Bright Ribbons of Gold
by Nene Adams ©2000 - All rights reserved 

This is a work of fiction. While I have blended elements from various nomadic tribes in the Ukrainian and Siberian regions (such as the Chukchi), as well as Russian fairy tales, I have also used much from my own imagination. This should not be regarded as correct, factual reference material. Please note also that the tribe depicted in this fictional work is not based upon the Siberian Amazons as set forth in episodes of XWP, but is entirely my own creation, therefore any errors are mine alone.

Gabrielle disliked horses. 

They were unpredictable and unstable, had violent fits, tended to poison themselves by eating bad plants, or bloat up and die from drinking too much water. Horses were sneaky and sly; they bided their time, waiting for the opportunity to bite you, kick you, slobber in your hair, toss you off their backs or scrape your knees off on a tree. 

Which is why Gabrielle had purchased a calm, trustworthy mule from the fabled Sabine hills stock instead of a horse when Xena failed to show up at their agreed meeting in Amphipolis. 

The warrior was more than a moon late. In answer to a message for help, Xena had gone alone to distant Tseromazha, riding away from Greece and Thrace, across broken-spined mountains and vast forests to the grassy steppe plains. Nomadic horse warriors dwelled in these lands, tending their herds of sheep and goats and squat, muscular ponies. The nomads were fierce and proud, quick to cry insult, incredibly skilled with their double bows - constantly squabbling, conducting bloody raids against rival tribes, keeping almost incestuously close to their families. 

The Tseromazhans themselves were descended from a group of Greek Amazons who had broken away from the Nation long ago; this much Gabrielle had been able to learn, but no more. Even the memory-keepers - those women who held the wealth of Amazon history and tradition within their heads - were remarkably uninformed on this subject. 

From what Gabrielle had been able to coax out of her taciturn warrior, Xena owed a debt to the Queen of these strange Amazons. It was her duty to answer the summons. No amount of arguing could persuade her otherwise; when the warrior's mind was made up, it was as hard and unyielding as the Tarpeian Rock. There was a matter that needed to be laid to rest, reparation for an act from Xena's warlord days, and beyond that, the bard was left guessing. 

The circumstances reminded Gabrielle of the time when Xena had abandoned her to travel to Chin. That memory made her flinch. 

But this time it's different, the bard thought, shading her eyes with a hand and peering out over the endless field of waving grass, bright ribbons of gold and green and copper rippling in the wind, glinting in the sun. Ares hasn't tried to play on my insecurities, for one, and I'm not so foolishly naive anymore. For another, Xena swore she'd come back to me. Something's happened. Something bad, I know it. Gods, please help me find her!

For several moons, Gabrielle had waited - sometimes patiently, sometimes not - for Xena's return. When the warrior didn't show up on time, Gabrielle assumed she'd receive a message explaining the delay. In an ever increasing agony of doubt, hope warring with worry, she stayed in Amphipolis as she had been bidden. Finally, her nerve broke and the bard could wait no longer. Gathering up supplies and getting rudimentary directions, she had gone in search of Xena. 

After a grueling trek that had taken her longer than she'd anticipated, she was close to her goal. According to the merchant traders whose tiny towns dotted the area outside the steppes, Gabrielle had been within the Tseromazhan border for nearly three days. But she still hadn't caught sight or sign of habitation - no herds, no patrols, nothing. 

It's this grass, she thought, absently giving the mule a kick with her heel when he balked; he gave her a rolling-eyed glance of long suffering over his shoulder. You could hide all seven of Caesar's legions in this stuff and you wouldn't know they were here until you fell over them and broke your neck.

She tightened her grip on the reins and urged her mount forward, ignoring the sting as strands of whip-like grass lashed her bare legs. Gabrielle had the feeling that she was being watched and it made her nervous. In fact, this whole treeless, flat land made her nervous. It was so alien from her native Greece; no mountains, no forests, no ocean. Just an infinitely blue sky that stretched like a bow from horizon to horizon without pause; a sea of tough, spiny grass occasionally dotted with jewel-like flowers; and the constant, never-ending sigh of the wind. 

The mule, a common sense animal whom she had named Rufus, mumbled the bit and plodded on at the bard's urging, completely indifferent about his rider's insecurities. 

Gabrielle took a sip from her waterbag, wrinkling her nose in distaste. The water in the goatskin sack was tepid and slightly bitter; she hoped she'd be able to find a fresh spring before nightfall. 

Suddenly, the grass parted with a whisper and a rider on a spotted pony appeared, not more than a few feet in front of her. Gabrielle choked in surprise, and began coughing as her mouthful of water went down the wrong way. She frantically waved a hand at the rider, and was relieved when he - or she, it was impossible to tell through watering eyes - seemed content to wait patiently until she recovered. 

At last, the bard took a deep breath and tried to steady herself. "My name is Gabrielle," she said, raising both hands overhead to show she was unarmed - a gesture used by Greek Amazons, and she prayed this stranger understood its meaning. "I'm looking for the Tseromazhan people. Do you know them?" 

The rider - it was a woman, Gabrielle realized - gave a noncommittal shrug. She was dressed in a long-sleeved tunic and trousers of padded gray felt, embroidered on sleeves and legs with stylized animal figures, and on her feet were curl-toed felt boots in brilliant vermilion. Her face was broad and flat, not unfriendly but not exactly welcoming, either. A peaked cap hid her hair. Her eyes were a startling amber, set over high cheekbones; the faint lines around her mouth were from smiling, but at this moment the rider was utterly serious. 

A bowcase was fastened to the left side of her belt, and on the other side a knife scabbard. A quiver of lances was tied within easy reach to her saddle. She looked ready and able to take on any challenge, including one strange woman from Greece. 

The look she gave Gabrielle was not one of incomprehension but assessment, as if in one glance, she could read the bard's intentions, weapon's skills and the possible threat she posed. 

Gabrielle closed her eyes, asked Artemis for guidance, and tried again. "Gab-ri-elle," she pronounced slowly and carefully, pointing to her chest with one finger. "Your name?" She thrust the same finger in the woman's direction. 

The rider snorted, echoed by her short, muscular pony. "I speak Greek," she replied. Her accent was thick and guttural, but Gabrielle was able to understand. "What are you doing here? Are you lost from a caravan?" 

"No." Profound relief made tears spring into Gabrielle's eyes. "I'm looking for someone - my friend, who went to Tseromazha. Have you seen or heard anything about her? Her name is Xena." 

Without warning, the woman's pony shied violently and she spent a few moments getting it back under control. When the spotted horse was calm again, she said, "No. No strangers in Tseromazha, except for traders during the Summer Fair." Her flat face was expressionless, but her fingers picked nervously at the reins. 

The bard's eyes narrowed. This woman was hiding something - she knew it. If I wasn't sure before, I am now. Xena's with her tribe and she's trying to cover it up. Something must have happened... but what? Is she a prisoner? I've got to figure this out!

"What's your name?" Gabrielle asked, after a barely perceptible pause. 

"Vivka." The rider eyed the strange woman called Ga'brelle, who showed no trace of fear. It was astonishing, really. The fierce reputation of the steppe nomads kept all but the greediest merchants from their lands. 

"Are you from Tseromazha?" The bard asked. 


"And your Queen's name is Chebkya, right?" 

"Yes. Chebkya is our Tserina." 

"Well, Vivka..." Gabrielle guided her mule to within a handspan of the other woman's mount. The pony sniffed Rufus' nose and sneezed, making the mule lay his long ears back. "Do you know about the Greek Amazons?" 

"Yes. We trade with their sisters in the northeast, sometimes. Once we were one tribe, or so the shamans tell us, but I'm a warrior, not a scholar. We're not at war with them, anyway." Vivka took a long look at Gabrielle again, this time noting the details. The woman had long hair of a peculiar color, a reddish gold that reminded her of flameberries in the summertime. Her eyes were as green as grazing grass, and she wore a short leather skirt and tightly woven top that afforded little protection against the sun and wind. 

The Greek woman didn't appear the least bit frightening or threatening. Quite the contrary, in fact. How had she protected herself against raiders, bandits and slave traders if she'd really come all the way from Greece? Vivka shuddered in superstitious dread for a moment. This Ga'brelle must have strong magic. I wonder if she's put me under a spell? She leaned over her pony's shoulder and spat, making the sign against the evil eye. 

The bard ignored the spittle and the gesture. "What would you say if I told you that I was Queen of the Greek Amazons by right of caste? And I've come here on a diplomatic mission to visit your Tserina Chebkya?" Gabrielle sat up straight and proud, doing her damnedest to appear regal and royal and self-confident. "While I cannot command your service, Vivka, I would be pleased and honored if you would consent to escort me to your tribe." 

Vivka pondered uneasily a few moments, then nodded. This encounter was turning into a problematic issue, and she decided it was better to be safe than sorry. Should I tell fire-hair about her friend? No. That would have disastrous consequences. Let the Tserina and the babas deal with her. On the other hand, I don't want to offend one who may be a black witch. The tribe is in enough trouble as it is. And then there is the prophesy to consider. I don't believe in it, but do I dare go against what may be the goddess' will? O, Tabiti, Triple-Faced Lady of Wind, Stars and Flame, lay Your hand over me now.

"I will take you to my people," Vivka said, unconsciously clutching a bone amulet that hung on a thong around her neck, "but even if you are as you say, the Greeks do not rule us, and we owe them no fealty. It will be the Tserina who judges you true or false, and pronounces your fate."

"I understand and accept your offer." Gabrielle swallowed hard but schooled her expression into one which, she hoped, reflected friendliness, royal arrogance, and the assurance of queens. 

"Are you sure? You risk death, O Queen. We do not accept strangers lightly, no matter their caste rights in other places. In the lands of the Tseromazha, only those with the holy blood of our tribe are inviolate." 

"I said I understood, Vivka. Now... take me to my royal sister without delay. I've been traveling for a long time to get here, and I don't want to wait any longer than I have to." 

Vivka sighed. She had done her best to persuade the Greek woman, hoping Ga'brelle would take the hint and disappear. No such luck. "Follow me," she said shortly, turning her pony around and leading the way through the long, rippling grass. 

Gabrielle kicked Rufus into a walk and kept her gaze locked on the short pony's twitching tail. 

Whatever the consequences, she had to find Xena and make sure she was all right. 

I will never leave you. That was the promise, and even death couldn't make her forsake or forget those precious words from the one she loved. 

Vivka rode into the Tseromazhan camp, exchanging glances with the two sentries on duty. They raised their lances in salute and fell in behind the stranger on her long-eared mule. Children in colorful dresses stopped their play to gape at the flame-haired Greek. Women stared, pointed, then gathered in clusters, chattering at high speed. 

"What in the goddess' name have you dragged in?" one of the sentries muttered out of the corner of her mouth. "Is she a witch? Or is this the one from the prophesy?" 

"I don't know. She claims to be a Queen from beyond the sea of grass and dragonback mountains, one of the Greeks." Vivka rubbed her bone amulet thoughtfully. "I thought it best to let the babas decide. The prophesy could be wrong, you know." 

The sentry snorted. "And maybe I was born from an egg." She shifted her grip on her lance. "Dip me in dung, if I thought she might be the one we've been waiting for..." 

"Shut your wide mouth! The hag's spies may be anywhere, you know that. " Vivka looked around nervously and said, "Her name is Ga'brelle. She seeks the one called Xena." 

"Holy Mother's tits!" The other sentry exclaimed, then lowered her voice. "You didn't tell her, did you?" 

"Am I a wide mouth like your friend? Do you think I want to get people killed? So shut up and go back to duty, before you're tempted to break the oath." Vivka turned in the saddle and called to Gabrielle in Greek, "I take you to the ger of Queen Chebkya. After I present you, you're on your own." 

"Thank you." Gabrielle glanced around the camp site. The ger that Vivka spoke of must be the strange, round tents she saw scattered in haphazard fashion around the clearing. The outside walls and roofs of the gers were wrapped in close layers of cream-colored felt, and the door openings covered with whole sheepskins. On a stake outside each tent was a horse's skull with deer antlers screwed into the cranium, the whole thing entwined in bright ribbons that fluttered in the breeze. 

Everywhere she looked, Gabrielle saw something marvelous and exotic - but not so very different, really, than the Nation communities, when you think about it. A pair of women shook a skin bag on a wood frame between them, making butter. Wooden racks held thin, tongue-shaped slices of meat, drying over fires watched by the elderly. Teenage girls ground grain in rough stone querns, and more on horseback practiced picking tent pegs out of the ground with their lances. In a nearby field, young warriors trained with bow, spear and sword. 

On their way to the royal tent, she also noticed a blacksmith pounding out arrowheads on her anvil; several weavers, busy at their looms; some gray-haired grandmothers telling stories to a pack of wide-eyed children - everywhere Vivka led her, she saw a productive tribe that didn't seem at all as war-like as the merchants had warned her. 

As they moved on, people stared at her, talking and pointing, and she was a little surprised to notice men among the watchers. Greek Amazons allowed no males at all in their encampments. 

Then again, they aren't the Amazons you know, she thought. You'd better get those pre-conceptions out of your head, girl. Just drink everything in casually and try not to gape like a dung-footed farmer on his first trip to Rome. Anything you learn could be valuable.

Vivka stopped outside a ger that was twice the size of the others, and motioned for Gabrielle to dismount. A pair of children came up, and silently took Vivka's horse and the bard's mule away. For grooming and stabling, I hope, and not for tonight's dinner.

Outside Tserina Chebkya's tent, two heavily carved poles were set up at right angles on either side of the door. Stylized eagle, deer, boar and wolf faces gazed serenely into the distance; strings of feathers, beads, tufts of fur, talons and teeth rattled from the pole tops. Instead of a sheepskin, there was a proper door made of cypress, studded with gold nails. Gabrielle realized that this wood must have been imported, because the trees of the plains were stunted, twisted specimens blighted by the never ending wind. 

Vivka opened the door and pressed a fist against her forehead in a gesture of respect. "Honored Tserina, I bring you a stranger called Ga'brelle, who is Queen of the distant Amazons of Greece. Will you accept the responsibility for her presence in the gers of Tseromazha?" 

"I will," came an answering growl from the dark interior of the tent. 

Vivka gently pushed Gabrielle inside and shut the door. 

Whatever happens, it is no longer my concern, Vivka thought. Instead of relief, however, she felt a grim foreboding rising up from her belly, like the strong, grievous wind that promises a killing blizzard. What if she really is the one we have been waiting for? Well, if that is so, then Windrider will protect her. But I don't believe in the prophecy, anyway.

Shaking her head, Vivka went to her own ger to meditate and ask Triple-Faced Tabiti for guidance. 

It took a few moments for Gabrielle's eyes to adjust to the murky interior of the tent. Light came from the sullen glow of embers in a clay pot near the center of the room, and a few smoky lamps hanging from the ger's support poles. When she could finally see clearly, she noted that the floor was covered in fantastically woven carpets; tasseled pillows were piled up in heaps, and short-legged tables were pushed against the walls. 

The smell of spices, sweet and sharp, tickled her nostrils; she could also detect dried herbs and leather, smoke and wet wool, but underlying it all was the coppery stench of old blood. 

Gabrielle stiffened. 

Directly in front of her was a dais made of stacked rugs; seated on this dais, in an ornate, gold covered chair, loomed the imposing figure of Tserina Chebkya. 

Chebkya's face was hidden behind an elaborately painted wolf-skull mask, the bottom of her strong jaw framed by yellowing fangs. Her hair was concealed beneath a hood of eagle feathers and a flowing horse's mane. The Tserina's clothing was made of silk, not felt or linen - a long-sleeved shirt with a breastplate of bone chevrons that ran from neck to waist, heavily fringed on the bottom; a crimson skirt, split to the waist, decorated with a zig-zag pattern of cowrie shells; and ivory leggings sewn with row upon row of scarlet and black beads from ankle to knee. 

Behind her, three other women squatted on the dais - two on Chebkya's left, one on her right. Gabrielle's gaze flickered away from them because her attention was arrested by an item propped to one side of the throne - a scabbarded sword. The bard recognized it immediately. 

That's Xena's sword! She licked her lips. "I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Greek Amazons by right of caste, and I offer respectful greetings to my Tseromazhan sister, Chebkya." 

The Tserina did not answer. Instead, the woman sitting to her left cackled, punctuating the sound by a quick-fingered thumping on the drum gripped between her knees. "Noble Chebkya greets thee, sister-from-beyond the human lands," she said in archaic Greek. "The Tserina asks: what is thy task? Whyfor hast thou traveled so long a way?" 

"I seek a friend," Gabrielle said, addressing herself to the still silent Chebkya. "She came here several moons ago, answering your summons." 

The ger was quiet, save for the beating of the drum. There was no melody, no harmony, only a tuneless patter that wandered without rhythm, but was nevertheless compelling, almost hypnotic. The two women to the Tserina's right also tapped their drums, weaving in and around the hollow, patternless pulse. 

Gabrielle felt hot; sweat beaded on her upper lip, trickled down the back of her neck. Her heart stuttered, trying and failing to follow the irregular beat. Knees weak, mouth dry, she swallowed and continued, "My friend's name is Xena." 

At the sound of the name, Tserina Chebkya shifted in her chair. It was the first time since entering the ger that Gabrielle had seen her move. The bard's nerves shrilled in alarm; something wasn't right. 

Despite the warnings of her instincts, Gabrielle spoke again. "I know Xena received your message, Chebkya. She was going to journey here because she owed you a debt, and I know she left Greece. Did Xena even get this far? Have you seen her? Do you have any idea where she is now?" 

Chebkya stirred again, a restless spasming of limbs. Immediately, the woman on her left began drumming more loudly, and the Tserina quickly subsided into her formerly quiescent state. 

Gabrielle blinked and peered at the dais. The strange woman who had spoken before was ancient; deep lines and creases criss-crossed her face, the flesh beneath her jaw sagged, and her jet-black eyes glittered from heavily wrinkled sockets. She wore a sleeveless foalskin dress decorated with what appeared to be human fingerbones, painted with an all-over pattern of lightning bolts and feathers, and her gray hair was rolled up into a bun skewered with iron pins. Black tattoos, faded and blurred with age, marked both arms and legs. 

"Baba Yaga am I," the woman said. "Third Face of the Goddess, Sacred Tabiti." Her hands were a blur as she pounded her dark-stained drum. "A forbidden name hast thou spoken, stranger-from-beyond. Take heed, O Greek. Dabble not in matters beyond thy ken." 

Forbidden name? "I don't understand. Will you please tell me where I can find Xena?" 

Chebkya twitched and the bard swore she heard the Tserina whisper, "Gabrielle?" 

It was too much. Gabrielle couldn't think; the insistent thumping was playing havoc with her mind. She didn't know if she had really heard her name or not. In three steps she reached the dais, action dictated by instinct rather than logic, heart rather than head. Snatching the mask from Chebkya's face, Gabrielle took one look and reeled backwards in confusion. 

Silky black hair framed a familiar face. There was no expression, no spark of recognition in the pale blue eyes that stared back at her, then rolled up to show the whites. 

Baba Yaga cackled, pounding harder and faster, spiraling the chaotic beat, until the tent walls quivered madly. Thunder boomed and rolled in Gabrielle's brain. 

She whimpered, "Xena?" 

Silence and darkness descended with a crash, sending the bard into oblivion. 

Vivka looked down at the Greek woman and cursed softly. She had been summoned to Tserina Chebkya's ger and ordered to take the unconscious Ga'brelle to her own tent, to care for her until the khubilgan spirits chose to guide the Amazon's soul back into her body. It was not a task that Vivka relished. She had hoped to avoid all responsibility for the stranger, but it seemed that the Windriding Lady had other plans. 

A plump, pretty women with sparkling brown eyes bustled into the tent, a woven basket over one arm. "Have the spirit-guardians released the stranger's soul yet?" she asked, politely avoiding using the unconscious woman's name. To do so would sever the connection between soul and body, leaving Ga'brelle wandering in the khubilgan underlands forever. 

"Not yet, Rozena." Vivka sighed, then focused her full attention on her heartmate. They had undergone the joining ceremony five years ago, and in her eyes, Rozena had only grown more beautiful and desirable as the seasons passed. "I tried to meditate and ask Tabiti for advice, but she didn't answer." 

"Maybe you didn't ask the right question." Rozena put the basket down, reached up and pulled an iron cauldron from a hook in the tentpoles. A round hearth had been dug out of the ground in the center of the ger, in line with a small smoke hole at the top; Rozena stirred the hot coals with a pair of long metal needles, and nestled the cauldron in the middle. While she worked, she asked casually, "What are you and the other warriors going to do about that evil hag?" 

Vivka, who had been taking a swig of water from a skin bag, choked and coughed until tears ran from her eyes. "Will you keep your wide mouth shut, woman?" she finally gasped. "Sweet goddess! Do you want to end up exiled... or worse? What Chebkya and the avatar of Nav have done to Xena is not our affair." 

"Is that so? Then why can you not speak the hag's name, eh?" Rozena snatched the waterskin away from her mate and filled the cauldron. Squatting down by the hearth with her basket and a knife, she began slicing the vegetables she had gathered into the pot with quick, angry movements. 

"You sound like you're quoting one of Baba Yaga's threats disguised as wisdom. Bah! The sky-eyed Greek woman is innocent of crime," Rozena grumbled. "Can you not see that if Chebkya and the hag continue on this mad course, our tribe will be destroyed?" 

"I do as I am ordered," Vivka pleaded, kneeling down and placing both hands on Rozena's shoulders. "I am a simple warrior and a hunter. Tabiti did not gift me with subtleties." 

"What was done to Xena is still wrong, orders or no, hag-touched or no. If any of you warriors had the sense Windrider gave to a lemming, you'd put that baba to the sword and be done with it, or die trying. I'm tired of living in fear. Aren't you?" 

"Do not the children deserve to live? If it were just the warriors' lives at stake, we would gladly die to defend the tribe, even from an evil within. But... you know what she'll do to the children. We can't risk it." 

Rozena subsided a little, but she was still furious. Children were the most precious gift of all, and each one was celebrated and loved, considered the true wealth of the tribe. The loss of a child's life was the worst possible tragedy imaginable by all the nomadic peoples of the plains; in times of war, even the most battled hardened warrior would not think of harming a babe. 

"I know she threatens our future," the plump woman said softly. "We cannot go against her without great loss. But, by Tabiti, I would give my own life rather than suffer the little ones to grow up under her rule." 

"It isn't up to us. Now hush... you'll wake up our guest." 

Gabrielle, who had awakened when Vivka's heartmate came into the ger, kept her eyes closed, trying to make sense of what she had seen and heard in the Tserina's tent. She did not understand the guttural Tseromazhan language, but the mention of her warrior's name made her finally sit up and ignore the sudden headache this motion caused. 

"Please," she said quietly, startling both women. "May I have some water?" 

Vivka brought Gabrielle the waterskin and held it to her lips while she took several deep swallows. "Did you find the answers to your questions in the khubilgan underworld?" the nomad asked in her oddly accented Greek. 

"The what?" Gabrielle shook her head. "No, I... I only have more questions." She took a deep breath and asked, "What do you know about Xena?" 

By the hearth, Rozena snorted. Her Greek was not as good as her mate's, but she managed to get her point across. "You better maybe asking, what do high-wisdom-holy-women know about Xena?" She put a horse's kneebone into the developing stew for richness, then added a double handful of dried mutton twists and mushrooms, taken from rawhide pouches. 

"Help me," Gabrielle begged. "Please, tell me the truth. I saw Xena in there, wearing the Tserina's mask. Where's the real Chebkya, and what has she done to my love?" 

"I cannot..." Vivka turned her gaze aside in shame. "You ask too much. My bloodvow was taken; my tongue is forbidden to speak the words you want to hear." 

Rozena snorted again. "Tell Ga'brelle. She mate is, to one whose spirit is spider-caught. Truth is deserving to hear, no more secrets hide, or else coward be, without honor. How the witch can know if you speaking in tent privacy?" 

"Secrets whispered in the wind can be heard on the other side of the world," Vivka answered sharply. 

"Then no whisper, speak more quiet. But speak anyway." Rozena tossed her head, making her heavy amber earrings sway wildly. "Dip me in dung, she Queen is. Respectful be, and answer questions, or have witch stolen brains as well as tongue?" 

She may have only known her for moments, but Gabrielle already liked Rozena. 

The woman's skin was a rich bronze color, her flesh well padded but solid. She wore a simple brown felt dress, slit up both sides to the hip; the short sleeves jangled with silver charms. Her black hair was parted in the center and rolled up on both sides, secured with ivory combs, the rest plaited in a dozen skinny braids that fell down her back. Necklaces of amber, gold, carnelian and turquoise hung around her neck, and her high cheekbones were tattooed with chevrons, lines, spirals and dots, in a pattern that was echoed by woven rugs on the floor of the ger

She reminded Gabrielle of many mothers she'd met on her travels - all feather flurry when it came to scolding a mate or a child, but just as quick to hand out kisses, with plenty of love to go around, and always willing to give her best to any stranger that came to her door needing help. 

Vivka had removed her tunic in the heat of the tent, exposing muscular arms that were heavily tattooed with bird and animal figures. Her hair was cut short, and the silky strands held away from her flat face with a leather band. "Rozena, my love," she said in Tseromazhan, "I will not allow you to break the oath of silence." 

"I piss on your oath," Rozena said matter-of-factly in the same tongue. "And you should do the same." 

Gabrielle looked from one to the other. "Who are Tabiti and Nav? What has Chebkya done to Xena?" Her voice suddenly rose in anger, suprising everyone, including herself. "Damn you! Speak Greek! What have you done with my soulmate?" 

Rozena blinked, reached for a spoon, and stirred the stew. "If you don't tell her, I will," she said in a voice that brooked no compromise. 

"Think of the children!" 

"I do. And I consider the ones who have yet to be born." She put down the spoon and patted her stomach; she and Vivka had made the customary arrangement with a male friend, the weaver Felimir, to have two children in two years - one they would keep, the other would be Felimir's to raise. Rozena was four months pregnant, and hated the thought that their child might be born under such hateful circumstances as they found themselves in now 

She continued, "Has not the prophetess Arkhipa promised that salvation will come, and the winter hag's power broken, by a smooth-tongued woman of royal blood from the west? A woman from the land of women, with hair like fire and eyes like spring grass. What more of a sign do you want, goat-headed stubborn fool? The goddess' wagon appearing in the sky, writing the message in cloud farts and stars?" 

"Arkhipa is mad as a sheep with worm-skull. The Tserina condemned her to exile." 

"After she prophesied in public. And it wasn't the false Tserina, either, who forced Arkhipa away. It was the hag's work, because she feared the prophetess spoke the truth!" 

They glared at one another. Gabrielle balled her hands into fists and said tightly, "Speak in Greek, please! Will someone - anyone - tell me what in the Tartarus is going on here? Has everyone gone crazy except me?" 

Oh, goddess! Vivka clutched her amulet and prayed. A spring-fattened ewe and a foal to your altar if you get me out of this mess!

In scarcely the time it took for a mortal heart to beat nine times, Vivka's prayer was answered. 

A new woman entered the ger, letting the sheepskin flap close behind her. Immediately, both Rozena and Vivka put fists to temples in salute. 

Gabrielle sank back on her pallet. This was one of the drummers who had sat on the dais beside the masked Xena. Her body was voluptuously ripe beneath a tight deerskin dress, trimmed with fox tails and goose feathers. The palms of her hands and soles of her bare feet were dyed a rich scarlet; her wrists were weighed down with heavy bracelets. On her calves and upper arms, tattooed fantasy beasts with flowered antlers swirled together in a dazzling pattern. A high, golden crown with a stylized Tree of Life sat upon her head, and her blue-black hair was piled up beneath it. 

Her face was guardedly friendly, and when she smiled - which she did upon sighting Gabrielle - she became utterly, completely beautiful. 

"I am Baba Semislav, Second Face of Sacred Tabiti, avatar of Mat'syra Zemlia, mother of the fertile earth," the woman announced in Greek. "If you are willing to hear me, Ga'brelle-who-is-Queen, I will try and explain what has happened to your heartmate." 

Vivka gasped, and Semislav said gently in Tseromazhan, "An oath must be given freely, not enforced with terrible threats, therefore Tabiti will not hold you to it. In Her name, I release you from your vow." 

"And condemn our children to death?" 

Semislav stopped smiling. "We will all die, anyway, if the situation continues as it does." 

Vivka subsided, and Rozena patted her hand in silent support. 

Semislav continued in Greek to Gabrielle, "Perhaps it is best if I tell you the story from the beginning. When I am finished, I will answer what questions you have remaining. If that is acceptable?" She cocked her head to one side and smiled again, exerting considerable charm. 

Gabrielle was conscious of waves of sexuality exuding from Semislav, an erotically charged aura that could give a skeleton a case of raging tumescence. She shifted uncomfortably; the shaman's scent, heavy and musky, made her want to sneeze and bite the woman's luscious neck at the same time. A tiny mote of jealous envy whispered into her inner ear: maybe Xena didn't come back because she found someone better, a woman who's pure sex from head to toe.

Semislav knew what the bard was thinking, and said, "Don't imagine the worst, Ga'brelle. Your heartmate hasn't abandoned you for another." 

Thank the gods for small favors. The tiny worm of jealousy died beneath the friendly, empathetic look in the shaman's eyes. "I've traveled so far," Gabrielle said, hands unconsciously kneading the blanket across her knees. "When I saw Xena there, behind the mask, for a moment I thought I'd gone mad." 

"No. Not your madness, but another's." Semislav switched to Tseromazhan and said to Vivka, "Send messages to the outriders, patrols, hunting parties and warriors: In the name of the Windrider, they are to gather tonight in the royal ger, to act as witnesses to a challenge. Repeat the message under the authority of Baba Laiko and myself." 

To Rozena, she added, "Summon the weavers, herders, tanners, sewers, mothers and crafts societies: they will also attend the challenge-circle and witness the goddess' justice." 

"Are you certain, baba?" Vivka was hesitant. "If we do this, there is no going back." 

"Put your trust in the goddess," Semislav said reassuringly. "She helps those who help themselves, and I have good reason to believe that the stranger Queen is the answer to all our prayers." 

Vivka still hesitated, and Rozena asked, "Arkhipa's prophesy?" 

"Arkhipa was touched by Tabiti's sacred fire - both Laiko and I know it, and if you allowed your heart to hope, Vivka, you would know it as well. Go now, for there is not much time. All must be in place before sunset." 

Properly chastised and feeling a bit shamed, Vivka left the tent, Rozena right behind. 

Gabrielle said, "Where are they going?" 

"On an errand," Semislav said in Greek. She sat down cross-legged next to the pallet. "Now, Ga'brelle, Amazon Queen... I am ready to tell you a tale of greed, ambition, treachery and betrayal. Listen well, for we have little time." 

Gabrielle settled herself comfortably, and Semislav began her story. 

"Long, long ago, in the days before your mother's mother's mother was born, there lived in the windblown plains a people who called their nation, Tseromazha, and whose goddess was Triple-Faced Tabiti, Sacred Lady of the Moon, Stars and Sun..." 

Gabrielle listened avidly as Semislav explained the religion of her people. The goddess Tabiti was represented within the tribe by three shamans called babas, who each took on one of Her three aspects. The First Face was the avatar of Maiden Lada, who symbolized innocence and purity; she ruled the spring/early summer of the year, and her duties included weaving, sewing, healing and herb knowledge. Currently, this role was being filled by Baba Laiko, a fifteen-year-old virgin. 

The Second Face was that of Mat'syra Zemlia, the fertile mother earth. She ruled the late summer/early autumn, and was responsible for midwifery (both animal and human), storing gathered foods, blacksmithing and war-skills. She was protectress of children and mothers, and fierce defender of the tribe. Baba Semislav was her avatar. 

Finally, there was the Third Face, called Nav, the Night Hag. She was death and blight, an ending to life and joy, the fulfillment of a natural cycle. She collected the souls of the deceased and ground them together in her magic mortar; when the mortar was full, she scattered the ashes to the sacred winds, so that they might fly and be reborn according to their fate. The people did not consider her evil, merely inevitable, and she ruled the late autumn/winter seasons. Nav's avatar, Baba Yaga, had perverted the Hag to her own ends. 

"Our Tserina, Chebkya, is more prideful than wise, more lustful than dispassionate, concerned only with her own selfish wants," Semislav said. "Normally, the three babas, working together, can curb the excesses of any Tserina who is not - shall we say - the most suitable of rulers. Our government has been balanced in this way for hundreds of years; always, the voice of Tabiti's servants has been respected by the tribe, equal or more so than the Tserina's when it is necessary. 

"During the Summer Fair last year, when the Tseromazhans gather with other tribes and merchants to buy and sell, Chebkya kidnapped a girl from a neighboring tribe, the Zhytians. This girl was beautiful, a talented singer, and had many suitors. Chebkya took her to a secret place, abused her terribly, and sent her back home, broken and mute. Naturally, the Zhytians demanded an honor-price for the insult, and threatened war if it was not paid. 

"They demanded that the Tserina be executed for her crimes. 

"Chebkya was desperate. After all, even a Tserina is not immune from the law, and that day she learned that the people were not so fond of her that they would wage war on her behalf. But Baba Yaga went to Chebkya in secret, promising to save the Tserina's life in exchange for the furtherance of her ambitions. Together, Chebkya and Yaga conjured the blackest powers, murdering innocent girls for blood magic rituals, and the balance was broken. 

"Laiko and I didn't find out what was going on until it was too late, and Yaga put us both under a binding yoke of power which we cannot break. When Xena came in answer to Chebkya's summons, Baba Yaga put her under a powerful controlling spell, and forced the people to swear a terrible oath, never to reveal this secret under pain of horrible death - not only themselves, but their entire families, including their children. The tribe lives in fear and dare not defy her. 

"According to the Tserina's plan, in three days' time, Xena will be executed before the Zhytian representatives, to satisfy their honor. Then Chebkya will come out of hiding and resume the throne, ruling the tribe with Yaga at her side to ensure the people's faithfulness. Dark days are ahead if they are not stopped." 

"And Xena walked right into the trap," Gabrielle muttered. "Do you know what this 'debt' was all about?" 

"When Xena was a warlord, she killed Chebkya's sister, Adaliunda, who had gone on a trading mission to the Dragonlands. That's probably how the Tserina lured her here." 

Oh, my poor warrior, Gabrielle thought. Always trying to make up for your past, and nearly always getting kicked in the teeth for it. "All right. So in three days, the Zhytian's are going to witness what they think is the execution of Chebkya, but instead Xena's been substituted. What I don't understand is: how did they know Xena would come? I mean, if she hadn't shown up, what would they have done instead?" 

"Yaga probably sent her spirit into a raven or other bird, both to spy on Xena and to make sure she obeyed the summons by enchantment. Most likely, she manipulated your heartmate's guilt, maybe through her dreams or by more direct spells." 

"Your goddess won't interfere? I mean, Xena's innocent. What Chebkya and Yaga are doing is wrong." 

"True. But Tabiti has her own reasons for not getting involved. She is our Mother and our Guardian, and she wisely prefers to allow her children to make their own mistakes rather than smother us in attention. No, Ga'brelle, this is a matter for mortal hands. Laiko and I believe that you're the only one who can successfully defeat Chebkya and Yaga, and save your heartmate from death." 

Resolve hardened in Gabrielle's breast. Whatever the cost - even her own life if necessary - she would free Xena from the death-witch's thrall. "Tell me what I need to do." 

"Laiko and I cannot help you much. Yaga controls our magic and makes us weak. The hag stole our blood and bound it to her drum, and when she plays, we cannot defy her. We become slaves to her will. Even out of sight, she saps our strength. It took a great effort for me to come here, and an even greater effort to speak of these matters to you." Semislav shook her head, and the golden rings that encircled her diadem chimed. 

"Baba Yaga does magic with her drum? That explains why I felt so strange before." It also explains why Xena's in a trance. I know she's fighting it - she managed to get out my name - but the witch's power is too strong. Gods, grant me strength.

"Yes. The drums are the source of our power. Now, listen: you will be in great danger, Ga'brelle. In order to save Xena, you must challenge the babas to a contest. Yaga cannot deny or ignore your challenge, particularly if you claim the right by virtue of your Amazon caste. This is an archaic ritual, rarely invoked today, but we have memory-keepers who will remind the people of the legends. The hag will try to wriggle out of it, but our law is clear. In the end, Yaga will have no choice but to accept." 

"What sort of contest is it?" Gabrielle asked. She was fairly good at defending herself with the staff, but if it came down to fighting with chobos or other weapons, she'd lose dismally. 

"Not a physical challenge, but a contest of wits lasting three days. At dawn of each day, one of the babas will set you some difficult task. If you complete this task by sunset, you will be deemed the winner. Defeat all three of us, and Yaga's hold over Xena - and over my people - will be broken. Lose any one of the challenges, and you forfeit your life." 

Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully. "What about Chebkya?" 

"If you defeat Baba Yaga, Laiko and I will deal with our wayward Tserina. Chebkya has no direct heir, but a cousin lives in this camp, and she will take the throne." Semislav touched the area over her heart with hennaed fingers. "With Tabiti's help, and your courage, we will soon have a new avatar of Nav and a new Tserina, and life will turn its proper cycle once more." 

I will never leave you. Those loving words echoed in her head, spoken by one who meant more to her than any other being on the earth. Gabrielle's mouth set into a thin, tight line. "I don't want to wait any longer than necessary, so I'll make my challenge tonight. Baba Semislav, I want you to promise me one thing before we go." 

The shaman spread her crimson-dyed hands wide. "I swear on my life, and the lives of my children, and the fate of my herds, and the soul of my heartmate - I will do whatever you ask, if it is within my power to grant." 

"If I don't survive..." Gabrielle hesitated, then continued, "Make sure Xena's death is swift and painless. I don't want her to suffer." 

Semislav bowed her head. "There are herbs that Laiko can administer, which will release Xena's soul without a struggle, and even give the dying pleasure as they pass into the khubilgan underlands. If you fail, I will ensure that her death is quick, so that you may both find one another in rebirth. This I swear, and may Windrider strike me down if I'm forsworn.." 

Gabrielle stood up and stretched, the bones in her spine crackling as she worked stiffness out of her joints. Her headache had subsided to a dull throb. 

Semislav looked at the Greek woman with slitted eyes, plainly admiring Gabrielle's neat, slim figure. "It won't do to go to a challenge dressed so poorly," she said. "If you permit, I will ask Rozena and some of the other women to lend proper clothing for the ceremony." 

"All right." The last thing on the bard's mind was fashion. "Any idea what sort of challenges the other babas are going to set?" 

"As I said, we are slaves of Baba Yaga and her blood-cursed drum. Rest assured that the hag will do everything in her power to ensure your failure." Semislav got up, smoothing her tunic with nervous hands. "May the goddess' hand lie over you, Ga'brelle-Amazon-Queen." 

"Thank you. I have a feeling I'm going to need all the help that I can get." There was no time for fear or second thoughts; Gabrielle was going into battle, pitting her wits against ancient cunning. She would have to keep focused in order to save her warrior's life, as well as the lives of the Tseromazhan Amazons. 

Artemis, help me win, the bard prayed. If not, then let me die with my soulmate. Without Xena, my life would be too empty to continue.

Plump Rozena came back into the tent, a stack of garments in her hands. "Hoping not to offend, Ga'brelle," she said in breathlessly fractured Greek, "but you look not as queen-lady in travel dress that. Some clothing-stuffs have I, if permitted." 

Gabrielle nodded. "Thank you." The speed at which these women took charge of her and the situation was mind-boggling. It was as if the moment she decided to accept their plan, a thousand wheels were suddenly set spinning furiously into motion. 

Semislav chuckled. "You read my mind," she said in Tseromazhan. 

"Did you think I'd disgrace myself by letting this girl go before the people dressed in those rags?" Rozena sniffed. "Bah! Help me dress her. Oh, Vivka!" she called as the rider entered the ger, "go quickly and get Beleka to do Ga'brelle's hair, and tell Derska that I want to borrow some of her ornaments, and Koklyr the goldsmith owes me a necklace, so run over and get that as well." 

Vivka raised her eyebrows. "Is there anything else?" 

Semislav, occupied in removing Gabrielle's boots, grunted. "You could stop by my tent and tell Daromila to give you my jewel chest, and my second best slippers." At a glare from Rozena, she amended, "All right. My best slippers, then." 

The rider's amber eyes flashed in amusement. Her earlier misgivings were gone; seeing the excited faces of those she'd summoned had reawakened hope within her breast. They had a goddess' given chance to bring about the hag's downfall, and she would do everything within her power to help. Poor Arkhipa was not so mad after all...

"While I'm at it, should I ride over to the Dragonlands and fetch a few bales of silk?" Vivka asked with a grin. "Or a greenstone bracelet? Or a cloak of hen's teeth, frog's hair and goat feathers? Or perhaps I could..." 

"My love," Rozena interrupted, running a comb through Gabrielle's hair, "get going before I see how much of my kicking foot can fit into your ass!" 

Laughing, Vivka raised her hands in surrender and left. 

Gabrielle submitted to the women's ministrations, allowing their guttural chatter to wash over her. The rise and fall of their voices was soothing, in a way. 

She closed her eyes and tried not to think too much about the challenge to come. 

The royal ger blazed with light; dozens of oil lamps hung from the tent poles, swaying gently, their flames shielded by costly glass shades. The air was thick with the sweet fumes of burning anise and coriander seeds, mingled with mutton fat, wool and the scent of too many bodies crammed into a small space. 

Gabrielle paused at the entrance, wiping her sweaty face with the back of her hand. Rozena and the other women had dressed her in a tight, sleeveless tunic made of soft, indigo-dyed felt; a decorative breastplate of grasscat teeth and roe deer bones marched in chevrons from neck to hem. On the back, across the shoulders, was sewn an embroidered ribbon dripping with long, thin fringe, ending in duck feathers. Tufts of white fox fur outlined the armholes, interspersed with flat gold clips. The tunic was cinched in at the waist with a leather belt, studded with amber and gold beads, tied at one side then allowed to dangle freely. 

The trousers were also felt, also indigo; from knee to ankle they were stiff with rows of alternating embroidered bands and more grasscat teeth. Her hair had been plaited away from her face in twin braids, the ends bound in silver wolf's head clasps. 

Because the Tseromazhan's placed a great deal of importance on tattoos, Semislav had used a mixture of ground charcoal, boiled walnut shells and some noxious smelling liquid to paint temporary tattoos on Gabrielle's bare arms and feet - bizarrely beautiful spirals, fantastic animals and flowers. Her green eyes were dramatically outlined with thick, black running deer symbols; the antlers reached to her hairline, while hooved feet slashed down her cheeks. 

Necklaces of amber, ivory, turquoise, carnelian, gold and silver had been draped around her neck until the bard felt like she was smothering beneath the weight of all that treasure. Her protests had been stifled by Rozena, who had clucked and plucked and fussed until she wanted to scream. 

When she was finally deemed ready, Vivka and Rozena had escorted her to the royal ger and ducked inside, leaving her alone. Gabrielle was glad for the moment's peace to collect her thoughts and prepare herself for the ordeal ahead. Her pulse fluttered, her mouth was dry, and she was already sweating despite the coolness of the evening. I hope the artwork doesn't run, she thought, although Semislav did say it wouldn't wear out for several days. Gods, if only Xena could see me now!

The sun was just setting when Gabrielle walked into the tent. The ger was jam packed with seated people; children were held in their parent's laps, and elderly folk used padded backrests to ease the ache in their bones. On the dais, Xena still sat on the Throne-of-Gold, the wolf skull mask hiding her face. Babas Laiko, Semislav and Yaga were in their usual places, drums between their knees, softly pattering the tuneless rhythm that had so affected Gabrielle before. 

Every eye was trained on the bard; quiet comments raced around the tent from a dozen throats. The expressions of the gathered people reflected fear, sadness and anger, but mostly hope. Vivka stood with the other warriors in honor guard close to the walls; when she caught Gabrielle's attention, she nodded encouragement. Rozena, with a large group of mothers and crafters, was swollen with pride and grinned hugely. 

Gabrielle walked slowly down the narrow aisle that had been created from the ger entrance to the dais. When she reached the foot of the throne, she put a fist to her temple and everyone fell silent. 

"I, Gabrielle, Queen of the Western Amazons by right of caste, stand before you in honor and respect," she said clearly. Behind her, some of the tribesmen who didn't understand Greek, quietly asked their neighbors for a translation. 

Baba Yaga thumped her black-stained drum hard, making flakes of dried blood skitter around her gnarled hands. "What is thy desire, stranger-from-beyond? Why hast thou gathered the people here? What dost thee hope to accomplish?" 

The witch doesn't know about our plan! Gabrielle thought in surprise and relief. Semislav's face was slack, her eyes unseeing, but she continued to support Yaga's drum beat. Beside her, Baba Laiko, a moon-faced young girl, was also entranced. She might be able to control their magic, but Yaga obviously can't read their minds.

Yaga said scornfully, "Thus sayeth the Tserina: we are the law. Though thou speakest of honor and respect, thy impertinent questions have offended me. How dare you question the Tserina who governs the human land! Go, thou, and return to thy home in the far western country, and be seen here nevermore, on pain of death." 

There were gasps and more whispers of explanation. Gabrielle stood firm, head held high. She balled her hands into fists to keep them from shaking. 

Yaga regarded the bard and thought, What is this girl's game? Does she think these fools will follow her and deny me? No, I have the power. Fear has made the tribe weak. They obey me like sheep, and like sheep I will lead them to the slaughter in good time.

Hidden behind a curtain at the back of the ger, Chebkya bit down hard on her lip to keep from laughing out loud. She hoped the pretty Greek woman would defy Yaga; she would then demand the girl as a gift, a new plaything to satisfy her lusts. Without the controlling rein of the babas to keep her in check, Chebkya was letting her darker nature run riot, and reveling in the heady sensation of forbidden freedom. When the danger of the Zhytians was past and she took the throne once more, things would be decidedly different. No more hiding, no more pretending she gave a horse's dropping for the welfare of the people. They were born to serve her, and her alone; when she was Tserina again, even Baba Yaga would bow her neck and obey. 

Gabrielle swallowed. Now it begins. "I offer challenge to the avatars of Triple-Faced Tabiti," she said loudly, repeating the words as she had learned them from Semislav. "I demand that my challenge be answered, by my right as Queen and by the sisterhood we share, and by your own ancient laws. If you refuse me, may your honor-price be set at naught; may your heads be shorn as sheep in season; and may you be driven from the camp of the people, never to return. Hear me, for thrice I speak the sacred words to bind: I challenge thee, I challenge thee, I challenge thee, in Tabiti's name." 

More gasps from the assembled folk. Yaga was furious that she had been trapped. I should have had the wench killed as soon as she came into camp. Instead, she had allowed Gabrielle to live, curious as to why the Amazon had traveled so far into hostile territory, looking for a single, unimportant woman, and unsure as to whether or not the so-called Queen was alone or part of a scouting force. How did she learn about the challenge? I'd have sworn she knew nothing of our ways when she arrived yesterday. 

Baba Yaga kept drumming, scanning the crowd with her glittering black eyes. Under her controlling spell, Semislav and Laiko wove a wandering counterpoint to her chaotic non-rhythm. Was it Vivka? she thought, gaze turning to the poker-faced warrior. She wouldn't dare. Her mouthy mate, perhaps? Well, I'll take care of them both later.

The entire tribe was waiting for her response. The witch was aware that if she did not answer Gabrielle's challenge, it might be the final straw that broke the people's obedience. She could make them do as she wished by threatening their children, but if the tribe rose up in mindless riot, they might be too blinded by anger to pay heed. 

On the other hand, she knew that this fresh-faced Amazon girl, who probably didn't have grass on her mound yet, was no real threat. 

And when she has lost the contest, and been sacrificed to the dark powers, my hold over the tribe will be greater than ever. No one will dare challenge me again.

"We accept, according to our ancient laws," Baba Yaga said. "Three challenges shalt thou answer, one from each avatar of the Windriding Lady - from Spring Maiden, from Summer Mother, from Winter Hag. From dawn to dusk wilt thou labor, and if thee fail e'en one challenge, thy life is forfeit. Shouldst thou succeed, thee may ask any boon of us, no matter how great or small, and we are bound to give it to thee." 

Gabrielle nodded. "I will come to you at dawn. So be it, and Lady of Wind, Stars and Flame witness, as do all Her servants here." 

Drums pounded, booming thunder in her ears. The tribe was satisfied. Challenge had been given and answered properly. 

Now all they had to do was wait and pray. 

The next morning, in the gray misty light of dawn, Gabrielle went into the royal ger to receive her first challenge. 

Xena no longer wore the wolf skull mask; her beautiful face was blank, and a line of drool snaked down her chin. 

Gabrielle almost wept. 

On the dais, Baba Laiko drummed softly. The teenage girl's chestnut hair was bound by a fillet of gilded leather; two silver antlers rose up on either side of her forehead, entwined with ribbons, bells and flowers made of semi-precious stones. Her dress was made of bleached hemp linen, cut low over her small breasts, and heavily embroidered with green vines and carnelian berries. The drum between her knees was ornamented with copper bands, the head made of tightly stretched foalskin. Laiko's eyes were closed, her soft mouth trembled as she followed Baba Yaga's beat. 

A woman stood next to Baba Yaga. Tall, powerfully built, her thighs and arms bulging with corded muscle, the woman stared at Gabrielle, a hostile glint in her cold, gray eyes. "You will die," she said in fairly unaccented Greek. "Give up now, you'll die quick. Proceed with your game, stranger-Queen, and I'll see to it personally that you take three days dying." 

"Chebkya, I presume?" Gabrielle let her gaze travel up and down the Tserina's form, then made a deliberately insulting sniff. "Baba Yaga's puppet. I'm surprised you aren't hiding in a corner somewhere. Judging from your actions so far, I'd say you're too much of a coward to face a grown woman who isn't witched into helplessness." 

Chebkya snarled and made a convulsive movement, immediately stilled when Baba Yaga hissed a command. Her face was contorted by resentment, and the look she gave Gabrielle was filled with pure hatred, but she merely made an obscene gesture, sneered, and retreated behind the screen at the back of the ger

Baba Laiko said in a high-pitched, sing-song voice, "Has the challenger come forward, prepared to risk all?" 

"Yes. I'm ready." Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to force her taut muscles to relax. 

"Hear now the first challenge..." Laiko intoned. There were a few Tseromazhans sitting inside the tent; they all bent forward, eager to hear what devilish challenge would be set for the fire-haired stranger, praying the task would not prove too impossible. All their hopes of freedom, for themselves and their children, were pinned upon the stranger Queen. The silent atmosphere in the ger was thick with suspense. 

The teenage baba's mouth quivered, as though she was under some terrific strain, and a deep line marred her forehead. Suddenly, the door blew open, admitting a gust of wind that brought with it the fresh smells of spring grass, pungent herbs, sweet wildflowers. The wind swept through the tent, ruffled Gabrielle's hair, and swirled around Laiko. Immediately, the girl's eyes popped open and she smiled. For a brief moment, her fingers quickly tapped a brisk, skittering melody on her drum, reminiscent of the hoofbeats of a foal at play. 

Baba Yaga frowned and thumped her own drum insistently to regain control, but it was too late. 

"Tell me a story," Laiko sighed, and her words were eerily echoed by the wind. "Sing to me of the deeds of heroes until dusk. That is your challenge." 

Yaga rapped her blood-stained drum sharply, black eyes glittering in wrath, and the breeze died. She could do nothing, however; Laiko had somehow been freed from the binding for just long enough to damage her plan. The challenge could not be taken back. Well, it doesn't really matter, the hag thought, quickly ensnaring Laiko's will again. If, by some miracle, the Amazon girl manages to complete the task, there are two more to come. And I will make sure she fails the next.

Gabrielle cleared her throat, feeling almost faint with relief. Tell a story? By the gods, if she couldn't tell a story that lasted from dawn to dusk, she didn't deserve to be called a bard! She thought a moment, then smiled. 

"I sing a song of a hero," she began, sinking down to sit cross-legged before the dais. "A hero born of woman, who is herself a woman - yet unlike others, she was born not to the loom, but to the sword. Once thousands died beneath her blade, the hooves of her horse were dyed crimson with rivers of blood, and her life was fire and death. She is Xena; once, Destroyer of Nations, now Liberator, Justice-Bringer, Protector. Haunted by deeds done in a war-born haze; eager to turn her dark past into a bright future, she is now a hero for the ages. Not so long ago, this Xena saved a young girl from heartless slavers - a young girl whose dreams were too great for the small village of her birth..." 

She glanced around; the few people in the tent were listening avidly. Some had gone out, probably to bring the news to their neighbors. The bard smiled again, and continued telling the story of Xena... the first and best story that she knew, and the one closest to her heart. 

The sun was sinking fast... 

Gabrielle kept talking, although her voice was hoarse. Around noon, and again some time later, Rozena had quietly given her a waterskin filled with herbal tea, sweetened with honey. Careful sips had kept her throat from becoming too parched for speech. Because the babas on the dais drummed Yaga's chaotic patter constantly, she'd had to concentrate fiercely on the words she was spinning to keep from becoming confused by the witch's spell, and the terrific effort left her soaked with sweat and sore in every limb. 

The royal ger was packed, as it had been on the night she offered challenge to Baba Yaga. Shortly after she'd begun, people had begun to arrive in groups of two and three, from swaddled babes on backboards to a few bedridden elders who were carried in on litters. As the day progressed, women and men quietly left, returning with food and drink for the crowd, and were hastily caught up by their neighbors. No one spoke aloud, breathed or dared blink; they were completely mesmerized by Gabrielle's skillfully woven tale. 

She spoke of the Cyclops; of harpies and centaurs; of blood-maddened Bacchae and a lost mariner; of Titans and warlords and Callisto the Mad. She told them about legendary Helen, whose beauty launched a thousand ships against Troy, and Prometheus the Fire Bringer, and a unruly pantheon of Olympic gods who quarreled, fought and behaved like the mortals they ruled. Mortals, too, had their place. No detail was forgotten. 

She spoke of tragedy and joy; death and life; war and peace; love and loss. The people alternately wept, raged and rejoiced. Gabrielle held them all in the palm of her hand. 

Every now and then, Xena twitched and mumbled on her golden throne. Whether she heard or even understood the bard's words, Gabrielle didn't know, but she was heartened to see her warrior was still trying to fight Yaga's spell. 

Hang on, my love, she thought. No matter what happens, I will never leave you.

Finally, as Gabrielle croaked doggedly on, Baba Laiko said, "Enough." 

The bard blinked rapidly, coughed and reached for the waterskin. The door of the tent was open, and she could see that it was now dark. The sun had set and her first challenge was successfully finished. Instead of cheering, however, Gabrielle just wanted to eat something simple, then sleep for a thousand years. 

Baba Yaga growled, "Thou hast overcome the first, stranger-Queen. I congratulate thee. Thou art released to seek what rest thou canst, before the sun returns from night's journey." 

Vivka and Rozena came up and helped Gabrielle get to her feet. Her legs had gone to sleep, and tingled painfully as blood rushed to the numbed limbs. 

As she was carried out of the ger, men and women put their hands out to touch her, murmuring reverently. 

No matter the outcome of the next two trials, Gabrielle had already become a legend that they would tell their children's children's children. 

Even those who had been unconvinced by the prophecy, and cynical about the Greek woman's chances, now allowed a spark of hope to blossom in their breasts. 

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