scream. “I'll just take him.” She nodded towards some trees and started to walk towards them. Within seconds Xena was at her side.
“You don't have to come,” said Gabrielle to her.
“I want to,” said Xena and rubbed her hand on Gabrielle's forearm.
Gabrielle turned her face towards Xena's. “Thanks,” she whispered.
They sat down leaning against a tree, and Lyceus started to feed hungrily.
“How are you feeling? Really?”
“OK. A little tired.”
“As I said a good workout.”
“It's much better with him on my back though. So how's the house going?”
“Good.” Xena inched herself down so she was laying flat on the ground. Gabrielle gently stroked the dark hair with her spare hand. “Hercules does the work of ten men, and Iolaus has everyone organised.”
“Hmpf. I think you are being modest, Xe.”
“That's as maybe. Is he ok?” asked Xena.
Gabrielle moved her hand so the back of it was resting against Xena's cheek. “He's fine, don't worry.”
They sat in silence for a few moments until Lyceus finished. Gabrielle hoisted him onto her shoulder, and Xena sat up.
“Joxer popped by earlier.”
Gabrielle giggled, and then Lyceus belched loudly, which made them both laugh. “How are his nerves holding up?”
“They are not. I think it's a case of healer, heal thyself. But he wants to see you.”
“Why?” Gabrielle passed Lyceus over to Xena as she got to her feet.
“He wouldn't say. He's coming to see you tomorrow.”
“I guess we'll find out then,” said Gabrielle.
“Say something, Gabrielle,” said Joxer worriedly.
Gabrielle had paled and looked at Joxer then Piri then back to Joxer again. The silence stretched on until it was finally broken by the Amazon Queen.
“You are sure, you want me,” she said in an amazed tone.
“Why are you surprised, My Queen?” said Piri gently and placed one hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
“I-I just assumed that it would be a priestess from Artemis temple,” said Gabrielle still recoiling from the shock.
Piri flicked her eyes at Joxer and nodded. “We didn't want anything like that; you are the perfect choice to marry us. We know you'll capture what we want.”
Gabrielle's colour returned to her face with a flush. “No pressure then,” she said with a laugh. “If you are sure it's what you want-“both healers nodded, “then I would be delighted to accept,” she added with a wide smile.
“Fantastic, “said Joxer and the three of them hugged together.
The door flung open, and a man who appeared to be a much more flamboyant Joxer walked in.
“Did she say yes, did, she?” he said.
Gabrielle looked from the man in confusion to Joxer.
“My brother, Jace,” he said resignedly. “He's come to organise the wedding, as a gift for me. “ He turned to Jace. “She said yes.”
Jace jumped up and down and clapped his hands together very quickly.
“Good, good,” he said excitedly. He glided over to Gabrielle. “Now let me see,” he reached out and held some of Gabrielle's hair between two fingers. “Had you thought about, going short, mmm?”
“No I hadn't,” said Gabrielle and Jace dropped her hair. “No matter my dear, I see great possibilities.” He pulled out a scroll from under his arms and unrolled it and thrust it under Gabrielle's nose.
“I see crowns, gold and glitter,” he said. Gabrielle spluttered and looked helplessly towards Piri and Joxer who shrugged their shoulders. Before anyone could say anything there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” yelled Piri.
Xena was carrying Lyceus and was accompanied by a harassed looking Aella.
“Jace, we are all there, what's next?”
“Practice the scales first, my dear. I have the song here, I'll be along shortly.”
Aella nodded and left the hut.
Xena, meanwhile, had sidled up to Gabrielle and raised her eyebrows. Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and before she could say anything Jace had turned and clapped in delight again after spotting Lyceus.
“So this is the baby, so delightful.”
Lyceus gurgled at him, and Jace took the opportunity to give Gabrielle the scroll and take him from Xena's arms.
“You're a lovely boy, you are,” said Jace making a face at Lyceus which the baby giggled at. “Don't you look like your mummies?”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a puzzled glance. Gabrielle then looked at the scroll again and spluttered.
“Lyceus is not wearing wings,” she said.
Xena grabbed the scroll from her.
“Is this what you'll be wearing?” she asked.
“No,” said Gabrielle firmly. “It is far too revealing.”
“I don't know,” said Xena quietly so only Gabrielle could hear and flashed her partner a wicked smile.
“I am going for a Gods and Goddess theme,” said Jace. “In honour of my new sister in law's family. You are Aphrodite-the Goddess of love. And your darling little boy,” he tickled Lyceus who giggled, “will be Cupid.”
“Doesn't look anything like him,” murmured Joxer, Gabrielle and Xena in unison.
“Besides, Dite, wouldn't be caught in that dress, not her taste at all,” added Gabrielle. “And I said he is not wearing wings.”
“You people have no imagination,” sighed Jace. “Matters not. I am off to train my choir. I do hope I have at least one soprano and maybe a couple of altos.”
Joxer opened his mouth to say something but a glare from Xena made him shut it again.
“We'll find a window of opportunity to de brief soon,” he said to Gabrielle, who looked confused at this, and gave her two air kisses before reluctantly handing over Lyceus. “See you later,” he added and strolled out of the hut.
Joxer slumped down on the chair. “I never realised it would become such a show.”
“Didn't you Jay?” asked Piri quietly.
“Have you finished with Gabrielle?” asked Xena.
Piri nodded. Gabrielle looked gratefully at them and turned to Xena, who said, “I know it sounds like a punch line to a bad joke, but we're off to see an Amazon about a horse.”
Xena visibly winced as they passed the dining area. “Jace has his work cut out turning them into something that doesn't resemble cats wailing.”
Gabrielle giggled. Xena laid her arm across Gabrielle's shoulder. “So what did Joxer and Piri ask?”
“They want me to perform the wedding.” Gabrielle blushed.
“You'll do a wonderful job,” said Xena gently and squeezed the Bard's shoulder.
They reached the stables and Xena held the door open for Gabrielle. The three of them entered and an Amazon rose from the chair she was sitting on.
Lucinda was the stable mistress and was the one Amazon in the village who made Xena feel small. She was also the black smith and this helped to develop her huge shoulder and arm muscles. However at odds with her huge physical size, she was very quietly spoken and extremely shy, a woman much more at home with equine rather than human friends. Her swarthy face paled considerably when she saw Xena, Gabrielle and Lyceus and she bowed reverently.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Lucinda, please, no need for that.”
“Yes my Queen.” She drew herself up to her full height; a full head taller than Xena. Gabrielle smiled and looked up at her.
“You had a successful time I hear,” said Xena getting down to business immediately.
“Yes, I believe so. We have bought some fine young horses in. I am confident that we will find the ideal one for you, your Majesty.”
“So do you know their histories?” Xena asked.
Lucinda smiled and launched into the history of the horses she had purchased. Her quiet demeanour vanished when talking about her four legged charges. Gabrielle looked at the two taller women, both eagerly discussing the merits of the various different breeds, and after placing the sleeping Lyceus in Xena's arms, started to wander along the stalls.
She looked at each horse within the stall, but stopped at the fifth one along and stared at it for a long time before opening the stable door.
“We picked up several at market. They may be a bit skittish because of that dreadful noise coming from the dining area,” Lucinda said seriously.
“What about this one?” asked Xena?
“He's a lovely natured boy,” said Lucinda and held out an apple for a large black stallion. He wandered over and happily took the apple. Xena took the opportunity to scratch him behind his ears. “We don't know much of his history; no signs of mistreatment though. Don't believe he is a war horse that Giourkas, the trader, said he was.”
“Looks a fine horse,” said Xena. “Be nice not to be surrounded by blondes,” she murmured.
“Huh?” asked Lucinda and then shrugged.
“To be honest any of them would be good for the Queen. They all appear docile and trainable except for the little mare Trina bought. “I felt sorry for her Lucinda,” she said.” The horse mistress sighed. “”I know there is a good horse within her, Lucinda,” the kid said.” The huge blacksmith rolled her eyes. “Kids.”
Xena looked from side to side. “Gabrielle?” she asked. She couldn't see the bard anywhere. She heard a gasp and saw that Lucinda was staring at the open stall. Both women made their way quickly there. Lucinda placed her hand on Xena's shoulder.
“That's the little mare. And she is a little mare,” Lucinda smiled grimly. “Hasn't let anyone near -“her voice faded as the two women stood outside the stall. They could hear Gabrielle talking quietly to the horse.
“Hey do want an apple?” Xena could hear the bard's voice trying to coax the reluctant horse.
The horse snorted.
“Well what about some nutbread? I never go anywhere without a stash.” Gabrielle threw a piece so it landed in front of the horse. It immediately ate it up.
“Hey you got great taste.” Gabrielle threw another piece down but further away from the horse, meaning it had to take a couple of steps towards her. It ate it up quickly and retreated just as fast.
“Not trusting anyone, eh?” Gabrielle threw another piece down and the mare came forward again, and this time stayed forward. Gabrielle threw yet another piece down and again the mare stepped forward. “I can understand that,” she said, “feeling like everyone has let you down, that you are all alone.” Her voice cracked.
She held out a piece of bread on her hand and the horse looked at it for several seconds before moving towards her and eating it. Gabrielle remained still until it had finished. It didn't move away and stood waiting. Gabrielle tentatively stroked its neck and it still remained still. “But do you know? It only takes one person to believe in you, to love you, and suddenly everything isn't as bad, and you can start loving yourself again.” Gabrielle continued to stroke the horse's neck with one hand and with the other she reached for the water bucket. The horse drunk greedily until it started to back peddle when it spotted a figure entering the stall.
“Looks like you have found yourself a horse,” said Xena. She stood behind Gabrielle and kissed the top of her head.
“I just want to check one thing,” said Gabrielle and took the still sleeping Lyceus from Xena. She walked slowly towards the horse. “You'll meet Xena soon, but you just need to meet the boss, especially as he is quiet.” She held Lyceus out for the horse to sniff, which she did, before nudging Gabrielle again. She turned around and handed Lyceus back to Xena and then gave the horse a big hug. “Looks like you approve.”
“Welcome to our family,” said Xena with a smile. She waited until Gabrielle had turned to leave and then she walked out of the stall.
“I heard what you said,” she began.
Gabrielle interrupted. “I meant every word. After I found out I was pregnant, without you, Xe, I couldn't-“Gabrielle stopped and sniffed. Xena wrapped an arm around her.
“It's the same for me. Without you trusting in me, looking to me for guidance, how long would I have lasted?”
Gabrielle sniffed again. “Oh Xe, you are a survivor, Hercules set you on the right path. He knew you would carry on.”
“Maybe,” said Xena. “But I wouldn't have lived. Or loved. Not like this. So thank you.” They shared a tender kiss, and then walked towards the stable entrance.
“Not the horse I would have suggested your majesty,” said Lucinda, blushing.
“You don't mind?” asked Gabrielle.
Lucinda spluttered. “You can have any horse in the Nation, your majesty. I am pleased you are so happy with your choice.”
Gabrielle looked at Xena. “I am, really I am.”
Gabrielle looked up from her sewing as the door opened. She raised her eyebrow slightly as she saw Xena stomp in.
“You're early I thought-“
“Jace!” said Xena irritably. She dropped her breast plate on the floor without care.
“Sssh,” said Gabrielle and flicked her eyes towards the cot where Lyceus was sleeping.
“Sorry,” mouthed Xena. She walked to Gabrielle and kissed the top of her head and then drew a chair and sat next to her. “Jace decided he wanted to decorate the house all ready for the ceremony. It's three days away!” Xena sighed loudly, and Gabrielle smiled and turned her attention back to her sewing.
“Iolaus went mad. After all we are so close to finishing the house, and now-grrrrr!”
Xena rubbed her eyes with her hand. “So did you have a nice morning? That's nice.”
“Thank you,” said Gabrielle and held the small outfit up. “It's for Lyceus on the big day.” Her hands dropped as she saw Xena smirk. “Please tell me Jace hasn't changed his mind about “blue being the heart, the colour from which the whole wedding will grow and emerge””. Gabrielle mimicked Jace's voice.
“Well, he is considering it, but I think Piri has put her foot down.”
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief. “Good, other wise I think the dressmakers would stab him to death with their needles.” She finished the last few stitches and bit and tied the thread and laid it on the table. Xena picked it up and looked closely at it. “He'll look so cute in this.”
“I am glad it is blue, it suits you both so much,” said Gabrielle and leaned in for a kiss.
“So how was your day?” asked Xena after the sweet kiss.
“Good. Solari popped in. She enjoyed teaching the youngsters.”
“Knew she would,” replied Xena.
There was a knock at the door and Xena got up to answer it. Epinon stood at the door grinning. “You've got visitors,” she said jauntily.
“It is so good to see you,” said Cyrene hugging Gabrielle. She pulled away and looked Gabrielle up and down critically. “You are looking well.”
“Thank you. It is good to see you too,” said Gabrielle.
“Reanie look how big he is now,” said Athena. She and Xena were standing by the cot watching Lyceus sleep. She laid a hand tentatively on Xena's arm. “Everything been ok?” she asked quietly.
“Fine, no problems. Thank you for coming, it means a lot.”
“Thank you for letting me,” Athena looked embarrassed. “I can't make up for-“
“You don't have to,” interrupted Xena. “You have done more than enough.” She looked up at Gabrielle and Cyrene chatting away happily. “Have you seen Solon?” she asked in a whisper.
“He's well, and delighted at having a brother. He knows you think of him often.” Athena rubbed Xena's arm, as the warrior looked down, overcome.
Lyceus picked that moment to start snuffling around, and Cyrene needed no excuse to rush over to the cot and pick him up. “He is so big now, and he has changed so much,” she said.
“Mother it's only been a couple of weeks, since you last saw him,” said Xena in a shaky voice. She took a deep breath in and calmed herself down. It was a double edged sword; she loved hearing about Solon from Athena but it tore her at her heart.
“OK?” asked Gabrielle as she slipped an arm through Xena's.
Xena nodded not trusting her voice.
“I do have a surprise for you, Gabrielle, but it is in our hut,” said Athena.
“Girls, can we have him tonight?” said Cyrene nuzzling into Lyceus blonde head.
“Of course, I'll get his things, just one night?” said Gabrielle quickly, and Xena laughed.
“You are a brave, brave woman,” said Xena.
“I had three babies, miss,” said Cyrene defensively.
“I was talking about Athena, actually.”
“Just one more step, Gabrielle,” said Athena as she led the shut eyed bard up to the door of hers and Cyrene hut.
“So what's the surprise?” said Xena to Cyrene .
“You can wait, child,” said Cyrene with a smile. “It's a nice one,” she added.
Athena opened the door. “You can open your eyes, now.”
Gabrielle did as she was asked and saw her parents standing in front of her.
“MOTHER! FATHER!” she cried and ran towards them. They immediately embraced her warmly.
“I didn't think-Why didn't you tell me?” said Gabrielle still stunned. She held both her parents hands.
“We wanted it to be a surprise,” said Hecuba. “Do you really think we would pass up the opportunity to see our Grandson?” She moved towards Cyrene who handed her over Lyceus.
“It helps having quick transport too,” said Herodotus nodding towards Athena who smiled shyly.
“Having a God in the family has its advantages,” said Xena pointedly and smiled warmly in her parent's direction. Athena did blush at this comment and Cyrene smiled proudly.
“We wouldn't have missed this for the world,” said Hecuba, “and Athena offered to transport us, it meant only being away from the farm for a few days. And it is so long since we saw little Lyceus.”
“Mother it was last month,” said Gabrielle who rolled her eyes. “What about Lila?”
“She's staying in Potidaea . She couldn't be parted from Georgios. They are minding the farm,” said Hecuba.
“Probably be in ruins by the time we get home,” muttered Herodotus.
“Oh hush up,” said Hecuba. She placed Lyceus in his grandfather's arm. “He's a nice boy, you know it.”
Herodotus smiled warmly at Lyceus. And he looked up as Xena approached him. They exchanged a handshake, and Xena said, “You could have done worse.”
“Really?” asked Herodotus with a raised eyebrow. “How?”
“Warlord with a past, something like that,” said Xena seriously.
Herodotus frowned for a moment and then said just as seriously, “now that is pushing the bounds of credibility, my dear,” and broke into a wide smile. Xena smiled as well and tousled Lyceus' hair. “It's good to see you.”
“Me too,” said the older man and squeezed her arm.
“We have so much to catch up on, Gabrielle. Ana had her baby.”
“What did she have?” asked Gabrielle eagerly.
“A boy,” replied her mother. She exchanged a glance with Herodotus. “They named him Perdicus,” she added gently.
Gabrielle nodded and then looked down. “He would have liked that,” she said quietly.
Xena walked to Gabrielle and rubbed her back. “You ok?” she whispered.
The bard nodded, and took Xena's hand and squeezed it lightly.
“So I hear the wedding theme is blue,” said Cyrene after a long, uncomfortable silence.
“Today it is, tomorrow who knows,” said Xena and threw up her hands in an exasperated gesture. “So you won't be wearing your Amazon leathers then?” she added with a smirk.
“Well, not during the day at least,” said Hecuba and winked at Herodotus who gave a mock growl back.
“Mother! Father!” said Gabrielle blushing to her roots. Xena merely laughed at her partner's discomfort.
“They are rather sexy, aren't they?” said Cyrene in an aside to Hecuba.
“Mother,” said Xena sharply and it was her turn to look mortified.
Their parents laughed at their daughters' discomfort.
“Father, you must come and see our new horse,” said Gabrielle.
Herodotus' eyes narrowed. “Who picked it out?” he asked suspiciously looking from his daughter to Xena.
“I did,” said Gabrielle slightly indignantly.
Herodotus groaned. “Don't tell me; it has a hard luck story; doesn't trust anyone but you at first but is turning into something special.” He then smiled warmly. “You could always spot them-Tympani was a little cracker.”
“I could spot them couldn't I,” said Gabrielle and looked straight at Xena, a glance that was not lost on anyone.
“Hecuba, I hope that you don't mind, but we are having Lyceus tonight,” said Cyrene .
Hecuba looked disappointed for a moment and then turned to Gabrielle. “We'll have him the night after; you can get ready for the wedding in peace,” she added eagerly.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged a look and shared a grin. “Two nights of peace,” said Gabrielle with a sigh.
“Oh yeah,” said Xena with a laugh.
Xena walked through the door and saw Gabrielle lying on the bed staring aimlessly at the ceiling.
“That's the last of it. They have everything they need, and more. After all we are only a chakram toss away.” She walked over to the bed and sat on the edge.
Gabrielle gave her a weak smile.
“That's good,” Gabrielle said quietly.
“Athena was feeding him. I think she was wearing more of the apple than actually went in his mouth.”
“I bet your mother enjoyed that,” said Gabrielle.
“She was enjoying it, and so was Athena. I guess she hasn't had much to do with babies,” said Xena thoughtfully. She ran her fingers through Gabrielle's hair.
“She missed out so much with you,” said the bard, and closed her eyes as Xena started to massage her scalp.
“It is ok to miss him,” said Xena gently. “I do.”
Gabrielle opened her eyes. There were tears forming in them. “It is nice to have a few moments peace, but I do miss him. Silly really, he's not far away.”
“It's not silly, you are his mother,” said Xena. There was a pause. “Well,” she drawled. “We have the evening to ourselves,” she waggled her eyebrows. “Do you know what would be nice?” Her fingers started to massage Gabrielle's neck and shoulders.
Gabrielle chuckled. “I am not sure my answer is the same as yours,” she said. “I was thinking of an uninterrupted long night's sleep. But you could be persuading me.” She closed her eyes again and sighed.
“I promise you a nice lay in, maybe even breakfast in bed,” said Xena seductively and her hands moved up and down Gabrielle's arms.
“Definitely persuading me,” said Gabrielle and opening her eyes she raised her head and captured Xena's lips and they shared a searing kiss.
“I never thought we'd finish before the wedding,” said Iolaus as he gazed at the wooden house wearing a proud smile across his face.
“Especially with Jace the wedding planner's intervention,” said Aella flicking her eyes towards the group surrounding Jace. Joxer's brother was ordering several people about as they were putting the finishing touches to the wedding venue. An uneasy truce had been brokered between the group building Joxer's and Piri's new house and Jace allowing the house to be worked on by large numbers of the Amazon and centaur nation. They had finished the day before the wedding and in a move that surprised and pleased everyone; Piri and Joxer had suggested it as a venue for their post wedding party.
“You have been magnificent,” said Hercules warmly to his friend, and squeezed his shoulder. Iolaus blushed.
“Ahem,” said Epinon and raised her eyebrow. “We did help a bit you know?”
The men chuckled. “It has been a real team effort,” said Hercules, “don't you think Xena?”
Xena nodded. “I hope that ours is half as nice as this,” she said.
“I'll make sure it is,” said Iolaus confidently. “We are off to Corinth to see Iphicles after the wedding, but will be back after that. You will still be here then?”
“Oh yes, we're not planning to leave for another couple of months,” said Xena. She caught sight of Epinon's despondent expression. “Hey,” she said gently, “you knew we were off.”
“Kinda got used to you being around,” said the Amazon embarrassed at the public show of emotion. She looked down at the ground. “Thought you might have a change of heart.”
“It's been nice for Eph to have someone to share the load,” added Aella.
“She's got you for that now,” said Xena, pointedly. Aella smiled.
“When the road calls you,” said Hercules, “you just have to answer back. Besides it'll be good for Lyceus to see some of the world.”
“Oh I don't know, thought a growing boy would like to be living in a village of women, eh Iolaus?” said Epinon. Iolaus looked awkward and blushed again.
“So you have finished,” said Jace as he walked up to the group. “Very nice, very tasteful,” he added looking at the house appreciatively. “My brother and his bride will be so happy here, I just know it.”
“So how are the preparations going?” asked Hercules politely. Xena and Epinon rolled their eyes
“The decorations are made, the choir are saving their voices for tomorrow and the cooks are busy cooking as we speak. The bride and groom have been practicing their vows and the only downside is we are not sure how many of the bride's family,” Jace looked up to the sky, and everyone followed suit, “are coming. Hercules would you have any further information on that?”
Hercules turned to look at Jace. “No sorry. Ah Gabrielle's here, she may know,” and with that he grabbed Iolaus' collar and tugged him away from the group.
Gabrielle was trotting in on her new mare. She swung her leg over and as she was about to drop to the ground, Xena was there. She dropped into Xena's waiting arms and they shared a tender kiss.
“How's it back at the village?” asked Xena. Gabrielle knew what she was really asking.
“All the arrangements are progressing and he's fine with my parents. Father was taking him to see the animals when I left. Are you finished?”
“Well hop on,” said Gabrielle. “I'll drive for a change.”
Xena smirked and waited until Gabrielle had mounted before springing up behind her.
“Now make sure you get a good night's sleep ladies, especially you Gabrielle. I know you can't lose those bags overnight, but we don't want to make them worse,” said Jace.
Gabrielle giggled, “No sir.” She then tapped her heel against her horse and they started to trot.
“Cheek,” said Xena. “How dare he say-hey love, aren't we going the wrong way?”
“Ah ah,” said Gabrielle, and they trotted for a bit longer in silence. Eventually they stopped at a cave and Gabrielle dismounted. She turned and saw a bemused looking Xena.
“Humour me, please,” asked the bard. Xena smiled and jumped down.
Gabrielle took Xena's hand and led her into the cave. “I just wanted it to be us, and to be special,” she said.
Xena looked around and in the cave were their bedrolls and a picnic laid out with all Xena's favourite foods.
“Gabri-“she started to say.
Gabrielle interrupted her. “I just wanted to pamper you for a change, Xe. You. You've done so much for me and Lyceus. I want to put you first for once. I love you-we love you.”
“I know you do,” said Xena. “I love you. Taking care of you both isn't a chore, I enjoy it.”
“I know. And we love you for it. I just want to look after you for a change. I want you to be my priority tonight, not Lyceus, not the amazons but you. Thank you Xe, for everything.” She moved closer and gave her a short sweet kiss.
“I should thank you,” said Xena her voice becoming huskier. “You and Lyceus have become everything to me. Without you both, I would be nothing.” She leaned towards Gabrielle and felt herself being gently tugged down onto their bedrolls.
“I'm yours,” she whispered as the bard nibbled her ear.
“All mine,” whispered the bard and then carried her gentle assault down Xena's exposed neck.
“I am pleased to welcome so many to this wonderful occasion.” Gabrielle's voice was shaky with nerves. She looked around at all the expectant faces; Xena's full of happiness; her son dozing on Xena's lap, oblivious to it all; her parents bursting with pride; Cyrene and Athena looking joyful as were so many of her friends-Hercules and Iolaus, Epinon and Solari, Ephiny and Aella. And then there was the bride and groom, both shining with happiness.
“It is more than a marriage between a man and woman; it is a union between two dear friends. Their love is apparent to all and has been an honour for us all to witness it grow and develop. And it gives me enormous pleasure to conduct this most special of ceremonies, to join this most special of couples in the old, sacred way.” She smiled at Joxer who was now sweating profusely.
“Joxer, won't you step forward and make your declaration to Piri.” Gabrielle stepped back and Joxer turned to face Piri and took both of her hands.
“Piri, I could never imagine I could feel so much happiness, joy and love. But I do. You are my rock, my soulmate, my touchstone and best friend. You are everything to me. I hope I can be all these things to you, and want to spend the rest of my life trying.” Joxer's voice was strong and pure and at the end of his vow, Piri was not the only person crying openly.
“That's my brother,” said Jace loudly and dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief.
“Joxer, I love you. And the thought of spending my life with you, fills me with joy and pleasure. I only hope I can make you as happy as you have made me,” Piri's voice was full of emotion, so unlike the normally reserved and professional healer who appeared to so many people.
Gabrielle gave a half smile and stepped forward again. “As Queen of the Amazons, but most importantly as your friend, I have great pleasure in naming you husband and wife.”
There was applause from the audience and several sniffs and stifled sobs.
Jace dabbed his eyes again, and stood up quickly. “Beautiful,” he said full of emotion. “Just beautiful,” he sighed. “And now for the music.” He clapped his hands three times and the choir, all wearing similar blue dresses, stood up nervously. Jace waved his arms and they all started to sing.
“Goodness, they have improved,” whispered Cyrene to her daughter.
“Couldn't have got much worse,” whispered Xena back. “You've got the right idea,” she said to the sleeping Lyceus.
“Xena,” said her mother in an exasperated tone. She felt Athena's hand tap her knee and she looked at the Goddess who indicated at a group of guests who had just arrived. Cyrene in turn nudged Xena who also looked at the new arrivals.
“Good turn out from Olympus ,” she murmured and turned to look at Gabrielle who was standing at the front. The singing faded out as more people stared at the group of Gods and Goddesses who were looking uncharacteristically abashed. Gradually there was silence and a sudden awkwardness that purveyed the previously happy mood.
Gabrielle looked at the group of Gods and at the rest of the party. She smiled as she spotted a couple and made her way forward. The tall god spotted her and he limped towards her, and when they came close they hugged and he picked up high up from the ground.
“I am so pleased you came,” Gabrielle whispered to Hephaestus.
“I wouldn't have missed this,” said the tall God.
“Thank you,” said Gabrielle genuinely. “For everything, you were fantastic.”
“I am so sorry I could not do more for you,” said Hephaestus. “But I have watched little Lyceus grow. He's a fine boy.”
Gabrielle coloured. She looked even more embarrassed as Aphrodite approached looking stern. However, the Goddess soon lost her severe look and broke into a warm smile.
“Sweetpea, you are looking hot, hot, hot! Obviously loved up, you are such a good advertisement for me. Tell me have you thought of becoming a priestess?”
“I don't think so,” came a serious voice and Xena joined the trio. She was holding a now awake Lyceus, although within seconds Aphrodite had snatched him and had materialised a soft toy for him to play with.
“Oh look, Haephie, he is so sweet. I remember when Cupie was this little. Seems so long ago. “ The goddess sighed. “Heph-ee. He's so cute. Heph-ee.”
“No,” said the tall God and started to move away.
Xena plucked Lyceus from Aphrodite as she moved away, and Hecuba and Herodotus took their place. Xena looked around and saw that people were beginning to mingle a little more-Piri was introducing Joxer to her family and Artemis was talking with Athena, Cyrene , Ephiny and Epinon. Hercules and Iolaus were calming down Jace who was distraught at his choir not finishing their song.
“Was that really Aphrodite?” asked Herodotus staring at the scantily clad Goddess.
“Put your tongue back in your head dear, you are not setting a good example,” said Hecuba, mildly.
“What?” asked Herodotus, his eyes still riveted to Aphrodite.
“I give up,” said Hecuba. She turned to Gabrielle. “That was a lovely service, dear.”
“Thank you Mother. I am so glad you both could make it,” Gabrielle smiled at her mother.
“It was nice,” added Xena.
“Short you mean,” said Gabrielle arching her eyebrow.
“I am shocked you could think such a thing,” said Xena with a mock hurt look on her face. She then smiled. “That was wonderful what you wrote for Joxer.”
Gabrielle frowned. “How did you-I didn't really-“
“I knew,” said Xena. “It was beautiful and tender and from the heart. That's how you write, how you are. Of course you wrote it.”
Gabrielle blushed for what seemed the hundredth time that day and looked down at the ground.
Hecuba smiled and tugging her husband's arm they walked away.
“Thank you,” said Gabrielle in a choked voice. She looked into the beautiful blue eyes she loved so much and hugged Xena and Lyceus.
“I know your writing anywhere,” said Xena. “And it was quite simply remarkable.”
“Like you,” replied Gabrielle, her voice muffled as she spoke into Xena's shoulder. “Like you.”
“You chose wisely,” said Athena. “It's getting a little rowdy out there.”
Gabrielle smiled, and laid the sleeping Lyceus in his cot that they had brought to Joxer and Piris' house. “Hopefully that'll be him for the night.”
Athena snorted. “One night and I am still recovering. I don't know how mortals do it.” She turned away and looked out of the window.
Gabrielle sensed her sadness and walked over to her. “It'll never be the same, but you are a wonderful grandmother to Lyceus,” Athena snorted again, “and parent to Xena.” Athena shook her head and turned around.
“I've missed so much,” she said with anguish. “Maybe if I had been around, things could have been so different. No Ares, no years as a warlord. Maybe I could have prevented Lyceus and Solon from-“
“Never blame yourself for Solon,” said Gabrielle firmly. “That's all me.”
“No, its not, and you know it and so does Solon. He loves you,” said Athena placing her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
“I just wish, well I wish,” Gabrielle looked down, tears filling her eyes and emotion constricting her throat. “Thank you for visiting him. I know Xe appreciates it, and so do I.”
The women stood together for a moment saying nothing. Then Gabrielle shook herself and turned to face Athena. “I have been meaning to ask you Athena, but do you think Xena has inherited any of your powers?”
“Well, it's difficult to say how much is from me, and how much is her own natural ability. But I do think she gets her healing ability from me. But as for-“Athena stopped and looked at Gabrielle who was twisting her hands nervously and wore a look of anxiety.
“What is it really?” she asked the Bard.
“Is she immortal?” whispered Gabrielle. “After all she returned with the ambrosia.”
“Would that be a problem?” asked Athena.
“Part of me would welcome that. I know I would never lose her, that she would outlive me. But then what? Everyone she knows and loves would die and she would be left alone. I wouldn't want that for her.”
“I could give her immortality, I had thought of it, but I know she would refuse me.” Athena sighed. “It does hurt watching mortals I have grown to care for pass on, but at least I have my family to sustain me. She wouldn't. She's not immortal, but unless she is killed in battle, it is likely she would outlive you, because of her healing ability and the very fact that some of my blood runs through her. I know some of my nieces and nephews have lived past 100.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes and gave her a large sigh. “Thank you. That's wonderful. The world needs Xena in it for as long as possible.”
Athena smiled. “She is so lucky to have you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle opened her eyes and glanced at Lyceus. “We're the lucky ones.”
“Come on, I am surprised we haven't been commandeered back to the party!”
Gabrielle bent over and kissed Lyceus and then walked out of the house. Night had fallen and the part was in full swing. Jace had recovered his good humour and was leading everyone in a dance. Gabrielle raised her eyebrow up at her father dancing with Aphrodite and not knowing where to look. A quick glance at her mother trying and failing not to laugh at his obvious discomfort reassured her there would only be good natured bickering afterwards. She saw other couples dancing together and smiled at the lovely trio of Ephiny, Aella and Xenon holding hands and swaying to the music. Hercules and Iolaus were sitting quietly talking but she as yet could not see Xena. She listened intently and heard Cyrene 's voice and after listening for a few seconds knew exactly where Xena would be. Athena had obviously heard her to because they exchanged a bemused glance and strode towards where Cyrene was talking with a small crowd around her, including Xena.
Gabrielle smiled at the look of discomfort on her partner's face. Cyrene was talking, unaware, or so it appeared, of her daughter's increasingly strained features.
“And of course Xena came home dirtier than the rest of the children put together, and without any fish!”
The crowd murmured its laughter. “I think that's enough,” said Cyrene and Xena looked visibly relieved.
“What about Hoss?” Came a voice? Xena's eye's narrowed and she scanned for who it may have been.
“Last story. It might come as a surprise but Xena was very late in talking.” Gabrielle sniggered at this as did other people and Xena shot out an angry look. Gabrielle merely shrugged her shoulders and walked to Xena's side and placed her arm around her.
Cyrene continued. “Well she wasn't talking at all until Toris got his first pony. Xena used to sit and watch him ride it for hours. Then one day Toris found the pony missing. And so was Xena. We searched high and low and finally, bold as brass she returned riding on the pony. I was so angry that I screamed “What do you think you were doing” at her. And she turned to me and said as clearly as she could speak now, “Hoss wanted to go for a long ride so I took him.””
Cyrene wasn't the only one who was laughing and even Xena gave a rueful smile.
“OK,” she said to Gabrielle. “Lyceus go down alright?”
“Sleeping like a log. Only so much fussing over a boy can take,” replied Gabrielle.
“But Hephie, imagine we can have our own-“
“NO!” said Hephaestus and strode up to Gabrielle and Xena. “It has been wonderful to see you again,” said the tall God. “I hope to see you again soon.” He shook Xena's hand and gave Gabrielle a warm hug.
Aphrodite sidled up to him and linked her arm through his. “Thanks girlies we've had a ball. So nice to feel the love-you mortals do these weddings gigs so well.”
Xena and Gabrielle nodded, and Aphrodite leaned in to them. “Now I'm your Auntie I'm sure we'll be seeing even more of each other,” she whispered and then winked.
Xena rolled her eyes and Gabrielle said,”Thanks Aphrodite and for the presents for Lyceus.”
“Don't mention it,” said the Goddess waving her hand. “Now must say goodbye to Herodotus. I can see where you get your good looks from Gabby-girl. Later.”
Gabrielle giggled as Aphrodite dragged Hephaestus over to her parents. Xena pulled her over to an empty table and they sat down.
“Been a good night,” said Xena. “Jace sure knows how to organise a good bash.”
“Have you ever felt you wanted to do er-“Xena looked embarrassed and covered her mouth with her hands.
“Get married again?” said Gabrielle quietly. Xena nodded.
Gabrielle looked into the distance. “I don't know.” Xena looked at her intently. “I never thought about it as I am happy with what I have got. Not sure being married would make it any better. And I'd feel-“
“Disloyal to Perdicus?” asked Xena, gently.
“Not disloyal. He wouldn't mind-he knows about us and accepts it. But been there done that and it didn't end well. I wouldn't want anything like that to happen to us.”
Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. The bard buried her head into the warrior's shoulder.
“It wouldn't”, said Xena. “But I do understand.”
“What about you? Have you ever thought about getting married?”
Xena snorted. “Before you, never. The idea of being tied down with one person…. Well I couldn't manage it for more than a month or so. And now, being with you is enough. “She smiled, “You're still stuck with me for better and worse.”
“In sickness and in health,” said Gabrielle and lifted her head and captured Xena's lips in a kiss.
“Thick and thin,” mumbled Xena.
“Sick and sin too. We see a lot of both,” said Gabrielle with a smile. Their foreheads touched.
“Forever,” said Xena.
“Forever,” repeated Gabrielle.
Xena had been awake for several minutes but for once was content to lie, eyes shut listening to the breathing of the two people near her. When she finally opened her eyes she looked firstly at the blonde head almost tucked completely under their shared blanket. Xena slipped out from underneath it and straightened it over Gabrielle aware that the bard, as Xena was naked. Xena looked at Lyceus who had kicked all his blankets off himself and was starting to move around. She smiled to herself and looked for her shift. She frowned as she found it yards away, but the frown turned back to a smile as she remembered how Gabrielle had tossed it there the previous night. She remembered how shocked Gabrielle had been, when they just become lovers that Xena suggested they make love outside. But gradually the bard had embraced it and Xena closed her eyes and remembered last night. It had finished off a perfect day.
They had taken the horses and Lyceus and had set up camp with Amazon lands. Xena had picked a spot where she knew there would be no guards lurking and had threatened Epinon within an inch of her life if anyone dared to come close to the camp. Xena wanted it to be as close to what they could expect on the road and didn't want Gabrielle's amazons dropping in and keep a close watch on the Queen. That was her job.
Xena put on her shift and then picked up the waterskin and walked to the lake. Yesterday after they had set up camp, she had taken Lyceus into the water whilst Gabrielle had drilled. They then swapped, although Xena spent a lot of her drilling time watching Mother and son splashing in the water having fun. Finally she dived in and the three of them frolicked in the water until it was time to eat. After supper, while Lyceus sat and watched, propped up by Xena's saddle, Gabrielle and Xena drilled again. Whether it was the travelling or the forest air, Xena did not know, but Lyceus fell asleep early and the rest of the evening-well Xena smiled at remembrance of their tender love making.
She filled the waterskin and walked slowly back to their camp. She spotted that Lyceus was now awake. Much to Gabrielle and Xena's amusement-and a little relief- he had started to play happily when he woke not screaming immediately to be fed. Xena walked to him and dropped to the ground. She was rewarded by a wide smile and lots of babbling and she scooped him up and laid him on her chest.
“Now that's a nice picture,” said Gabrielle. She was still lying on the floor and had turned to face the pair.
“Mmm,” said Xena. “Well I think we will have to move.” She sniffed loudly for effect, and leapt gracefully to her feet with Lyceus still in her arms. “Give you a chance to get decent.”
Gabrielle blushed. “I'm not sure I've been decent for a long while. Ever since I knew you,” said Gabrielle with a laugh, and she slipped from underneath the blanket. She found her clothes and hurriedly got dressed while Xena changed Lyceus' offending nappy. She then sat him up against her saddle again and gave him his toys to play with. Lyceus immediately put Hoss in his mouth and Xena went across to the horses while Gabrielle started to make breakfast.
“Hey you two, good night?” murmured Xena to the horses and she stroked Argo's nose. “Bit different to the stables, eh? Get used to this Tympani, because this is what we do.”
Tympani looked up from eating the lush grass and snorted and then went back to eating. Xena raised her eyebrow. “Can't interrupt you eating can we? Just like your mistress,” said Xena whispering.
“Xena!” called Gabrielle.
Xena turned around and smiled as she saw Gabrielle holding the cooking pot. “See what I mean,” she said as an aside, and then strode forward. Gabrielle was putting porridge in a small bowl and then sat down next to Lyceus and was rewarded by a wide smile.
Xena picked up a bowl and spoon and sat down next to Gabrielle. She started to eat, watching Lyceus enjoying his porridge.
“What's the plan?” asked Gabrielle.
Xena finished her mouthful before speaking. “What would you like to do? Thought we could go back mid afternoon. I was thinking of taking Lyceus for a ride.”
“Nice idea. Hey are you hungry, little man? I think being on the road suits you-like your mummys,” Gabrielle laughed and rose and went back to the pot and added another large spoonful.
“It's good practice-we'll do it again before we leave,” said Xena. “Let me feed him, you have yours.”
Gabrielle handed Xena Lyceus' bowl and then went back to get her own.
“And you haven't said what you want to do, Gabrielle.”
“If you are taking Lyceus for a ride, I might go for a run. Then I'd like to spar.” Gabrielle sighed and looked down into her porridge.
Xena turned to her. “You are improving. It just takes time.”
“Yeah. Maybe. Just seems to take so much longer than I remember.”
“I seem to remember an uncoordinated kid who took a while to get the staff, and she came good,” Xena smiled and covered Gabrielle's hand with her own.
Gabrielle smiled weakly. “We'll see.”
“Keep your guard up,” shouted Xena.
“Ok,” panted Gabrielle. She lifted her staff up slightly and the noise of the staffs crashing against each other reverberated through the quiet forest.
Gabrielle moved forward and she started to attack Xena who defended with ease, and then stepped gracefully towards the bard and after two strokes had Gabrielle face down on the floor.
The bard lay there breathing heavily. Xena knelt next to her and placed her hand on her back. “Gab-“
“Don't say it, Xena. I know. I leave myself too open when I come forward.” She slowly rose to her knees and cradled her left hand in her lap. Xena immediately picked it up and started rubbing it.
“Pain?” she said.
“Ache,” replied Gabrielle and inhaled deeply.
“Your fitness is improving. It's just when you get tired your form goes. Gabrielle you are getting there. In the last couple of years you have been through so much-serious injuries and childbirth. Lets face it even staying in the Amazon village hasn't been stress free.”
Gabrielle leaned against Xena and closed her eyes. “Maybe.”
“Tell you what, you lie next to Lyceus for a while and then we can pack up.”
Gabrielle flicked her eyes at the sleeping baby. “I think the ride and swim really knocked him out. He loves it though,” said Gabrielle smiling fondly.
“Good job as he is going to spend half his life on a horse. Go on, and then we can get going before Eph sends a search party out for us.”
“She won't,” said Gabrielle laughing. “She just worries.”
Xena looked unconvinced. “Bet she does.”
“Told you,” said Xena with a knowing look. “I can't believe she did it.”
“Be nice,” said Gabrielle as she could feel the anger emanate from Xena.
Xena trotted forward on Argo so she was in front of Tympani, Gabrielle and Lyceus. “I can not believe you have the audacity to come miles of us when I specifically asked you not to,” Xena growled in a low tone. “Epinon I can't believe it is you of all people,” she added.
Epinon exchanged a glance with Aella and held her arm out to stop the other four amazons accompanying them. Epinon and Aella trotted forward on their horses.
“It's not what you think,” said Aella, when she was mere inches from Xena.
“Really?” said Xena sarcastically.
“The guards never returned from the East. We have sent relief as usual, but they still haven't returned. We're going to see why.” Epinon spoke quickly and quietly.
Gabrielle drew level with Xena. “Eph's worried?”
“Yes,” said Aella. “There are plenty of innocent reasons why they haven't returned, but-“she looked down. “We want to make sure.”
“Of course you do,” said Xena. “Sorry. I shouldn't have assumed you were trailing us.”
“Just a coincidence,” said Epinon with a weak smile. She looked at Xena and her friend could see the worry in her eyes.
“A good one,” said Xena and looked at Gabrielle. “Take Lyceus back to the village.” She raised her hand to stop Gabrielle from arguing. “Dana can accompany you back. I'll go and take a look.”
“Xena,” started Gabrielle, but it was Epinon who spoke.
“My Queen you need to go back to the village with Lyceus. We do not know what is wrong. We can not risk your safety.” Epinon spoke formally, and Gabrielle nodded. She then turned to Xena.
“Be careful please,” she said and took her hand from the reins and held it out towards Xena.
Xena grasped it. “Of course. Get to the village as quickly as possible.” Xena spoke firmly. Her eyes lingered on Lyceus who was sitting in front of Gabrielle. “I'll see you both soon.”
With that they unclasped their hands and Xena turned Argo around and five amazons on their horses followed her, leaving Gabrielle and Dana staring after them.
The group was silent as they slowly made their way towards the area where they expected the guards to be. Xena concentrated on any sounds that were out of place and her eyes scanned the forest looking for any indication of what has happened.
“They usually swap past the hill,” said Aella, and she indicated a small incline.
They made their way slowly and once they reached the top they looked out on carnage.
Xena descended Argo in a fluid movement and ran towards the first body. Epinon and Aella did the same and joined Xena. The warrior was squatting next to the dead Amazon, who was covered in blood and had obviously fought furiously before her death.
“Dear Gods,” whispered Epinon.
Aella sniffed and covered her face with her hands.
Xena sprung up and checked the other bodies. “All Amazon,” she said. “I am sorry,” she said with feeling. She looked closely at the body, and the ground around it.
“They fought hard against a dozen or so,” she said.
“Why?” asked Ligeia. The young Amazon had vomited at the sight of the bodies and the amount of blood spilled and was wiping her mouth.
“To send us a message,” said Xena and then raised her hand. Everyone's eyes darted around looking for whatever Xena had sensed.
“Take cover,” shouted Xena and she caught an arrow hurling through the air.
The amazons either threw themselves on the ground or darted behind a tree. Xena turned around, and after throwing the arrow back in the direction it had flown, she withdrew her sword. Another arrow came towards Xena but it fell short, and the warrior princess remained impassive.
“Twelve men, two archers,” she shouted, and taking the chakram from her side in a swift movement she let it fly.
Epinon rose to her feet and bending low made her way to Xena's side. “One archer,” she called, as she watched the bloodied chakram flew back to Xena's outstretched hand.
“Evens the odds,” said Aella as she ran to Xena's other side. Another arrow flew close to Aella but she merely sidestepped it as she too drew her sword.
Xena watched as the men started to make their way towards them on horseback. She flicked her wrist again and the chakram was aimed towards the remaining archer. It struck him on the temple and he fell, dead before he touched the ground. By now the remaining amazons had joined them and Xena signalled for the six of them to spread out. Each woman had a sword and Kyme had taken her cross-bow from her bag and fired towards the on rushing men.
The amazons and Xena moved towards them and within moments they were engaged in fighting. Xena raised her sword to the nearest opponent on horseback, her energy levels rising with every second. Because of the greater height of her opponent on horseback, Xena was forced to defend with several parries and then she launched herself and used her feet to spring off the opponent's chest, missing the angry swipe of his sword. Xena landed neatly while the man tumbled off the horse, and with one long stride Xena stepped over him and thrust her sword in his chest.
Xena inhaled deeply. She smiled and cast her eyes around. Epinon had disposed of one opponent swiftly and had moved onto another. Aella was engaged with one and even with a newly slashed midriff appeared to be coping well. However Xena's musings were cut short by Ligeia's cry as her arm was sliced. Xena immediately sent her chakram towards Ligeia's opponent and it embedded in his chest.
“AIYIYIYIYIYIY,” yelled Xena and she leapt and intercepted a man who was creeping behind Epinon. They fell to the floor, and Xena managed to get a couple of punches in to his face and despite his nose broken, he tried to continue to fight. Xena then put the pinch on his neck.
“Who are you fighting for?”
“Don't know,” the man gasped, his eyes darting from side to side. Xena tightened her hold on his collar. “Mercenary. “
“What are you being paid to do?” asked Xena. She glanced around and saw that there were only three other men standing and all amazons but Ligeia were fighting.
“Take… Amazon… land,” said the man breathing heavily.
“How many?” Xena added knowing time was running out.
The man merely smiled at her and then spat at Xena. “Go to Hades, bitch. We'll destroy you Amazon whores.”
“No you won't,” said Xena quietly and brought her sword down into his chest.
When she rose she saw that all the men were dead. Epinon was cradling Aella while Kyme was wiping blood away from her wound and Selene was wrapping Ligeia's wound.
Xena walked to Epinon and crouched next to her and Aella. “Ok,” she said with concern.
Aella nodded. ”Stupid really, I should have been more careful.”
“It's not deep,” said Kyme. “I'll wrap it and then Piri can do her magic when we get back.”
“And Eph can read me the riot act,” groaned Aella.
“Pony, there is an army close by,” said Xena softly.
Epinon turned to look at her. “I guessed that,” she said.
“I'll go and check it out while you tidy up,” said Xena, her eyes lingering on the dead amazons in the distance.
Xena moved through the forest quickly. She had been invigorated by the fight. She had difficulty admitting to Gabrielle and herself how much she enjoyed fighting. She knew that she could now control her anger and rage, channel it like never before, even when she was guided by Ares. But these fights allowed her to express herself and to release the animal within. But now she could control the animal and cage it quickly, and reflect on the fight later. At this moment she wanted to concentrate on scouting the army.
She stopped and leant against a tree. Xena had an uncomfortable feeling and knew that shortly the amazons would be at war. She shut her eyes. Her first duty was to protect Gabrielle and Lyceus, and she knew that Gabrielle would take her role as Queen conscientiously. This could cause tension between them, as it always did when Xena's over protective streak kicked in, but Xena knew what she must do; she would ensure Gabrielle was at no risk.
But more than just Gabrielle, she had formed relationships within the village. There would be amazons that would never trust or speak to her until their dying day but Epinon, Solari, Aella and Ephiny were not her only friends. If Amazon land was at stake they would fight furiously to protect it, and it would mean casualties.
Xena shook her self mentally and opened her eyes. If there was an army intent on taking the land, the village needed to know immediately. She continued to move silently through the forest on the watch for anything unusual. She virtually followed the trail left by the small party of soldiers that they had disposed of until she could see plumes of smoke from multiple camp fires. She climbed a tree and made her way noiselessly along the branch and then flipped onto a neighbouring tree to gain a better view.
Her stomach dropped when she saw the sight. It was a large army with approximately two hundred men. Her keen eyes looked for a banner, to give her a clue of whose army it may be. There was none. Just as interestingly there was a lack of tents, with only a couple standing erect. The soldier she had killed was a mercenary; could the whole army be formed of mercenaries?
Xena sighed. She watched for several moments at some men sitting around camp fires eating and drinking while others drilled. There were several in hushed conversations and Xena wondered if they were considering where the scouting group was and thinking of sending out a further group.
That made up her mind; she had seen enough and turned to go, her mind racing and she mechanically made her way back to the other amazons. Who would pay for all those mercenaries? And why? The amazons and centaurs were strong allies and there had been little interest from anyone in the Amazon land since Gabrielle had ascended the throne.
Xena had experience of mercenaries-good and bad. She could only hope that these were of the poorer variety-too bad to make it within an army but their ego and pride dictating they would fight on for anyone. If they were well drilled, professional soldiers-Xena swallowed. The village would be under threat. That worrying thought made her run back to the amazons even faster.
She was close to where they had found the bodies of the amazons and fought the scouts before she noticed the plumes of smoke in the air. She slowed to a walk and joined Epinon and the others around the hastily built funeral pyres. All had their heads bowed and Aella was being supported by Epinon and Kyme.
Xena said nothing as she joined the group. There was silence for several moments before Epinon nodded and then turned to Xena.
“Do I want to know?” she asked quietly.
“About 200 men, probably mercenaries,” replied Xena.
“We need to get back, to prepare,” said Aella and the words hung in the air.
For battle, thought Xena darkly as she headed towards Argo.
Epinon helped Aella onto her horse and sprung behind her, and waited for Xena to lead the way. There was little talk on the way back to the village as each woman was lost in their own thoughts.
“I wondered if they would run into you,” said Ephiny as Gabrielle sat astride Tympani with Lyceus seated in front of her. “Hope you didn't think I sent them to check up on you.”
“Xena did,” said Gabrielle smiling and handed Lyceus to Ephiny. The baby immediately started to squirm and grizzle.
“Hey I'm not that bad,” said Ephiny and turned around quickly to distract him. Meanwhile Gabrielle and Dana dismounted and Dana led the two horses to the stables.
Gabrielle turned to look at Ephiny. “He's going through the clingy phase,” said Gabrielle with a smile as she took Lyceus back from Ephiny. “So?” she added, the smile falling from her face.
“You know as much as we do. The guards should have returned last night. So when they didn't return this morning I sent Aella, Pony and the group to see what's what.”
“You're worried aren't you?” said Gabrielle quietly.
Ephiny nodded and inhaled deeply. “Occasionally guards are late, but we usually get a message. But silence. Gab-I am concerned.”
“OK, what about the families?”
Ephiny smiled. She knew that Gabrielle's caring nature was coming to the fore.
“We'll go and see them, although hopefully we'll have news shortly. You sort out Lyceus first though.”
“Thanks Eph won't be long,” said Gabrielle and she headed towards her hut.
Gabrielle, Solari and Ephiny stood outside the council building as the party rode in. Gabrielle heard Ephiny gasp as she saw Aella and the Bard placed her hand on the Regent's shoulder. They had received word there were injuries but did not know who was involved.
All three women moved forward as Epinon dismounted and between her and Ephiny they eased Aella off the horse. Xena sprung off Argo and stood next to Gabrielle and slipped her hand into the bard's smaller one.
Ephiny stifled a sob as she helped Aella towards Piri's hut closely followed by Ligeria gingerly walking behind them.
“Take as long as you need Ephiny,” called Gabrielle, and the Regent turned and nodded and then continued to the healers hut. Gabrielle turned to Xena and squeezed her hand, “well,” she asked?
Xena sighed, and before she could speak Epinon stepped forward. “There's a lot to discuss, but we need to do it quickly. We need to get the council together.”
“We thought as much,” said Gabrielle.
“They are waiting for you,” added Solari. “I'll check on Eph and Aella. You go in.”
Epinon entered the building and Xena made her way forward but felt a tug on her arm. She turned and looked at the worried countenance of Gabrielle.
“Xe?” she whispered.
“Its war, Gabrielle,” whispered Xena. “An army on Amazon land, and they want all this.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, and lent towards Xena, who wrapped an arm around her. “Gods, Xena.”
“We'll get through this,” said Xena more confidently than she felt. “Come on,” and led Gabrielle into the council building.
Epinon, Xena and Gabrielle sat down and Xena felt the eyes of the committee boring into her. She inhaled deeply and held her head up.
Epinon spoke first. “They're dead,” she said quietly. “We found all of them the guards and relief, slain.”
There were gasps from the council.
“Who?” asked Yanna?
Epinon looked at Xena. “We encountered them, mercenaries,” said Xena. “They are dead.”
There was silence as the council realised there was more to come. “Xena put the pinch on one of them before he died and he said they were taking Amazon land. So she followed their trails.”
Ephiny and Solari walked through the door and Ephiny sat in the chair next to Gabrielle. “Alright?” said Gabrielle and put her hand on Ephiny's arm.
Ephiny nodded, but didn't speak and the bard could see how emotional her friend was. She patted her arm and her gaze turned back to Xena.
“There is an army on the edge of Amazon lands. About 200 men strong. Mercenaries, mostly, I would guess, they are not flying anyone's banner,” Xena looked straight at Gabrielle as she spoke.
“Why?” gasped the Bard.
“Land, power, money, glory, take your pick,” said Charope bitterly.
“We don't have any choice do we?” said Chillipa. “They don't sound as if they would negotiate.”
“They have killed our sisters,” said Charope. “We shan't be negotiating.”
“You are right,” said Epinon wearily. “Negotiating won't work.”
“So it's war,” said Solari, simply.
There were nods from everyone and they all turned to look at Gabrielle. She reluctantly nodded, distress etched on her face. “Ephiny?” she said turning to the regent.
“We need to prepare and get the army ready,” she said. “That shouldn't take too long. We need to tell everyone too.”
“Ok,” said Gabrielle. “When do we move out?”
“You're not going,” said Xena sharply.
“Of course I am,” said Gabrielle.
“No you are not. You are staying with Lyceus,” said Xena forcefully.
“Xena, I am Queen. I should-“
“You are also a nursing mother, Queen Gabrielle,” said Agamede. “Under no circumstances do we allow nursing mothers to fight.”
Gabrielle looked at Ephiny, who nodded her assent, and then at Xena who had a look of triumph on her face.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something, but Epinon sensed that it could develop into an increasingly bitter argument and said, “We need to engage them before they come too close to the village.”
“Agreed,” said Solari, also aware of the looks that Gabrielle and Xena were giving each other.
“So what's the plan?” said Gabrielle tearing her angry gaze from Xena?
“Epinon's right, we need to ensure the battle is away from the village. If we move pre dawn, we should engage them before they are too close. Keep a buffer between the village and the battle, that gives us a few hours to prepare,” said Ephiny. “We need to tell Piri-she is at her home, and get the village together. Gabrielle, you address them, and Epinon and I will organise the army. Sol, will you get Piri? And Chillipa, get the village together.”
Solari nodded and gave Epinon's hand a squeeze and then headed out the door. Ephiny and Epinon rose as did the rest of the council leaving Gabrielle and Xena still seated.
“I'll be there shortly,” said Gabrielle, and Ephiny nodded and left the room followed by the rest of the council.
Gabrielle turned back to face Xena.
“You had no right,” she said before Xena could say a word, “no right to try and prevent me from leading the Amazons.”
“It is a moot point now. You can't,” said Xena simply. “You have to stay here.”
“And aren't you pleased at that? I should choose to fight if I wish, and it's not up to you to dictate to me.”
“You are Lyceus' mother. You aren't fit enough to fight,” said Xena springing up from her chair.
“So what Mothers can't fight? Are you going to stop Ephiny from fighting? No I thought not? You're going to fight aren't you?” Gabrielle's eyes were blazing.
“Yes, I am not his mother,” said Xena and then realising what she said closed her eyes. “I didn't-“
Gabrielle stared at her in shock. Xena opened her eyes and stepped forwards.
“Don't.” said Gabrielle. “Don't speak to me,” she said. She rose from her chair. “I'm going to address the village now,” and she strode out leaving Xena open mouthed staring after her.
“Damn,” she said and kicked over a chair in frustration. “Damn, damn, damn.”
Gabrielle looked at the packed village from the stage. She had finished explaining what had happened and vitally was going to happen and watched as the women spoke amongst themselves. Some of the younger women looked at excited to be heading to battle whereas older, more battle weary women looked anxious as they knew death and injury awaited many of them. She caught sight of Xena who was leaning against a hut watching her closely. She turned away and looked to Epinon who stepped forward.
“We need to prepare ourselves and will leave pre-dawn. You should all know your roles-you will be responsible for your weapons. Selene and Cara will assist Piri and Clonie with the medical tent. Lucinda and her team will ready the horses. Get some rest, spend time with your families and be ready to go early. TO A STRONG AMAZON NATION.” Epinon raised her fist in the air.
Everyone followed suit and yelled with passion, “TO A STRONG AMAZON NATION.”
The crowd started to disperse as women hurried to prepare themselves. Gabrielle watched for a few moments and turned to Epinon. “Ephiny with Aella?” she asked.
“I'll see her and then I need to see the families of the women-“Gabrielle lowered her head.
“Xena didn't mean-“
“Don't Epinon, it's nothing to do with you.” Gabrielle spoke firmly.
The weapons master looked at her queen and nodded. “I need to go.”
“Pony, we'll meet after I have seen the families,” said Gabrielle turning to go.
“You have nothing to prove,” said Epinon pointedly. Gabrielle spun and faced her. “Everyone knows what a fine leader you are. You don't have to do everything by yourself.”
“I've never led in battle,” said Gabrielle and her face crumbled.
“You led us against Valasca, Alti, not to mention fighting those slavers, the day before giving birth.” Epinon held her hand up to stop Gabrielle's protestations. “Some of these women live for battle. You don't. “
“I need to contribute,” said Gabrielle whispered.
“And you do,” said Epinon. “No one will comfort those guard's families as well as you can. Or support Ephiny. You do more than your fair share, don't ever think you don't.”
Gabrielle sighed deeply. “Thank you,” she said and gave Epinon a hug, which the weapons master, reciprocated. She then walked to Piri's hut ignoring Xena who was walking towards her. The warrior Princess spun and watched her go without a word.
Gabrielle entered the hut and saw Aella was sitting on the bed with Ephiny holding her hand. Ligeria was having her wound stitched by Clonie. Gabrielle smiled in their direction but walked towards Ephiny and Aella.
“I imagine you have had an earful from Ephiny, so I won't yell at you,” said Gabrielle with a smile.
Aella snorted. “You didn't hear her yells!”
Ephiny rolled her eyes. “At least it is not serious, just a flesh wound.”
“But it does mean I will not be there tomorrow with you, my love,” said Aella sadly.
“Hush up, I'll be fine,” said Ephiny kissing Aella's forehead. “Just get better.”
Gabrielle averted her eyes to give them some privacy, and then asked, “Is there anything I can get for you?”
“I'm fine, thank you, Gabrielle.”
The bard nodded and said quietly, “I'm off to see the families.”
Ephiny and Aella exchanged a look. “I'll come,” said Ephiny and stood up. “It'll be tough.”
Gabrielle patted Aella's hand and left the two women to say their farewells for now. In a few moments she was joined by Ephiny outside the hut. The village was a veritable hive of activity.
“Ready?” said Ephiny.
“No, “said Gabrielle. “You are never ready for this.”
Gabrielle walked slowly into her hut. The past two hours had been an emotional time as she spoke with the families of the women killed. She felt emotionally raw but she knew she still had so much to do. And she had to face Xena.
Xena was sitting at the table sharpening her sword, and she placed it on the table and stood up as soon as she saw Gabrielle enter. Before Gabrielle could speak, she said, “You need to have something to eat and drink. Don't ignore that.”
Gabrielle nodded and then her gaze went to the cot. She walked to it and saw Lyceus fast asleep clutching Hoss. She smiled and gently rearranged Blankie over him, knowing that it would be shortly kicked off as was his custom.
“I didn't know how long you would be so I picked him up from Louka. He's had his dinner and milk.”
“Thank you,” said Gabrielle coolly, and walked to the table and picked up a mug of juice.
“You don't have to thank me,” began Xena. “Gabrielle-“
“I thought after all this time you respected me as a fighter,” interrupted Gabrielle angrily. “I thought we were equal; but I'm still the little tag along only involved if it's not too dangerous.”
“That's not fair,” said Xena. “You don't believe that.”
“Don't I?” retorted Gabrielle with venom. “But what you said, Xena. I thought you considered yourself his parent.” Gabrielle's voice cracked and she wiped away a tear. “At least I know where we stand.”
“Of course, I do. What I said-it came out wrong. I love Lyceus, I think of him as my own,” Xena spoke in a whisper and Gabrielle could see the distress etched on her face. She nodded but was not quite ready to concede.
“OK, but Xena, you had no right to deny me my place leading the amazons. “
“I have every right,” shouted Xena angrily. “I love you. More than life itself. And I will do everything, everything , to ensure you are kept safe. You and Lyceus mean everything to me. And if it means I stop you from fighting and you get angry and hate me, that's fine, because as long as you are safe that's all that matters.” She looked down at the floor, fearful at the reaction her outburst would bring.
“I could never hate you, Xena, “said Gabrielle quietly and Xena raised her head and looked into her green eyes. “But how do you think I feel? You are risking your life, and I sit here twiddling my thumbs. Lyceus needs us both.”
“Yes he does. But you know you are not fully fit, plus you would be a target, if not because you are queen but to distract me. I will be as careful as I can, Bri.” She moved towards Gabrielle. “I have too much to live for now-you and our son.”
Gabrielle's mouth quivered and she launched herself into Xena's arms. “I'm sorry,” she whispered as she held onto Xena.
“Me too. It all came out wrong. I just want to protect you both.”
“I know. But I can never forget I have a duty too,” said Gabrielle pulling herself away slightly.
“I know, and you have been doing it tonight. That must have been hard.”
Gabrielle nodded silently and Xena wrapped her arms around her again.
“Come on, let's have a lie down,” said Xena and led Gabrielle to their bed. They lay there for several moments in each other's arms.
“How are you feeling?” asked Gabrielle.
Xena flicked her eyes at her and then at the ceiling. “Saddened. Concerned.”
“And?” without looking Xena could feel Gabrielle staring at her and knew she was radiating anxiety.
“A part of me feels exhilarated. I can fight freely, let what's within me have its head, but it's growing smaller every battle,” Xena turned back to Gabrielle. “You know me so well.”
“Be careful, please. We need you.”
“I promise,” said Xena and she kissed Gabrielle gently on the lips and then rested her head on her shoulder, waiting for the hours to pass.
“I'm going to see what's happening,” said Gabrielle. She kissed Xena on the cheek and started to turn away from Xena's reach.
“Don't go yet,” said Xena.
Gabrielle turned sharply at the tone of the warrior's voice. It was pleading and vulnerable, and it chilled Gabrielle's blood to hear it.
“What is it?” she asked gently, and brushed the hair from Xena's face.
Xena captured her left hand and brought it to her lips and kissed it. “Just-“Xena sighed loudly.
“Tell me, Xe,” asked Gabrielle.
“The night before a battle used to be so easy. Planning, drinking,” she looked away from Gabrielle, “whoring.” Gabrielle brought her hand to Xena's face and gently brought it to face her.
“That's in the past,” she said.
“I know,” said Xena simply. “Part of me is welcoming the battle. The fight, the killing. But another part is dreading it.” She looked at the cot, and then back to Gabrielle. “I have so much to live for. And so do Ephiny, Pony and our friends. I can't forget that, now.”
“It's natural to be nervous, Xena. “
“But not for me,” said Xena, sharply. She sat up in the bed and put her head in her hands. “I haven't been this nervous before a battle, since, since Cortese.”
“Oh my love.” Gabrielle shuffled up the bed and wrapped her arms around Xena. The warrior put her head on the bard's shoulder. “You are protecting your home, your family. It is bound to bring back memories. Xena, one of the things about you I love is the way you can exude confidence-even if you are unsure of a plan, or if everything is against you. You know it generates confidence within your allies and puts your enemies on the back foot. And you do it every time. You'll do it today. The amazons will believe they can win, because you believe.”
There was silence and slowly Xena raised her head from Gabrielle's shoulder and they shared a long look.
“One of the things?” she said with a raise of her eyebrow.
Gabrielle smiled. “There may be one or two others.”
Xena laughed heartily, and then kissed Gabrielle's forehead. “Thank you. Let me check on everything, you stay here. You've not slept.”
“No,” said Gabrielle firmly. “Neither have you, and you're fighting soon.” She coughed and looked away.
“I will do everything in my power to return to you,” said Xena. She swallowed. “You know I love you two more than anything. I am not intending to leave you alone.”
“I know,” whispered Gabrielle and eased herself off the bed. She walked to the cot and looked in, and smiled as she re-covered Lyceus yet again. She then turned back to face Xena. “I'll see you shortly,” she added and then left their hut.
Xena swung her legs of the bed and sprung to her feet. She also walked to the cot and dangled her arm in it, gently stroking the little blonde head. Xena just stared at the baby lost in thought. She knew her thoughtless words had hurt Gabrielle, and in the last few hours she had thought of that as much as the impeding battle.
“I'm so glad you didn't hear them, Lye,” she said to the sleeping baby. “You are my boy-I didn't realise I could love like this again.” She smiled as a tear tracked down her cheek. “I spent so little time with Solon, but he was always in my thoughts. I feel I have a second chance,” she briefly thought of another baby, and her mother's pain, “and so does your Mummy. You'll never know how much you have healed us.” The baby rubbed his nose and kicked before settling again. Xena smiled and wiped her watery eyes. “But hopefully I'll get a chance to tell you.”
She again stroked his head but turned and looked at the table in the middle of the hut. “Good thinking, Lye,” she said jauntily and leant over to kiss him. She then went to the fire and put the water pot over it to warm water for some tea. She then sat at the table and selected a blank scroll and a quill and started to write.
When Xena emerged from their hut, despite the fact it was the middle of the night; the village was a hive of activity. She could see supplies being loaded on the horses, directed by Clonie and Lucinda, and many other women were heading into the dining hut for an extremely early breakfast. Xena scanned the area and spotted the person she was looking for.
Solari and Epinon were standing by the village centre talking quietly and holding hands. Xena approached them cautiously, but was rewarded with smiles from both women.
“Gabrielle's in Piri's hut helping with last minute packing,” said Epinon.
Xena held her hand up. “Actually it wasn't Gabrielle I was after, well not immediately.” She inhaled deeply and turned to Solari. “Sol there's something I would like you to keep for me, please,” she said quietly. She held out a scroll, tied with a red ribbon. “It's for Lyceus, if-if, I don't make it back.”
“Xena!” exclaimed Epinon. “Don't think like that.”
“I know, but it's an insurance policy.” Xena looked away, embarrassed to bare her emotions even to such close friends. “I want him to know how much I love him.”
Solari smiled as she took the offered scroll. “He'll know as you'll be around to tell him every day. But if it puts your mind at rest, of course.”
Xena turned to face them and managed a weak smile, although her friends could see the pain in her eyes.
“Thanks. I am sorry to interrupt you,” she added. “Off to find Gabrielle.” She looked up at the sky. “Be going shortly.”
Epinon nodded. “I know,” she said laced with emotion.
Xena nodded and then turned and strode to Piri's hut. Aella was an interested observer of the bustling environment. Xena went to sit on her bed and watched as the healer directed everyone efficiently and three amazons left the hut loaded with sacks.
Gabrielle smiled when she spotted Xena and joined her by Aella's bed. They exchanged no words but Xena sighed as she felt Gabrielle's gentle touch on her arm, and she lent in to the bard and gave her a kiss.
“All set,” asked Aella.
Gabrielle nodded and they were joined by a relaxed looking Piri.
“Looking cool as ever,” quipped Xena.
“It's my job,” said Piri, simply.
“How's Joxer?” asked Xena.
The healer's cool façade slipped. “Worried, concerned, willing to dress up in Amazon leathers to come with me.”
The three women laughed which relieved some of the tension that was building up with every passing moment.
“He knows I will be behind the fighting, but-“
“It's the waiting,” added Gabrielle and Aella in unison.
There was an uncomfortable silence that was finally broken by Ephiny entering the hut. She looked first at Aella and then at Gabrielle. “Moving out,” she said.
No one said anything for a moment as they digested the news. Piri was first to speak, “I must go now. Aella, Asteria will take on your care until I return.” The healer spoke with the utmost confidence and brought a smile from everyone.
“Thank you Piri, good luck,” said Aella.
Gabrielle patted Piri's arm. “Take care, Piri.”
“My Queen,” the healer replied and bowed her head, before exiting the hut.
“We'll leave you two,” said Xena, and she took Gabrielle's hand and they walked into the village square. The sky had lightened considerably and the activity had intensified within the village.
They walked to the saddled Argo, stopping by her left flank.
“Let me, Gabrielle. I will be back, my love, I promise.”
“You can't promise that,” said Gabrielle, tearily. “Just be careful, well as careful as you can. I love you.”
“And I love you too, you and Lyceus. Gabrielle, I will do everything I can to end this battle with as little bloodshed as possible.”
Gabrielle flung her arms around Xena and the warrior could feel the tears on her neck. She was determined to stay strong for them both.
“Just come back,” whispered Gabrielle. “I love you.”
They parted and Xena kissed Gabrielle on the top of her head and then mounted Argo. Gabrielle patted Argo and whispered in the palomino's ear. She then turned and walked a few paces in front of the horse.
“My sisters, I wish you Gods speed and safety. To a strong Amazon Nation,” she added, with a shaky voice.
“TO A STRONG AMAZON NATION!” came the cry.
The horses were led out first followed by the women on foot. Gabrielle held out her hand to Ephiny and then Epinon, they each touched it briefly as they passed on their horses. Their goodbyes had been said previously. As the army left the village the remaining women watched them go. Solari and a tentative, limping Aella walked to either side of Gabrielle and the trio watched the army disappear without a word.
Epinon paced up and down watched by a concerned looking Ephiny.
“Have a drink,” said the Regent.
Epinon shook her head.
“You're not still rankled you didn't go are you Pon?” asked Ephiny.
Epinon turned and gave her a disgusted look and was about to open her mouth and say something, when she spun and looked towards the woods. Ephiny stepped forward and placed her hand on Epinon's shoulder. Within moments Xena, Thea and Otere emerged through the trees.
Xena gave a weak smile, and took a long drink from the water skin thrust into her hands by Ephiny.
“Well?” asked Epinon impatiently.
“Odd,” said Thea.
“What in Hades does that mean?” said Epinon, her, temper rising.
“I know we left early, to get a good position, but I would have thought they would have taken up their position already, and reached the clearing before us,” Xena frowned. “Their scouts' bodies are gone; they know we were there, we would return and yet they haven't moved forwards.”
“We spotted a couple keeping an eye on us,” said Otere, “and they disappeared off once they saw we noticed them.”
“Xena, what do you think?” asked Ephiny.
Xena inhaled deeply. “I would love to say they are a disorganised rabble of mercenaries that don't have a clue, but they are not.” She paused and looked around. “Everything they have done has been deliberate- murdering the guards to get our attention, scouting us. I just don't know what they are up to.”
There was a long silence as the amazons considered Xena's words.
“So what next?” asked Epinon quietly.
Ephiny looked at Xena.
“This is an ideal base for Piri and Clonie. I suggest we move towards the clearing as planned. Position archers in the surrounding trees. We won't want to go any nearer than the clearing as the path narrows.”
“Ideal ambush ground,” said Ephiny nodding.
“I'll tell Piri,” said Thea, and left with Otere.
“Ready?” said Xena her eyes darting from one face to another.
The amazons both nodded, but it was Epinon that spoke. “Let's move out.”
Xena concentrated on her breathing, making sure it was even and deep. Argo was standing tall and still and Xena patted her neck. Her eyes narrowed as she watched the opposing army begin to take their position, and she looked for any sign of whose army it was. There was none.
She could hear the traditional Amazon beat being played on the drums behind her as well as the last minute preparations. She looked at Epinon who had her eyes closed and was deep in thought and Ephiny who was giving last minute instructions to a group of women. Xena smiled; she knew the women were well trained and primed, but she could only hope that they were stronger than the opposing army.
Ephiny caught her eye and nodded. “Good luck,” Xena mouthed.
“You too,” said Ephiny and mounted her horse.
The drums silenced and everyone turned to face the army. The army then advanced, and Ephiny cried,
Xena led the charge on Argo, closely followed by about twenty amazons on horses. This was equalled by the army and within moments they were engaged. Within three strokes of her blade she had her first kill. Argo pushed past the now riderless horse to another opponent and this one proved more accomplished.
By this time the ground force had rushed past and was engaging the army's men. The numbers were closely matched, as were the skills of the combatants. The sounds of cries, sword on sword and the whoosh of arrows reverberated through the forest.
Xena was concentrating hard on her opponent but heard an arrow fly towards her. She held her sword horizontal to block her opponent's thrusts and at the same time ducked down so her head was below Argo's. The arrow flew over her, and into her opponent's shoulder. He fell off his horse, yelling, and Xena moved forwards on Argo. She glanced quickly to her left, and saw Epinon had already dismounted and was fighting furiously. Beyond her Ephiny was still sitting astride her horse and was aiming her cross bow and fired accurately at an enemy's chest.
Despite looking the other way, she could sense someone moving to her right. She turned her body quickly and raised her sword just in time to block a descending sword. The wielder was a large, powerful man, and it took all Xena's strength to keep the sword from her body. She tried to push against it, but couldn't get enough purchase behind it, and her body was moving further and further backwards onto Argo. She slipped both feet from her stirrups and gently nudged Argo. The palomino walked forwards, and Xena was able to flip backwards onto the ground, and the sword descended harmlessly into air, at the exact spot where Argo and Xena had been seconds before. Xena gained her bearings before her opponent and moved quickly towards him. He managed to defend her strike and then by virtue of his lofty position was able to continue to attack, and forced Xena onto the ground with a devastatingly hard blow. In his eagerness to claim the mighty Xena's scalp, he dismounted by jumping from his horse, and Xena was waiting for him, with her sword held firm, and he was impaled on it.
Xena pulled back her sword, and he fell bonelessly to the ground. She then wiped her sweaty face with her hand and glanced around again. It was as she had thought; a very close match. Catching sight of an opposition archer, she yelled, “AIYIYIYIYI” and let fly with her chakram. Reaching out, she caught the bloodied weapon and moved to face her next opponent.
“How are you feeling?” asked Gabrielle.
Aella looked up from the weapon she was cleaning and smiled. “A bit sore,” she said, “but it is much easier.” She looked down at the dagger and rag in her lap. “But you didn't mean that, did you?”
Gabrielle slumped into a chair next to Aella. “No,” she shook her head. For a moment her lips quivered but she gave a weak smile. “Gods it's the waiting, that's so hard.”
“And keeping a brave face for everyone,” said Aella. “I don't know how you do it, Gabrielle. You are a rock.”
Gabrielle patted her arm. “It's my duty.”
“Duty or not, you have been wonderful. Where's Lyceus?”
“Having a nap. Tea?”
“No I'll do it. I need to move-“
“My Queen. My Queen,” Helia, one of the young Amazons came rushing in the hut. “You need to come.”
Gabrielle and Aella exchanged a concerned look and Gabrielle sprung up clutching her staff. With a groan Aella rose and shuffled to the door.
“Aella, you stay here,” said Gabrielle as she walked out the door.
“I'm fine,” said Aella with a grimace.
Gabrielle made her way to the centre of the village where several women were surrounding a very out of breath Agamede.
“Went…to…hunt,” said Agamede, panting. “Enemy army… is coming in.”
“Here?” said Gabrielle incredulously.
The older Amazon merely nodded.
“Oh Gods,” whispered Gabrielle, and inhaled three times quickly to try and gather her thoughts. Solari had jogged over to see what had happened.
“Louka, take all the children and hide them, everyone else grab a weapon,” Gabrielle's brain whirled as she thought of her priorities.
“Too late,” whispered Solari as the sound of hooves came louder and louder.
They all turned to face the oncoming army.
“By the Gods,” said Aella, as she limped to Gabrielle's side. “It's Teles, Aida and Okyale. ”
“I always knew I would be back,” said Teles with a wide but cold smile on her face. She dismounted her horse smoothly and stood in front of it.
“You're not having the village,” shouted Louka.
“Oh I don't want the village, “Teles said dispassionately. “It can burn for all I care. I have come for something of far more importance.” She stared at Gabrielle for a long while, and then a tall man emerged from behind Teles' horse to stand next to Teles. He gave Teles a kiss on the lips and then turned to face Gabrielle. The former Amazon slipped her arm through his.
“No,” whispered Gabrielle, shock evident on her face. “No.”
The amazons all turned to her with questioning looks on their faces. Solari put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder as she could see Gabrielle shaking.
“Hello Gabrielle. I have come for my son.”
“Lindos?” said Solari incredulously.
“My fame precedes me, I see. Bragging of our wonderful time together Gabrielle,” said Lindos.
Within moments he was flanked by Claudine one side with Teles remaining on the other. Aida and several men dismounted and stood behind them.
“We have come for my nephew. He should be with his family, us,” said Claudine.
Solari gritted her teeth and clenched her fist tightly as it dawned on her who the woman was.
“He is,” hissed Gabrielle, still shaking, but with a mixture of fear and anger. “He is with his family. He is nothing to do with you.”
“Oh Gabrielle, surely you know how babies are made,” said Claudine and gave a laugh when she saw how much the comment had stung Gabrielle.
“You have no rights to him at all,” shouted Aella.
“Ephiny's pet, let you off the leash has she, “said Aida.
“I thought we had seen the back of you, you traitor,” snarled Aella back at her.
“Well here's the thing,” said Claudine, revelling in the amazons' discomfort. “Fate brought us together. And once we heard that Gabrielle had borne Lindos' child, we had to act.”
“We thought you might not agree to use taking the boy,” said Teles, coolly. “So we arranged a little distraction for the village. Make our entrance slightly easier.” She chuckled. “After all, a few brats, elders and jumped up bards aren't any match for a god trained army.” Claudine shot her a look of disgust, and put her finger to her lips.
Gabrielle shook off Solari's restraining hand. “Ares,” she whispered. “He told you about the baby. He's been helping you.” She put her head in her hands for a moment to compose herself. She then looked up and straight at Teles. “You mean the battle, is an orchestrated distraction?”
Teles clapped her hands together slowly. “Brilliant Queen Gabrielle, what a leader you were. Yes it's amazing what men will do for a little coin, and the promise of Amazon land. The mercenaries are fighting about now, so they'll be no Xena riding in to rescue you.” Her voice became childish.
“Where is my son?” said Lindos.
There was silence.
When it became apparent no one would answer, Claudine spoke. “We will kill you all to get him,” she said.
Agamede laughed, and everyone turned to look at the Amazon elder. “That's right, my dear. You will have to kill us all to get him. The boy is with his mother. He doesn't want anything to do with scum like you.”
“What she said,” said Solari, slowly pulling her sword from the holder. The former chief scout inhaled deeply. She wore her sword as habit and had not used it since that fateful day fighting the slavers. But she was prepared to wield it now.
“If that's your attitude, so be it,” said Aida mirroring Solari's actions.
“Oh I will enjoy killing you, Gabrielle, and then Lindos and I will raise the boy together,” said Teles.
Gabrielle stepped forward holding her staff at the ready. She pushed her fear down and it was anger that was the forefront. Anger that they all had been duped, and by whom. Anger that there had been and would be many deaths. The thought that Lindos would have anything to do with Lyceus made her sick to her stomach, and it was off this anger she fed, understanding Xena's beast a little more, as she confronted Lindos and landed the first blow on his shoulder.
With that blow, the atmosphere in the village changed. The invading number immediately engaged the amazons. Aella watched as Agamede waded in brandishing her sword like the stories of her youth, and was joined by her sister Anippe. Louka and Asteria were also fighting, and Aella smiled grimly as she saw the anger on Louka's face. Many other Amazons were scrambling back to their huts to retrieve their weapons. She watched as Okyale withdrew her sword and prepared to join Solari's battle but before she could, Aella threw her knife at the former Amazon. It hit her in the face and she screamed and dropped her sword.
“Thesesis, the sword,” she yelled to a young Amazon.
Thesesis rushed forwards and before Okyale could reach for it, the younger Amazon had picked it up and impaled the former Amazon at the end of it. Thesesis withdrew the sword from Okyale's dead body and then picked up the knife and ran back to Aella.
“Go and get my bow and arrow,” said Aella, as Thesesis handed back Aella her knife. “Helia, distract them,” she shouted, and her gaze moved to the fire pit.
Helia frowned and then her face lit up in understanding. She motioned for her young friends and they ran to the fire pit and picked up stones and pieces of wood and started to throw them at the raiders.
Thesesis had returned with Aella's bow, and gave it to her. Aella immediately loaded an arrow and fired at Agamede's opponent. It skimmed his shoulder but it allowed the Amazon elder an opportunity to slash his side and then his arm. Within seconds Aella had another arrow ready and looked for Gabrielle. She could not get a clear shot at Lindos, and so she turned and fired an arrow at an enemy archer, and Aella took great pleasure when her arrow embedded in her chest, before she could let fly at her target.
Gabrielle was still fighting Lindos and was able, thanks to all the drilling she had done recently, to match him stroke for stroke. Adrenaline was still pumping through her body and she didn't feel the slash on her arm, or any aches in her hand. She continued to block Lindos' sword, and then as he tried to bring it down vertically, Gabrielle managed to hook her staff underneath it and with as much power as she could muster, rip it from his hands. The sword flew away from his grasp and Gabrielle swung her staff at his unprotected head. “You…will…never…get...Lyceus,” she said after each hit, and Lindos fell to the ground unconscious.
Claudine ran to her brother and kneeling on the ground, cradled his head in her lap. “You'll pay for this,” she hissed.
“Oh she'll pay” said a voice and Teles stepped in front of Gabrielle. “I have dreamt of this for so long.”
“I don't know whether to be honoured or disgusted,” said Gabrielle, as she raised her staff to meet Teles' descending sword.
Teles merely bared her teeth, and continued to wield her sword.
“Standards are slipping then, Teles,” said Gabrielle. She continued to match the rogue Amazon stroke for stroke, hit for hit and was even able to get a couple of strikes on her. “Your army,” Gabrielle snorted after that word, “can't beat a, what was it, bunch of brats, elders, and jumped up bards, and you are dependent on a man. Well, well, well.”
The words angered Teles and she started to strike out even more wildly. Gabrielle smiled, knowing the Amazon was vulnerable to verbal insults. She was still fighting comfortably, and knew that from the noises surrounding her, the raiders were not having it all their own way.
Suddenly the world slowed for Gabrielle. She heard Aella's voice, “Gabrielle, watch out,” and as she straightened up slightly and her eyes scanned for what the danger was, she felt a sharp pain in her leg. She could feel her leg shudder and go from under her and as she fell she saw her thigh had an arrow sticking out from it. She dropped her staff and fell to the ground and immediately reached to pull the arrow out. She sensed the light was blocked and she looked up and then saw Teles standing over her.
“Oh how I have waited for this moment,” said Teles, and kicked Gabrielle in the head. Her nose and lip gushed blood and she groaned. Teles then kneeled on the ground and held Gabrielle down with one hand. She whispered, “At the first opportunity, I am going to kill your bastard.” Gabrielle pushed up against her, but Teles merely smiled and in a swift movement dug a knife in Gabrielle's stomach.
“Ugggh,” said Gabrielle, and she slumped further forwards onto the ground. Her stomach was burning, and her head was spinning. She tried to get to her knees but she had no power in her legs, and her sight was becoming blurrier by the second. Teles was trying to reach under her and retrieve her knife so Gabrielle turned her waning energy to stopping her. She knew Teles had meant to kill her with that stab, and would not be so careless with her next one. Her right hand clutched her stomach and she could see the blood oozing through her fingers, staining her tunic as well as the ground. Her left hand dragged the knife away from Teles' grasp and under her body. But she knew from her fading eyesight, dizziness, and diminishing feeling in her legs she would not have much more energy to resist Teles.
“Horses, I hear horses,” came a shout. Gabrielle was unsure whose voice it was but she recognised Solari's as it shouted a curse. She shut her eyes; the village would fall, and Lyceus would be taken. But when she opened them she saw shock in Teles' face, and the next shout confirmed good news.
“It's those centaur freaks.”
“We need the boy,” said Claudine running to Teles' side.
At this Teles rose after shooting Gabrielle a look of disgust.
“Let's check her hut,” said Teles, and she directed Claudine to Xena and Gabrielle's hut.
“No,” whispered Gabrielle and tried to drag herself in the same direction.
Lyceus' loud cry caused everyone to cease fighting and look towards Claudine and Teles as they emerged from the hut. Claudine held the distressed baby aloft and her army cheered.
“Quick, let's go,” yelled Teles, and she ran to Lindos, and supporting him made their way to their horses.
“No,” shouted Solari and tried to block Claudine, but received an arrow to her arm and she fell to one knee.
The young amazons continued to throw rocks and sticks but their foes mounted their horses and rode in the opposite direction to the incoming centaurs and men.
Solari pulled the arrow out of her arm and ran to Gabrielle's side, and knelt by her. Aella joined her and she too knelt on the ground and turned Gabrielle onto her back and placed her head on her thighs. Solari pushed down on Gabrielle's stomach trying to step the blood that was flowing freely.
Gabrielle's eyes blinked and the amazons watched the tears track down her pale and sweaty face. She licked her lips, and opened her mouth but no noise came out, and then said in a whisper, “Lyceus.”
“We'll get him back, I promise,” said Solari.
Gabrielle nodded slightly. “Tell Xena, tell her I love her, and,” she breathed nosily and Solari and Aella exchanged an anxious glance, “they are everything to me.”
“Tell her yourself,” said Aella, her voice rising slightly in panic. She turned and saw the centaurs, and men swarm into the village and smiled as she saw several familiar figures. She turned back to Gabrielle. “There's Joxer, he'll fix you up in no time.” She comfortingly stroked the bard's blonde hair as she spoke.
Gabrielle's eyes closed and her breathing became uneven and ragged. “Stay strong Xena,” she said in barely a whisper.
“Gabrielle,” said Aella, frantically. “Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle's eyes remained shut and her chest stilled. Solari continued to press down on Gabrielle's wound with one hand and with the other shaky hand she felt for a pulse in the bard's neck.
She looked at Aella, astonishment written all over her face. “Hades, Aella, she's dead.”
Xena withdrew her sword from her opponent's stomach and looked up. The fighting was still fierce and both sides had suffered many casualties. However to Xena's trained eyes it would appear the amazons were more than holding their own. In fact Xena would even say the amazons had the edge slightly. She moved closer to where Epinon and Ephiny were fighting close to each other.
An enemy soldier approached and after parrying swords several times, she struck him with the hilt of her sword. She shivered as she remembered that this was another one of the visions that Alti had shown her, and for a moment felt a wave of panic as she remembered the final one. She was brought out of her ruminations by the sound of a loud horn blaring. Several people jumped, and within moments the enemy army retreated back about fifty yards. The amazons looked around in surprise and then at Xena, who was joined by Ephiny and Epinon.
“What the-“said Epinon, her voice trailing off. “Xena?” she added.
Xena kept her eyes fixed on the adversary army. They were facing the amazons but were drinking and eating and small groups appeared to be talking. Tactics, Xena assumed.
“I think,” she said slowly and quietly, “they are preparing for a long one.”
Ephiny sighed. “I did wonder.”
“Probably the only way they think they can win,” suggested Epinon. “Wear us down. We are about equal.”
“Agreed,” said Xena and she took the waterskin that Amarice offered her. “But still,” she frowned, “doesn't make that much sense.”
Ephiny shrugged her shoulders, and then shouted, “Get a drink, replace your weapons, and be ready in a moment.”
There were shouts of assent back to her. Xena gave her the waterskin and turned her attention back to the army. And waited for the next battle.
Aella and Solari looked at each other in disbelief. Solari had stilled, one hand lay on Gabrielle's stomach and the other just lay on her neck.
Aella shook her head violently. “No, no, no,” she said, her voice laced with anger.
She shuffled backwards, the pain in her side forgotten and laid Gabrielle's head on the ground.
“You did it once, do it again,” she shouted at Gabrielle and lowered her face onto Gabrielle's and blew into her mouth twice. “Breath damn you, breath,” she yelled.
“What are you doing?” said Solari sharply, as Aella struck Gabrielle's chest with her fist. She caught Aella's hand and her friend turned to face her.
“Something Eph said. It was how Xena saved Gabrielle in Thessaly .”
Solari let go of her hand. “Yes! I remember Hippocrates saying something about it. What do you want me to do?”
Aella struck Gabrielle again. “Do this after I blow in her again,” said Aella, and did just that.
Solari struck Gabrielle twice, and Aella breathed in her again and Solari repeated the motion. To their joy they saw Gabrielle's chest rise slightly. Aella felt Gabrielle's neck again and smiled widely.
“Thank the Gods,” she said.
“And you,” said Solari and twisted around. “Joxer, fantastic,” she added as she spotted the healer.
“Joxer!” she yelled and motioned with her arm.
Joxer ran to her side and dropped to his knees. His eyes widened as he saw Gabrielle and the extent of her injuries.
“Oh no,” he said with a groan.
“Herc, I need you,” he twisted his body and yelled. He put his hand in his bag and brought out a handful of rags. He then pressed them down onto Gabrielle's wound.
Hercules jogged to them and when he saw Gabrielle the shock was evident on his face.
“I need to get her to the medical hut,” said Joxer, simply.
Hercules nodded and knelt down and slid his arms under her, lifting her up in a fluid movement. Joxer walked along side them his hands pushing down on the rags.
Solari jumped up and helped to hoist Aella up. They exchanged a grim smile and then looked around the village. There were several bodies lying on the ground and with a pang, Solari knew some were Amazons. Aella tapped her on the arm and they walked to where Asteria was tending Anippe. The elder was grimacing as Asteria tried to stem the bleeding from her wounds.
“The Queen?” asked Anippe.
“Alive. Just,” said Aella quietly. Her eyes were drawn to the lifeless body of Agamede lying a few feet away.
“I'm sorry about Agamede,” she added.
Anippe coughed and grimaced. “She went out fighting like the true Amazon legend she was. Look at her face-contentment.” They looked at Agamede's features and sighed.
“Its how we wanted to go,” Anippe said and her eyes closed. Asteria looked up and shook her head. She carefully laid the elder down and stood up next to Solari and Aella.
“How many?” asked Aella?
“Not sure yet,” said Asteria. “What next?”
Tyldus and Iolaus joined them before either Solari or Aella could speak. The blond hunter gave them both a warm hug. “I know about Gabrielle and Lyceus,” he said in an anguished voice.
“We are at your disposal,” said Tyldus.
“How did you know to come?” asked Asteria.
“Joxer,” said the centaur, simply. “He was at home, and saw them go past. He was pretty sure they weren't a welcoming committee.”
“Remind me to thank him,” said Solari. There was a long silence before Solari spoke again. “The battle is a rouse. To ensure they got Lyceus easier,” Solari stumbled over the baby's name.
“Do you know who it was?” said Hercules as he joined the group. He placed his hand comfortingly on Iolaus' shoulder. “Dax and Theo are assisting Joxer.”
“Claudine, Lindos and some of the Amazons we banished in the incident with Alti,” said Aella.
Iolaus shuddered when he heard the names, and Hercules pulled him closer.
“By the gods,” said Tyldus. “We need to go after them.”
There were nods all around. “We also need to stop the phoney battle,” said Solari. “And treat wounds and clean up here.”
“Well we can help with the fighting,” said Tyldus. “I am sure with reinforcements we can-“
“I have a better idea that will stop the battle even quicker,” said Hercules. “The army were mercenaries right?”
The amazons nodded.
Hercules smiled broadly. “Just need to swing by the centaur camp and pick something up and then we can head to the battle.”
“I'll show you a short cut,” said Aella.
“Aella, you can't, you are injured,” exclaimed Solari.
“I have to,” said Aella. “Besides Xena need to know what has happened.”
Solari shut her eyes, and nodded. “Asteria clean and dress Miss Blockhead's wounds before she goes.” Aella smiled at her friend and took her hand and grasped it.
“Ok but we'll send about half with you. Just in case. The rest of us will stay here and help.”
“Thank you Tyldus, this place is a disaster area, we'll need the help” said Aella gratefully, and she and Asteria walked to the healer's hut.
“You need to get cleaned up too,” said Iolaus to Solari. The Amazon was lost in thought.
“Sorry, what?” she said.
“Get cleaned up, “said Iolaus.
“We need to track them. So when we get the army back they can follow and get Lyceus back.” She looked at Iolaus and he gave a slight nod.
“Solari you are not thinking-“
“Yes,” the dark haired Amazon said. “I am the best scout here, even with my sight problems.” She paused and looked at the ground. “I have to do something.”
Iolaus and Hercules exchanged a glance. “Ok you two go, but get that wound seen to first, and prepare carefully.”
“I'll remain here,” said Tyldus, “and direct things.” The centaur blushed. “I didn't mean I should take charge.” He became flustered much to Solari's amusement.
“Thank you Tyldus. That is perfect; we can do with your organisational skills here. I just want to check on everything before I go…and Gabrielle,” she added.
“Come on, we'll come too, “said Hercules and took the Amazon's arm and headed towards the healer's hut.
Solari gave an unhappy sigh as she entered the hut. It was a frantic hive of activity as injured amazons were being carried and helped in. She saw Aella being tended by Asteria who had finished binding her wound. Solari approached her and they clasped each other's hand.
“We lost six,” said Aella simply “Gabrielle's the worst of the injured.”
“Any kids?” asked Solari.
Aella shook her head and puffed out her cheeks. “No thank the Gods. It was mainly the elders.” She looked rueful, “Their last hurrah.”
Solari withdrew her hand and then gave her friend a hug. “Take care of yourself, Aella.”
“What are you doing?” said Aella her eyes narrowing, recognising the note of farewell from Solari.
Iolaus approached carrying supplies to treat Solari's arrow wound. “We're tracking Lyceus.”
Aella looked at Solari for a long time and nodded, knowing that not only was her friend stubborn but she was the best tracker within the village at present.
“Iolaus, just wait a moment, I want to see Gabrielle first,” said Solari.
The blond man nodded and Aella also rose with Solari's assistance. The three of them approached the bed where Gabrielle was being tended to by Joxer and Dax and Hercules was standing watching silently from a few feet away. They stood by him and watched Dax desperately trying to stem the flow of blood and Joxer suture the layers of flesh.
Joxer glanced up, and they could see the concern written all over his face.
“Joxer?” asked Hercules quietly.
“I'm doing my best,” he said defensively, looking downwards again.
“We know,” said Solari, soothingly.
Joxer took a deep breath in. “I am surprised she's lasted this long,” he said.
Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a look of panic.
“She didn't,” said Solari. “She died. Aella brought her back, like Xena did in Thessaly ”.
Joxer looked at Aella, as did the other men. “Thank you,” said the healer in a choked voice. “I just want to keep her alive until Piri arrives.”
“Don't sell yourself short, Joxer, you have done a fine job,” said Dax, his voice booming so the whole hut could hear.
There were murmurs of assent and Joxer's ears went red as he carried on his work.
Solari swallowed and stepped forwards and turned to face away from where Joxer and Dax were working towards Gabrielle. She stroked Gabrielle's hair. “I will do everything I can to get your son back,” she said hoarsely. “Keep fighting Gab, please.” As she stepped backwards, Aella joined her.
“Xena will be here soon, so you had better be up and fit, my Queen, or she'll kick butt.” The smile quickly fell from her face, and she squeezed Gabrielle's hand. “Stay with us.”
Both Amazons turned to go-Aella shuffled towards the door and Solari walked to a vacant chair and slumped into it. Within moments she was joined by Iolaus, and he started to dress her wound without a word. It was only when he felt a splash of water on his arm that he realised Solari was crying silently. Once he had cleaned and bound her wound he wrapped his arms around her in a warm hug.
Aella tried to focus on anything else but the pain she was feeling. Despite the foul-tasting mixture Joxer had forced her to drink and Hercules careful manoeuvring of the horse they were on, Aella bit down continuously on her lip to stop the cry of pain. Piri had given her a stern lecture before Aella could explain exactly what had occurred. Once she knew what the situation was, the healer still rebuked Aella mildly, but Aella did not argue. The healer was obviously shocked by the events, and her and her team, aided by several men and centaurs, started to pack up and move towards the Amazon village.
Aella and her group were now approaching the battle. As ideas go, Hercules' one was a good one to cease the fighting. If it didn't work, Aella truly hoped that the mercenaries seeing the fresh and angry centaurs and men would think twice about continuing on with the battle. Aella also had little doubt that when the amazons heard about the shocking events in the village they would be invigorated.
Xena was parrying with an opponent when she heard the approach of more horses. And centaurs, she thought, although could not be sure until she turned around to check. Realising her opponent was tiring, she tempted him into a lunge and as he left his right side exposed, she kicked it hard. The man fell back, and another kick, this time to the head, rendered him unconscious. A quick look left and right ensured that she was in no immediate danger and so she stepped backwards and turned around.
She was truly stunned with what she saw. Aella was being assisted off a horse by Hercules and there were tens of centaurs and men standing waiting with weapons at the ready. She was not the only one that noticed; several of the opponents were watching warily and the fighting lost it's urgency as amazons and mercenaries alike looked around bewildered at the newest arrivals.
Xena caught sight of Ephiny as Amarice tapped her on the shoulder and pointed towards Aella. The regent turned and looked and her face went from surprise, to anger in a matter of seconds and she started to stride towards her partner, her face a picture of uncontained fury. Xena looked at Epinon who was behind Ephiny, and the weapons master shrugged her shoulders. Xena walked and joined Epinon and there was a surprising hush over the battlefield. The mercenaries had stepped backwards, taking their wounded, but keeping their eyes fixed on the new arrivals. The hush was broken by Ephiny's angry shouts.
“What in Artemis name are you doing here?” She was now standing a few feet from Aella who was looking very pale and was supported by Hercules.
“And what are centaurs doing here?”
Aella closed her eyes and concentrated on regulating her breathing. She felt Hercules squeeze her shoulder and opened her eyes and looked at his concerned face. He reached in to the saddle bag and pulled out a handful of coin, and moved forward. Ephiny's expression softened and she moved next to Aella and helped to support her.
“Oh Eph,” she said in a tone laced in pain. She did not say anything more, but concentrated on Hercules.
“We know why you are here,” said the Demi-God in a loud voice. “You have achieved your goal,” he added bitterly. There were murmurs of surprise from the Amazons and of excitement and triumph from the mercenaries' leaders. “Now finish your fighting, leave the land.”
“NO!” came a shout. “We were promised the bitches land.”
“You have two choices,” said Hercules over the chatter. “One, you can continue fighting but now you will fight us too. Your argument is with the centaur village as allies of the amazons.”
“OR?” a man shouted.
Hercules smiled, and hoped that the sight of many centaurs and men primed for battle would make the mercenaries prefer the second option.
“My brother is King Iphicles. I have gold from him. Leave the land now, and I will distribute this to you all fairly.” He threw the handful of coins towards the mercenaries and they scrambled around to pick up the gold coins.
While this was happening Xena turned to face Hercules and Aella. Aella was now sitting on the ground, pale faced, with Ephiny sitting next to her with one arm around her back supporting the heavy breathing Amazon and the other holding a waterskin out for her.
“What is going on?” growled Xena to Hercules.
The Demi-God held out his hand in a quietening gesture and turned his attention towards the opposing army.
“Well?” he shouted.
“Gold seems good,” said one of the men.
“We were promised a great deal,” said a man who stepped forward and appeared to be in cleaner, smarter clothes.
Hercules guessed he was one of the generals, and this was confirmed when one of the men shouted, “You might have been, but we have only seen a little coin so far.” He bit into the golden coin he held in his hand. “Besides this is here and now. We have been promised the other stuff-you reckon we will get it?”
There were murmurs of agreement again from most of the men, although there were a few dissenting voices.
“What about the land?” cried one?
“I want to beat those freaks, show them women shouldn't be fighting,” shouted another.
Some of the amazons started forward, angered at this, but Epinon said, “Amazons, hold your ground.” They stopped and merely stared at the army.
Vassilius stepped forward and stood next to Hercules, his tail stilled as he spoke. “Of course you could fight on, but could you beat the Amazons and us?” he said and shrugged his shoulders and looked thoughtful. “Then of course you would have to deal with us as neighbours-knowing what you did and why you did it, the fact you have killed many of our friends and family.” He smiled and then clapped his hands together loudly. “Still up for it?”
“What did they do?” asked Ephiny to Aella?
Aella merely shook her head and tried to hold back the tears of pain, anger and frustration.
The man who bit the coin stepped forward. “I want to take the coin. Better to leave with my life-“he said no more as an arrow tore through his back sending him forward onto the ground. Within the seconds the archer too lay dead on the ground, stabbed by one of his own army members.
“THIS ENDS NOW!” shouted Hercules, now irritated. “Take the coin or prepare to fight.” The centaurs moved menacingly closer.
The general sighed, and turned to face his army. “We have achieved what we set out to do. We will get paid, maybe twice. Anyone who wants to stay and fight may, but I am not one of them.”
Several men stepped forward immediately and as the numbers grew, and the more reluctant ones realised just how out numbered they would be, they stepped forward until they were all agreed.
“Finally,” said Hercules, and exhaled a long breath. He turned to Ephiny. I would suggest that the men and centaurs escort them off your land as well as whomever you can spare.”
Ephiny looked at Epinon who nodded. “Sounds good. We can leave a heavy presence there, just in case. Pony, will you-“
Vassilus interrupted her. “You both may be needed at the village,” he said, and looked at Hercules suddenly embarrassed at his interruption and boldness.
Xena, Epinon and Ephiny all turned to look at him with questioning eyes.
Hercules merely nodded.
A slightly shocked Epinon frowned and then turned away. She spoke to several amazons and within moments a squad had been assembled. Hercules passed the bags over to Vassilus and Sotiros and within moments the army were trudging away followed by the large contingent of amazons, men and centaurs.
“Now,” said Xena her voice icy, “tell us what has been going on.”
Hercules suddenly looked very weary and he ran his hand through his hair. Aella started to push herself up, and aided by Ephiny and Epinon she joined Hercules.
“OK?” he asked her.
She nodded and then inhaled deeply. “This fight, this battle it is a diversion.”
“What?” said Epinon? “Who? Why?”
Aella smiled weakly and spoke slowly, her discomfort evident to all around her. “This battle drew most of the fighting force away from the village,” she looked straight at Xena, who was suddenly feeling very uncomfortable. All the things started to fall into place.
“So that's what the breaks were for-wasting more time. And why they didn't advance-the longer we took to get here the better.” Xena looked at Hercules and then Aella. “What did they want from the village?”
Aella's face crumbled for a moment before she regained her composure. Xena's heart started to race and her mouth went dry.
“Not what, who,” said Aella, and turned to face Xena with tears rolling down her face. “Lyceus.”
Xena stared at Aella while the implications hit her. Her jaw tightened and she clenched her fists tightly. Her head swam with images of Lyceus, but she tried to focus on Aella.
“Who did all this?” whispered Ephiny appalled.
“Lindos and Claudine,” said Hercules. “They took him.”
Xena felt her legs wobble but her quick reflexes saved her from falling. She wanted to scream but her mouth was too dry even to utter a single word. She vaguely heard Epinon curse loudly and then her name was being repeated. She focused on a concerned looking Hercules.
“Gabrielle was injured defending-“
Xena never heard what else Hercules said as she bolted towards where Lucinda was tending the horses. She snatched Argo's reins and pulled her away from the other horses. She mounted Argo with a flying leap and dug her heels into the palomino encouraging the horse to hasten towards the Amazon village as fast as they could.
Epinon watched Xena depart and resisted the urge to run straight after her. She turned and stared at Aella. There was one question burning in her mind.
Aella swallowed. “An arrow wound to her arm, but she's fine.” She exchanged a glance with Hercules. “She and Iolaus are tracking Lindos.”
Epinon cursed loudly, and then launched in to an angry tirade, “Of all the stupid things. AELLA! What were you thinking of letting her go? For the love of-“
“Epinon.” The name was said as a rebuke, and Epinon stopped and looked at Aella. She looked so drained and despondent and her eyes were full of pain. She was leaning heavily on Hercules and Ephiny and was in obvious discomfort. Epinon felt chastised by her reaction-it had obviously been a horrifying experience at the village, and Aella had ridden in pain to break the sickening news of what had happened to them all.
“Sorry,” she said and lowered her head.
“Solari offered,” said Hercules. “You should be proud of her Epinon.”
“I am,” said Epinon and smiled weakly.
“What about Gabrielle?” asked Ephiny, concerned about her dear friend.
Aella closed her eyes and sighed.
“Not good, she was run through.”
There were gasps from everyone who heard.
“Is she-“began Amarice?
“Still alive. Just.” Said Hercules. He gave Aella a sly look. “Aella and Solari saved her life. She died, they brought her back.”
Ephiny clutched Aella's shoulder with tears in her eyes. “We need to re-group.”
Hercules nodded. “We need to get back to the village, and then chase those bastards down.”
It was so unlike the Demi-God to show such levels of anger, that the amazons realised the depth of his rage.
“Let's get going,” said Epinon and the amazons began to clear the battlefield.
Argo flew into the village causing several people to move quickly out of the palomino's path. Xena directed her to their hut and before the horse even stopped she leapt off. She ran into their hut, through the open door and her eyes scanned the inside. There was little out of place, no signs of a struggle or disturbance. She ran towards the cot and then her world came crashing down. Blankie was draped carelessly over the side of the cot, but it was the sight of Hoss lying alone on the mattress that caused Xena to close her eyes. Everyone who knew Lyceus knew how much that stuffed toy meant to him. He never went anywhere without it, and Athena had even given Gabrielle a spare “just in case”.
Xena picked up Hoss and slid to the floor, hugging the toy to her chest. Hearing that Lyceus was gone didn't prepare her for the utter agony of seeing it for herself. The child she loved like her own, who she thought of as her own, had been snatched by the person that Xena had feared all along would come between them one day; His father.
Xena's thoughts turned to Gabrielle. What agony she must have gone through; knowing that Lindos wanted their son. She clutched Hoss even tighter. Xena knew she would gladly lay down her life to protect Lyceus and Gabrielle would do the same. She could not imagine Gabrielle letting Lindos leave with Lyceus unless she was in no position to stop him. She wondered with a sense of trepidation whether Gabrielle was alive or not and wearily pushed herself up from the floor and after picking up Blankie headed towards the door.
She walked into Piri's hut fearfully. It was still a hive of activity, although somewhat calmer than previously. Xena's eyes became glued on a bed by the window and she slowly walked to it and slumped into the adjacent chair.
The pale and sweaty face was identical to the face in her vision, and one glance told her that Gabrielle was seriously ill. She stroked the blonde hair, and then stilled just staring at Gabrielle. This was her Tartarus. She knew that now, the pain of the cross was nothing compared to the pain and loss she felt now. Too many times she had sat by Gabrielle's bedside willing her to recover; Thessaly, Athens , here after the torture and giving birth. She wondered if this was to be the last time, if this would prove too much for the bard to recover from.
Xena wondered too for the first time in her life if she had enough fight left. She could feel no anger or horror like after her brother or son's deaths, only the sense of loss that burned through her so much that it consumed every other emotion. Yesterday she had a family and they frolicked happily in the water, and shared a wonderful day. Today that family was ripped apart and Xena feared it would never be the same again.
She felt Joxer's hand on her shoulder and looked into the concerned brown eyes of her good friend.
“I did what I could, Xena. I don't know if you want to look at her wounds,” he said.
Xena shook her head. She doubted in this state whether she would be of any use as a healer and found she had no appetite to see Gabrielle's injuries, which surprised her.
It surprised Joxer too when she shook her head. “Piri will be here soon,” he said with relief, and went to see another patient. Xena turned back to look at Gabrielle and cupped her face with her hand. She stroked the bard's face with her thumb, and leant her head against the window. The breeze through the curtain felt cool on her face, and she shut her eyes, weariness taking over. Her body felt so heavy and drained that she stayed like this until Piri returned.
“She hasn't moved, just sat there,” said Joxer to his wife.
Piri nodded. “Jay you have been amazing.”
The warrior-turned-healer shook his head. “Gods, Piri, I did what I could but-“he blew his cheeks out and hugged Piri tighter, “I don't know if it was enough, especially for Gabrielle.”
“Go get something to eat-I am speaking as your wife and chief healer.”
Joxer grinned. “I will, it's just-“his eyes fixed on Xena. “I'm worried about them both.”
“Go,” chided Piri. “Regent Ephiny and Hercules will be back shortly. You can update them.”
Joxer sighed. “I'll be back soon, love.” He kissed Piri on the lips and reluctantly let her go and walked slowly out of the hut.
Piri inhaled deeply and strode towards Xena. She remembered seeing Xena broken after returning to tell Ephiny about Gabrielle's plunge into the lava pit, but this Xena looked even more distraught. The bronzed skin had paled and Piri swore that the large frame had reduced in size, so that Xena looked almost frail. Piri mentally shook herself at that thought and for a moment thought it fantastical, but looking again, she knew she had not exaggerated the scale of the warrior's distress. There was a sense of melancholy that was almost palpable radiating from the warrior and her immediate concern even as she approached the bed where her queen lay critically injured was for Xena.
She drew up a chair and pulled it so she was sitting so close to Xena their knees were touching. Xena looked at her lazily, sighed and straightened up. One hand remained stroking Gabrielle's face at all time, and the other clutched Hoss to her chest.
“Xena, I am so sorry about Lyceus.”
Xena swallowed and cast her eyes towards Gabrielle, tensing her jaw.
“Solari and Iolaus will track him,” said the healer with more confidence than she felt. “And the centaurs have offered all kinds of help. Lindos and his sister's army will be over powered, and he'll be back with you both in no time.”
Xena looked at Piri wordlessly and the healer felt unnerved by the warrior's silence. Yes she was used to warriors' reticence, she was surrounded by them for Artemis sake, but the lack of anger and passion from the Warrior Princess was positively unnatural.
“Xena, I want to check the Queen's wounds, Joxer is anxious about them.” Piri stood up and dipped her hands into a bowl of clean, cool water, shook them and approached the bed. She looked at an unmoving Xena; shocked that she didn't have to argue as usual with just who was providing Gabrielle's care. But a glance at Xena's hand that was stroking Gabrielle's face showed her one of the reasons why; it was shaking.
Piri gently removed the bandages, but her hands stilled when she saw the extent of the wound. Her eyes closed. She had been told what Solari and Aella did-bring Gabrielle back from the brink of death, but she wondered if they had only delayed the inevitable. Gabrielle's wounds were severe; added to the loss of Lyceus as well as the warrior's sad mood-her force of will had practically dragged Gabrielle back from Hades Realm after giving birth to Lyceus-she wondered if the Queen would have enough strength to pull through.
She wrapped the bandages and then turned to look at Xena. The warrior's eyes were fixed on Gabrielle and they were full of tears. Piri had no need to verbalise her findings, she merely laid her hand on Xena's shoulder, and said with hurt dripping from every word, “I'm so sorry Xena.”
Xena had no idea how long she sat staring at Gabrielle. Time had lost all meaning. A tiny part of her willed herself to delve deep within herself and feel something; anger, fury, rage. But she didn't have the energy to do it, and all felt was numbness and the huge sense of loss that totally enveloped her. Her thoughts were woolly and unstructured rather than sharp as customary. She didn't hear Epinon approach and jumped slightly as the Amazon laid her hand on her thigh and crouched next to her.
“Any change?” she asked with concern.
Xena said nothing but shook her head gently. Epinon patted her leg and rose up. She leant over and took Gabrielle's hand and squeezed it and then turned and walked to where Ephiny and Hercules were talking with Piri.
“So that's the latest on the casualties,” said Piri, sadly. “What is next for you?”
Ephiny glanced at Xena and Gabrielle. “We were just going to grab a quick bite. When everyone returns we will meet and plan our next move. I imagine a group will head out at dawn.” She looked outside, at the faded light. “No point moving before then.”
“We thought we might take Xena with us to have something to eat,” said Hercules.
Piri shrugged. “You can try. I am not sure where she is at the moment. She hasn't spoken, barely acknowledges anyone.”
“I've never seen her like this,” said Epinon.
“Having your son kidnapped and being told your partner may not last the night will do that to you,” said Piri, more sharply than she meant to. She sighed, “I'm sorry.”
Ephiny patted the healer's back in understanding. “Go try, Epinon. She will need a friend now.”
Epinon smiled weakly and approached Xena again. Again she crouched down next to the warrior. “Xena, come for a bite to eat with us, we won't be long.”
Xena looked blankly at her and for a moment Epinon thought she had not comprehended her. Then the dark haired head nodded slightly and she rose, still clutching Hoss.
“Good girl,” said Epinon and gently tugged her hand. Epinon's eyes widened when she realised what she said and done but Xena obediently followed her, docilely having her hand held. Epinon took her to Ephiny and Aella's hut where the latter was already sitting down at a table covered in food.
There was an awkward silence and everyone sat around the table and started to help themselves to the meat and bread that was on offer. Apart from Xena who sat staring ahead.
“You need to eat,” encouraged Hercules.
There was no reaction from Xena who remained motionless. There were anxious looks exchanged between Hercules, Epinon and Ephiny.
“”Stay strong Xena,”” said Aella quietly. A pause. “Those were her last words.”
Xena breathed in deeply. Those words finally pierced a hole in the numbness and lethargy that had encompassed her, and she was beginning to feel a myriad of emotions. Painfully slowly Xena turned her head towards Aella. Hercules, Ephiny and Epinon were motionless as they watched the pair.
“She said “Lyceus”, and Sol promised we would do everything we could to get him back,” Aella bit her lip and tried to hold back the tears, “and then she said to tell you she loved you and the both of you were her life.”
There was silence. It was broken by Xena reaching for a waterskin and taking a long drink from it. When she finished she reached for a piece of bread and then turned to face Aella. Her eyes had lost their faded, expressionless look and instead burned bright with anger. Xena sat up straight in the chair, and Hercules immediately thought of a scorpion uncurling its tail before cornering its prey.
“Tell me everything,” Xena growled in a commanding voice.
Aella nodded and inhaled deeply. Ephiny put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“We didn't have any time to man and defences, evacuate anyone out,” she began. “Before we knew it they had ridden in; Teles and Aida were there.”
Epinon immediately stiffened. “The bitches”, she whispered.
Aella smiled briefly but it soon dropped from her face and she flicked her eyes at Xena who sitting watching her intently.
“Then Lindos stepped forward and asked for Lyceus.”
Xena didn't flinch but kept on staring at Aella. The Amazon took a long drink and then turned to face Epinon. “Claudine stepped forward too,” she whispered.
Epinon jumped up immediately and walked to a wall and leant on it resting her head on her arms. She knew that Claudine was there but the thought of that woman so close to Solari made her skin crawl. Aella watched her for a long moment and then looked at the three seated around the table.
“Everyone stood firm, in fact Agamade said they would have to kill all of us-“Aella broke off and wiped her eyes. Ephiny gently massaged her shoulders, and Hercules reached across and patted her hand. But it was Xena who had the biggest affect. The warrior princess said simply, “Thank you, Aella,” in a pained voice that made Aella look up into the blue eyes. They were still radiating extreme anger but Aella could also see fear in them.
“Agamade and her sister died,” she said quietly. “Went down like true heroes.” She looked at Xena. “And Gabrielle, Xena she fought like a woman possessed.”
Xena nodded, emotion robbing her of the ability to speak for a moment. She knew what would have happened-she could have predicted it.
Aella was continuing. “She soon took out Lindos-he'll have a nasty headache-and then Teles stepped up. They fought bitterly,” Aella stopped struggling with herself before looking at Ephiny, “I tried to get a shot in, but I couldn't safely.”
Ephiny hugged her and whispered comforting words. She could see Aella felt guilty about this.
Finally Xena could speak. “Teles was the one that-“she couldn't bring herself to say run through. “Gabrielle just wasn't fit enough, Aella. You're not the-“
“NO!” said Aella sharply. “It wasn't like that. Gabrielle was more than holding her own, Xena. She would have fought off anyone. It was…The archer targeted her. Shot her in the thigh. She fell and then Teles…” her voice drifted off.
Epinon spun around and everyone stared at Xena waiting for her reaction. Xena looked around at her friends before staring at Aella. “So you mean to tell me that the only way they could stop Gabrielle from protecting Lyceus was to gang up on her?”
Xena gave a fleetingly proud smile before nodding.
Aella continued, “As Gabrielle fell, we heard horses. I have to say my heart dropped.” She looked at Hercules and smiled. “But thank the Gods it was the centaurs.”
“How did you know?” said Ephiny to Hercules.
“Joxer,” said Hercules. “He saw the army pass and raised the alarm and we headed there immediately.” The demi God looked uncomfortable. “But it was too late. As we rode in, they went out-with Lyceus.”
There was silence and Xena was once more alone with her thoughts of Gabrielle and Lyceus. She felt Epinon's hand on her shoulder as the Weapons Master came back to her chair.
“There is something else,” said Hercules. He looked at Aella who was looking uncomfortable. He wondered if her reticent of sharing it was her own modesty or wanting to spare Xena from further pain.
Xena stared at him and then around the table suddenly aware that she was the only one left out of the loop. “What?” she said sharply. She noticed that Aella was looking intensely at the table and everyone else's eyes bored into her.
There was a long silence and Xena was about to repeat herself even more gruffly when Aella said quietly, “Gabrielle died.”
Xena went cold. She had seen Gabrielle barely alive in the medical hut, but her brain whirled around trying to understand the two words that Aella just spoke.
“I-I remembered what Eph said about how you saved her-in Thessaly .” Aella looked up “Solari helped and we-we blew into her and hit her.” Aella gave a weak smile. “She started breathing again-like a miracle.”
Xena closed her eyes and for a moment she was taken back to that day in the temple, totally frenzied in her efforts to save the life of someone who was becoming the most important person in her life. The fear, panic and then unbelievable joy when Gabrielle took that breath of life. She opened her eyes and looked straight into Aella's and they shared a look of understanding.
Epinon was shuffling uneasily about in her chair, and Xena turned to look at her friend. She looked extremely distressed and Xena knew what the main cause was.
“Ask,” said Xena quietly.
Epinon nodded. “Aella, did Solari meet Claudine?”
Aella paused. “Sol saw her, knew who she was. But Claudine didn't know Sol. Once the fighting started I don't think they were close to each other.”
Epinon nodded, looking slightly more relieved.
“So what's next?” asked Xena, finally? She wanted to get back to Gabrielle, and to explain and apologise to her for her behaviour.
“Just waiting for people to return and then we will hold a meeting,” said Ephiny. “Set off first light to follow them. With Solari and Iolaus tracking we should-“
“If Ares is involved they could be anywhere,” said Xena quietly. “People should know that before volunteering. It could take a long time.” She closed her eyes. The thought that that Lyceus would be hidden from her, and grow up without her and Gabrielle was appalling but real. She could hear Hercules talking and tuned into what he was saying.
“If Ares is involved, we can get some help too,” said Hercules firmly. “My, our” he corrected himself looking at Xena, “family would be able to help us too.”
“Have you asked?” said Ephiny shyly. She was beginning to get used to Gods and Goddess dropping in, but it still was bemusing all the same.
“Yes, my mother,” whispered Xena in anguish. “But nothing.”
“All my lives I have had God's interference and I still don't know when they can help or when they can't.” He turned to look at Xena. “But I do know that Athena will do everything in her power to help you; even if we aren't aware of it.”
“I know,” said Xena nodding. “I'm going to see Gabrielle,” she said rising. “Thank you for everything.”
Her friends merely smiled. “And I'd like to attend the meeting.”
“Sure Xena,” said Ephiny and they all watched the warrior princess exit the door still clutching the toy horse.
Iolaus watched as Solari fashioned the twigs into an arrow with ease and familiarity. He held the waterskin and once she had mounted handed it to her.
“Thanks,” she said, and took a long drink and then hooked it on her saddle. They both kicked their horses and they continued on their way.
“A couple of hours,” said Solari before Iolaus could open his mouth and speak.
He grinned. “I'm that predictable,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Solari with a laugh. “It means we aren't losing time on them.”
“I would have thought they would slow-I mean there are more of them and carrying an infant.” Iolaus didn't want to think of Lyceus being carried off screaming and scared by the people who had injured and tortured him.
“We can hope,” said Solari and focused on the ground.
Iolaus watched her in silence as she shook her head and looked down again. When she repeated the gesture and then looked up to the trees, he lent over and pulled her horses' reins and they both came to a halt.
“What is it? Is it your eyes?”
Solari said nothing for long moment and then turned to Iolaus with excitement on her face.
“These past few months, with this injury, I kept on thinking what a curse it was, why me, and generally being full of self pity.”
Iolaus interrupted. “No more than me, or Gabby.”
Solari snorted. “But now I realise it has meant I am right here, right now.”
Iolaus looked confused.
“If I hadn't been injured I would have gone to fight the army today. I wouldn't have met Claudine.”
“And that's good how?” snapped Iolaus.
“Because I was tormented by the thought of her and Pony. And seeing her, I realise the only way she had Pony was because of the chalice. I know that's what everyone said but now I have seen her I believe it.”
Iolaus was silent considering her words. “And if I wasn't in the village I wouldn't have been there to help Aella save Gabrielle. Granted someone else may have, but I did it. And I am here; tracking. I am the best tracker in the village. Without my injury I wouldn't have been there and here.”
“Solari, I'm not sure what-“
“Oh Iolaus, I am sorry I should have said. I have finally accepted this.” She pointed to her eyes. “And by accepting it, I can see things differently, figuratively speaking.”
“Ah, congratulations,” said Iolaus finally understanding.
“You and Gabrielle both accepted the changes in your lives, and I finally appreciate how difficult it was for you. But now I accept things are different and it's ok. Really.” Solari smiled at Iolaus.
The blonde man looked away and then back to the Amazon. “Feels good doesn't it?”
“Like a weight has been lifted.”
“Good, come on lets use that new found weight loss!”
Solari grinned and they kicked their horses on.
Xena entered the medical hut and saw that it was still busy, although there were definitely less people milling about. She made a point of brushing Piri's shoulder and the healer looked up at her. Their eyes locked and the healer gave a subtle smile and patted Xena's arm. Xena then turned to find Gabrielle and saw Joxer sitting by her.
Xena smiled at the sight. Joxer, a friend like no other, certainly, but a friend who had been there through some distressing times as well as happier ones. She was so pleased that he had found happiness with Piri, found his calling in life and that he was a major part of her family. Xena thought back to the fireside when she had declared to Gabrielle that if anything would happen to Hercules, her mother and Gabrielle…Xena closed her eyes; she had made that promise to a young, naïve, Gabrielle neither of them appreciating the difficulty of the request. She knew that the list of names would be longer now, and it would undoubtedly include Joxer.
She moved quietly to Joxer's side and he looked up.
“Thank you,” said Xena with true feeling.
Joxer nodded and rose from the chair and found himself in a massive bear hug. “Thank you,” she whispered again and they parted and both looked down at the prone figure. Xena saw Gabrielle's pale face was covered in a sheen of sweat. Her breathing was still shallow; she hadn't worsened but not improved either.
“Joxer do you think you could get me some water please? I'd like to wash her,” said Xena, not tearing her eyes away from Gabrielle.
“Of course,” said Joxer, and he moved to go but felt Xena's hand on his arm. “What you did Joxer, I really can't thank you enough,” said Xena.
Joxer swallowed. “I hope it was enough,” he replied and finally moved off to get Xena a bowl of water and cloth.
Xena sunk onto the bed, placed Hoss in the crook of Gabrielle's elbow, and gradually traced her fingers around Gabrielle's face. “Thank you for being so patient,” began Xena. This time there were no tears, just steely determination. “I underestimated you; again,” Xena gave a chuckle. “You kicked butt-every Amazon who saw you fight was impressed.” Xena sighed and then nodded in appreciation as Joxer left a bowl of water on the chair he had been sitting on. Xena picked up a cloth, dipped it into the water, squeezed it and gently wiped it around Gabrielle's face.
“This should make you feel better.” She carried on moving onto Gabrielle's neck. “Just keep fighting, Bri , OK ? That's all I ask. Fight the good fight, like we've been doing these last few years. I know we've got more in us, and we're stronger together. All three of us.” At this Xena stilled and shut her eyes and thought of Lyceus. “We'll get our boy back, Bri, I know it. Just stay around, ok?” She continued to wash Gabrielle whispering and talking to her until the bard was fully freshened up. Then Xena stretched out alongside Gabrielle and lay on her left side facing her, and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. Xena shut her eyes, and although sleep didn't come to her, she managed to tune out all the other sounds of the hut and so for the short time until Piri came to talk to her, she could pretend it were solely her and Gabrielle enjoying a rare peaceful lay in.
“I'll go and give a report from here,” said Joxer. He looked expectantly at Ephiny who nodded, unable to speak for the moment.
“Ephiny, you have to be strong,” said Joxer.
The Regent smiled hesitantly. “I know,” she said in barely a whisper. She watched as Hercules approached Xena.
The tall demi god crouched down next to Xena who was now sitting on the side of the bed.
“We're just going to the meeting-the last few have returned from escorting the army away,” he said quietly. “You can stay here and we can-“
“I'm coming,” said Xena firmly.
Hercules knew better to argue with a determined warrior princess and so stood up and joined Joxer and Ephiny.
Xena eased herself off the bed and then leant over Gabrielle. She kissed her lightly on the lips and pushed a stray bit of hair back. “I'll be right back my love, hang on in there.”
She then straightened up fully, savouring the feeling of being able to stretch her back out. She saw Joxer, Ephiny and Hercules' anxious faces and gave a nod. “Come on,” she said, “let's go.”
The four of them made their way towards the village centre. Epinon and Aella were standing on a small dais and the within the crowd, chattering crowd amazons, men and centaurs mixed. As the four of them made their way towards the dais the crowd hushed until it was silent when they stepped up onto it.
Xena watched as Ephiny stepped forward. The Regent looked nervous and swallowed several times before opening her mouth to speak.
“My sisters,” she began and looked around. The normal opening greeting wasn't appropriate today but it actually made Ephiny smile and gave her an injection of confidence. “My sisters, these are extraordinary times. And this is no ordinary meeting. We are,” Ephiny searched for a word, “blessed by the presence of non Amazon friends, and we welcome them and thank them for all they have done today.”
At this there was gracious applause, and Ephiny searched around the crowd for any dissenting people. She was satisfied she could find none and so continued. “And we thank them, for what they have done today, on a most difficult day.” She stopped for a moment and exchanged a glance with Aella who smiled encouragingly.
“Today,” Ephiny thought was it really only this morning we rode out, it feels like a lifetime ago, “we rode out to battle. Defending our lands from invaders like our mothers and grandmothers had done before us.” There was a smattering of clapping at this and Ephiny was aware that Tyldus and several centaurs were looking slightly uncomfortable so she continued. “And we fought bravely against an opponent at times who we did not understand, although later their reasons became clear. And we lost twenty three sisters. Their courage and sacrifice will not be forgotten.” There was a quiet murmuring.
“They have now left us, thank you Hercules.” The demi god blushed as he usually did when receiving praise. “I am happy to report they left our land compliantly-their purses full. We should not have more difficulties from them. They were only interested in creating a diversion. “Ephiny sighed. “Unknown to us fighting, the village we left was attacked.” There was now utter silence and Ephiny would swear that everyone could hear her quickly beating heart. “Their reason; to kidnap the son of our Queen. The battle we fought was merely a distraction, to lure the fighting force away from the village. Again my sisters fought bravely but Lyceus was taken.” The last three words were said quietly and shakily but the whole crowd heard them.
“And it is now to thank our beloved friends who have assisted us so much. Joxer-“Ephiny gestured towards the healer and to her surprise and pleasure a wave of clapping and cheering emerged throughout the camp. Joxer went bright red and she saw Hercules and Xena smile and the warrior princess clap him on his back with her hand. “Joxer heard and saw the force ride towards the village and alerted Tyldus. Thank you for what you did-without you there would have been more casualties. We lost six brave sisters in that attack.” Please Artemis no more, thought Ephiny as she thought what Piri had told her about Gabrielle's chances.
“Tonight we bid our sisters farewell and send them to Artemis' care.” Ephiny hung her head for a moment and the crowd followed suit thinking about the lost women. “And tomorrow, we begin the task of searching for Lyceus. Solari and Iolaus are tracking the army that has kidnapped him. We will return him to his parents” Ephiny gestured towards Xena who desperately trying to keep her emotions in check, “and they will pay for what they have done to this village.”
Ephiny stood back and there was chattering from the crowd. Aella wrapped a comforting arm around Ephiny and Hercules flashed her an encouraging smile. “Joxer-it's you,” said the Regent with sympathy. He would have an even more difficult job Ephiny thought.
Joxer gulped several times and stepped nervously forward. The chatter began to die down and Joxer looked behind him nervously and they all gave him an encouraging smile. He turned back to face the now silent crowd and spoke shakily, “I am here on behalf of my wife, who is Piri. Sorry I know you know that.” Joxer pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his sweaty brow and turned towards an Amazon who had raised her arm.
Simultaneously Ephiny, Aella and Epinon's hearts dropped. It was Charope-renowned critic of the greater collaboration between the centaurs and amazons. There was general shock and surprise that she had not fought with the rebellion initiated by Alti and since then had been promoted to the council by Gabrielle. She was still distrusted by many amazons.
“Joxer, Joxer,” she called. “Thank you for what you did, we know you have saved many lives. Thank you.” Charope then started to clap and was joined by many others. This seemed to infuse Joxer with more confidence and he held his hand palm up to quieten the clapping.
“Thank you,” he said in a stronger voice. Ephiny looked at Epinon who shrugged her shoulders and then kept watching Charope intensely. “I am here to give you the medical report. All the injured from the battle have returned. We have seven who will require to stay with us for several days at least-most of the other injuries have been dealt with.” He shut his eyes and inhaled; this was the most difficult part. He knew there was fevered wish for information on Gabrielle. “Apart from the fatalities, the injuries sustained by amazons at the village were for the most part minor ones,” he turned to look at Xena and could see a tear trail down her face. She nodded at him, and he turned round. “The only exception,” he faltered and looked down. “The only exception is Gabrielle, your Queen.”
There was complete and utter silence as everyone waited for news. “Gabrielle was injured badly.” His eyes scanned the crowd. “She has not regained consciousness since the attack, and-“finally Joxer's composure left him and he sobbed, “She has a fifty-fifty chance of making it through tomorrow.”
There were several gasps of horror and sobs, and several amazons were crying openly. “I'm sorry,” said Joxer and he bowed his head.
To everyone's surprise it was Xena that strode forward. She gave him a hug and whispered her thanks and pride of him into his ear. This caused him to sob even more and Epinon helped guide him to seat where she gave him a cup of water.
Xena stood in front of the large crowd and searched for the right words. She had spoken to large numbers of people before, usually her armies, in order to motivate them. There were friends within this crowd, and people who had lost loved ones trying to protect Lyceus. That provided her opening.
“Thank you,” she said in a slightly husky voice, “for trying to protect my son. Aella and others have told me how everyone fought to stop Lyceus being taken. My thanks seem so inadequate, but know you have mine and the Queen's appreciation.”
She looked down at her boots for a moment. Gabrielle, she thought, help me. She looked up and saw everyone hanging on her every word.
“I want you to know that the search for Lyceus is optional. Lyceus is not an Amazon-“
“Yes he is,” interrupted a voice.
“He's the Queen's child,” yelled another. “Our Prince.”
“Xena,” said Charope. Xena turned to look at the Amazon. “Lyceus is our Queen's child. I am learning, albeit slowly, that gender doesn't matter. He is Amazon Royalty. I would be proud to lay down my life for him.”
“Hear, hear,” murmured the crowd. Xena nodded at Charope who returned the gesture.
“It is still optional, as-“Xena closed her eyes, and tried to summon the courage to say the next words without breaking down, “we don't know how long it could take. It could be days, weeks-or longer. We just don't know.” She whispered the last four words and rubbed her teary eyes with her hand. She felt a hand on her back and it was Hercules who was standing one side of her and Ephiny was now standing the other.
“So my sisters, my friends, you are all up to date. Tonight we will bid our departed sisters farewell, and tomorrow we will try to retrieve our beloved Prince.” Ephiny shut her eyes as she could feel Xena's eyes boring into her at her faux pas. “We will retrieve Lyceus,” she amended. “Please think about if you wish to join the group. Let Epinon know. But rest up ready for tonight.”
The crowd started to disperse slowly and Ephiny turned back to face Hercules and Xena. Aella, Joxer and Epinon had joined them.
“Xena,” she began, but didn't need to go any further.
“I'm going,” said Xena quietly. She looked around at her friends and saw there was some surprise in their eyes. “I know what you are thinking, how can she leave Gabrielle, when she may die?”
“Xena, Gods, it is a terrible choice either way. No one would blame you for either,” said Hercules with real feeling.
“I can't imagine it. Having that decision,” said Ephiny looking at Aella. Her partner gave a weak smile.
“I know what may happen to Gabrielle. And the thought I may not be with her if she passes scares me to death.” Xena looked around at her friends with tears streaming down her face. She was opening up to her closest friends who had been through so much with them in the last few years. They deserved to hear her thinking. “But if she recovers and we don't find Lye, how can I live with myself? She can't lose another child.”
“Neither can you,” said Ephiny sympathetically.
“Whatever you decide Xena, I'll support you,” said Epinon. “You know I am coming with you, right?”
Xena smiled at her friend. “Thanks,” she said. “You gonna to kick Solari's butt?”
“Oh Gods, yes,” said Epinon and the tension was eased slightly.
“I'm coming too,” said Hercules, “and the last I heard several of the men and centaurs wanted to.”
Xena gave a grateful smile. “Tell them thanks, Hercules. I'm going back to Gabrielle. Ephiny, I want to attend the funerals if I may.”
“Sure Xena, but you don't have to,” said Ephiny frowning.
“I do,” said Xena. “Those women died trying to protect my son. The least I can do is pay my respects on behalf of Gabrielle and myself.” She looked around at her friends and nodded and then walked off the dais and slowly made her way back to the medical hut.
Xena managed to doze as she sat by Gabrielle. When she awoke she was gratified to see that the bard had not deteriorated any further. She offered to assist Piri with changing Gabrielle's dressings and finally saw the wounds. As she gazed down at the small stomach wound, Xena's jaw tightened as did her resolve to find Lyceus and Teles-the woman responsible for this. She tried to push back her anger before it overtook her and turned to blood lust.
“The Queen has remarkable strength,” said Piri, as cleaned the wound.
This brought Xena from her musings and she looked at the healer.
“As do you, Xena. If that was Joxer lying there, I would not be so composed.”
“It's hard, believe me,” said Xena. “I think about what she's going through and I want to destroy Teles.”
Piri looked at Xena and whispered severely, “Do it. For me.”
Xena's eyes widened in shock and she stared at the healer mouth ajar. “Gabrielle, you and Lyceus are my family. I love you all. And if you do kill Teles I don't want you to drown in the guilt. Do it for me.”
They locked eyes and Xena could see the passion in the healer's. She nodded and watched Piri efficiently finish cleaning and bandaging Gabrielle.
“No sign of infection…yet,” said Piri. Xena nodded dumbly. The healer put her hand on Xena's arm. “She's doing well, better than I thought. Enjoy your time with her.”
“Piri,” Xena called the healer as she turned to go. “Should I stay with her?” Xena sunk to the bed and looked away from the healer's gaze. She was still in turmoil about leaving Gabrielle and seeing the bard lying there so ill made her reconsider.
“Oh Xena,” said Piri with heartfelt emotion. “It is a terrible choice you have to make. Only you know which the right one for you is.”
Xena opened her mouth to speak but Piri smiled and shushed her. “Go get your son Xena. Bring him back so you can be a family.”
Xena nodded. “Thank you.” Piri turned to go and Xena spoke to the healer's back. “Please let someone be with her all the time, just in case.” The healer didn't turn around but stopped and after a moment nodded and carried on walking.
Xena concentrated on Gabrielle and leant over and kissed her forehead. She knew the funerals would be shortly and then she was going to spend the rest of the time with Gabrielle. There was so much to say, but so little time and she didn't have the words like the bard. So she lay next to the bard and sung to her softly.
“We knew this might happen,” said Iolaus bitterly.
“I know,” said Solari. “I just hoped-actually I am surprised that it has taken them this long.”
“Damn,” said Iolaus as he dismounted and looked at the two trails. “Similar numbers, we can't tell at all Solari. Where is he?” Iolaus looked into the distance as if he willed Lyceus' location to be revealed.
Solari also dismounted and looked around. She followed one trail for a few yards and then turned around and followed the other for several paces. She stared at the ground and then excitedly raised her eyes upwards.
“Iolaus,” she said breathlessly. “Iolaus, do you see that owl there?”
Iolaus looked upwards. “Yes, I do, but-“he stopped and looked at the excited look on Solari's face. “You can see it too?” he said in shock.
“Yes!” said Solari excitedly. “The owl, the trees, the sky! I can see it all!”
Iolaus gave her a massive hug. “But how, why?”
“I don't know,” said Solari, slightly bewildered. “But things have been getting slightly clearer since we left. I don't-“She looked at the owl again who was sitting watching them. “Maybe it was because I finally accepted it, or the shock of the attack caused it to revert back. Or maybe it's the Gods,” and at this she looked up at the owl.
Iolaus frowned and looked at the owl too. “I swear that owl has been following us.”
“Me too,” said Solari with a smile. “Shall we go this path then?”
Iolaus stared at the owl for a long moment and then turned to look at Solari. “I hope we are right about this.”
“Me too Io, but we have nothing else to go on.”
Solari laid the trail markers as Iolaus rummaged in his pack for food. He glanced at the owl that hadn't moved. “Please be right,” he whispered, “for Lyceus' sake.”
Xena felt Epinon's hand on her shoulder and the weapon's master whispered “it's time.” When she opened her eyes and straightened up, she realised she was alone with Gabrielle-Epinon had obviously moved away discreetly to give her time to say farewell.
Xena shivered. Was this farewell for good? She stood and was overcome by the Déjà vu of Alti's vision. Gabrielle lying pale and desperately ill and her crying. She smoothed the pale hair away from her brow and traced her finger around the bard's face.
What am I doing? She thought. This wasn't how I want to remember her. She shut her eyes and thought of Gabrielle in happier in times and smiled, but knew she would have open them in a moment and face the reality.
She did and took a deep breath in. It was time to go; she had to say her goodbyes. The words stuck in her throat for a moment but then she found her voice.
“Bri, Bri, I need you to fight your way back. Please, my love. I will do everything I can to bring our precious Lyceus home to us. I will not rest until he is safe. But you have to fight my darling.”
She paused. Oh Gods this part was harder, should she say it? Was it giving up? “Gabrielle, if it is too much for you, don't worry about going to the Fields. I once said I would follow you, but now I know my place is raising our boy. And I will, I'll raise him into a man you'd be proud of, so don't worry.”
By now the tears were streaming from her face. She wiped them away as best she could and bent down over Gabrielle and kissed her gently on both cheeks. “I can't begin to tell you what you mean to me, and what you have brought to my life. Thank you, my love.” She paused for a moment and in a soft voice said, “I love you, Gabrielle, fight for me, fight for us.”
She finally straightened up and turned and without a glance back strode from the hut. Her heart was beating widely and she knew her face was tear stained so she ran to their hut. She passed a commotion in the centre of the village, as Epinon stormed away from a large group of people, and Xena wondered if the weapons master was struggling to encourage people to on this potentially long mission.
In her hut she rinsed her face and dried it with a towel. She then started to buckle her armour on. Gradually her thoughts turned from the bard lying in her bed to the mission. Next she selected her weapons, ensuring that she had more knives than usual hidden away. And lastly she found a saddle bag and threw some rations in it and went to the cot. She picked up Blankie and folded it and put it in her bag and then she took Hoss from where she had left him on the table and placed him carefully in the bag. She was set. She looked around the hut; without Gabrielle and Lyceus it seemed so sterile. Xena picked up her bag with a new determination and left the hut to find Epinon.
The weapons master was sitting on the side of the dais staring at a scroll. She looked up as Xena approached her and smiled weakly.
“Epinon?” said Xena slightly concerned.
“Oh hi Xena,” said Epinon. She slumped further and said quietly, “it's a mess.”
Xena swallowed. “How many do we have? Aella estimated they had fifty or so, so I think we could get by with half of that.”
Epinon snorted and turned to look at Xena very slowly. Xena stared back at her unable to read her friend's expression.
“Xena, everyone wants to come. And I mean everyone. So far the only people who have offered to stay are Piri and Aella. And it wasn't Aella's choice. Ephiny threatened me with several extremely painful tortures if she came.” Epinon smiled at the warrior princess' bewilderment. “The biggest problem is cutting the numbers down.”
Xena gave a chuckle and sat next to Epinon and looked at the scroll.
“Pony, so far you have me, Hercules and you.”
Epinon shrugged. “Help.”
Xena rolled her eyes, and took the scroll and started to write names on.
“Xena, this must make you-“
“It does,” cut off Xena. “Proud, pleased, grateful; I can't find enough words.” They shared a look and then went back to studying the scroll.
“Eph wants to go, so does Joxer.” Xena raised her eyebrow. “He says Piri and Clonie can cope with the injured here and he might be needed. And Eph wants to get her Godson back.”
“Fair enough,” said Xena. “What about Dax and Stanilaus, do they want to come?”
“Everyone does,” said Epinon slightly exasperated.
“Ok,” said Xena and wrote down several more names and then passed the list to Epinon. She looked it over and wrote several more, and within minutes they had a group of forty whom they hoped would reclaim Lyceus.
Xena left Epinon to break the news to those that were coming; and those who were left behind. She strode to the stables and walked to Argo's stall. The palomino pricked up her ears when she saw her mistress and neighed happily as Xena placed her saddle on her back. “Argo,” said Xena and lay her face in the mare's mane breathing in her scent. “Carry me to him, ok?”
She pulled back and saw the horse was standing proud and ready. Xena smiled and led Argo from the stall. She looked in the neighbouring stall at Gabrielle's horse and was shocked by what she saw. The horse was standing still, vacantly staring at the door-her hay and water untouched.
“Lucinda,” Xena called. The stable mistress was by Xena's side in an instant, her long legs making up the ground quickly.
“What's wrong with Tympani?” asked Xena concerned. She had a thorny relationship with the mare that mirrored Gabrielle's early relationship with Argo. She knew that Tympani tolerated her for Gabrielle's sake alone.
“She's been like that since yesterday, apparently” said Lucinda, tiredly. “We've tried everything.” Lucinda gazed at the horse. “I think she is pining for the Queen.”
Xena looked at the stable mistress and sighed. “She's not the only one,” she said quietly and opened the stable door. Tympani glanced at her with disinterested eyes and then turned her head away.
“Tympani,” said Xena. “She's been injured. And Lyceus has gone.” The horse turned to look at her. “You understand don't you?” Tympani neighed once. Lucinda's mouth opened in amazement.
“I'm off to find Lyceus,” began Xena and at once the horse moved forward wanting to leave her stable. Xena looked at Lucinda who was still mouth ajar in amazement.
“Tymp,” she said knowing that was what Gabrielle called her sometimes. “Stay with Gabrielle ok? I'll take you there.”
The horse stamped her hoof down and then Argo neighed to which Tympani responded with a snort. Then there was silence.
“I…Think…I have seen…everything,” spluttered Lucinda.
“This is nothing,” said Xena with a groan, and led Tympani out of the stable. Lucinda brought a bucket of water and they led her to the healer's hut. Xena poked her head through several windows before pulling the horse over to one of them. “Go on,” she said and the horse stuck her head through the window knocking the curtains flying and to Lucinda and Xena's amusement they heard a yell, a few curses and then a loud shout of “LUCINDA!”
At this Xena patted the now concerned stable mistress on the back, who was terrified of having to explain to an irate healer what she had done, and walked towards Argo. She gathered up the reins and walked towards where the group was gathered. She nodded to Epinon, and she along with Tyldus and Ephiny led the group out of the village.
They moved quickly through the forest; Solari and Iolaus' trail was easy to spot and the group that were handpicked by Xena and Epinon were all accomplished riders as well as fighters. Xena forced her thoughts forward to the confrontation ahead rather than thinking totally of the stricken bard.
Her thoughts turned to the ringleaders of this conflict. She always knew that Lindos and Claudine would play some part in her future. She did not dwell as much over the events at the camp but every so often if she was feeling particularly low; if she saw Gabrielle rub her hand when it was cold and her bones ached; if her sensitive fingertips ran over Gabrielle's scars she would think back to that horrific time. Gabrielle's nightmares had lessened as had her bouts of melancholy. But to them both the greatest reminder of that time was the person they both adored; Lyceus.
Xena remembered how Gabrielle would spend hours staring at him when he was first born trying to figure out what part he took from his father. As he grew she did this less, but any change or quirk would cause her consternation.
For Xena it was more the thought of the questions that Lyceus would ask as he grew. As well as other people. She knew that in the Amazon village she was protected from this-her place as Lyceus' parent was taken as granted. She had broached the subject with Gabrielle several times but the Bard had become too distressed by the discussion; in her mind Xena was Lyceus' parent, and Lyceus would see that too.
But the thought that Lindos would come between her and Lyceus always nagged at Xena. And he had in a most physical way. Xena could feel her anger rise at him and his sister. She would feel no guilt for killing either of them now. They had crossed a line in the dirt and had caused Xena and so many of her loved ones so much anguish.
Xena was so lost in thought that it was a complete shock when the scroll landed in her lap. She pulled on Argo's reins with her left hand, while her right picked up the scroll. She immediately looked around completely perplexed.
“What's wrong?” asked Hercules as he drew level with Xena.
“This,” she said, and waved the scroll. They both looked around trying to pinpoint from where it came, but could see nothing out of the ordinary. Xena was riding mid pack, so it couldn't have been thrown by someone skirting the edge of the group.
“Stop and read it,” suggested Hercules, and Xena nodded. She pulled Argo to one side and dismounted by a tree. The rest of the group took the opportunity to stop and have a drink or answer the call of nature.
Xena sat down under the tree and opened the scroll. She gasped when she saw how it was titled and read it twice through.
Dear Daughter , (it read)
My dear Xena,
I can not tell you the pain that the brutal kidnap of dear, sweet Lyceus and injuries sustained by Gabrielle has caused me. I know that you rage at my impotence and it is no less than I deserve.
My daughter, know that if I could help you in more obvious ways I would. However I fear if I do reveal myself more fully, ultimately other forces would also reveal themselves. That is something I wish to avoid. However know that if other influences do expose themselves I will do too. I know this is difficult to comprehend but please know that my good thoughts go with you, as you follow Solari and Iolaus' exact trail.
Please know that many of my family are rooting for you to bring Lyceus back to where he belongs. We will follow your quest with interest and anticipation.
Good luck and Gods speed my dearest daughter.
She stared at it for several moments and then handed it to Hercules who was now standing over her. He read through it, sharing it with Ephiny, and nodded. “Doesn't surprise me,” he said. “I am guessing she is worried that if she helps you overtly, Ares will do the same.”
“Do you think that means Ares hasn't transported them across Greece ?” asked Ephiny.
“Probably,” said Hercules.
“But it means that Sol and Iolaus are on the right trail, and so are we,” said Xena with a smile. She looked upwards. “Thanks Mother,” she said with gratitude, and felt warmth she had never experienced before when thinking of her Immortal parent. She knew that if Ares made an appearance so would Athena. That thought made her heavy burden seem slightly lighter, and she rose and mounted Argo with a new spring in her step.
Iolaus sat on a tree stump with his leg stretched out in front of him. He rubbed it with his palm, wishing that Hercules was there to give him one of his revitalising massages. He heard some leaves rustling and looked upwards, and within moments Solari appeared and dropped easily to his side.
“Well?” he asked eagerly.
“Oh yes,” she said and her face broke into a wide smile.
“Did you see him?”
Solari shook her head. “I heard him though.”
Iolaus eyes widened in concern and Solari quickly spoke to soothe him. “Sounded real tired, you know how he gets.”
Iolaus didn't look completely satisfied and went back to rubbing his leg.
“Is it hurting?” asked Solari.
“Yes,” said Iolaus sadly and his hand stilled and he stared at his.
There was silence and after Solari took a drink from a water skin she said quietly, “This must be hard for you.” It was more a statement of fact than a question.
Iolaus looked away for a long moment and then turned to face the Amazon. “I tried to push away who they are, but as we get nearer to them…” he rubbed his face with his hand.
“Do you think about it a lot?”
“Not any more. Sometimes if my leg is hurting or if I feel low I do. It happened I can't change it.”
Solari nodded thoughtfully. “Pony does too. Sometimes I know she is thinking about that camp as she becomes distant and sad. And now we have to face them all again.”
“They've gone too far this time,” hissed Iolaus. “Injuring me is one thing, but kidnapping Gabrielle's child.” He slammed his fist onto the ground. “Too far.”
Solari rubbed his shoulder. “Hey let me rub your leg, Hippocrates gave me lessons when I was at the hospice. I am pretty good.”
“Bet Pony loves-aahhh, oh Gods you are good.”
Solari chuckled. “I think they are there for the night. I think a party would have left Amazonia first light this morning, so tomorrow sometime.”
Iolaus nodded, his eyes shut, his leg responding to Solari's healing touch.
“Where do you think they are heading?” she asked him.
The blonde sighed. “The Halls of War are about two days ride away.”
“Let's hope they do reach us tomorrow,” said Solari worriedly.
“Your partner is good,” said Tyldus as he examined the carefully laid marker.
“Thank you,” said Hercules and Epinon in unison and they looked at each other and frowned.
“You sure this is right? The other tracks-“began Dax?
“I'm sure,” said Xena. She looked up and saw an owl perched up on a branch. “I trust Solari and Iolaus. As you say they are good.”
“Xena,” said Ephiny pulling her horse level with Argo. “We need to think about strategy.”
Xena turned to look at the Regent. “I know,” she said. “We can't go in all swords blazing. I can't risk Lyceus being hurt.”
Ephiny looked down and steeled herself to speak. “What do you think Lindos' motives are?”
Xena gave her a long stare. She was conscious that many other pairs of eyes were on her. Ephiny quickly added, “Do you think he'll hurt Lyceus?”
Xena looked away for a moment and then back at the Regent. “No, I don't. Not intentionally. Family seemed to matter to him and Claudine, her especially.” She frowned as she tried to recollect anything that would give any clues or hints.
“I wouldn't trust Teles as far as I could throw her,” said Epinon bitterly.
“Or Aida or Thermodsa,” added Cara. “Louka said they were there.”
“You're right,” said Ephiny. “They probably have their own aims and are using each other to get there.”
“So Lindos was to retrieve what he feels belongs to him,” said Hercules. “What about those women?”
There was silence as each thought about what Hercules had just said.
“Teles wants to hurt the amazons,” said Epinon finally. She glanced at Xena quickly and looked away. “Gabrielle included.” She paused. “She would have no reservations about harming Lyceus.”
Xena swallowed and looked at her. “I just hope that Lindos and Claudine do protect him.” This was suddenly a new worry. Although she hated the thought of Lyceus with his father, she knew that he would never deliberately hurt him. But throwing Teles in the mix…Xena shivered.
“So it's back to strategy then,” said Tyldus. “I suggest at the next stop we discuss it-gives us time to think about plans. I have little doubt we will get more information from our excellent trackers.”
He looked pointedly at Epinon and Hercules who both smiled proudly.
Xena smiled and looked away. Reaching Lyceus and taking him would be two completely different propositions. So she started to rack her brains for ideas.
The smiles of the two people standing at the edge of the wood were growing larger as the group of centaurs, amazons, men and Xena rode closer. Hercules and Epinon led the way and both leapt from their horses. Epinon and Solari closed the distance between each other quickly and embraced each other. Hercules and Iolaus took longer but their hug was as heartfelt. Within a few moments though other people had dismounted, and Hercules led Iolaus to the group.
Epinon was fussing over Solari, and the former chief scout knew that her partner's nerves were shredded. She hoped her news may help her calm down. “Pony, you need to listen to me.”
Epinon still continued to try and check Solari for wounds she may have received, not wanting to look her in the eye. Solari placed either hand on the side of Epinon's face and brought it up to her own.
“It's fine. I saw her.” Epinon tried to look away but Solari held firm. “It's in the past ok?”
Reluctantly Epinon nodded. “Pony I need you to listen to me. My eyes are fine.”
Epinon stared at Solari. “What?”
“They are fine. I don't know how or why, but they are fine.”
“Your sight? It's back to normal?”
Solari nodded and grinned and Epinon flung her arms around her. “Thank the Gods, oh Solari.”
Iolaus was explaining to the group what they knew. “They've halved so about thirty or so. They are a couple of miles away, set up camp. The woodland is fairly dense, so certainly you Amazons could make a surprise appearance by trees.”
Ephiny and Tyldus nodded. Xena stared at Iolaus with concerned eyes.
“Saw him, Xena,” he said gently. “He looked cared for.” That at least was true, but Solari and he had decided that they would omit to tell Xena that he appeared to be crying most of the time.”
Xena nodded in gratitude and swallowed. Her nerves were beginning unravel, something she was unused to. But this was a unique situation-dire and exceptional.
“OK, it's what we discussed then.” Tyldus looked around at everyone. Epinon and Solari had now joined the group, and Ephiny and Xena among others were slapping Solari's back and squeezing her arm. “We'll position the archers within range; the trees will give good camouflage.”
“Remember,” Xena said her voice shaky. “The first priority is Lyceus. I-I don't want him harmed.”
There were murmurs of agreement.
“We go at dusk,” said Hercules, “have a nap, something to eat and we'll set off in a couple of hours.”
The group mainly dispersed, although Ephiny gave Solari a warm hug, and Iolaus sidled up to Xena. “How's Gabrielle?” he asked.
“About the same,” she said, her jaw tightening with concern. She turned to Solari. “Thank you for what you did at the village. Aella told us what happened.”
Solari blushed and looked down. “It was Aella, mainly. She wouldn't let her pass.”
Xena smiled weakly. Iolaus coughed loudly and looked at Solari, who blushed again.
“Sol?” asked Ephiny.
“My sight has returned,” she said with a note of triumph.
“That's wonderful,” said Hercules
“Fantastic!” said Xena.
Ephiny gave Solari another hug. “But how?” asked the regent as she pulled away.
Solari shrugged. “I don't know, but it started to get clearer as I left the village. Now it's like it was previously.” She smiled and then looked at Xena. “We've been able to track in part thanks to an owl.”
Xena bit her lip. “You saw her too?” She exchanged a look with Hercules. “She's helped us…that owl.”
Solari and Iolaus looked at their friends but realised that this was not the best time to question further.
“Eat,” said Hercules. “Rest. And then we get Lyceus.”
All eyes turned to Xena. She smiled and nodded with more confidence than she felt, remembering Gabrielle's talk the night before the battle. “And then we get Lyceus,” she repeated.
Xena moved quietly through the fading light flanked by Epinon and Hercules. She could see Iolaus the other side of Hercules. Each was moving purposefully towards the camp, but stilled as they heard rustling of leaves from the wood. Iolaus raised his cross bow but soon put it down as they saw Dax and Walia emerge from the trees.
“Guards taken care of,” said Dax dispassionately.
Xena nodded. Her heart was beating loudly in her chest and a quickly look at her hands confirmed her fears-they were shaking. In normal circumstances this would be a breeze; they outnumbered the army, there were several people with very personal reasons for fighting including her. She had faced longer odds-much longer odds-and won. And yet one factor changed the whole dynamics of the operation-Lyceus. Xena knew she could not focus too much on him, as it would distract her, and that was why her friends had positioned themselves around her. They wanted the baby back as much as she did.
Xena shook herself mentally and prepared to focus. She thought briefly of Gabrielle, and willed strength towards her. “I'll get him back,” she whispered, and then turned her mind fully to the task on hand.
She stepped over the bodies of two guards that had been efficiently disposed of by Dax and Walia. Looking up she caught sight of Ephiny and Solari in the trees. Ephiny gave a quick wave and continued on seamlessly moving along the branches.
Before long Xena could see the camp, and her heart stilled for a moment as her superb hearing detected Lyceus' cry. She gripped her hand tightly and gritted her teeth and continued to move purposefully forward.
There was a shout of warning as Xena's group was spotted. There was immediate chaos as the men, amazons, centaurs and Xena rushed forward, trying to gain an immediate advantage as Lindos' army realised they were under attack and rushed to get their weapons.
As Xena was about to engage her first opponent she heard horses behind her. She turned, letting Hercules take over, and saw a dozen horses flanked by several soldiers on foot.
Aida was sitting astride her horse with a big grin. “Oh dear, you seem to be surrounded,” she said coldly. Xena cast her eyes across her opponents.
“You didn't think you could surprise us, did you?” Aida added.
Xena twisted her head around and saw that several people were fighting while others were eyeing the new comers to the fray with suspicion. She turned back to face Aida.
“The old jaw trick,” she said and laughed heartily. Aida looked at her in confusion. “Wait for the enemy to come and snap the jaw shut. Ares favourite.”
Her smile dropped and face took on a determined look. “I was Ares chosen. Do you not think I know all his moves?” she said harshly. She nodded and watched as an accurate arrow from Ephiny found its mark in the man sitting to Aida's right. She watched in horror as he fell off his horse and then turned as she realised that behind her were the rest of the centaurs, men and Amazons. She sighed and turned to face Xena who stared at her dispassionately before turning and running to the camp.
“Lyceus!” she shouted as ran. “Lyceus, I am coming.”
Ephiny let the arrow go and gave a satisfactory smile as it embedded in Aida's chest. She watched with contentment as the rogue Amazon slumped forward on her horse.
“Got the bitch,” said Ephiny quietly.
“Nice shot,” said Solari.
A former Amazon whose name Xena forget tried to engage her but in one movement Xena had unhooked and thrown her chakram at her and she fell to the floor with her skull split. Xena caught the chakram and didn't break stride as she ran towards Lyceus' increasingly loud cry. In her peripheral vision she saw a man approach but before she had time to reach for her sword, and arrow was embedded in his chest.
“Lyceus,” she cried as she was practically in the camp. She skidded to a stop as she saw Lindos emerge from a tent clutching a red faced, screaming Lyceus. Xena's chest tightened and her stomach flipped and she stood staring at them. Claudine also emerged and immediately drew her sword and stood next to her brother.
“Lyceus,” Xena whispered and a tear rolled down her face.
Hearing her voice, the baby turned his body around to face her, and started to scream louder and held his arms out towards her.
“Don't even think about it,” said Claudine, and she stepped towards Xena menacingly.
Xena could hear footsteps behind her and recognised Epinon, Hercules and Iolaus.
“You're finished,” said Hercules with uncharacteristically amount of venom. “Your army is destroyed. You'll pay for what you have done.”
“Oh I don't think so,” said Claudine. She looked right and Teles and another man emerged from another tent.
She looked at Epinon. “No greeting for an old flame Epinon? Come back for more, Tiger?” She laughed as Epinon scowled, the comments obviously upsetting her.
“Surprised you survived,” she said to Iolaus. “How's life on one leg?”
“Give us the baby,” said Iolaus through gritted teeth.
“Andrios is my son,” said Lindos. He saw Xena's surprised look. “I named him after my father.”
“He doesn't belong to you,” said Xena. “His name is Lyceus.”
“Xena, Xena, he does,” said Lindos. “He doesn't belong to you. He's mine.”
“No he is not,” shouted Xena. “I delivered him. I sat with his mother as she fought to live after giving birth to him. I got up to him when he was sick. I was there when he rolled over for the first time.”
“I never had the chance to do those things. You kept me from my son. I seeded her womb,” shouted Lindos. “Our love created him.”
Lyceus cried even harder, and Xena stared at Lindos in shock. “Love?” she said in disgust. “It wasn't love. It was power.”
“You would know,” sneered Claudine.
The only noise was Lyceus crying, as everyone stared at each other.
“You alright,” whispered Ephiny.
Solari nodded and raised her bow.
“No,” said Ephiny in a harsh whisper. “You haven't a clear shot.”
“Give the boy to us,” said Hercules. “Don't make it worse for yourself.”
“Why would we do that?” snarled Teles.
“Your army is defeated; you can't possibly get away,” said Iolaus.
“You underestimate us, cripple,” said Claudine.
“Still banking on Ares,” said Hercules. “How's that going for you?” he added and Claudine's hurt expression told them he had struck a nerve.
“Give…him…back,” said Xena menacingly.
“You're not in any position to demand anything,” said Teles, and she dropped her sword and drew a blade. She turned towards Lindos.
“Let me have darling Andrios,” she said.
“No!” shouted Epinon and Xena in unison.
“She doesn't care for him,” said Xena.
Teles turned towards Xena and gave a chilling smile. “Of course I do. I'm his mother now that your bitch is dead.”
“Gabrielle is not dead,” Xena growled. She looked at Lindos and said in a heartfelt tone, “Don't trust her.”
“But I do,” said Lindos and held Lyceus out for Teles to take, and they moved together for a kiss.
Xena watched as the screaming baby was about to be handed to the former Amazon, when she heard the release of a bow and the whistle of an arrow through the air. Xena turned her head to watch the flight of the arrow, and smiled to herself as she calculated where it would hit. She readied herself on the balls of her feet, and as soon as the arrow struck the knife knocking it from Teles' grasp, she flipped forward yelling as she flew through the air.
She landed a mere foot from Teles and faster than the eye could follow she jabbed her fingers into the woman's neck with one hand, and grabbed Lyceus around his stomach with her other, and pulled him away from Teles as she sunk to the ground. Hercules was beside her in moments and he wrapped his arms around Lindos pinning him to ground. Claudine and the man from the tent turned and started to run, but Epinon picked up the discarded knife and threw it at Claudine's thigh. Claudine fell to one knee, and Epinon ran to her and punched her in the back of the head, so she fell to the ground. The man only ran a handful of steps before an accurate arrow from Ephiny embedded in his back.
“Don't Pony,” yelled Solari from the trees. “She's not worth it.”
Xena stared at Teles who was gasping for breath and looking at her with beseeching eyes. She then turned back to focus on Lyceus, kissing his head and trying to soothe his cries. All she cared about was in her arms at the moment, she could barely think of the consequences of letting Teles die like that.
“No,” said Ephiny after she descended the tree. “Let me,” she added and raised her bow. She looked at Epinon and then turned her gaze to Xena who was hugging the still crying Lyceus and then to Teles who was on her knees gasping for breath.
“Should have done this after the Alti affair. You're no Amazon,” said Ephiny and after spitting at Teles, she shot her in the chest from point blank range. As the Amazon fell to the ground, the regent then turned to look at Xena and said evenly, “she shouldn't be on your conscience.”
Xena merely nodded and turned her attention back to Lyceus. Relief flooded through her body, and she could barely keep herself from shaking. Her heart was racing and she concentrated to bring that and her breathing under control. The baby was still crying and it was not the scream as before but a whimper. He looked at Xena and his bottom lip trembled, and Xena hugged him tight. She covered his ears and gave a whistle, and then brought him nearer so she could inspect him closely. Her eyes scanned him but she couldn't see any sign of mistreatment.
As if reading her thoughts, Lindos said, “He's well. Just wouldn't stop crying.”
“Shut up,” said Epinon, as she dragged Claudine back to the group.
Xena heard the familiar sound of Argo, and walked to meet the horse. Argo neighed happily and that elicited a laugh from Lyceus which in turn elicited a grateful grin from Xena. She reached into her bag with a shaking hand, and brought out Hoss. Lyceus gave a squeal of delight as he clutched the toy, and Xena gave a relieved smile, and felt a contentment that she thought was lost to her forever.
“You've got your boy back,” said Hercules.
Xena nodded, and turned full circle to survey the scene. Claudine's army was being rounded up. Xena noted with pleasure that there were no deaths on the alliance side, and Joxer was dealing with the minor injuries. She then knelt on the ground and placed Lyceus on it, leant against her legs.
“What do we do with these?” Said Epinon pointing at Lindos and Claudine.
All eyes turned to Xena. She inhaled and looked at Lyceus who was trying to eat Hoss.
She then stared at Lindos and in a quiet, controlled voice said, “You have no idea how much I hate you for what you did.” She looked at Claudine. “For what you both did, what you made me become.” She turned back to Lindos. “But most of all what you did to Gabrielle.” She looked at Ephiny. “What do you think?”
Ephiny looked at Epinon. “No one would blame you for killing them here and now. They don't deserve any more.”
“Ares,” shouted Claudine, showing the first signs of panic. “Help us please. We did what you asked!”
Xena and Hercules looked at each other. “Ares told us about the boy. He suggested we get him,” added Claudine, realising that their anger may be deflected elsewhere.
“He should be with me,” said Lindos.
“Shut up,” said Iolaus with venom.
“Ares,” whispered Xena and seconds later the dark haired God appeared in a flash of blue light.
Immediately Ephiny and Solari raised their bows and Xena picked up Lyceus in a protective hug.
“Typical, I have to do all my own work,” he stared at Claudine and Lindos with a snarl on his face. “All you had to do was get the boy.”
“You're not having him Ares,” said Xena.
Ares turned to face her and gave her an insincere smile. “Oh really,” he said mockingly.
There was a flash of light and Athena appeared next to Xena. Lyceus immediately held his hands out towards one of his favourite play mates and Athena gave him a warm smile before gazing at Xena.
Xena could read the affection in the God's eyes and she merely nodded and uttered a word full of gratitude, “Mother.”
“Very nice, mother, daughter bonding, blah, blah,” said Ares in a sarcastic tone. The smile then dropped from his face. “Nothing will keep me from my plan.” He clicked his fingers and in an instant Discord and Deimos materialised next to him. “You'll never win,” he added.
“What the-“started Epinon as she looked around in amazement. The other amazons, centaurs and men were equally bemused apart from Hercules, Iolaus and Xena who merely looked concerned. Lindos and Claudine suddenly wore self satisfied smiles and started to struggle against their captors.
“Enough,” said Athena firmly and within moments there were more flashes of light and Artemis, Apollo, Aphrodite, wearing black Amazon leathers, Hephaestus, Cupid and Asclepius all materialised surrounding the group.
Ares face looked like thunder and he stared at Athena.
“Don't…Mess…With…My …Family,” said Athena, firmly.
“What she said,” said Asclepius, looking at Joxer.
Ares held his gaze and nodded. “I'm done,” he said.
“NO!” yelled Claudine. “You said you'd get the boy back for us.”
“Actually I wanted him for myself. All that potential, he could have been great.”
Xena held Lyceus closer.
“Why do you want him?” asked Hercules, “All that effort for a child?”
“He's special, he can achieve anything.”
“That's my boy,” said Lindos proudly. “He should be with me.”
Ares turned slowly to face him and gave a cold, chilling smile. “Oh he's not your son. Nothing you could produce would have this kind of potential.”
Lindos was not the only person to gasp. Xena looked at Ares, mouth agape. “You're wrong; he has to be his son.”
Ares snorted. “Oh don't worry, your precious Gabrielle wasn't screwing around with anyone. The reason I want the child, Xena, is that he is yours. Your son.”
Xena shook her head several times. Her mind was whirling as she grappled to comprehend what Ares was saying. She looked at Lyceus who was in her arms playing with her leather straps. Shock coursed through her and she felt totally perplexed.
“How do you know?” she heard Athena say and she looked at her mother who looked as surprised as anyone.
“The fates,” said Ares nonchalantly. “As soon as I saw who his parents were, I knew what potential he would have. Grace, intelligence, loyalty, superb physical prowess, quick learning-if he has half the attributes of his parents, he will be magnificent. I wanted to guide him, train him, just like I did his Mother.”
Athena exchanged a look with Artemis and the Moon goddess disappeared in a flash.
Xena looked down at Lyceus trying to regain her composure. She felt truly disconcerted by Ares' news and held on tighter to Lyceus who was sucking his hand.
Eager to focus on something, Xena whispered, “Are you hungry little man?”
Immediately a waterskin was thrust into her arms from Athena. “Milk,” the Goddess said.
“Thank you,” said Xena, her voice shaky. Athena laid a comforting hand on her arm and they shared a smile.
Ares made a tutting sound, and rolled his eyes, and Xena hoisted Lyceus onto one arm and moved the waterskin so Lyceus could grip onto it. He held it and sucked the milk contentedly.
Artemis re-materialised next to Athena and she looked from her sister to Xena and nodded.
Xena gasped and stared at Athena opened mouthed.
“That's impossible,” yelled Lindos. “Impossible. You lie. The boy is mine.”
Ares turned slowly to face him. “Are you calling me a liar?” he said in a menacing tone. He looked from Lindos to Claudine. “I have given you so many chances, and you blew each and everyone. And finally you ask for my help.”
“You said we could,” cried Claudine.
“But I never said you should. I hate losers that ask for help.”
“Ares,” said Xena with a note of warning in her tone.
“Consider it a gift, Mummy dearest,” said Ares and nodded at Discord and Deimos.
Both the Gods smiled broadly and Deimos cackled maniacally. They moved towards Claudine and Lindos and pulled them away from their captors.
“No,” said Lindos. “Please help,” he added to Hercules.
The demi God folded his arms and stepped backwards, thoughts of the broken state Iolaus was in when he found him came to the forefront.
“I'm sure your heart hurts after hearing you didn't father the brat,” said Discord to Lindos. “This will make it smart even more.” And so quick it was imperceptible to mortal's eyes a knife materialised in her hand and she dug it into his chest.
Lindos screamed and fell to the floor and pulled the knife out which made the wound bleed even more.
“Lindos!” cried Claudine and she started to bend down to comfort him. “Not yet, Blondie,” said Deimos and he drew a knife from his belt, pulled back Claudine's hair and slit her throat.
Xena watched with detached interest. She had thought about Claudine and Lindos every day since that fateful day when they had forced her to drink from the chalice. Her feelings had ranged from pure hatred to fear of them reclaiming Lyceus to a need for revenge. But now, with Ares' news unsettling her she felt no great joy that they would no longer be a factor in her life; that she could finally reassure Gabrielle that justice had been served and that they would play no part in her son's life.
Her son. She looked at Lyceus who was now dozing comfortably in her arms, milk drunk. He was hers, all hers. She still struggled to understand and knew that it would take time for her to process it. She was still suspicious of Ares, and had she not had Artemis confirm it, she would not believe it.
Lindos looked at Xena and struggled to say, “I loved her. We had something special.”
Xena looked at him in disgust, “No you didn't. It was all in your mind.” She looked at Lyceus and smiled. “And he has nothing to do with you.” Lindos stared at her with an anguished face and breathed his last.
“Ares,” said Aphrodite.
“Oh yes,” said the handsome God. He turned to Discord and Deimos. “Take the trash out.”
They nodded and both disappeared as did the bodies of Lindos and Claudine.
“You can't deny you aren't pleased. Any of you. They got their just desserts and they're now out of your hair forever.”
“And so will you for Xena and her family,” said Athena. “You won't have a chance to pull stunts like this again. Father!” she yelled.
“Yeah right,” begin Ares but his smirk turned to surprise as Zeus materialised within the group.
“Thank you father,” said Athena.
“My daughter, it is so rare you ask anything of me,” he said. “What can I do?”
“Protect my daughter and her family from Ares, please Father. He has interfered so much in her life already and I can't bear to see her hurt because of him any more.” Athena's head dropped for a moment and when she looked up there were tears in her blue eyes. She ran her hand through her hair. “I have done so little for my child-my only child-please let me do this for her. I'll do anything you want.”
“Mother,” said Xena. “You have done so much for me. So much,” she said full of gratitude.
“Whatever it takes, Father,” said Aphrodite. “I'll even give up my jewellery.” She sniffed and Hephaestus patted her back comfortingly.
“Please father,” asked Hercules and stared at Zeus.
The older man stared his son and smiled. It was so rare that his children all wanted the same thing-and it didn't involve power or domination. He had watched Xena with a paternal eye since finding out she was his beloved daughter's child, and was impressed by her spirit.
“And my,” Aphrodite sniffed even more loudly, “make up.” She turned into Hephaestus' arms and he struggled to keep a straight face as did most of the group.
“That won't be necessary, my dear,” said Zeus, kindly. He looked at Xena. “You are my granddaughter, and the least I can do for you is this.” He then turned to Ares. “You will not be able to directly or indirectly harm, influence, manipulate or affect Xena and her family. In fact you will have nothing more to do with them.”
“What?” yelled Ares? “Father, you can't be serious. That's an –“
He stopped and suddenly smiled. “Fine. OK. You're right.” He held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture.
Athena and Artemis exchanged an anxious glance.
“Ares?” said Xena. “That's not like you to give in so quickly.”
“Maybe not, but I know when to withdraw and concentrate my efforts elsewhere,” he replied. Xena looked at him, her mind turning over the possibilities. She knew Ares; she knew he would not admit defeat so early. What was he planning? She knew that he was a proud, arrogant and impulsive man and hoped to use that to her advantage.
“Quick thinking, Ares. I have the upper hand for once in our relationship, and yet you try and fool everyone into think you still do.”
Ares reddened and said sharply, “And just how is Gabrielle? In Hades realm yet?”
Xena exchanged a look with Athena, both coming to the same realisation. “Hades.” They both said.
“Oh that's right, “said Ares. “You have no jurisdiction in Hades realm, Dad. When Gabrielle dies she is mine, as well as Solon of course. Hades owes me.”
“Father,” said Athena. “You can't let him harm my grandson.”
Zeus looked around and nodded and disappeared. Ephiny whispered to Epinon, “Do you think anyone will believe us if we told them?”
“Absolutely not,” murmured Epinon. “I think I have seen everything.”
“Not quite,” added Solari, as there were flashes of light and three people materialised.
Two were Gods, Zeus and Hades, and the other a blonde haired boy.
“Solon,” cried Xena and she ran towards him.
“Mother!” he cried and ran to his mother. He smiled when he saw the sleeping Lyceus in her arms. “Hi Bro,” he said.
“Oh Solon,” Xena said, and opened her arm and he ran in to it. Xena kissed his head as tears coursed down her face. Her heart was bursting as she held her sons. She had beaten the curse that Alti had placed on her-she had shown Solon she had loved him. She wanted to use every precious second she had with him.
“I love you so much,” she said. She didn't want this moment to end, and wished that Gabrielle could share it with her.
“I know mother, I love you too,” he said. He stroked Lyceus' head. “Cool, I always wanted a brother.”
Xena gave a strangled laugh. “Well here he is.” She inhaled deeply trying to get her fast beating heart to slow down. She exchanged a look of joy with Athena who was watching with delight. But her body chilled as Solon said, “I saw mum.”
“Gabrielle,” whispered Xena, horrified.
Solon looked surprised. “No, no, she's ok, she went back.”
Xena breathed out in relief. Solon must have seen Gabrielle as Aella and Solari brought her back to life.
“What happened?” asked Athena?
Solon launched into his story
Solon could see a figure appearing on the grass. His eyes widened as her realised just who it was, and he ran down the grassy hill. When he reached her, he knelt by her.
“Mum,” he said.
“Solon?” asked Gabrielle. She sat up and looked at her body, her hands feeling her chest, and finding no blood or wound. “Oh no,” she sobbed.
Solon wrapped his arms around her and felt another person kneel down next to him.
“Gabrielle,” said the voice. “You can go back. Fight it.”
“Perdicus?” said Gabrielle, and she looked up at him. “By the Gods!”
“Gabrielle, can you hear them?” said her former husband.
There was silence as they all strained to hear Solari and Aella's frantic cries.
“Go back, Gabrielle. Your family needs you,” said Perdicus.
Gabrielle looked at Solon and held his hand. “Oh Solon, we miss you so much.”
“I know,” said Solon. “But Lyceus and mother really need you. Fight.”
Gabrielle looked at them both and nodded. She concentrated on the voices. Gradually they become louder, and the peace she felt within her body disappeared and was replaced with a searing pain. She saw the two figures and Elysia disappear and her eyes grew heavy.
Solon watched as Gabrielle disappeared. Perdicus jumped up and held his hand out for him.
“Thank you,” said Perdicus.
“Do you think she'll live?” asked Solon shyly.
Perdicus stared into the distance. “I hope so, I really hope so.”
Xena smiled at him. “Thank you,” she said and said a silent thank you to Perdicus as well.
“Gabrielle still lives,” Hades added. “She is not within my realm.”
“Yet,” added Ares.
Hades turned to the God of war. “Yes, you are right. But I concur with my brother. You should not have access to the boy. My brother has requested that Solon, son of Xena and Borias, Grandson of Athena, shall live his natural life he would destined to live without the interference of Alti.” He turned to face Solon. “Solon, you can return to your mother if you wish.”
“Really?” asked Solon, joyfully?
“Yes,” said Hades. “Enjoy being with your family,” said the God of the Underworld and smiled as Xena held him tighter. He disappeared with a flash of light.
“Thank you, Hades,” said Xena tearfully. She was struggling to contain her joy; Solon was alive and Lyceus was her son. Two things she could not imagine in her wildest dreams.
“Come Ares,” said Zeus in a stern tone, and he clicked his fingers and the pair of them disappeared.
There was silence for a few moments and Iolaus said, “Anything else. I mean the night is still young.”
Hercules snorted. “Who knows?” He walked up to Xena. “You ok?”
Xena raised her eyebrows. “I think this will take a bit of getting used to.” She looked at Lyceus. “How is this possible?”
“Well, look at your parents,” said Hercules, with a smile.
Xena smiled weakly, the emotions of the last couple hours finally catching up with her. She was overjoyed that she would at long last be able to spend time with Solon and he was back living with her; that Lyceus was now safe and sound in her arms. But the fact he was her son-in every way- was confusing and she felt conflicted that Teles, Lindos and Claudine were all dead, but not by her hand. She would examine these feelings another time, in a less emotionally charged atmosphere and resolved to push them aside and enjoy their triumph.
“We need to get back to Gabrielle,” she said wearily.
“Well thanks to Asclepius, everyone is fit to travel,” said Joxer.
“What about these?” asked Dax indicating the prisoners?
“Allow me,” said Hephaestus, and with a click of the fingers all their weapons disappeared. “Where shall I send them?” he asked Athena.
“All over Greece ,” said Aphrodite, and Athena raised her eyebrow in a questioning manner to her sister.
“By dispersing them, you have reduced their power, coupled with the death of their leaders I am sure that it will reduce their influence for immorality,” said the Goddess of Love.
Xena was not the only person staring open mouthed at her.
“What? Some of this does rub off on me you know,” Aphrodite said defensively. “Is it ok?” she whispered nervously to Athena.
“Perfect,” said the Goddess with a warm smile, and within moments all Claudine and Lindos' army had disappeared.
“Well that's one problem sorted out,” said Hercules, smiling.
“And allow me to sort another,” said Athena and in an instant everyone was back at the Amazon village. “I know you don't like too much interference but I also know how much you wanted to get back to Gabrielle,” she said to Xena.
Xena nodded, and watched as yells of surprise reverberated around the village. There was general chaos as many amazons left their huts to see the unusual spectacle and those who had travelled went to find their loved ones.
“Oh wow!” said Solon wide eyed. “Can we see Mum?”
“Your mother is with her,” said Athena. “I thought it would be good if…well she is here. I didn't want to get Hecuba and Herodotus until things were more sorted.”
Xena nodded again. She knew that Gabrielle's parents would have been devastated by the fact their Grandson was missing and their daughter was seriously injured. “Thank you mother,” she said her voice laced with emotion. “For everything.” She looked pointedly at Solon, and then gave Athena a warm hug.
Athena smiled, unable to speak for a moment.
“Mo-ther, please, I want to see Mum,” said Solon.
Xena pulled away from Athena. “Wait son; let me check on her first. Why don't you go for a rest?”
“No,” Solon said angrily. “I want to see Mum. I know she is hurt, I can help her.”
Xena smiled at him, and shrugged. “Come on then, I'll introduce you to your other Grandmother.”
Xena turned and walked towards the healer's hut with Solon running next to her to keep a pace with her long strides. “Come on Mother,” said Xena over her shoulder and Athena smiled and joined them.
“Oh thank Gods,” cried Cyrene as soon as Xena walked into the hut. She leapt up from the chair next to Gabrielle and ran to Xena with open arms. She hugged her gently, aware of the sleeping Lyceus in the warrior's arms and then bent down and kissed his head.
“Oh Xena, thank goodness you have rescued dear Lyceus.” She tried to take him off Xena but Xena tightened her grip on her son.
“Mother, so good to see you. How's Gabrielle?”
“Xena!” said Piri. “You've got your boy back,” she added. “Everything alright?”
“Fine thanks Piri. Joxer is well.” She guessed that was of upmost importance to the healer. “ And its boys, I've got my boys back.”
Piri and Cyrene looked at her in surprise.
“Lyceus is my son. In every way. I-I fathered him,” she said to their astonished looks.
“And Mother, this is Solon, your Grandson.”
Solon stepped forward and held his hand out for Cyrene who stared dumbly at him and than at Xena, Athena and then back to Xena.
“This is Solon,” said Xena with a smile.
“Hi,” said Solon.
“B-But he's-Xena?” Cyrene looked at Xena in amazement.
“Zeus returned him from the underworld to protect him from Ares. He is back to live with us,” said Xena.
Cyrene looked at her grandson, and smiled widely, eyes filling up with tears. “Oh my!” she said and hugged Solon tightly.
Xena watched the happy scene and then turned her attention towards the bed. Gabrielle was still lying pale and unconscious and Xena felt the twin emotions of joy and despair. She walked slowly over to her, and sat on the chair vacated by Cyrene , and placed Lyceus on the bed, and wrapped Gabrielle's arm around him.
“Hey,” said Xena. She laid a protective arm over Lyceus and lent over and kissed Gabrielle on the forehead. “I've got him back, my love; I've got our boy back.” She watched as Lyceus instinctively nuzzled into Gabrielle, and smiled. She then turned her head and watched her parents and Piri fussing over a now very embarrassed Solon. She motioned with her head and he came to stand next to her.
“Mum,” he whispered. “She's so sick,” he said to Xena.
“Yes,” said Xena quietly. “But we are going to do everything we can for her, ok Solon?”
He nodded seriously, and Piri bought him a chair, which he sunk into.
“What can I do?” he asked.
Xena smiled. “You're not going to bed then?”
He shook his head vigorously. “I want to stay with you and Mum.”
“OK, talk to her.”
Solon was about to speak when Lyceus began to wake. He moved about until he realised he was lying next to his mother, and then squealed in delight. He then babbled and was reaching for her with his hands.
“Easy, easy,” murmured Xena and tried to pull him away, but Lyceus immediately started to grizzle.
Cyrene , Piri and Athena appeared at the other side of the bed and watched indulgently, Cyrene still sniffing.
“It'll be good for them both,” said Piri pointing at Lyceus.
“I can't believe it,” said Cyrene shaking her head. “Dear Solon has returned and Lyceus- Just how?” she asked Athena
“It's impossible,” said Xena, “I still can't believe it.”
“Well,” said Athena drawing out the word. “I think I know what happened, Xena.”
“But I couldn't-“
“You did,” said Athena. “Well it as a mixture of you, Solon and Aphrodite.”
Solon's eyes widened. “What did I do?” he asked fearfully.
“What did you wish for when Gabrielle left the underworld?” said Athena gently.
“I so wanted you and Mum to have a child,” said Solon, seriously. “You were so sad when I died and Mum was so unhappy about Hope, I kept wishing you would have a baby, and be happy. When I said goodbye to Mum in Elysia I thought that.”
“But Solon wishing wouldn't have caused Lyceus,” said Cyrene .
“No not alone, but Aphrodite told me she visited Gabrielle in the hospice,” said Athena with a wry smile.
“Hey beautiful,” said Aphrodite.
She sat on the chair next to the bed and looked around. “I'm sure Xena will be here soon, sweetie. It's a bit drab though.” She sniffed loudly and looked back at Gabrielle who was lying still in the bed.
“You deserve every happiness little one. You and your warrior both.” She placed her hand on Gabrielle's stomach, and it glowed. I want you to be happy.”
The goddess kissed Gabrielle and disappeared.
Xena ran her hand through her hair. “What did that airhead do?” she hissed.
Athena rolled her eyes. “Between Solon wishing Gabrielle and you to have a child, Aphrodite wishing you both to happy, and energising Gabrielle, and you being half-God, it was enough to create Lyceus-a child that would make you both happy.”
Xena looked down at Lyceus who was settling next to Gabrielle. “He has that!”
“So he is really Xena's? Not that man's at all?” said Cyrene .
“I always thought he looked like Xena, but thought it was wishful thinking.”
“You were right Reanie,” said Athena. “Lyceus is totally Xena's son, and your Grandson.”
“Our Grandson,” corrected Cyrene gently. “But he always was my Grandson. And now I am blessed with two.” She looked at Solon and smiled warmly.
“My feelings haven't changed towards him at all,” said Xena quietly. “Like he was mine all along.”
“He was,” said Piri pointedly. “He was always your son.”
Xena eased herself up from her sprawled position on the bed. She blinked as her eyes were getting accustomed to the light. Gabrielle was in the same position, still pale, and cool to the touch as Xena stroked the back of her hand across her cheek. Lyceus was asleep cuddled to Gabrielle with Xena's arm still lying protectively over him, and Solon was also asleep, half leant on the bed, with a blanket over him.
Xena stretched and looked around and smiled as she saw Ephiny and Aella sitting with Piri and Joxer each having a drink and sharing breakfast. She was loathe to leave her position, and Ephiny sensed this and got up and walked to her.
“How's things?” asked Xena.
Ephiny smiled. “Everyone's still a bit shocked! Not every day that you meet half a dozen Gods, find out your girl-friend has fathered a child and Solon-“she pointed at the sleeping boy.
“I know,” Xena released a long breath. “Thank you, Eph, what you have done.”
Aella hobbled up to Ephiny's side.
“How are you feeling?” asked Xena.
“Getting there,” said Aella. Her eyes turned to Gabrielle's still form. “No change for Gabrielle?”
Xena shook her head.
“Look Xena, why don't you get freshened up? We can stay with the boys. You could do with a good meal.”
Xena shook her head, and looked at Lyceus.
“Xena, I'll take him to your mother,” said Ephiny. She said gently, “he'll be safe here.”
“I know,” said Xena and looked away with tears in her eyes. “I haven't been able to let him go yet.”
“Well let me take him,” said Cyrene as she joined the group. “He‘ll want his breakfast soon, and so will Solon. You could do with a bath.”
“Mother! I am quite capable in looking after myself,” said Xena exasperated. “I am not six years old.”
“I meant, have a relaxing bath and something to eat. The last few days have been extremely stressful for you Xena, just relax a little.”
“Not with her like that!” snapped Xena.
“Xena,” said Cyrene soothingly and looked in her daughter's eyes for a long moment.
Xena finally nodded and gave Gabrielle a long look. “Okay, but if-“
“We know,” said Ephiny. “Go to our hut and have a bath there. I'll send some food to your hut and then you can have breakfast with your sons.”
Xena smiled. “Still getting used to that,” she said. “I like the sound of it though!”
Xena groaned as she heard the knock on the door. Although she had argued against the bath, she had enjoyed it immensely. Her muscles had ached from the past few days riding, fighting and worrying and it was wonderful to soak them in the warm, scented water. She had originally meant to be a matter of minutes but she realised that she need time to relax, and sort her thoughts out following the momentous occurrences. However the lure of simply dreaming about her family was too much and she found herself thinking of them.
She finally dragged herself out of the tub when the water cooled, and was now putting on a clean tunic that Ephiny had thoughtfully left out for her. She hurriedly pulled it over her head and in bare feet made her way to the door.
“Piri,” she said. “Aella and Eph-wait is it Gabrielle?” she said urgently.
“Yes,” said the healer and walked passed the warrior. “Shut the door Warrior, and sit down.”
Xena did as she was bid wordlessly. Piri stood in front of her and took a deep breath in before speaking.
“I wanted to speak to you by yourself,” she began. Xena looked at her with fearful eyes. “I thought I should tell you first and then it is up to you what you tell your family. I'm glad you stepped away for a moment as it has given me a chance to check The Queen's condition.”
Xena held her breath, and dumbly looked at Piri's hand as grasped one of Xena's.
“I didn't want to say anything until I was sure. Joxer confirms it too. The Queen…she's beginning to become more conscious. I think she'll wake up later today.”
Xena released the breath, and covered her mouth with her free hand.
“You sure?” she said in a choked voice.
“I like to think so,” said Piri with a little smile. “She's responding to touch and I notice she appears more uncomfortable and fidgety. All good signs. I am sure your arrival back has helped.”
“Gods,” whispered Xena and stood up. She walked to the table and lent her hands on it keeping her back to Piri. “Prognosis?”
“Should be a good recovery,” said Piri. “May take a while, but I know she'll have lots of support. Athena practically had to carry Solon from her side.”
Xena gave a weak smile which fell from her face quickly. “Solon,” she whispered, “and Lyceus. I have to tell her.”
“All good news,” said the healer.
“Maybe,” said Xena quietly and turned around. “I don't want Lyceus' parentage mentioned in front of her-until I tell her.”
“Of course not Warrior,” said Piri. “But she'll be overjoyed as we all are.”
Xena gave a grunt and hunted out her boots.
“Xena?” said the healer concerned. “What is it?”
“Gotta see the boys,” Xena said and once her boots were on, quickly headed out the door.
“Enjoying the food?” said Xena as she entered her hut. Lyceus was sitting in his high chair and started babbling as he spotted her. Xena went to him, and gave him a kiss and got covered in mashed apple in return.
Solon rose from the table. “Can we go back to see Mum?”
“Wait a moment Solon,” said Cyrene . “Let your mother have something to eat.”
Xena grabbed a hunk of bread and before she put it in her mouth said, “We'll go shortly.”
“Xena sit down and eat something,” said Cyrene in despair.
Xena begrudgingly sat down and chewed her bread. Athena poured her a drink and placed the mug in front of her. Xena gave her a curt nod and when she had finished her bread, drank the juice quickly.
“Xena take your time,” said Cyrene .
“Mother,” began Xena, and looked away for a moment. “I need to get back to her.” She gave a slight smile. “Piri thinks she may wake up soon.”
Cyrene clapped her hands together and Solon hurried towards her. “Really, mother. She's going to be fine?”
“Yes,” said Xena and gave him a warm smile.
“I'm, I'm going to change,” said Solon excitedly, and hurried to the curtained area in the corner.
“I got him some clothes, I hope you don't mind,” said Athena.
Xena smiled, and went to Lyceus. She kissed his head and rested her hand on it.
“What's wrong Xena?” asked Athena. She looked at her daughter's melancholic face. “You should be ecstatic. Gabrielle's recovering, Solon is returned, Lyceus is your child. What's wrong child?”
Xena stared at her mothers. She couldn't vocalise her thoughts, as she couldn't marshal them into any sort of order. She felt unease about anything to do with Lindos and Claudine, and knew that had heightened her disquiet; and yet there was more, and she knew it would take time, and no doubt the bard, to work through them.
“Been a long few days,” she said.
Athena nodded but Cyrene continued to stare at her not content with her answer. But before she could speak Athena said, “Xena I was going to fetch Hecuba and Herodotus.”
“Who are they?” asked Solon emerging with fresh clothes on.
“Gabrielle's parents,” said Xena.
Solon looked slightly worried.
“They'll love you,” said Cyrene .
Solon looked at Xena.
“They will,” she reiterated. “Herodotus is a wonderful role model, son. You can learn a lot from him.” She turned to Athena. “Thank you, Gabrielle would like that. Come on boys, let's go and see Mum.”
Xena smiled at the sight of Solon sitting on the floor playing with Lyceus. She then turned her attention back to Gabrielle, and reached for a cloth. She dipped it in a bowl of water and dabbed it on Gabrielle's dry lips.
Xena withdrew the cloth as she saw Gabrielle instinctively lick her lips. Excitement swept through her and she turned to her sons. “Solon, bring Lye.”
Solon obediently picked up his brother and came to sit next to his mother. They waited for several minutes until after blinking several times, Gabrielle opened her eyes. She tried to focus and opened her mouth several times and again licked her lips.
“Gabrielle,” whispered Xena. She put her hand on the now excitable Solon who was struggling to contain himself. Xena had spoken to him about breaking the incredible news of his return carefully to Gabrielle, but she could sense his exhilaration at Gabrielle's imminent recovery was over coming him.
“Xena.” The name was said quietly.
“I got him, my love, our boy is safe,” said Xena with tears in her eyes.
Gabrielle inhaled deeply and then winced as she felt the pain across her chest. She looked at Xena, and slowly gave her a smile. “Thank you,” she said hoarsely, and shut her eyes.
Xena took Lyceus from Solon's lap and held out a restraining hand to Solon. She placed him on the bed and he immediately reached for Gabrielle. She smiled as she felt his small hand on her face, and opened her eyes.
“Oh Gods,” she said and started to cry. “I'm sorry.”
“Gabrielle, it's fine, he's safe,” said Xena slightly alarmed by the bard's reaction. “And there's more.”
At this Solon moved behind his mother into Gabrielle's line of sight. The bard stared at him and then at Xena in shock.
“He's back with us for good,” said Xena.
Gabrielle looked at Solon and smiled warmly. He looked slightly embarrassed and reached over Xena to clasp her hand.
Xena turned her head and looked at her now delighted son, and then back to Gabrielle. She was mouthing words to Lyceus who was settling to sleep next to her.
“I love you,” said Xena and stroked the long pale hair.
Gabrielle barely nodded before her eyes shut.
“Good to see you Dad,” said Gabrielle, and then gave a little cough.
“Hey sweetie, I didn't think you were awake,” said Herodotus. “Do you want anything?”
“I'm fine,” said Gabrielle with a groan, and carefully moved her hand to grasp her father's.
“Well you're not, but you certainly look better than when your mother saw you.”
“Missed Mother. Guess I have been sleeping a lot, eh?” Gabrielle swallowed and grimaced as she moved around the bed trying to get in a slightly more comfortable position.
“Well it's late now. Xena has taken the boys to bed, although I am not sure there will be too much sleeping with all the grandmas fussing over them.” Herodotus gently stroked his daughter's hand. “Solon's a lovely boy.”
Gabrielle nodded slightly and coughed again. Herodotus stroked her hair and helped to soothe her.
“Oh Gabby,” he said and started to sob.
“Dad, Father,” said Gabrielle in as strong voice as she could muster. “It's ok. I'll be up before you'll know it.”
“When Athena told us about what, that-that animal did, taking Lyceus, injuring you, oh my,” he rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Its fine, I'm getting better. Lyceus is unharmed, and untroubled.”
“Well you rest up my dear, and soon you'll be up playing with him.”
“I just don't believe it,” said Hecuba. Cyrene and Athena exchanged a glance and Cyrene poured Hecuba a mug of wine. Gabrielle's mother picked it up and drank it down in one gulp.
“So you're his father? Really? So Lindos isn't-“
“Has nothing to do with Lyceus. He is all Xena,” said Athena.
“And Gabrielle,” added Cyrene . “She did have something to do with it.” She smiled and looked at Xena who was leaning over the sleeping Lyceus' cot looking pensive. She didn't react at all and Cyrene looked back at the two other women.
“What's wrong?” mouthed Hecuba.
Cyrene and Athena both shrugged.
“Gabrielle will be so thrilled to hear this,” said Hecuba.
“Do you think so?” said Xena bitterly. She turned from the cot and glanced at the sleeping Solon, tucked up in their bed.
“What?” Said Cyrene in astonishment.
“Gabrielle was pregnant when we met Lindos and Claudine. I nearly killed her, both of them, Lindos of all people stopped me,” said Xena, whispering the last six words. “And then I tortured her and handed her to be raped. Great parent I am.” She stood defiantly looking from one woman to another.
“You didn't know she was pregnant,” said Athena. She stood up and walked to Xena but her daughter stepped back from her outstretched hand. “And even if it was obvious, the chalice robs you of everything. That wasn't you, and you know that.”
“Xena we've been through this,” began Cyrene .
“True, I didn't know she was pregnant, but I led her into danger, I hurt her. I could have injured Lyceus, or, or worse,” said Xena her voice rising.
“But you didn't,” said Hecuba gently. “Xena, your child was a miracle; you don't think maybe he had a bit of protection? I mean look at him. He wasn't affected.”
“But Gabrielle was.”
“And she recovered. She knew of the chalice's power. Xena you can't believe she would prefer Lindos to have fathered Lyceus over you.”
After Athena's words there was an awkward silence, until Xena spoke.
“I'm going back to Gabrielle,” and she stomped out of the hut.
All the women looked at each other too shocked to speak for a moment.
“I don't know what goes through her head sometimes,” said Cyrene .
“Nothing good at the moment, Reanie,” said Athena. “And I am not sure how we fix it.”
“I'm sure we do know,” said Hecuba. “And the only person who could at the moment can't.”
“You haven't been there all night have you?” whispered Gabrielle. Xena was sitting in a chair with her feet up on another one. Light was filtering in through the windows, and the hut was quiet.
“Nowhere else I'd rather be,” said Xena and brought her feet to the floor and stretched her body with a groan.
“Will you help me sit up?” said Gabrielle.
“Let's not rush things,” said Xena and gently stroked her hair.
“I'm stiff Xena and need a new perspective.”
“OK,” said the warrior and stood up. After re arranging the pillows, she gently placed one arm behind Gabrielle's back and the other under her knees and moved her into a sitting position in the bed.
“Whoa,” said Gabrielle. “Headrush.” She blinked a few times before getting her bearings. Xena cupped her face and then turned to table and picked up a mug and held it close to Gabrielle.
“Broth,” said Xena before Gabrielle could question her.
Gabrielle looked appeased, and she patted the bed. “Don't make me beg,” she said.
With mock annoyance Xena shuffled onto the bed next to Gabrielle, and placed one arm around her and the other held the mug for her.
“How you doing?” asked Xena, and kissed the side of Gabrielle's face.
“Tired, sore, but so happy. Oh Xena, you must be so pleased to have Solon back.”
“I am,” said Xena quietly and watched as Gabrielle sipped the broth. She looked away for a moment and Xena wondered if she was thinking of her dead daughter, and so she squeezed her gently.
Gabrielle put her head on her shoulder and sighed.
“How's he coping with everything? He must be so pleased to be back with you.”
“Us. He was so excited to see you again. And your father is proving a big hit. They are spending the day together.”
Gabrielle took another sip from the mug and then coughed. “Gods I am so tired.”
“It's going to take time, don't rush it.” Xena rested her chin on Gabrielle's head. “I thought you were going to die,” she said in a quiet voice. “And I'd lost Lyceus forever.”
“Oh Xe.” With difficulty Gabrielle turned to look at Xena. She ran the back of her hand down Xena's cheek and Xena grasped it and kissed it. “You've been through so much.”
Xena gave a quick smile and a snort.
“Tell me what happened?”
There was a silence and Gabrielle looked closely at her partner slightly concerned at the pensive look on her face. She grimaced as she bumped her slightly. “Let me guess you tracked them down, fought them singlehandedly, killed the bad-“Gabrielle stopped and swallowed. “He is dead isn't he?”
“Lindos? Yes he is. And Teles and Claudine.” Xena felt Gabrielle bury her face into her shoulder and her body shake. She held her until the shaking stopped.
“What do you want to know?” asked Xena, realising that Gabrielle had a need to know what happened.
“I'm a bard-everything,” and they both gave a small chuckle, although both were slightly nervous.
“You know the battle was a ploy? Hercules paid all the mercenaries off and we came back to the village.” Xena shut her eyes remembering one of her darkest moments-Gabrielle lying critically injured and Lyceus kidnapped. “I-I was destroyed, I couldn't function.”
“But you did, Xe. You tracked-“
“NO I DIDN'T!” Xena turned from Gabrielle and put her head in her hands. “Solari and Iolaus did-they tracked you. I merely followed in the army. Aella and Solari saved your life, they literally brought you back from Hades and then Joxer treated you. Ephiny killed Teles and the Gods killed Lindos and Claudine. I didn't do anything.”
“Oh Xena,” Gabrielle awkwardly and with some discomfort turned towards her, and gently rubbed her back. Xena at first tried to shake her hand away, but Gabrielle persisted and her hand made soothing circles.
“You nearly died protecting Lyceus; you're the hero, not me. Don't look at me like I am.”
“But you're mine, Xena. Do you honestly think you'd be more heroic to me if you had killed Lindos, Claudine or Teles? You saved Aella's life and half the village figuring out the water source was poisoned. You saved Ephiny when she was giving birth and don't get me started how many times you have saved me or Joxer. You are still and you'll always be my hero.”
Xena turned into Gabrielle and hugged her tightly causing the bard to inhale deeply and screw her face up in discomfort. But still she held on as Xena sobbed. She saw Joxer and Piri enter the hut and after exchanging a glance they backed out the door quickly.
By the time Xena pulled away Gabrielle was pale and biting her lip. They rested their foreheads together.
“Oh Gods,” said Xena emotionally.
“I love you,” said Gabrielle. She looked up and saw pain still present in her partner's eyes. She wanted to help, to dig deep and find out what the source was but she was tired and the ache was beginning to invade her body.
“Xena I-“She was beginning to feel a new pain in her stomach-a burning pain, and she suddenly felt slightly lightheaded.
“Gabrielle there is something I need to tell you.” Xena got up and paced up and down oblivious to Gabrielle's obvious discomfort. She hadn't planned to tell Gabrielle today about Lyceus but she felt a need to unburden herself. She wanted to rid herself of this swirling maelstrom of emotion inside of her, and telling Gabrielle was always a place to start. “I wasn't going to tell you today, but I must.” She stopped pacing and turned to face the bard who was using her energy to concentrate on Xena.
“Lindos didn't father Lyceus.”
Whatever Gabrielle was expecting Xena to say, this was not it. She stared at the warrior opened mouth. “He must have,” she whispered when she could form the words.
“He didn't,” said Xena. “I did.”
There was silence as Gabrielle took in the enormity of the words. She willed herself to concentrate but that was becoming more difficult every passing second.
“You were pregnant when we came across Claudine and Lindos-remember the sickness. That's why he was so big when he was born, he wasn't early, and he was on time.” Xena spoke calmly even though her heart was racing and her palms sweating.
Gabrielle could feel her grasp on consciousness loosening. “Xena I don't-“
“What?” snapped Xena, her frayed nerves affected by Gabrielle's puzzling reaction? She thought the bard would be overjoyed and yet she seemed strangely impassive.
“So he's nothing to do with Lindos,” gasped Gabrielle?
“No nothing. You can put that all behind you, forget about him. You won't see Lindos in him anymore.”
Gabrielle felt a wave of anger despite her worsening condition. “I will never forget what he did to me never. Like I can forget what he did, what he was-thinking Lyceus' father was the lowest form of man.”
Xena shook her head from side to side in disbelief and anger. “Instead it's me-a murderer who handed you over to be raped, who beat and tortured you when you were carrying my child, who left you to Alti's clutches. I bet that makes it all alright.”
Without looking back Xena strode angrily out of the hut, and pushed past a surprised Joxer and Piri. She then started to pick and speed and ran out of the village.
Joxer and Piri looked at each other perplexed and then entered the hut. To their horror they saw Gabrielle lying across the floor.
Joxer knelt down and picked her up while Piri cast a critical eye over her.
“Gabrielle,” said the older woman gently.
Gabrielle slowly opened her eyes and her lips moved but no sound came out, and then she closed her eyes again and drifted into unconsciousness.
“I'll get the family, Jay,” said Piri.
“She needs Xena,” said Joxer.
“I'm not sure she wants to be found,” said Piri before exiting the door.
Xena ran. She had no Argo to push along; no weapons to drill with until her muscles ached. So she ran as far away from the village as possible.
“I-I don't understand. She was so well,” Hecuba's bewildered expression was mirrored in Cyrene and Athena's expressions.
“It's not an infection, I am pretty sure of that. But I can't rule out more bleeding inside,” said Piri and turned to look at Gabrielle who was being tended to by Joxer.
“What happened to make Xena bolt?” asked Athena to no one in particular.
“I don't know what was going through that girl's head. She was acting so irrationally. Everything was going so well,” said Cyrene and she wrapped an arm around Hecuba who she could see was struggling to keep her self together.
“The warrior had several life changing events happen in the space of a few days. It's not unusual for people to react illogically,” said Piri.
The small group was joined by Epinon and Ephiny. The weapons master shook her head dolefully. “I'm sorry, we haven't found her yet.”
Athena gave a weak smile. “That's not a problem. She needs some time alone.”
“The Queen may not have much time,” said Piri gently and shot a quick look at Hecuba. Gabrielle's mother froze. “I'm sorry,” added the healer.
“Isn't there anything that can be done?” asked Ephiny urgently.
Piri looked at Hecuba and then exchanged a glance with her husband. “There is something we saw at Hippocrates' temple. It would mean cutting into Gabrielle and trying to fix where she is bleeding from.”
“Do it,” said Hecuba quickly. “Even if it's a small chance, you must give her that chance.”
Joxer nodded. “We'll have a better chance with Xena here,” he said simply.
“Fine. I'll go and talk to her,” said Athena.
“Me too,” said Cyrene . Athena nodded and walked to her partner and both were gone in a flash of light.
“Do you want us to bring back Herodotus and Solon?” asked Ephiny gently.
Hecuba sniffed. “No, let them have their day. They'd only worry.”
The amazons nodded. “Come on Hecuba, let's go back to Lyceus. I am sure Solari is worn out by now.”
Hecuba smiled weakly and allowed herself to be guided by Epinon.
Ephiny remained and she walked to Gabrielle's side and clutched her hand.
“No.” said Piri. “She fell out of bed. Whether that has caused this I am not sure.”
“I am sorry, I had to ask.” Ephiny looked slightly uncomfortable.
“I know. But I do know that the warrior is suffering at the moment. I hope for her sake and The Queen's her mothers get through to her.”
Ephiny kissed Gabrielle's hand and then walked away wordlessly, pausing only as she passed Piri to lay a hand on Piri's shoulder.
Xena cursed that she didn't have any weapons with her. She paused at a stream and knelt by it and cupped her hand and drank deeply. She would have to start running soon; anything to avoid these thoughts that were swirling around her head and the emotions that were encompassing her.
“What the-“she muttered. “NOT NOW. NOT BLOODY NOW!”
She felt the energy and was unsurprised to see the flash of light. She was surprised to see who materialised in front of her.
“Leave me,” she said angrily and turned once again to drink from the stream.
“Why would we do that?” said Cyrene . “You need us.”
Xena gave an ironic laugh. “Oh now you are both here offering your support. A bit rich, especially from you Athena.” Her words dripped with bitterness.
Athena put a restraining hand on Cyrene 's arm as the mortal woman was about to open her mouth and defend Xena's other parent.
“Fancy some sparring?” asked Athena calmly.
Xena smiled ferally although it dropped from her face when two staffs materialised, one in each of Athena's hands.
“Oh come on,” she yelled.
“Take it or leave it,” said Athena with a shrug and threw one of the staves to Xena.
Xena caught it and in one fluid movement stepped towards Athena and aimed a hit towards her ribs. The Goddess grimaced and easily blocked the move and took a step backwards to get better balance.
“Ha!” cried Xena and moved forward again swing the staff.
“Reanie, stay back at all times,” said Athena, and she had barely got the words out when Xena landed her first hit on Athena's shoulder.
The sparring lasted for over an hour. Some of the hits were so ferocious that Cyrene could feel the vibrations where she was standing. Xena was drenched in sweat, and had beginnings of several bruises on her upper left arm and right thigh. Athena had a miss-shapen nose where a direct hit had broken it, and she had not fixed it yet.
Cyrene had watched with a mixture of pride, concern and awe. She had not interfered but she could see that Xena was beginning to tire and she had Piri's words about Gabrielle not having much time racing through her head.
“Please stop,” she said.
Xena shook her head. “Why would I stop this? This is what I am good at.”
“Not just this,” said Athena. “Fighting doesn't define you.”
“No killing does,” snapped back Xena. “And I didn't kill the person I hated most in the world-again.”
Athena dropped her guard down. “Is that was this is about? Guilt you didn't kill Lindos.”
“NOT JUST THAT!” Xena yelled and hit Athena with a barrage of hits. The Goddess merely stood still until the flurry of strikes subsided. Xena then sank to her knees, spent.
“She died for me. Gave up her child for me, risked her life for our son, and what have I done for her?” She wiped her streaming eyes and finally dropped the staff. Cyrene hurried to her and fell to her knees too and hugged her.
“Don't think like that, Xena. Gabrielle loves you,” said Cyrene .
“Why wasn't she happy about Lyceus then?” said Xena in an almost accusing tone.
Cyrene and Athena exchange a look. Not wanting to tell Xena of Gabrielle's condition until she was calmer, this would prove awkward.
“She is recovering. It's a lot to take in. You can't believe she would prefer Lyceus to be a son of rapist?”
“Well he is a son of a warlord,” said Xena bitterly.
Athena walked to the pair. She was immaculate now; no signs of the long sparring session. She held out a newly materialised waterskin for Xena.
Xena nodded her thanks and took a long drink.
“Ex warlord Xena. That's the difference. And Solon and Lyceus will know of the bad you have done, but also the good,” said Athena. Xena looked up with a flicker of fear across her face. “I am sure they will grow proud of their mother for what she has become.” As Xena opened her mouth to speak, Athena held her hand up to stop her. “Xena it must have been a terrible shock for Gabrielle. It will take time for her to separate the terrible act of what Lindos did with her love for Lyceus.”
Xena closed her eyes and remembered Gabrielle's angry retort. How could she expect the Bard to forget so quickly one of the defining moments of her life? She sighed and opened her eyes and looked into the blue eyes of her immortal parent and nodded in agreement.
“She always thought of you as Lye's other parent, so why wouldn't she be happy when it's the truth?” asked Cyrene gently.
Xena slumped to the ground on her backside and placed her head between her raised knees. “All I can think about was what I did to her when I was under the influence of the chalice,” said Xena.
“That's right Xena you were under the influence. It wasn't you. You didn't know she was pregnant, but even if you did, nothing would have been different. It was not your fault.” Athena smiled and waved a hunk of fresh bread in front of her. “We've been through this, and so has Gabrielle. You need to accept it.”
Xena bit into the bread and chewed it and looked at her parents who were both watching her attentively. “Is it so hard to accept the good things in your life without questioning that you don't deserve them?”
Xena stopped chewing and looked at Athena, as did Cyrene with a surprised expression.
“How can I accept this Mother? I have everything I could dream of now-my soulmate, Solon, Lyceus, friends, family. I have destroyed so many people's lives. So many have suffered because of me-you and Gabrielle have both lost children.”
“Oh Xena,” said Cyrene and hugged her. “You have suffered too, and you will carry that burden of guilt and pain with you for the rest of your life. That's not easy to do, and many would struggle with it. But don't forget all the good you have done, all the people who are alive because of you.”
“And there are many, Xena. You can use your experience to stop warlords and fighting and killing. To teach your sons how they can become good men. Don't under estimate that.” Athena crouched onto her haunches and cupped Xena's face. “I am so proud of you, Xena; of what you have become. I am proud to be your mother.”
Xena's head dropped and there was silence. Cyrene and Athena took the opportunity to exchange a message wordlessly and both nodded.
“I-I didn't mean what I said,” Xena said and put her head in her hands.
“I know you didn't. But we do mean what we said. You are deserving of these gifts-don't allow yourself to be mired in guilt otherwise you won't be able to appreciate them,” Athena stood up and a cloth materialised in her hands. She walked to the stream and dipped it in, and brought back the damp cloth and handed it to her daughter.
Cyrene stood up while Xena took her time wiping herself off. When finished she sat still for a moment contemplating. She felt so much better, although she knew she still had to face Gabrielle.
She jumped to her feet. “Thank you.”
Her mothers both went to her and the three of them embraced.
“We are so proud of you,” said Cyrene . “And you never have to thank us for this; this is our job.”
Xena snorted, and pulled away. Cyrene held onto her arm and squeezed it.
“Xena there is something we must tell you. We knew we had to wait until you were, were-“
“Calmer,” added Cyrene . She inhaled deeply. “Gabrielle has had a relapse. She is very sick.”
There was silence, and Xena stared from one parent to the other. She opened her mouth to speak but no words came out and looked beseechingly at Cyrene .
“Piri thinks it could be more bleeding inside. She wants to try something new,” said Cyrene as soothingly as she could.
“What happened?” Said Xena finally finding her voice.
Cyrene shrugged her shoulders. “After you left, Piri and Joxer found her.”
Xena turned away and ran her hand through her hair. “I need to get back to her.”
Athena walked to her and laid her hand on her shoulder. “Are you ready?”
Xena turned to face her. “Thanks to my parents I am.”
The three women materialised outside the medical hut. Xena realised immediately the gravity of the situation as there was a small crowd standing around, as if waiting for news. Epinon immediately walked towards her, and grasped her arm in a warrior handshake.
“Any news?” asked Cyrene urgently.
Epinon shook her head. “Eph's in there with Piri and Joxer.”
“Where are Lye and Solon?” asked Xena.
“Solon is with Herodotus; Hecuba said they shouldn't be told.”
Xena nodded her approval. “She's right. Lyceus with Hecuba?”
“Yes they are in the hut too.”
Xena strode towards the hut past the hushed crowd with Cyrene and Athena following her.
As she entered the hut, she saw Hecuba sitting with Lyceus on her lap and Ephiny and Aella sitting either side of her, the Regent with her arm around Gabrielle's mother.
All three looked up and she could see that Hecuba was crying. She smiled weakly when she saw her daughter's partner and Xena walked towards her and knelt in front of her. Lyceus immediately made a grab for her and she took him in her arms and kissed his head. She then looked at Hecuba.
“How are you child?” she asked shakily.
“I-I'm fine,” replied Xena. “Worried.”
“I think Piri and Joxer could use your assistance,” said Ephiny.
Xena kissed Lyceus on his cheek and handed the baby back to Hecuba and gave the women a nod. She laid a hand on Ephiny's arm and looked into the regent's concerned, caramel eyes.
“Thank you,” she whispered, and sighed and stood up.
She ignored Lyceus frantic grabs towards her, took a deep breath and turned towards where Piri and Joxer were tending to Gabrielle. They had placed a screen between them and the waiting women, and Xena manoeuvred past it.
The couple looked up and both of them wore relieved expressions.
Xena looked at Gabrielle, and saw that her legs were covered by a sheet and Piri was in the middle of washing Gabrielle's stomach. Joxer was busy selecting instruments and placing them on a table. The bard was pale, eyes closed and Xena could see the shallow rise and fall of her chest for herself. She moved to Gabrielle's head and bent down and whispered to her, “I'm here, sweetheart. Now get better so you can kick my butt.”
She then looked questioningly towards Piri.
“I think she is bleeding inside,” said Piri and swallowed, “We're going to open her up and try to stop the bleeding.” The healer's voice became shaky.
“Piri,” said Joxer and the healer looked at her husband and smiled.
“You've not done this before, have you?” Said Xena.
Piri shook her head.
“How can I help?” asked Xena. She looked down at Gabrielle, and ran her fingers gently through her hair. “She'll die otherwise. At least you are giving her a chance.”
“I doubt she'll waken, warrior, but just in case maybe you could work your magic,” said Piri, and she put the damp cloth to one side, and selected a sharp knife with a shaking hand. Joxer covered her hand with his own.
“Of course, but know I am staying right here,” said Xena and with deft fingers pressed down on pressure points on Gabrielle's neck.
“Here goes,” whispered Piri, and started to cut into Gabrielle's stomach.
Xena took one step beyond the screen and immediately everyone who were seated stood up, except for Hecuba who had a sleeping Lyceus sprawled out over her.
“Well?” asked Cyrene urgently.
“Piri stopped the bleeding-just in time,” said Xena. She ran a hand over her forehead. “And Gabrielle has come through it. That's what we wanted.”
“And?” said Ephiny.
“Piri thinks it's a question of waiting, but the signs are good,” said Xena with a relieved smile. “Hecuba, why don't you go and see her?”
Hecuba nodded and eased the baby onto Aella's lap. As she walked passed Xena, the warrior held out her hand and the older woman took it and squeezed it.
“Do you want anything to eat or drink?” asked Athena.
But before Xena could reply the door opened and Solon and Herodotus came into the hut. Herodotus took a look around and gave a questioning look to Xena, but Solon was less subtle. He charged up to his mother and demanded, “Where's Mum? I heard someone saying she was sick. What happened?”
“It's ok Solon; she just had a little relapse. But we think she'll be fine.”
“You think?” he cried and looked over Xena's shoulder. “Mum?”
“Solon, why not come with us?” asked Cyrene . She was now holding Lyceus.
“Boy wants to see his mother,” said Herodotus. “That's ok isn't it?”
Xena smiled at the man and nodded. Herodotus clapped Solon on his shoulder. “Come on,” he said gently. Solon took the older man's arm and they walked through to see Gabrielle.
“We'll go and tell the crowd the news,” said Ephiny. “If you need anything, Xena, just yell.”
“Thank you.” Xena was genuine in her gratitude.
Within moments Xena was alone in the area, and she slumped into a chair. The past few hours were beginning to catch up on her and she felt emotionally and physically spent. She shut her eyes for a moment-which turned into an hour long sleep.
Xena was immediately awake after she heard her name whispered. To her surprise she was covered with a blanket. She jumped to her feet, sending the blanket falling to the floor.
Joxer was watching her with an amused look. He gestured to Xena and the warrior followed him to where Gabrielle lay. Piri was leaning over Gabrielle with a concentrated look on her face. She looked up and smiled when she saw Xena.
“Warrior this is for you,” she said and then walked away accompanied by Joxer.
Xena could see her lips moving and leant over her. The bard was barely whispering and Xena strained to hear her.
“Xena, so pleased about Lyceus,” she whispered.
“Me too,” said Xena and kissed Gabrielle's forehead and cupped her face.
“What are you doing up?” said Xena incredulously.
Solon hung his head, and mumbled something.
“Solon,” said Xena, and patted the empty chair next to her.
He sat with her and she wrapped an arm around him.
“I sneaked out of the hut,” he said. “I wanted to see you.”
Xena felt a mixture of pride and exasperation and briefly thought of what she had put her mother through at Solon's age.
“Well stay for a little bit-I haven't really spent as much time with you as I wanted.”
“It's been hard with Mum so ill,” said Solon and he looked towards the sleeping Gabrielle.
“But you had a good time with Herodotus, didn't you,” asked Xena.
Solon's face lit up. “Oh yes it was really good. He knows so much about animals and plants.” His face dropped a bit.
“Don't worry; I am sure you'll see a lot of him. He and Hecuba will be a part of your life.”
“It's not that,” said Solon and frowned as he struggled for words. “I really enjoyed hearing about the farm-it sounded really cool. But-“he gave a quick glance to his mother, “I know you don't think much-“
“Solon!” said Xena louder than she meant to. She looked at Gabrielle, but satisfied that she hadn't disturbed her, she turned back to Solon. “If you want to be a farmer that is fine. It will be your choice. Besides it's one you won't have to make for a long while.”
“It's just that you and Hercules and Iolaus are heroes. Mum's queen of the amazons and a hero too.”
Xena gave a chuckle. “Did you know,” and she moved closer to Solon, “that when Gabrielle was ten they had a wonderful spring and everyone was confident that a bountiful summer was around the corner. But it wasn't, and Herodotus was the only person who had made sure he had got supplies in. Gabrielle said he was always “just in case”. Well he was right, but what he did, he gave jobs to many people in the village-jobs he could have himself-just so people would have food on the table.” Solon looked at her with wide eyes.
“And did you know that Herodotus once found a man shivering in the cold. He gave him the coat off his back and walked off, didn't ask for anything. That man said he would have died without it, it was so cold. It was Jason.”
“The Jason?” asked Solon excitedly.
Xena nodded. “We know because he is Hercules' step father and he was telling us about it one day-how Jason was saved by a man in Potidaea . That man was Herodotus.”
Solon sat back in the seat looking incredulous.
“Heroes come in different shapes and sizes,” said Xena. “You don't need to be a warrior to be a hero. Just be a good man-and you can learn from Herodotus, Joxer, Hercules and Iolaus about that.”
Solon nodded. “Go onto bed with you, or your Grandmother will be after you. And believe me I know what that was like!” They shared a smile and Solon stood up and after giving a glance to Gabrielle walked slowly out of the hut.
Xena watched him leave and her musings were interrupted by a hoarse whisper, “you are good at sensitive chats.”
Xena turned to face Gabrielle, who still had her eyes closed.
“How much did you hear?”
“Enough,” said Gabrielle with a heavy sigh.
Xena gently traced her fingers around Gabrielle's face, brushing carefully over the bruises that had now developed. That elicited a smile from Gabrielle and she slowly opened her eyes.
“You should listen to your own advice.”
“I know,” said Xena. She took Gabrielle's hand and brought it to her lips. “I'm so sorry,” Xena sniffed and wiped her eyes with their joined hands.
“Nothing to be sorry for,” said Gabrielle haltingly. “You deserve this Xe; Solon, Lyceus.”
“You deserve more,” said Xena fleetingly thinking of Hope and Perdicus.
“Its fine,” said Gabrielle and she stared at Xena. “He's really ours.”
“All ours. Mine and yours. Ours.”
Gabrielle's face crumbled. “He's really dead.”
Xena nodded, and Gabrielle started to sob. Xena hugged her and whispered,” He's no part of our life any more.”
Gabrielle carried on sobbing and then turned to shuddering howls. Xena comforted her, and she ached for her lover as the pain of the past sixteen months threatened to overtake her. Eventually the sobs quietened down, and Gabrielle gave a little hic-cough. Xena wiped the tears away from her face and looked on lovingly.
“Just concentrate on getting better. That's all.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Having you all here makes the difference.”
“We're going nowhere. I love you.” Xena looked at Gabrielle, and hoped the three simple words expressed all the love and emotion she was feeling.”
“I love you warrior,” said Gabrielle in little more than a whisper. “So much.”
Xena's smile was dazzling and she kissed the bard's forehead and held her until Gabrielle's eyes closed.
“So how's the queen?” asked Aella.
Piri gestured to her side and Aella and Epinon sat down at the table with her and started on their lunch.
“Improving every day, I am pleased to say. As are you, Aella.”
Aella smiled and started to eat her soup.
“So she'll be up and about soon,” said Epinon trying, but failing to feign indifference.
“Maybe,” said Piri, and then fixed a stare on the weapon's master.
“Your interest wouldn't be motivated by deciding who will be moving first-The Queen on crutches or Lyceus crawling?”
Epinon blushed and exchanged an embarrassed glance with Aella who was suddenly extremely interested in her soup.
“Because I certainly wouldn't take kindly that my years as a healer were being used to help with your nefarious activities,” added Piri sternly, and rose from her chair.
“No Piri,” both amazons whispered, chastised.
Piri smiled. “Good. Well I'll have five dinars on the Queen then,” she said with a smile and a wink, and left the two friends looking at her incredulously.
“I'm not really sure why you want to do it now,” said Xena bemused.
Gabrielle took a deep breath in and pushed herself up using the crutches that Iolaus had carefully crafted for her. She took her time to ensure she was balanced properly before looking at Xena.
“I know about Epinon's book she is running. I don't want the whole camp watching to see who wins or loses on me,” said Gabrielle and gritted her teeth. “Its dinner time, at least everyone will be eating.” She tentatively put one foot forward and followed it up with the other.
Xena looked on anxiously and stepped forward once when it looked as if Gabrielle would tumble. She watched as Gabrielle slowly walked the few paces between them, and when she reached Xena she sunk into her arms, and Xena gently lowered her onto the floor, keeping her head on her lap. Gabrielle was sweating and breathing heavily and it took several minutes before she could get her breathing under control and could focus on Xena. In that time Xena held her tightly and whispered lovingly to her.
“Where does it hurt?” Xena asked.
Xena gave a wry smile. “What about your leg?”
Gabrielle looked at down at her leg and Xena gave it a rub. “Aches a bit, but not as much as my stomach.” Gabrielle now was pale, and Xena hoisted her up and carried her to the bed. She rolled up the night shift and inspected the nearly healed arrow wound in Gabrielle's leg. “It could have been so much worse,” she said sighing and then after pushing up the shift even higher looked at her stomach. She gently rolled the bandage away and satisfied that the walk had done no damage, replaced the bandage.
Gabrielle had her eyes closed and her colour was returning.
“You'll be up before you know it, and then be running after Lyceus,” said Xena rubbing her cheek with her thumb. “Our mothers are trying to baby proof the hut.”
“Mmm, well I am sure if he gets hold of your chakram he'll be juggling with it,” said Gabrielle.
“More likely he'll write an epic story if he finds a quill and scroll,” said Xena with a laugh. She then became serious. “The hut is empty without you. We all want you back.”
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked into the blue, concerned ones she held so dear.
“I miss you all too, especially the boys.”
Xena smirked. “Thanks.” She gently rubbed Gabrielle's leg.
“You know what I mean. It's no fun for them here.”
“Doesn't stop Solon from wanting to be here all the time.”
“Well I must keep working, so-“
“Now you sleep, love.” Xena smiled. “I'm so proud of you.”
Gabrielle flushed with pride, and revelled in Xena's soothing massage.
Xena was still smiling as she walked into her hut, and was met by yells of “Xena.”
She stopped immediately and looked around and was delighted to see Lyceus dragging himself towards her.
“Oh Gods,” she whispered with tears in her eyes, and crouched down. When Lyceus reached her she scooped him up and covered his face with kisses.
“Your Mum would be so proud,” she whispered to him.
“She can see him tomorrow,” said Cyrene . She clasped her hands together. “Oh Xena, it's so exciting.”
“You are in so much trouble,” said Hecuba with a smile. “Once they start moving, you spend your life chasing them.”
“Where's Solon?” asked Xena.
“Looking at horses with Herodotus and Iolaus,” said Athena.
Xena nodded and put a squirming Lyceus on the floor. He immediately started to crawl.
“It's lovely for Herodotus,” said Hecuba. “He loves his girls, but it's different to have boys.”
Cyrene gave Xena a sly look as she handed her a mug of tea. “But it's lovely to have both.”
“Mother! What are you suggesting?”
“Well maybe it would be nice to have a little girl too.”
There was silence and Xena thought of Hope. “Lye's conception was special,” she said eventually.
“Was it Tia?” asked Cyrene .
Xena's immortal parent smiled. “Yes the circumstances were unique. But that doesn't mean it can't happen again.” She stared at Xena. “You have two beautiful children Xena, maybe you can have more.”
Xena looked at Lyceus who was still crawling around the floor happily. “We've been blessed with Lye's birth and Solon returning. Gabrielle has been through so much, it'll be nice to enjoy the children we have for a while.”
Cyrene looked slightly upset and Athena patted her arm.
“Talking of Gabrielle how is she?” asked Hecuba.
“Walking,” said Xena proudly. She walked over to the bed and fished Lyceus out from under it.
“Ooh that's interesting,” said Hecuba.
“Too right,” said Xena as she tickled the giggling Lyceus. “I think it was draw between Gabrielle and Lyceus. Not sure how Epinon will sort that one out!”
Gabrielle gritted her teeth and walked the final few steps before sinking into the chair.
Piri looked pensive, and nodded automatically as she wrote in a book.
“Well?” asked Gabrielle
“Knock, knock,” came a voice and Aella and Solari's heads appeared from around the screen.
Gabrielle exchanged a look with Piri and then smiled at her friends. “Come in,” said the bard.
They both walked in and sat on the bed. Gabrielle was pleased to see that Aella's limp was barely noticeable any more.
“I wanted to thank you properly, for what you did,” said Gabrielle. “If it hadn't been for you-“
“You did the work,” said Solari with a smile.
Gabrielle gave a weak smile and thought back of the vague, jumbled memories of Perdicus and Solon urging her to return. Talking to Solon she realised it wasn't a dream or hallucination but real events.
“It was a team effort,” she said eventually. “I am so pleased you are both recovered.” She held out her hand for Solari to take. “Solari-your eyes. How wonderful.”
Solari looked abashed. “It's just a relief. I can go back to being a scout and not having Epinon fussing.”
They all shared a laugh. “How about you Gab?” asked Aella.
“Getting there,” she said wryly. “Slowly.”
“The queen is making good progress,” said Piri. “In fact you interrupted us.”
Both amazons jumped off the bed quickly. “See you soon,” said Aella and lent over to kiss Gabrielle and Solari eyed the healer before giving Gabrielle a wave and hurrying out too.
“Subtle,” said Gabrielle.
“You need a bit of rest, in between the warrior, your sons and half the village visiting,” said Piri.
Gabrielle nodded. “What is it?”
Piri sat down on the bed. “Who says anything is wrong?”
“I know you,” said Gabrielle simply.
The healer frowned. “There is nothing wrong, per se. You are healing well. But-“She took Gabrielle's hand. “Gabrielle, I know you wish to travel, but I fear that one more wound, one more injury, and you won't survive.”
Gabrielle sighed, and squeezed Piri's hand. “Thank you for your concern. I got injured here, Piri. Not travelling doesn't mean I am immune.”
“No, but we have a healing hut right here. If you were in the wilds with Xena and you were injured-Gabrielle I can't guarantee your safety.”
Gabrielle gave the healer a warm smile. “I am not asking for that. I could choke to death on lunch today-anything could happen. I just want to live my life.”
The healer nodded and heaved a sigh. “I understand,” she said eventually.
“Do me one favour,” began Gabrielle.
“I won't tell her,” said Piri.
Gabrielle smiled in gratitude. “I just want to live my life with my family. I don't want them thinking every blow; every injury could be my last.”
“It might not happen,” said Piri. “I just felt you should know.”
“Thank you,” said Gabrielle. “But my life is on the road.”
“That's our loss,” said Piri.
“We'll be back,” said Gabrielle brightly, trying to cheer up her maudlin friend. “We've got a house to finish next to yours. Plus there are festivals and birthdays to return for. You'll be sick of us.”
“I doubt that,” said Piri rising. “And Gabrielle,” the healer gave a warm smile. “Go to your own hut, I've seen enough of you.”
“Thank you,” mouthed Gabrielle, and prepared to raise herself on her crutches.
Xena sat on a log and watched the fire flicker. There was still light from the setting sun but the large bonfire was now providing most of the light. Although the venue was the same as Joxer and Piri's wedding, it was a very different atmosphere; it was more restrained and less raucous, and Xena knew that their departure was being mourned over the village. Funny, she had never thought of herself as popular within the Amazon village and yet had been touched by the warmth of the farewells.
She stood up and walked to where Epinon and Hercules were chatting.
Epinon nodded as she joined them and said, “Hercules was telling us about what is next for him.”
“Well hopefully we'll meet up with you after Potidaea and Amphipolis.”
“So Lila is finally getting hitched?” Said Epinon.
“Yep, and we can't possibility miss it,” said Xena is a mildly sarcastic tone and rolled her eyes. “And then it's off to see Mother, and then-“she spread both hands wide.
“Be good for the boys,” said Hercules.
Epinon sighed. “But not for us.”
Xena clapped her on the shoulder with her hand. “We'll be back so much you'll be sick of us.” She nodded at Piri and Joxer's house. “We've got a house to build. We'll do it one day.” She smiled as Iolaus, Aella and Solon joined them. Aella handed her and Epinon a drink. “As long as we can persuade the master craftsman to help.”
Iolaus blushed. “It's not just me, I do have some help.”
Hercules smiled proudly. “Everyone knows how talented you are, Iolaus.” He rubbed his friend's arm.
“Yeah look at what he has made for me and Lyceus,” said Solon and opened a sack and Xena peered inside. “Nice,” she said and picked up a carved wooden toy. “Lye will love that.”
“He asleep?” asked Aella.
Xena nodded. “Since he has been crawling he just crashes at night.” She grinned widely. “He sleeps through, too. Bliss!”
The adults sniggered. Solon frowned and looked around. “Where's Mum?”
Xena looked towards the trees for a long moment before replying. “She's with Eph.”
“I'm going to show-“
“Wait Solon,” said his mother and grabbed his arm. “Mum and Ephiny, they just need to say goodbye.”
“But they can do that tomorrow,” said Solon in a slightly whiny voice. “I want to show her these things.”
Xena gave a quick smile that faded as quickly as it appeared. She exchanged a knowing look with Aella.
Aella sighed, “Solon, they want to say goodbye in their own time. Not quickly in front of the village.”
“Why?” asked Solon with the innocence of youth. Xena smiled at him indulgently and ruffled his hair. She nodded at Hercules and Iolaus and they drifted away.
“Mum and Ephiny are very close, Solon. They have been through a lot together. They love each other very much.”
Solon looked thoughtful. “Like sisters?”
Aella chuckled. “Sister Amazons I guess.”
“And you don't mind?” Solon asked his mother, again with wide eyed innocence.
Xena looked out towards the trees where Gabrielle and Ephiny were meeting. “Nah. You can love many people at the same time. And Gabrielle has plenty of love to give.”
“So has Eph,” said Aella, huskily. “Guess we are the lucky ones.”
“I always thought so,” said Xena. She smiled at Solon, and rolled her eyes. “Come on Son, let's go and listen to Joxer's tale of how he defeated Bacchus, singlehandedly.”
The two women sat a mere metre apart but didn't acknowledge each other's presence. Both stared ahead deep into the forest until finally the smaller blonde haired Amazon swallowed and said, “I can't begin to tell you how much I'll miss you, Eph.”
Ephiny didn't reply and continued to stare straight ahead. After a minute she finally turned to look at her best friend.
Gabrielle also turned and they looked at each other's face, both of them having teary eyes and swallowing hard to prevent any more outpouring of grief.
“I thought I was ready to say goodbye, but-“Ephiny looked away and wiped the tears that were now freely falling away with her hand.
“Me too,” whispered Gabrielle croakily, and shuffled so she was sitting next to Ephiny, their knees bumping together. “It seems so long ago since I wrote you asking for help.”
“Gods, yes,” said Ephiny with a hic-cough. “So much has happened.” She turned to look at her friend and smiled. “Lyceus,” she said warmly.
“You found love again,” replied Gabrielle.
“We've stabilised the village, defeated slavers, beat witches,” said Ephiny more seriously.
There was a pause, and Gabrielle took the Regent's hand. “Thank you for helping me through some dark times. Without you and Xena, I wouldn't have survived.”
“Sure you would have,” said Ephiny slightly embarrassed. “Stay safe,” she said eventually.
“I love you, Eph. Be happy.”
“I love you too.”
Xena sat astride Argo and looked to her left. Lyceus sat in front of Gabrielle and was so excited he kept on hitting Tympani. However the horse was taking it in good humour, although Xena made sure she still gave her a wide berth.
“So which way now?” said Solon. He sat astride a beautiful grey horse which Xena and Herodotus had helped him choose.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged a warm look. “It's your Mum's choice; where she goes I go,” said Xena.
“Me too,” said Solon.
Gabrielle looked from one to the other and smiled. “ Second tree to the right and straight on until morning.” She nudged Tympani and moved forwards gracefully. Xena gave Solon a nod and they followed the Amazon Queen through the forest.
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