Long Shadows Cast


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, as well as a few song lyrics. It’s just for fun! No profit is sought from this.

Violence Disclaimer: There is violence within this story. I do not believe it to be excessive or out of keeping with the 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 korkyra@btinternet.com. I will reply. And thank you for the supportive e-mails I have received. They are greatly appreciated.

Author’s note (2) This story is a follow up to “The Oil of Lanius”. I strongly recommend you read that first as there may be situations and characters you do not recognise.

Tag Line: Xena and Gabrielle are settled in the Amazon village awaiting the birth of Gabrielle’s child, but that doesn’t stop trouble finding them; including a personality from Xena’s past that threatens their future.

Chapter one

Everything you are.
Everywhere you've been.
The sinner, and the saint that fight the battle within.
Everyplace you go.
Everybody knows.
Shadows fall across the sun sometimes.
You’re gonna shine.

Clay Aikin-Shine.

“How do you do it?” Epinon looked at Xena with a forlorn expression. The dark haired warrior shrugged her shoulders and tried her best to look innocent.

“I have many-“

“Please don’t, say it. I am not in the mood. You out rode me and then out hunted me. I’m a broken woman.” Xena sniggered at Epinon‘s pathetic tone and turned her attention back to the path. There was a stillness in the forest broken only by the rhythmical noise of the horses hooves.

Epinon reached into her pack and drew out a water skin. She took a long drink and then shook it to get Xena’s attention. Xena nodded and Epinon threw it across to her.

“How disappointed is Gabrielle not to be taking part in the Prima?” asked Epinon.

Xena swallowed and stared at the water skin for several moments contemplating her answer. “More than she’s let on. Even if she wasn’t pregnant I doubt she could compete. Her hand isn’t up to it.”

Epinon looked away sharply. Suddenly, the atmosphere cooled and memories of using a staff on the defenceless bard overwhelmed her for a moment. She blinked away the tears that had formed in her eyes. Xena looked up at her friend’s face and saw the same look of pain and guilt that she had worn so many times and knew there was nothing she could say to comfort her.

Epinon turned back to look at Xena and gave her a weak smile. Xena gave her a reassuring one in return. She took a deep breath and said brightly, “She’s just disappointed she can’t show off her staff skills. She’d give you a run for your money.”

Epinon grinned genuinely this time, the warmth suddenly flooded back into the day. “I don’t doubt it. How about you? As Queen’s champion are you entering an event or two?”

Xena wiggled her eyebrows and said nothing, but turned forward and shook the reins, shouting “yar.” Argo started to gallop and Epinon seeing Xena race ahead gave her horse a gentle slap and she galloped after her.

They settled their horses in the stables and then headed towards the kitchen with their booty. They laughed at the cooks muttering about having recipes for the numbers of rabbits they had brought back and then they made their way to council chambers. Seeing the rooms empty, Xena grabbed hold of one of the Amazons outside. “Do you know where Queen Gabrielle and Queen Ephiny are?” The girl smiled and pointed to the north.

“They went for a walk to the clearing.” The girl reddened and stammered but looked delighted that she could tell her friends that the great Xena actually spoke to her. “Solari is with them,” she added for Epinon’s benefit. While Epinon rolled her eyes in amusement and was amazed the girl even noticed she was there, Xena said thanks and they started to walk out of the village.

“She swooned.”

“She did not, Pony.”

“She did so. Swooned, stammered and-“

“And what?”

“I can’t think of another word that starts with S that is appropriate, Xena.” Epinon looked sideways at her friend. They were hurrying towards a clearing they knew Gabrielle loved to walk to; especially as she was getting her strength back.

The clearing was becoming one of Gabrielle’s favourite spots within Amazon lands. It was a twenty minute walk from the village so it was far enough to get away from the bustling place but close enough not to feel isolated. The clearing was large, and was surrounded on each side by forest. Only a few minutes walk in one direction were the caves, used to hide from Valasca and in the other direction was a stream.

Gabrielle, Solari and Ephiny found a nice spot and the two amazons sank to the ground. Solari took a swig from the waterskin but Ephiny stared at Gabrielle who was twirling her staff slowly. The bard looked at Ephiny was beseeching eyes.

“Gab-“started Ephiny.

“Please. Gentle I promise. I can’t manage much else.” Gabrielle gave a rueful smile.

Solari and Ephiny exchanged a concerned glance. They both had expected it when Gabrielle had asked to go on the walk and appeared carrying two staffs.

“A couple of minutes, Eph. Please. I just want to do it away from prying eyes and there are always crowds …” her voice tailed off and she looked away. She knew that any appearance on the practice ground attracted hordes of watchers; both her supporters and detractors.

Ephiny stood up and reached down to pick up her staff. She could never refuse Gabrielle and they both knew that. Gabrielle flashed a smile that would melt a heart harder than Ephiny and started to warm up slowly.

Solari lay on the ground whilst Ephiny quickly did a couple of exercises herself. She did them so she wouldn’t appear too arrogant in front of Gabrielle but they all knew that the sparring would be short and gentle. Gabrielle nodded that she was ready and they begun. Ephiny let Gabrielle do all the attacking and merely defended herself. She was pleased to see more intricate moves being attempted by the bard. The pace was slow and the hits much softer than usual but all three women were enjoying it. Gabrielle grinned happily at Solari who was watching with interest, but then she felt a weariness wash over her and her hand started to cramp up.

Gabrielle stepped back slowly and dropped her staff and gripped her left hand with her right hand. She fell to one knee still holding her left hand as Solari scrambled up. Ephiny dropped her staff but stayed rooted to the spot. Her mouth was ajar in horror as she watched Solari crouch by the green looking bard who had her eyes closed and was breathing heavily. “It’s alright Eph, no harm done.” The bard said shakily. At this Ephiny regained her senses and rushed to join Solari at Gabrielle’s side. “My hand,” she continued through gritted teeth. Solari scrambled up and fetched the waterskin and on her return took Gabrielle’s hand in her own and poured the cold water over it. That seemed to ease Gabrielle’s discomfort slightly.

“What happened?” said Ephiny finally finding her voice.

“Cramps though my hand. Not had that for a while.” Gabrielle’s breathing was evening out and her colour was returning to normal. “And I suddenly felt I had fought a Cyclops all day. So tired,” she whispered.

Ephiny smiled nervously and the ever practical Solari said, “Let’s take a walk to the stream and you can soak your hand. Do you feel up to it?” Gabrielle nodded and allowed herself to be helped up. Ephiny picked up their staffs and waterskin and they walked the short distance to the stream. Gabrielle sat by the stream and dangled her hand in the cold water and after several moments gave a broad smile. “That’s better,” she sighed and closed her eyes. “Eph don’t worry please.” The regent still wore a concerned look on her face.

“It’s tall and deadly I’m worried about now,” said Ephiny but with a hint of laughter in her tone.

“She’ll be so mad at me, believe me, she won’t give you a second thought. “What were you thinking of Gabrielle? You should have waited for me! Don’t run before you can walk Gabrielle?”” The bard made her voice deeper and frowned making the two amazons laugh. They sat there for several moments enjoying listening to the birds and the rustling of the trees.

“I can understand why you love it here so much Gabrielle,” said Ephiny.

“It’s so peaceful and unspoilt, perfect to get away from a bunch of cycling warriors.” The three of them giggled and spotted the two figures in the distance. Gabrielle gingerly lifted her hand out of the water and put it on her lap. “I really don’t know why I’m bothering, she’ll sense straight away.”

“”I have many skills,”” said Solari in her best Xena voice. They all laughed again and watched as the two figures came nearer.

“Tomorrow, I was going to do some practicing for the Prima, so I figured you can have a quiet day.” Ephiny stopped and looked embarrassed by what she said. “Gods Gab; I didn’t mean that how it sounded. I’m sorry.” The regent looked deeply troubled. Gabrielle gave a laugh, but to her friends it sounded hollow.

“I know what you meant Eph, relax.” The regent lost some of her frown but her eyes still radiated concern. “I can hardly help the juniors with drilling, and my shooting skills aren’t up to much at the moment. I’ll leave it to you to maintain the queen’s honour. I’ll look glowing and radiant while you’ll be sweaty and smelly.” They all laughed the tension broken.

“Apart from the swollen feet, aching legs, back ache, inability to sleep and indigestion,” said Ephiny laughing and Gabrielle poked her tongue out.

“What’s that?” asked Epinon and her and Xena slunk down next to the little group on the ground. Xena had positioned herself next to Gabrielle and immediately picked her hand up from her lap and gently held it. “What happened?” she said in a stern voice.

“How did you know?” asked Solari.

“I have many skills,” said Xena seriously and Gabrielle, Solari and Ephiny struggled to keep their quivering lips from bursting out laughing.

“It just got very painful during sparring,” Gabrielle managed to get out and then shut her mouth tight. Epinon and Xena viewed the three through suspicious eyes.

“Sparring.” Xena looked at Gabrielle sternly and then at Ephiny and Solari. “I hope you didn’t over extend yourself. You should have waited for me, Gabrielle. Don’t try to run before you can walk.” At those words Gabrielle, Solari and Ephiny burst out laughing and literally had to lie on the floor holding their sides. The other two looked on in amazement as the tears rolled down their faces. After several minutes the three regained their composure and under the watchful and stern eyes of Epinon and Xena sat up and grinned at them.

“Have you been at the wine?” asked Xena sniffing the waterskin. Gabrielle moved closer and Xena put one arm around her and the other gently held the bard’s left hand, rubbing her thumb up and down the palm. She could feel the muscles twitch and the tension that the bard held it with. She wanted to get back and have a good look at it; she knew that the bard wouldn’t admit how much it hurt her in front of anyone even her closest friends.

“Nah, just ignore us, too much sunshine,” said Solari wiping her eyes. “We were discussing the Prima. Last chance for practice. “

Xena nodded and felt the bard stiffen slightly. She wanted to get off the subject of the Prima, as she knew despite Gabrielle’s protestations she was upset by her lack of participation. The Prima Valour was held to celebrate the Amazons first victory. At one time the queen used to pick combatants to fight to the death and men were kidnapped to take part in the festivities as gladiators the victors allowed to procreate before being murdered. Times had changed and now it was a showcase of sparring, weapons and drills. It was the first chance for many juniors to show what they had learned. For the older and experienced amazons there were various events to take part in.

As Queens Gabrielle and Ephiny were expected to take part but due to Gabrielle’s injury and pregnancy she nominated Xena, her champion. This had brought back feelings of being weak and useless, something Xena was eager to reassure the bard at every opportunity.

Xena held out a hand to be bard and hauled her up and the other three also jumped to their feet gathering all their items. They slowly walked towards the village discussing village affairs. Xena kept her arm around Gabrielle and was concerned not only by the lack of banter from the usually chatty bard but the amount of support she needed.

“Coming for dinner?” asked Epinon as they entered the village.

“I think I’ll freshen up first,” said Gabrielle. Xena gave the amazons a look which translated to mean don’t expect us. They bade their goodbyes and as the amazons headed towards the dining hut Xena and Gabrielle walked slowly to their hut.

As they entered their hut, Xena steered Gabrielle to the bed. When she looked at the bard it was obvious to her that she was in considerable pain and very weary. Her eyes were shut, her face was tense and pale and her right hand was clenched tightly.

Xena went to her healer’s kit and rooted around in the bag, becoming frustrated as she was unable to find what she was looking for.

Xena finally found it and then went to the shelf to pick up the jar of massage oil. She put that on the table with a crash and went to get a jug of water. Gabrielle opened her eyes and watched her with concern.

“Xe, Xena, please,” said Gabrielle to Xena’s back. Xena drew a deep breath in and turned round staring at Gabrielle. She could see Xena’s jaw was set tight and the muscle in her neck was pulsing, sure signs that the warrior was fighting to keep her emotions at bay. “Don’t be mad, please.”

“I’m not mad,” said Xena angrily then closed her eyes. “I am mad, but not at you Bri.” She crossed the distance between them and pulled a chair next to Gabrielle. “I hate the fact you can’t spar properly, that your hand isn’t improving as fast we want, that you’re in so much discomfort.” Her voice became a whisper and she lent her head forwards so their foreheads were touching. They remained like that for a few heartbeats and then both moved away. Xena mixed some powder in a mug with some water and handed it to Gabrielle. She swallowed it down with her customary grimace. Then Xena started to rub her fingers over the hand. “What happened?”

“I was feeling really good and suddenly I got cramps here,” Gabrielle pointed with her fingers where she had felt the pains. “I also felt so weary. I guess a short walk and gentle sparring is it for me now. At least it showed me I really can’t compete in the prima.”

Xena said nothing and continued to gently press Gabrielle’s hand. She watched as Gabrielle emitted a long sigh and failed to fight back the tears. Xena poured some oil into her palm and then rubbed both hands together. She then started to work the bard’s hand. “Thanks,” whispered Gabrielle and closed her eyes and relaxed, emitting the odd whimper. Xena gave a slight smile and said, “Don’t be upset. Besides it’s only a load of women showing how bad and mean they can be.”

“Thanks Xena next time I need a précis of each festival I’ll ask you.”

“You know what I mean, oh that’s tight, and it’s really only an excuse for a party.”

“Aaah. I know that but I would have liked to have shown them how much I’ve improved with my staff.”

“They know believe me.”

“And I wanted to make you proud.” Xena stopped her massage and kissed Gabrielle on her forehead.

“You don’t need to prove anything to me. You know that.”

Gabrielle opened her eyes and cupped Xena’s face with her right hand. “I love you,” she said.

Xena took Gabrielle’s hand in hers and brought it to her lips. Their eyes met for an instant and then Gabrielle looked away slightly embarrassed. Xena knew what the bard’s concern was. They had yet to be intimate since her torture and rape.

They both wanted to return to all levels of their relationship but were as frightened as each other; Xena of hurting Gabrielle and Gabrielle of reliving the past.

There was an uncomfortable silence. Then Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena. She put her head on the smaller woman’s shoulder and basked in the embrace. When they pulled away, Gabrielle’s weariness was apparent. Xena stood up and started to help Gabrielle undress. Within minutes the bard was tucked up in bed, and Xena continued to gently massage her hand until she fell asleep.

Xena watched the bard sleep lost in her own thoughts. She was a master of controlling her emotions; especially guilt. After all she had plenty of practice. She took part in the deaths and destruction of villages and the horrific torture of Gabrielle and Iolaus. She may have been infected by darkness caused by drinking from the Challis of Hectate and not able to control the dark urges she felt, but she still felt responsible. Despite the fact Gabrielle had reassured her continually and she had been forgiven by Iolaus and most of the Amazons; Xena still felt the weight of guilt at times and was unable to forgive herself.

She shook her head. The bouts of her guilt were becoming less frequent as were Gabrielle’s nightmares. Time was healing their wounds both physical and emotional. She got up and poured herself a drink and smiled smugly as her thoughts drifted to the prima. She hoped she would make Gabrielle proud and Epinon mad. Now that would be a good day.

Xena had finished grooming Argo, and stepped out of the stables. She had left Gabrielle asleep in bed but by now she was sure that she had made it into the dining hut. Sure enough, the bard was there, finishing her breakfast with very nervous looking Solari and Ephiny. Xena gave the bard a quick kiss before selecting her breakfast and sliding in next to her. “All set,” she said jauntily. Ephiny and Solari nodded their heads weakly. The events were keenly contested and there was much prestige in winning and much mirth making if you lost. As queen, Ephiny was expected to win every event she entered, and Solari knew if she didn’t win tracking, as chief scout, she would never live it down. Ephiny looked at Gabrielle who was eating her breakfast serenely and laughing with Xena. She had the right idea. Perhaps I’ll be pregnant next year, or an injury to get me out of this, she thought and smiled at that.

She turned her thoughts back to the present. Xena as usual was looking as relaxed and tranquil as ever. She wondered if Gabrielle and Xena knew how much pressure was on Xena to perform well. Ephiny had heard mutterings from several amazons and had been approached by Protis and Marpe demanding that Xena not take part. Fortunately Ephiny knew her laws, and the Queen’s champion was permitted to substitute in for the queen if the queen was incapacitated. There were no rules stating whether the Queen’s champion had to be an Amazon or not.

Ephiny knew that Xena was determined to perform well. And facing a resolute warrior princess was not settling her nerves. “Archery first,” said Ephiny with a dry mouth.

“I know,” said Xena evilly and carried on eating. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and stood up.

“Good luck,” she said to everyone. She bent down and whispered into Xena’s ear, “be nice.” She planted a kiss on top of the warrior’s head before leaving the hut. Xena watched her leave and carried on eating.

“So how many events have you entered?” asked Solari?

“Archery, chobos, tracking, riding and sword skills.” Xena looked at the two Amazons and each wore a fearful expression.

“What about the other events?” said Solari sarcastically? It was customary to enter your best one or two events. Occasionally three. But no-one had ever done five.

“Don’t want to over exert myself,” said Xena smiling, continuing to tuck into her breakfast.

The amazons glared at her and got up. “See you later girls,” said Xena sweetly and gave them a wave. Oh she was enjoying this!

“Do you know how much I hate you?” said Epinon through gritted teeth.

“About the same amount as your regent I guess,” said Xena cheerily. They were standing on the dais with the other winners waiting to receive their medals from Gabrielle. The Amazon Queen looked splendid in her new designed leathers and took her time in presenting Xena yet another medal. Epinon smiled and clapped graciously as Xena received her Gold medal for sword skills and wore an almost apologetic smile as she herself received her Gold medal for the staff.

“Thus the events are finished. Congratulations to the winners and commiserations to the losers but I’m sure you’ve all had fun.” Gabrielle smiled broadly as the crowd cheered. She looked across at Solari who was sporting a black eye received from Xena in the chobos and at Ephiny who was muttering about losing the archery contest for the first time in three years. Other competitors looked at Xena darkly, some with more intent than others.

“And now for the drills! Epinon, I know that your groups have been working hard. Let’s enjoy our youngest warriors’ demonstration first.” Epinon got up and after giving Xena a sly shove she moved off the dais and to the central area with her youngsters. Gabrielle took her place next to Xena who was still grinning broadly.

“Congratulations, you must be very pleased,” said Gabrielle as Xena wrapped an arm around her shoulder.

“Yeah, I suppose,” said Xena watching Epinon’s youngsters. She turned to Gabrielle smiling.

Gabrielle hooked her hand under the medals that adorned Xena and looked at them. “Shame about tracking-then you would have had the full set.”

“Can’t be too greedy can I?” Xena turned back to watch the youngsters drilling with a curious look on her face.

Gabrielle stared at her for several seconds. “You’re right. We would have never heard the end of it from Solari.”

Xena leant into her and they watched as the youngsters finished their drills. “Got to go,” said Gabrielle, and gave Xena a peck on the cheek. “A Queens’s work is never done.”

“Just slow-“Xena called after her, but Gabrielle had moved away and was speaking to the young girls who had finished their routine. “Down,” she added quietly and to no one in particular.

The festivities were in full swing. Stories were being swapped, injuries compared and the youngsters especially were enjoying the praise of the older Amazons. Xena was much in demand, with many amazons wanting to go through each fight with her blow by blow, or to hear how her technique with the bow differed from Ephiny’s. She was enjoying herself at first-discussing weapons and strategic moves, as well as reliving her glories was a pleasant way to spend an evening-but now it was becoming wearing as she had not seen Gabrielle for some time.

She caught sight of Ephiny searching purposefully through the crowd. She excused herself and called after her.

She spun around, relief evident on her face.

“Xena, I was looking for you. Well, Gabrielle actually.”

“I thought she was with you,” said Xena with a hint of concern.

“She was for a while, but I got a bit sidetracked.” Ephiny looked slightly embarrassed.

“Surely the archery contest didn’t come up?” Xena smiled at the regent’s awkwardness.

Ephiny shot Xena a look of disgust and then looked past her into the crowd. The music had started and several amazons were dancing. There were still many standing around discussing the day’s activities, although many of the young girls had been shooed to bed much to their displeasure.

Ephiny tapped Xena’s arm and they both strode to a darkened corner where there was a small crowd gathered. Xena gritted her teeth as she neared; she could hear the bard’s voice-strained and tired –and saw the crowd around her: Aida, Teles, Marpe and Okayale. Aella was next to the bard, almost growling at the other ladies.

Xena picked up speed and barged past Teles in her haste to get to Gabrielle. The Amazon regained her balance and took a step menacingly towards Xena. Okayale stopped talking to Gabrielle and watched with interest. Gabrielle moved between the two, placing her hands on Xena’s chest to placate her. She turned to the group of Amazons. “Thank you for this enlightening talk. You’ve given me a lot to consider.”

“No thank you, Queen Gabrielle,” Teles emphasized the word queen. “You have shown yet again you may not be versed in traditional Amazon skills but you make an effort.” She nodded to Gabrielle and shook her head slightly and Aida, Marpe and Okayale followed behind her.

Gabrielle turned to Ephiny and said, “She always gets an insult in, no matter what. It’s quite a talent.”

Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle and gave her a squeeze. “Everything alright?” she asked with concern. “You’re looking tired.”

“I am feeling a little weary,” admitted Gabrielle, “but there’s something we need to talk about.” She looked from Xena, to Ephiny to Aella. “Solari and Epinon too.”

“There’s nothing to say that we can’t talk sitting down is there?” said Xena in her no arguments tone. She was concerned that Gabrielle had admitted so freely she was tired.

They walked back through the crowd, Xena not even allowing Gabrielle to stop and say goodnight to the many amazons that approached her. She shouted her greetings and waved while Xena merely glowered and kept the pace brisk. Aella had gone to find Epinon and Solari and they reached Gabrielle and Xena’s hut together. Xena led the bard in and sat her down at the table and poured her a drink. Everyone else filed in and sat down-Solari and Epinon on the bed.

They all looked expectantly at Gabrielle. She was staring at Xena. “What?” asked Xena?

“Were you going to tell anyone what happened during tracking?” Four heads immediately turned to look at Xena wearing the same questioning look.

Xena looked around at all the faces and her eyes rested on Gabrielle’s. “I didn’t want to worry you. It was no big deal.”

Gabrielle stood up. “No big deal! They weren’t out to cheer you on. They were out to injure you.”

Xena rolled her eyes and waved her hand dismissively. “It was a little distraction.”

“Well this distraction caused some pain. What about Dana’s injury?”

All heads turned to look at Gabrielle. Xena looked beseechingly at her, asking with her eyes not to continue. Gabrielle ignored her. “It would appear there was a welcoming committee for Xena during tracking. Thermodosa, Protis and a couple of others. What happened? The truth Xena.”

Xena sighed. She wanted to spare Gabrielle this. She knew how the internal squabbles drained her. But somehow the bard had found out. “Gabrielle’s right. They were waiting for me. Dana saw what was happening and joined in and got a slash across her arm for her troubles. She’s ok though?”

Gabrielle nodded. “Piri didn’t believe her story. You’d think by now you would know she can wheedle the truth out of you.”

Solari stood up. “Anything else?”

Xena contemplated her answer. “I think Argo’s saddle was sabotaged.”

“You think?” Gabrielle raised her eyebrow at Xena.

“Alright, it was. The leather was cut. I told the stable master I thought it was worn and swapped it. “

“Luckily you check all your equipment so thoroughly,” said Aella.

Xena looked momentarily embarrassed. “Actually it was Argo that spotted it.” Gabrielle’s lips quivered trying hard not to laugh.

Epinon looked at Xena. “You know this was a deliberate attempt at you.”

“Yeah it’s not like it was the first time. And it was hardly sophisticated. More than likely it was just to make me look silly. I’m just sorry that Dana got hurt.”

“What worries me,” said Ephiny slowly, speaking for the first time, “is that it’s an escalation. Xena you’re used to them having a go at you discreetly. This was more public.” She turned to face the bard. “What were you discussing Gabrielle?”

“They were just enquiring after my health and were sorry that I wasn’t taking part. Apparently in the annuls of time there have been pregnant queens who have participated. Pregnant Amazon Queens was how Teles put it.”

“I’ll kill her,” said Xena and Epinon in unison.

“Don’t worry about it-Aella pointed out a few from history who had less than worthy excuses too.” Gabrielle smiled at Aella who coloured, especially as Ephiny patted her on the back too. “I just wanted everyone to be aware. The murmurings may have quietened but the discontent is still there.”

There were nods all around and silence as they contemplated the day’s events. Solari glared at Xena and said, “You mean to tell me you had a fight, treated Dana’s injury and finished second by the narrowest of margins.”

Xena smiled widely and Solari dropped her head in her hands.

“Now you know how I feel,” said Epinon and put her arm around her.

“We’ll leave you in peace,” said Ephiny and after saying their goodnights they headed out of the hut.

“Leathers off, now,” said Gabrielle. In the past Xena would have made a crack about Gabrielle being domineering but the topic was too fragile, too raw at present. Instead she raised an eyebrow.

“You’ve been injured too-across the ribs if I’m not mistaken, but been too stubborn to do anything. Am I right?”

Xena nodded reluctantly, and like a scolded child started to remove her breastplate. Gabrielle gave a satisfied smile and went to the medicine pack. By the time she had found what she was looking for and turned around Xena was naked.

Gabrielle took a deep breath in. She hadn’t seen Xena naked for some time; the warrior had been very considerate of her feelings. She gazed at her love who was as usual totally happy to be nude. Completely different from me now, thought Gabrielle. With the swell of her pregnant stomach, the increase of her breasts as well as the markings of her torture, she had become embarrassed of her body and avoided bathing or undressing in front of Xena.

Their eyes met and Gabrielle smiled shyly. She approached Xena and looked at the marks on the right side of her chest. Carefully she spread the paste over the bruise. She could hear Xena’s breath catch as she gently massaged the injured area and see Xena’s nipple puckering as she breathed on it. Suddenly feeling fearless she moved her hand up to gently caress Xena’s breast. She looked into Xena’s eyes and saw longing and moved herself closer and their lips met.

Their kiss was gentle. Gabrielle kept her hand on Xena’s breast and massaged it harder. Xena placed her hands either side of her face and as the kiss became more passionate moved her hands down to help slip Gabrielle’s tunic off. Suddenly the image of rough hands ripping her clothes off and forcing her down came into Gabrielle’s mind. “No,” she whispered. “Stop please.” She pulled away, glancing at Xena’s face. There was a flash of disappointment before concern took over. Xena picked up a blanket and covered herself and Gabrielle got off the bed and walked away. She kept her back to Xena.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“You don’t have to apologise,” began Xena.

“I shouldn’t-I mean-It’s been months. I know how important sex is for you.”

Xena strode to Gabrielle and turned her around. “Sex was important to me-just to get what I wanted. Another weapon in my armoury.” She took a deep breath in. “But it doesn’t come close to making love with you. Nothing does. That’s why I’ll wait as long as it takes. And I’m in no rush.”

“Xena you were excited, and now you’re disappointed.” Gabrielle had tears in her eyes.

“Bri, I want this for both of us. Yes I love making love with you, but we both have to be ready, and it has to be right.”

“I want it too, Xena. So much. But I’m scared.” Gabrielle fell into Xena’s arms and started to sob.

“I know.” Xena closed her eyes, knowing she was going to bring up a delicate subject. “Maybe if you talked about what happened. That may help-Piri thinks so.”

She felt Gabrielle sob into her shoulder. The bard hadn’t reacted angrily as she had previously when Xena or Piri had made this suggestion. Maybe it was progress.

“Not tonight though. I think we could both do with some sleep.” Xena released her hold on Gabrielle and busied herself giving Gabrielle time to get undressed. She was surprised to feel a gentle tug on her hand and Gabrielle was still fully dressed.

“I was wondering if you could help me get undressed.” Xena knew that the bard didn’t need any help-it was an excuse. Xena gave her a wide toothy grin in return. She gently pulled the tunic over the bard’s head. Gabrielle looked away but Xena hooked a finger under her chin and brought her face to face. “You are beautiful.” Gabrielle shook her head. Xena placed her hand on the bard’s stomach. “Beautiful,” she murmured.

“I’m going to get bigger,” said Gabrielle.

“More of you to love,” said Xena.

Gabrielle laughed. “You are so smooth.” She gave Xena a quick kiss. “Can I sleep like this?” she asked. She felt embolden by the night’s events, even though they had not been totally positive.

Xena nodded, her mouth becoming dry. This felt like a significant step on Gabrielle’s recovery. Xena didn’t want to frighten her at all.

“And I suppose it would be better for your ribs if you didn’t have anything on?” Gabrielle was feeling more confident. Xena nodded again. They both walked to the bed and Xena slipped off the blanket she had around her and they both got into bed. Gabrielle turned into Xena and the older woman wrapped her arm around her, thinking that it had indeed been an excellent day.

“Damn.” Xena peered at her leathers. There was no doubt there was a small cut. She placed them on the table and walked to the sewing kit and selected the best needle and twine to make the repair. As she sat down at the table, there was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” she called not looking up from threading the needle. Of course she did it first time and was making a knot in the thread as Solari and Ephiny came into the hut.

“Ladies, what can I do for you?” She looked up and the amazons sat down quickly at the table.

“Gabrielle’s meeting with the cooks, so we thought we’d pop across,” said Solari. She exchanged a glance with Ephiny. Xena sensed the tension and put down her sewing and looked at the two women.

“The scouts are back.” Solari said simply and met Xena’s stare. “They couldn’t find anything.”

“What nothing?” Said Xena angrily. “Nothing at all?”

Solari shook her head. “They covered where the army had been, where they could have gone, asked everyone who may know something, and drew a blank.”

Xena got up and paced around. “Nothing.” She repeated. There was silence.

“What next?” asked Ephiny.

“He can’t get away with it. We’ll have to find him,” Xena sat down and rubbed her face with her hand.

“I can spare the women, Xena, that’s not the issue, but-“began Ephiny.

“What is the issue, Ephiny? Letting the man who raped the Amazon queen get away with it? Doesn’t send a good signal to the rest of the world.” Xena spoke angrily and stared at the regent. Ephiny stood up and walked away.

“They could be anywhere,” said Solari quietly. “Could Ares have helped them?”

Xena tore her gaze away from Ephiny and looked at Solari. “Maybe. Not his style. He’s a use them and lose them type of God.”

Ephiny walked back to the table. “Xena what concerns me is Gabrielle. How would she feel coming face to face with the father of her child? She doesn’t even know you’ve sent out scouts to find him. What would Gabrielle say if she knew?”

“Knew what?” There standing in the doorway was Gabrielle.

All three women shut their eyes and sighed.

“Know what?” repeated Gabrielle, this time more icily.

Xena opened her eyes and looked from Ephiny, to Solari and then to Gabrielle. “How much did you hear?”

“What’s going on?” Gabrielle looked from to the other and then her gaze rested on Xena.

There was silence. “The truth. Now.” This was the Amazon queen talking and they all knew there was no point denying or lying about anything.

“I asked Ephiny and Solari to send out scouts to locate-“Xena looked down, took a deep breath in and looked Gabrielle straight in the eye, “Lindos.”

Gabrielle leant against the door, momentarily stunned. Xena got up and moved towards her but Gabrielle put her hand out to stop her. Xena froze.

“I could have said no, but I didn’t. I’m just as much to blame,” said Ephiny.

Gabrielle turned to her. “Please leave us,” she said in an unnaturally high voice. Ephiny and Solari walked out silently.

Xena hadn’t moved and Gabrielle turned to look at her. “Why?” she said quietly. “You know I don’t want anything to do with that man. I want to put it behind me.”

“He has to pay for what he has done. He, he hurt you-he needs to be punished,” said Xena through gritted teeth. Her anger was beginning to rise.

“Punished? Is that what you’ll call it? You promised me once that you wouldn’t become a monster. And I believed you.”

“He needs to pay for what he did to you,” shouted Xena.

“So you went behind my back to find him.” Gabrielle turned away from Xena.

“I see him touching you. I can’t get it out of my head,” Xena whispered and Gabrielle turned around. The warrior wore a tortured look.

“I close my eyes and I see him forcing you, I can see the leer he wore, the self satisfied look. At night I hear your screams and I can’t help. I’m sorry I should be strong for you, but it hurts so much.” Xena broke down and started to sob. Gabrielle rushed over to her and walked her to the bed, sitting her down. Xena wiped her eyes furiously.

“Oh Xe, let it out.” Gabrielle stroked the dark hair.

“I hate him for turning something that was so special for you, into something so hateful.” Xena smiled weakly. “For you it has always been an act borne out of love. I never wanted you to experience anything else, like me. Because like I said, nothing compares to making love with you. And he’s ruined it.”

Gabrielle got off of the bed. She walked to their shelves and found a mug and wineskin and filled the mug and brought it over to the bed. She sat down on the side of the bed and handed the mug to the warrior and gently ran her fingers through her dark hair. The warrior gulped down the wine and finally raised her eyes to meet the bard’s.

She gave a crooked smile and Gabrielle put both her hands either side of her face. “It’s not your fault, and if I have to tell you every day I will.” She moved her left hand down and placed a finger on the warrior’s lips. She closed her eyes and opened them staring straight into the blue eyes of her soul mate. “You were wronged Xena. He may have raped me but he violated both of us. If it had been you-“the bard looked away and blinked the tears from her eyes, “I’d want to kill him.” Her tone was harsh and Xena was shocked to hear the words come from the gentle bard. “That’s why I didn’t want you going after him. I know how I’d have felt if the roles had been reversed.” She paused and looked at Xena’s surprised face. “We can get through this, but it has to be together. So tell me Xena when it gets too much. Its not a sign of weakness, don’t think that.” Xena opened her mouth to speak but Gabrielle pressed her finger tighter on her lips. “Let me help Xe.”

Xena kissed Gabrielle’s fingers and gave a half smile. “I wanted to be so strong for you, but I should have known you were the brave one.”

“It’s only because I’ve got you. I don’t know how I would have got through this without you,” Gabrielle continued to stroke the raven hair.

Xena held Gabrielle’s left hand, a symbol of so much of the warrior’s anguish. She gently caressed it. “You’re my strength, Gabrielle and that’s what scares me. What would I do without you? I want to protect you from everything but I can’t.”

“Xena I’m not the naïve girl who ran away with you. Your love makes me feel safe and secure but you can’t protect me from everything. But more importantly you can’t blame yourself when you can’t. You got that?” The bard smiled and lent forward to give the warrior a hug. Xena put her head on her shoulder and held the bard tightly.

“What do you want to do?” asked Gabrielle. “About him?”

“What do you want to do?” Asked Xena.

Gabrielle thought for a moment. “I don’t want to see him again. I don’t want him to know about this,” she patted her stomach, “and I don’t want my-our child to know about its father.”

Xena thought for a moment. This had concerned her too. How would Gabrielle’s child react when he or she knew he wasn’t a part of Xena but a vicious rapist? Would he want to find his father? Would he hate him or would he resent Xena? Should they merely say the father was dead? They didn’t have to decide now, but Xena knew she had to reassure Gabrielle.

“That’s fine by me. This child won’t lack for love or positive male role models. I imagine Hercules, Iolaus and Joxer will be keen to be a part of its life. “

“I think they’ll be surprised when I tell them, “said Gabrielle.

Xena laughed. “I don’t think you have to say a word.” She looked down at Gabrielle’s stomach and then yawned.

“Have a sleep,” said Gabrielle.

“It’s the afternoon, I can’t sleep.”

“Your ribs are still hurting and after yesterday’s exploits in the prima you must be tired. I-I want to do a little writing.”

Xena looked interested. Gabrielle had written very little recently.

“OK but wake me up for dinner.”

Gabrielle smiled and kissed Xena’s forehead. Thank you,” she whispered. “I love you.”

“Me too,” said Xena and settled down in the bed.

To her surprise Xena slept soundly. When she awoke it was still light. She stretched and eased herself out of bed. She saw Gabrielle sitting at the table bent over a scroll. As Xena walked towards her, she looked up, and Xena could see her eyes were swollen and puffy and her cheeks tear stained.

“Gabrielle?” she said gently and stopped, unsure whether to rush over to comfort the bard or give her space.

Gabrielle smiled weakly and fiddled with the scroll nervously. She swallowed and said, “I thought it was time to put the past behind us. Neither of us can move on –I realise that now, until I share this with you.” She looked down at the scroll and then got up from the table holding the parchment. She walked to Xena and gave her a delicate kiss on her cheek and handed her the scroll.

Xena looked down it. She knew what it contained. “Are you sure?”

Gabrielle nodded, and turned away from Xena and busied herself making tea.

Xena sat down on the edge of the bed and unrolled the scroll. She had never read any of Gabrielle’s scrolls before, although she had heard her work on them and had enjoyed Gabrielle’s tales at the fireside or in taverns. The first thing that struck her was just how talented Gabrielle was. She felt she was there on that awful night.

Gabrielle had graphically portrayed the setting and the events but more than that she had described her emotions, so Xena knew exactly what she was feeling during the night. Xena read through the scroll twice. At the end of it there were a myriad of emotions warring inside of her; revulsion, concern and horror for what Gabrielle had gone through, but also pride and gratitude that Gabrielle had been able to share these events with her.

She also felt anger and she knew that this feeling would grow as she thought more about what she had read. She turned her thoughts back to Gabrielle and her needs. Her rage would wait. She looked out of the window and saw that it was now dark. She rose from the bed and approached Gabrielle who was sitting at the table with a pot of tea and some bread, cheese and fruit.

The bard looked up and their eyes met. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and they stayed liked that for several minutes. Eventually Xena broke away and pulled a chair close to Gabrielle so she could maintain contact.

“How are you feeling?” asked Xena gently.

Gabrielle thought for a few moments. “Numb. I don’t really know what to think.” Xena squeezed her hand. “Do you want anything, Xena? I’m not hungry but it gave me something to do.”

Xena smiled warmly. “Tea would be nice.”

They sipped their tea in silence-Xena still holding Gabrielle’s hand. Xena wanted Gabrielle to lead in any conversation. There were so many things she wanted to ask, wanted to discuss but she didn’t want to force the bard when such a massive breakthrough had been made. The bard knew the warrior so well and sensed Xena’s reticence.

“What do you want to know?” Gabrielle’s voice broke into her thoughts.

Where could she start? There was so much she wanted to discuss. “Why tonight?”

“I’ve been terrified of talking about it as if it will make it worse. When I realised how it was affecting you, affecting us, I had to let it go.”

“You’ve been telling me talking helps for the last four years glad to know you followed your own advice.” Xena smiled and squeezed Gabrielle’s hand. “There’s time to discuss other things, later.”

“Thanks Xe,” the bard said quietly.

“For what?”

“For being here. It couldn’t have been easy to read.”

There was a brief silence. Xena looked at Gabrielle and stroked her blond hair. “No it wasn’t, but it was harder to live through and tell me about it. I’m glad you did. We can both put it behind us. We can concentrate on the important things; us.” She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle.

“How are you feeling?” the bard said gently.

“Don’t worry about me,” said Xena with a smile but it dropped as she saw the concern on Gabrielle’s face. “I’m glad I know. It makes it easier, somehow. Imagination is far far worst.”

“I was worried you’d find me repulsive,” the bard said quietly and dropped her eyes.

“Never,” said Xena with a hint of anger. She took Gabrielle by the shoulders.

“Nothing you could tell me would make me think that. Gabrielle, I’m not going to blame you for anything. He forced you to do those things. “She could feel her anger rise as well as shame that she handed Gabrielle over to Lindos.

Xena was lost in her thoughts until she heard Gabrielle calling her.

“Xena, where did you go?” Gabrielle looked at her with concern. She could see a hint of the destroyer of nations emerging.

“I’m fine,” said Xena automatically and without sincerity. She smiled weakly and then there was a pause, and Xena swallowed hard. This too had played on her mind. She wanted Gabrielle to understand. “You know I’ve had a colourful sexual history.” The bard nodded. “I want you to know I never forced anyone. I might have encouraged and bribed people into my bed and used it as rewards or as a show of power, but I never raped anyone. Please believe me.”

Gabrielle nodded and wrapped her arms around Xena. Now she was the comforter. “Your past is your past Xe. I know and trust you.” The bard’s face was full of love and trust that Xena craved.

“Thank you.” Xena felt slightly relieved at unburdening herself of this, but could feel her anger on the rise. She was determined to push it away and deal with it at another time, as Gabrielle needed her now.

“Let’s get some sleep,” she said. They both got up and changed into their sleeping shifts and then got into bed. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle who quickly started to breath deeply and her eyelids fluttered close. But Xena lay in bed all night, sleep eluding her, replaying in her mind what she had read. Twice the bard awoke with nightmares and Xena quickly and quietly settled her down.

Xena got out of bed and looked out of the window into the dark village. Her eyes were staring and lost their light blue colour turning grey. Her face was impassive and the muscle in her neck was pulsing. If the bard had been awake, she would have recognised the signs of Xena’s anger and realised she was losing the battle to control it.

By the time Gabrielle awoke near dawn Xena had tried to control the outward signs of her anger as best she could. She didn’t want Gabrielle concerned about her; she’d made the bard a mug of tea and brought it to her.

“How are you feeling?” she asked gently.

“Tired,” admitted the bard.

Gabrielle took a sip from her mug. “Why don’t you go for a ride-that usually settles you down?”

“I’m fine here.”

“Xe, I’m going to go back to sleep. Then I’ll do some paperwork. Go for a ride. You know you’ll feel better. For me.”

Xena smiled. The bard knew exactly how to get around her. “OK for you. Is there anything I can get for you?”

Gabrielle thought for a moment. “Could you tell Ephiny I’ll see her later, and-“She took a deep breath. “Give the scroll to Piri and Eph. I think they should read it-if they want to.”

Xena bent over and kissed her forehead and picked up the scroll. She was already dressed and strode out of the hut. She saw a few amazons bustling about she called to one of them. Cara obediently came and listened to what Xena said and went off as she was bid. Within minutes Ephiny and Piri were outside the hut with Xena. Xena took several deep breaths before talking.

“She opened up last night, she wrote down what happened with Lindos.” Xena gave a long lingering look towards the hut and lowered her eyes. She didn’t want them to see the tears. Piri immediately cupped her chin with her hand and lifted the pained face. “It might not seem like this now, but it is a good thing.” The healer smiled gently. “It must have been very difficult for you.”

“Pah, don’t worry about me, Gabrielle-“

“No, it affects you both,” the healer interrupted.

“Xena, how are you feeling?” Ephiny spoke for the first time.

Xena swallowed. “I want to kill him. I want to tear him limb from limb, but I know that won’t be enough.”

Piri smiled, “You honestly think anyone that knows what happened doesn’t feel the same? That’s quite normal. “The healer stared at Xena for several seconds. “You need to work out the anger, warrior. Before it festers inside you. You know that more than most.”

“I know,” Xena said. “I’m going for a ride.” She looked down at the scroll. “This is it. She said if you want to read it you can.” She raised her eyes to her friends and they could see the pain in them. “It’s graphic.”

Xena handed it to Piri. “Don’t worry about her warrior. One of us will be with her.”

The healer looked at the scroll. “Thank you.”

Xena looked long and hard at her friends and nodded. Piri entered their hut and Ephiny walked with Xena towards the stables. “Do you want some company?” the regent asked nervously. Xena laughed and put her hand on Ephiny’s arm. “Nah, I’ll take Argo and do some drilling, maybe have a run or a swim. I’d prefer to be by myself.”

Ephiny smiled weakly. “Take your time, she’s in good hands.”

The trees passed in a blur as Argo thundered through the forest. Argo was in tune to her mistress mood and galloped flat out. Xena was happy for her faithful horse to have her head, as she had let her so many times before, and simply hung on. However as she saw sheen of sweat appear on the palomino she gently slowed down until she found a clearing. After dismounting Xena took the saddle off Argo and after eating the apple offered her, the horse wandered off to the stream to get a well earned drink.

Xena stared after her, not really seeing her. She still felt anger; her muscles were twitching begging for release. She wished that some of her foes had followed her and they would provide a “distraction” but there was no one. So she drew her sword and ran through drills. Faster and faster the blade moved until it was a blur. Her muscles began to burn, but still it wasn’t enough. She moved closer to a tree and started hacking off the small branches and then moved onto the trunk. The only sounds were Xena’s grunts and cries as she continued to wield her sword.

Suddenly she stopped. She paused for a moment and then swung around keeping her sword level with her chest. “Come out Ares, I can smell ya,” she said in a bitter tone. The God of War appeared brandishing his sword.

“I could do with fighting a worthy opponent, “he said with his usual sense of arrogance.

Their swords clashed at a frightening pace. Neither yielded a stroke. Intricate moves performed and twice Xena slashed Ares across the chest but the wound closed up immediately. After several minutes both were breathing heavily and were sweating. Xena had a gash across her arm. Ares re-sheathed his sword and clapped his hands in a slow clap.

“Beautiful my dear, I see you haven’t lost it.” He stopped clapping and circled around her. “You haven’t lost any of it, have you.” His tone was seductive and stopped behind Xena. He gently stroked her arm, healing her wound and then laid his hands on her shoulders. Xena flinched automatically but then relaxed. He started to massage her shoulders. “I could feel the hate, the anger, the lust running through you. And it made you feel…alive.”

Xena closed her eyes, and half heartedly tried to move away from Ares, but he carried on rubbing her shoulders. “It felt good didn’t it?” Ares whispered in her ear.

“Yes,” whispered Xena. Her face was screwed up in sadness and her eyes remained closed.

“The most you’ve felt alive for a long time, wasn’t it?”

Xena didn’t want to answer but she felt so seduced by him had to answer the truth, “yes.”

“You want to destroy him, don’t you? The monster that caused you so much pain.” Ares continued to whisper in his seductive tones.

“Yes,” said Xena in a half sob. One of her greatest fears was developing. She was struggling to resist Ares call.

“I can deliver him. Say the word and you can lead the army that destroys him. He’ll never hurt anyone again.”

Xena used all her strength to open her eyes and pull away from Ares’s ministrations.

Ares continued to talk convinced he was still getting through to Xena.

“Gabrielle’s pain will be at an end. You can explain to her child that his or her father is dead. Just say the word, Xena.”

As she heard her soulmate’s name Xena gave a little rueful smile. In a heartbeat she knew she was strong enough to resist the God of war. The offer lost its temptation as she realised it would never match up to what she had.

“And after I stay with you. Remain your chosen, right Ares? Get lost.”

“Xena, Xena I felt your anger. Do you really think you can control it? After all you tend to hurt the one you love.” He placed his hand on Xena’s arm and instantly memories flashed through of her hitting Gabrielle in the jail cell, pulling Gabrielle behind a horse and lastly handing her over to Lindos. Xena slumped and then took several deep breaths. “I have learnt to control it. Thanks to Gabrielle. And I would die before going back to you.”

Ares countenance darkened for a few seconds then he sneered. “Yes, but would she. I-“

Xena moved forward and impaled him with her sword. She withdrew it and the wound closed up without a drop of blood being spilt. “You bastard. I haven’t forgotten what you did. What her and Iolaus went through because of you. You touch her, hurt her in any way and I will haunt you for the rest of your life. Any way to kill a God, I will find it and use it on you.”

He turned his back on her and as he prepared to materialise away she added. “I haven’t forgotten your involvement Ares. This isn’t over.”

Ares smiled coldly. “Oh, we can agree on that my dear. It is never over between us.” And with that he clicked his fingers and disappeared. Xena threw her sword on the floor and crouched down taking deep breaths. She reached for a water skin and took a long drink. After standing up she hurled her chakram with all her might into a tree. Argo came trotting up to her and she buried her face into her neck. “Come on girl, let’s go home.” She said in a muffled, broken voice.

The ride back was at a slower pace. Xena wanted time to get her emotions in order. She was on edge after Ares’ impromptu appearance. The nerve of him. But she shouldn’t expect anything else-a God that sent the furies after her, impersonated her father as well as siding with Dahak to save his own skin. The anger and hatred she had felt for Lindos transferred to Ares. She stopped at a lake and went for a swim, again pushing her body to its limit, releasing as much nervous energy as she could. As she lay on the bank drying off in the sun she looked up at the sky and saw the position of the sun. She hadn’t meant to be away for most of the day, but that’s what happened.

As she entered the village she saw Epinon striding towards her wearing an apologetic smile. Xena jumped off Argo and Epinon gripped Xena in a bear hug taking the warrior by surprise. “You OK?” said the Amazon weapons master kindly.

Xena nodded and looked at the ground.

“I’ll take Argo for you. And Xena,” the cerulean eyes met Epinon’s brown ones; “if you need me you know where to find me.”

Xena nodded again and strode off to her hut. She paused outside the door to compose herself and after taking two deep breaths she opened the door. Gabrielle and Ephiny were sitting at the table. Both looked up at her entering the hut and Gabrielle’s face broke into a wide grin. Ephiny stood up and gathered some scrolls together. “I’ll be off then,” she said jauntily.

“Thanks Eph,” said Xena and Gabrielle in unison. The regent exited and Xena stared at Gabrielle. The bard stood up and held her arm open wide. Xena crossed the floor in an instance and was soon embraced in them. “Sorry,” she said in a muffled voice.

Gabrielle pulled away slightly. “What for?” she asked with concern.

“I shouldn’t have left you. I didn’t mean to be gone for so long.”

“Oh Xe.” Said Gabrielle sympathetically and hugged her again. After several moments they broke apart and Gabrielle went to the fire and started to make tea. Xena stared at her. “Xena, what happened for me was cathartic. It released so many demons. You helped sooth so many worries and concerns I had. I feel better for it.” Xena opened her mouth to speak but Gabrielle raised her hand. “I know I’ll still have nightmares but the burden has eased, don’t you see? But for you-“Gabrielle walked forward and took one of Xena’s hands, “for you it’s just beginning. You’ve just received the burden. I know you need to deal with it in your own way.”

“But I left you all day,” said Xena eyes dropping to the floor.

“Do you feel better than you did this morning?”

“Yes, but-“

“There you are then. I’ve been stuck in here doing paperwork so you haven’t missed much, I promise.” Xena gave a little smile, and Gabrielle gave her a wide one back. “That’s better. I’m fine Xe, I promise.”

Xena nodded and sat down wearily on the chair. She suddenly felt tired, the previous night’s sleeplessness, the emotional turmoil not to mention the physical activity catching up with her. She watched as Gabrielle made the tea and brought two cups over to the table. They sat sipping them in silence until Xena turned to the bard and said, “Ares paid me a visit.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrow shot up. “Really,” she said trying to keep her voice neutral.

“He said he could feel my anger and offered me an army to gain revenge on Li-on him.”

“Lindos. I know now I shouldn’t be scared of saying his name.” There was a pause and Gabrielle bit her lip. “What did you say?” Her voice was a whisper.

“I told him to clear off. I didn’t need his involvement.” Xena reached and gripped one of Gabrielle’s hands. The bard smiled at her.

“I bet that didn’t go down well.”

Xena shook her head. “For a moment,” she whispered, “I could have been tempted.” She gave Gabrielle a smile. “He can be very persuasive.”

Gabrielle patted her hand and said nothing. She didn’t know the whole extent of Xena and Ares relationship, but his involvement usually spelt trouble for them. And the last time they had both suffered in different ways. She sighed; she should have known he wouldn’t have stayed out of their lives for long.

Xena looked up at the bard once she heard the sigh. She had wondered whether to share Ares visit with the bard, but had decided to be open with her. “Don’t worry about it.” She gave a yawn.

“Why don’t I pamper you for a change?” said Gabrielle after a long pause, eager to change the subject. “You are looking tired,” she added in a concerned tone.

“That’ll be wonderful,” said Xena and rose from her chair and shed her armour and breastplate. She lay on the bed sprawled across it lying on her stomach. Gabrielle brought some oils over to the table and sat down at the edge of the bed. She started at Xena’s shoulders and worked her way down. The only response she got from the warrior was the odd groan. After thoroughly working Xena’s shoulders, back and legs, Gabrielle sat up straight and gently stroking Xena’s hair said, “do you want me to wash your hair?“ but she was interrupted by a gentle snore. Smiling she got off the bed and covered the prone warrior.

Chapter 2

And through it all she offers me protection
a lot of love and affection
whether I'm right or wrong
and down the waterfall
wherever it may take me
I know that life won't break me
when I come to call she won't forsake me.

Robbie Williams-Angels.

The next few days passed in a similar fashion. Xena went for a ride on Argo daily but found it was for shorter periods. Her anger at Lindos and Ares was abating, what was left was sadness at what Gabrielle had suffered. They were able to talk about the rape now, stilting at first; with Xena asking about it and they could both discuss it without becoming overly emotional.

Xena was still concerned by how weary Gabrielle had appeared recently. As Xena waited patiently for Gabrielle to return to their hut, she made the decision to talk to Piri the next day. Gabrielle and Ephiny were working on arranging a visit to the centaur village-something that excited queen, regent and warrior princess.

Gabrielle finally walked in, carrying scrolls. She placed them on the table and was about to sit down when Xena dragged her away to the bed. Gabrielle raised her eyebrow and smiled.

“Have a night off,” said Xena. “Please.”

Gabrielle was about to argue when Xena gave her most charming smile and produced some massage oil from her breastplate. “We need to work your arm and hand.”

“You tease,” said Gabrielle lightly. She lay on the bed and closed her eyes. Xena’s fingers were dancing over Gabrielle’s hand, and she gradually moved up her arm, paying special attention to the area that had pained Gabrielle so recently. Gabrielle kept her eyes closed and only opened them as Xena was slowing down. She cupped Xena’s face with her right hand. “Thanks.”

Xena leant in to give Gabrielle a kiss, just as Gabrielle raised herself up to do the same. Their lips met and to Xena’s surprise she could feel urgency behind the bard’s kiss. After several moments they pulled away and Xena could see longing in Gabrielle’s eyes.

Gabrielle sat up and removed Xena’s breastplate. Xena held her breath. Gabrielle threw the breastplate to the floor and framed Xena’s face with her hands. She kissed Xena passionately on the lips at first and then started to move down to the pulse point on Xena’s neck that she knew drove the warrior mad. She slipped her hands underneath the shoulders of Xena’s leathers and started to slip it off.

Xena could feel herself getting excited, despite her best efforts. Usually she would have taken control but she was torn. She wanted Gabrielle to lead, and knew that Gabrielle may call a halt to it at any time. Gabrielle’s hands roved underneath her shift and soon that was on the floor with her leathers. Xena groaned as Gabrielle pushed her onto the bed and lay across her and then found her nipple with her mouth. Xena instinctively squeezed her thighs against Gabrielle’s leg that lay in between them and gently placed her hands across the bard’s back.

“Oh Gabrielle,” she moaned. She needed to say this, even at present she could barely think coherently or form any words. “If I do anything that-“she took several deep breaths in and Gabrielle started to grind against her.

“I will, I promise,” said Gabrielle and started to kiss Xena on the lips again.

Xena held her preciously bundle as the light streamed into the hut. Gabrielle started to stir and Xena kissed her forehead. A green eye appeared open followed by the second and then a wide smile.

“Hey,” said Gabrielle in their customary greeting.

“Hey yourself.” Xena smoothed the hair on Gabrielle’s forehead. “You ok?”

“Never better love, thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, you did quite a bit of the work as I recall.” Xena smiled and looked indulgently at Gabrielle.

“But you waited, you didn’t rush me, and you understood.” Gabrielle’s eyes welled up with tears.

“Oh Gabrielle,” said Xena. “That was nothing. I wanted it to be right for you.”

“For us both,” added Gabrielle. Xena gave her a squeeze. “You’ve helped me banish those memories. Thank you Xe.”

There was silence. Gabrielle swallowed and placed one hand on her stomach and looked down at it.

“Why so sad?” asked Xena.

Gabrielle took her time to answer. “I’m just worried that you won’t find me attractive, as I get bigger.” She patted her stomach.

Xena smiled. “Are you kidding? Making love to a pregnant woman is a dream.”

Gabrielle turned to look at her. Her eyes flashed with jealously. And despite her best efforts she said coolly “Have you been with many pregnant women?”

Xena laughed. “No. But I remember what I was like when I was carrying Solon.” She smiled and her voice became softer. “I was insatiable. Luckily Borias was imaginative.” She looked at Gabrielle and wrapped both arms around her. “I’m looking forward to be even more imaginative.” She felt relief as Gabrielle snuggled up.

“Ephiny said she went from wanting sex constantly to feeling totally put off by it on a daily basis,” said Gabrielle. She sniggered. “Poor Phantes, didn’t know if he was-“

“I can guess the rest,” laughed Xena. She groaned as Gabrielle eased herself from the bed. “Don’t go.”

“I have to Xena. I’ve got a meeting with Eph and Aella.” She started to pull on her clothes. She turned to look at Xena who had now stretched out across the bed. “What are you doing?”

“You tired me out! I’m staying in bed.”

Gabrielle laughed. “You, the woman who fought 300 Persians alone, freed Prometheus and fought Garth, are tired?”

Xena smiled and turned over. “I’m meeting Pony later and helping with some drilling.”

“Oh you do need some rest then. Facing the Xenites.” Gabrielle finished dressing and helped herself to some fruit.

“The Xenites? What are you going on about? And I hope you are going to eat more than that.” Xena sat up in bed.

“You know exactly what I mean. Epinon’s youngsters that follow you about,, watching your every move.”

“They’re learning from me,” said Xena seriously.

At that Gabrielle spluttered. “Call it what you will. Enjoy the attention.” She moved over to the bed and sat down on the edge.

Xena clasped her hand. “Thank you.”

“No thank you, Xena.” Gabrielle kissed Xena on the lips and it became more passionate. Eventually the bard dragged herself away. “Later.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” said Xena as she settled down and watched Gabrielle leave the hut.

“Can you think of anything else, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle considered for a few moments and shook her head. “Aella, I think you have thought of everything. Eph?”

The regent nodded. “Paperwork up to date, nothing outstanding. I do believe everything is set.”

“You just need to have a nice time. Ephiny, I bet you can’t wait to see Xenon,” said Aella.

“I know, I only saw him a month ago, but I am sure he has grown.” Ephiny wore a typical proud mother’s look. “I’ll bring him to see you next time, Aella. He always asks after you. He loved the bow set you made for him.”

Aella looked down momentarily embarrassed. Gabrielle looked from one to another and gave an imperceptible smile. She rubbed her head; she was feeling a little warm and had the beginnings of a headache.

They rose from their chairs. Aella turned to Gabrielle. “I think Piri is a little upset at missing out. She would like to have met up with Joxer. In a totally professional manner of course,” she added quickly.

Gabrielle smiled, and then rubbed her head again. Suddenly she felt chilled and her vision darkened. She was barely aware of the worried voices of Ephiny and Aella as they sounded muffled and distanced. Her legs felt very wobbly and couldn’t support her. She was unaware of hitting the floor as she slipped into unconsciousness seconds before.

Ephiny watched as Gabrielle rubbed her head and suddenly went very pale. She asked if she was alright, as did Aella but the only answer they got was Gabrielle swaying. Ephiny reached her after she hit the ground. She gathered her up and patted her cheek gently repeating her name. Ephiny felt Aella’s hand on her shoulder. She looked up into her friend’s concerned eyes. “We need to get her to Piri’s. Can you manage her?”

Ephiny moved her hands underneath Gabrielle and rose up with the bard in her arms. Aella strode out of the room and asked one of the guards to inform Piri they were coming. She then went back into the room and walked alongside Ephiny.

Piri was waiting for them. Ephiny gently laid her on the bed and as she did Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open. “What happened?” asked the healer, bending over Gabrielle, her fingers lightly checking for any injuries the queen may have suffered.

“I’m fine, don’t fuss so,” Gabrielle spoke weakly and tried to get up but Piri’s strong arms pushed her back.

“She fainted,” said Ephiny finding her voice.

Piri stood up and looked at the two worried faces crowding around her. “Out,” she said gently, and started to shoo Ephiny and Aella to the door. “And can someone tell the warrior,” she whispered.

Aella nodded and pulled Ephiny out of the room and Piri shut the door behind them.

Ephiny paced up and down, every few seconds looking at the door. She heard footsteps coming nearer and sniggered as first Xena, and then Epinon, Solari and lastly Aella, panting slightly ran into the room. Xena had stopped suddenly and the others all ran into the back of her.

“Everyone alright?” Ephiny deadpanned trying to keep a straight face as well as breaking the tension. The concern radiating from Xena was palpable.

Xena pointed to the door and Ephiny nodded. She opened it and stealthily crept in, shutting it behind her.

Piri looked up from her examination and gave a slight smile. The smile from Gabrielle was wider. Xena gave a sigh of relief and sat down on the bed the opposite side from Piri. The healer muttered under her breath but said nothing out loud.

Xena stroked Gabrielle’s hair, as Piri rose and went to her cabinet. Xena watched her intently and when she saw Piri bring back a mug she asked coolly, “What is it?”

The healer glared at Xena and thrust the mug in her direction. “A tonic.” Xena stared at the healer and then turned her attention back to the prone Gabrielle. She helped to raise her up and Gabrielle swallowed the drink with a “yuk!”

“Has this happened before, my Queen?”

Gabrielle shook her head.

“Have you been eating well?”

“Not as much as she-“Xena began but a rub on her arm from Gabriele made her stop.

“My appetite has been better, I’ll admit but I am eating more than before, thank you Piri,” said Gabrielle.

“And how have you been sleeping?” Piri looked from one to another and noticed the immediate reddening of Gabrielle’s face and even Xena had the grace to blush slightly.

“I see.” She smiled, her lips quivering. There was a pause before she said, “That is a good thing. I am pleased for you.” She held up her hand to stop a concerned looking warrior from speaking. “It is perfectly natural for couples to enjoy even if one is pregnant. That did not cause you to faint.”

Gabrielle smiled at Xena who was looking slightly mollified. “What did then?” She said.

“Have you had a sore throat at all?” asked Piri.

“It’s been a little scratchy,” said Gabrielle.

“Wearier than usual?”

Bard and warrior nodded in unison.

“I think it’s a case of having a mild infection and working too hard. You need to slow down, my Queen. “She gently patted Gabrielle’s stomach.

She got up and started mixing some herbs together in a pestle. She walked back to the bed and before Xena could ask she said,” A mild sedative and some thing for the infection.” She gave Gabrielle a mug of water and she swallowed the powder quickly followed by the water.

Xena helped her lie down and within minutes the sedative had worked and Gabrielle was asleep. Xena got up and saw Piri was writing. The healer looked up. “I’ll talk to the worried crowd out there and then I want to chat with you warrior.” Xena nodded and Piri left the room while Xena sunk into a chair suddenly drained. When Aella had told her about Gabrielle’s collapse she went cold. Even though it had proved not to be serious, Xena was still anxious.

Piri entered the room and brought over a bottle and two mugs. She filled them both up and handed one to Xena and then sat down. “I think you need this.”

Xena sniffed at the liquid, which was wine, and then swallowed it in one gulp.

“It is not your fault warrior. And I mean what I said, making love is natural. It is doing more good than harm.”

Xena looked less than convinced.

“Things are becoming like before the attack. A sense of normality is returning. Don’t take that away from her.” She paused. “It is not uncommon for women to faint during pregnancy,” continued the healer.

Xena stared at her mug and then looked up. “She used to be so healthy, so robust. But recently, she’s seemed so fragile. And that’s not like Gabrielle. I’ve noticed how weary she has been recently.” She snorted. “I was going to speak to you about it. Bit late now,” she muttered.

The healer sighed. “She’s been through a lot, and her body needs time to heal. Still having nightmares?” Xena nodded. “Those will pass, as she is more open about what happened. That drains a person.”

Xena looked back at the bed and as she turned to face the healer said, “She’s not going to the centaur village is she?”

“No. She needs bed rest for a few days. The infection is very mild, but I would prefer her to remain here.”

“She won’t take it well,” said Xena.

“I know,” said Piri. “But it’s my job to heal not be popular. You can stay here with her tonight.” Xena raised an eyebrow and gave the healer a look that said, you try and stop me. “You can also make yourself useful.” Xena rolled her eyes as Piri dumped a pile of herbs on the table to be sorted.

“How’s the patient?” Piri came breezing in through the door. Gabrielle looked up from the scroll she was reading in bed and Xena from her place at the table. “The usual. Pushing boundaries, being stubborn,” replied Xena and put her now shining chakram on the table and stood up.

“The patient can talk for herself you know?” said Gabrielle in an exasperated tone. Piri smiled at the bard as Xena joined her, them both towering over her. Piri sat on a chair that Xena had brought with her and Xena sat on the edge of the bed. “How are you feeling?” The healer asked gently. “The truth.”

“I guess I am a little tired,” admitted the bard. “But other than that, I’m fine.”

“Any more fainting spells?” The bard shook her head. “OK lie back, I’d like to do a full examination as you’re a captive audience. “

Xena jumped off the bed and took a couple of steps back but watched intently as Piri started from Gabrielle’s neck and behind her ears and worked down. She noticed Gabrielle wince as she pressed her arm. “Where you fell,” she said and Gabrielle confirmed with a nod. She moved down to Gabrielle’s bump and felt all around.

“It’s a big baby,” said Piri.

“The father was tall,” said Gabrielle quietly. She gulped and looked away. Xena also turned away so neither Piri or Gabrielle could see the anger on her face. When Gabrielle turned back to look at Piri, the healer gave her a supportive smile. “Let’s check the scars and finish up with your hand.” Gabrielle sat up and pulled her tunic off and turned away from Piri. She inspected the faded lash marks and then gently touched the larger scare that adorned Gabrielle’s back. “You never told me about these,” asked the healer, noticing that both bard and warrior were very quiet, probably still remembering the horrific time at Lindos’ camp.

“Haven’t I?” asked Gabrielle genuinely. “There’s not much to tell.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Xena finding her voice. She stepped forward and helped Gabrielle with her tunic.

The bard shrugged gently and sat up straighter. Xena again sat beside her but this time took her hands. “You know about Hope and the pit?” asked Gabrielle. Piri nodded. Gabrielle looked at Xena. The warrior’s eyes were full of pain at the mere mention of that terrible time. “I fell and I remember the heat, the noise and the pain and then nothing. The next thing I knew I could hear voices but I couldn’t speak or move. Then I recognised a voice, it was Democritus, a friend of ours. I tried so hard to move but I couldn’t. I don’t know how long I was there. Then I heard Xena. She was telling me to wake up, and I did.” There was silence for several heartbeats.

Gabrielle squeezed Xena’s hand and the warrior launched into her side of the story.

“That’s it Joxer, just one more and then it’s done.” Hippocrates leant over the patient and smiled as Joxer carefully finished the stitches. Joxer bandaged the injured leg and said a few comforting words to the young man. By the time he was finished Hippocrates was smiling broadly a few paces away.

“Very impressive Joxer.” Said the young healer.

“Thank you. And thank you for all your help, you’ve been so patient.” Joxer stammered and blushed, not used to receiving compliments.

“It’s been my pleasure. We can always do with more healers, especially as Democritus is in Athens setting up a hospice there. I’m sorry for the reason you have chosen healing but glad you did.”

Joxer looked away at the warrior princess treating an old woman. His eyes filled with tears. “Gabrielle never liked me fighting. I can’t imagine travelling around without her.” He swallowed a spoke in a broken whisper,” I hope I can make her proud.”

Hippocrates also watched Xena, working quietly and efficiently, her face blank, free of emotion. “She’s a different person, now,” said Joxer regaining his poise. “It’s broken her.” Joxer turned to Hippocrates and spoke quietly. “I’m surprised she came back from the amazons. Her and Ephiny have a volatile relationship. I thought it might tip her over the edge.”

Hippocrates patted his arm and they moved to an alcove where there were two brothers lying on the beds. They were bending over them when a man came running in.

“Hippocrates I have a message for you.”

“Joxer can you?” Joxer nodded, and Hippocrates stepped away from the beds and took the offered scroll.

“It’s from Democritus,” he said out loud to no one in particular, and then became engrossed by what was written. He read it twice and sat down on the closest available chair. He looked at Joxer cleaning a wound on the young boy’s face and at Xena who was now setting a farmer’s arm.

“Xena, Joxer, can I have a word please,” he called.

They both came to him. He wasn’t sure how to bring up the subject. He looked into Xena’s blue eyes that looked so pale and listless and handed her the scroll. “I’ve just received this. It’s from Democritus in Athens.”

Xena took the offered scroll and read it in silence. When she finished it she looked up, tears in her eyes and breathing heavily.

“What? What?” said Joxer impatiently?

“Democritus says a woman has been brought into the hospice, who-“she gave a sob, “is like Gabrielle. He thinks it is Gabrielle.”

Joxer keeled over. Hippocrates rolled his eyes and picked up a waterskin and squirted water on him. Joxer coughed and spluttered and jumped up immediately.

“What else does it say?” He asked.

Xena was still staring at the scroll, so Hippocrates said, “She’s unconscious and been burnt badly.”

Joxer and Xena stared at each other. They had to vocalise the painful thoughts they were having. Finally Joxer spoke. “It could be Hope.”

Xena closed her eyes, and there were tears rolling down her cheeks. “I know,” she whispered. “But I have to be sure.”

Joxer squeezed her arm. “Go. Go now. You’ll be quicker without me.” Xena opened her eyes and looked at the brown eyes of one of her closest friends. “Get our girl Xena.”

She kissed Joxer on the forehead and gave Hippocrates a grateful glance. Within half an hour she was packed, Argo was saddled and she was waving goodbye.

“I’ll pray to Asclepius,” said Galen who had joined Joxer and Hippocrates on the steps waving her off.

“Pray to anyone and everyone,” said Joxer. “She can’t take another knock back. If it’s not Gabby, I’m not sure we’ll ever see her again.”

Xena leant her head against the door frame. She was aware of an old wizened woman looking at her with curious eyes. The journey had been quick. She had pushed Argo as quickly as the mare would go. And now…She could barely bring herself to enter the hospice for fear that Democritus was wrong. The scroll said the woman was burnt, supposing he had mistook her features. It had been several years since he had seen Gabrielle.

She closed her eyes. What chilled her even more was the thought it could be Hope. During the journey she had pondered this question endlessly. Did she survive? Would Dahak have let his daughter return to this plane, injured? Would Ares do nothing to help her? She was sure that Ares would have been castigated by his own family for selling out, but Hope was carrying his child. Did that matter? And with all her powers would Hope have returned injured and ill as a mere mortal?

She straightened up, opened her eyes and inhaled deeply. Would she know instinctively if it was Gabrielle? Could she sense her, feel her? She knew as much as hoped she could, the true test was when she was able to look into Gabrielle’s eyes. Hope’s were cold and soulless. Gabrielle’s radiated love. She would know.

The old woman called to her, “I hope you find what you are looking for.”

“Thank you grandmother,” replied Xena with a slight bow and she entered the hospice.

Xena looked around for Democritus. He spotted her first and ran to her. “It’s good to see you Xena.” He saw the concern in her eyes. “She’s over here.”

“Do you know how she came to be here?” asked Xena with a dry mouth.

Democritus shook his head. “She was found at the steps of the hospice.” He stopped by a bed and as he moved across Xena could see the small figure in the bed. Her heart was thumping in her chest and her hands were sweating. She rubbed them on her leathers and took a couple of tentative steps towards the bed. She swallowed convulsively and took a further step towards the bed. She looked down and despite the heavy bandages and blankets covering the woman, it was Gabrielle. Xena sunk down in a chair next to the bed, and picked up one of her hands. She brought it to her cheek.

She looked up Democritus. “You said she’s been like this since she arrived?”

He nodded. “She’s not worsened but not improved.”

Xena gazed at “Gabrielle”. She so wanted it to be her. More than anything in her whole life. If it was Hope; Xena had decided she would kill the demon and hope that the fates would keep their promise to Ares and cut her life line. She had no appetite to continue without Gabrielle. The past month had shown her, without Gabrielle there was no joy to be found in life. She smoothed the blonde hair away from her eyes. She would care for her as if it were Gabrielle. She hoped that talking to her would bring her around-then she could be certain.

She took over the woman’s care, only leaving for the briefest of times. She brushed her hair, read to her, changed her dressings and gave her gentle washes. Xena tried to keep her excitement from taking over. She couldn’t bear to be disappointed.

After four days, the woman’s eyes fluttered opened. Disorientated at first the woman blinked several times and then turned towards Xena.

“Xena,” she croaked and gave a smile. Xena looked into her eyes. She saw love, affection and concern in them. And she saw her soul reflected in them. She knew without doubt it was Gabrielle.

Her emotions overtook her and she started to cry. She put her head on Gabrielle’s shoulder and breathing in her hair she continued to sob. Despite being dazed Gabrielle held Xena tight letting her cry. After several minutes Xena pulled away slightly.

“It is you,” she said repeating what Gabrielle had said to her when she had returned to her body.

“You found me,” said Gabrielle wearily. “I knew you would.”

Piri listened to the story. She saw the emotion on both their faces. She had seen Xena return to the Amazon village with the news of the Queen’s apparent demise and had seen that she was a shell of the warrior she knew.

“You brought me back,” said Gabrielle after the silence had become uncomfortable.

“Nah,” said Xena. “You couldn’t believe I was talking so much, so you had to interrupt me.” They touched foreheads briefly. Piri coughed embarrassed at this intimate moment. They looked at her and laughed, the tension dissolved.

“Gabrielle,” the healer began. “I’m sorry but I think it’s in your best interest to remain at the village.”

Gabrielle sniffed and smiled weakly. “I guessed as much.” She turned to Xena. “You can say hello to the guys from me.”

“I’m not going,” said Xena sharply.

“Why not?” asked Gabrielle.

“I’m not leaving you,” said Xena appalled.

Piri looked from one to the other. “If you’ll excuse me, “she said even though the two women weren’t listening. She got up and left.

The two didn’t register her leaving. They were staring at each other.

“Xena, I know how important this visit is to you. How much you need it.”

“It’s not as important as you. I’m not leaving you alone.”

Gabrielle laughed. “Alone in this village.” She held Xena’s hand. “Xena, I know how difficult it’s been for you to stay here for so long. Helping Piri, drilling, hunting with Epinon, it doesn’t fill the gap does it? You need to get out of here, even if it’s just for a couple of days.”

Xena shook her head. “I told you once before that I’ve done with this redemption lark; my responsibility is to you now. And I mean it this time.”

“Going to the centaur village for a couple of days isn’t reneging on your responsibility. Xena it’s not wrong to still feel restless despite being happy with me. I miss being on the road, going from village to village,” Gabrielle smiled and then looked down at her bump and lost her smile. “I wish we could both travel.”

“We will. Have this baby and then we’ll travel again the three of us,” said Xena brightly. “I do miss it though,” she admitted.

“Staying in one place isn’t for you, is it Xe?” Xena shook her head slowly. “Then go. See Hercules, Joxer and Iolaus. Go and have a good time hunting, fishing or whatever you want to do.”

“Are you sure?” whispered Xena knowing she was beaten. Her excitement at travelling to the centaur village and meeting up with old friends warred with her guilt at leaving Gabrielle.

“Absolutely. Enjoy it. I’ll miss you though.”

“Me too. I love you.”

“Right back at you, warrior.”

“It is wonderful to see you all. Come now friends.” Tyldus spread his arms wide. Ephiny gave her father in law a warrior’s handshake and followed him in to the village. Tyldus twisted his body so he could see Xena. “I am sorry that Gabrielle is unwell, nothing serious I take it?”

Xena smiled, “An infection. Nothing to worry about.”

“Still it’s wonderful to have so many visiting. And Hercules, Iolaus and Joxer are back too. I think tomorrow we can have a party to rival the amazons.” Tyldus smiled.

“I can’t wait,” said Epinon, “and we brought wine.” She winked at Xena.

Xena led Argo into the stable and was removing her saddle when Hercules came striding in. He enveloped her in a bear hug. “Great to see you,” the demi god, enthused. “I heard that Gabrielle was unwell. Everything alright?”

Xena smiled, Hercules mood was infectious. “She sends her love.” She put Argo’s saddle down, and started to brush her. “There is something, but I need to wait for Iolaus and Joxer. How’s Iolaus been?”

“Good. The trip to Hippocrates did him good. He’s stronger. Soon he can come with me again.” The demi god stopped his brushing of the mare and looked wistful for a moment. “It’s not the same by yourself.”

“That’s why I’m not travelling. I couldn’t bear to do it without her.”

“But doesn’t stop you from missing it though,” said Hercules knowingly. Xena nodded. “It is ok to miss something despite being happy.” He looked down. “I love being out on the open road. I know now that I will never settle down again. We tried, but it’s not for me any more. Gods, I did miss Iolaus, though.”

“That’s what Gabrielle said. Take your own advice big man. Don’t feel guilty about doing something you love. Iolaus would hate that,” said Xena.

“Come on let’s catch up with the others.”

Xena finished hugging Joxer and sat down at a table in his hut. She looked around noting all the bottles and jars full of medicine. The place was untidy, which certainly didn’t surprise Xena after sharing camps with him on and off for two years or so.

“A drink must get you all a drink,” muttered Joxer and went about finding some mugs. After finding four he looked inside them, gave a grimace and grabbing a cloth started to wipe the insides of them. As he was busying himself with that Iolaus came limping in. Xena noted that he walked without a crutch which surprised her-she felt sure his injury would ensure its use for his entire life. However the limp was very pronounced and she knew from Hercules they had quiet day fishing, but Iolaus looked fatigued.

Xena jumped up and gave Iolaus a warm hug. He limped to the chair beside Hercules and lowered himself gingerly on to it.

“How are you doing?” asked Xena as she too sat down. Joxer brought over the mugs and turned to find a bottle of something. Xena picked up one of the mugs and as she looked into it made a face and started to wipe it with a blank piece of parchment on the table.

“Better than when you saw me last,” said the blonde man. “No crutch! Hippocrates worked miracles.”

For a moment Xena’s mind flashed to Lao Ma and what she did for her. There would be no phenomenal recovery for Iolaus.

“You’ve been travelling,” she said as she picked up another still dirty mug and started to clean that. Iolaus and Hercules exchanged a glance.

“I’d like to do more,” started Iolaus.

“You will, there’s no rush.” Said Hercules hurriedly.

“Stop treating me like an invalid. I rode to Athens,” retorted Iolaus angrily.

“Enjoy the wine!” Joxer slammed the bottle on the table. Iolaus and Hercules looked away from each other. Xena poured the wine into the four slightly less dirty mugs and passed them around.

“Cheers!” she said.

The three men grunted and half heartedly raised their mugs before taking large sips.

Joxer put his mug down and stared at Xena.

“Now what about Gabby?” The other two men also put their mugs on the table and looked at Xena.

There was silence as Xena considered what to say.

“You two are alright aren’t you? Things got better hadn’t they?” Iolaus leaned forward.

Xena nodded dumbly. They had heard of their difficulties but had no idea that a major cause of it was Gabrielle’s pregnancy.

There was no other way to approach it. She looked them all in the eye in turn. “Gabrielle’s pregnant,” she said neutrally.

There was silence. More than that, a deafening silence. Xena couldn’t hear any breathing; it was like for a moment the whole world was still. When the silence extended, she wished that Joxer had reacted in his customary way by fainting or by joking about becoming an uncle, anything to break the building tension.

It was Hercules who spoke first. He swallowed and said, “How-how is she?”

“Weary. It taken a lot out of her,” said Xena.

“No.” Hercules shook his head. “How is she? How is she coping with it?”

Xena looked down as she thought about the terrible weeks that Gabrielle had known the truth. How close she was to taking her own life. How terrified she was that Xena would leave her. How concerned she was the baby would be evil like Hope. That Xena, and especially Gabrielle, would struggle to love it. Once Xena had given reassurance and plenty of reassurance at that, Gabrielle had relaxed and become more optimistic about the baby. Not enthusiastic as such, but at ease about its arrival. She looked up.

“She’s coming to terms with it. It was such a shock.”

“What about you?” said Joxer quietly? “It must be hard with Solon and all?”

Xena felt the usual pang of sorrow at the mention of her son. “I’m coming to terms with it too. I’m here for the long haul. We’re going to raise him or her together.”

She saw that Hercules and Joxer had lost their worried countenances. Iolaus sat staring, mouth ajar not saying a word.

“I suppose I should say, congratulations,” said Hercules.

“Does that mean I’m going to be an uncle?” said Joxer. His head drooped and he fell forwards off his chair.

“Could have done that a few minutes ago,” muttered Xena under her breath. She looked at Iolaus who was still sitting frozen. “Iolaus?”

He turned to look at her. “I have to go,” he whispered and hurried out of the hut.

Hercules shared a worried glance with Xena. “I’ll just-“he pointed to the door and got up from his chair, as Joxer started to come round.

“So you’ll be delivering the baby?” said Xena and grinned evilly as Joxer’s head hit the ground again. “Maybe not!”

Hercules didn’t have to go far to find Iolaus. He was sitting outside Joxer’s hut.

“What happened to you?” asked Hercules.

Iolaus looked at Hercules and he saw that the blonde’s eyes were red rimmed.

“Iolaus. Talk to me.”

“It’s my fault. Gabrielle, Lindos. It’s because of me. I could kid myself that she’s over it, but now-“he put his head in his hands.

“Iolaus you’re not making any sense. It wasn’t your fault. You could do nothing to stop him.” Hercules squatted down next to his partner and put his hand on his shoulder.

Iolaus shook it off. “Every time she’ll look at the child she’ll remember. And it’s because of me.”

“You’re still not making sense Iolaus. What happened?”

There was silence, so Hercules tried again. “It was not your fault. Gabrielle will tell you the same. A baby, Iolaus. We can be an important part of its life. Be fathers again.” Hercules could not hide his sadness at the last sentence.

Iolaus looked up and patted his friend’s shoulder. “It must be hard for you big man. But you’re right. Gabrielle can tell me.” He jumped up, wincing slightly as pain shot through his leg. “I’ll talk to her.” He started to stride off to his hut.

“What?” Hercules walked alongside him.

Iolaus stopped suddenly. “I need to talk to Gabrielle.”

“Now?” asked Hercules, incredulously. “You can’t?”

“Why, because I can’t ride to the amazons? Because I’m a cripple?”

“Iolaus, I’m just worried about you,” Hercules hurried after his friend as he had resumed walking.

“I know, and I’m grateful, but I need to do this. I have to speak to Gabby. I need to know.”

Hercules looked at the determined set of his friend’s jaw. Iolaus was determined, stubborn even. His mind was made up. He shut his eyes. “You go and pack, I’ll saddle up a horse.”

Iolaus turned to him and clasped his hand. Hercules pulled him into a hug. “Be quick. I’ll miss you.”

“I will,” the small man was now beaming.

“And if you manage it ok, we’ll head out. There are still plenty of damsels yet to be saved by us.”

Iolaus laughed. “When I manage it, you’re on.”

Xena peered into the gloominess. She couldn’t even describe it as pre-dawn light. It was still dark, the only light coming from the torches lit so the sentries around the village could see. She was restless and knew that it wasn’t just the two worries that had emerged tonight causing her to be so wakeful.

She sat down fingering her chakram. Hercules had returned and between them he and Joxer had asked her all about Gabrielle’s pregnancy. How was she? Where was the baby to be born? Had they chosen names? What had the grandparents thought- Cyrene assuming to be the paternal grandmother? Hercules had asked whether the baby was kicking and she could see him drift off into his own memories of fatherhood, cruelly cut short thanks to a vengeful Hera.

It was not so much the questions that caused Xena her unease, but the fact she had not thought about the answers at all. Other than the previous day she had not mentioned about what would happen when the baby was born. She hadn’t felt the baby kick or indeed know if the baby was kicking. Her thoughts were dominated by the fact that Gabrielle was pregnant and had been recently injured, therefore more vulnerable and needed to be protected more than ever. She had not considered that in four months time their lives would be inextricably changed.

They seldom spoke about the baby; Xena knew Gabrielle was fearful of raising the subject and upsetting her. She threw her chakram down into the dirt with some force. Being affected by the challis and the consequences had thrown up more barriers. Xena knew that Ephiny had discussed aspects of motherhood with Gabrielle, that other young or expecting mothers within the village sought her out with more frequency. Xena had pretended not to notice and never asked about these meetings.

With clarity she understood why Gabrielle had considered taking her own life. She was afraid of rejection from Xena, and it was Xena’s impassioned pleas that had prevented it. And yet Xena had rejected her by ignoring the issue, and that would stop.


She picked up her chakram and walked around the village square. She had racked her memories since Hercules had told her of Iolaus’ deep distress of her news. She couldn’t think of anything that would make him act so passionately. She would talk to Epinon when the weapons master woke. Perhaps she had different recollections.

Even with those two concerns momentarily solved she knew she would not be able to sleep. She missed Gabrielle too much. Curling up with her, holding her tight she couldn’t settle without the bard in her arms. She looked in the direction of the Amazon village and hoped that Gabrielle was sleeping. The darkness was weakening; natural light was beginning to emerge.

She heard a sound and saw Epinon emerge from her hut rubbing her eyes and trying to orientate herself. The weapons master spotted Xena and strode to her.

“Couldn’t sleep either?” Xena nodded. “I just miss her.” Epinon spoke with a sense of reverence.

There was a pause and then the Amazon asked, “What’s on your mind, Xena?”

Xena smiled at her and thought for a moment. She then launched into how Iolaus took the news of Gabrielle’s pregnancy.

“Can you remember anything, anything at all Pony?”

Epinon looked at Xena with a look of anguish. They were times that they would both, as well as the other three amazons who had drunk from the challis, like to forget. She closed her eyes and thought. But she came up with a blank and shook her head.

“I only hope Gabrielle could reassure him,” said Xena worriedly.

“He’ll be fine. What are you dong today?” Epinon yawned.

“I thought I’d go fishing and maybe do some drilling. After I watch you take the young centaurs through their paces.” Xena smiled at Epinon’s obvious discomfort.

Gabrielle stood awaiting their arrival outside her hut. Piri was flanking her on one side, grumbling that bed rest meant just that, and Aella was on her other side. They watched the blonde being escorted into the village escorted by two perimeter guards.

“Thank you Chilapa and Kelsa. That will be all.” Aella dismissed the guards and they nodded to Gabrielle and turned their horses around.

Iolaus swung his leg around and despite dismounting gingerly he could not hide his discomfort on landing. Gabrielle walked up to him. She saw his saddened face and the message from the guards announcing his arrival had mentioned how distressed he appeared.

She wrapped her arms around him. He remained stiff at first and then did likewise. She stepped back and asked, “Have you eaten?”

He shook his head. Gabrielle grasped his hand and led him to her hut asking Aella to send Iolaus some dinner along. When they reached the inside she ushered him to a chair and immediately went to get some wine, apple juice and mugs.

As she approached the table she stopped as she noticed his eyes were fixed on her bump. She quickly sat down and poured him some wine and herself some apple juice.

“So you know?” she said gently patting her stomach.

Iolaus nodded dumbly. Gabrielle was unsure at how to continue, but Iolaus found his voice and blurted out, “It was my fault.”

Gabrielle snorted. “How? I got you involved. I dragged you to the camp.” She paused. “You didn’t rape me,” she added quietly.

“But if it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t have.” Gabrielle looked at him confused.

“Claudine said that you agreed to it, to save me.” Iolaus looked away from Gabrielle. How could he face her?

“Is that what she said?” Said Gabrielle quietly. “There was no deal, nothing. She probably said that to torture you. He never said a word about you.”

Iolaus turned back to face her. He looked at Gabrielle’s eyes and realised she was telling the truth. “Are you sure?”

She nodded and placed her hand on his. “Your fault? Nothing could be further from the truth. Do you honestly think he wasn’t going to do it? Do you think they would have spared us, if Hercules and the amazons have rescued us?”

“She was so convincing. I thought it was because of me.”

“I wish you’d told me Iolaus. You must have suffered so.” Gabrielle looked at her troubled friend who gave a half sob as the relief flooded his body.

They sat there quietly for several moments, both lost in thought. Iolaus looked up. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “I just wish-“

“I know.” Gabrielle paused. “Thank you. I never said that. If you hadn’t have been there after… that night, I would have given up.”

The small man looked embarrassed and gave a little smile as he considered Gabrielle’s words.

There was a knock at the door and Gabrielle rose to answer it. She took the offered plate and set it down by Iolaus.

He attacked it with gusto and Gabrielle could sense his good nature returning.

“You’ll stay tonight?” He nodded. “Good you can tell me about Hercules part in retrieving the oil. I don’t know much about that.”

“He got it from Artemis,” said Iolaus his moth full of the tasty stew. “Did you know about the temple north of Renwa? Well it’s special as most people can’t see it as…” and Iolaus continued long into the night.

Xena, Epinon and Ephiny sat listening as Tyldus spoke about the success of the visit. Epinon blushed as Tyldus congratulated her on the success of her drilling practices. After he had finished talking the music started and the wine and ale began to flow. The centaur smiled as he approached the three women, holding hands with his grandson.

“Thank you ladies, as always a great success. I am only sorry that Queen Gabrielle couldn’t make it,” Tyldus bowed his head slightly.

“Can Aunt Gabrielle come next time, Mother? And Aella?” Xenon was circling his mother excitedly. Epinon and Xena exchanged an amused glance.

“Not sure about Auntie Gabrielle, sweetie,” said his mother.

“Your Aunt is having a baby,” said Xena with a hint of pride that Ephiny detected and smiled to herself. About time, she thought. “How would you like a little boy or girl cousin to play with?”

Xenon screwed his face up and thought for several seconds. “A boy would be good. If it’s a girl maybe Aunt Gabby could change it.” And with the laughter of the adults ringing in his ears he trotted off to play with some friends.

“So how is Gabrielle? Glowing, as pregnant women do?” asked Tyldus.

The three women all looked off into the distance with the identical dreamy expression and it was several moments before Epinon spoke in a wistful voice, “She’s gorgeous, glowing and softer. She’s getting subtle curves. Pregnancy suits her, she just needs to regain the weight she lost and she’d be perfect.” Xena shook her head and saw her friends still gazing absently.

“Ahem,” she said sternly and the amazons turned to look at her both blushing. Xena raised her eyebrow up and was just about to say something when two men came running into the village square.

“Fire!” shouted one. “The barn at the North End.”

Immediately everyone sprung into action.

“And I think a couple of the houses there are catching,” said the other, leaning over panting.

“Do you know if anyone is in there?” Asked Hercules who had appeared out of no where.

“There are animals, horses, cows, but I don’t know.”

Xena was by Hercules’ side and they looked at each other and then went sprinting off. In the square Epinon and Ephiny were organising the amazons to start pumping water, and Joxer had raced inside his hut to get his medical supplies ready.

Hercules and Xena reached the barn. They called out several times, but could hear nothing over the roar of the flames and the animals increasingly panicked cries. Both rushed into the barn. The smoke was pouring out and Xena immediately felt choked and her eyes were beginning to run with tears. She went to the first stall and shooed a goat to the exit. Hercules did the same to a donkey in the next one. The next two stalls contained very frightened horses, and she was leading them out when she thought she heard a cough. Shooing the horses out she strained to listen and again she heard a cough.

“Hercules, Herc,” she shouted, but she could barely make herself heard.

She looked up and did a flip to the next level. She found an empty waterskin discarded and threw it at Hercules. It made him look up and his eyes widened when he saw her there. She was coughing now, and the flames were licking closely around her. She called out, but there was no answer. She bent at her waist and moved slowly around. She could feel the heat around her, and at one point her hair caught fire and she patted it down quickly sustaining a small burn on her hand. As she looked at it, a green colour, similar to Gabrielle’s favourite top caught her eye.

She crawled under some fallen timber and digging furiously under the smouldering straw she found a young boy of eight or so. Grasping him in her arms, she crawled back to the edge. As she did, she heard the cough again, but not from the boy. She stopped and looked around. Nothing. She reached the edge and saw Hercules waiting patiently, waving his hand around trying to fan the smoke away. She dropped the boy down into his waiting arms.

“Xena come on,” he called.

“There’s someone else,” she said and turned around, not sure or caring if he heard her or not.

It was even more treacherous and she knew that within minutes the whole barn would collapse on itself. Her lungs burned with every breath. Another timber fell, missing her by inches. She swallowed. She did not doubt her hearing, but she wondered if she was too late. But no, there it was again and this time it was enough to give her a location. She crawled, and there was another boy, slightly younger. This one had several burns to his arms, but was still breathing. She turned to go back but a timber fell across her path. She picked the boy up in her arms and stood up. She could hear the creaking of the wood and she knew the barn was coming down. She held the boy tighter.

Hercules carried the boy out of the barn and deposited him by Joxer. Already there were people throwing water ineffectually on the flames. However most of the effort was on the nearby houses in order to stop them from catching alight and the fire spreading.

He turned to run back in the barn, when Tyldus ran in front of him. “You can’t go back there. It’s coming down in a minute.”

“But Xena is still in there,” said Hercules, exasperatedly. “I need to go in.”

There was a creaking noise from the barn, and everyone instinctively looked at the source. That gave Tyldus the opportunity to push Hercules back a little. The demi god looked at the centaur angrily and was about to protest again, when the barn started to collapse in on itself.

“BACK! BACK!” came the cries.

Hercules watched in horror as the barn fell like a pack of cards but his horror turned to amazement as through the air came Xena. She spun several times and landed a safe distance away from the burning barn, clutching a child. Hercules nodded his head and smiled, and watched as Xena handed the child to his grateful parents.

She wandered over to him. He noted the singed hair and couple of burns on her arms and hands. “What took you so long?” he asked.

“Grand exit,” she said nonchalantly. Ephiny and Epinon reached her, and both looked at her with a sense of awe.

“Enjoy the view?” asked Epinon.

Xena nodded but her burns were beginning to sting.

“Let’s get you to Joxer,” said Ephiny, and led the warrior princess to Joxer’s hut.

Ephiny struggled to keep up with the pace set by the palomino and its impatient rider. She rolled her eyes and exchanged a look with Epinon who shrugged. Epinon urged her chestnut mare on and became level with the raven haired rider.

“Xena could you slow the pace down, some of the elders are having a little trouble keeping up.” Xena turned a puzzled look towards Epinon and after hearing an indignant “Hey” from Ephiny smiled and gently tugged on Argo’s reins.

“How about a break, elder one,” she said with a trace of humour. She caught sight of Ephiny’s face as she slowed Argo down to a halt and said, “Eph didn’t your Mother ever tell you if the wind changes you’ll end up with a face like that?” Ephiny practically snarled at the warrior princess as she and the other amazons also dismounted. Xena and Epinon had made their way under a large tree and were sitting down sharing a water skin. As Ephiny approached they offered her it and she slid down next to them.

“Sorry,” said Xena giving a lopsided grin. “I guess I was forcing the pace a bit.”

“You guess right,” said Epinon. “We’ll be back soon enough.”

“I know,” Xena said and she looked out in the distance, her face etched with pain for a moment.

“Are your burns hurting?” asked Ephiny quickly. “Do you want me to look at them?”

Xena shook her head. “They’re fine. It’s not that. “She looked down and mumbled, “I don’t like leaving her too long.” Xena smiled weakly. “I haven’t been away from her for a night since, you know. It was harder than I thought, especially as we stayed longer than scheduled.” Xena stared at the ground her hands shredding a leaf she had found there.

“I know, me too,” said Epinon sympathetically. Xena looked up at her friend’s face and saw the same look of pain that she had worn.

“It’s not been that long. Give it time,” said Ephiny sympathetically. She knew what was playing on her friends minds. “We’ll be home soon enough.” She stretched out her legs trying to relieve the aches in them.

“Yeah, I guess,” said Epinon and mentally shaking herself she said in a brighter tone, “Still it was a good trip. Despite the fire.”

“And the reality was it would have been dangerous to go home in that storm, Xena,” said Epinon making the argument she had made countless times that day. Xena sighed and shrugged her shoulders. She knew it would have been foolhardy to attempt to go home yesterday but she hated leaving Gabrielle even longer.

“At least that storm helped to douse the fire. Artemis knows how else that barn would have been put out,” said Ephiny.

“It’s lucky there were not too many injuries. Those boys and Xena. Oh and Joxer’s foot,” said Epinon with a snigger.

“Poor Joxer.” They said in unison. The healer had dropped a large tub of salve on his foot as he was treating Xena, and now walked around using Iolaus’ crutch.

“You two are so whipped, not wanting to spend a few nights away,” said Ephiny laughing as she rose. A thought came to her. “And Pony, elder? I’m younger than you. I’m younger than you both.” She said indignantly.

“We’re not whipped,” said Xena then stopped and then broke out into a big smile. “Well I guess we are.”

“And we love it,” said Epinon as she held out a hand for Xena. She helped to haul the warrior up and the three made their way to their horses as did the rest of the guard accompanying them.

“Lucky you,” said Ephiny quietly as she mounted her horse. “Come on lets get home before these sad women become too love sick to ride.” The amazons grinned especially as Ephiny cantered off leaving two fuming dark haired women to mount their horses.

“I’ll get you Eph, believe me,” said Epinon and she cantered after Ephiny only to be overtaken by a palomino. She grinned as she watched Xena launch herself onto the back of Ephiny’s horse and bent over with laughter as she saw her friend and regent land in a muddy puddle and Xena raise her arms aloft!

Gabrielle was waiting in the village square as the riders came in. She desperately tried to maintain the dignity that befitted a queen but she knew she failed as Xena dismounted and she saw the bandages that adorned her arm and hand. She quickly approached her and after giving a hug to Argo and a whisper of thanks to her for bringing her mistress home safely she launched herself into Xena’s arms.

Despite the slight sting of her wounds Xena hugged her lover tight. She closed her eyes and breathed in her scent. This was the moment she longed for so many days. They parted and Gabrielle, remembered that she should greet the other women. Several of their partners were hugging their returned loved ones and Gabrielle slipped her hand into Xena’s un-bandaged one for a few seconds and gave it a squeeze. She then clapped her hands together.

“Amazons, we welcome you home. Yet again you have exceeded expectations. What was meant as a visit to further strengthen our ties with the centaurs has made them unbreakable. You performed admirably in helping with the fire. Be proud my sisters. For we are of you.”

The crowd clapped and cheered and Gabrielle spoke to Ephiny and Epinon giving them both warm hugs, and she questioned the muddy state of Ephiny to the amusement of Xena and Epinon. She turned to Xena. Argo was being led off to the stables, and so Gabrielle led Xena off to their hut.

Gabrielle had a cold spread prepared and she pushed Xena towards the table. Then she knelt at Xena’s feet and started to look under the bandages.

“They can wait, Bri,” said Xena.

“You always think of yourself last, Xena. Let me do this for you.” The bard started to unravel the bandages and then she applied the salve, with Xena trying hard not to wince. Gabrielle re-bandaged the wounds but Xena felt a few drops of water on her leg. She looked down and saw that Gabrielle was crying. She waited for Gabrielle to finish, and then she wrapped her arms around her and pulled her on to her lap.

“Hey what’s wrong?” Gabrielle turned her tear streaked face to look at Xena’s anxious one.

“I was so worried when I heard about the fire. And you were injured. I was so scared.” Gabrielle buried her face into Xena’s shoulder.

“I’m fine, they are tiny burns.” Xena smiled. “Mood swings?”

Gabrielle nodded. Xena chuckled and they sat there for several moments enjoying their closeness.

“Feel better?” Xena asked and Gabrielle nodded again and turned to face Xena. Xena moved her face down and their lips touched, gently at first and then with increasing passion.

“If that’s the welcome back I get, maybe I should stay away more often,” said Xena laughing.

Gabrielle rested her head against her chest and shut her eyes, feeling safe and comforted at last. She was drifting off to sleep, when Xena’s voice stirred her. “I hope you have been resting.”

Gabrielle kept her eyes shut. “Aella and Piri are worse than you and Eph. I could barely lift a scroll without them fussing. They were so mad at Iolaus for turning up.”

“Everything alright I take it? We met him on his return, he appeared happier.”

Gabrielle opened her eyes and told her of their conversation regarding the events at the camp. Xena’s face became tight and expressionless. Gabrielle saw this and gently stoked her arm. “Xe, its fine. Old news.”

Gabrielle lifted herself up and started to prepare a plate of food for them both. Xena watched her lazily, and her eyes rested on Gabrielle’s bump. Her tentative first tries to be more enthusiastic about the baby had given her unexpected pleasure. Sharing the news with Xenon, and asking Iolaus if he would make a few items as a surprise for Gabrielle had appeared minuscule happenings yet for Xena it was a change in mind set.

“How have you been? The two of you?” Gabrielle put the plate on the table and Xena put her hand across Gabrielle’s stomach. Gabrielle looked down at it and looked at Xena with a hint of surprise. She was even more surprised when as the baby kicked; Xena broke into a wide smile.

“Thank you,” Xena whispered, “for being so understanding.” Gabrielle knew what she meant and smiled and placed her hand over Xena’s.

They ate their dinner and shared their news, and when they had finished Gabrielle took Xena’s hand and pulled her to the bed. “How are you feeling?”

Xena raised an eyebrow. “Depends on what you had in mind?” she purred. She leant into Gabrielle and started to kiss her lips as her hands started to remove the bard’s clothes.

“Are you sure your hand will be ok?” asked Gabrielle worriedly.

“What hand?” said Xena as she nibbled along Gabrielle’s neck, and moved the hand in question to caress Gabrielle’s breast. Gabrielle’s only reply was a whimper followed by a moan.

The light was streaming into the hut as Gabrielle stirred. Reluctantly she opened her eyes and looked around the hut. Feeling the pressure of her bladder she eased herself out of the bed to relieve herself. When she returned to the hut, Xena had returned bringing a large basket.

Her grin widened as she saw the warrior make the tea and spin round and give Gabrielle a hug and then a kiss. Gabrielle reluctantly pulled herself away and sat down as Xena busied herself, unloading the basket which was full of food. She looked out of the window and realised that it was mid morning and she gave a little chuckle.

“Well, I certainly did sleep well,” said Gabrielle.

“Me too. I’ve only just got up.”

“Mmm,“ said Gabrielle. “I’m sure you’ve only done some drills, been for a run, mucked out Argo, as well as saved several distressed amazons.”

“Distressed amazons?” Xena turned around and made a face. She then brought two mugs across to the table. “No really I have just got up. Been to get some food and popped into see Piri.”

“Everything OK,” asked Gabrielle, worriedly?

Xena held her hands up and Gabrielle saw that the bandages had been reduced. Xena gave her a lop-sided smile. “And I wanted to check up on you. Making sure you did behave while I was away.”

Gabrielle looked into her mug and then took a long sip from it. She looked up and gave Xena forced smile. “You enjoyed being out of the village didn’t you? Away from the amazons, being out on the road.” Gabrielle tried to keep her voice steady and strong, even though she didn’t feel it.

Xena looked away and then back at Gabrielle. Her face was impassive. “I can’t deny it felt good to be on the road again. I haven’t been in one place for so long since I left Amphipolis.” She inhaled. “But as much as I loved being away from the village. I missed you. I couldn’t sleep; every thought was dominated by you.”

“If you want to-“began Gabrielle.

“I don’t,” said Xena sharply. “Not without you. “

Gabrielle grinned and then started to inspect what Xena had brought back for her in the basket. She began to pile some on a plate.

“But do you mind if I go hunting with Epinon today?” Xena looked slightly embarrassed.

“You don’t have to ask me, Xena,” said Gabrielle between mouthfuls.

Xena smiled and began to prepare herself.

“Did you know, Iolaus told me about this temple north of Renwa-“Gabrielle began?

“Oh yeah, I know it. Visited with Borias once. The Gods know what Borias was smoking but he claimed he couldn’t see it all. But I went in. Small, very plain, very unlike most temples. See you later.” Xena kissed Gabrielle on the head and turned before she could see the look of amazement on Gabrielle’s face or the bard could get any words out.

Gabrielle’s mouth dropped as Xena left the hut. Iolaus had said… oh Gods. Her hand shook as she pushed her self up and started to pace. Her appetite went and she suddenly felt sweaty. Iolaus had said… she swallowed. She sat down on the bed and stared at the wall, at nothing in particular while she thought about what Iolaus had said and what Xena had casually admitted.

She shut her eyes. Xena was part god. There was no other explanation. She breathed heavily to try and calm her racing heartbeat. Xena had god’s blood running through her veins. She opened her eyes and she stood up feeling even more restless and anxious.

Whose blood was it? Gabrielle knew that was the most pertinent question. That was the one that Xena would fear the answer of. Gabrielle cast her mind back to Xena being driven insane by the Furies. What a clever ploy Xena had thought of. She had congratulated her on it. It wasn’t true, surely. Surely?

Gabrielle was lost in her concerns and barely registered the banging on the door. She had no idea of how long they had been there or she had been sitting thinking.

She got up and answered it. Solari and Ephiny were standing outside.

“We didn’t wake you did we Gabrielle?” asked Solari, taking in Gabrielle nightdress and dishevelled appearance.

Gabrielle shook her head not trusting her voice. She motioned them in and they sat at the table that contained her half eaten breakfast.

“We’ve got some visitors,” said Ephiny.

Gabrielle swallowed and tried to put this morning’s revelation to the back of her mind and concentrate fully on what her friends were saying.

“Amazon visitors,” added Solari.

“Amazons?” asked Gabrielle and looked at Ephiny.

“None we know,” shrugged Ephiny.

“They’re definitely Amazon?” asked Gabrielle.

“Well, Selene and Thea were convinced.” Said Solari. “Selene did say they looked like kids, apart from one, older woman. “

“Their Queen?” suggested Gabrielle. To her, her voice seemed unnatural as she attempted to control the anxiety and worry she felt over Xena’s heritage. However Ephiny and Solari didn’t appear to notice anything different.

“A shameness, Selene thinks. She did a lot of the talking. The kids appeared,” Solari exchanged a glance with Ephiny who nodded her encouragement, “Selene said they appeared out of their depth.”

There was silence as Gabrielle grappled with what she was told. She knew she had to give this her full concentration. The other matter could wait until she had time to broach the subject with Xena.

“Where are they?” She asked.

“We’ve sent an escort out. Be here soon,” said Ephiny.

Gabrielle rose and the two amazons mirrored her action. “I’ll be out shortly.”

“Are you sure you’re up to it?” asked Ephiny, concerned.

Gabrielle smiled. “I think I can look regal and smile a lot. That’s all you need me for.”

Ephiny put her hand on Gabrielle’s arm and rubbed it, smiling. She turned and made her way to the door with Solari following.

“I’ll send someone when they are close.” Said Solari.

Gabrielle nodded her thanks and they left the hut. As Gabrielle closed the door she turned around and lent her back on it. After a deep sigh, she rubbed her face with her eyes and then slowly walked to the table. She slumped into a chair and looked at the half eaten food on the plate. Oh Xena she thought. I wish you were here. I wish I could talk to you. She mentally shook herself and started to get dressed considering what she was going to tell Xena, never dreaming the circumstances that would prevent her.

Gabrielle watched the small group stride nervously to the village centre. They didn’t just look like kids they were kids. All except the tall dark haired woman. She had an air of confidence, arrogance even, that Gabrielle felt slightly unnerving. It was the older woman that approached her. She bowed her head slightly and then looking up staring Gabrielle in the eye. Gabrielle felt herself being dragged into the dark eyes and beyond and immediately tried to force her gaze elsewhere. But she couldn’t tear her eyes away. Fear engulfed her and she could feel her life being laid open. She concentrated hard and finally managed to break the stare. The whole exchange had taken less than a second but to Gabrielle it had had felt timeless.

“Who are you?” she whispered breathlessly before she could regain her senses fully.

“Alti. My name is Alti,” and she gave Gabrielle a cold smile.

Chapter 3

And you say, "Just be here now
Forget about the past
Your mask is wearing thin"

Colin Hay-Waiting for My true Life to Begin

Alti was only interested in two people in the village. She looked around and could feel the energy, the life force of every woman in it. She smiled; there would be time enough. She carried on looking for the two who mattered. One was standing regally, proud and pregnant. She quirked an eyebrow, she would find out more about that. And the other was nowhere to be seen. She would have sensed her immediately.

As she came closer to the small blond she caught her eye and exerted the full force of power. That year had been well spent in Chin, learning about the mind. She took in so much of the blonde’s life but to her shock the blond managed to close her mind off and break away. Alti was surprised at the woman’s strength, but not disappointed. She would make an excellent challenge.

“Who are you?” she whispered.

“Alti. My name is Alti.” She gave her a cold smile. This woman was preventing her from getting the true prize, the one she desired above all.

“Welcome Alti, to you and your tribe. I am Queen Gabrielle.” Alti heard the words and was impressed the blonde managed to re-gather her wits so quickly. She also noted the emphasis on the word Queen.

Alti bowed low. When she rose she saw that Gabrielle was avoiding her eye. Clever girl, but I am so much more than the Chinese mind trick. “We ask you for kindness. We have travelled long. We are the last of our tribe, and fear if we remain we will be annihilated.”

“Why so Alti?” asked a brown eyed woman with corkscrew curls. Alti levelled her gaze at her and within a second had drawn out her secrets, her dreams, and her loves-how interesting-and even more delicious, her pain. The woman stumbled back in shock and Gabrielle put her hand out to support her.

“Well-“Alti began and looked expectantly at the brown eyed woman.

“Ephiny. Queen Ephiny,” she added coolly.

“Queen Ephiny and Queen Gabrielle. Our leaders were murdered several years previously by a Greek warlord. She killed them all and left children to fend for themselves. I am a mere shameness but I felt it was my duty, when I knew of their plight, to guide and lead them. The Northern lands, it is perilous and bleak. We were losing tribe members weekly. We have heard of your tribe’s strength and wish to petition you for us to join.”

She watched as the two Queens exchanged a glance with each other.

“We do not expect an answer immediately, of course.” She bowed low. “We are staying off Amazon lands and-“

“Alti, you can of course stay on Amazon lands. There are caves that are convenient. We can supply you with any equipment you lack,” Gabrielle said.

“You are most generous.” Alti sighed quietly. She was now getting tired of this exchange. She had grovelled enough. She now wanted a glimpse, a feel of her target. If not, no matter, she would give the blonde a little gift of information.

“Our council will meet as soon as possible. But we would be honoured if you all join us tonight,” said Ephiny unenthusiastically.

Alti nodded and moved closer to the women. Both avoided her eye. “Thank you,” she said. She held out her hand to Gabrielle. She knew that to refuse it would be a huge dishonour and as nothing she had said would give any of the listening Amazons concern, it would be a big risk on Gabrielle’s part. She could see the war going on within Gabrielle. Eventually she held her hand out.

Alti took it and gave it a shake. She then pulled Gabrielle closer to her. “I’m sure you are a fine queen,” she whispered. “And of course Xena always did like Amazon royalty. I only hope she doesn’t do the same thing to you as the last Queen she screwed.” Alti moved away and was delighted to see the look of horror on Gabrielle’s face. “That would be such a shame, especially now.” She moved her eyes to Gabrielle’s bump but Gabrielle moved away instinctively. Alti frowned and moved her hand towards it when her senses picked up a change in energy. The very thing she was waiting for.

“I’m sure that Ephiny and co can deal with some visiting Amazons,” grumbled Epinon. “I was looking forward to this.”

Xena shrugged in reply. Amarice hopped from one foot to another in her excitement. “But Ephiny wanted you back. They’re no one we know.”

“You mean they’re not from your tribe, or your tribe doesn’t know them,” said Epinon, mockingly, still smarting from the abandonment of what she was hoping to be revenge on Xena.

“No!” added Amarice impatiently. “They’re from the North or something.”

Xena paled and went cold. She gulped and then said, “How many of them?”

“A dozen or so. Mainly kids.” Amarice puffed her chest out and rose up as high as she could. “With one older woman.”

“A shameness?” asked Xena with a sinking feeling, especially when Amarice nodded.

Xena turned away and closed her eyes. She thought she would never see Alti again, but yet again her past came back to haunt her. And the murdered Amazons. How could she tell Gabrielle that? Would that finally be the point the bard gives up on her. She wouldn’t blame her if she did.

“Xena. Xena” Epinon called. Xena snapped her mask on and pushed her feelings to one side-something she had to do less and less these days-and turned around.

“Didn’t you hear me, Xena? Do you know them?” Epinon was now looking concerned rather than irritated.

“Maybe. Come on lets get back.”

She rode as quickly as she dared, the amazons frowning at times at her hurry. She hoped she could be there before Alti. Who knew what other abilities and powers Alti had acquired? They were so alike then, both lusting after power and didn’t care what they did or who they hurt to get it. Sucking knowledge from whoever they could and disposing of them thoughtlessly.

As they arrived in the village she could see the crowd gathered in the square. She noticed immediately the different costumes of the Northern Amazons and her heart sunk. As Xena moved closer she could see Gabrielle talking to Alti. Gabrielle’s face was of sheer horror and she watched as the bard backed away slightly. She moved quickly through the crowd, keeping her eyes on the bard and the woman in front of her, who spun around.

“Hello Xena,” Alti said in her harsh voice. “Long time no see.”

Xena starred at her quickly but then looked past her to Gabrielle. Their eyes locked and she could see nervousness in the bard’s green ones. She then looked back at Alti who was grinning happily.

“We must go and prepare for tonight.” Alti turned back to Gabrielle and Ephiny. “Thank you for your generosity.”

She then looked at Xena. “I shall enjoy catching up with you Xena. We have so much interesting history,” she said and moved past Xena, brushing against her. Instantly Xena’s mind was full of her fight with the Amazon leaders leading to their deaths. As Alti stepped away the images receded and Xena watched wordlessly as Alti and the amazons left.

She looked at Gabrielle who looked pale as she watched Alti depart. She said a few words to Ephiny and then made her way to Xena. Conscious that Alti kept looking around at them, Gabrielle approached Xena and linked arms. “We need to talk,” said Gabrielle, and they headed to their hut.

Neither of them said a word during the short walk to the hut and once they had entered it. Gabrielle lowered herself gingerly onto a chair and resting her elbows on the table she covered her eyes with her hands. She needed a few moments to try and make sense of this day-this day which had started so wonderfully had turned into an emotional battleground, and she felt critically wounded. She was conscious that Xena was there, no doubt peering at her with concern, so she removed her hands and gazed at Xena who was indeed sitting close by watching her anxiously.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” asked the warrior.

Gabrielle nodded, not trusting her voice.

“I’m going to get Piri. You’re looking very pale.” Xena rose, and so did Gabrielle and caught her arm. Xena looked at the hand and suddenly the images of the dead Amazon leaders came to her and she moved away. She looked at Gabrielle who had a neutral expression on her face but suddenly swayed, but righted herself by putting her hand on the table. In a flash Xena was guiding Gabrielle to her chair again.

“That’s it I’m-“

“We just need to talk.” Gabrielle’s voice was shaky and little more than a whisper. Xena nodded and moved further away and stood by the door.

“What did she tell you?” said Xena. She knew that Alti would have delighted in hurting the bard. That was her speciality.

“They are a tribe from the north. Their leaders were wiped out and they are in danger of being destroyed. “Gabrielle saw the warrior mask that Xena wore. Not for me, she thought with anguish, not any more. She looked down. “They want to join us.”

There was silence. Xena was looking at her boots and Gabrielle said without emotion, “You killed them, didn’t you. The leaders. Your lover. All of them.”

Xena’s head rose and Gabrielle could see the pain in the blue eyes. Xena nodded.

“Tell me.” The bard’s voice was gentle.

Xena looked around the hut. She knew she couldn’t lie to Gabrielle. But the truth. The truth was so terrible, for anyone to accept, but as queen of the amazons, it would be torturous.

“I met Alti when I was with Borias. I was just pregnant with Solon. Alti promised-“Xena looked at Gabrielle who was listening intently. “Alti promised to make me the “Destroyer of Nations”. To become even more powerful. She appealed to my dark nature. “Xena sighed.

“She’s been thrown out of the amazons. They’d seen her for what she really was. Borias was taken by the amazons. Him and his little pacts. I met Cyane.”

“The Queen,” said Gabrielle in a strangled voice and looked away.

“Yes,” Xena drawled out. “We had a brief affair. I wanted to gain as much knowledge from her as I could. She wanted to recruit me. We both had our own agenda. Lover is really pushing it, we were using each other.”

“And then you killed her and the other leaders?” Gabrielle still wasn’t looking at Xena. The warrior chilled and knew that the final revelation would seal her fate. To be parted from Gabrielle and their life together.

“Yes. Alti wanted me to. So I did.” There was silence.

Gabrielle was now looking at the floor. “Why didn’t you tell me? About the Amazons, about her. “For the first time her voice held a slither of anger.

“Like I can just drop it into the conversation? Nice leathers, your majesty, by the way I murdered several of your sisters. Wine or ale?” Answered Xena sarcastically and turned away from Gabrielle.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” repeated Gabrielle.

“You’d leave me,” she said quietly. “Every town every person we meet, it’s another horror from my past. It’s like a giant monolith casting shadows over my whole life, my future, our future.” She whispered the last two words. “I don’t want that for you. Especially now.”

“Xena how many times do I have tell you, your past is just that; the past?” She approached the warrior and wrapped her arms around Xena’s back. “I’m sorry I get jealous and I’m sorry you don’t feel able to trust me. I can’t deny I wish you told me, but it’s happened. Nothing you can tell me about your past will make me leave you.”

Xena pirouetted around so she was facing Gabrielle and held her tight. She lay her head on the blonde head and shed a few silent tears. “Thank you,” she said hoarsely.

She could feel Gabrielle sag slightly and so she led her to the bed and they both sat down, still holding hands.

“What else happened?” asked Xena, her eyes scanning up and down.

“When I looked at Alti, it was like, she stripped me bare and could see into my soul, my life, everything.”

Xena pursed her lips. “Before I told you about her, what did you think of her?”

Gabrielle tilted her head to one side. “I didn’t trust her. She’s lying at best, and at worst, she wants to hurt people.”

“I agree.” Xena squeezed the bard’s hand gently. “She doesn’t want to join the tribe, I know that much. Alti only desires power.”

“You need to talk to council.”

Xena looked away. “Then I’ll admit to them what happened. I don’t know-“

“You won’t be punished. We have no jurisdiction over other tribes’ affairs. That was to prevent internal tribe matters becoming civil wars. You need to tell the Northern amazons, too.”

“We don’t know what the connection is with Alti. For all we know they could be her apprentices.” She shuddered as she thought of Anokin, Alti’s apprentice who had been her lover for a brief spell but had turned on her.

“I’ll talk to council, then. We’re going to meet before the northern Amazons return.”

“OK. But you need to rest first.”

Gabrielle leant into Xena. “Thank you,” said the dark haired warrior.

“For what,” mumbled Gabrielle?

“Being you. Loving me. Despite everything. And I trust you. I don’t trust my past.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle pulled away slightly. “Your past has made you the woman you are today. Your past has helped you help and assist hundreds if not thousands of people. It’s part of you, part of us.”

“Always the poet.” And Xena leant in for a tender kiss. When they broke apart, she pushed Gabrielle onto the bed. The bard smiled broadly, but soon lost it as Xena moved off the bed and covered her up. “Now rest.”

“Yes Xena,” said Gabrielle huffily and rolled over.

“Are you sure you are OK?” asked Ephiny anxiously as they took their seats in the council meeting room. It was deemed a closed session, only council members were allowed.

Gabrielle patted her hand and sat down. Teles sat across from her and nodded curtly as she took her seat.

“We are discussing the Northern Amazon’s tribe request to join our tribe.” Stated Gabrielle. “We do not have to rush to a conclusion; they are comfortable in the caves.”

“I’m not sure what the problem is?” asked Yanna. “They are amazons, they need our help. We should help them.”

“I agree,” said Aella, and received a glowering look from Ephiny. The regent had been shaken by her experience with Alti and didn’t trust the Shameness. She had yet to discuss her thought with anyone. Aella slunk in her chair.

“What concerns do you have, Gabrielle?” asked Agamede quietly.

Gabrielle turned to look at the eldest Amazon in the room. Agamede’s reputation was legendary; she was rumoured to be Melosa’s former lover as well as one of the finest warrior’s of her generation.

“I-I” Gabrielle searched for the right word. She knew that they would have to hear about Xena’s past, but she hoped to gauge the opinion first. “I don’t trust Alti.”

“Neither do I,” added Ephiny. “There is something dark about her.”

“She has taken a great deal of responsibility on. She is obviously no warrior yet she has led those children to safety after their leaders were slain,” said Agamede.

“Do you know who murdered the leaders?” asked Teles looking straight at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle stared at Teles and nodded, dropping her head.

“It was Xena wasn’t it?” said Marpe speaking for the first time. She stood up angrily and pushed her chair away. “So it’s alright for her to murder amazons, attempt to murder Gabrielle twice. She gets away with it as usual.” The Amazon paced up and down angrily.

“Is this true?” asked Aella horrified.

“Yes. It is. But she didn’t act alone. She and Alti were a partnership-“

“Let me guess, Alti asked Xena to murder them, so she did. How convenient. What a load of-“

“Teles thank you. Remember where you are.” Ephiny spoke harshly. “And sit down Marpe. Please.”

The blonde Amazon gave Ephiny a snarl and then sat down, crossing her arms.

“We should let Gabrielle continue,” said Yanna.

“Actually what Teles said was correct,” Gabrielle said quietly, finding it difficult to admit that. “But there was another thing-Xena said that Alti was kicked out of the Amazons.”

“Maybe she repented,” said Marpe bitterly. “It can happen.” She glared pointedly at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle looked at the angry, twisted face. “Spit it out Marpe. As if we didn’t know.”

“Seems the Queen’s Champion can do whatever she wants and gets away with it, while others are banished for a lot less.”

“If your friends had sworn their allegiance they could have stayed. You know that and so do they. They weren’t prepared to.” Gabrielle said.

“We could have forgiven them for following Valasca, but they couldn’t let it go,” said Aella. “They weren’t to be trusted.”

Marpe went to stand up again, but Teles put her hand on her arm. She looked around the room. “It’s not wise to re-hash that history, or Xena’s. We need to make a decision.”

“Teles is right,” said Yanna. “What about giving them a week, to see how they integrate with us? Give a few of us a chance to get to know them.”

“I agree,” said Agamede. “Many of us have done things in our past. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

“I can’t agree,” said Ephiny. “I don’t trust Alti.”

“I agree with Yanna,” said Teles eagerly.

“I abstain,” said Aella, surprising everyone. Ephiny scowled at her.

“I’m with Ephiny,” said Gabrielle, but knew that Marpe was left.

“So it looks like they are staying for a short while. Excellent.” Marpe grinned broadly.

“They should still stay at the caves,” said Yanna. Everyone nodded their heads.

“There is another matter,” said Teles quietly. “How would it look if the slayer of the Amazon leaders was the Queen’s champion?”

Gabrielle shut her eyes. She knew this would upset Xena.

“Queen Gabrielle, Teles is right,” said Agamede. “What sort of message would it send that the consort was-“

“Xena will remain my consort,” retorted Gabrielle angrily. “That is not open for negotiation.”

“But Xena should no longer be the Queen’s champion,” said Marpe.

Gabrielle nodded miserably. She looked down at her lap and blinked back the tears.

She raised her head and said quietly, “I choose Solari.” There were nods in agreement around the table.

“I believe we are finished now,” said Aella, eager to flee Ephiny’s wrath. “Lets prepare for tonight.” And with that she headed quickly out the door followed by Teles and Marpe in deep discussion wearing large smiles.

Ephiny turned to Gabrielle. “This was not good.” There was a pause. “Did you feel as if she could see in your soul?” The regent whispered.

“Yes. I don’t like this, Eph. Not at all.”

“We need to be vigilant. I’ll warn Pony, Sol and some others.”

“This is not what we want at the moment, anything to encourage the Valasca faction.”

“I know.” The regent rose. “Come on we’ve an evening to prepare for.”

The dark haired Amazon caught sight of her prey; sitting despondently on a fallen log gazing at the ground. She looked down at her feet, willing them to move forward.

“I won’t bite Solari,” said her prey without looking up. The scout moved forward until she was standing in front of the leather clad warrior. She finally looked up and smiled.

“Xena I’m sorry. I didn’t ask for this. I know how proud you were of being the Queen’s champion.”

Xena gave a hollow laugh. “I always thought of myself as Gabrielle’s champion really. She just happened to be the Queen.”

“That won’t change. You’ll always be her champion.” Solari glanced at the warrior who appeared to be in a reflective mood.

After an uncomfortable silence Xena spoke. “Is Ephiny speaking to Aella yet?”

“I don’t think so.”

There was another pause. “Who’s with-“

“Pony. Right by her side. And Ephiny hasn’t moved from her other side. I see the bandages are off.”

Xena lifted her hand up. “Almost as good as new.”

“Great,” said Solari. There was a pregnant pause. “I’d better get back.”

“Thank Sol. I’ll return soon. Don’t want to upset our visitors do we?” Xena‘s tone was sarcastic and her forehead furrowed.

“This’ll be a one off, Xena. Gabrielle won’t stand for you being excluded from anything any more.”

“Maybe,” Xena’s voice drifted off. “You go Sol. Keep your wits about you.”

Solari smiled and ran back to the party. Xena watched her disappear into the forest and then rose from the log and casually flipped onto a high branch. She moved quickly and quietly across the canopy as she had been taught by Cyane until she was at the outer area of the village. She could hear the drums; see the dancing and the young Northern Amazons being encouraged to have a try. As usual her eyes scanned quickly for Gabrielle and she saw her; flanked as Solari described, by Epinon and Ephiny, talking to Alti.

Xena’s head dropped as she sighed. This was what she wanted to prevent; Alti from talking at length to Gabrielle. She wondered if it was the shameness that had suggested that Xena, a non Amazon should be barred from the ceremony or was it someone else. There were no shortage of suspects; she still had many enemies.

She watched as Alti bowed reverently to Gabrielle and then cocked her head gently. She turned and spoke to several amazons, Marpe and Aida among them, for several minutes. In that time she was happy to note that Gabrielle had headed back to their hut. Xena was about to go that way when Alti looked directly at her. The shameness gave a cold smile and gently nodded forwards.

Xena inhaled deeply. She watched Alti bid her goodnights and walk alone through the forest. She followed in the canopy, before jumping a few feet in front of the shameness. Alti remained unimpressed.

“Xena,” she rasped. “So good to finally get you on your own. What a pity you missed such a wonderful party.”

Xena remained impassive. Alti took a couple of steps toward her. Xena avoided her eyes, mindful of Ephiny and Gabrielle’s experiences.

“And your little queen. Such a dear. But you always had such good taste.” Alti started to circle Xena.

The warrior could feel her anger rise but she concentrated to keep it in check.

Alti smiled her cold smile again. “And carrying a bastard. Yet you still adore her. Even though she loved being rutted by Lindos.”

Xena opened and closed her fists and breathed deeply.

“Oh I can feel your anger Xena. That’s what made you great. And now it’s so mis-directed. What a waste.” Alti moved close to Xena. “I hope that you look after this child better than your son.” Xena twisted around, her features snarled in rage, barely able to stop herself reaching out and choking the shameness. “But you had no chance did you?” Alti put her hand on the side of Xena’s head and Xena’s mind was filled with the image of her and Borias asleep together.

Alti entered the tent, silently.

“Son of darkness-- enemy of the land. Come and curse the child that Xena carries within her. Make sure that he never experiences the love of either of his parents. Ha!” The shameness chanted before vanishing.

Xena fell to the floor. Tears were running down her face. “You bitch. You cursed him. You cursed Solon,” she spat out.

“And just think there is another child-“

“You stay away from her. STAY AWAY FROM HER.” Xena flew at Alti and grabbed her neck and pushed her against a tree. Alti at first cackled, a soulless laugh, and then frowned. Xena recoiled backwards, and stumbled and fell onto the ground.

“I haven’t decided whether or not I’ll curse the blonde runt and her bastard. I’ve far more important things to do.” She looked down at Xena who was still trying to regain her composure lying on the ground. “I will succeed. I had hoped it would have been with you, but sadly that’s not the case.” Alti turned and strode off.

Xena put her head in her hands and sobbed. She thought tenderly of Solon and the brief amount of time she had spent with him. And then of Borias. He wasn’t her great love but he would have been a devoted father. And because of Alti that was denied him.

She got up and walked quietly along the path. She knew how to sneak into Gabrielle’s hut without being spotted, although the mood she was in at present she would have relished a challenge. However there was none and she found herself outside their hut.

Gabrielle had been pacing the floor. She knew she couldn’t put off telling Xena what she knew of her heritage any longer. She swallowed nervously as she heard the warrior’s footsteps. She walked to the table and picked up a mug, just for something to do. Her hand trembled and the mug shook violently.

Xena entered the hut, her face bowed. “Xena, I need-“ but Gabrielle got no further, as Xena’s head rose and she saw Xena’s swollen eyes and tear stained cheeks. “What is it?” She put the mug down on the table, thoughts of telling Xena what she knew from Iolaus evaporated.

Xena walked forward and embraced the bard, and laid her head on Gabrielle’s shoulder and sobbed. Gabrielle didn’t say a word only stroked the dark hair. Gradually the sobs stopped and Xena told her what Alti had shown her.

“Oh Xena, I’m so sorry.” Gabrielle held the warrior.

“She knew that the light from a child’s face would turn me away from her darkness.  She couldn’t afford that.”  Xena sniffed.
“But why tell you now?”  Asked Gabrielle.
“She’s up to something.  She’s admitted that.”

“Come to bed, Xena.” The bard ran her fingers through the warrior’s dark hair. “Let me take your pain. Let me love you.”

Xena looked at her tenderly, and lowered her lips onto Gabrielle’s.

“Is it true?” Asked the young Amazon.

Xena nodded.

“You killed them all. All the elders, the leaders, the great Cyane?”

Xena nodded again. “I can never take back what I have done. But if you allow me, I can help you. Train you in Amazon customs.”

“You’re not even an Amazon,” sneered one youngster.

“No but Xena has learnt a great deal from the amazons she has met. Especially the queens.” Everyone turned to look at Alti who had entered the dining hut. Xena was standing at the front with Gabrielle, and the Northern Amazons were sitting listening to Xena’s story. She had omitted Alti’s part in it.

“My dears, you should allow Xena to train you. She is an expert at so many things,” she looked at Gabrielle as she spoke. The bard looked away and Xena moved protectively in front of her. “And as she said, they can never return.”

There was general muttering between the amazons, and finally one stood up.

“I’m Otere. I’m for learning from Xena. To ensure that never happens again.” There were several cheers.

Another girl stood up. “I’m Cyane and I was named for my aunt. We will never forget what you did Xena.” The youngster looked the warrior in the eye. “Never.”

“Neither will I”, said Xena quietly.

The amazons trooped out the hut chatting to each other. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena. “I’m proud of you,” she whispered. Xena nodded and kept her eyes fixed on Alti.

As the amazons left Epinon came in. “Gabrielle, I just need-“as she spoke Alti stared at her, and grabbed her shoulder. Epinon gazed at her and within a second the hold was released and Epinon stumbled. Xena was by her side in an instant, but Alti had left.

“You OK?” asked Xena.

“Intense, isn’t she?” said Epinon rubbing her head.

“Tell me about it,” said Gabrielle, drily. “What can I do for you?”

“Just need to sort out some paperwork.”

“I’ll leave you to it,” said Xena and kissed Gabrielle and left the hut.

Xena took a deep breath as she rounded the corner. Standing waiting were eight Northern Amazons and Alti. She strode up to the group.

“Xena,” said the Shameness huskily. “My Amazons have been looking forward to this lesson.”

Xena gave the older woman a withering glance and turned to face the youngsters. She recognised Cyane as one of the group and she watched Xena intently.

“We’re going tracking,” she said. A couple of amazons perked up at this. Cyane merely slumped lower. “The scouts have left tracks and I want you to follow them.”

“Boring.” Said Cyane. Xena spun around to face her and spoke in a harsh whisper.

“You don’t have to stay. If you feel you have nothing to learn from me just leave.” She stared into the eyes that reminded her so much of the former Queen. The youngster averted her gaze first, and mumbling she picked up her bag and started to walk with the others from her tribe.

“Look after them please Xena,” called Alti as Xena followed behind the small group. “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to them.” Xena carried on walking, ignoring the cackling laugh from the shameness that followed.

Ephiny ran her hand through her hair impatiently as she waited for Gabrielle to return. The queen entered the hut and sat down at the table. Ephiny walked over and joined her.

“Feel better?” asked Ephiny.

“Much,” said Gabrielle with a slight smile. “It’s bad enough I have to get up during the night so many times. I can barely drink a cup of water before heading off to-“she stopped and smiled. “Well you know,” she added.

Ephiny smiled but it faded quickly from her face. “It is Clonie next.” She said quietly.

“Oh.” Replied Gabrielle, simply.

Ephiny stood up and went to the door and opened it. Sitting outside was the Healer’s apprentice.

She followed Ephiny in and sat down and folded her hands in her lap.

“Clonie, we are a little perturbed. Why do you wish to resign?” Gabrielle leant towards the apprentice and gently touched her arm.

“I am finding it harder to work with Piri,” replied Clonie.

“That’s not a new one,” said Ephiny with a snigger. There was a pause. “But Piri has always spoken so highly of you, the standard of your work and how well you two worked professionally.”

“Evidently that was a lie,” said Clonie, coolly.

Ephiny and Gabrielle exchanged a glance. “What has been said?” Asked Gabrielle.

Clonie shook her head. “I will not break a confidence. I wish to resign.” She looked down into her lap.

Gabrielle got out of her chair and walked around, rubbing her back slightly. “Clonie, will you allow us to investigate?”

There was silence.

“I take that as a no then,” said Gabrielle. “Alright. You have three days. I expect you to carry on working with Piri, but if you are unable to resolve your differences in that time, you may resign.”

Gabrielle spoke in her no nonsense Queen’s tone, and Clonie looked at her stricken for a few moments but then nodded silently.

“Thank you Clonie,” said Ephiny and shepherded her out the hut.

“I’m getting tired of this,” said Ephiny as she turned back to face Gabrielle. “Petty arguments becoming full blown rows, friends falling out and now this. What is happening?”

Gabrielle shook her head wearily. She echoed Ephiny’s sentiments. They had to deal with more disputes than she could ever remember. She had been wrapped up so much in Xena’s pain over Solon that she hadn’t noticed the darkening of the atmosphere within the village until today.

She looked up and eyed Ephiny curiously. The regent looked at her friend with an odd expression.

“Do I have something on my face?”

“I was just thinking. You are a fine one to talk. Have you spoken to Aella yet?”

Ephiny turned away from Gabrielle.

“OK stupid question because I know you haven’t. But you have to forgive her. She didn’t know about Alti, what she’d done, what she’s capable of.”

“She should have trusted me.” Ephiny still had her back to Gabrielle.

“Eph, it didn’t make a difference. We would have been outvoted even with Aella. She voted what she thought was right. That’s what it should be about.”

Slowly Ephiny turned around. “I know it’s-“The regent caught sight of the guilty look on Gabrielle’s face. “What have you done?” she hissed.

Gabrielle’s mouth quivered. She got up and walked to the door and opened it. Outside was a very nervous looking Aella, holding a picnic basket. “Invited Aella to lunch.”

Ephiny rolled her eyes, and slumped on to her chair. She then looked up to see a still concerned looking Aella frozen to the spot. “Come in Aella.”

The Amazon beamed and walked back with Gabrielle and they sat down.

“Sorry, “said Ephiny.

“Me too, “said Aella, and they shared a tender smile.

“Well I think I’ll go and grab some lunch of my own,” said Gabrielle. She was wearing a self satisfied smile.

“There’s plenty here,” said Aella.

“It’s ok,” said Gabrielle. “I think I might have a lie down too.”

“Everything OK,” asked Ephiny quickly and got up out of her chair. She walked to Gabrielle and placed a hand on her shoulder and missed the wistful look that Aella gave her.

“Fine, don’t fuss. I just fancy a little nap. I might have a little spar later so I could do with conserving my energy.” She patted the regent’s arm and peered around her and gave Aella a big grin and a wink.

Gabrielle left the hut and looked towards the dining hut. She took a couple of steps towards it but then changed her mind. She changed direction and headed towards her own hut. As she walked along she was joined by Teles.

“Teles,” said Gabrielle coolly.

“Gabrielle,” replied the Amazon. Gabrielle kept her breathing even. She was unsure what Teles wanted but it wasn’t to exchange pleasantries.

“I have to say Alti has really invigorated the village,” she said. Gabrielle turned to look at her, and saw the smirk on her face. “She will really change things around.” Gabrielle stopped suddenly and looked at Teles.

“If, and I mean if Alti stays, she will have to abide by the rules as will all the Northern Amazons.”

“Quite right, Gabrielle. After all there are so many rules, such as challenges to consider,” said Teles innocently.

Gabrielle went cold. Was that Alti’s game? To challenge for the mask? To gain control of the tribe?

“Of course you being a fine Amazon you know that,” continued Teles. “Enjoy your lunch.” She bowed her head slightly and walked away. Gabrielle hurried to her hut and entered and closed the door quickly. She leant against the door and breathed heavily. She couldn’t allow Alti to gain control. The result would be catastrophic.

Xena strolled in with her charges. They had impressed her on the whole. Even Cyane, who once she buried her hostility, showed she was an excellent tracker.

“Well done everyone. A morning run tomorrow, and then it’s a hunt in the afternoon.” Four of the amazons smiled at Xena, and all started to walk away to their huts, with only Cyane motionless. She stared at Xena.

“What?” said Xena exasperated?

“Why did you do it?” asked Cyane quietly. “What did you gain?”

Xena looked at the youngster and then around the camp. Alti was there talking to Aida, Marpe and Charope. She sighed. How could she make this young girl understand? When she couldn’t explain it properly herself?

“I thought I would gain a great deal. But I didn’t. It was sport to me back then. I liked being able to control other people; including controlling if they lived or died.”

Cyane looked intently at the warrior princess but this time without hostility. “Do you regret it?”

Xena gave a hollow laugh. “There are so many things I regret, that I have guilt for. If I let that weigh me down, I wouldn’t get up in the morning.” Her eyes wore a haunted look and she stared at the ground, uncomfortable with being so open with a relative stranger. “But I do regret it.”

“Thank you for explaining it,” said Cyane quietly. “I’ll be here in the morning.”

She walked away and Xena watched the back of her disappear into the dinning hut.

“You won’t get around everyone so easily,” hissed a voice.

“Okayle, how nice,” dead panned Xena and turned to look at the Amazon who was standing next to Protis.

“You’re going down,” said Okayle and Protis motioned her finger across her throat.

“As is the bitch you sleep with.” In a heartbeat Xena had Okayle by the throat and was squeezing it. She felt two pairs of hands on her back and a familiar voice in her ear.

“Xena, calm down. Calm down.” Epinon was repeating the words like a mantra.

“I hope I misheard you, Okayle,” said Solari. “And we can forget this all happened.”

Okayle rubbed her reddening neck and nodded. She and Protis barged past Epinon, Xena and Solari.

“That wasn’t the smartest thing to do Xena,” said Epinon, and before Xena could add anything, “Although I would have done the same.” The three exchanged a smile.

“Actually Sol I wanted to ask you something. Did any of the scouts lay down tracks that disguised a small army on horses?”

Solari shook her head.

“There were well covered tracks that looked like several horses. I thought it was fresh. Very advanced stuff.”

“No Xena, not that I know. Centaurs maybe hunting? I can check it out for you. Where about?”

“AAhhhh, Xena,” said the familiar rough voice. “Thank you for the wonderful job you did for my amazons. You really are a woman of many talents.” The shameness looked at the three friends standing there. “As are all three. Very powerful women. Your tribe is lucky to have you.”

The three looked disinterested as the shameness continued. “I must circulate. So much to do.” She looked at Xena and despite her best efforts the warrior was drawn in to the endless orbs. She managed to pull herself away but Alti was smiling. “I must see your current lover shortly.” And with that the shameness walked away.

“Delightful.” said Epinon.

Xena barely acknowledged her as she watched Alti walk up the steps into her and Gabrielle’s hut and disappear through the door.

Alti didn’t wait for her knock to be answered, she strode into the hut. Gabrielle was lying on the bed. She had been unable to sleep; her mind spinning with the possibility of Alti taking over the tribe. She had considered many different scenarios, but had no firm proof. The council meeting couldn’t come too soon, but she knew that Alti had overtly done nothing wrong. The Northern Amazons were integrating well with them. Gabrielle had no firm evidence to put forward to why they shouldn’t stay. Solely her instincts.

At Alti’s entrance Gabrielle sat as a quickly as she could. For once the shameness did not give her empty smile, but looked at Gabrielle dispassionately.

Gabrielle didn’t have time to stand up, as Xena rushed in the hut. She immediately looked at the bard and gave her a quick smile. She then positioned herself in between Alti and the bed. Gabrielle finally stood up and took a couple of paces towards Xena.

“So nice of you to join us. I was looking forward to chatting with your blonde runt, but now that-“

“She is the Queen of the Amazons.” Xena raised her voice. Alti stood motionless.

“You continue to protect her, Xena. How quaint. Despite the fact she loves to remember that night with the fiery regent frequently.” Alti put her hands on her hips and was staring at Xena. Xena avoided her eyes and gave a smile. “I know about Gabrielle and Ephiny,” she said and heard a gasp from Gabrielle. “Is that the best you can throw at us?”

Alti cackled. “I haven’t even started Xena. Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of nations. Ever wondered why you were so special? Why so many were drawn to you-Borias, Cyane, Lao Ma, Gabrielle, me even?”

There was silence apart from the sounds of breathing. Alti stepped forward and Xena immediately bristled and drew herself up to her full height.

“Oh we were attracted to you. Your lust for life, your darkness, your sexual prowess. But there was more than that. Your power. Power that was like it was God given.”

Gabrielle gasped again. She could feel Alti’s eyes bore down on her and although she fought against it, her eyes were drawn to the shameness. This time she didn’t feel she was being laid bare. There was a look of glee that bordered on insanity.

“No,” she whispered. And she started to shake.

Xena looked from one to another and had the feeling she wasn’t fully aware of the facts. But Alti and Gabrielle were.

“In fact it was God given, Xena. Given by a father, grandfather perhaps.”

There was silence. Xena continued to look from one to another, until her eyes rested on Gabrielle’s horrified face. “What do you mean?” she murmured.

“You are part God. You have an immortal’s blood running through you.” Alti’s voice failed to hide her delight.

Xena turned to face Alti. “No.” she said. “NO,” she repeated more strongly.

“Oh but you are part god, Xena. Ask Gabrielle.”

Xena turned to face an ashen Gabrielle.

“Gabrielle?” said Xena. “It’s not true, is it?”

There was silence. Blue and green eyes locked and Xena saw the truth in the verdant ones.

“How long have you known?” Asked Xena angrily. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Gabrielle rubbed her streaming eyes with her hand. “I’m sorry Xena. I wanted to tell you.”

“How long have you known?” asked Xena more forcefully?

“Since Iolaus was here. He told me about the temple. It can only be seen or entered by people with immortal blood. I knew then that-“

“I don’t care!” screamed Xena. “You knew that about me, and never thought to tell me.” She took a step towards Gabrielle, and grasped the bard’s shoulders.

Gabrielle looked into her beloved’s face and was transported back to Illusia, back to the angry, vengeful Xena that had killed her before they reconciled.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Xena screamed and Gabrielle flinched. The spittle flew out of Xena’s mouth and Xena’s blue eyes had darkened. She squeezed Gabrielle’s shoulders tighter.

“You’re hurting me,” whispered Gabrielle, but Xena kept her hold on.

“You went on and on about being honest. Gods it’s sometimes all you ever talk about. You had the nerve to make me feel guilty about having an Amazon lover, years before I met you, and yet you-“Xena pushed Gabrielle backwards, and the bard stumbled and fell across the bed.

“I can’t bear to look at you!” Xena strode out of the hut and slammed the door.

Gabrielle remained motionless, sprawled across the bed, paralysed with shock. It was only then she noticed that Alti must have left, unnoticed by both women. Gabrielle then started to heave and within moments had vomited the contents of her stomach onto the floor. She lay back on the bed and wept.

Chapter 4

In the mirror of your soul.
I know that you know, you are not forsaken.
Hey butterfly open up your weary eyes, and realize it's a trip we're taking.
And the world will turn around again.
And your shattered heart is going to mend.
In the end.

Clay Aiken-Shine

Xena didn’t notice anyone as she ran from the hut through the village. She had briefly thought of saddling Argo, but decided that would take too long and so continued running. She ran and ran, ignoring the scratches from the branches. After a time, she reached a stream. It was calm, and gentle, totally opposite to how she felt. She knelt down beside it and cupped her hand in and took a long draught. For a moment she allowed herself to think about what was said between her and Gabrielle. But she quickly shut it out. This was how she used to deal with her feelings. Push them away. Concentrate on something physical, something she was in full control of. Bury them.

She started to run again. She continued until she was nearly outside Amazon land. Yet for some reason she didn’t want to leave Amazon land. She shut her eyes. She knew she would have to consider the shocking news at some point. But not yet. She withdrew her sword and started to drill. She pushed herself to the limit. It was only her and her sword. She carried on until her muscles burned and she was covered in sheen of sweat and breathing hard.

Xena replaced her sword and closed her eyes. Darkness was falling and she was beginning to get hungry. Snatches of this afternoon’s argument were seeping increasingly into her consciousness.

Xena built a fire and then went looking for food. Instinctively she caught a rabbit and within minutes she had dressed it and it was being cooked. She had run out of diversions. Gabrielle had taught her too well. She had to face what had happened.

She replayed the events in her mind. The shocked horrified look that Gabrielle gave her, as she held her shoulders. The bard’s anguished expression. Alti’s glee.

Xena sighed. She was angry with Gabrielle. Furious in fact. Since the rift they had wanted to be open with each, to share everything. Xena turned the meat over. It was her that was so often the obstacle that prevented the openness.

Yet this time Gabrielle knew. And she didn’t share it. Why? That was the most perplexing question. Xena racked her brains thinking of a reason. She had thought Gabrielle was different from the associates that had shared her life before. Xena smiled. Gabrielle was different. In the past others close to Xena had kept information from her to hurt Xena or gain the upper hand. Gabrielle wasn’t like that. She would have done it for Xena. To protect her. Even though she was angry, she knew deep down it was done for what Gabrielle thought was the right reason. Only when Gabrielle had betrayed her in Chin had Gabrielle acted selfishly. Xena believed this wasn’t the case.

Xena took the meat off the fire and groaned. Her culinary skills still hadn’t improved. She pulled apart the meat and found a few edible pieces. She finished them quickly and got up, eager to move and also to find water to wash the burnt offerings down.

Xena headed towards the river. She was mad at Gabrielle, but that wasn’t why she had reacted so angrily. She realised that now. Gabrielle was an easy, available target. She was part God. That was what terrified her; made her lash out in anger. She had known she was different from a young age. Things had come easily to her. She put it down to luck and practice but now she knew. It was literally Divine Intervention. But whose?

This was what really frightened her. Whom did she belong to? Who was her Godly relative? Was it really Ares as she had persuaded the furies to think or some other God that had taken advantage of Atrius’s absence?

She stopped and took a deep breath. “Ares. I request your presence.”

Within seconds the God of War appeared in a blue flash. “I felt your anger my dear. Finally lost the irritating blonde I see. Good move. Does this mean you are ready to return to me?” The handsome God licked his lips in anticipation.

Xena stared at him. She had to know. Even if the fact would sicken her. “Are you my father?”

Ares looked momentarily surprised at the question before wearing a smug look.

“According to the furies I am. Why the sudden interest?” he asked.

Xena looked away. “Are you or not?” she said between gritted teeth. “Did you visit my mother while Atrius fought in your name? The truth?”

“The truth?” said Ares seductively. “The truth is that I would be proud to have you as my daughter, fighting beside me for all eternity. That can be arranged.”

“Tell me, now. Are you or not?” Said Xena furiously and reached around and grabbing her sword in a flash impaled Ares on it. He stepped back and smiled.

“The truth is I don’t know. I visited many, many wives. I may have visited your mother. You may be from my seed.” He looked Xena up and down. This could have possibilities, granted not what he hoped. He had always hoped to have Xena as his warrior queen on the battle field and in the bedroom. But if she was of his blood, his offspring, that certainly was another card to play in his quest to claim her.

Xena stared at him and instinctively knew he wasn’t lying. She replaced her sword and started to walk away.

“Look in yourself, Xena. We are alike in so many ways. Perhaps that’s your answer.”

Xena turned slowly and stared at him. Yet again he had seen inside her and played on her fear.

“Call Daddy anytime. I’ll be there.” Ares smirked and with a click of the fingers he was gone.

Xena shut her eyes. She was no closer knowing her heritage. She was tired and her muscles burnt with the exertion of the day. And the Amazon village suddenly felt a long way away. “I’m sorry Gabrielle,” she whispered. “I'm sorry, please help me, forgive me.” The words she sung to Gabrielle in Illusia sprung to her mind, and she knew that tomorrow she would say them in person to the bard. She looked up and spotting a tree with potential for being the bed for the night, she flipped upwards and settled down.

Gabrielle had lain on the bed since Xena had left. She had cried until she felt no more tears would fall. She stared at the ceiling of the hut, replaying the argument in her mind, remembering Xena’s hurt and bitterness.

She knew she should have told Xena. And now it was used against her, against them both. It had been in the back of her mind all the time. She had thought of different ways she could break the news to the warrior, but nothing had seemed right, especially with the disquiet over Alti and the Northern Amazons. Gabrielle wanted that to be dealt with before she discussed Xena’s heritage.

It was too late now. The warrior that had been betrayed by so many was let down by the person she trusted the most. Gabrielle shut her eyes and drifted into an uneasy sleep, punctuated by Alti laughing at her and Xena striking her. She put her hands up to protect herself, but could feel them being held, and a soothing voice talking to her. She opened her eyes and saw Piri, Ephiny and Aella in the hut. Aella was tidying up the floor, whilst the healer and the regent peered at her with concern.

“Have a drink my Queen,” said the healer. Gabrielle nodded and gently raised herself up. She drank a long drink from the offered cup.

There was silence. Gabrielle looked down at her lap. “Xena’s gone,” she said quietly.

“I know,” said Ephiny. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Gabrielle smiled weakly at her friend. “I withheld a piece of information from her and Alti told her.”

Ephiny gave her a sympathetic glance. Gabrielle looked out of the window, it was dawn. “Xena, where are you?” she whispered.

“Do you want me to send scouts?” Asked Ephiny.

“No. She’d evade them anyway. If she wants to come back she will. I’ll not have her forced.” Gabrielle’s voice quivered.

“This is a fine mess,” said Aella, with a hint of anger. “Xena storms off, Clonie not talking to Piri-“The healer looked down at the floor at that, “and half the tribe bickering.”

“It can’t be a coincidence,” said Ephiny.

“Just what I was thinking,” said Gabrielle. “And I bet it comes from Alti.”

“What does she gain?” Asked Piri.

“The tribe? Power?” Said Gabrielle.

“Xena said she was banished from the amazons. She had them murdered. What can she gain from us?” Ephiny looked around at the blank expressions.

Aella opened her mouth to speak when she heard an almighty scream. She froze as did most occupants of the village square. Following the scream there were loud voices, two, yelling at each other. Gabrielle looked around at Ephiny, Piri and Aella. She got off the bed and all four hurried out of the hut as did many others.

Within moments a hut door was flung open and Solari stormed out. Epinon was following her. Both had tears streaming down their cheeks and whereas Epinon had horror written across her face Solari’s was screwed up in anger. Solari spun around.


Epinon stopped, staring at her dumbly. Gabrielle, Ephiny, Piri and Aella walked towards them.

“Epinon, Solari, what’s wrong?” said Piri looking at one to the other.

“Ask her?” said Solari sarcastically.

“Epinon, what is it?” said Piri.

There were an increasing number of women surveying the scene in the brightening light.

There was silence. “I don’t-“Solari began but caught the knowing look that Epinon gave Gabrielle.

The Queen’s champion spun around, her face still twisted in anger. “Did you know?” she asked harshly. When Gabrielle didn’t respond, she raised her voice, “DID YOU KNOW?”

“That is no way to speak to speak to the Queen,” said Ephiny, her tone a mixture of anger and surprise.

“It’s alright Ephiny,” said Gabrielle, and turning towards Solari she added, “Yes, I knew.”

Solari stood clasping and unclasping her hands, breathing heavily.

“You can stick your Queen’s champion,” she said calmly and turned to face Epinon who had tears streaming down her face. “And I never want to see you again.” With that she strode off, pushing through the small crowd that had watched the scene in fascinated silence.

Once she had gone the chattering started.

“Gabrielle? What was that about?” asked Aella.

“Gabrielle?” said Piri.

“Back into the hut,” sighed Ephiny.

“What about Pony?” asked Aella?

“I need to tell you first, and then we can help Pony,” said Gabrielle quietly.

Gabrielle stood holding her hands in front of her looking at the floor. The other three sat at the table and waited. And waited.

Gabrielle had her eyes shut. She was breathing deeply composing herself to talk about an incident she had all but forgotten. That she thought she would never have to talk about.

Finally Gabrielle’s head rose and she gave a wan smile and then swallowed. “At the camp- I saw-Pony-I mean.” She stopped and put her hand to her mouth and looked to the side away from the concerned gazes of the three seated.

After a deep sigh, she turned to face them and blurted out, “Pony and Claudine slept together.”

There was silence with only the breathing breaking the silence.

“Claudine told me. Probably to torture me. She liked those little mind games.” Gabrielle thought fleetingly of Iolaus’ anguish. “She brought Pony to me and kissed in front of me. Showed me ‘who was boss of the amazons’ she said.

“I promised Pony I wouldn’t say anything.” Gabrielle glanced away again. “I guess Solari found out somehow.”

“Alti?” said Ephiny evenly.

“It must be,” said Gabrielle. “We’ve both said how we felt she can read us like a scroll and see in us. Maybe she does. She’s another who likes her mind tricks. That must be her plan, to disrupt the village, poison one against another.”

“Poor Sol,” said Aella.

“We need to talk to Pony, and Sol. And find out what is going on around here,” Gabrielle spoke strongly, trying to push her emotional pain to one side. The amazons needed her and she would not fail them as she had failed Xena.

“I’ll go and talk to Solari,” said Ephiny.

“Good idea. I don’t think she wants anything to do with me,” said Gabrielle. “Aella we need to keep to ourselves today. Drilling practice that sort of thing. No hunting or ride. Try and prevent Alti and the Northern Amazons from being around too much.”

“Yes my Queen,” said Aella and she exited the hut with Ephiny.

“Piri, what happened with Clonie? You always got on so well.” Gabrielle looked into the eyes of the healer.

“Someone told Clonie she wasn’t my first choice as Apprentice.” The healer smiled weakly. “She wasn’t but I am so glad the first choice passed. Clonie is the best I have had in years.”

“Make it up with her,” said Gabrielle, sternly.

“Yes my Queen,” said Piri and bowed deferentially and left the hut.

Gabrielle dropped into the chair, suddenly weary from the emotional anguish, lack of sleep and now concern over the village. “Xena I wish you were here,” she whispered.

Xena opened her eyes and looked around the forest. It was dawn. She had slept surprising well. She eased herself off the branch that was her bed for the night and started to stretch and twist gently. She had slight aches from the previous day’s exertions, but nothing could match the ache in her heart caused by her treatment of Gabrielle. Xena smiled briefly as she thought of her, and set off towards the village.

She ran evenly paced, unlike yesterday when she was more banshee than warrior. Xena kept replaying yesterday’s events over and over in her mind, cringing each time she grabbed Gabrielle, yelled and pushed her.

Xena came to a halt suddenly and concentrated on listening. She could hear two voices, arguing. She moved silently through the forest so she could identify them. She sighed when she did and walked quickly to where Ephiny and Solari were standing, only a few feet apart, but still yelling at each other.

“Morning ladies,” said Xena. They both turned to look at her and Ephiny gave her a hostile glare before turning back to Solari.

“For Artemis sake, come back to the camp. You need to talk it through,” the regent said.

“We did our talking earlier. I’ve got nothing back there now,” retorted Solari.

Xena looked from one to another. “What’s happened?” She asked. “Is Pony OK?” she added worriedly.

Solari turned on her. “Don’t play cute with me, Xena. You know exactly what’s gone on. I’m sure Gabrielle told you.”

“Told me what?” asked Xena perplexed.

“Looks like Gabrielle kept you in the dark about something else then,” said Solari bitterly.

“What’s Gabrielle got to do with it? And what is it?”

“Like you care if Gabrielle is involved,” muttered Ephiny. Xena immediately pinned her with a stare.

“I made a mistake, but so did Gabrielle. It’s between us.” Xena turned back. “NOW. TELL ME.”

There was a long pause before Solari answered, not looking at Xena, she said, “Pony slept with Claudine at the camp. Gabrielle knew and never told anyone.”

Xena digested the news.

“Pony was under the influence of the challis. She had no control. She had no memories of you.” Xena spoke gently and reached out to grasp Solari’s shoulder. Solari shook it off.

“Solari, I know it’s hard to take in. I didn’t recognise Pony, the Amazons, Iolaus, or Gabrielle.” Her voice faltered. “I handed her to Lindos, Sol. I knew what he wanted with her. I gave her up. That’s what the challis takes from you. That’s its power.”

“But, but, how could she?” said Solari. “I thought she loved me.”

“She does. The Epinon that slept with Claudine, never even knew a Solari. She would have killed you Sol, and not shed a tear. That wasn’t your mate. So don’t think she doesn’t love you. Because we all know she does.”

Solari stared at Xena and then her shoulders sagged. The anger had disappeared, but the bitterness was there.

“Why didn’t she tell me?”

“Gabrielle didn’t tell me,” said Xena. “I would guess she gave Pony a promise. Promises are very important to Gabrielle.” She paused and smiled weakly at Solari.

“As for Pony, she probably wanted to forget it. That camp, those things,” Xena looked in the distance and whispered, “It’s so painful.”

There was a long silence. “I’m just so angry at her,” said Solari, tearfully. “For being unfaithful, not telling me.”

“I know,” said Xena looking at Ephiny’s intense face. “But getting angry isn’t going to help, believe me I know. Unfortunately too late.”

“Are you heading back to the-“Ephiny started but she was stopped by Xena raising her hand and putting a finger to her lips. They listened intently. Ephiny strained but couldn’t hear anything and Solari shook her head, silently. Xena motioned to follow her and they did noiselessly, moving through the forest.

Ephiny could hear the sounds of pounding hooves. They hid themselves in the undergrowth and watched as a matter of yards from them, a number of Amazons went by, on horseback. Ephiny had to stifle a gasp and watched horrified as she recognised several of the amazons. When they had passed, she slumped further on the ground.

“Oh Gods,” she said. “Stonychia and Kleta. Did you see them?” She dropped her head into her hands.

“Antibrote and Derinoe, too.” Added Solari. They both turned to look at Xena who was looking pensive.

“This isn’t a coincidence,” she said slowly. “Amazons banished from the tribe ride in the same time as Alti appears.” She looked at the two amazons and got up quickly. They scrambled up and followed her brisk pace. “And the regent, the Queen’s champion and the Queen’s consort are not in the village.” She hurried her pace along.

“And the healer and her apprentice aren’t speaking as well as several other arguments.” Said Ephiny, breathlessly.

“This was Alti’s plan. Destabilise the tribe and the rogue amazons can slaughter us. And I fell for it.” Xena’s face for a moment showed her anguish but then she snapped her warrior mask on, and started to run full speed. Gabrielle, please stay safe, she thought.

“Pony, please,” said Gabrielle. She followed Epinon into the weapons’ store.

“Gab, I just need, oh Artemis, I don’t know what I need.” Epinon sat on a bench and put her head in her hands. “I need Solari back.”

“I know,” agreed Gabrielle, knowingly. Epinon looked up and exchanged a poignant look. “Guess we are both in the same boat.”

Epinon smiled and got up. She selected a staff and inspected it. Out of habit, Gabrielle picked up a staff similar to her own one.

“Gabrielle, Gabrielle,” Aella came rushing in the hut. “You’d better come.”

The amazons left the hut, Epinon and Gabrielle clutching the staffs. There was a small group gathered watching a very out of breath Walia.

“Amazons riding in,” she panted. She was bent over, hands on her legs. “’Bout thirty.”

“Northern?” questioned Epinon.

“No, some I don’t recognise, but many I do. Antibrote, Derinoe,” she paused for breath and Gabrielle exchanged a concerned glance with Epinon.

“And Andromache, Toxophile and Doris. Quite a role call.” Aida stepped forward smiling broadly. “As well as some amazons, who shall we say, have had disagreements with their queens.”

“It’s a coup,” said Aella, appalled.

“Well done, dear. Brains too. Not just Ephiny’s pet then?” said Marpe, joining Aida.

“You’re not having the tribe,” said Gabrielle through gritted teeth. “We stood up to Valasca before and we’ll stand up to you.”

“Oh how sweet,” said Aida. “But it’s not just us you have to fight.”

“Alti.” Gabrielle laughed heartily, and for a moment Aida and Marpe showed confusion. “Do you honestly think she would share power with you? She wants it all for herself. She’s using you.”

There were cries and yells and the noise of horses’ hooves filled the village. The amazons rode in, several to where Gabrielle and the others were facing each other.

“Queen Gabrielle.” The name was said with venom.

“Derinoe. Not a pleasure, sadly,” retorted Gabrielle.

“It is for me,” Derinoe purred. “I imagine Aida and Marpe have filled you in. We’re taking the village.”

“Not without a fight,” said Epinon.

Derinoe gave her a look of hatred. “I think you would be surprised at how many side with us. And of course we have other accomplices. Whereas Xena seems to have deserted you.”

Gabrielle looked momentarily upset, but then a smile crept onto her face, and it gradually broadened. “You are pinning all your hopes on a witch who was banished from the Amazons. Who wanted the leaders dead? Who lusts after power? Derinoe you are as stupid as you look.”

The Amazon moved menacingly forward. The exchange was watched by the whole village who had first been woken by Epinon and Solari’s cries and then drawn out of their beds and huts by the arrival of the uninvited army.

“ATTACK!” yelled Derinoe and she pulled her sword out of her holder and brought it down towards Gabrielle. Instinctively Gabrielle raised her staff and blocked it. Before Epinon or Aella could dart forward to assist her, a horse cut across their route.

“Doris,” hissed Epinon.

“Oh yes, I’m back,” she replied, and jumped off her horse and immediately started to engage Epinon.


Within moments the women who had been aghast watching the situation were fighting to preserve their tribe. Aella looked around. The rogue amazons had been joined by some of the tribe; Marpe, Okyale, Protis, Thermodosa, Aida and Teles. She should have known. But Charope was fighting the rogue amazons. She saw that Thea was cut in the shoulder and had fallen so Aella ran across and gave the opponent a shove off balance before she could deal the killing blow.

Gabrielle was managing to defend herself against Derinoe but was tiring rapidly. Her hand was aching and she had been hit by the side of the blade on her arm. She raised the staff again to fend off the attack, but left her legs exposed and Derinoe swept them away. She fell awkwardly, more winded than hurt but lost hold of the staff. Derinoe stood over her and leered.

“I have dreamt of this for so long,” she said. “Since you and your warrior bitch killed Valasca.” She raised her sword.

Gabrielle was frozen looking at the sword descending. Her thoughts were filled with the regrets she never held her child and hadn’t reconciled with Xena before she died. But the sword didn’t fall. Instead Derinoe’s face was twisted in a grimace of pain and surprise. The former Amazon fell forward and Gabrielle scrambled away from the falling woman’s dead body. Gabrielle looked at her, and saw embedded in her back was the chakram. She immediately looked across and saw Xena running towards her.

Xena reached Gabrielle before the queen could get up. Xena pulled her up and straight into her arms.

“I love you. I’m so sorry,” whispered Xena.

“Me too.” Replied Gabrielle.

They broke apart. “I don’t suppose you’d go to Piri’s? “

“No,” said Gabrielle. She was the queen of the amazons and she would lead them.

“Right then,” said Xena and entered the fray. If the bard insisted in joining in, she would ensure this fight was finished as quickly as possible. There would be no prisoners, Xena decided, as after three parries with her sword she ran through a rogue Amazon. She pulled her sword out. These women would kill their former sisters and trust a bitch like Alti. They got what they deserved. She moved to where Gabrielle and Aella were fighting Marpe. Aella had slashed the renegade but she was still fighting.

“Surrender,” said Gabrielle exasperated. “You are losing. Alti won’t help you.”

“I’d rather die,” said Marpe, and lunged at Gabrielle with her sword. Gabrielle got her staff in time to parry it, and pushed Marpe back. She took a run at Gabrielle, but Aella stepped in front with an out stretched sword and Marpe sunk to her knees, dead before she hit the ground.

Xena parried with her sword, and her opponent aimed a wild kick at her leg. Xena stepped back ensuring her opponent was slightly off balance, and before she could right herself, Xena had reached down to her calf and thrown a dagger into the traitor Amazon’s throat. She fell to her knees, ineffectively grabbing at the dagger, as blood poured out of the wound. Xena looked at her dispassionately and thrust her sword in the woman’s stomach.

“Go to Piri,” said Xena, exasperatedly. She could see the bard was becoming clumsy as she was tiring. She also knew that Gabrielle was a prime target for the traitors.

“No,” whispered Gabrielle. “Follow me.”

Aella and Xena exchanged a frustrated look and covered Gabrielle as she made her way across the village centre. The fighting was thinning out. The tribe was obviously winning. Gabrielle stopped near a fight. “AIDA” she shouted. “Surrender. You’ve lost most of your army. It’s hopeless.”

The red haired Amazon spun and looked at Gabrielle blankly. She looked around at the fighting and realised that the situation was indeed desperate. She nodded.

“AMAZONS SURRENDER.” she screamed and threw down her sword.

There was a brief lull. “STOP FIGHTING!” shouted Gabrielle, and the traitors threw down their weapons.

Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief and leant against Xena who wrapped her arms around her in support.

“Amazons, gather the weapons of these women,” said Ephiny who had made her way next to Gabrielle. “Take the wounded to Piri and our enemies-“she looked bitterly at Aida, “to the jails.”

There was flurry of activity as women were either led or helped away by stern looking amazons.

Xena started to walk towards their hut pushing a reluctant Gabrielle. “Xena, I have to-“

“No you don’t. Ephiny can deal with it for a few minutes. You can just sit down and have a rest.” The fight went out of the bard and she allowed herself to be frog marched to their hut. As soon as they were inside and the door closed, Xena enveloped her in a huge hug.

“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have left you. When I realised what a fool I’d been I headed back.”

“Xena it was my fault. I should have told you. It was your right, I just didn’t know how. I came close so many times.” Gabrielle buried her head on the warrior’s broad shoulder.

“SSShhh, lets not worry about that now,” said Xena gently. “The main thing is that you are safe.” She shut her eyes and remembered how close Derinoe came to killing the bard.

“We’re safe,” mumbled Gabrielle. Xena broke away from their embrace and led Gabrielle to the bed.

“Xena, I need to go and see Ephiny. And Piri needs some help.”

“I know. In a moment. Have a drink first at least.” Xena went over to the shelves and prepared Gabrielle a drink. She brought it to the bard and sat on the edge of the bed. Gabrielle gulped the drink down quickly, and within moments was finding her eye lids becoming very heavy. Xena eased her into a lying position and covered her up. “Sleep well,” said Xena and kissed her forehead and left the hut.

Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly. The light was streaming into the hut. She felt her hand being squeezed and turned to look at Xena sitting on the side of the bed.

“Hey,” the warrior said and bent low and placed a gentle kiss on the bard’s lips.

“You spiked my drink,” said Gabrielle. She pushed herself up the bed. “Xena, I should have been there, to help Ephiny and Piri, and the funerals-“

“Gabrielle, everything is taken care of. You’ve only been asleep for a few hours. And you needed it. I helped Piri; her and Clonie have everything under control. So has Ephiny. There is a council meeting tomorrow. And as for the funerals, they’ll be later tonight.”

“How many?” whispered Gabrielle?

Xena squeezed her hand gently again. “Five. Kelsa, Pisto, Sycleia, Clete and Hipp.” Xena reeled off the names before Gabrielle could ask. The bard looked down and blinked away the tears.

“And there were thirteen from the other side. Piri doesn’t think Doris will make it either.”

“What a waste.” Gabrielle’s voice broke.

Xena let go of Gabrielle’s hand and wrapped her arms around her and pulled her closer. They remained like that for several moments. Xena pulled away first and framed Gabrielle’s face with her hands. “I’m just relieved you are safe, Bri,” said Xena gently. “If anything had happened to you, I couldn’t have gone on. Especially at how we left it.”

“Xena I’m sorry. I should have told you. I couldn’t find the right time, once Alti arrived.” Gabrielle stopped and looked stricken. “Alti? Do we know where she is?”

Xena shook her head. “No. She obviously engineered it. Epinon and Aella are questioning the Northern Amazons as well as Teles and co. Alti’s probably disappeared back into a hole, ready for her next scheme.” Xena got up and waited for Gabrielle to get out of bed. They walked to the table which had bread, cheese, meat and plates laid out on it. Gabrielle looked suspiciously at the jug of apple juice.

Xena gave her a lopsided smile and poured two cups of juice and drank one. They both sat down and started to eat.

“I’m sorry too. I should never have reacted like that. Xena looked away. “It wasn’t you I was mad at. It was me and my family.”

Gabrielle snorted. “Why you? It’s not your fault, you have god’s blood? You can’t choose your own parents.” She looked down briefly at her bump, a glance that Xena missed.

“What if I’m Ares’ child? I find his call so hard to resist at times,” Xena said in an anguished tone. “How can you love a child of Ares?” She sobbed.

Gabrielle got off her chair and slowly knelt down in front of Xena. “Oh Xena. I love you. No matter what your heritage is. You’re still the same person, I fell in love with.”

Gabrielle rubbed Xena’s legs. “Whatever your birthright, it doesn’t matter. And if you are Ares daughter, the fact you can resist his call, shows me how strong and determined you are.”

Xena wiped her streaming eyes and gave a weak smile. “I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. I was angry, frightened.” The last word was whispered so low that Gabrielle barely heard it.

Gabrielle laid her hands on Xena’s arms. “It’s in the past, now. Let’s put it behind us.” Xena opened her mouth to speak. “I meant the argument. We both have regrets, we both feel at fault. But we can find out about your heritage. Maybe Hercules could find out something, or your Mother or Aphr-“

“At present I don’t care. I just want to spend some time with you.” Xena lowered her head and they kissed passionately. When they broke away they rested their foreheads together.

“We’d better go. I want to see Piri and the wounded, and Ephiny. Xena-“Gabrielle smiled, “I think I may need some help up.”

Xena smiled indulgently and cupped Gabrielle’s face with her hand.

Xena pulled her up, and Gabrielle lost her smile. “So many deaths, needless deaths.”

“But the Amazon nation is secure Gabrielle. They fought for you. Don’t forget that.”

“I know. I know.”

The smoke trailed high in the star lit sky. There was a respectful silence as the archers lit each pyre. The five dead from the village were each afforded a separate pyre but the fourteen rogue amazons, Doris had indeed died, were not allowed that privilege. They were cremated in three large pyres. Despite Ephiny and Epinon’s protestations Gabrielle had allowed their adversaries to be cremated on Amazon land. The regent had stated they hadn’t deserved that honour.

Xena started to sing the traditional Amazon mourning song, accompanied by Ephiny. Gabrielle watched with tears running down her face. How many funerals had she been to? How many deaths had she witnessed? Xena was right the Amazon nation was secure but at a high cost.

As Xena and Ephiny finished their haunting melody the crowd broke away quietly.

Gabrielle watched with interest as Epinon and Solari walked back, arm in arm, to their hut.

Ephiny turned to Gabrielle and Xena. “There’s nothing more to do now. Go to bed.”

“What are you doing, Eph?” Asked Gabrielle.

“Going to bed! Piri has everything under control; you saw that. The prisoners are secure. The council meeting is scheduled for early tomorrow morning. There is really nothing more to be done.”

“I don’t feel I’ve contributed,” said Gabrielle.

“Gabrielle!” said Xena surprised.

Ephiny snorted. “You stood up to them. You fought against them, even with junior in tow.” Ephiny pointed at Gabrielle’s bump. “You’ve contributed enough, my Queen.”

“Don’t be so formal,” said Gabrielle and gave Ephiny a smile.

“Go to bed. And Gab, did you really say Derinoe was as stupid as she looked?”

Gabrielle smirked and nodded.

Ephiny shook her right hand three times. “Evil! I wish I’d seen that! See you in the morning.”

“Good night Eph,” said Xena and Gabrielle in unison.

Xena took Gabrielle’s hand and dragged her back to their hut.

“Why Xena what do you have in mind?” asked Gabrielle and suggestively raised an eyebrow.

“This,” said Xena and opened the door. In the middle of the hut was a steaming tub filled with bubbles. “This should ease your aches.”

Gabrielle smiled, kissed Xena quickly on the lips and started to take her clothes off. Xena frowned when she saw the bruises on Gabrielle but said nothing as Gabrielle gingerly stepped in the bath. Within moments she had her eyes closed.

She opened them when she felt Xena get into the tub. Gabrielle moved so she was sitting across Xena’s lap. Xena wrapped her arms around her. She gently stroked Gabrielle’s bump.

“He or she’s kicking,” said the warrior lazily.

“Must like the water,” murmured Gabrielle. “Thanks for this.”

“My pleasure. It won’t be easy the next few days. You know what you have to do?”

“Yes,” said Gabrielle. “Uphold Amazon law.”

“And that means executions. “ Gabrielle opened her eyes and turned to look at Xena. “I know you don’t want to.”

“But I must,” said Gabrielle, sighing. “That’s my duty.” There was a pause. “Hold me,” said Gabrielle and started to sob.

Xena wrapped her arms around her even tighter and not saying a word, allowed the Queen of the Amazons to cry.

This council meeting was as popular as the one in which Xena was cross examined by Teles. But this time, Ephiny was happy for the numbers. Instead of sitting with the council members Teles was present but guarded, as were several others of the rebels. Hers and Marpe’s chairs were conspicuously empty.

Once again Aella opened proceedings. “This meeting is convened to bring together as much information about yesterday’s events as possible. Once we have met, the nation will be in mourning for three days. Epinon, please start.”

Epinon stood up. “Yesterday morning thirty two women rode into the camp with the desire to overthrow our Queen and seize power. Six had been banished from this tribe; fifteen banished from other tribes, and the rest, women who wished to join their army.” Epinon paused and gave a quick smile to Solari who gave her an encouraging one back. “They were joined by six members of our tribe.”

At this point there were a few hisses. Epinon paused and then carried on. “Fourteen of their number has been killed. Three are in the infirmary and the remaining twenty one are being guarded.”

Epinon sat down, embarrassed by talking so long in public. Aella signalled to Ephiny.

The regent stood up. “We have spoken to the Northern Amazons, and they state they have no knowledge of the renegade amazons. And we believe them. However the same can not be said of the shameness Alti, who has not been seen.” Ephiny walked to Charope and put her hand on her shoulder. The woman looked shocked but stood up.

She looked down at the floor, aware there were hostile eyes on her. “I knew that something was in the air. Alti kept telling us little bits of information. We spread it around in order to upset a few people.” Charope looked down. “I thought she was going to issue a royal challenge, in the name of Derinoe, as she held Valasca’s rite of caste, but I didn’t realise it would be a coup.” She dropped her head into her hands.

There were murmurings between the crowd. Teles stared at Charope with open hostility.

Charope looked up and at Gabrielle. “I don’t like the direction you are taking the amazons. I dislike you,” she looked straight at Xena who stared impassively back, “but I could not condone their actions. There were outsiders taking the tribe, and I didn’t trust Alti.”

“Traitor!” yelled Teles, and Okayle stood up.

“Order!” yelled Aella above the noise. It took several minutes for the chattering to stop.

“My Queen,” said Aella.

Gabrielle looked at Xena, and she stood up. “My sister, any attack is a serious matter. The fact that our former and current sisters perpetrated one is horrifying. Your bravery and courage has ensured that our village, our tribe, our family is safe.” She looked around the whole silent chamber and her eyes rested on the prisoners.

“You showed contempt for life. You will gain no sympathy from this council.”

Gabrielle turned back to face the council. “I realise that we are two members short, so I would like to recommend Charope and Chilapa.”

There were several gasps and Charope looked stunned.

“Agreed,” said Ephiny.

“Aye,” said Yanna.

“Agreed,” said Aella.

“Agreed,” said Agamede.

“And do you agree, Charope and Chilapa?”

“Yes,” said Chillipa, eagerly.

“I do,” said Charope with a smile.

“We will meet in private to discuss the punishments,” said Gabrielle. “Until then you will remain in custody.”

The whole chamber stood and noisily filed out except for the council members, Xena, Epinon and Solari.

Charope looked at Gabrielle oddly. “Why?” she said simply.

“Because sometimes you need an opposing point of view. We need to ensure that all options are considered. You will help achieve that. Thank you.” Gabrielle smiled at the bemused Amazon, who gave an embarrassed smile back.

“Hopefully we won’t be too long,” said Gabrielle and gave Xena’s arm a squeeze.

“Don’t be,” said the warrior and headed out of the door with Solari and Epinon.

“We’re just going, er-“Epinon looked embarrassed and Xena looked at her as innocently as possible.

“We’re having a talk,” said Solari firmly.

“I’m glad,” said Xena quietly. She watched her two friends walk off back to their hut.

She carried on walking to her hut. As she entered she helped herself to a cup of water and then took the chakram off her belt and laid it on the table.


“Who’s that?” Xena spun around but there was no one there.

She walked over to the shelf where her cleaning cloth was and picked it up.

“Xena!” Her name was repeated again. She stopped still, but could not hear anything but the bustle of the village outside.

“Xena!” This time she felt an excruciating pain in her head. She fell to her knees, dropping the cloth and put both hands to her head.

“Don’t ignore me, “said the voice. “You could never ignore me!”

Xena crashed to the floor and lay in the foetal position holding her head. “Alti,” she said before she slipped into unconsciousness.

Xena looked at her surroundings. It was a forest, and Alti was standing in the distance. Before Xena could open her mouth, Alti flew towards her, stopping several feet short.

“Oh I’ve not gone, Xena,” said Alti in her harsh tones. “All those deaths have made me even more powerful.”

“So that’s what you were after. A civil war. You didn’t care who won as long as there was annihilation.”

“That’s right. I couldn’t believe my luck when I met those banished amazons. A few ‘accidents ‘and the Northern Amazons were desperate to join with this tribe. A way in for me and the banished amazons would do the rest.

“Even if it didn’t go quite to plan, I’m still stronger than ever. And I’ll be back, Xena. You and the blonde will make me more powerful than you can imagine.”

Xena stepped forward but Alti flicked her hand and Xena fell backwards.

“This was just a warning, Xena. For old times sake.” Alti smiled a cold smile and she started to fade from sight. Once she faded Xena’s vision darkened and she could hear her name being shouted over and over again. Her head felt heavy and she managed to open her eyes with difficulty.

Kneeling on the floor beside her was an anxious looking Gabrielle, rubbing her arm. She opened her eyes wide and orientated herself before sitting up slowly.

“What happened?” asked an obviously shocked Gabrielle.

“Alti,” said Xena. “She drew me into the spirit world. She’s grown in power.”

Xena slowly got up, helping Gabrielle up as well.

“Xena-“the bard looked anxiously at her.

“I have to stop her,” said Xena and she walked to the table and drank down the whole jug of water.

“I’m coming with you,” said Gabrielle. Xena immediately spun around.

“No. This time no. It’s the spirit world and I’m not having you in danger. What happens in the spirit world happens to you.”

“I know,” said Gabrielle. “Let me help.”

“No,” repeated Xena. “I need to do this now. Before she gains too much power.” Xena grasped Gabrielle’s shoulders. “I’ll be careful.”

“Xena.” Gabrielle pulled the warrior into a hug.

“What happened at the meeting?” asked Xena abruptly.

“Xena, not now,” said Gabrielle.

“It’s important. “

Gabrielle swallowed. “Antribrote didn’t wait for judgement. She hung herself in prison. Andromache and Toxophile will face execution, Okyale, Thermodosa, Aida, Teles and the amazons from the other tribes as well as the women they have recruited will be banished.”

“Don’t execute them until I return. Alti gains power from every death.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Be careful,” she said and hugged the warrior again.

Xena merely nodded and pulled away from Gabrielle and left without a word.

Yet again she was running from the village thought Xena as she jumped from branch to branch. This time for a purpose. She had in mind a cave for her ultimate destination. In her heart she knew she had to leave the village-she didn’t want Gabrielle to see her like this, especially if the worse happened.

She reached the cave, and entered. She removed her weapons and placed them in a tidy pile and then fell to her knees.

“Oh Gabrielle,” she whispered. “I hope I see you again.” She then jabbed two fingers into her neck and fell backwards gasping.

She was in the same forest as before. Alti was looking amused. “Thank you for dropping in Xena. You never did like the little dance did you?”

Xena said nothing but edged closer to Alti. The shameness raised her hand and sent a light beam towards Xena, but Xena’s reflexes were too quick and she raised her hand sending a counteracting bolt out.

There was a slow clap. “You must be a true Amazon, Xena. Perhaps it is Artemis’ blood you carry.”

The shameness continued to circle Xena who moved slowly around watching her intently. Alti raised her hands again; as did Xena and once again the light bolts were neutralised.

“This is boring,” Alti’s harsh voice carried her disappointment, and so she raised both hands up.

Xena felt herself being pushed back wards, as if caught in a hurricane. She tried using all her spirit strength and then her physical strength to prevent it but she was pushed back and slammed hard into the base of a tree. She was momentarily winded and after she shook her head to try and clear it she looked up and saw Alti standing over her. The shameness cackled.

“Your death will give me so much power,” she said gleefully. “So you see, you will be the destroyer of nations after all.”

She raised her hands and as she brought them down to emit the killing blow, she was hit by a light beam and sent ten feet past Xena. Xena scrambled up and looked in the direction where the beam came from. Standing there with a satisfied look was Gabrielle.

Gabrielle watched Xena hurry out of the door. Her mouth quivered and she put her hand across it. She could feel her eyes welling up with tears, when a sudden realisation hit her. She strode out of the hut and spoke briefly to one of the guards who ran off in the opposite direction.

Gabrielle walked as quickly as she could to the council chamber. It was empty, as expected. She approached the shelves that were filled with scrolls, and she sighed, and for a moment her shoulders sagged and she looked disappointed. Then she shook her head and made her way to the shelves and started to pick the scrolls off them. She opened one at a time, skimmed through each one, and then re rolled them and threw them to one side.

By the time Ephiny, Solari and Epinon entered the chamber, there was a small pile of discarded scrolls.

“Gab, what in Hades is going on?” asked Ephiny as she gave the pile of scrolls a puzzling glance.

Gabrielle turned around a scroll in her hand. “Alti,” she said simply, and rolled the scroll up and threw it into the pile. She then turned around to face the three amazons.

“Xena’s gone to face her in the spirit world.” Gabrielle swallowed. “I read several scrolls about a similar situation when I was on bed rest, but-“she pointed to the shelves heaving under the huge number of scrolls.

“What has this to do with delaying the executions?” asked Epinon, frowning.

“Alti gains her power from death. That’s what it was all about. An Amazon war.”

“With her as the overall winner,” added Ephiny. “What can we do?”

Gabrielle smiled warmly at them. “For the moment just re- roll the scrolls. I know what I am looking for.”

“Of course,” murmured Solari.

They worked through tens of scrolls, before Gabrielle became engrossed in one particular one. The others watched her fascinated.

She looked up. “This is it,” she said with a smile. “And hopefully-“she selected two further scrolls that had lain near the selected one, and unrolled them and briefly read them. “Yes!” she said triumphantly.

She put the scrolls on the table and studied one intently. “I’m going to need a few ingredients,” she said.

“Gabrielle, you’re not thinking about facing Alti are you?” said Ephiny anxiously.

Gabrielle smiled. “Oh yes,” she said. “Because I know how to defeat her.”

“What do you need?” said Solari. Gabrielle smiled at her and gave her the scroll. Solari rolled her eyes. “This will mean a trip to Piri.”

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. Solari nodded and walked out.

“We’re staying you know that?” said Epinon.

“Thank you,” said Gabrielle.

Solari returned with a small bag and Piri in tow. The healer looked at Gabrielle. “You know the risk you are taking?”

Gabrielle nodded mutely.

Piri took the bag from Solari and emptied the contents onto the table. “Fine. I’ll make the brew. And I’m staying-I’ve done this before.”

All four women looked at Piri in shock.”

The healer merely shrugged her shoulders.

“Good because Piri I may need you to bring me back in a hurry. Argo is the word.”

Piri looked at Gabrielle and nodded slowly. She indicated to the floor and Gabrielle awkwardly sat on the floor. Piri gave Gabrielle the cup and knelt behind her. As soon as Gabrielle had finished the drink she lurched sideways but the healer wrapped her arms around her and eased her gently to a prone position with her head on the healer’s lap. She looked up and saw the three anxious pairs of eyes peering at Gabrielle.

“Now we wait,” the healer said.

Xena watched Gabrielle as she walked with an almost swagger towards her. The warrior jumped up and Gabrielle surprisingly didn’t approach Xena but gave her a smile and walked past her.

Alti had recovered her composure and was standing hands on hips. “Ah look, your precious lover thinks she can protect you, Xena. How sweet.”

Gabrielle continued to walk towards Alti. “I know I can protect Xena, Alti.”

“I shall enjoy killing you and your bastard child in front of Xena and watching her mourn,” said the shameness and she raised her hands and shot a bolt of light towards Gabrielle. The bard nonchalantly raised her hand and it was absorbed in to it. Xena and Alti both looked at her with amazement.

Gabrielle smiled and continued to swagger forward. Alti was now back peddling slowly, with her eyes firmly fixed on the advancing bard. “You see Alti, I know what you use; fear. Fear of death, fear of loss, fear of fear. But I also know what you can’t fight. What you can’t comprehend. And that will beat you.”

“What do you know of anything?” hissed Alti. “You’re a jumped up village bard, who lives in someone else’s shadow. You’re not even Amazon.”

“You said it, Alti. I’m a bard. A bard who loves reading. I read about this type of sorcery, this witchcraft. And importantly I read how to defeat it.” She looked at Xena who was now standing next to her, and smiled.

“What are you afraid of Alti? What do you not understand? Love. It scares you because you have never experienced it. And that’s what will defeat you.”

“We’ll see,” said Alti and she jumped and flew above them and landed several feet behind them. Xena turned first and raised her hand and a bolt of light hit Alti. It knocked her off balance but the shameness regained it and smiled. She sent a beam towards Gabrielle who merely deflected it, and as she did, Alti jumped forwards towards Xena.

Xena saw her coming and she jumped towards Alti and they wrestled. Alti placed her hands on Xena’s head and Xena’s mind was filled with images.

She was standing with Joxer and Cyrene looking around the deserted Amazon village. “They’re dying, Xena, the amazons are dying,” said a distraught Cyrene.

Xena was standing next to Gabrielle who was lying down. Gabrielle was in obvious pain and Xena was holding her hand. Gabrielle squeezed harder and yelled.

Xena was fighting in a battle alongside Epinon and Ephiny. She parried swords several times and then struck her opponent with the hilt.

Xena bent low over Gabrielle. She kissed the cold lips, and pushed the blonde hair from her eyes. The bard’s face had a waxy complexion and Xena herself was crying.

“So what do you think of that, Xena? How far will your love get you?” Momentarily shocked Alti threw Xena against a tree, and her already sore ribs, started to throb.

She watched as Alti lurched forward, hit by a beam by Gabrielle. The Shameness spun around to face Gabrielle. “I know your weakness, runt. It’s fear of losing Xena. “She shot a beam at Gabrielle and this time Gabrielle didn’t deflect it, and she was knocked to the ground. Alti moved menacingly towards her. She shot another beam and Gabrielle was thrown further back. Xena got up and jumped up into the air. As she flew towards Alti Xena looked at Gabrielle, who had several grazes on her head and slightly bloodied, and the bard mouthed, “I love you.” The bard aimed a light bolt but it missed Alti by yards and instead sped towards Xena. The warrior instinctively knew she should drop her hands and soak up the energy. For a spilt second she was encompassed in bright light; she basked in love and warmth, as if the feelings Gabrielle had for her became solid. She felt herself grow in strength.

Alti was oblivious to this as she cornered Gabrielle. She raised her hands and laughed. The sound of the insane laughter brought Xena round. She flew forwards but didn’t reach Alti in time. The shameness sent two bolts of light towards Gabrielle and there was an explosion that shook the ground, trees, Alti and Xena. As the smoke cleared, Xena could see that Gabrielle had disappeared.

Alti whirled around and gave a wide smile. “How do you feel now, Xena? Your precious Gabrielle has gone. You are all alone.”

For several seconds Xena looked blankly at the space where Gabrielle had been. She then looked at Alti, and gave a sly smile.

“You really aren’t very bright are you, Alti? You showed me visions of my future. Gabrielle was there with me. That means we both survive.” She shot a bolt of light at Alti which threw her even further back than usual. “And the thing about love is that you are never alone. Never.” She sent a further bolt out and this smashed the shameness into a tree. Blood was pouring from the back of her head, and for the first time she looked at Xena with fear in her eyes.

“And when you love someone you are stronger together.” Xena sent a bolt from each hand and the light picked Alti up and propelled her upwards. Xena watched as the witch was impaled on a tree branch. Xena floated to where she lay, gasping and clawing uselessly at the branch. “That’s for Solon,” she said quietly, as the shameness’ eyes closed for the last time.

Xena dropped to the ground, wincing as her ribs and other bruises started to ache. She knelt down and again jabbed two fingers into her neck. She came around in the cave, gasping for breath. She inhaled deeply several times, and once all the dizziness left her, she picked up her weapons and set off for the Amazon village. Although she had confidently told Alti Gabrielle was still alive until she saw the bard for herself she would not believe it.

She jogged back as quickly as her pained robs would let her. Her left arm was held protectively across them. She ran straight for their hut and opened the door.

There having her wounds cleaned by Piri was Gabrielle. The bard stood up and walked towards Xena who ran towards her and wrapped her arms around her. She squeezed as hard as her ribs and Gabrielle’s bump would allow. She searched out Gabrielle’s lips and they shared a tender kiss.

She pulled away and looked Gabrielle up and down frantically. “Are you ok?” She said.

“I’m fine. A bit singed around the edges.”

Xena gave her another hug. “The baby?” said Xena worriedly.

“Kicking happily,” said Gabrielle. “What about you?”

“Just pleased to see you,” said Xena and hugged her again. They kissed again this time more passionately.

As they pulled away, Gabrielle raised her eyebrow.

Xena sighed, “Ribs got battered.”

Piri cleared her throat. “I’ll leave you two to deal with each others wounds.” The healer walked towards the door.

“Thank you Piri,” said Gabrielle, and Xena gave the healer a nod.

Once the healer had left, Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle again. “You could have been killed?” said Xena, exasperatedly.

“So could you,” replied Gabrielle.

Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle’s bump. “But you have got this one to consider.”

Gabrielle stroked Xena’s cheek. “And what would we do without you?” she said gently. “Besides I had a –“the bard searched for the word, “feeling I had to be there.”

“Now sit,” said Xena and pushed Gabrielle into a chair. She picked up the wet cloth and continued to clean the grazes on Gabrielle’s face. She looked into Gabrielle’s eyes. “Tell me.”

The bard smiled and spent several moments contemplating her answer. “As I said, I felt I had to be there. I didn’t know why. And then it came to me, scrolls.”

Xena looked perplexed.

“When I was stuck in bed I read so many scrolls, scrolls of Amazon history, battles, everything. And I remembered a scroll detailing dark sorcery. It spoke of a great battle between good and evil shamenesses.”

“And let me guess, love was the victor?”

Gabrielle smiled shyly. “Sounds dumb, I know.”

Xena hooked her finger under the bard’s chin. “No it doesn’t. Alti didn’t understand the power of love. That put her at a disadvantage. But what happened to you?”

“I used a potion to induce the trance. I had a safe word to get me back. Piri administered the antidote in time.”

“Remind me to thank her again,” said Xena.

Xena finished cleaning the wounds. “Your turn,” said Gabrielle, and Xena started to take her leathers off. Gabrielle covered the already forming bruises with salve and gently wrapped the ribs.

“What happened after I left?” Asked Gabrielle.

“We fought and she was killed,” said Xena simply. She closed her eyes and thought of the visions Alti had shown her. She shuddered.

“Xena,” said Gabrielle gently.

“Come to bed,” said Xena, and she slipped a tunic on. They could wait for another day. They both lay on their bed propped up by pillows.

“Thank you for being there. I couldn’t have beaten her without you.” Xena took Gabrielle’s hand and gave it a squeeze.

“You don’t have to do things alone. Just remember we are stronger together.” Gabrielle said.

Xena wrapped an arm around her. “I became the strongest woman alive the day I met you,” said Xena and rested her head on her shoulder. “As well as the luckiest.”

Gabrielle said nothing but closed her eyes and enjoyed the well earned and unusual peace and quiet.

The End

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