Additionally, the story below contains references, explicit and implied, of a sexual relationship between two consenting adults of the same sex. If you are not of legal age to read this story, or such material is illegal where you live, or you do not feel comfortable with such content, please refrain from reading this story.
Timeline Notes: After the episode "A Comedy of Eros"
Mantles are Heavy
(c) July 1998
Gabrielle had followed Rayna into the temple interior and watched as the woman prepared a place for kneeling at the altar by laying down reeds and moss. "Think of the goddess," said Rayna as she grasped Gabrielle's hand and settled the bard to her knees. She put her hands then on her own lap, palms upward. "Follow my example."
In response the bard mimicked Rayna' positioning, and looked up at the statue of Artemis. Its feature were smooth, a proud nose in gently arched cheeks. Full lips looked almost wet in the shine on the stone. The goddess' trademark quiver rested across the statue's back carved in exquisite detail. The arrow feathers looked delicate and very real. The short skirt and tunic were detailed down to the soft folds and creasing over the generous breasts. In her right hand Artemis held a bow about halfway down its length, the string, amazingly also carved stone, rested against the inside of her forearm. Her left hand clasped an arrow shaft gently near the feathers, the point already outward, as it seemed she prepared to nock the missile.
She searched the statue's alabaster features for a sign of warmth, of acceptance. The stone did not change. She hadn't known what to expect, but continued silence was not among the choices. When the temple fell so quiet all she heard was her own heart beating, her breathing and Rayna's seemed obscenely loud. She closed her lips tightly and silenced the rushing sound of her own breath. The air seemed to thin around her. Her chest felt lighter and behind her eyes, rims of reddish light pulsed in time with her heart.
"Hail!" Gabrielle flinched at the explosion of sound next to her head. "Your queen wishes to hear from you!"
The quality of the light appeared to change and the bard opened one eye to a slit to see what was happening. A warm light flowed over the statue of Artemis, changing the white surface to a faint orange. Gabrielle opened both eyes wide in surprise as the statue's mouth opened!
"Hello, Gabrielle," came a smooth womanly voice. It seemed to echo throughout the temple and within her own head. Out of the corner of her eyes, Gabrielle watched Rayna rock backward and come up on her feet behind the bard. A hand came to rest lightly on her bare shoulder.
"See?" whispered Rayna. "She is appearing to you. You are Chosen."
Gabrielle remained quiet, green eyes only on the mouth of the statue. Silence fell for a long moment and she began thinking of all the things she wanted to ask of the moon goddess. As the words began to form on her tongue, there was a soft rumble. The lips began moving once again.
"Gabrielle, you are a child of mine as surely as if you'd been born among my flock. I will have no one calling my Chosen a shame to the Nation."
"But I --"
"And you would be a shame if you joined with someone whose interests are counter to mine."
"But Xena --"
Lightning crackled and thunder rolled through the temple. "Silence!"
Gabrielle worried her hands at the hem of her skirt. "I don't understand."
"Xena has no respect for the Amazon way."
Gabrielle felt her shoulders bow under the accusations. It was true, the bard thought. Xena wasn't Amazon... because she didn't hold to any gods. But I can't let her go. "If it please you, I would honor your name in everything."
"But you lie with the Warrior Princess. It is irreverent. This act does not please me."
Rayna leaned close and whispered. "The goddess cannot be denied, Gabrielle. Follow her will."
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder and caught the shine of something in the brown eyes. "How can I stop loving Xena?"
"You love the goddess. It is sufficient for a good life. She is pure. You must be as well." Rayna gestured to the statue. "She cannot abide Xena. You must fulfill her will."
"But she knows my heart." Gabrielle looked up into the face of the implacable Artemis. "Please, goddess, I will always honor the role I have been given." She shook her head and started to her feet. Rayna's hand on her shoulder stopped her. Biting her lip, Gabrielle raised her hands in supplication. "Please. I'll govern as wisely as I can. I swear it."
Lightning flashed from the statue over Gabrielle's hands and into her chest, stealing her breath. The bard fell to her hands and knees and gasped in shock. "End your association with the Warrior Princess, or I will have you cast into the same lava pit you cast Velasca, my servant."
Gabrielle looked up. "Velasca?" But... "Artemis, please."
"There will be no challenge. You either obey, or you will be cast aside."
Gabrielle bit her lip and nodded stiffly. "How long do I have to fulfill your will?"
"You will be taken in irons to the cliffs by dawn."
The thundering rumble ceased and Rayna stood in silence at Gabrielle's shoulder as the bard came to her feet. Green eyes locked on the face of the statue. The orange light had gone from the alabaster and it resembled lifelessness once more.
"No more than my heart," murmured Gabrielle, feeling an empty hole begin forming in her chest.
Rayna grasped her shoulder and smiled. "She is giving you a chance to redeem yourself, Gabrielle."
"Go now. Fulfill the goddess' will. You can do no less."
Gabrielle twisted her fingers in the strings of a pouch at her belt. Inside was a small piece of pounded steel and a flint. Xena had given the bard the tools when she'd successfully made a fire during their first season on the road together. In the bottom of her scroll pouch was a small note Xena had scrawled when they'd had to be separated during their first year traveling.
The bard had chosen to go to the Athens Academy of Performing Bards and study the storytelling she loved so much. The warrior hadn't said much, but there was support in her eyes. "Don't worry about anything. Go. Follow your dream."
Gabrielle had a dream of finding a home and a family to call her own. Poteidaia had been ages ago the answer to that prayer, but a more false answer there had never been. The Amazons had given her a home, an identity, and a promise of safety in times of peril.
In exchange for that now they asked her to give up her heart. Clutching the small pouch to her chest, she looked once at Rayna and then stumbled out into the light, blinking as moisture gathered from the painfully bright sunshine. She looked around as the village went about its daily business.
"Refreshing, isn't it?" Rayna offered beside her. "To commune with the goddess and then to find oneself among all those who have felt the same connection."
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes, trying to soothe the sting and nodded absently. Rayna skipped down off the temple steps. When Gabrielle remained paused at the top, the young woman turned back and gestured. "Come on."
"I should find out what Ephiny is doing," replied the bard, noting the distasteful curl of Rayna's lip at the Regent's name. "I'm sure she has found those scrolls I requested," Gabrielle added. "I wanted the history scrolls," she went on, "...to assure that I handle things properly."
"You are still determined to seek Xena as a partner?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Why wouldn't I? I love her."
"I don't want to drag you to the cliffs." Rayna drew herself up. "But I will if I have to, Gabrielle. I have shown you the goddess' way. It is the pure way."
"Xena's as pure of heart as anyone I've met."
"Then convince her to take the rites."
Gabrielle shook her head. "She won't."
"Then you must drop her." Rayna was firm. "You are queen."
Gabrielle started to retort, but found the young woman's eyes quite piercing and unapproachable. The bard simply shook her head and turned away, walking down the steps past Rayna.
"Where are you going?"
"I've decided I'm fatigued. I need to rest."
Rayna's eyes flared, but she said nothing. Without another word, the bard left the young Amazon at the steps of the Temple, and moved, with as much purpose as she could muster in her confused state, down the path back into the heart of the village.
Gabrielle managed to keep the tears at bay until she reached the inner square. There, seated at a loom, sharing the chore of weaving a mat for their hut were two Amazons, lovingly entwined, handing the weaving threads back and forth through the spittle. The intimate picture, somehow reserved for others but unattainable for herself, broke through the last of the young woman's control and she wept, pushing her way blindly past the guards standing at attention outside the queen's hut. She ignored their upraised hands and glances of question.
Firmly she put a hand over her eyes, demanding of herself to stop crying. I am the Amazon queen, for Artemis' sake! The thought only made the pain in her chest worse and she dropped onto the bedding, fighting with herself between crying for her Nation and crying for her soul.
The late afternoon sun was
slipping through the slats in the
hut's western wall when Xena waved Eponin away with a promise to talk to Gabrielle.
"Take care of our queen, Xena."
"I'll try," she replied, having renewed her hopes that perhaps some arrangement could be reached... if she at least could talk to the bard, find out what the traditionalists' really wanted.
Maybe with her typical eloquence, Gabrielle had talked them around to seeing reason.
"I don't want to lose Gabrielle," she thought as she pushed open the hut door and glanced inside. Had she seen Ephiny, or Rayna, she'd have turned around, to give them time to complete their conversation before coming upon them. But neither one was there. She looked more closely, separating shadows and forms, and realized that there was someone there asleep on the bed.
Gabrielle? She thought with alarm, stepping in quickly and pushing the door shut behind her. She came near the bed and saw the bard had simply sprawled across the bed. The akimbo set of her arms and legs alarmed Xena for a long moment until she reached out and found the bard's back rising and falling lightly. The blonde was asleep.
Coming nearer she pushed blonde hair off cheeks and studied closed eyes, slightly parted lips and the aquiline nose. She'd been sleeping only a short while. Xena smiled, thinking the bard had come back to wait for her and fallen asleep. But then she noticed a patchy sheen on Gabrielle's right cheek. Crying? Gabrielle almost never cried. The revelation unnerved Xena, who stood and fretted, then sat back down and put a hand on the rise of the bard's shoulder.
"Gabrielle?" she whispered in a gentle voice. "Gabrielle, I'm back."
The bard raised her head slowly and opened her eyes. Softly blurred green eyes met Xena's blue. Suddenly Gabrielle sat up quickly, turning her head away from the warrior and trying to unobtrusively brush her cheeks and eyes free of tears. "I'm sorry. Must've fallen asleep waiting for you."
Xena moved onto the bed and put her big hand comfortingly on the bard's shoulder. "I..." No, she decided. I won't tell her I was leaving. "Eponin and I were out."
Gabrielle nodded, accepting the lie, since she knew from Kieran that Xena had left the village alone. "It's all right." She thought a moment. "I have a solution, I think."
Xena nodded. "Let's hear it."
"Inside the temple, I learned a few things."
"And?" Xena was uncertain where this was going; if Gabrielle had been in communication with Artemis... She squared her shoulders. "What did you learn?"
Gabrielle sighed. "That not everyone sees things the same way." She put her hands in Xena's on the warrior's lap, studying their intertwined fingers. Then she looked up. "The law is quite clear." Xena's heartbeat picked up nervously, and she started to pull away from the bard, despite the soft welcome of the touch. There was a brief moment when Gabrielle squeezed her hands. "It's pretty clear, I'll have to fight to change things."
Xena swallowed. "You can talk them around to anything," she murmured. Then she smiled. "You've talked me around often enough."
"No, Xena. I mean fight."
Xena pulled away and stood. "No." She turned back to Gabrielle and saw the determination glinting in the bard's green eyes. "No!"
"If I denounce you I get to keep the mask. If I lose the mask, I will lose my life." Gabrielle sighed. "The only solution is to fight to have both. You and the mask."
"What brought you to that conclusion?" She searched the bard's face for any sign of indecision. Gabrielle fight? The idea terrified Xena in the deepest part of her heart.
"Artemis said so."
Xena put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Then I'll leave."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No!"
"I won't let you die."
"You can't stop me."
"I can't stand by and watch them kill you."
"I won't give up the mask."
Xena sat down and studied Gabrielle. "It's obvious they don't care what you want." She sighed. "Let's just go?"
"But I care about them."
"Artemis has spoken."
"I'm going to try and change Artemis' mind."
Xena stood up. "Gabrielle, that's crazy."
"Is it?" Gabrielle looked from the scrolls to Xena. "You fought off Ares' influence. They said that a Chosen can't ever unchoose themself. But you did it."
"Artemis isn't an evil goddess, Gabrielle."
"Xena, she's demanded I subjugate everything for her. Asking me to deny my heart isn't evil?"
Xena sighed. "It isn't the same thing. Ares wants me to kill people. For sport."
Gabrielle shivered. "Yes, I know." She squared her shoulders. "Artemis hasn't asked me to do that... yet."
"You think she will?"
"I don't know. She wasn't at all what I expected."
"You could just leave Ephiny in charge."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena, I swear, if you ask me to do that one more time..."
"I cannot give up the Amazons. Terreis counted on me."
"What have they given you except grief? You want a life on the road; they want you here. You want me; Artemis says no. You want a future; they've threatened to take that from you."
The bard paced the room. "Why does Artemis hate you so much? You never attacked Amazons in your warlord days." Gabrielle turned. "At least you've never told me about any."
"Once I thought I could be an Amazon, Gabrielle."
"Well, now let's do it."
"I can't swear fealty to Artemis."
The bard shook her head. "You want to start on a new path, Xena. Come on. This is your chance." The warrior shook her head. "If I wanted to go back to Poteidaia, would you go with me?"
Xena looked up from the table where she stood fingering a scroll. The bard's green eyes challenged her. She hadn't seen a challenge in those eyes in moons. Painfully swallowing the lump in her throat, she nodded her head.
"Why there and not here?"
"Because there life is simple. Not bound up with the gods at all."
"I'm serious Gabrielle. I can't change this."
"It's over then?"
Xena bit her lip. "I'll leave."
"Like you started to this morning?"
"How'd you find out about that?"
"Xena, you are the most strikingly attractive woman in this entire region. At least half the village noticed you leaving after I left to meet Rayna."
"Well, only Eponin followed me."
"She convinced you to come back?" Xena nodded. "And if she hadn't followed you?" Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and asked the painful question. "Where would you be now if she hadn't turned you back?"
Xena shrugged. "Gone."
"Just like that?" The warrior remained still; the bard recognized the stance. Xena was awaiting an explosion, preparing for a fight. Well, Gabrielle was ready for a fight. Frustration, anxiety and nervousness had been building inside her since leaving the hut that morning. "You like running Xena? Then just go ahead." Her voice raised a bit in pitch, pierced through with a combination of fear and desperation. "The Amazons welcomed me when you died. Open arms and everything! I have to honor that somehow." Xena backed up and said nothing. Gabrielle sat down hard. "Say something!"
"You've made your choice. I'm sorry I came back and complicated your life." The warrior strode to the door and pushed on the wooden frame. She looked over her shoulder once at the bard, who could see tears in the blue eyes, through the veil of her own. Then the warrior was gone.
Gabrielle put her head on the table and held back the tears with only force of will. It seemed that was the only thing left she had any control over. I will not cry. She went to the door and stepped outside. Looking around quickly she noticed no sign of Xena and turned toward the temple. "Maybe if I have another talk with Artemis."
Just then, Ephiny came around the side of the building. "Gabrielle!"
The bard looked up. "Oh hi."
"I saw Artemis with Rayna today."
Ephiny nodded. "You are Chosen then. I have never witnessed her presence."
"Then how do you know she is there?"
Ephiny shrugged. "I just do, I guess. I've never doubted. Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing it exactly right, but..." The Regent smiled. "I haven't been struck dumb or blind yet."
"That's the punishment for non-believers?"
"According to the teachings."
"Xena was struck blind once."
Ephiny shivered. "Her? Really?" She looked around. "Where is she?"
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle in surprise. "She's left you here?"
The bard nodded. "We ... agreed it would be best."
"After what Ep told me, it seemed Xena was planning to stick close. Help you out."
"Well, I guess she changed her mind."
"Are you sure she left?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Ephiny, I'm sure." She grasped the Regent's hand. "Will you come with me to the Temple?"
"I want to try talking to Artemis again." The bard started to walk, pulling Ephiny with her.
Ephiny's shoulder bag almost slipped off. She stopped. "Oh. I almost forgot. I found those scrolls you wanted." Ephiny pulled a set of scrolls from a pouch she'd slung over her shoulder.
"The history?" Gabrielle took a scroll walked along the path while unrolling it. "Have you read them?"
The regent shook her head. "I just brought them."
The bard read a few passages. "Hmmm... This is somewhere near the end. There's a passage here about Artemis speaking through the priestess, sentencing the queen." She rolled it up. "How many ways does the goddess speak to people?"
"Just a couple as far as I know. She either inhabits her priestess or appears to the selected woman in a dream."
"But the statue..." Gabrielle sighed. "Oh, I ... Well, I guess Artemis had her reasons."
"Well, she spoke to me through the statue in the temple." Gabrielle shrugged. "Guess she wanted to be sure Rayna heard everything said too."
Ephiny shook her head, now, clearly confused. "But no two women have ever shared a vision of Artemis." Gabrielle began to hurry down the path; Ephiny worked to keep up. "Where are we going?"
"I'm going to find Artemis."
"You said -- "
"Ephiny, I think someone else spoke to me in the temple."
The regent gasped. "Who?"
"I don't know, but if I can talk with Artemis... the real Artemis, I think I can find out."
The bard and regent hurried down the path toward the temple. Amazons stopped briefly to watch the two, then turned back to their work.
Rayna and Kieran caught sight of the two as they themselves came from the practice field. "Where are they going?"
"I heard Xena left."
Rayna nodded. "Gabrielle must've really be shaken by the temple." She rotated her staff over and around her hands. "Next things'll be easy enough. We can give the goddess what she wants."
Kieran nodded. "This isn't going to hurt the queen is it?"
Rayna laughed. "Oh no, it won't hurt, Kieran. The little bard'll be dead too quickly."
Gabrielle moved along the path and felt Ephiny's confidence that the bard knew what she was doing. But truthfully, Gabrielle thought, I have no clue. She sighed and pushed onward. There was only one place to get the truth, Xena always said. From the source. If she could manage it, Gabrielle hoped she could summon Artemis on her own.
"What do you think will happen?" asked Ephiny at her shoulder.
Gabrielle stepped out in front of the temple and nodded to the two guards before answering Ephiny. "I'm playing a hunch."
Ephiny frowned. "That sounds like Xena talking." Gabrielle stopped, turned and frowned. "Hey, no disrespect meant." Ephiny raised her arms in surrender. "This means a lot to you, doesn't it?"
Gabrielle nodded. "You and the others, you gave me a home, a place to be when I was really devastated. You supported me. What concerns the Amazons concerns me. You asked me to take the queen's mask from Velasca. Whether it was a good or bad decision, I chose to confront Velasca, to take the position."
Ephiny shook her head. "But that was before..."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No it wasn't. I loved Xena then too."
Gabrielle chuckled. "I didn't say I was the fastest person at realizing it. But the fact remains. I have always had loyalty to Xena married to my loyalty for the Amazons."
Ephiny studied the bard's face. Earnest green eyes implored her to understand. The regent remembered witnessing the bard's reunion with Xena in the cavern of ambrosia. Watching the bard's face the whole time, Ephiny had felt the glow spark between the two women as the ambrosia worked its miracle.
A deep groan came from the coffin's occupant. Ephiny had witnessed few miracles in her life. Watching Gabrielle's hands reach out and grasp Xena's shoulders, her face so glowing with a smile that it seemed to possess a life of its own, the regent felt enormously intrusive and stepped back.
Coming back to the present, Ephiny smiled. "There has to be a reason for all this."
"Does that mean you're with me?"
The bard and regent crossed the broad walk.
"May we help you?"
Ephiny glanced up at the face of the speaking guard and saw challenge.
"We're going in to pray." Gabrielle inserted herself subtly across Ephiny's body and pressed against the heel of Ephiny's hand that had grabbed her sword.
"Be welcome." The guard stepped back and Gabrielle smiled, then led Ephiny inside.
"What?" Ephiny asked once they were inside.
"I don't want a fight when we can avoid it." Gabrielle looked around the corridor. "Now, let's get to the altar."
The two women walked along the corridor. The bard had been focused on Rayna when she first came in and now took a moment to take stock of the temple's interior. Art, mostly painted, adorned the walls. A few bas-relief sculptures depicted benevolent acts of the goddess. Village women collecting bountiful crops, hunting parties bringing in huge fat bucks. Victory in battles too. "Does the goddess preside at joinings?" Gabrielle asked. She noticed the fresco which Rayna had pointed out telling the history of the village's founding.
"In the form of Priestess Anaria." Ephiny pointed to a depiction.
Gabrielle paused and studied the painted wall. Two women, hands joined with a delicately tooled leather strap, stood in full Amazon regalia. Masks rested atop their heads, faces bright and smiling. Between them, a woman in golden armor styled after the depiction of Artemis Gabrielle had seen in the altar room, raised her hands over their heads, mouth open issuing blessings, which Gabrielle could read written to the side of the painting. "Is this Anaria?"
"No, that's a depiction of the Great Joining."
Gabrielle shook her head. "The what?"
"The Great Joining. This is our fourth queen, Hippolyta. About 10 years before Melosa. And her captain of the guard, Lyla. They discovered their love on a journey to make peace with the neighboring Spartans." Gabrielle studied the faces more closely. Hippolyta was a considerably older woman, certainly past childbearing, dark swirling tresses framed a delicate face. Her bondmate, Lyla, was a slight, tall woman with perfectly straight long dark hair. Gabrielle was immediately put in mind of Xena, though the bearing was stiffer and the face more severe.
The comparison was a disheartening turn of mind and the bard abruptly turned away. "They look very happy," she said quickly to fill the silence.
"They were. They did everything together. Ruled. Served. Led the army. Led the harvesting. Led the planting. Welcomed every new birth in the village. Presided over every death. Their love consumed the entire village for their bonded life."
"It wasn't all that long ago. What happened?"
"Once," replied Ephiny, sitting on a nearby chair as they entered the altar room. "They were separated during a battle. Lyla had taken a mounted patrol into the mountain to get above the enemy. Hippolyta's responsibility was to maintain the troops in the valley to push the enemy back into the descending group, to crush them between the two forces.
"But the enemy had split her forces as well. There was a party further up the mountain. Lyla's forces were slaughtered. Nearly everyone died. A young scout returned down the mountain to find Hippolyta pushing her troops upward already. Knowing the appearance of the scout meant trouble, Hippolyta backed her troops up and ordered a strategic retreat.
"The enemy was behind her, between the Amazons and the village's safe confines."
Gabrielle gasped. "No."
Ephiny nodded. "The queen fell in battle that day. Lyla had sent the scout ahead because she'd been wounded, but had hoped to hit the enemy in the heel. Take out the division leader. She'd climbed into the trees and fallen on the division's general.
"She killed him and rode toward the village, having scattered his men."
"Lyla rode in and saw Hippolyta fall to her opponent."
Gabrielle leaned back against the wall, closing her eyes against the all-too-easy image forming in her mind of the lovers bent together, one dying in the other's arms. Tears tracked down her cheeks.
Gabrielle brushed Ephiny's hand off her arm. "No, I asked."
Gabrielle bit her lip and looked at the altar. "Ephiny, I want the right to die in Xena's arms."
Ephiny nodded and followed the bard to the altar. Gabrielle didn't see the reeds and moss Rayna had used to kneel. She walked up to the base of the statue and touched the carved marble knee that was at shoulder height for the short blonde.
Please, Artemis, tell me your wishes. The bard reverently stroked base of the statue and then settled on her knees against the brief steps. Next to her, Ephiny drifted carefully to her own knees, trying futilely to get comfortable. Finally the regent stood again.
And paced. Gabrielle tried to concentrate, eyes closed, while Ephiny's boots thumped a steady rhythm behind her. The altar room dimmed around her as she lulled herself into a quiet that brought an enormous amount of peace just because the silence wasn't filled with recriminations, argument, or testiness. For a long while, Gabrielle kept her eyes closed, just relaxing in the dim light. She could feel the candlelight flickering around her. The pungent smell of apples and grapes and hot candle wax filled her nose. She took a deep breath.
"Gabrielle, Gabrielle. My queen. Arise."
The bard opened her eyes and glanced around. Ephiny paced, studying the frescos adorning the walls. The colors were sharper. She was surrounded by the smells of the offerings. The sounds of the regent's boots broke the silence caressing the bard.
"It's all right. I'm glad you sought me."
Pushing to her feet, Gabrielle backed up and looked up the tall statue.
"I'm not there, Gabrielle. I'm here."
Gabrielle turned slightly to find a woman standing beside her. She glanced over her shoulder again at Ephiny, who continued obliviously pacing.
"Don't worry about Ephiny," the vision said. "I'm not here to see her. I'm here to see you."
Gabrielle bit her lip. "What happened earlier?"
"You already know."
"It was a fake."
The goddess nodded. The bard felt a warm touch on her shoulder and looked to see the ephemeral hand resting on her leather top.
"Why did they do that?"
"You are my champion, Gabrielle. You must depose them before all my children. Restore my honor among the Amazons."
"Why can't you do it yourself?"
"That's not a Chosen speaking."
"But why me?"
"Because your heart is for peace."
"How can I debunk their ruse? Who's behind this? If it's Rayna..." Gabrielle shook her head. "I can't fight her."
"You can fight her, Gabrielle. I'll be with you." The goddess rested one hand on each of Gabrielle's shoulders, compelling the bard to meet her eyes. "Do you believe?"
The bard looked up into the brown eyes of the Goddess Artemis. "I want to. But what is real?"
The goddess nodded. "Tell me, what made you seek this audience with me?"
"I felt something was wrong. The... Rayna was so convincing. I expected to have to fight you."
"And if you did?"
Gabrielle bit her lip. "I'm not sure. I expected a lot of pain?"
The goddess smiled and brushed a hand against the bard's cheek. "You are a brave one, my young queen. They were foolish to challenge your heart."
"I'm confused. Rayna and the others felt you would oppose Xena as my bondmate. Would you support my choice for bondmate or not?"
The goddess was quiet for a long moment. "I would... if she were willing."
"Why isn't she? She won't tell me."
"You are brave hearted in some things, but not others?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Please tell me what I should do?"
"In the morning they will come to see if you have sent Xena away. You have, so you will have no reason to be dragged to the cliffs."
"You heard all that?" The goddess nodded. "Why didn't you speak up sooner?"
"I prefer my Amazons solve their own problems, Gabrielle. How weak would you be if I always bailed you out?"
Gabrielle frowned. "Sometimes it'd be easier."
The goddess laughed which made Gabrielle smile slightly. "You'll learn."
"Thank you for talking to me."
"Thank you for realizing you were being hoaxed."
Gabrielle smiled, quirked her nose and giggled. "That's a backhanded compliment." She smiled. "Xena would say something like that."
"Oh, I doubt she'd be pleased to hear that."
"Maybe I'll tell her someday when we're old and gray."
The goddess smiled and brushed Gabrielle's cheek. The bard stepped back and watched the goddess slowly fade away.
The glow in the room subsided. The bard found herself kneeling at the altar, head bent, staring at the floor in front of her knees. Behind her Ephiny's pacing could still be heard. When she stood, however, the regent stopped pacing and rushed to Gabrielle's side. "Did you have any success?"
Gabrielle looked up at the statue then back to her friend. "I learned what I needed to know."
Ephiny rubbed the bard's arms up and down, seeming to check for soundness in her limbs. "What's next?"
"We have to expose a hoax, Eph." Gabrielle pulled the regent's hands away and held them tightly.
"How?" Ephiny looked up at the bard's face. "Want me to send someone to find Xena?"
"No." Gabrielle looked up at the statue again and smiled ruefully. "Sometimes we have to do things on our own. I don't want her compelled. Besides, if I expose the hoax, I'll be more accepted than if Xena helps me."
Ephiny nodded. "Well, what do we need to do?"
Gabrielle was already thinking. She led the way from the temple and searched through the village, picking up things here and there. A loom spoke, a sheet drying in the wind, a thread spool of sinew. She passed each to Ephiny, who looked them over once, bringing her attention back just in time to catch another object from the queen.
Ephiny watched Gabrielle become animated with the other Amazons they passed walking through the village. The bard smiled and giggled with the toddlers. She exchanged suitably serious conversation with the Amazons in the training field. When she encountered Kieran on the path near the queen's hut, she sent the young woman a contemplative look before ducking inside, pulling Ephiny in behind her with her armload of supplies.
Solari watched Gabrielle and Ephiny leave the training field carrying a spiked fighting staff and two maces. The bard had exchanged pleasantries with the trainees, who paused in their formations to greet the Amazon queen. There was an excitement around the bard that ran counter to Eponin's report that Gabrielle was despondent and confused.
"Ready to get back to the practice, Sol?" called Joly. The military second leaned on her sword.
"What d'you make of that?" asked Solari, who came close as she waved for the practice to resume.
"The queen comes to look over her troops. Looks like the little one's gonna take her responsibilities seriously."
"Gabrielle's all right."
"Yeah, well, 'all right' doesn't usually rile your curiosity. G'on. I'll finish up here."
Solari offered her hand. Joly grasped her forearm. "Thanks."
Joly nodded and turned to supervise a pair of women sparring with swords, shouting corrections to their holds and stance. Solari picked up her staff and gloves and jogged off the field as dusk collected on the ridges overlooking the village.
The growing darkness didn't bother the woman mounted on horseback. She and the golden horse had ridden alone before. But that hadn't been for many years.
Argo started off the trail. Her rider had been motionless in the saddle for the last several hours. Figuring they both needed rest, the horse started toward the smell of water which would be a likely place to put her rider down for the night.
But the sudden change in direction woke Xena. She tried tugging Argo back onto the trail out of Amazon land, but the mare would not go. "Argo, we keep moving." The mare tossed her head and instead of changing direction as commanded, simply stopped on the path. Xena nudged with her knees to no avail. The warhorse wouldn't budge.The warrior dismounted and came around to Argo's head. "What's up?" The mare tossed her head again and neighed. "Come on. I want to be out of Amazon land by dawn." The mare leveled her gaze with Xena's and the warrior felt distinctly dressed down by that steady look. "There's nothing I can do. She wanted to stay. I can't. That's all there is to it." The mare snorted. "Okay. Okay. We'll put up here for the night. But in the morning we're moving on." Sighing, Xena grabbed the mare's reins, walking to a clearing.
In the growing darkness, Xena quickly pulled off the saddle, bags and bedding. She started a small fire circle with twigs, dug in her pack for some dried meat or fruit and the wineskin.
The wineskin was readily on top, and she took a long draught before setting it aside and going after the rest. Digging through the pack, she came up with... a scroll?
She unrolled it and found its lower right corner missing. She frowned, remembering when the parchment had been torn.
"You used my scroll?"
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry. There weren't any suitable leaves in the bush."
"You used my scroll! Xena --"
"I only used a little. I tore a piece that didn't have much writing on it."
Thud. Impeccably timed before Gabrielle's ire could spend itself on her, the ground-shaking steps of Gareth the Giant interrupted their argument.
Sitting back with the wineskin, Xena leaned against her saddle and read by the firelight. The torn scroll was one of the bard's stories of their adventures. Simply titled "Return of Callisto" it was Gabrielle's notes about the vengeful return of the blonde from Cirra.
The warrior found herself swept back to that painful period of her travels. The bard had run into her former betrothed, Perdicas, a mild enough fellow who'd thought himself a warrior, so he'd been fighting in the Trojan War. When that conflict ended, he'd seen enough. On the way home from the battlefield, he'd encountered conflict after conflict. He fought, but slowly inside bits of him died...
Until he sat by a river, sword at his own throat and contemplated ending his life. Xena considered self-destruction a cowardly weakness, one she'd squelched in many of her men... permanently. She read Gabrielle's thoughts:
I looked at him and saw the devastation he had seen, felt the ache of loneliness that had brought him to his knees by that river... and I couldn't let him go on alone.
I looked at Xena. As uncertain as she can be about her path, compared to Perdicas, she is confidence incarnate. I could help him. She wasn't letting me any closer; maybe this was the moment our paths were to diverge... for good.
He asked. He was kind of sweet about it too. Down on one knee... that sort of thing. I said yes, looking over at Xena as he hugged me. She smiled, that half smile of hers that says she's thinking something, but damned if she'll tell me.
Xena set the parchment aside. I was thinking how much I was going to miss you. The warrior poked at the fire. Then she rerolled the scroll and started to put it back in the pack. "Why bother?" I'll never be able to put you out of my mind, Gabrielle.
She retrieved the wineskin and continued drinking while reading. Soon the wine was gone, but the parchment went on... painfully right through the end... Perdicas' death... And Callisto's.
It was a great afternoon. Perdicas had packed a picnic lunch and we'd gone down to the lake for a late lunch. I wondered aloud where Xena had ridden off to... and that seemed to be Callisto's cue to charge in.
The next moment we both heard this thundering. I thought it might have been Xena, coming by for a late good-bye. But instead of Argo's goldenness, a drab brown stallion galloped into our clearing. Callisto, yelling her war cry, hurtled from its back. She was upon us before I could think much, and Perdicas stood to challenge her.
That was a mistake. Callisto doesn't care, she certainly didn't then. She raised a sword to strike us both.
Then Xena charged over the other hill, coming down on us on Argo. I yelled for her. I remember that. Then Callisto said something, yelled and ran Perdicas through on her sword. He screamed. How could he not. I wanted to scream, but all I heard was my throat closing over a single syllable: "No!"
Xena was there. I cradled Perdicas and she told me "I'm sorry." I heard her say she'd be right back. I cradled Perdicas and at the same time I wished I had strength enough to follow her... kill Callisto myself.
Xena sat up. There was an additional set of text after the main part had been written. It was in different ink. Xena wondered when the bard went back to this story. Once she read it though, she knew.
Now I wish I had killed Callisto. She sat there, taunting me, from the other side of the campfire. Xena's promised her ambrosia for helping rid us of Velasca. Xena wouldn't do anything. I wonder what the deal was Callisto agreed to. Xena can be so single-minded sometimes.
But then again, I wanted her back. For all the reasons I've told her... and those I never have the courage to say. I know she knows best, but sometimes I wish she'd tell me more.
Xena thought about that. She hadn't told Gabrielle really why she wanted to use Callisto to kill Velasca instead of hunting down Hercules... but the truth was, she felt steadier around the Cirran warrior than she ever had around Hercules. Callisto was darkness, something Xena understood in all of its forms; Hercules was so good sometimes it left Xena confused.
The warrior finally put down the parchment, and rolled it again. She finished off the wine and dropped her head to her blankets.
A crash in the bushes disrupted the calm that had overcome the glade. Xena came to her feet and had her sword in her hand in the same step.
"Don't you want to be an Amazon, Xena?"
Xena spun, sword extended toward the voice. The weapon was wrenched from her hand.
"Oh, yes, I know you're heart. I'm a goddess."
"You have no idea what you want, do you? You want Gabrielle. You want to keep traveling. You want a home. You want redemption. And when it's staring you right in the face, you can't take it."
"Why drag all this out, Artemis? You and I both know why I am not good enough to be an Amazon!" Xena circled the clearing, nudging Argo out of the firelight. "Just kill me and get it over with."
"You'd like that wouldn't you? To die out here, by someone else's hand, now that you feel more alone than you've ever felt."
Xena swore. "I'd prefer to die by what I can see."
"Oh." A figure stepped from the foliage, and took on a light of its own. "I think I can accommodate that."
The warrior stepped back, swinging her sword in a tight circle. But it wouldn't help against lightning bolts... Which this one person was capable of inflicting. "Velasca," she hissed.
Xena adjusted her stance carefully assessing the brown-haired, leather-clad immortal. Brown eyes flashed with anger, and amusement at surprising the unsurprisable Warrior Princess. The warrior thought quickly and erased the expression from her face before any more silence passed.
"You seem a bit surprised to see me, Xena." Velasca circled hands relaxed at her sides. "You shouldn't be. This is my land."
"This is Amazon land, Velasca. How'd you get out of the lava pit?" If Velasca had freed herself, Xena feared Callisto could do the same. She looked around quickly. There was no sign of the blonde immortal. "Callisto with you?"
"Certainly not." Velasca raised a hand and lightning erupted from her fingertips, flashing in an instant across the short space separating them. "I don't need her help to defeat you."
Xena leapt aside, booted feet bouncing from tree trunk then back to the dirt, a safer distance away. "Velasca, you said the Amazons didn't matter to you any more. Something changed?"
The goddess tossed her chin up and laughed. "There were quite a few people upset that your little bratling friend challenged me about the mask." She smiled and more lightning flashed from her hands. "Stand still, you annoying fool!"
Xena smiled, pleased to rile this woman who had threatened Gabrielle. "Having trouble, Velasca? I'm only a mortal. C'mon, you can do better than that."
Velasca scowled, yelled and rushed Xena. The warrior sidestepped at the last second. Velasca didn't fall for it, only moving one step past before turning and locking her hands around the warrior's throat.
Xena's hands came up, but the goddess' grip was unbreakable. Images swam before the warrior's eyes, flashes of light mostly, then she dropped her head fast against Velasca's, startling the goddess with a sharp blow to her forehead.
Leaning back quickly, Xena crouched and then sprang upward, plowing her boots into Velasca's chest. The surprise more than the strength of her action gained her freedom. She launched herself quickly into the trees. The goddess growled, trying to find the warrior hidden in the foliage.
Xena circled high above, and called out to Velasca from a position opposite where she'd leapt into the branches. "I don't know what you're plans are, Velasca, but I'll stop you."
"You think to stop me? I hold the power here, Xena. Your little Gabrielle will be dead at dawn." Velasca cackled, and started to saunter away. "She's going to be the first in a long line of sacrifices... to me, Goddess of Chaos!"
Xena blanched, but jumped aside just in time to avoid another lightning bolt, shot very accurately, into the trees right at her position.
The branches erupted into flames around her. With the casualness of a thought, the goddess had trapped Xena inside a conflagration, and vanished.
Xena studied her situation and rolled out away from the trunk, grasping the branch. With a careful leap upward, she found another perch when the branch which had been under her feet cracked and fell away into the fire.
She looked down to find the forest floor ablaze at the base of the tree. She had to get down, but leap clear of the flames. She could see the edge of the fire, but the darkness of night made it difficult to determine what was outside the fire where she had to land.
Then she remembered that Velasca had said Gabrielle was to be sacrificed at dawn. The determination to prevent Gabrielle's harm made indecision moot. She barely had time to get back to the village before daybreak. So she leapt outward, rolling head over heels through the air. She landed on her feet... in the middle of a large bramble.
The sharp spiny branches scratched her skin, drawing blood, from her thighs, arms and hands. A squirrel and two rabbits leapt in front of her. Startled she fell backward, landing hard against rocks on the path. The fire licked at her back and she jumped to her feet. She had to put out the fire first.
She crossed to a small stream running through the woods nearby and filled her sheath with the water. She emptied it over the base of the tree, snuffing a small segment near the far edge of the fire. Argo whinnied. The warrior grabbed her blanket and doused it in the stream, using the larger wet surface to beat down the flames. Soon, though the wood smoked, the flames were out. Xena's muscles protested her steady swinging of the heavy wet blanket. She shook the blanket once, wrapping it around herself.
Sweat-soaked Xena leaned against Argo for a moment to catch her breath. Over the mare's withers, she caught sight of the eastern sky, a pale blue, tinged with soft red. Dawn.
Taking a deep breath, Xena straightened. Quickly she draped the blanket over Argo's back after wetting it again. Xena leapt onto the mare's back and yelled, "Hee-yah. Back to the village!"
Mare and rider were off.
Ephiny stirred. She lifted her head from her chest, where she'd fallen asleep in a chair in the queen's hut. Looking over, she found Gabrielle asleep sprawled across the bed. The regent jumped as the silence was broken by a knock at the door.
Quickly, knowing a foe or a friend could just as easily be at that door, Ephiny got to her feet and snapped up her sheath, pulling the short Amazon sword from it. "Come in." The door was pushed open by a well-tanned hand. Eponin, dark hair braided from her early morning workout, came through the door. The blonde regent breathed a sigh of relief and dropped her sword. "Am I glad to see you."
"Everything is ready." Eponin stepped through the doorway. "Are you sure this'll work?" She grasped Ephiny's arms and held the regent close.
"She's sure. That's all that matters. Right?"
Eponin looked at Gabrielle, who still slept. "As we were coming back from the challenge field, I saw Rayna and Kieran and a few of the others come from the other direction."
"Amazon against Amazon." Ephiny sighed. "I wonder if Artemis ever thought it would come to this."
Eponin shook her head. "From what Gabrielle said, Artemis figured we could take care of ourselves."
"We're supposed to be protected, not constantly tested!" Ephiny retorted, strained to her last measure by the events of the last weeks.
Eponin saw Gabrielle stir. "Shh, c'mon. They won't let her sleep much longer. We might as well be as ready as we can when Rayna comes."
"I wish Xena were here."
Eponin shook her head. "What's more important? That Gabrielle resolve this? Or that Xena resolve it for her?"
Ephiny nodded, having already seen the wisdom in Gabrielle's plan, but worried for the young bard nonetheless. "I know. I know."
The two women turned to leave when more noise came at the door. The exchanged glances. "Already?"
Eponin set Ephiny aside and drew her sword. She could hear the guards outside Gabrielle's hut exchanging words with the new arrival. "It's Rayna. Kieran is telling her that I came in a few moments ago," the Amazon warrior told the regent.
Behind them, Gabrielle rolled over and sat up. She rubbed her eyes and shook her head, tossing her hair into place. "So, it's time?" She pulled herself from the bed and pulled on the armguards woven with the insignia of the queen. "Well, let's see what they want."
Eponin exchanged a look with Ephiny, who merely stepped back to stand shoulder to shoulder with their young queen. Shaking her head, Eponin opened the door, pulling it wide so everyone inside could see everyone outside. "The queen grants you good morning," she said formally. "She has requested that you break your fast with her here."
Eponin stepped back and bowed Rayna inside. The brown-haired Amazon looked severely from Eponin, to Ephiny and then with scorn on Gabrielle, who stepped forward. "I see you wear the marks of your station."
Gabrielle nodded tersely. "Eponin will fetch our trays. Come sit at the table."
Rayna looked around. "Where's the Warrior Princess?"
"She's gone." The explanation came from Eponin who then left. Rayna turned to Gabrielle for confirmation.
The bard nodded. "She and I had a disagreement and decided it was best."
"She won't be coming back?"
The bard shook her head, tears slipping over her cheeks. "She's halfway to the other side of Greece by now."
"You really are better off without her, y'know," said Rayna. "The goddess will be very pleased to know you will be hers alone."
"After our meal, we should go for our morning prayers?"
Rayna nodded. "I have a special place for you to go this morning. The goddess has asked that we go out onto the mountain."
Gabrielle looked away from Rayna as Eponin returned with several young Amazons bearing trays. The regent, the queen and Rayna were all given the plentiful fruit bowls and juice. Eponin ushered everyone out again and pulled the door firmly shut.
"Now that the food is here," Gabrielle suggested. "Let us thank Artemis for her guidance, today and always." Rayna nodded, placing her hands over her fruit bowl. Everyone else present did the same. "Blessed Artemis, queen of our hearts and protector of our ways, you have taught us the things we need to grow, the Amazon path to peace and given us the love of our sisters. We eat in honor of you."
Rayna smiled as Gabrielle concluded the prayer. "You honor the goddess with your words, Queen Gabrielle."
"Will you challenge me as queen, Rayna?"
"You have seen the light, how could I challenge the goddess' will?"
Ephiny nodded. "We'll go to the square and let everyone know the good news."
Gabrielle put a hand on the regent's wrist. "After breakfast."
Rayna smiled and the three women set to their food.
Gabrielle watched Rayna carefully, in the back of her mind hoping her plan would work. With Eponin outside, the first part was entirely up to her. There was a shiver of the thatch over her head. She resisted the urge to look up. She looked to see if Rayna noticed. The Amazon shifted in her chair but didn't look around, instead biting into a piece of melon.
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle. The regent's brown eyes widened slightly. There was a scuffle outside. All three women stood as the door crashed in. The young Amazon Kieran picked herself up among the broken wood and charged back out the door.
Ephiny, Gabrielle and Rayna charged to the door. The regent tripped over Rayna's feet, however. Only Gabrielle's quick hand steadying her kept the blonde on her feet. The three women fell out the doorway to find Kieran charging across the open path. They all looked at the young Amazon's quarry, currently battling with several other Amazons. If they hadn't recognized the fluid, tall brunette warrior in heavy leather gambeson and wielding a sword, they instantly identified the battle cry issuing from the bottom of a pile as the warrior flung her attackers aside like rag dolls.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled.
"Stay right there!" The warrior flashed her chakram, and released it, shoving aside Amazons with the blunt side throughout its flight path.
"No! Xena!" Gabrielle charged forward.
Rayna grabbed her arm, pulling her to a stop. "What's going on?" Gabrielle shook her head. She had no chance to answer when Rayna grabbed her and pulled her back against her chest, a short knife held to the slight blonde's throat. "Xena, cease!"
The warrior looked up to see Rayna's threat against the bard. Behind Rayna, someone else sympathetic had grabbed Ephiny. She shook her shoulders out of some of their tension, but did not drop her weapons.
"Put it down!" Rayna yanked Gabrielle back, the bard's hands reflexively went up to prevent the crush against her windpipe.
The warrior complied, dropping the sword on the ground. Kieran snapped up the weapon and sheathed it on her own back. She held out her hand for the chakram as well. Xena looked around at the other Amazons coming to their feet. Nearby, behind Rayna, Gabrielle, Ephiny and her captor, Xena could see Eponin and a couple other Amazons atop the queen's hut. Their hands worked a pulley system, and the warrior traced the cords to a construction.
The warrior's examination of something behind her distracted Rayna, who now turned around to see behind her. "Get them down! Now!" She returned her attention to the imposing warrior. "You have something planned for me, Xena?"
"I had a very interesting conversation, Rayna. I thought I'd come back and ask you about it."
Rayna shook her head. She shoved Gabrielle further into her shoulder, trapping the bard more effectively with a headlock. "Let's go, my queen." The sneer was back in the Amazon's voice. Gabrielle struggled; Rayna hit the bard alongside her temple, dropping the bard into unconsciousness. Xena started forward only to stop at the warriors' hands on her arms and Rayna trailing the knife over the bard's throat, drawing a very thin line of blood from the bard's soft skin. The threat was clear. There was little Xena could do until Rayna moved away from Gabrielle. "To the cliffs," Rayna ordered.
The warrior finally handed over her chakram and allowed herself to be led alongside Eponin, Ephiny, and others sympathetic to Gabrielle's cause, behind the bard imprisoned in Rayna's firm grip and surrounded by other renegade Amazons. Kieran, whom she could easily lay flat with a punch, gripped her arm and led her. "Why kill Gabrielle, Kieran?"
Kieran looked slightly upset at the prospect, but answered firmly, "Artemis wills it."
Xena pressed carefully. "That can't be true. Look at her. She's as peaceful as they come."
Kieran pulled the warrior's arm sharply. "Shut up. The goddess' will must be done."
"Or what? What did Rayna say would happen?"
"The crops will fail. The water will dry up. The goddess will abandon us."
"Have you seen the goddess?"
"No, but Rayna has. She tells me what I need to know." She pushed Xena ahead of her. "Now, shut up. And keep walking."
Xena shook her head, but did fall silent, watching Rayna and Gabrielle ahead. She looked over once at Eponin and Ephiny, both also held firmly. She looked up at the sky and saw a bank of dark clouds gathering near the crest of the mountain ahead. She looked at the bard, noticing the lolling head and the dark bruise already forming on her temple. Xena gave her thoughts soft voice. "Artemis, if she's your Chosen, you've got to protect her."
Gabrielle's head came up slightly and her eyes blinked open. She winced and looked around, trying to see where they were headed as well as where everyone else was in the party marching to the mountaintop.
"Where're we going?" she asked with her voice low, feeling the rawness where Rayna had scratched her knife on her skin. "What'd you do to me?"
"Gave your warrior a warning," replied Rayna. "She's really a wimp when it comes to you, isn't she?"
"Xena is not!" Rayna shoved Gabrielle around giving the bard a clear view of Xena walking along with Kieran. The younger warrior had only a light hand on the brunette's arm, whose head was down. Gabrielle sighed. She'd hoped Xena would return, but not until everything was over. Rayna shoved her around again and out of the corner of her eye she now caught sight of Eponin and Ephiny also being led along. "What do you have planned?"
"The goddess knows. She wants you, and I'll give you to her."
"I know you faked the temple appearance." Gabrielle gasped when the Amazon's fist plowed into her stomach. Behind her she heard Xena shout. Taking a deep breath she waved off whatever Xena would have done. "I'm okay." She glanced up at Rayna. "Well?"
"The goddess said it was necessary to convince you."
"Why couldn't she come convince me herself?" Rayna pulled the bard's face close to hers. Gabrielle swallowed hard, refusing to show her anxiety.
"That's your biggest problem. You always ask questions."
"What am I supposed to do?"
"It's faith, Gabrielle!" Rayna shook her in frustration. "Faith!"
Xena backhanded Kieran and took a quick step toward Rayna and Gabrielle. "Put her down!" She growled toward the enraged Rayna.
The Amazon turned to Xena, brandishing
her knife against Gabrielle's throat. "When we get to the mountaintop,
disbeliever, you will see! Artemis will take your life for your
Kieran stood and grabbed Xena's arm. The bard, warrior, and the Amazon prisoners were surrounded quickly by Amazons, bows nocked with arrows. Gabrielle's shoulders dropped and Xena's dropped as well. Gaining control of the group once again, Rayna led the way onto the mountain path.
Gabrielle and Xena now walked side by side, Kieran and Rayna to their outside.
"Gabrielle?" Xena's voice was low, only carrying to the bard, who looked up. "Are you okay?" The bard didn't answer, but the woman's green eyes were hooded before she looked away. Xena took that as sadness. "I'm sorry I tried to make you choose."
"The Amazons are important to me. But the same as you. Not more or less."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to get through this, and so are you."
"I can take care of myself."
"What do you know about what happened yesterday?"
"I know that Rayna thinks she is serving Artemis."
"Yes, I know."
"But she isn't. She's being hoaxed."
"Yes, I know that too."
"How'd you know that?" Xena was used to discovering things and having to share them with Gabrielle, to the bard's surprise.
"I had a conversation with Artemis," Gabrielle whispered back.
"I just told you that was faked."
"No. Last night, I went to the temple alone... Artemis appeared to me."
Xena frowned and leaned closer to Gabrielle, only to be pulled back by Kieran's firm hand on her arm. "What did she say?"
Gabrielle's green eyes lifted to Xena and the bard smiled slowly. "She said she'd approve you as my consort... if you wanted it."
"Then I know you were fooled, Gabrielle. Artemis would never say that about me."
"Why not? She seemed rather sincere about it."
"Maybe it was Ares playing with us again, or Aphrodite. Hmm?"
"No, Xena, it was Artemis. She told me she lets us choose our own way."
"Would you shut up," Rayna pulled Gabrielle away from Xena. "Saying good bye?"
The bard looked from Xena, who couldn't seem to wipe the worry off her face, to Rayna, who couldn't seem to wipe the sneer off hers. "Rayna, what were you promised for delivering me?"
The Amazon was taken aback. "You wouldn't find it important. You don't care about the Amazon ways."
Gabrielle tripped on an exposed root. Rayna would have let her fall, but Xena's hand was there to catch her. The bard looked gratefully back at Xena and stood, straightening herself before Rayna. "Well?"
Rayna shook her head and walked away, continuing the walk to the summit.
Ephiny and Eponin came close to Xena. "What's going on?"
"I don't know," responded Xena. "But Gabrielle seems to know what she's doing." Indeed twice now she'd garnered a severe response from Rayna, but the bard's confidence had yet to falter. "She seems to think she's really had a meeting with Artemis."
Ephiny nodded. "She came out of the temple really positive."
"No, with me. She told me she wanted to go back. She thought Rayna had faked the first vision."
Xena studied Gabrielle, who walked slightly ahead with Rayna. "Did she tell you what she said?"
"No. Only that Artemis wanted her to prove Rayna was false."
Xena revealed her own encounter with an immortal. "Last night I saw Velasca."
Ephiny was startled. "When? Where?"
"I have a feeling we're about to meet her again," replied Xena as the group attained the summit.
The Amazons and their prisoners looked out across the craggy peaks and the valley below. At the bottom was a lava flow which Xena and Gabrielle both remembered. Xena noticed the peak now held a rock carved into the shape of a flat platform about half a person high. "Your altar?" The warrior drew Rayna's attention. Gabrielle moved around the edge of the ravine, until she was out of Rayna's direct line of sight.
The warrior stepped forward. "Well, are you going to summon Artemis?" Gabrielle eyed Xena who seemed to be doing her best to irritate Rayna to violence. Xena imperceptibly shook her head, forestalling the bard's comment.
Rayna raised her hands to the sky as lightning flashed around her. She stepped aside. The goddess Velasca, which Gabrielle had last seen falling to the lava with Callisto, stepped forward. Lightning kept swirling, crackling in the air around the vengeful goddess. Of those assembled, only Xena was unsurprised. Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, and Kieran, as well as many others, gasped and dropped in surprise. Rayna stood. Xena could not determine if the look suddenly covering the young face was surprise, adulation, or fear.
"Hello, Gabrielle." Velasca sneered. "Bet you didn't expect to see me."
Kieran stepped forward. "We've brought you Gabrielle, now bring glory to the Amazons."
"Glory already belongs to the Amazons," Gabrielle said, looking at the immortal. "You are not the Amazon future, Velasca. People like Kieran, Lira, and Eponin, and Ephiny... and yes, me. We're the future of the Amazons. A future of peace. What Artemis truly wants." She raised her hand to the sky. A white bird fluttered upward from her palm.
"A dove!" Several of the Amazons fell back in awe at the queen's display. "The queen is blessed by Artemis."
Rayna fell back when the bird dove at her. Velasca flashed lightning through the sky again, but the dove flew without trouble.
Gabrielle picked up Rayna's discarded staff and threw it at the goddess. In flight it became a wide white cover, floating down over the goddess, impeding her hands.
Velasca sparked her power and the cover vanished in fire. The goddess flashed lightning directly toward Gabrielle, but Xena's sword, commandeered from a surprised Kieran, deflected it.
Rayna caught the redirected blast full in the chest, falling backward.
Gabrielle picked up the unconscious woman. "Velasca! You have attacked Artemis' Chosen."
"What's the old windbag gonna do?" Velasca retorted. "I'm more active than she ever was. They are mine now."
A bright light appeared over Gabrielle's shoulder. All eyes looked up as the bard seemed to sit in the center of the light, which grew wider, encompassing both the unconscious Rayna and their queen.
"Gabrielle!" Xena stepped forward.
"No, Xena. Stay back." Gabrielle lifted a hand to hold off the warrior but kept her eyes on Rayna.
When Rayna opened her eyes, Gabrielle smiled. "Important difference there, hmmm?"
Rayna shivered. "I thought..." She looked up at Gabrielle. "I really thought."
The bard's voice was soothing, forgiving. "I know you did." Behind her, Velasca screamed. The light shifted from Gabrielle and Rayna to envelop the goddess. It seared, growing so bright no one could distinguish Velasca within the light. The goddess screamed, her voice piercing and afraid.
Slowly the light faded. The Amazons who had fallen back, fear still gleaming in most eyes, clustered around Gabrielle and Rayna. The latter was struggling to sit up and shaking her head, crying.
"Rayna!" Alarm filled the voice.
The fallen Amazon grasped the concerned hands reaching for her. "I'm all right, Kieran."
The young warrior asked, "What happened?"
Gabrielle gave Rayna off to Kieran and started to push herself to her feet. Only she found Xena at her side, offering a hand. Looking up, she met the warrior's eyes with a smile. "Thanks." Gabrielle let Xena throw her weight into lifting them both. Relief flowed as she fell into an embrace with the warrior. Xena's hands and arms slipped tightly around the bard's back, warm comfort flowing from one woman to the other and back again in a healing hug.
"I'm glad that's over."
The bard lifted her head and watched Kieran leading Rayna away. A pair of Amazons stopped them. "My queen," one asked pointedly.
"Let them go," Gabrielle replied. "Rayna knows what was wrong now."
"Would you explain it to me?" Ephiny asked.
Kieran and Rayna disappeared down the mountain path. Ephiny and Eponin grasped Gabrielle's shoulders. Looking from one to the other, she explained, "Velasca appeared to Rayna as Artemis."
Ephiny and Eponin shook their head. "How is that possible?"
"Rayna learned about her ancestor. Her pride was stung when it seemed Artemis had forsaken the Amazons because I was not really an Amazon, but everyone wanted me to lead." Gabrielle reached out and laced her fingers with Xena's. "Velasca in the guise of Artemis convinced Rayna that a sacrifice -- my sacrifice -- was going to make things right."
"So why didn't Artemis fix things herself? Impersonating a goddess has to be one of the worst offenses." Eponin asked, squeezing Ephiny's hand.
"Artemis likes to think we can take care of ourselves. That I figured out the vision Rayna gave me was a fake."
"Why was that anyway?"
"Because one god can't act within the temple of another." Xena answered, meeting Gabrielle's eyes.
"Right," the bard replied. Silence fell for a few moments and Gabrielle decided it was time to talk with Xena. "Eph. Ep. Could you lead everyone back to the village?"
"What about you?"
"I need a little time alone." She kept hold of Xena's hand however which told the warrior that the 'alone' didn't include her leaving too.
Ephiny and Eponin nodded and turned, jogging down the mountain pass.
"Something you wanted to talk about?"
"Are you going to tell me why you don't want to be an Amazon?"
"Didn't Artemis tell you?"
"No, she told me to ask you. She said she'd accept you... if you were willing."
Xena shook her head. "I don't understand."
"I showed no mercy."
"Mercy, about what?"
Xena sighed. "You'll probably want to ask me to leave after I've told you."
"Xena. Usually things are less bad than you think they are."
"I don't think wiping out an entire Amazon village counts as 'less bad than I think'."
The bard gasped. "A whole village? When?"
"About ten years ago. Just before my campaign against the Centaurs."
The warrior nodded. "I wiped out everything."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Artemis apparently forgives you."
"How can she?"
"Maybe she knows it wasn't you who did it."
"But Ares --"
"You let her worry about Ares, okay? If she has a beef with another god, she'll handle it." She glanced pointedly over her shoulder to where Velasca had vanished in the center of Artemis' glow.
"She got you to prove Velasca's hoax."
Gabrielle put her arm through Xena's. "We all make choices when we're not influenced that prove who we really are."
"And which one did I make?"
"You chose to come back."
Gabrielle smiled and finally the light shining from the bard's eyes infected Xena, bringing a smile to the dour warrior's face. Arm in arm they walked down the mountainside. Once Xena looked over her shoulder and saw the altar stone bathed in a stream of sunlight. A slender woman in hunting leathers, and a bow slung over her shoulder, smiled at the warrior.
"How did you do that dove thing?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Artemis helped." Xena nodded. "You really arrived in the village at a bad time."
"I did?" Xena was hurt, but curious. "How so?"
"I had planned a bit of hoaxing of my own back at the queen's hut. I didn't think Rayna had thought it was Artemis she was speaking to. I really thought she was working with whoever wanted me out of the way."
Xena nodded. They were both surprised to hear a short barking guffaw among the feminine laughter. "Joxer?" Through all the troubles they'd had, both Xena and Gabrielle had forgotten the warrior accompanied them to the Amazon village. The two women stepped forward, parting the group to find the warrior in the middle.
Joxer smiled, weaving slightly on his feet. "Hiya, guys. Been a Hades of a party."
"Joxer, what'd you do?" Xena asked suspiciously, seeing his arm draped over a nearby Amazon's bare shoulders.
"I found a friend."
Gabrielle and Xena groaned in unison. The Amazon who'd caught the warrior-wanna-be's attention giggled and pinched Joxer's behind. He yelped, and turned to chase her. Watching them go, Gabrielle and Xena shook their heads and laughed. "Seems that your confidence training worked."
The warrior nodded. "I still want to pop him one."
"For getting too drunk to spar with me the night of the party."
"You really needed out that badly, huh?"
The warrior thought back to the uncomfortable feeling of being caught in the middle yet on the outside looking in at her bard's happiness. "Yes."
"How about we spar this afternoon?"
"Time to show the Amazons what they're going to get when my champion fights for them."
"It'd make you happy if I became an Amazon?"
Gabrielle rubbed her palm over Xena's and then up over the warrior's wrist and arm. "I want us to have a home."
"Do I have to do anything weird?"
Gabrielle chuckled, then turned serious. "I'll find a streamlined version if you like. Fewer 'weird' things."
Xena nodded. "It's important to you, I'll do it. All I want is for you to be happy, Gabrielle."
"Why just me?"
"Because you deserve it."
"So do you." She cleared her throat and changed the subject slightly. "We'll have to stick around a while. I have a little work to do to make ourselves capable of still traveling."
"I'm going to divest power. Turn the job of ruling over to the council."
"Can you do that?" Gabrielle arched an eyebrow making Xena's own rise in reply. "Okay, you can do anything you set your mind to."
The tall dark warrior and the young blonde queen walked through the village smiling at the Amazons going about their business. From the hushed reverent smiles, it was evident the news of what had happened on the mountain had already spread. The two women ignored the eyes as best they could, feeling self-conscious as they entered the queen's hut.
Xena worried the most about the looks. Taking the bard in her arms, she offered up exactly what she was thinking, "Gabrielle, please don't put me on display."
"It may be your job as champion to protect me, Xena, but I consider it part of my job to protect you, too." The bard wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck, and noticed the damp collar of the gambeson. She pulled back. "What happened to you?"
"I had to get a little wet."
Gabrielle smiled seductively. "Really?"
The warrior smiled back, but said reasonably, before the bard's lips claimed hers, "I had a fire to put out."
Whispering, Gabrielle replied, "Well, there's another one starting. Time to put it out."
Warrior and bard chuckled, and kissed,
falling to the bed, stripping out of their garments as they went.
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