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 "A Family Affair" and sometime before "Crusader."
(c) September 1998
Editing thanks: I want to thank those who e-mailed me, and offered constructive suggestions and comments for the improvement of this story. I hope it's much better now. In particular, thanks to firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Vicnbeck@aol.com. You were the greatest!
From her position at Argo's side, Gabrielle studied the landscape and thought back over their most recent adventure, working out all the details in her mind carefully so she'd be able to write later. Xena watched their surroundings, always alert for signs of trouble.
Taking a deep breath, the bard felt herself fill with wonder that she was here at all. Only a pair of moons had passed since she and Xena were reunited in life, following the terrifying and confusing days apart, she in a strange hospice and Xena desperately searching through all the levels of Hades and the heights of Olympus. Gabrielle blew up across her own face and brushed damp bangs off her forehead. "For a spring day, it's awfully hot."
Xena nodded. "Wanna ride for a bit?" She looked up at the sky. "We'll get rain by tonight." The warrior's chest rumbled with a chuckle. Gabrielle's small hands rubbed against her stomach as the laugh subsided.
Glancing up at her companion, Gabrielle watched the slim nose crinkle as Xena arched an eyebrow. Midnight black bangs were also damp against the warrior's forehead. Knowing Xena wouldn't stop for herself, Gabrielle decided to suggest it first. "Could we stop early? Hunt up a nice spring for a bath?"
Xena looked down from her survey of the surrounding forest. She quirked a smile. "Cool but not cold?" She offered the bard her left hand. Grasping it, Gabrielle threw her leg over Argo's rump, snuggling against Xena's back. "Coming up."
Xena raised her nose, and nudged the golden mare with a knee. Argo made a sound part snort and part whinny and ambled off to the right. "Argo seems to think there's something just over the next rise." Gabrielle could feel the rumble of another chuckle in the warrior's chest as she wrapped her arms around Xena's waist.
Xena thought about how little time they'd been together, and hoped that the quiet they had experienced the last few weeks would continue long enough for them to get reacquainted. At that moment, Argo pushed through the last tangle of trees, and stopped, dancing in place at the edge of a placid spring.
Gabrielle couldn't take her eyes from the sparkling blue surface of rock spring or the lush green foliage surrounding the pool, shielding it from the forest beyond. It made the whole place seem a world in itself, leagues away from anyone or any place. The bard turned to Xena as she slid off Argo's back and hugged her tightly. "You are my hero. That's beautiful! I was wishing for something just like this!" Gabrielle stepped down to the water's edge, to sit down and untie her boots. "Look at the sparkling on the surface. Like diamonds. Wow."
Xena turned back to unsaddle Argo, listening as Gabrielle continued to sing the praises of the small spring. There was a deep sigh as the bard slipped bare feet in, testing the temperature. Xena smiled, looking over her shoulder briefly. She hoped they were close enough to the volcanic source that the water was still slightly warm. The water bubbled around the bard's feet.
"Gods, Xena. My wish came true."
"Cool, but not cold? Hey, I said I'd deliver."
Gabrielle laughed; Xena turned back to study her companion. Her blonde hair, dampened a bit by perspiration on such a warm day, glowed in the sunlight, a burst of warm flame amid the lush green surrounding the pool.
"Are you coming?" Gabrielle called out, invitation clearly in her soft silky voice.
Xena smiled and removed the mare's saddle and the blankets then patting her rump, she suggested, "G'wan." Argo offered a rumbling neigh and trotted off to the edge of the clearing, near both water and grass, a feast fit for a horse.
Gabrielle slipped out of the rest of her clothing, setting the linen things atop her travel bag. Rotating her head she felt the muscles loosen in her shoulders with an audible pop. She slid into the water and dunked her head. Coming up for air and wiping back the wet hair from her face, she found broad, powerful and soft hands on her shoulders and turned into Xena's arms.
The warrior's water-slick hands slid over the curve of the bard's buttocks. There was a slight edge of nerves as they each contemplated renewing their relationship after such a long separation. "Need a rub?" Gabrielle's hands drifted down across Xena's bare arms in reply.
Blue and green eyes smiled into one another for a long moment. Falling into the warrior's heart through the pair of luminous sky blue eyes, Gabrielle raised up onto her toes and tilted her chin up.
With Xena's velvet tongue tasting her lips, Gabrielle succumbed to her lover's constantly moving hands. The warrior's sinuous fingers untied knots and relieved pinched nerves, and stoked a passion that always lurked beneath the surface for both of them. Gabrielle's soreness evaporated like the perspiration on her forehead with every stroke. The two women sank to their knees in the pool, hands running over each other.
"Xena," Gabrielle breathed out on a sigh. The bard looked up and noticed a small rabbit hopping up to the edge of the spring. A deer nearby seemed alertly waiting for the two women to move away, cowering in the bushes. The animals around them made Gabrielle a bit self-conscious.
"Gods, I missed you, Gabrielle." Xena laved her tongue over the pulse point on the bard's throat.
Trying to divert herself, Gabrielle turned to talk. "Did you have a pet as a child?" She was appalled at the question, knowing this really wasn't the time or place for it, but now that it was out, she realized she was eager for the warrior's answer. Xena growled a mingled expression of frustration and desire. "Well?"
"Where did that come from? I thought we were getting... reacquainted here."
Gabrielle ran a soft hand over the warrior's bare breast with a languorous touch. "I want to learn more about you."
Xena rolled her lips in amusement. "You already know everything that's in my heart, Gabrielle."
"I want to know everything about you." The bard leaned back in the warrior's embrace and gently ran her hands up both of Xena's arms.
"Okay..." Xena dragged out the acquiescent word on a sigh. "Pets, hmmm? Would it surprise you if I said I had a cat?"
"A what?" Gabrielle sat up and studied her partner, if the warrior was serious. There was a faint smile, and the warrior glanced aside. By the gods, she was serious. "What? An Egyptian short hair, a Persian, or... "
"A lynx. Big, gray striped lynx... Paws as big as my waist. I could put my head in her mouth and she'd just sit there. We'd go hunting..."
Gabrielle smiled. "A cat, huh?" She rubbed Xena's arms as she turned around and settled her back once again against the warrior's chest, stroking her wet hands up and down the warrior's arms. "I'd have figured you for a dog person. What was her name?" Gabrielle immediately had a flash of the active Xena miniaturized and running through the hills around Amphipolis with the big cat at her heels. The sleek power of the animal portended the coming power of the young girl loping alongside.
"Nah, dogs slobber too much." She shrugged and nuzzled the bard's nape. "Her name was Nike. Did you have any pets?"
"Yes." She sighed as her skin began to tingle, demanding other attentions from the warrior, who slid a hand over her torso, tempting nipples to attention and causing taut stomach muscles to ripple. "A mouse, two ducks and a rabbit."
"And a horse," reminded Xena, her voice low and soothing. "Can't forget Tympani."
Gabrielle's eyes opened and she met Xena's eyes. "And Tympani," she said, feeling the warrior's smile etching away at the pain of her childhood pony's passing. Some things you just never forget. A favored pet's passing, a first kiss... She leaned and soothed her lips over the warrior's... a first love, with a twinge she remembered Perdicas... and the terrified cries of a woman left behind when you jumped off a ledge. She reached up to wipe at her eyes when she felt tears swell.
Xena intercepted the hand and instead caressed her right palm over the bard's cheek, wiping away the wetness with gentle fingers. She bent her head to capture the bard's full warm, wet lips for another kiss. Gabrielle's hands slid over the warrior's chest feeling the increase in her lover's heartbeat, answered by her own racing pulse.
The two women abandoned conversation, connecting once again on a deeper level that needed no words. Cool water steamed away from warm bodies. Flexing her arms, Xena hoisted Gabrielle out of the rock spring and laid her down on a bed of thick lichen. "We have a lot of memories to make up for," she whispered into Gabrielle's left ear.
Holding herself over the bard, Xena watched the water sluice off the lithe compact body. She dipped her head and licked at the water pooling in the tiny belly button.
Gabrielle squirmed and groaned, caught between intense passion and an urge to giggle. The girlishness she thought she'd lost swamped her, making her breathless. "I love making memories with you," Gabrielle whispered, pulling up the warrior's shoulder, reveling in the silky feel of the warrior's muscles rippling under skin smoother than a baby's bottom.
She rubbed her hands over the curve of Xena's hips, up along the underside of firm breasts and tickling over erect nipples. Locking gazes with the brunette, she stroked tenderly over the smooth skin of the warrior's throat and face before gently massaging her fingers into Xena's hair.
Gabrielle's heart pounded furiously. Moved by Xena's heaving body and deep shuddering breaths as she tried to remain calm, the bard decided not to let the warrior slow down. She sat up and draped her body so their pelvises rocked together. With a light touch, Gabrielle ran her hands appreciatively over the warrior's stomach. "I've missed this," she murmured. "Touching you. Having you hold me." The warrior's big hands slid over her body, bringing warmth and love to her body in the cooling evening air.
The warrior pulled back to regroup, taking a deep breath. Giving in she closed her eyes, and absorbed feel of her bard's hands on her body. Her eyes glittered with moisture. She ran her fingers up the bard's sides and into the soft thickness of her hair. "Gods, Gabrielle." Locking her gaze with the younger woman's, she pulled the bard's head down against her cheek. Gabrielle accepted the warm tears, nuzzled Xena's cheeks and closed each of her crystal blue eyes with a gentle kiss. She slid her own hands down between their bodies and found the warrior's heated center with questing fingers.
Xena's hands never stilled. She was enthralled with just the act of touching Gabrielle's skin, following the strokes with her eyes as she caressed everywhere she could reach. "I've been waiting to hold you... it seemed like forever." Xena's voice broke as heightened sensation repeatedly pushed her hips from the earth.
Gabrielle smiled, riding the warrior's thrashing body and keeping her fingers against the pulsating nub. Xena cried out, reaching for something to stabilize herself. Nearest at hand was the bard, and with ferocity, the warrior grasped Gabrielle's shoulders and pulled their bodies flush together. The younger woman kissed Xena's throat, where her pulse fluttered out of control, soothing and savoring the warrior's loss of control.
Gradually Xena quieted, and Gabrielle rested her head against the slender shoulder. Without her armor and burnished by moonlight in the nude, Xena's tanned body glistened with sweat. "Xena, I'm so glad we're together," she whispered.
The warrior leisurely brushed her hand over where their bodies touched. "So'm I," she sighed.
Dusk settled over them, stripping away the heat of the day. The bard coaxed the tall muscular brunette back into the water and loved Xena under the moonlight. Sweet sounds of surrender fell to the ears of her loving bard. Sinking into sparkling green eyes Xena did the only thing she could when Gabrielle touched her... share the bone-deep pleasure. She slid her hands between their bodies. The roughened pads of her fingers heightened the sensuality of every brushing touch against the bard's hardened nub. Gabrielle's hips jumped. Xena's breath trapped against the bard's throat below her left ear. "Gabrielle."
The darkness kept the bard from using her eyes to sense the changes and tempo of Xena's passion, so her other senses filled in the picture. She took a deep breath, inhaling the musk odor of Xena's wetness and slid her body down over the warrior's stomach. The warrior's breathy moans filled her ears, and the slick sweat of the warrior dampened her everywhere their bodies touched.
Gabrielle's stomach, legs, knees and breasts all brushed softly skin to skin with Xena. She kissed muscles that jumped at her touch. The spring gurgled and the moonrise dappled the water's surface as well as their wet skin. Her light skin contrasted against Xena's cinnamon colored. She licked the inside of Xena's elbow and smiled when the warrior jumped. Tastes like cinnamon too,Gabrielle thought as she tasted the smooth skin again, I'd forgotten. She felt a lump form in her throat and pushed away the thoughts. They were together now, forever, and that was all that mattered.
She slid herself down further along Xena's muscular length, only to feel the warrior tug her shoulder. Lifting her head, Gabrielle smiled at the warrior's widened pupils. She brushed her fingers over Xena's luminous white teeth biting her lower lip. Wordlessly they positioned themselves for mutual pleasure. The bard leaned back to meet Xena's eyes and the smile the warrior offered melted her all over again, a flood of warmth pooling between her thighs.
The warrior's hands and mouth found the bard's center. Gabrielle could feel their pulses race in tandem when Xena's thumb pressed against her center. She rested her head against the warrior's inner thigh, inhaling deeply. She filled her lungs with Xena's musk scent. She heard and felt the warrior's flexing muscles as she maintained that tight hold on her control which let her hold herself aloof from passion's crashing edge long enough for Gabrielle to find hers first. Instead Gabrielle felt this night, their first back in each other's arms, deserved perfection. She closed her eyes and lightly applied her tongue to exploring Xena's center, making a wish they'd find fulfillment together.
Their passion ebbed and flowed with the swirling current of the spring. Muscles flexed, heaved and contracted. Xena's climax, head thrown back, throat open and a cry of pleasure ascending to the heavens, came as Gabrielle gave over helplessly to the wave herself, drowning in sensation. Xena clasped the bard tightly around a thigh, and then turned around to press their sweating bodies close.
Xena listened as the bard's breathing caressed the hollow between her breasts. She tenderly stroked the lithe woman's back as the bard drifted to sleep. Argo's neigh caught her attention and she shifted from their comfortable nestling to sit up, waking Gabrielle. "Argo's hungry."
Opening her eyes to the beautiful sight of smiling blue and the touch of soft kisses, Gabrielle heard at last from her stomach, which growled, making both women giggle. "Me too." She eyed the spring. "I wish a spring had fish. But," she sighed. "It doesn't." Standing, she bent over and retrieved her tunic and skirt. Strapping both into place and covering herself, she grinned at the sensuous pout on Xena's lips. Gabrielle added. "I'll find us some roots and things for soup."
Xena stood and Gabrielle watched her partner stretch luxuriously. Gabrielle's breath caught in her throat. The warrior's burnished body caught the moonlight and the effect resembled a copper statue the bard had seen once on a pedestal in Thebes. Sleek, powerful muscles rippled and bunched, bringing hot pulsing life to the still night. "Gods, you are beautiful," she breathed.
"What?" Xena dropped her arms and smoothed out the line of her shoulders. She pulled on her leather gambeson, adjusting the leather shoulder strap until it lay smoothly against the edge of her collarbone's join with her shoulder. The bard's eyes were still fixed on her when she finished. She looked down at herself and obviously did not see what the bard saw. "I'm just me. Big, bad warrior ... More leather than linen, and ... cleaner than usual, thanks to the bath." There was a wicked smile playing at the corner of her full lips when she looked back up at the bard.
Gabrielle smiled, then sighed. I wish you'd see how beautiful you are, Xena. The vision of the warrior, the last time they had talked before Gabrielle made her fateful decision, had been the only comfort for the bard who had been lost to the warrior for nearly a full moon... What was Xena to her? When they were together there were all sorts of sparks. When they were apart it was like she was half-dead, half her soul gone missing. A soulmate, Gabrielle decided with a smile. Xena was her soulmate. Reverently she pressed her palm to the middle of Xena's chest. Then she moved away to the edge of the clearing. "I'll be right back."
After tying her damp hair back in a leather thong, Xena filled the nosebag from their supplies and settled it over Argo's ears. She pulled a stiff brush through the mare's hide in brisk circles, lifting loose hairs, and bringing a healthy glow to the golden coat. Xena then pulled a comb through the mare's mane and tail. She was surprised to find herself humming a familiar, but old, child's song. She tried a few more bars, and tried to remember the words. She wondered if Gabrielle had ever heard it.
The spring suddenly gurgled with a large flow of bubbles. Argo's head shot up in surprise. Xena soothed the mare with a few strokes against her neck. "Shh, I'll go take a look."
The warrior strode over to the pool and tracked the small bubbles. She reached under the surface and closed her fist around ... a large fish? Looking at the squirming meal, Xena's brow furrowed. Freshwater springs don't have fish.
The bubbles stopped and the surface became placid once again. Looking past the fish for a moment, Xena noted her reflection shining back at her. She hadn't been in front of a reflecting glass in a long time, and the smooth faced, high cheek-boned smiling woman looking back surprised her. Her eyes reflected back as blue as the water itself. Setting the fish aside, she brushed her fingers over her brow.
Where was the vicious warlord? Was this the woman she might have been had battle not become part of her life? It was like having the Fates revisiting her alternatives on her. She glanced around half-expecting to see the slight trio clad in their deep robes. Seeing nothing she looked back at her image. Her eyes held a note of innocence, unspoiled even ... beautiful?
Feeling a impulse, not unlike being six and wanting to run after her father on his horse, Xena sat down at the edge of the water and kicked her feet in the cool depths feeling laughter bubble up and free. Suddenly she loved Gabrielle with an intensity that took her breath away. She looked over her shoulder. Gods, I wish Gabrielle was back.
The water gurgled as she pulled her toes from it.
"Taking another dip?" Gabrielle appeared at the edge of the clearing carrying a tied off cloth. Xena looked over and caught her breath at the soft light that seemed to both surround and emanate from the bard. Gabrielle ducked her head at the continued stare. "Found berry bushes and a hillock of wild carrots." She pulled something from her pocket and tossed it at Xena who caught it easily.
Reluctantly Xena took her eyes from the bard and studied the catch. "And apple trees, I see."
"Yep." Gabrielle settled at the side of the pool with Xena.
"Hmmm," Xena murmured and studied Gabrielle's face as she bit into perhaps the juiciest apple she'd had in quite a while. The tart sweetness filled her mouth and she grinned while chewing. It brought back another flash of a memory. At four, sitting on the ground in front of her family's inn, biting into an apple and wiping the juice from her chin. Nearby, the men practiced and the women pulled crops in from the field.
Gabrielle was entranced by the effusion of emotions across the usually stoic warrior's face. "You're smiling."
"Just remembering the last apple I had."
Gabrielle's brow knitted in confusion. "We get them pretty often at the village markets."
Xena smiled and hugged Gabrielle with her right arm. "No, this one's special." She kissed the blonde's hair. "It brought back my childhood."
Seeing the glow in Xena's face, Gabrielle touched the red fruit. "All that from an apple." She looked up at Xena. "Can I have a bite too?"
Xena put the apple into Gabrielle's hand and closed her own around the bard's lovingly. She guided the fruit to her lover's mouth and watched as the blonde's straight white teeth sank in. "I found a fish to round out our meal," she said, mentally tasting the apple again when the bard's mouth and throat move around the apple chunk. She found the whole experience heightening her senses, keying her for more. She ran her hand over the bard's bare leg suggestively.
Gabrielle watched Xena's eyes fill with luminous desire. "Um." She put the apple back in Xena's hand. "Fish?"
Xena nodded and showed the large perch. "Yep, bubbles in the spring drew my attention."
Gabrielle smiled, laying her hand over the warrior's larger one and leaned close. "Trust you to find fish in a fishless spring."
Breathing against the bard's bangs, Xena quirked an amused smile. "Do you want it for dinner or not?"
"Oh, I'll take it." Gabrielle inhaled the apple scent on the warrior's breath, kissing the corner of her mouth. Reluctantly, she pulled herself from the warrior's hands. Gabrielle cleaned, dressed, and wrapped the fish with spices. She chunked the carrots with a small knife and dropped them into a pan. Adding a little water from the spring, she set it over the fire. She buried the wrapped fish in the fire itself, and the two women sat back to monitor their meal.
Xena leaned back against a tree stump, long legs stretched out in front of her. Gabrielle settled herself in the crook of the warrior's left shoulder, legs out as well. "Nice night," Xena murmured, as Gabrielle rested against the swell of her breast.
Gabrielle heard a bird sound she hadn't heard before. "What was that?"
Xena sat up and listened as the call came again. Her body tensed. "Cormorant." Xena stood and pulled Gabrielle up with her.
"Cormorants are native to here, aren't they?"
"Nope. That's why someone would use it as a territorial alert." Seeing nothing on the paths into the clearing, she scanned the trees and noticed tan muscles and mask-covered faces. "Up, Gabrielle!" She put her hands over her head and added, "Amazons."
Flustered, Gabrielle too, put her hands over her head in the Amazon sign of peace. "When did we enter Amazon territory?"
"Probably earlier today."
"I didn't see any markers."
"Neither did I." Gabrielle looked in surprise at Xena, but then the two women could speak no further as the Amazons in question dropped on ropes all around them.
Masked women surrounded them brandishing all manner of weapons: clubs, staves, swords and short daggers. Unlike the feathered masks of Melosa's tribe this group of Amazons used leaves and ferns to distort their features and create the designs on their masks. The varied greens were no doubt better camouflage in the thick forests. Ephiny and the others had mostly plains and mountains with sparse foliage.
One of the Amazons grabbed for Argo's reins and the horse backed up and reared. A club shot out, aimed for the mare's forelegs thrashing in the air.
"No!" Xena flipped up and over the Amazons between her and the golden horse. Her fist shot out and she knocked away the wooden weapon before it could shatter the war-horse's legs. The Amazon swung at her head viciously. Xena backhanded the masked woman and growled. "No one... touches... my horse!" BRinging her hip around in a roundhouse kick, she dropped two more Amazons. Others stepped into their places. Xena planted her back leg and raised her fists.
"Stop!" Gabrielle moved toward two who launched themselves at Xena, short staffs in their hands. "We're no threat!"
The warrior stopped the swinging weapons just short of her head. With one staff in each hand she missed another when a third Amazon swung from behind and hit the warrior in the back. Xena dropped to her knees, releasing her hold on the Amazon weapons and catching herself on her spread hands, cringing from the blow to her kidneys.
Gabrielle pushed her way to Xena's side and knelt, watching protectively as Xena regained her breath. "Are you all right?"
"I... I'm ... fine." Xena waved Gabrielle off and braced her hands on her thighs. She kept her head down so the bard would not see that the Amazons had succeeded in raising her anger.
The nearest Amazon spoke. "You're trespassing."
Gabrielle looked up at the speaker. "We didn't see your markers. I'm sorry. We meant no harm. We didn't know there was a village out this way."
Another demanded, "Who are you?"
"I'm Gabrielle." The bard put a hand on Xena's shoulder, feeling the tension coiling in the sleek muscles, and hoping she could talk their way out of this. She hated losing the gentle woman to the warrior. "This is Xena."
"Gabrielle? Xena?" Another woman stepped forward, pulling her sister Amazon back a few steps. "We've heard of you."
"Then you know we wouldn't..." Gabrielle spoke as Xena came to her feet. With the warrior's hand held firmly, Gabrielle stood straighter.
"You're Queen Gabrielle of the Corinthian Amazons?"
Surprised, Gabrielle answered quickly. "Yes." Xena put a hand unseen on her lower back. "Since last autumn."
A broad-shouldered Amazon removed her mask as she stepped forward. "Melosa was a friend." A woman of middle years, lean features and a sharply angled nose, her face was framed by curling thick mahogany hair. "A good friend." Gabrielle realized in an instant that this was the queen. The bard curtsied and smiled warmly as the woman took her hands. Xena nodded her head briefly in acknowledgement of the woman's position. "I am Queen Felice."
"I'm sorry about the markers. We didn't know." Gabrielle tried to talk fast, seeing the still wary looks on several faces, including the queen.
"What brings you to Thrace? Corinth is a long journey."
Xena stepped forward tired of standing silently. "That would be our business."
It was the 'please' that started dissipating Xena's anger. Then she looked up at Felice, who regarded her with a distinct measure of anger. "We've heard of you Warrior Princess. Not all of it good. I could have you and your queen shot for your presence here."
Xena squared her shoulders. "You could." But you won't. Queen Felice and the Warrior Princess stood fiercely quiet for a long time, each eyeing the other. Xena realized as the other Amazons began to circle them, that she was inviting trouble. Gabrielle's hand on her arm reminded her this wasn't a time for battles. She relaxed her shoulders, and took a step back.
"Can you tell us how to get out of your way?" Gabrielle asked, desperate to find a way out of their predicament.
"You will come to the village." Felice wasn't asking.
"No. Thank you," Xena responded, touching Gabrielle's arm even as she saw the bard's eyes light up. "We've already set camp."
"The Corinthian queen sleeping on the ground?" Felice responded, gesturing around. "There are many wild animals."
"No more than we have seen in our travels."
Felice and Xena both fell silent, gazes warring, weighing and conveying the sense of determination inherent in both. Finally, the Thracian queen nodded. She looked directly at Gabrielle, but spoke to a point behind her somewhere. "Marta."
A slender Amazon, hair the color of a dusty trail, stepped forward, brushing past the bard with a feather-light step. She looked at her queen and dropped her chin in a reverential nod, grasping her mask in her hands. "Yes?"
Felice momentarily shifted her gaze. "Map the area." She spoke now to Gabrielle. "You may follow it in the morning out of the valley, or to our village." Resolutely she kept her eyes from the dark warrior standing at the bard's shoulder.
Marta pulled parchment from the sack slung on her shoulder. Gabrielle saw several other scrolls tucked in the bag and took a closer look at the only other bard she'd ever seen among Amazons. Marta's eyes were bright, intent on the paper as she sketched the pool, several nearby landmarks and then the entry to the village. She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear and then looked up again.
"Here," Marta paused, pointing to a series of dark blocky indicators on the map. "These are our sentry posts. If you get lost, they'll show you... if you give them the map." She held the parchments to Felice who quickly sketched something. Marta handed the map to Xena and Gabrielle. "Queen Felice's mark grants you the protection of the Thracian Amazons."
Gabrielle nodded. "Thank you." Gabrielle studied the chaotic series of loops and peaks. There was very little likelihood anyone could forge such a design, the bard decided. "Do you have many villages?"
Felice replied, "Over a dozen through the region."
"But how do you..." Gabrielle felt Xena's warm hand on her arm. "Well, I shouldn't keep you." She took a step back. "Thank you for the map."
"You're welcome." Felice pulled Marta back, put two fingers to her lips and issued a short whistle. More women dropped from the trees and the entire group, some 30 Amazons in all, strode away from the spring, surrounding their queen, who was just barely visible over all the other heads, near the center of the marching mass.
Closing her mouth, realizing she'd stared with astonishment as the Amazons left, Gabrielle scanned the trees overhead. How could so many Amazons conceal themselves in the branches? She sighed. Xena too had been watching the Amazons leave their spring-side campsite. Starting to sit down, Xena turned at the bard's sigh. "What?"
"I wish I wasn't so afraid of heights. Travel through the trees looks so much more... I don't know... secret."
Xena smiled and put her arm around the bard's shoulders, hugging her briefly. "I like you down here with me."
Gabrielle's face filled with a warm flush and the warrior kissed her tenderly. The bard's hands drifted up and circled Xena's neck. She murmured into the kiss.
"Hmmm?" Xena nibbled the bard's lips and pulled back.
"I said, how about another bath." She licked her lips in invitation.
Xena looked in the direction of the departed Amazons and noticed a lone Amazon perched in a tree close by their spring camp. She disliked the idea of putting on a show for the sentry, obviously posted to keep an eye on them. "Could we postpone that?"
The bard looked around. "We aren't going to have any visitors. The Amazons were it. They've left."
"Not all of them," the warrior replied, gesturing to the tree. Gabrielle looked up and blushed. "Let's get out of the line of sight. She might just leave."
Gabrielle's smile widened at the lift of the warrior's eyebrow. She laughed when she was scooped into a cradle hold, and a deft hand stripped away her skirt once again.
Sliding Gabrielle into the water, Xena stood alone on the bank for only a moment, to pull her body from the leather gambeson. She then strode into the water and regathered the bard tenderly in her arms. The warrior looked up and found that their sentry had shifted to keep an eye resolutely on the campsite, not on the spring. Soundlessly, she chuckled.
"I could get lost out here," Gabrielle murmured, laying her head back on the rocky side. Xena's teeth grazed her pulse point. The bard shivered in response. She looked up at the canopy of trees and thought about the Amazons again. "I really would love to see the world from up there someday."
"Up in the trees?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Birds... Mmmm... I don't know. It just seems like it'd be perfect."
Xena sat back, but left a lingering hand on the bard's body. "Do you trust me?"
Gabrielle sat up. "That's a silly question."
"I'd like to show you." She nodded toward the sentry. "She'd never expect it."
"Up there?" Gabrielle shivered; Xena's eyes were luminous in the moonlight. The spring gurgled around them. She smiled. "I trust you."
Xena's smiled broadened and then she stood in the center of the spring. "C'mere." Gabrielle pulled herself to Xena's side. The warrior's blue eyes scanned the canopy intently. Finally she looked down into the bard's upturned face. "Ready?"
"Now?" Gabrielle flushed and put her hands in Xena's.
"Yep." The warrior lifted the bard's hands around her neck. "Hold on." Reflexively the younger woman tightened her grip as Xena's body gathered beneath them. Gabrielle closed her eyes. In a single flex of her knees, Xena launched them to the limbs above. Her hands remained beneath Gabrielle's bottom until they were steady on the thick limb. Xena shifted carefully then stood still. "Open your eyes," whispered Xena in the deep voice of invitation that never failed to melt the bard's insides like hot wax. Firm hands slipped around her stomach, slowly turning her around until she rested back against the warrior's chest.
Flexing her hands on the warrior's wrists, the bard opened her eyes to tiny slits and noticed the trunk of a tree just out of reach of her hand. She looked out on a sea of green leaves, intermittently broken by the occasional spot of night sky, where stars twinkled and the moon's light glittered. "It's beautiful. It all looks close enough to touch," murmured Gabrielle. The cricket song and cicada chatter seemed closer too. It really was a world apart, except for their eavesdropper, whose presence kept Xena from completely relaxing.
Xena's voice was a silky caress against her ear. "If you wanted to touch it, I'd find a way."
Surprised by the open earnestness in the warrior's voice, Gabrielle looked over her shoulder up into the warrior's eyes. Silence spoke loudly between them, and she finally broke it with a sincere whisper: "I love you. Forever."
Xena squeezed the bard's stomach gently and buried her face in the fragrant tumble of blonde hair. "Thank you," she paused as her emotions grabbed her throat and forced her to a whisper, "for coming back into my life."
Before a lump in her own throat choked off her breath, Gabrielle found herself thoroughly kissed, as the warrior breathed passion into a single explosive point of light, which burst from behind Gabrielle's eyes. Desperation burned down to tenderness as lips sought to remove tears from each other's face. Arms squeezed, afraid to let go of the moment or each other.
It was a crazy idea, but Xena did it anyway. Xena controlled their position while helping her partner experience an exquisite lack of control. Gabrielle completely forgot where they were precariously perched. Her body absorbed Xena's touch and scent until the moon began its descent. When the bard's passion washed over her fingers, Xena's own dampened her center. Their mingling scent and those of the leaves around them drowned her senses. Cricket song filled the night, lifting her up lighter than air. The warrior hadn't felt such peace in ... a lifetime. She smiled and hugged the bard more tightly as she braced them and dozed.
The wind tickling her face awakened Gabrielle during the night. She laid still watching Xena sleep. She was glad the last few days had been mostly uneventful. There had been no exhausting attacks from road thieves, or stumbling across people with hero-sized troubles. Realistically, Gabrielle knew trouble was going to be hard to continue avoiding. The tension at the beginning of their meeting with the Thracian Amazons had been palpable. Thank the goddess Felice seemed very reasonable. Intruders on Amazon lands could be killed on sight not visited and welcomed to stay. "If we visit the Amazons here for a bit, maybe I can prolong the peacefulness."
"Hmm?" Xena opened her eyes and rubbed the bard's cheek dreamily. "What?"
"Could we take up Felice on her invitation?"
Xena chewed her lip thoughtfully. "You really want to?"
"I just thought we could prolong this little vacation we've found."
"Yeah." Gabrielle chuckled as she ticked points off on her fingers. "We've had no thieves, no threats, and no monsters. That's as good a vacation as any." She pointed to the ground. "Besides, I think this is the first area where we're both new."
"You mean a place where The Warrior Princess doesn't have a history."
Knowing where her partner's mind had drifted, Gabrielle sought to sway her from the depression she knew was coming. "Don't start thinking that. I like... no I love traveling with you. I love you. It might just sound like words, but where you go, I go. Whatever happens to you happens to me. That's all there is to it." Gabrielle leaned close and brushed her lips gently over the warrior's.
Xena, who had remained quiet through the bard's words, put her hand to her lips in a daze after the bard pulled away. There was a flash in her mind of another time, similar words. And a less than happy ending. She shook her head.
Gabrielle gently cupped her palm on the warrior's cheek. "I don't know if anyone else ever said something like that to you before. Maybe Marcus or Borias. But Xena I believe in us." She leaned back to gauge the reaction to her words and felt her balance shift.
Faster than the sensation of falling came, it was quelled when the warrior's quick hands snapped her back against the tree trunk. "Ready to get down?" Xena asked as the bard swallowed several times.
"Uh, yeah, I think so."
Brushing the bard's cheek with the back of her hands, Xena kissed her nose before answering, "As you wish." The warrior wrapped Gabrielle up hugging her to her chest. "Hang on." She reached around Gabrielle and put both hands on the tree limb. "You might want to close your eyes."
Glancing at the ground so far below and back up in disbelief at the smiling warrior. "You're not!" Seeing no denial, Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly and buried her face against the warrior's chest. A sick swinging sensation later, she felt the warrior's bare feet hit the ground and the impact rumbled up through their bodies. When Xena straightened and pulled Gabrielle's arms from her neck, the bard reluctantly lowered her feet and found the ground herself.
"Go where I go, hmm?" Xena tapped the bridge of Gabrielle's nose with a gentle fingertip.
"Show off." Gabrielle smiled and hugged the warrior in profound relief as she looked up at the tree limb where they'd spent the night. She glanced toward the tree where Xena had pointed out the Amazon the night before. "Did we lose our shadow?"
Xena, who was in the process of pulling on her leathers and settling the chakram on her hip whisked it at the tree. Both heard it bounce back, whizzing through the wind as it returned. No startled Amazon, and only a few birds, took flight from the old oak.
The bard shook her head in silent laughter. They turned together and caught sight of the orange light dappling the sky. Dawn was just beginning. Their small private clearing looked surreal in vivid shadows and sharp streams of light. Bard and warrior moved to the ember remains of their fire.
Within the hour the pair was leading Argo along the forest path. Gabrielle held Xena's hand as they walked side by side. In her other hand, she held the map Marta had drawn the previous evening. "Looks like if we take the next break in the path to the right we'll find their first sentry post."
"Probably the one that spotted us and alerted the village to our presence last night," remarked Xena, studying the map over the bard's shoulder. "Still want to do this?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Just a short visit. Consider it cementing diplomatic relations. I am an Amazon queen after all."
Xena smiled and rubbed the bard's shoulder. "Yes, you are." She paused for a moment. "Are you happy?"
The bard stepped back. "Why do you ask?"
"I know you like traveling with me. But what would you do if the Amazons needed you to stay with them?"
"Ephiny's doing fine. She's worlds better at it than I am anyway."
"She's always said she's only ruling until you return."
Gabrielle considered that. "She knows how I feel." She rubbed her hands over her arms. "Why bring it up now?"
"What I'd do if you accept your full responsibilities."
Gabrielle shook her head and said brightly, "You'd be right with me." A terrible thought struck the soft face, causing a frown. "Wouldn't you?"
Xena looked around their path and spotted a large rock broad enough to sit on. "Come here." She pulled Gabrielle down on her lap, leaving Argo standing quietly in the middle of the dirt path.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle." The warrior brushed the bard's hair back from her shoulders and swallowed before meeting her eyes. "But I don't think I could stay."
"Wouldn't you want to?" Gabrielle asked.
"I want anything you want for yourself, believe that."
"After all we've been through? Why?" Gabrielle swallowed and nodded. "Tell me you'd stay. I'll believe you."
Xena sighed, feeling terrible. The bard was right. After everything, why was Xena even suggesting separation? Unable to discuss with Gabrielle her fears, she tried to end the conversation which hurt the bard. She felt so clumsy. Why did I even say that? She wanted to kick herself. "Well, it won't come up, will it? So, we'll just forget about it."
Gabrielle bit her lip feeling the tears sting at the back of her eyes. "Tell me."
Xena knew the Amazons would take care of the bard. Her own presence would not be accepted, not after breaking Ephiny's arm, and stealing away their queen while in a murderous rage. Once a loose catapult, always a loose catapult. "I want you to be with you... as long as it's possible."
The bard nodded. "What do you see, Xena?"
"When I look at you? Everything."
The bard shivered, shook her head and clarified her question. "No, when you look at the future. What do you see?"
Xena shook her head. "I try not to go there very often."
Gabrielle bit her lip, holding back the disappointment with the barest threads of resolve. "But you can't stop thinking that you'll die before you get old." Xena remained silent unwilling to be as brave and say the words. But she nodded. Gabrielle put her arms around Xena's shoulders and hugged the warrior tightly. She ran her fingers through the older woman's long lustrous dark hair. "No matter what happens, Xena. To you, or to me, I'll do my best to see you to old and gray."
They'd both passed to the other side, and returned. But instinctively they both knew the gods' grace would cease eventually and the next trip across the Styx would be the final one. Xena's hands came up around the bard's waist. The two sat there for a long time, trying to adjust to their relationship, to take solace in its seeming strength. "We can make it through anything," Gabrielle whispered, her voice filled with conviction.
Not sure whether or not that was really true, Xena could only nod into the tumble of blonde hair. "Anything." Pulling herself together, she lifted her head, firmed her resolve and leaned back to look into Gabrielle's face. "Then let's get you to these Amazons, shall we?" Xena lifted the bard in her arms and stood, setting the younger woman carefully on her feet on the dirt path. "We'll ride in like the queen of the Corinthian Amazons deserves."
A short whistle summoned Argo. Xena gave Gabrielle a leg up on the mare's back and then vaulted into the saddle behind her. Xena's arms wrapped around her, Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out slowly along with the odd feelings from their conversation. Underneath them, Argo gathered herself and started an easy canter.
They covered the remainder of the distance to Felice's village within a candlemark. Xena watched the activity as scouts and outposts transmitted their arrival. Felice, accompanied by Marta and a small band of well-armed Amazons, strode out to the center of the village as Xena pulled Argo up and stopped.
Xena dismounted and studied the approaching Amazons. A few frowned; most were openly curious. The queen they'd met the day before lifted her chin and hooded her reaction behind a veil of regality. "Welcome, Queen Gabrielle. Xena." Felice looked over the two. "I see you made it through the night." Xena reached up, guiding Gabrielle's dismount with a gentle hand on the bard's back.
"Your forest is beautiful," replied Gabrielle. "I can see why you'd want to make sure it remained undisturbed."
Felice nodded and gestured. "Have you eaten?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Come to our communal hut to break your fast."
A young Amazon stepped forward as Xena's collected Argo's bridle. "I will stable your mount." The girl could not have been much over twelve summers old, with copper-colored skin and honey-streaked brown hair, gathered in a braid that fell halfway down her back. She put her hand out. Xena looked to Gabrielle and then Felice. The first frowned, then shrugged. The second tilted her head to one side and Xena had the distinct impression that if she made a scene their welcome would sour rapidly. "Thanks." She carefully tranferred the reins to the young woman's hand.
The girl nodded and walked Argo slowly away. Xena couldn't help watching the mare being led to the stables, and kept only half an ear on what Gabrielle said as she continued to exchange pleasantries with Felice. "Xena and I really appreciate the chance to spend some time with you and your Amazons, Queen Felice. We didn't expect to find anyone out here."
Felice's face shifted slightly and Xena recognized the gesture as a smile from an extremely reserved personality. "It can't be easy traveling all the time. I understand why some of us must do it." She looked over as Xena turned and met her intense stare by squaring her shoulders.
Sensing a tension between her partner and the Thracian queen, Gabrielle put a hand on the queen's arm and gestured. "Can we meet a few people? I'm starved," she said with a chuckle.
Felice jumped grabbing her dagger from its waist loop, surprising Gabrielle, who pulled her hand quickly away. Wow, thought Gabrielle. Just like Xena when we first met. The bard decided it would be prudent to keep her hands to herself until they knew each other a little better.
Xena walked behind Gabrielle as Felice led the way. She watched other Amazons converging on the hut and noted the nods, and acknowledgements given to the Thracian queen. Few people spoke to her, and only a couple women smiled.
Felice was highly respected. No one
spoke to her, but no one neglected to give her preference or sketch a bow
as they all moved toward the serving line. The woman's bearing suggested
a resignation to her post, tinged only slightly with pride. She never failed
to take the lead when an Amazon stepped aside offering it.
Collecting food onto their trays, Felice, Gabrielle and Xena moved quickly through the line and Felice indicated a table on a raised platform near the rear of the hut as she led the way.
Xena had trouble keeping her eyes from straying to the queen's face. The dark-haired woman was really unremarkable in build, but there was a quality... Xena couldn't quite put her finger on it, until she recognized herself in the queen's behavior. A woman reserved emotionally because leadership demanded it. It only happened when someone spent years isolating herself out of necessity. Not only because of a physical distinction being the biggest, strongest, but the distinctive emotional separation which accompanied the honor.
The observation created a kindred wave of emotion in the warrior and she stepped to the side holding Gabrielle's chair to get a better look at Felice's face as the queen sat down. Gabrielle sat and looked from the queen to Xena.
Queen Felice noticed Xena's movement and when she turned, her honey eyes met the warrior's. There was a silent pause, with both women's hands braced against the table, but none of the previous meeting's hostility. Then the queen broke the connection, turning back to face her sister Amazons. Without looking at the bard, she noticed the blonde reaching for her fork. "I have a few words to say then we can eat," she told Gabrielle.
Quickly the bard put down the fork, looked over to Xena, and then back to Felice as the woman stood, clearing her throat. In her right hand she held the mead goblet aloft, and in her left, the platter of fresh harvest vegetables brought to her by a serving Amazon. When the woman stood the sounds in the room died instantly. Xena smiled, thinking she'd seldom gotten her men to this level of silence in ten years of meals. Then again, she acknowledged to herself, she stood on less ceremony than most. Always had, and, she suspected, always would. She looked over to the bard.
The bard was in full memorization mode if Xena correctly interpreted her posture and the tilt of the blonde's head. It suddenly struck her exactly how important Gabrielle found her connection with the Amazons. Here, not even among her own adopted village, she was carefully taking cues from Felice, and devoting her attention to details. Her face was light with curiosity and she intertwined her fingers, obviously wishing for her quill. Earlier, Gabrielle had made the mistake of touching Felice. Gabrielle was a touching person in general and didn't think half the time of putting her hands or arms in contact with others as she tried to gauge their mood, gain attention, or simply, to draw their attention to a question.
But now she was calm, eyes wide and clearly focused on Felice's actions as well as what the older woman said.
Xena paused in her observation of Gabrielle to listen to Felice speak. The queen's voice was very full-throated, expressive. She exuded command and strength. "We offer praise to Artemis, our goddess, our protector, for the fields which daily feed us, and the hearts which daily love us. Blessed be the Huntress." An appropriate prayer for a meal, Xena supposed, as Felice sat down once again to a chorus of "Hear, hear!" The Amazons throughout the hut turned to their meal.
Gabrielle's face shifted into the musing smile Xena associated with her finding something more deeply pleasing than she expected. The action, which usually also pleased Xena, since she delighted in bringing unexpected joy to the bard's world, now brought a frown to the warrior's lips instead.
She hid the disturbing reaction by falling to the task of eating. She tried not imagining the day Gabrielle would choose the Amazons over her, but it would come. In her heart she felt it was inevitable. It was what had prompted her to start the conversation with Gabrielle on the road to this village. The Amazons offered stability. What did Xena offer? With her there was danger around every corner; a life on the move. What's not to love about one and hate about the other, huh? But she could not settle in one place. Her path, she knew, would never rest, until she could fully repent.
During the meal several Amazons came to the head table, to speak business with their queen, and to offer greetings to the visiting women. An Amazon in light armor stepped forward, saluting Felice. Her left shoulder was wrapped with a ceremonial cord and she wore a sword on one hip, a coil of hemp on the other.
"My queen, the outpost reports are in from the night watches."
"I'll see them in my hut after the meal." Felice looked up only momentarily from her meal. The brunette Amazon shifted on her feet, and remained with her hands clasped behind her back. "Hello," she offered as an afterthought to the two visitors.
"Hello," responded Gabrielle, now very interested why this one wasn't moving on. Felice had obviously dismissed her from her mind.
"Where are you two from?"
"Corinth." Xena looked up at the Amazon with straight jet-black hair and intelligent brown eyes and too, wondered why she was still standing there. A soldier knew when he or she had been dismissed.
"Are you staying?"
Felice's head shot up, having heard the inquisition-style tone in the Amazon's question. "Mika!"
Mika looked back to Felice and said plainly, "It's my job." Quickly she turned on her heel and left. Xena had a sneaking suspicion there was something left out of that quick exchange. When she looked down to Gabrielle, she realized the bard thought so too.
They turned back to their meal and listened as another Amazon came up and greeted them.
"You're from Corinth, Queen Gabrielle?" At the blonde bard's nod, the woman, a hazel-eyed blonde Amazon, went on. "My brother lives near the Amazon village there."
Gabrielle smiled. "Have you seen him?"
"Not in many seasons."
"Would you tell me his name? Perhaps I can take a message to him."
The woman shook her head. "I doubt he would want to hear from me." She paused as she considered her next words. "Would you simply tell me if you know whether or not Bolmia survived the war with the Persians?"
Xena shivered, remembering her battle with the Persians. So they had struck elsewhere before her stand with Gabrielle. The bard looked to her with question. She shrugged, uncertain how to answer.
Gabrielle decided. "I will find out for you if you like. To whom should I return a message?"
"I am Vera." She looked at the dark warrrior next to the bard. "Are you really her?" Xena shook her head, confused. "Xena, I mean."
"Yes, I am."
"A queen's consort?"
Xena frowned, her face growing dark as she felt judged. "A problem with that?"
Vera backed up. "Well, no. It's just weird, isn't it? I mean you led the most powerful army Greece has ever seen."
Gabrielle put a hand on Xena's as it fisted around her fork. Immediately the warrior released her grip. "Thanks for saying hi, Vera. I'll see if I can find out anything about your brother." Bowing her head quickly, Vera left. More Amazons stepped forward to offer more greetings.
Xena tried not to react when the fifth or sixth Amazon referring to her as the "Corinthian queen's consort". Especially as it was usually followed in hushed speculations as they walked away: "She's not Amazon, is she?" and "Isn't that odd?"
Gabrielle shifted in her seat. "I'm nearly finished," she leaned toward Xena and whispered. "Do you want to go?"
Xena looked quickly at Gabrielle's eyes and those deep green eyes told her in an instant that the bard had seen and heard everything. Quickly she shook her head. "Not right away."
"I'll ask Felice for a tour of the village, then we'll go."
"Stay. Learn what you need to." Xena replied in a desperately hushed tone.
Gabrielle took a moment to consider what Xena said, but the warrior still saw the instant the decision was made. She lifted her juice and drank when the bard turned to Felice on her other side and whispered, "Can you tell us how to get back onto the road for Corinth?"
"You do not wish to remain for the bonding?"
Gabrielle frowned. "I'm sorry, but..."
"You and your consort were bonded elsewhere then? That is unusual." Felice put down her fork and sipped her drink waiting for a reply.
Gabrielle was strangely tongue-tied. "Bonded elsewhere? Um, no. Xena and I --" Bonded? Could it be? What would Xena say? What would my parents say?
"You were bathing in the spring of Artemis when we came upon you. The goddess only reveals it to those she wishes to bless with union."
Xena put a hand on the bard's near shoulder, drawing the blonde's eyes, as well as Felice's gaze, to her. "The Artemis spring?"
Gabrielle turned back to Felice. "I'd heard that was a myth."
"Only a special few ever see it, and those who do are immediately joined."
Xena shook her head. "It was just a pool of water. Obviously one your hunters miss frequently."
Felice stood. "If you don't believe, that's fine. But I tell you, the goddess has shown you her blessing." She looked down at Gabrielle. "To turn away a blessing from Artemis could harm your own village's future." She wiped her hands on a small towel and tossed it to the tabletop. "You are a queen, a Chosen of the goddess. It is your duty." With that Felice turned and walked away.
A young Amazon with leather laced through her braid, wearing a dark blue chiton stepped forward, looking at Gabrielle. "The queen is leaving?"
"Queen Felice is mistaken, I'm certain," Gabrielle tried. "It wasn't the Artemis spring."
"She is never mistaken. She has ruled as queen her entire adult life. Longer than anyone in the entire history of our village."
Gabrielle grasped Xena's hand. "Maybe it would be best if we left?"
"Please do not," the young Amazon pleaded. "Queen Felice can ask you some questions. You will learn about the spring. What it can do. What it means."
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at Xena. The warrior faintly shrugged. "Well?" Xena said nothing. The bard turned back to the young Amazon waiting for a sign. "Please tell her I misspoke. We would like to talk more with her."
"What's your name?"
"Delen. I chose it when I was joined to the Nation."
"That's a lovely name." Pause. "You weren't born among the Amazons?" Gabrielle put a hand on the young woman's shoulder.
"No. I was liberated from my father's home when I was seven. My mother is Ansala, the healer."
Xena looked at the rest of the room, anywhere but the bard's face at that revelation. Gabrielle's shocked gaze tried to meet hers. The warrior looked past the bard and said to Delen, "Thank you for conveying the message to Queen Felice."
Unaware of the situation, Delen simply nodded and smiled. "Certainly." She offered a deep bow, backed up, turned around and left them alone.
Forestalling Gabrielle's questions, Xena pressed her hand into the bard's and said quickly, "Let's go for a walk. Work off some of this breakfast."
Gabrielle followed as Xena led the way. The bard was unresisting and walked as if she might stumble at any moment. Xena put her other hand under the bard's elbow to steady her, and held her close, appearing to everyone else to simply be hugging the young Corinthian Amazon queen. She guided them to the quiet of a space between two close huts. The privacy she'd sought was definitely needed, as Gabrielle burst out in a shocked whisper the instant they were alone, "Captured in a raid? How barbaric."
"Gabrielle, the Amazons don't deal with males that often. How did you think they continued their heritage?"
The bard paused. "But --"
"It's true a lot of Amazons are widowed wives from surrounding Greek villages, but where did you think the younger ones came from?"
Gabrielle sat down on a nearby rough-hewn bench. "Children."
"Very few Amazons are blood related to other Amazons, Gabrielle. Didn't you realize that?"
"But Terreis and Melosa."
"Were unusual. Ask Ephiny sometime how the two came to be in Corinth. They're actually from Boeotia."
Gabrielle nodded. "I really don't know a lot about these people I'm supposed to be leading, do I?"
Xena crouched next to the bard. "Not surprising. Amazon history's interesting though. I thought once of being an Amazon too."
The issue became personal for the bard with that revelation. She ventured a guess, "After leaving Hercules?"
"No, after leaving Amphipolis when they threw me out 12 years ago. Where else was a young woman with warrior skills going to be appreciated?"
The frank, blunt answer filled in all the gaps for Gabrielle. She looked around for something to sit on, found a log rolled near the wall of a hut and settled to it. "What happened?" She looked up at the warrior and hoped for a nice, neat answer, knowing inside she wasn't going to get one. "What changed your mind?"
Xena leaned against the nearby hut wall and crossed her arms, then uncrossed her arms, fidgeting as much with the question as with the bard's steady expectant gaze. "A man I had led in Amphipolis came to me and said he'd fight with me.
"I tasted command, power, acceptance, Gabrielle." The warrior's eyes took on a faraway look, as she remembered those times, at once invigoratingly adventurous and terrifyingly dangerous. "I had thought only the Amazons could give me that, but here was this man who wanted to fight by my side. So I turned to lead the army he helped me recruit. Within a year I was leading a force of 5000 across southern Greece." She nodded back toward the dining hut. "Look at what Vera said. My name was known everywhere in Greece and beyond. I thrived on it. Fed on it, buried myself in it. It was fulfilling to hold so much power and knowing that I could do anything." Gabrielle nodded. One night when their lovemaking took a particularly dominating turn and Gabrielle had asked to stop, Xena had tried to explain the lure; Gabrielle herself had seen how attractive and easy Xena found violence, control, and power. The warrior turned away from Gabrielle, and commented solemnly, "It doesn't excuse what I did. I'm just telling you how it happened."
Gabrielle stood and walked to the warrior, grasping her arm in comfort. "I know. The Amazons admire you, y'know."
"They wouldn't if they really knew what I had done, instead of the cleaned up rumors."
"That's what legends are all about." She swallowed and sweepingly gestured, encompassing the Amazon camp. "Seems I too was under the impression of a few legends too many." She leaned back against the hut wall and closed her arms around herself. "I should know the answers. But Xena, I don't. How can I be so judgmental?"
"But things change," reminded Xena. "You can change them."
Gabrielle pushed away from the hut wall and waved the warrior off. "I'm nothing."
Grabbing the bard's hand as it fluttered, the warrior pulled her to her quickly. "No." Xena's voice was rough, determined. "Listen to me." Gabrielle met Xena's eyes as the warrior shook her head. "You have the power to do anything you want. If you want to stop raids that get new Amazons, you'll find a way to make them stop."
Sitting on a bench, the bard hung her head. "You seem so certain of that."
"I am certain of it. More than anything in my entire life, Gabrielle, I've felt what the power of your heart can do." She knelt at Gabrielle's knee. "Look at what you did to me." She grasped the bard's hands tightly. "As much as you love me, know that I love you just as much in return." She stood and drew the bard into a reassuring hug. "I'll do anything to help you."
Gabrielle hugged the warrior tightly. "This is important to you."
"It's important to me that you never give up," Xena replied. She lifted the bard's chin. "The minute you give up, I'm lost." She lowered her lips to the bard's and sought to quiet her uncertainties with a gentle kiss, as a gift instead of need, filled more with love than with passion.
They stepped from the quiet into the hustle of the Thracian Amazons' village. Following breakfast the village's day was definitely underway. Xena and Gabrielle noted the children at laundry basins and women hanging the wet leather and linens. They walked side by side back toward the dining hut. Delen was stepping out, having gone inside to look for them. As the tall warrior and the short blonde queen approached she waved them to her. Gabrielle and Xena walked up shoulder to shoulder. Delen spoke before they could. "She's anxious to meet with you both. She says she'll explain when we get there."
"What's going on?"
"I'll let Queen Felice fill you in."
"Has something happened?"
"We've had a scout from the western forest report an army coming this way."
Xena's ears perked up. "Whose army?"
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged looks of surprise. Apparently the warrior's display at Tripolis hadn't been enough to keep the bloodletting army out of Greece for good. Xena grabbed Gabrielle's hand and requested brusquely, "Take us to Queen Felice."
Startled, but compliant, Delen nodded and moved to the front. She too hurried her step without appearing to do so. Only Gabrielle, with her shorter build had to put a quick spring in her step to keep up with her long-legged partner. Only Gabrielle realized Xena was distinctly worried.
Why had the Persians returned? The battle she and Xena had fought had seemed so final. Gabrielle, though ill from the poisoned arrow, had helped out as best she could. The warrior had been a magical thing, all fury and power and frightening. The Persians in that campaign had vanished, fleeing to their boats leaving no trace. The bard wondered the entire way to the queen's hut. Delen only nodded to the guards before pushing through the door and entering, Xena and Gabrielle were close on her heels.
Felice stood bracing her broad-shouldered body over a long table on which a large map was unrolled. Her hands were balled into fists and Xena noted a freshly splintered staff in the far corner. She studied Felice's face and knew the queen was just barely reining in her feelings. When Delen stood beside her, Felice reached out and took the woman's hand as she placed it on the map. Xena spoke first:
"When were they spotted?"
Felice looked up and Xena watched her pull her hand from Delen's. There was a time for solace and then there was a time for strength, Xena mused. Felice obviously was readying herself for strength. "The scout arrived just after you this morning."
"The western forest?" Gabrielle asked. "What's over that way?"
"There are a handful of Greek villages. She reported that some of the men were not Persian, but Greek."
"They're recruiting," Xena stated flatly. "For an attack."
"On us." Felice nodded. "I know of your skills, Warrior Princess. I would not ask assistance of guests, except..."
To ask would be humbling, Xena completed for the queen in silence. "Then don't. I'll do it anyway."
"I have my own troop commanders, but the Persians... we've never fought them."
Xena nodded. "Just take me there. I'll do what I can."
Gabrielle grasped Xena's arm, already feeling the growing tension, and battle-readiness the warrior let flow through her blood in advance of conflict. "I'm going with you."
Felice interjected. "Queen Gabrielle, I think it would be helpful if you worked with the healer."
Gabrielle looked from Xena to Felice, then back to Xena, who nodded. "I wish things were simpler," she said quietly. Then she let go of Xena's hand and turned to Felice. "Show me to your healer's hut."
"Go," Felice told Delen, who led
Xena out of the hut. The Thracian queen then turned to Gabrielle. Felice
led the way through the village. Around them, currently not on alarm, until
a plan was in place, the Amazons continued to go about their business.
Continued in Part 2
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