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
E-Mail LZClotho at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and Vicnbeck@aol.com. You were the greatest!
Across the Amazon village, immersed in the military training compound, Xena and the troop commander wrestled with the reports of size, strength and attack routes of the advancing Persian-Greek force. Xena and Mika poured over a map of the region suggesting counterattack paths and patterns to one another, shaking their heads and suggesting alternatives when the other pointed out a flaw.
Around them, the standing military force of the Amazons readied themselves. No one spoke as with gritted teeth they strapped on metal-studded leather armor and fitted their smaller weapons in leg strapped holders and boot pockets. The archers were already settling bows across their shoulders and inspecting bags of arrows. The infantry received short swords, kite shields and the heavier shoulder and chest armor, too heavy to wear in typical combat situations.
But Xena had insisted. "The Persians thrive on hand-to-hand. They are deadly, striking chest, neck and back. You must wear something stronger. Or they'll slaughter you like boars." She paused a moment and remembered something. "They also use poison on their arrows." She pulled an Amazon aside and quickly ordered, "Go to the healer's and tell her to ready the grise root... in a juice. It'll be the only thing to cure the poison." The young Amazon looked first to the troop commander standing next to Xena. The woman nodded tersely and the runner was off at a run.
Others, affronted by the insistent tone of an outsider, nevertheless saw the importance of her words when she pulled a troop commander into a hand-to-hand demonstration. Her weapon flew faster than any of them had ever witnessed. She pointed out every moment during her attacks when and what kind of damage a strike would have done, and the women knew uncertainty.
Xena quelled it quickly by telling everyone that Amazons were tactically better. Persians were very direct in their assaults, choosing the frontal in nearly all situations.
The warrior pointed on the map to a ridge northwest of the village. "We should stand here. They'll think the village lies north of where they thought."
Felice, who had come in briefly to check on things, suggested, "We'll be able to draw them away from the village itself." The other Amazons murmured and Felice nodded, accepting their murmurs in praise of her words, though she really was only stating the obvious, thought Xena. She couldn't fault the Amazons or their queen. Sometimes that's just the way it worked. Your idea or not, as leader, you accepted both the praise and criticism of any action taken by the group as a whole.
Xena concurred. "Yes, but we'll have to be moving through the trees to get the village at any time. Ground movement can be tracked."
Mika pointed out, "So can tree movement."
Xena countered, "Yes, but not readily. Mounted on horses, they look down for their fights, not up."
Pushing her weapons lower on her hips, Mika responded with a nod. She called another Amazon to her side and issued the orders for the tree line to be used exclusively. Felice and Mika conferred, the queen quickly departing.
Mika stood at the doorway as the Amazons all walked past. Her face was dour as she examined clasps, inspected sword edges, and adjusted armor plates for maximum coverage. Xena overheard Mika's comments to a handful of the youngest. "Keep your eyes in front of you," she commanded.
With things well in hand with the Amazons, Xena sat down, pulled out her sword and inspected the blade.
Mika settled near her, elbows braced on her spread knees. She gestured at the sword. "Fine weapon you have."
Absently the dark warrior replied, "It gets the job done."
The Amazon nodded. "We haven't been properly introduced. I'm Mika, nominal head of the standing Amazon army."
Xena looked at the offered hand and remembered the competent way Mika had helped her demonstrate the Persians' attacks. She remembered the woman also as the one who had stood and waited, then cut into the queen, albeit mildly in the dining hut. Bravery got extra marks in her book. Felice was not one easily crossed. "We met in the dining hut." Xena grasped the woman's forearm in a gesture of comradeship. "Nothing nominal about it. You're good."
"Sorry about that. I've been on edge lately." Mika was rotating her shoulders, working out the muscles that had resisted Xena's demonstrating attacks. "Though I'll take that as a compliment."
"As it was meant. How long have you been with the Nation?"
"I didn't take you for the inquisitive type." She shrugged. "About seven years. I came with Ansala and some of the others. She and Felice were best friends while growing up, but she married a village man instead of following Felice out. She joined though, we all did, after our village was razed to the ground."
"From the queen's home village," Xena nodded. "That gives you high rank."
"No, just undeserved reverence. I'm really a pretty terrible person." Mika chuckled and swept her sword in a tight arc. "Can't cook. Haven't found a bondmate yet, and can't stand to be around the elders when they're remembering 'the good old days'."
Xena smiled. "You don't take yourself very seriously, do you?"
"Why should I take myself seriously? My troops already do that. I'd be a fishwife if I took myself seriously off the field." She stood and paced. "Now, fighting I take seriously. I've led the army for nearly five years now. Battle is dangerous. That's the first thing I teach."
They shared a rueful smile, both remembering times when the lesson had been one they had to learn. "We'd better get the rest of the plan into place." Xena stood and sheathed her sword. "Lead the way."
Mika smiled. "Only because you don't know the terrain."
"If you say so."
"Xena of Corinth, I say so."
Xrena found herself liking Mika and didn't want the woman to get a puffed up impression of her. Succinctly, she clarified, "Amphipolis actually, just a small town in Corinth."
Mika smiled and amended, "Xena of Amphipolis, you'll be the best friend this village ever had if you can rout the Persians."
"I'll help rout them."
"If you say so."
The coy phrasing made both women smile. They were in complete understanding, two warriors about to make battle, who really preferred to be doing anything else, despite the fact remaining that this was their excelling dominion. Xena continued, feeling more at ease talking with this warrior. She decided to fulfill her curiosity regarding the queen's demeanor, exceptionally forceful one moment, but then she wasn't going out to the battlefield. "What can you tell me about Felice?"
"You are bothered that she doesn't fight." Mika nodded, seeming to accept this as truth without Xena's response. "Felice has been incredibly good for us," Mika defended. "She's doubled our crop yield. She implemented some new farming techniques. I don't know much about it but the fields yield nearly two times as many beans and the orchards hang heavy with fruit twice a year now instead of a measly harvest only once a year."
"So what if she doesn't fight? She sounds intelligent."
"Felice would rather negotiate about anything than fight. The Corinthian queen is much the same, right?"
"Melosa had done her share of fighting... and killing." Xena paused and smiled. "Gabrielle hasn't intentionally killed a living thing in her entire life. Even after everything." The warrior brooded about that a moment, remembering seeing Gabrielle's blood-covered hands when she told her about Meridian. But that had been a trick. Even Crassus, who Gabrielle had blamed herself for, but the Roman's death really hadn't been her choice to make. Mika's words interrupted her thought.
"Yet Gabrielle claimed the mask."
"The Amazons offered it."
"Who were they trying to keep it from?"
"How'd you know?" Xena shook her head. Mika really was incredibly insightful.
"I heard it in your voice. Gabrielle wouldn't have been offered the mask if someone else... someone most didn't like... hadn't also wanted it."
Xena nodded. "Velasca. She was Melosa's adopted daughter."
"Velasca wanted what?"
"To ride over everything in Corinth, claim it all back for the Amazons."
"A traditionalist. We have a few here. They give Felice a hard time."
"You know a lot about politics for a warrior."
"Eh." Mika shrugged. "Comes from being the closest to the queen, I guess."
"Felice has no bondmate?"
"She doesn't want one. Says it would complicate the ruling of the villages and we don't need that." The Amazon warrior sounded distinctly displeased.
Xena didn't comment on that. It seemed Mika was content working her way around things, and not letting much, other than her job, be her business, though she knew an awful lot about the general business of the tribe. "That's right. This is only the provincial seat. How many other villages does Felice oversee?"
"That's a massive territory."
Mika shrugged, eyes alight with fire. "She's a massively talented leader."
Xena was surprised to hear herself laugh.
Felice and Gabrielle worked side by side at the healer's hut, preparing cold compresses, hot cloths and preparing surgery trays for the arrow wounds and the sword gouges the Amazon army would bring soon. Gabrielle worked at the herbal stores, separating out the most likely needed medicines and antiseptics putting them on a tray next to the ten invalid beds in carefully measured containers.
An Amazon in full battle dress entered quietly and conversed with Felice.
Gabrielle was labeling a vial and sitting on the bed when Felice waved the messenger out and walked over to her. "How are you doing?"
"I'm all right. Nearly done here. What's next? Do we go lead the attack?"
"No." Felice tilted her head to the side. "We wait."
Gabrielle frowned, shook her head and asked. "Don't you fight?"
"I haven't since Mika took over as the head of the army. She's better suited."
"Have they left?"
"Just now. They should engage the Persians within a candlemark." Felice noticed Gabrielle's distraction and remarked, "Xena is very skilled. I wouldn't worry about her."
But you're not me, the bard thought, all she said was, "Yes, she is."
"My warriors will prevail, Queen Gabrielle, do not fear."
"Oh, I know. It's just... Well, I remember another time Xena helped out in a battle."
"She's very... intense, too."
"Mika was glad she'd volunteered."
"Head of our army."
"Oh, the one from the dining hut."
The Thracian queen nodded. "Sometimes she takes too much on herself." Shaking her head she continued her earlier thought. "She doesn't like to fight. But she's rather good at it," remarked Felice. "Most say she's the best to ever serve."
"Xena's like that too. She's an incredible fighter, but it breaks her heart every time just a little more."
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
"You carry a staff. I assume you know how to use it."
"I'm reasonably good at it, yes."
"You don't think so?"
"Well, I can't ... I don't really..." Her voice fell to a stumbling whisper. "I can't kill. Without that willingness, doesn't that make me less skilled?"
Felice shook her head. "I don't know what others would say, but, if you prefer the staff, you can become good enough that you don't have to kill to win."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thanks for that."
Felice looked over her shoulder and remarked as quietly as possible, in the lightest tone the bard had yet heard from the queen, "No problem."
The two women let the conversation die, but were content to simply sit together on the cot and go their separate ways with their thoughts. Gabrielle stood after a while and wandered to the doorway of the hut and leaned against the opening as she strained her ears for sounds of the battle. Come back safely, Xena, she thought, wishing her words could carry along the wind to her partner, lover and friend.
Nearly a candlemark's hard ride from the village, the defending Amazon army took up residence in the trees overlooking a ridge leading down to their valley homes. When the Persians appeared, Xena and the others hoped to spring down on them with surprise, drawing their attention and their attack in the wholly opposite direction from the village.
It would take timing, but skill too, and many of the Amazons were young, inexperienced in life... or death hand-to-hand combat. Nerves ran high; Xena smelled their anxiety on the wind, and heard their murmurs as they scanned the horizon. Come back safely.
Xena's head snapped up and she looked around. Shaking her head she realized her own anxiety to get this started and over with was beginning to make her hear things, always hoping it was the opening moment, so the closing moment would be upon them that much sooner. But there was no activity anywhere around her other than Mika's shallow breathing on a branch about shoulder level with the Warrior Princess. "Mika?" Xena whispered just loudly enough to carry upward to the Amazon commander.
"Yes?" Mika's response was equally hollow of any real sound.
"Nothing." Mika shifted and Xena watched the limb shake. "How much longer do you think?"
Xena's nose tickled, picking up a smell... a horse smell coming from directly ahead. "Hsst. They're here."
"Ready," came the mouthed reply as Xena met Mika's eyes. Each woman had a hungry smile on her face. Both were ready and more than willing to get this over with now.
Xena scanned the path below them and waited until the first soldiers had passed beneath. Her plan was to draw the army back onto itself and then away. By falling right into the middle along the edge of the path, they would have both the room to back into the woods and the room to fight.
She and Mika dropped from their branches at the same time as a full score of other Amazons. With howls and yells they attacked the mounted soldiers and beat them from the horses' backs. With a kick, any Amazon still mounted guided their horse into the woods, leaving the Persians, in very heavy armor staggering after them.
Amazons on the ground met the forced attack of the collapsing circle of still mounted Persian soldiers. Arrows rained down among all the combatants. Their heavier armor deflected bolts, and the lucky shot pierced under the arm or in the thigh, toppling Persian after Persian from his horse. Sharp slaps to their rumps forced the rider-less horses to flee, and soon the Amazons running along the ground were chasing the grounded Persians straight into the Amazons mounted on the stolen Persian war horses. The yells of pain, both male and female, filled the air, as the two armies came head to head in the forests of Thrace.
Covered in dirt and blood, Xena jumped onto a liberated Persian war-horse. She pinpointed the leader and sub-leaders immediately and using the stallion's bulk herded them toward Mika, who gave herself a workout driving her sword into belly after belly. The Amazons took no prisoners.
Delen was new to battle, but gamely held her own. Xena noticed the girl's predicament. A Persian slipped up behind her and raised his sword for a killing overhead blow. Xena pushed her mount toward the situation, but the war-horse would not penetrate all the way through the veil of slashing swords and hail of arrows. Delen fell to the blade, a sharp, penetrating wound as she turned around to face the soldier.
Xena leaped free of the horse and joined the fray, landing hard against the man's chest and driving him to the ground beneath her boots. He wasn't getting up any time soon. She drove her sword into the ground and gingerly moved Delen out of the path of running feet.
The girl safe for the moment, Xena turned to her next opponent, sword swinging, but hoping one would get close enough she could throttle him with her bare hands just because she felt like it. The thrill of battle seethed through her veins at a breakneck speed. She grinned at Mika, and drove her elbow into the throat of a Persian who thought she'd taken her attention off him. He fell to the ground gasping for breath, his windpipe crushed. She lifted her sword up and over her head, lowering it behind her back to block the thrust of another who came up behind her. She spun and drove her weapon into his stomach. Blood slid down the blade, coating her hands. Pushing him off her weapon with a foot, Xena spun around looking for another attack. She noted with satisfaction that the Amazons were slowly turning the tide in their favor.
Mika had removed herself from the center of a group of Persians, some of whom might actually be alive under the pile of fallen soldiers. The Warrior Princess yelled her battle cry and the Amazons replied with victorious bird whistles. They began to stand down.
With their army in tatters and their leaders dead, the Persians turned tail and ran. Amazons scouted their run, to assure that none veered toward the village itself. Within another candlemark, just as the sun moved into afternoon, the threat was past.
Xena swung back into the saddle and joined the chase for a few miles before turning around and assessing the remains of the Amazon army. She slid off the stallion's back and was quickly encircled by a crowd of happy, bird-calling Amazons when she went up to grasp Mika's forearm. Mika's other fist was raised and staring into Xena's eyes, a triumphant smile on her dirty face, she yelled, "Blessings on Artemis! The Amazon Nation prevails!"
Xena felt lightheaded as cheers erupted around her. Women fell to their knees, hands grasping sword hilts and bent their heads to offer up prayers. The cries of victory slowly quieted. All gradually turned and tended to their wounded sisters. Travois were lowered from the trees and unrolled; the injured moved onto the litters, to be carried back to the healers. She dropped to her knee next to Delen who was being moved gingerly onto a travois. The young Amazon grasped her hand weakly and the warrior was rewarded with a faint smile, before she lowered her gaze to assess the damage.
Xena realized Delen's gaping wound needed closing before she could safely be moved or she'd bleed to death just on the trip back to the village. Pulling a small spool of sinew from the pouch at her hip, and a sharp field needle, the warrior secured her whip around Delen's middle, the closure enough so that she could thread a few fast stitches through the long gash. It would have to be opened and drained when they got back to the village, but she'd survive the trip. Weakly, Delen grasped the Warrior Princess' hand again, squeezing it in silent thanks. Xena stood as Mika strode up and revealed that everyone else too had been stabilized and it was safe to move out.
The warrior looked over the sea of faces returning to the village. It didn't appear that anyone had taken fatal injuries. A handful of women were staggering from the effects of the Persians' poisoned arrows. There were some serious injuries to warrant lengthy recovery like Delen's. But a large part of the fighting force was simply banged up or scratched up from their fall out of the trees. Outriders on captured Persian horses guarded the victorious march back to the village. Mika and Xena both remained at Delen's travois.
Felice and Gabrielle were talking with Ansala when the front runners came bursting in the door. Whoops and hollers made it hard to hear all the words, but all three learned quickly of the victory as well as the injured on their way.
The healer's hut transformed into organized pandemonium in the next instant. Gabrielle stepped outside to see to the early assessments. Felice took the other side of the courtyard and did the same. Ansala located the most grievously wounded and directed their travois-bearers directly inside. She stopped by the side of the building and scrubbed herself clean, putting on a prayer robe.
Xena strode up with Delen and Mika. She and the Amazon commander held Delen easily between them and nodded when Ansala directed them inside. The healer said nothing, but having learned her relationship to Delen, Xena could see the tightening of the older woman's eyes, as she forced herself to business instead of personal concerns.
The bard noticed Xena's dishabille but bit her lip against asking about the blood streaked on her leathers and legs as well as the grimy blood on her throat. The warrior didn't appear uncomfortable, though that rarely was a good way to judge Xena's post-battle condition. The bard remembered a time when Xena said nothing after dispatching some thieves trying to rob a merchant they were beating. She'd had what only looked to be a scratch on her arm... but the scratch had been from her unsuccessful deflection of a thrust to her side.
The wound though shallow was from a rough weapon and not sharply cut. It festered and she'd had a fever two days later, suffering a headache and chills in the night. Gabrielle had been most aggravated to learn of the hidden wound, but Xena had healed from that quickly once the infection was drained and the wound sewn cleanly.
The warrior had been sheepish about it when confronted but said she didn't tend it because Gabrielle had been hovering. "I know how much you worry about these things," she told the bard while Gabrielle worked on bandaging the wound.
They hadn't been intimate then, but the worry was now more intense. Gabrielle found herself cleaning Amazon wounds and scrapes while wondering if Xena was going to tend to herself.
"Thank you," offered the woman Gabrielle was finishing with as she tested the flexibility of the arm on which the bard had just sewn closed a long dagger gash.
Gabrielle nodded, accepting the thanks and helped the woman up. The bard looked around the nearly empty courtyard. There was no one else near that Gabrielle needed to tend. She dropped her hands in a basin of clean hot water and scrubbed off the dirt and blood. Felice was finishing up the last of her collection of minor injuries. Both decided to step inside the healer's hut and offer what help they could.
Ansala bent over a young one, probably no more than fifteen summers old, with a seeping leg wound. Blood squeezed between her fingers as she pulled the edges of the opening together as smoothly as possible and quickly threaded through three sutures to hold it while she worked more carefully with close stitches to properly secure the wound. The girl was passed out, not feeling any of the tugging and pulling of the rapid procedure.
At the next bed Xena knelt working on Delen's stomach wound. The girl was still awake, watching and wincing occasionally. Mika noticed Felice and Gabrielle approaching and met them before they could get to the bed.
Felice grasped Mika's arm, then, when the warrior looked down at the contact, quickly let go. "Is Delen going to be all right?"
"Xena's taking care of it." To Gabrielle, Mika added, "She's really good at that."
Gabrielle smiled, looking past Mika's shoulder to where Xena worked. "She shrugs a lot and simply says, 'I have many skills'."
"Well, I'd like to have half her skills someday," replied Mika, turning and watching the warrior release the pressure point she'd utilized while cleansing and closing Delen's wound.
The young Amazon couldn't help it as the feeling flooded back. She yelped and tears flowed down her cheeks. Xena gingerly settled on the bed and clasped the girl gently in a hug before lowering her back down against the pillow. "Rest now. It'll pass."
Through her tears, Delen whimpered a breathy "Thank you" and took a deep breath, falling into a troubled sleep.
Xena stood and crossed the room to thr three. Ansala walked over to Delen's bedside and examined the Warrior Princess' work. Xena turned back to the trio. "She'll be all right. She ought to watch out for spicy foods for a while, but she'll be great in no time."
Felice nodded, accepting the report. All four women looked around as Ansala and her apprentices completed the treatment of the Amazon injured. "We thank you for the assistance, Xena. And you, Queen Gabrielle."
"Just Gabrielle, please. You're the queen here. I just stopped in to visit." Gabrielle reached out as Xena came close, and grasped the warrior's hand tightly, pulling it around her waist to rest on her hip.
"Gabrielle. We'd like you and Xena to stay for tonight. To share in our victory celebration. And bonding? You would honor us if we could share in it."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance, but the warrior spoke quickly, preventing a full discussion of the topic. "I'd rather scout and make sure the Persians are really gone." Xena pulled away from Gabrielle for a moment and gestured. "We wouldn't want the village attacked tomorrow simply because we didn't properly clear the woods."
Felice nodded. "Mika will take you with her on patrol. Others are already out." She offered the warrior a hand. "You will return to a celebration. I'm keeping Gabrielle with me."
Gabrielle laughed. "We'll plan something properly embarrassing, Warrior Princess." Xena tamped down the smile fighting its way to her lips and groaned instead. "Now, let me see to cleaning you up."
Felice and Mika excused themselves as Gabrielle pulled the reluctant brunette to a chair. "Gabrielle, you don't have to."
"I want to." The bard gently wiped Xena's face and shoulders and throat clean of dirt and blood. It all came away leaving her skin unmarred and clean. "I'm not going to have any surprises. Now, how much of the blood on you is yours?"
"I got scratched on my left arm and an arrow grazed my left leg," the warrior replied stifling a giggle as she tried to reply in as serious a tone as Gabrielle had asked her question. "I jumped too late."
Gabrielle stepped back. "Okay, let's have a look at the leg."
Obligingly, Xena leaned back and put her booted foot up on a nearby table, revealing a long slice from mid thigh to mid-shin on the underside of her leg. The bard applied a hot cloth and cleaned the gash of dirt and blood. Xena watched the bard's lowered head as she worked. "I was glad you stayed behind here," she offered.
"I'd have preferred to be fighting at your side."
"Well, it wasn't the easiest fight I've ever had."
"It never is." She wrapped it quickly in clean cloth and tied the ends tightly. "You seem to attract deadlier people every day."
"Well, this time they weren't after me. They were after these Amazons."
"I know." Gabrielle pulled herself up onto a nearby chair. "Queen Felice is really pleased with you, y'know."
"Did you talk about me again?" Xena put her leg down.
"No." Gabrielle settled on a nearby chair, shaking her head. The warrior raised an eyebrow. "Well, not much. I didn't tell her any stories if that's what you mean. We just kind of waited together." She looked at Felice standing at the doorway. Mika was standing with her and the two were talking quietly. "I think she's interested in Mika."
"I get the impression Mika's interested in her."
"But they don't -- "
"No, I don't think either of them thinks they're ready for that."
Gabrielle smiled innocently. "Close friend is good."
"Always is." Xena straightened and patted the thigh of her uninjured leg. "C'mere," she invited with a smile.
Gabrielle grinned and gently settled. "Sure it's all right? I'm not hurting you?"
"Not at all. I have been waiting to hug you since I got back."
The blunt words brought a flush to Gabrielle's cheeks. With a giggle she fell into Xena's embrace and buried her face in the warrior's neck. "I missed you too." Tenderly they kissed.
"I like these Amazons," Xena remarked. "You're not their queen so I don't feel like I'm on display all the time." She rubbed the bard's thigh.
"Are you interested in taking them up on their offer of a bonding ceremony?" Gabrielle brushed her forehead against Xena's.
The warrior frowned. "They're very nice to offer that, but..."
"But what?" Gabrielle sighed. "C'mon, they'd accept you. After everything you've done today. What's it matter what happened in the past?"
"It matters to me, Gabrielle. A ceremony is not going to instantly wash away all my evil. No matter how much you... or I... want it to."
Gabrielle frowned. "Xena."
"We'll think about it, but not right now."
Gabrielle frowned, but said nothing more, finally settling her face into a smile.
"Thank you, Gabrielle."
"I'd do anything for you, Xena."
"I know," replied the warrior seriously. "You came back from Hades once for me. Leapt off a chasm to save my life, and then came back because I asked you to. Trust me. I know you'd do anything. I just don't want you to have to."
Gabrielle sighed. "It seems easier though. I think about how many times you've saved my life. The balance should be equal sometime soon." She nuzzled the warrior's cheek. "Can we go somewhere?"
Xena laughed low, kissed the bard briefly and then shook her head. "I need to scout things. I'll be back soon though."
"Really?" The bard rubbed Xena's stomach with the back of her hand.
Xena turned serious. "The Persians might still be out there."
Nodding, Gabrielle stood and pulled the warrior up with her. Together they came out of the corner and walked up to Felice and Mika. "I'll see you when you get back."
The warrior brushed her hand over the bard's and turned to Mika. "Let's go."
Felice stepped back and allowed the two warriors to leave. When they were gone, she asked Gabrielle, "Are you staying for the celebration?"
"We'll stay for the victory party, but she's not interested in bonding."
Gabrielle shook her head. "She's uneasy about ceremonies that's all."
Felice nodded. "I can understand how she feels. But she loves you."
"I know. Anyway, we will be staying."
"Good," replied Felice with a laugh. She pulled a tired hand through her hair and added, "I think I'll get a report from Ansala later. Want me to show you to your hut?"
The bard smiled brightly. "Please."
In the guest hut, Gabrielle and Felice chatted comfortably for a few minutes, walking around and examining the interior decoration. The bard sat down after drying her face and realized, though she had quietly watched Gabrielle clean up at the wash basin from the day's events, Felice had not taken a moment to clean herself up.
Not wishing to affront the woman by pointing out she was still covered in blood spatters and dried sweat, not to mention she simply looked exhausted, Gabrielle only requested time alone to nap before festivities that night. She caught Felice's sigh, but did not remark on it. "I'll see you later," she said as she let Felice out.
"Tonight, would you like to mingle, or join me on the dais?" Felice turned back one last time.
Gabrielle realized at that moment that Felice liked her, or at least liked spending time with her. She shrugged. "I'd prefer not to step on any toes."
Felice smiled. "I'm the one who has to be formal. The others would probably love to meet you."
Gabrielle pursed her lips in a smile. "Why?"
Felice didn't pretend to misunderstand. Frankly, she said, "I'm expected to."
The bard could understand that, but not to the extent that Felice was obviously making herself miserable. "If you did the unexpected from time to time, would they oppose that?"
Felice paused, thought about it a moment, then shook her head and started walking away. "I'll send someone to bring you to the festivities at dusk."
Gabrielle grasped the door and nodded, remembered Felice wasn't looking at her and said quietly, "Thank you."
The answering voice was just as quiet and solemn. "You're welcome."
Gabrielle had the distinct impression she'd just met the most depressed person since Xena. "Maybe I ought to get her to talk to you," the bard mused aloud to her absent partner as she retreated into the solitude of the hut once more.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she removed her boots and rubbed her feet. She hadn't realized how long she'd been on her feet until they were no longer stuffed inside her sturdy walking boots. She'd walked leagues across Greece and back again, but standing in a ward caused a whole different level of exhaustion.
Feet free, she wiggled her toes and pulled off the clothes she used to bind her feet. The cool air surrounded them and she shivered. She dug into her small pack, where she had a single change of clothes and quickly slipped out of her top and skirt, replacing it with an oversized tunic hanging to her knees. She tucked her clothes into her bag and dropped it under the bed. Pulling back the blanket she rubbed a hand over the soft linen covering the goose down mattress. It was a big double bed nearly as long as it was wide. Smiling she climbed in and pulled the covers up to her chin. Within moments she was asleep.
Xena and Mika pulled up their mounts. The warrior had retrieved Argo and the Amazon had cheekily bet her mount could outrun the palomino. So they put it to the test in a race to the top vantagepoint in the valley. "Argo wins," remarked Xena casually. "So hand 'em over."
Mika shook her head in disbelief. "You have the fastest horse I have ever seen." She passed the warrior a small pouch. "There's your ten dinars."
"For being such a good sport about it, I'll give it back except one. I want something at the festival tonight."
"Doesn't the queen have some dinars?"
"I want the something for her," Xena laughed.
Mika shook her head again. "Why do I get the feeling that you don't laugh nearly this often?"
Xena frowned and stiffened, remaining silent, and then sighing, she relaxed her back. "Probably because I don't deserve to."
Mika rallied against the solemnity in Xena's voice. "Hades' left ball. A lot of us don't deserve the crap in life, but we do the best we can."
"Mika, you amaze me. Here you are, one of the best skilled Amazon warriors I've met in a long time, and you talk like you're a sapling instead of an old oak."
Mika shook her head. "The sapling's still inside. I let her out a little more often than most."
"Well, she's growing new shoots all the time." Xena added, "To continue the analogy of course."
Mika laughed and turned around her mare's head, while scanning their surroundings. "I haven't seen any stinking Persian hide. Do we call it clear and head back?"
Xena scanned the area herself and noticed that the Persians did indeed appear to have abandoned the entire area. There were no signs of campfires, and no signs, as she looked out toward the coast, of their ships with their huge masts lingering in a harbor. "Geez, a little resistance and they turn tail like jackrabbits."
"A little resistance? You really underestimate the imposing figure you cut on a horse - or dropping enemies in droves for that matter."
Xena blanked her face, fighting off a smile and answered blandly, "Like I said... cowards all."
Mika laughed again and the two women guided their mounts back down the hill toward the Thracian Amazon village.
Xena watched Mika leading the way. Amazing, she thought. Someone other than Gabrielle who thinks I'm worth something.
Not that having Gabrielle think she was worth something was a bad thing, or Mika for that matter, but there was an itch at the back of Xena's mind. Friends. She had forgotten what it was like to have unconditional friends.
First Gabrielle, and now, it seemed Mika was willing to join the short list. She flipped the dinar into the air and then caught it, trapping it against the back of her hand. Holding her breath, she lifted her hand cautiously, then smiled. "Heads," she mused. Well, guess this means I've got some good luck.
"Are you going to sit up on the dais with the queen?"
"Depends on Gabrielle." I hope not, added Xena privately.
"Well, I was thinking we could get Felice off the dais after the formalities if Marta would be willing to tell a story."
If someone were going to tell stories, Gabrielle would be hard pressed to restrain herself from joining in, Xena realized. "Does your storyteller like competition?"
"Why?" Mika turned in the saddle. "Don't tell me one of your many skills is telling stories?"
"Not me. Gabrielle."
Mika sat up straighter in the saddle, her face a picture of surprise. "The Corinthian Amazon queen is a bard?!"
"Something wrong with that?"
"No, but how does she have time to tell stories?"
"She travels more than she's at the village." A lot more, thought Xena pensively.
"Um, well, I'll get Marta to let her tell a story. The spectacle alone could drag Felice from the dais."
"She's really formal?"
"Goddess, yes. I try, but it seldom works."
Xena smiled. Mika sounded like Gabrielle when she got exasperated trying to get Xena to loosen up. Least she could do was try and help.
"I'll see what I can do. Gabrielle doesn't like to step on toes. She'll probably want to speak with Marta."
The two women arrived in the village and dismounted in tandem. "I'll send her over as soon as I see her. I have to report to Queen Felice first."
Xena nodded. "All right."
"See you at the festivities tonight."
Xena let herself into the hut after asking twice for directions to the guest hut. She pulled off her sheath and put it along with her chakram on a table. Sitting down in a straight-back chair, she pulled off her boots and then padded across the floor in her cloth-wrapped feet and bathed her face in the water basin.
"All clear?" The soft sleepy voice came from behind her.
"All clear." Xena turned around and admired the bard as she rolled over and pushed herself up onto her elbows.
"Did you have a good time with Mika?"
Xena sat down on the edge of the bed and unwound the cloths around her feet. She pulled off her armored shoulder guards and the wrist covers. She started to reach for her shoulder strap, when Gabrielle's hands interceded. "Won a few dinars when she bet me Argo couldn't outrun her mare up the hill." She gave up her undressing task to the bard with a sigh.
Gabrielle chuckled. "Did you give it back?" Xena nodded. "You really like her."
"Well, she's a really good fighter."
"Um hmmm," murmured Gabrielle, rubbing the warrior's shoulders to loosen them.
"She has a really easy way about her."
The bard murmured again as she shifted her attention to Xena's back and quickly helped her partner off with the leather gambeson. As the leather slid away and Xena sat in only her shift before the bard, Gabrielle was glad she'd already napped. The sight of the warrior's sleek form stirred her. She reached out and touched Xena's cheek, while meeting her eyes, before dropping the hand in a gentle caress from throat to shoulder to hip.
"This is a really comfortable bed," the bard replied instead.
"I can see that. You were out like a log when I came in," the warrior teased kissing the bard's nose. "Mind if I join you?"
"Thought you'd never ask." Gabrielle slid back on the bed and pulled the covers up so the warrior could slip underneath them. She pulled the covers up to the warrior's chest and then laid down, her left arm over Xena's stomach and the other holding her head up as she reclined on her elbow, looking down into the warrior's eyes. Gabrielle lowered herself slowly until her mouth was fractions of the distance above the warrior's, breath mingling. "What did you and Mika talk about while you were looking for Persians?"
"She is going to have Marta tell a story tonight."
Gabrielle pushed onto her hands. "Really?"
"Don't worry. She's going to ask Marta if you could tell one too." The warrior shrugged. "She seemed to think it would draw the queen off the dais for the night."
"She really doesn't like being up there all alone."
"I get the feeling Mika's tried before, no dice." Xena added, "So you and she talked?"
Gabrielle pulled her knees to her chest and rested her chin atop. "Well, not deeply, but I got the idea."
"So, how do you want to handle this?"
Gabrielle smiled and nibbled the warrior's bottom lip. "Carefully."
Xena smiled against the bard's skin and nipped at her throat. "Maybe we ought to get some sleep instead."
"Hades, no. I've already had my nap." Gabrielle sighed and rubbed her knee gently over Xena's mound. "And you, as you so often tell me, seldom need one."
Xena chuckled and pulled the bard atop her for a breathless kiss before rolling the blonde and herself over so she was on top. "Been an interesting day, hasn't it?"
"It'll be an even more interesting night," replied Gabrielle as she pulled her hands down over the warrior's torso and stroked into the soft, warm center, coaxing wetness to coat her hands and fingers.
Xena dropped her head and braced her shoulders, locking her elbows. Gods, she didn't want to fall on the younger woman, but the conversation mingled with Gabrielle's soft touch had driven her rapidly into passion's grip. She fought for control and managed to free one of her own hands to caress the bard's body until she too was writhing nearly out of control with need.
They moved until they were lying side by side. Mutually they fondled one another, kissing and nipping at sensitive spots. They rode together toward the peak, holding on as they plunged over the edge. Muffling screams against each other's shoulders they gradually relaxed and drifted in and out of sleep in each other's arms.
"I love you, Gabrielle."
"Love you, too, Xena."
Xena roused herself to the knock at the door. Looking at her partner, nestled into her shoulder sleeping, the warrior was loath to move. The knock came again, so she gingerly slid herself from beneath Gabrielle and pulled on her gambeson as she crossed the room to open the door.
Xena remembered the woman standing at the door as Marta, the one the queen had requested draw up the map when they first met the warrior and bard at the clearing. "Hello, Marta."
"You remember me?"
The warrior simply nodded. "What can I do for you?"
"I wanted to talk to Gabrielle. Mika said she'd like to tell a story at the festivities tonight."
Xena turned to the sleepy voice and stepped aside so Marta could see Gabrielle walking up hands rubbing her shoulders and biceps briskly. "Hi. I'm Marta."
"Xena mentioned you might stop by. Come in." Gabrielle backed up and Xena moved away from the door to allow Marta to step into the hut. Her bard led the Amazon bard to the table and Marta took a seat at Gabrielle's gesture. "It's apparently a plan to get the queen down among the others."
Marta nodded. "Normally I'm the only one who tells stories, but this is a unique opportunity."
Gabrielle pursed her lips and then smiled. "I do like telling stories, but I am not anxious to step in your province."
Marta shook her head. "I would be interested in hearing something I haven't before. Not many bards pass through willing to tell an Amazon stories."
Gabrielle stood, grabbed her bag, and fished in it for something. "I have several scrolls. We'll choose together." Xena smiled and brushed her hands over Gabrielle's shoulders as the young woman got going. "Oh, Xena..."
"Don't worry about it. I'll go see how Delen is doing. Then maybe I'll take a walk by the stable and see Argo."
"The festival begins at sundown," Marta interjected. "You wouldn't want to miss the start."
Xena nodded. "I'll remember that."
After briefly dropping by the healer's hut and finding Ansala sitting quietly at her daughter's bedside, dand assuring herself that the young Amazon would be fine, Xena found Argo and went riding, taking the mare back through the forest toward the spring where she and Gabrielle made camp the first night. She shook her head, remembering Queen Felice's disgruntlement when Xena didn't accept that the bard and warrior had only found the spring because Artemis wished it. Ridiculous. A spring is a spring. She slid off Argo's back and dropped soundlessly to the dirt as she pushed through the clearing.
The spring wasn't there.
Startled, Xena stepped back into the foliage and studied the ground. She was certain she had come the right way. She had memorized the map Marta gave Gabrielle and the spring was right here. Or it was supposed to be. She remounted Argo and led the mare carefully in ever-widening circles around the spot. There was no sign of their movement through the area, and ... no sign of the spring. Could it be true?Hade they really bathed in Artemis spring?
The warrior nudged Argo around for some time until she realized the shadows had lengthened and dusk was imminent. Time to get back for the Amazons' party. Taking one more pass through the area, relying on Argo's nose instead of her own knowledge, Argo instead took the warrior to a fast-flowing river that threaded its way across the valley floor.
Unable to remain longer, Xena climbed a tree, assessed her position and set Argo back on track for the Thracian Amazon village.
Without error, she trotted into the village a quarter-candlemark later and dismounted at the stable, returning the mare to the care of a young handler.
"Yes," Xena replied. "Have the others already gathered at the square?"
The young girl nodded. "I can't go yet. I'm not old enough."
Setting aside her thoughts about the spring, Xena found herself smiling at the girl. Gently, she assured her. "You just wait. You have what? Just one more year?"
The girl nodded, Xena walked away. Silently she contemplated the puzzle of the spring. She'd have to take Gabrielle out there after they left the village in the morning. Maybe the bard would see something she'd missed. She found the prospect highly doubtful, but nevertheless she would return there before they rode out of Thrace.
The question still ate at the warrior when she arrived in the village square. The sounds of revelry were muted, but several of the Amazon warriors were already walking among their sisters, receiving congratulations and praise for their skill. Kisses from lovers and hugs from friends filled the area with light, as much as the standing torches being ignited around the outside.
Xena spied Gabrielle walking with Marta along an opposite path. The blonde bard noticed Xena before her companion, and raised her arm in greeting. The warrior crossed quickly to her side.
Gabrielle grasped her hand. "Hi."
"Did you have a good time?"
Gabrielle smiled and turned to Marta. "Did we have a good time?"
Marta laughed. "How can two bards not have a good time?"
Xena hugged Gabrielle briefly. "So, what story have you decided to tell? The question is for you, too, Marta."
Marta and Gabrielle giggled and Xena's heart lurched with gratification that her bard had found a friend. Marta spoke first. "I'm telling today's battle of course."
"And I'm going to add the story of Dagnine and the Ixion Stone."
"And the lesson is?" Xena asked with a smirk, knowing her bard well enough to know there was a big message for all the audience between the two stories.
"You'll figure it out when you hear the stories."
Xena nodded. "Well, let's go." Marta let the two of them walk away. "So," Xena whispered, "How is this going to work tonight?"
"I'm going to go onto the dais with Felice. After the benediction, Marta will step up and tell the story of today's battle reenacting it."
Xena smiled. "And where does Felice coming down from the dais fit in?"
"When Mika reenacts the final part of the battle as the 'actor' for Marta's story."
"Mika's going to play it out?"
"Yeah, she thought it would be fun."
They walked on together in silence, further from the square so they were out of the way. "You haven't objected to my telling the story of Dagnine and the Ixion stone."
Xena shrugged. "I can't stop you. I've learned that by now."
"Will it hurt you to hear about Kaleipus, Borias and Solan?"
Xena paused in her long-legged strides and leaned against a tree, crossing her arms over her chest. She remained silent a long time, looking at her feet. Could I hear about them, love them all over again, and die inside a little more? Would Gabrielle expect me to suffer? Is it my lot to keep reliving this? Finally she closed her eyes briefly and then opened them. "Please just don't tell them Solan was my son, and how I messed up at the lakeside chat."
"But he was your son. You should be proud of that."
"I am proud of him, but I'm not proud of how I handled it."
Gabrielle put her hands on Xena's crossed forearms. She looked up into wide, trusting blue eyes, and knew what she would have to say. "All right. Solan will be Kaleipus' son. You rescued him simply because Dagnine held him against his will."
Xena's shoulders relaxed visibly and she uncrossed her arms. Gabrielle inserted herself between and the warrior pulled her close in a hug as she lowered her face into the blonde hair. "Thank you."
Gabrielle nodded and hugged Xena more tightly. She'd stopped feeling guilt over Solan's death finally understanding, despite all her gut emotions blaming herself or Xena, that it was all manipulated by Dahak. Hope would have killed Solan even if Gabrielle hadn't been her mother. It just had twisted the knife more easily in Xena's soul that that was the case.
"Time for a party," Mika came up on the two and watched in amusement as they abruptly parted. "Don't stop on my account. I'm glad someone's happy."
"We're working on that," Gabrielle replied with a conspiratorial smile.
Mika frowned, looked from Xena to Gabrielle and then back to the warrior and groaned. "Does she do this to you too?"
"All the time," Xena replied. "You should have seen her trying to fix me up with Rafe, a con man in Thebes."
"You tried to fix her up? But I thought --"
"We weren't then... not openly admitting it, anyway," Gabrielle clarified. "It's a long story."
"Well, it'll be a long night," suggested Mika.
"I have another story in mind tonight."
Xena smoothed her leathers into place
and looked from Mika to Gabrielle. "Well, let's go."
Xena walked with Gabrielle to the foot of the dais steps. Gently she placed her hands on the younger woman's shoulders in a display of support. The bard smiled up at her before stepping up to join Felice. The Thracian queen stood ramrod straight in the middle of an otherwise very empty platform. Her leather ceremonial armor gleamed in the torchlight. Metal clips and braided chain pulled all the protective pieces over her shoulders and breasts. Xena saw the queen's chin working beneath the boldly colored blue and green half-mask. Now she recognized it from the guest hut wall. So, they'd been put in the queen's ceremonial armory. Interesting. Felice really was convinced that the spring where she had found Gabrielle and Xena was the Artemis spring. The warrior found herself wondering again about the little glen. Could it be?
The Thracian queen turned to greet her Corinthian counterpart and Xena watched as the edge of the hardness around the brown eyes softened, even visibly through the mask. Gabrielle's smiles were infectious. Xena should know. But the smile that finally broke the austerity of Felice's face made the passably lovely leader stunningly attractive. Gabrielle clasped the queen's hands warmly and Xena stole a glance out to the gathering crowd. Spotting Mika, who held shocked eyes on her queen, Xena moved toward the Amazon military captain.
Mika's senses alerted her to Xena's arrival but her face still bore the surprise. "Xena?"
Nodding toward the dais, the warrior replied, "Looks like it might work."
Mika's face finally shifted, taking on a quiet glow. "Gabrielle is amazing."
"I remind myself of that every day since I got her back."
"Did she leave you for someone else?"
Xena shook her head, eyes on her bard as she and Felice stepped forward to open the festivities. "No. She... died." Saving me, the warrior thought, falling silent as Felice spoke.
Mika said nothing.
"Our home is still free. Thanks to the heroic efforts of our army and the fortunate arrival of new friends, Queen Gabrielle of the Corinthian Amazons, and her champion, Xena of Amphipolis." The crowd erupted into cheers.
The warrior spared Mika a glance. The Amazon smiled and shrugged, returning her attention to Felice, who had paused when the cheering threatened to drown her out.
"As befits our life and faith, we dedicate this night to Artemis, our divine protector. For her wisdom which claimed us. For her blessings which help us survive. And for her love which sustains our hearts."
Cups raised to the sky and cheers, blessings and oaths to Artemis filled the air. The noise crescendoed around Xena, lifting her chin in unaccustomed pride. Her eyes met Gabrielle's across the distance. A sparkling smile and mouthed words "I love you" came back across the distance eliminating it for a breathless moment.
"Thanks be to Artemis," Xena whispered, awestruck by the feelings in her chest. Then startled at herself, she frowned and queried where the sentiment had arisen. Shaking her head, she found Mika at her shoulder.
"You all right?"
"Fine." She kept her eyes on Gabrielle.
"Thinking pleasant things?"
Now the warrior turned to the Amazon. "Definitely." She pulled a mug from a passing tray.
Felice interjected with her final duty: introducing the entertainment. "Marta has put our victory to song and story. Listen and be proud, my sisters."
Marta stepped from her hut on the square and to the center of her storyteller's circle of logs, benches and chairs.
Felice, Gabrielle and everyone else turned to watch. Mika left Xena's side and positioned herself near Marta.
"Sisters," Marta began. "Dawn saw us at peace. Thus too does the dusk. However we had quite a day." Chuckles and laughter accompanied good-natured backslapping erupting around the square.
Xena listened and watched as the day unfolded again, this time at the words of a talented bard and the motions of a surprisingly talented Mika. She felt a warm hand slide over her bicep and looked to see Gabrielle lean against her shoulder, eyes on the reenactment. Pulling her arm free, she wrapped it behind Gabrielle's back, resting her hand on the slender hip. With a tug and a nudge, she settled the blonde head against her chest. Lazily she ran a hand over Gabrielle's hair lost in contentment, surrounded by excitable Amazons and a sleepy love.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Felice step off the dais and draw near to the performance. She rubbed Gabrielle's cheek and gestured. The bard lifted her head and they both watched as Mika reenacted Delen's fall to the sword and Xena's rescue and defense of the fallen girl.
Only Xena, Gabrielle and Mika saw Felice nervously tightening her fist. And only they saw the raised hand when "Delen" fell. Felice clearly was having trouble seeing the battle moment involving her niece and reenacted by a woman she was not really indifferent to. All three women watched as Mika continued performing to Marta's narrative.
Rising now as "Xena", Mika executed a gloriously impressive leap, sword swinging and body arching skyward. She landed against the ground and drove her sword deep into the earth to cheers and whistles. Xena silently applauded Mika's skill. But now she saw how exaggeration was the purview of the storyteller. She hadn't leapt like that at any time during the battle, had she? Someone brushed Xena's free arm and the warrior turned to hear, "Thank you" from a heavy set Amazon. Inclining her head, Xena mutely accepted the words. Gabrielle's hand sleepily rubbed in a circle on her stomach, communicating that she too had heard.
Marta's story concluded and she pulled Mika to her feet for a bow. When the applause quieted, she let the Amazon military commander go before turning back to the crowd. Mika went directly to Felice and bowed her head at the thanks from the queen. She stepped up and Xena's sharp ears caught the whisper. "Have fun, Felice," Mika said quickly before walking past the queen and melting into the crowd.
Gabrielle stepped out into the storyteller's circle when Marta called her forward. "We have a rare treat tonight," Marta said. "Queen Gabrielle is also a bard." Cheering made her pause and add dramatically, "Now, now. I don't want to think you don't like my stories, do I?" Laughter filled the square. "Gabrielle has a story she'd like to tell. Of another village. Another defense."
Gabrielle turned around and with great imagery, set the stage for her tale of Centaurs and evil, of a long-dead war, but newborn enemies. She told of Kaleipus' wisdom and of Dagnine's twisted hate. So much hate that he would kidnap a boy in his quest for the Ixion Stone.
Xena listened as Gabrielle engaged the audience in her meeting with Kaleipus, and their plans and actions for fighting Dagnine. She bit her lip at the telling of Solan's kidnapping, seeing through Gabrielle's eyes the boy being wrested away. She felt Mika at her right shoulder as Gabrielle told of Xena's rescuing Solan, of changing the boy's hate through her actions. The bard detailed the Ixion Centaur's attack and defeat. She ended her tale at the celebration.
"This Xena never was my enemy," Kaleipus said, grasping the warrior's forearm.
The Amazon village erupted in applause, praise for the story and the storyteller exploding throughout.
Marta put both hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and the blonde bowed quickly. "Too bad you can't stay longer," Marta whispered. "Because I could tell you altered that one. And I'd love to hear the real story someday."
Gabrielle looked back at Marta in surprise, but shook her head quickly.
Mika leaned and asked Xena, "What'd she leave out? It sounds like she usually tells it differently."
Xena shook her head, moved beyond words by Gabrielle's consideration. She turned to Mika though and changed the subject. "Where's Felice?"
Knowing she'd get nothing, Mika nodded and left just as Gabrielle moved through a throng of congratulations and stepped close. She clasped her hands together tightly before her and asked, "Did you like it?"
"Thank you," Xena replied. She and Gabrielle hugged, smiling, happiness tempered with memories. The bard kissed the warrior's cheek.
"Now, let's eat!" yelled someone nearby.
"Just what I was thinking," Gabrielle whispered to Xena as they separated.
"I would've never guessed," Xena replied wryly.
Gabrielle laughed, turned and noticed Felice and Mika in close conversation in the corner. "Looks like it worked," she confided. Arms intertwined, she and Xena moved through the crowd in search of food. Somewhere nearby an Amazon picked up a rhythm on a large drum. All around, women swept onto the dance floor in sync with the thunderous beat.
The revelry lasted well past moonrise. Xena and Gabrielle tasted much of the varieties of food available. The warrior left her bard only a few moments with Marta, chattering happily about storytelling technique, each woman gesticulating broadly with her hands.
Finally Xena noticed the blonde bard could not keep her eyes open for the greetings she received. Xena clasped her under the arms and after asking an Amazon to convey thanks to Felice, whom they could not find, she guided Gabrielle down the path to their assigned hut.
Just as she reached the edge of the square the warrior saw Mika half in shadow near a hut wall. The warriors' glances met and Xena could see that indeed things had worked out. Felice sat on a bench holding Mika's hand. The Warrior Princess smiled, nodded and turned away, taking her own love to bed.
Entering the hut, Xena gingerly laid Gabrielle on the bed before lighting a candle. Gently she undressed the bard and whispered soothingly when she stirred. Tucking the blonde beneath the covers, Xena stood back and quickly undressed herself. Barely moving the bed, she slid under the covers also. Gabrielle turned to her warmth and Xena fell asleep cradling the smaller body against her own.
Daybreak found Xena awake studying the hut's decor, in particular a mask on the far wall, while still holding Gabrielle close in slumber. The mask, similar in material, but vastly different in design from the other Thracian Amazon masks, was painted with blue and green stripes among the leaf designs. The warrior found the paint, so much brighter than the usual, and mix of colors attractive and intriguing.
"What'cha looking at?"
Xena quickly forgot about the mask as she looked down into half-open verdant eyes. "Good morning, sleepyhead."
The bard rubbed her hand over the soft breast by her cheek. "Comfy bed." Pushing up on her hands she kissed Xena soundly on the lips. "So, how'd it go with Mika and Felice?"
Xena smiled. "I think we'll be sent off without fanfare," she said coyly.
"So, it worked." Gabrielle's face lit up brilliantly.
The warrior nodded. "Want to get some breakfast and see?"
Gabrielle sat up, stretched, with a little help from Xena's tickling hands, and then slipped from the covers. "So we're heading out today?"
Xena nodded, climbing out lithely from under the covers. "It's best." She pulled on her gambeson.
Gabrielle frowned getting off the bed from the other side. "I know." The bard stepped into her skirt.
"Are you going to ask if we can come back?" The warrior strapped on her weapons belt and bent over tightening the laces on her boots.
Gabrielle finished wrapping her feet and slid them each into a rough red leather boot. "Can we?"
"We'll want to keep an eye on the Persian activity." Xena pulled on the armor pieces over her leathers.
"Is that a yes?" The bard put her top on and fisted her hands on her hips.
Xena smiled and said with false exasperation, "Yes."
The bard and warrior did find Felice at the dining hut, but the queen was seated down among her sisters instead of at the head table. NO one stayed long at the table to chat with Felice but the mood was considerably lighter. She sat with Mika, drinking from a large mug likely filled with goat milk.
Gabrielle accepted the hug in greeting from both Mika and the nod of welcome from a smiling Felice; Xena grasped Mika's forearm strongly. "You take care of yourselves," Felice said. "We look forward to seeing you again. Soon."
The blonde bard smiled and settled to the table, accepting an offer of a well-stocked fruit plate by a passing Amazon. Xena settled next to her bard and the two ate while Felice and Mika retold last night's events.
The two women were at ease with one another, since while they talked, each would glance occasionally at the other with a warm smile. Gabrielle's own smile broadened each time she caught the look. Xena's eyes rolled, but she was glad to see that Gabrielle's machinations had paid off for the pair, whom the warrior was happy to discover she liked and respected.
They said their farewells at the stables, where the group went so Xena could retrieve Argo. Mika pulled Gabrielle aside, leaving the queen and the warrior standing next to one another as Xena saddled her golden mare.
"You've been a most invigorating addition to our village, Xena of Amphipolis," Felice said quietly.
"I'm glad I could help out."
"That's not what I meant."
Xena turned and smiled briefly. "I know."
"Do you think you will pass through again?"
"I'd like to keep an eye on the Persians. All of Greece needs that defense."
"You're like me." Felice nodded. "You always think about others?"
Xena turned and regarded the queen. "I didn't used to, but Gabrielle taught me a lot about things... that I'd forgotten."
Felice nodded. "Mika has tried to balance my approach too."
"Then you're well suited."
Felice smiled at that. "Yes, I suppose we are." She backed up and turned to Gabrielle. "Safe journey to you both. May Artemis guard your steps, your hunt and your heart." The warrior looked askance at her. "I still think you were bathing in the Artemis spring when we first found you, Xena of Amphipolis. Artemis does not play lightly like most of the gods."
The warrior considered the queen's words in silence as Felice withdrew only to turn to find Gabrielle at her elbow. "Good journey, Queen Gabrielle."
Gabrielle started to bow, shook herself and instead gleefully pulled Felice into a fierce hug. "I'll have Ephiny send a visiting party when next I see her."
"It may be time for the many Amazon villages to band together." Felice added, "Our separate destinies, it seems, have become one. Survival."
Xena pulled herself into the saddle and with a quick hand, pulled Gabrielle up behind her. Felice and Mika stepped back and watched the pair ride out of the village.
When they had been traveling a candlemark, Xena turned Argo's head toward the spring's last location. "Where're we going?" Gabrielle asked.
"I thought you might like to take another look at the Artemis spring."
"Xena, do you believe what Felice and Mika said? That only Artemis-blessed Amazons are permitted to find the spring?"
Xena shook her head, not revealing that she had been unsuccessful in her one lone attempt to locate the spring. "I don't know. It's a nice story, though."
Gabrielle pulled herself more tightly against the warrior's back, giving her a squeezing hug. "It is. So, are we looking for it again?"
"I don't think we'll have to look."
"What will we do? Just wish to find it?"
Xena studied their surroundings and dismounted. "Perhaps. It was a good bath spot." She helped Gabrielle down.
"And it had great fish."
Gabrielle and Xena smiled, looked around, closed their eyes and stepped through the wall of foliage before them. On the other side, holding hands, they opened their eyes and saw... the sparkling waters of a natural spring.
They looked up and spotted a doe slaking its thirst at the water's far edge. It paused, looked up and then winked before dropping its head once again to the water surface. Gabrielle and Xena laughed, stripped and jumped in the pool.
"You think Mika and Felice will find it next?" Gabrielle asked, coming up for air near her partner.
"There's a good bet," Xena replied, pushing her wet hair back from her face and splashing the bard.
"I thought you weren't a betting woman," Gabrielle mock scolded as she splashed back, then dove at the warrior.
Xena caught the bard against her chest and pulled her up for a passionate kiss. "I'm not." Gabrielle giggled. The two women pulled themselves from the water and dropped a blanket on the ground from Argo's saddlebag. The warrior pulled Gabrielle down onto the blanket with her and proceeded to dry the bard's body with restless hands, sluicing water from the soft skin. "Apparently Artemis approves of our match."
"I could have told you that," murmured Gabrielle as Xena licked and brushed her breasts and teased her nipples to hardness with gentle grazing teeth.
"Really?" Xena watched the bard struggle to continue the conversation, and fail as Xena's hands stole her breath and her senses. "Why is that?"
"I'm a bit of an oracle, remember."
Xena chuckled and kissed the bard. "Oh, yeah. Then tell me what I'm going to do next." Her hands teased at the cleft of Gabrielle's center, coaxing the bard's sensitive clit out for her touch.
Gabrielle sighed, closed her eyes and felt Xena's hands pull away, even as the warrior lavished attention on her face and throat. She grabbed the hands and put them back where they belonged. "You're going to make love to me until I could pass out."
Kissing Gabrielle and lavishing attention on the bard's face and throat could have contented Xena for days. It had been such a long time since she could just sleep with Gabrielle night after night. Her hunger for the bard had grown during their time apart, and it seemed the more they made love now, the more Xena wanted never to stop. But the bard's gruff, desire-laden voice drew her to fulfill every word of Gabrielle's command. With hands and mouth she loved her bard, nuzzling sensitive places, and lavishing her tongue on secret places until Gabrielle arched her hips and demanded between pants that she wanted to come. "Come to me, my bard," Xena whispered the same words which, though unspoken in a desperate silent prayer, had called Gabrielle back to her from the Amazon land of the dead. The warrior would never give a moment's thought to letting her go... ever again.
Thanks be to Artemis, Xena thought, feeling Gabrielle's passion wash over them both. Amazingly, Xena found she also was nearly exhausted even as Gabrielle drifted to sleep in her arms. Looking around she spotted a stag near their spring, standing off looking around. Guarding them. The warrior flushed, looked skyward and heard a whisper on the wind:
"You're welcome, Xena. Keep her safe."
Not really sure why she did it, reflexively Xena nodded, pulled Gabrielle impossibly closer, until she could not tell where the muscular light-skinned younger woman stopped and she, dark, tall, brooding... happy old warrior began.
So, the bard wasn't asleep after all? "Yes?"
"Do you want to become bondmates?"
Xena shifted the bard in her arms until their eyes were on a level. "Are you asking?"
"It was phrased as a question." Gabrielle sighed. When the warrior remained silent, the bard fidgeted. "I know you don't think you're able to commit to a future, Xena."
The warrior didn't answer that question when she finally spoke. Instead she mused, "Today I had the strangest feeling."
"How so?" Gabrielle thought the shift in conversation was a bit odd, but she went with it.
"I thanked Artemis both out in the field, and at the party tonight."
"Are you saying you found religion, Xena?" Gabrielle reclined over the warrior's body and rubbed her own brow. "I thought you felt the gods were mostly a waste."
"I never really thought about Artemis one way or the other, but Ares is always such a nuisance, and Zeus... well, even Herc doesn't think much of him. Hera doesn't bear much thinking about. Aphrodite, Hades, Apollo... they're all so caught up in their own petty..." Xena's voice trailed off as she tried to put her jumbled thoughts into words. Finally, she just shrugged. "Well, you are talking about a bonding ceremony. That's religious."
"I heard a 'but' in there somewhere." She poked Xena in the chest.
Xena conceded her trepidation. "But I'm not sure yet. Can I think about it?"
Gabrielle pushed over Xena's body, bracing her hands on either side of the warrior's head. "Keep me up on your progress?"
Xena smiled and accepted a kiss. "Do you want to head over to Corinth now?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Probably." She shifted and rolled into the crook of Xena's shoulder. "I ought to look into Vera's brother's situation. And tell Ephiny to send a party here."
"We could make it in about half a moon if nothing comes up."
Gabrielle sighed. "Knowing us, something'll come up." She tapped her fingers. " I won't hold my breath. I'll figure sometime next moon."
Xena chuckled and rolled the bard beneath her. "Think we can wait to start out until morning?" She nibbled on the edge of Gabrielle's ear.
The bard didn't answer but then again she didn't have to. Her hand eased over the warrior's breast, teasing the nipple, answered enough. The two chuckled and sank into a playful kiss.
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