Disclaimers: Anything you've seen on Xena: Warrior Princess does not belong to me, but rather to Universal and whatnot. They're not mine, I just play with them.
Violence: Yes. 3 out of 5 Buckets of Blood here.
Emotional Wringer: Everyone goes through it. I'm Evil.
Sex: Yes, and it's the girl/girl kind. So, it's an alt piece. Likely to be PG-13, though, because torrid sex scenes make me blush.
Sexual Violence: Alluded to but not described.
Bad Monkey Crack/ Timeline: So, this story came about from a hefty dose of Bad Monkey Crack and wondering exactly why Terreis gave her rite of caste to Gabrielle. This is not a canon piece. This story takes place chronologically after Valaska and before the rift.
Hanky Warning: My Very Manly Beta Reader/Editor/All-Around-Cool-Guy says the end of this story needs a hanky warning. And who am I to argue with a man who uses the word 'hanky' ... ?
Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org yadda yadda. Write me blah blah. Warm fuzzies yakkety yak (don't talk back).
When he was finally done with me for the countless time, he fell asleep before he could secure my bonds to the bed. I don't know where I found the strength. Perhaps I had reserves I didn't know existed? I managed to squirm out from under him after I could feel his warm fetid breathing against my neck grow deep and even in slumber. I rolled off the bed, landing painfully on my knee. I remember biting my lip so hard to keep from crying out at the jolt to my battered body that it drew blood. I don't know how I found the determination. Perhaps the taste of my own blood in my mouth made my horrifying situation real. After so long - a day? A year? - of the cruelest existence I could imagine, convincing myself that it was a nightmare and I would eventually wake up, I finally found the resolve at the exact moment an opportunity presented itself. And so I took it and I ran.
A knock at the door interrupted the Queen in her reading, and a curly blond head poked its way into the now open door of the hut.
"Gabrielle? It's almost time for the Council meeting," Ephiny said. When there was no response, Ephiny looked closer at her Queen and saw that the color had faded from her face and her eyes were wide open and staring blankly ahead. Moving into the room and closing the door behind her, she knelt at her Queen's side where she sat at the corner of the bed, scrolls lying around her and one open on her lap. 'Well, that's normal. The Queen is always writing and reviewing scrolls. But what could she have written that would put that stricken look on her face?' Ephiny wondered.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?" she asked gently, removing the scroll from Gabrielle's numb hands and setting it aside.
"Ephiny, who wrote this?" Gabrielle asked quietly, unable to meet her friend's eyes and retrieving the scroll. Confused, Ephiny unrolled the scroll and looked at it, her own eyes wide with shock. A familiar hand had written the words, and it was a story she knew, for it had been whispered among her Amazon sisters years before.
"Where did you get this?" Ephiny asked, not looking at her Queen but standing abruptly and walking to stare out the window, her posture stiff and angry. "Who gave this to you?"
"It was in a pile of Terreis' things. They were delivered here from her hut shortly after I arrived," Gabrielle said defensively, unsure of the source of Ephiny's anger. Ephiny visibly forced herself to relax at her Queen's worried tone, but the scroll was still clenched in her fist.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Ephiny said, turning, looking at her friend with tired and haunted eyes. "This was just a shock. You weren't ever supposed to find out about this."
"Find out about what?" Gabrielle asked, her own considerable temper rising. "That there are terrible and dangerous people in the world? Stop treating me like a child. I'm your Queen."
"No, no," Ephiny said hurriedly. "That's not it at all, Gabrielle. It's just that - "
"Just what? Who wrote that scroll?" Gabrielle demanded, rising to her full height.
"Terreis' lover," Ephiny said so quietly that Gabrielle almost missed it.
"What?" Gabrielle asked, sure that she had misheard. "If Terreis had a lover, why ... ?" she asked, trailing off and gesturing to her Queen's garb and the coveted Queen's mask. Recovering, Gabrielle found her voice. "Why am I Queen by Terreis' rite of caste if she had a lover? Why isn't she the Queen?"
Sighing, Ephiny slumped into a chair and covered her face with one hand. Someone's head was going to roll for this. That sentiment was one of the many reasons she had tried to keep this story from her young Queen. "There were those who supported Lorien's right to Terreis' rite of caste," Ephiny said, trying to explain as briefly as possible. "Terreis herself tried to give it to Lorien many times, but she hasn't been seen since Terreis died, and it's as simple as that."
"But she should be Queen. It is her right," Gabrielle said, frowning at the Amazon's unwillingness to seek out their rightful Queen. "We should start looking for her immediately," she continued, but Ephiny cut her off.
"No. You are the Queen by rite of caste, whether anyone else thinks you should be or not," Ephiny stated quietly.
"I never wanted to be your Queen, Eph," Gabrielle said. "I'm not an Amazon, and why Terreis picked me, I still don't know."
"I don't know, either," Ephiny said harshly. "But she did pick you and the mask is yours. That's all there is to it." Ephiny groaned and rubbed her face with both hands as Gabrielle sat down, a wounded look on her face. "I didn't mean it like that, my Queen," she said softly. "I don't know why Terreis picked you, but I do know that despite my initial misgivings that Terreis made an excellent choice. You have the heart of an Amazon, Gabrielle, and I'm proud that you are my Queen. You've proven yourself time and again. Even those who had doubts in your abilities stand by you after watching the way you handled that whole Valaska thing."
"Thank you, Ephiny," Gabrielle said, sitting up straighter and reminding the little village girl inside herself that she was a Queen now and had responsibilities. "Would Lorien have made a good Queen?" Gabrielle couldn't help asking.
"She was a fine Amazon. A good warrior, honorable, loyal and proud. Yes, I think she would have made a good Queen, but when Terreis died, she left."
Gabrielle's face tightened slightly and she got that look she had when she was working on a particularly difficult line in one of her stories. When Xena, Gabrielle began to think, before squashing the thought ruthlessly. She didn't want to think about the time Xena had died. Still, the Amazons were there for me, she mused. "How could she just leave her home? I know how hard that was for her, but - "
"We don't have time to finish this discussion," Ephiny said wearily. "We have a council meeting to attend. Do you know who dropped off Terreis' things?" Ephiny asked casually, firming her resolve to have someone out on the nastiest patrol she could come up with for an indeterminate amount of time.
"No, they were just here," Gabrielle said, carefully gathering up the scrolls and placing them on the desk in the corner. She decided to ask Ephiny more about Lorien later, but for now it was time for a Council meeting. "Have you seen Xena?" she asked, suddenly remembering that she had not seen Xena since right after breakfast. They had eaten in the communal hall that morning, and upon returning had found Terreis' things. Though Xena was very helpful and useful, cleaning was not one of her favorite pastimes, and she had said something about checking Argo and had left Gabrielle to sort through the mess.
"Eponin talked her into helping with weapons practice this morning. Haven't seen her since then," Ephiny said, making a mental note to find out who had dropped off Terreis' things. Ephiny had made it quite clear that their tenderhearted and stubborn queen did not need to hear about Lorien. She knew Gabrielle felt somewhat responsible for Terreis' death, even though she had done everything possible to save the older woman. She also knew that Gabrielle's response to learning about Lorien would be to try to turn over the mask to her. Gabrielle was a good queen, and though Ephiny would gladly give up the headaches of being regent, she knew she could depend on the fair-haired bard whenever the need arose. Though she hadn't lied when she said she felt Lorien would have made a good queen, no one really knew what had become of her.
"That's fine, I'm sure she'll turn up," Gabrielle said, startling Ephiny until she remembered they had been speaking about Xena. "Ready to go?" she asked, smiling at her regent.
"After you, my Queen," Ephiny said, opening the door and bowing slightly. Gabrielle just rolled her eyes at the formalities and made her way along the familiar path to the Council Hall.
Ephiny watched as her queen made her way through the village, smiling at everyone she made eye contact with and greeting them by name. The busy Amazons all took a moment to smile at and greet their pretty young queen as she passed, and Ephiny knew Gabrielle's popularity was undeniable. Though there was still a small but powerful group that believed Gabrielle's peaceful notions were not right for the Amazons, they treated her the way they would treat any queen. It was possible that they may make a bid for the mask someday, but Ephiny did not see that happening anytime soon. Gabrielle had proven herself far too worthy, in Ephiny's somewhat biased opinion.
Yes, somehow Terreis had quickly seen in this now confident young woman what everyone else was only just figuring out. 'Except perhaps for Xena,' Ephiny mentally amended. The reformed warlord had traveled with the girl throughout Greece, letting her be a part of her life, and no one had been really sure why. 'I wonder how they met,' Ephiny mused, for probably the thousandth time. She had heard the story about Xena saving Gabrielle from slavers, but the end of that story had the two women going their separate ways. Never had she heard about how one or the other decided they should travel together, or why Gabrielle had left her safe home to follow the ex-warlord.
Ephiny's thoughts were interrupted by their arrival at the Council Hall, where the two Amazon guards snapped to attention and greeted their sovereign and regent. The one on the left opened the door and Gabrielle and Ephiny entered to see the Elders Council waiting for them.
"So glad you could join us," Raine said somewhat snidely. As one of the senior members of a very senior council, Raine was not impressed by the trappings of the queen's office. She was completely loyal, but she had lived through the reign of no less than five queens and felt that her longevity granted her a certain immunity from the kow-towing expected.
"And it's great to be here," Gabrielle said, smiling at the woman and taking her seat. She liked Raine, whose total willingness to say exactly what she thought reminded her of Xena. Of course, that was the only similarity as Raine's warrior days were far behind her and she tended to speak much more often than Xena ever did. "Shall we begin?" she asked lightly, smirking slightly at the obvious look of grudging respect that crossed Raine's face. 'That's another difference', the bard thought wryly. 'It took me forever to be able to read Xena's expressions.'
The afternoon passed quickly once the niceties had been bypassed and the group got down to business. The subject of over-hunting was the only one that could not be agreed upon quickly. Some members of the council were worried that the game in surrounding regions was being hunted and killed faster than it could reproduce, while others on the council argued that in times of peace, warriors had to hunt to maintain their skills and keep boredom at bay. Few things were worse than a village full of bored female warriors.
"So," Gabrielle said, having listened carefully to both sides of the argument. "You," she said, gesturing towards Raine and those siding with her on the issue, "feel that we're taking game from those lands too quickly and that this could create a lack of a valuable food resource in years to come," she finished, waiting for the answering nod to indicate she had the gist of the argument. "While you," she said, pointing at Dara, another elder, "feel that the warriors will get restless and start problems right now if they are not allowed to hunt." Dara nodded. "Well, I can see how not hunting creates a short-term problem, but we really can't afford to over-hunt. Aren't we having a population boom?" she asked, turning towards Ephiny.
"Yes, my Queen," Ephiny said, looking down at the figures in front of her. "We have had just a few women make it here to join the tribe from outside - which is normal - but have had an unusually high number of pregnancies," she confirmed. "Not to mention the influx of women joining us from other tribes."
"In the interests of future generations and the continuation of the Amazon nation, we cannot afford to deplete this resource," she stated, ignoring Dara's protests and continuing. "Raine, please see to it that a schedule is worked up that will show how much we can safely hunt in the northern forests without compromising the future and distribute it to the hunt masters."
"Bored warriors cause trouble!" Dara demanded, pounding her aged fist with surprising vigor onto the table. "Unless you're planning on starting a war - "
"Not a chance," Gabrielle said, shaking her head and smiling ruefully at the unanimous nods of support to the notion that they start a war. For some reason, every single council session had one of the elders mention starting up a war, causing a lengthy argument about who had lived through harsher times. Gabrielle quickly continued on before the conversation got out of hand and the elders started comparing scars. "No war," she stated emphatically, just to be totally clear on the point. "I realize bored warriors are not a good idea," she said, nodding at Dara. "Believe me, I know!" This comment reminded the council of just who Gabrielle traveled with, and they all chuckled imagining the trouble Xena could get into with their young queen when she was bored. "I have another suggestion. Right now, certain honor guard positions are granted for a length of time by appointment. Instead, how about we have a series of games and contests, preferably once a month at least, to give the warriors something to train for?"
"I'll work up a schedule," Ephiny said, smiling inwardly at Gabrielle's solution. Damn, she's good.
"Great!" Gabrielle said happily. "All settled then?" she asked, looking at Dara and Raine. The two elder Amazons both nodded their agreement, and Raine shot Dara a slightly smug look. Although the Queen had addressed the concerns from both sides of the issue, Raine felt that she had won that battle. "So," Gabrielle continued, quirking an eyebrow at Raine. 'I wish I could do this look the way Xena does,' Gabrielle thought, having so far managed to only get her eyebrow to move a little, and that was after days of practice. 'Still,' Gabrielle thought, a little surprised. 'It seems to have worked. Raine doesn't look quite so smug now.' "What else do we have to discuss?"
"That looks to be all, my Queen," Ephiny said, after glancing over the scroll containing the list of subjects to be decided at that particular council meeting.
"Wonderful," Gabrielle said, already thinking about finding Xena and telling her about the council meeting. Distracted by this thought, she missed the uncomfortable glances the elders shot each other and the nervous shifting in their seats. Gabrielle stood to go, but stopped when, at a nudge from Dara, Raine cleared her throat to gain the queen's attention.
"My Queen," she began, speaking very formally. Gabrielle frowned slightly at the tone, unused to the idea that Raine was falling back on formalities. "We wish to discuss another matter with you." Gabrielle looked over at Ephiny with a questioning expression on her face, then sat back down at the table when she only got a small shrug in response to her silent question.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked cautiously, worried that Ephiny did not know what subject was going to be broached.
"Priestess Kahla has been receiving strange visions and seen bad omens," Raine said carefully, her voice uncharacteristically neutral. "She has requested an audience with you."
"Why wasn't I told about this?" Ephiny asked, bracing one forearm on the table and leaning towards Raine.
"Kahla came to us one moon ago and said that our absent queen would return at this time and asked for an audience. I know you rule here when Gabrielle is gone, but she's the one Kahla wished to speak to," Raine explained, getting closer to her usual irascible tone.
"I still should have been told - " Ephiny said, getting angry that possibly harmful information had been kept from her. 'And what if Gabrielle hadn't been back when Kahla expected? Did she think the visions would just go away?'
"It's all right, Ephiny," Gabrielle said softly, laying a quiet hand on her regent's forearm. "When does Kahla wish to see me?"
"Three days hence, under the Hunter's Moon," Dara said, earning a dirty look from Raine.
"Three days?" Gabrielle asked loudly. 'I know I have to - it's my duty - but Xena is not going to like this.'
"Yes, my Queen," Dara said, her voice condescending, "I know you were planning on leaving in the morning, but it is not every day that our High Priestess asks to see our Queen."
"No, it's all right, Dara," Gabrielle said ruefully. "Of course I don't mind staying. I was just hoping this didn't mean time to plan and organize another party," she finished, standing up and grimacing comically. Not that Gabrielle had anything against parties, but she often teased her council about the unusually large number of such festive occasions held in the village. "Don't think I don't realize the real reason everyone gets excited when I show up!" she said, wagging a finger at them. The elders had a good laugh at that, breaking the tension, as Gabrielle left the Council Hall and started making her way back to the Queen's Hut. 'Good Bard. Always leave 'em laughing.'
'Good Warrior. Always leave standing,' Xena thought, casually walking away from the groaning mass of Amazons lying on the ground of the practice yard. Dusting her hands off against each other, Xena smirked as she walked over to Eponin where she stood off to the side, having watched the five bruised Amazons attempt to take on Xena. 'That's right, never drop the attitude,' she thought to herself as she leaned lightly against the rail and folded her arms across her chest. Xena was never comfortable around Amazons in general, and Gabrielle's tribe in particular. Not that she begrudged Gabrielle's need to visit or her rights as a ruler - she was, in fact, a fine queen - but as her champion, she knew that any sign of weakness on her part could have deadly repercussions.
"All right," Eponin said, as the group of warriors starting helping each other up and dusting themselves off. "You lasted longer than I thought you would. First, when facing a lone warrior, do not underestimate them," she said, looking each Amazon in the eye. "Especially if it's Xena," she added, shaking her head and trying not to laugh as Xena raised an eyebrow at her. Ignoring the silent woman at her side, she continued. "When you have superior numbers, use them. Do not stand around and let one person at a time get pummeled. Come at them from all sides at once, but for Artemis' sake be careful the target doesn't dodge out of the way so you hit each other. Because this was hand-to-hand, your shorter reach would have made avoiding each other easy. It's much more difficult to avoid hitting your allies when you're swinging a sword."
Xena listened carefully to Eponin's instructions to each individual Amazon, re-running the battle through her own mind. The day had started out with light sword drills for the newer students, but as the day progressed and news of Xena's presence on the practice field spread, more seasoned warriors had shown up to watch. When the sparring started, trouble started as well. Holding back her own considerable skill to offer a challenge to the new students without overwhelming them, a handful of the Amazon's had very vocally disparaged Xena's sword skills. Ignoring them, Xena had continued to teach the student she had been paired with until one comment couldn't be ignored.
"The great warrior princess only came back from the dead a few moons ago," a tall, stocky brunette amazon had commented snidely to her companions. "What do you expect?"
'I can't let this go', Xena thought, signaling to her student to stand down and turning to face the loud woman. 'If they think I'm not up to my usual standard, this could get dangerous.' Pinning the woman with ice blue eyes, Xena had stalked over to the group of chattering Amazons and tapped the brunette on the shoulder. Before Xena could speak, Eponin appeared out of nowhere.
"Is there a problem, Thelestris?" the weapon master asked.
"No, no problem," Thelestris said, her lips pulling back in a reasonable facsimile of a smile. "We were just noting that Xena's fighting style is remarkably different than the way our Queen describes it. A sound strategy," she continued in all innocence, "as an accurate portrayal would mean that anyone who heard the stories could work up a defense to it."
Xena stared at the woman, outwardly calm, but bristling inside at the implied insult to Gabrielle more than the insult to herself. Though nothing about Xena's demeanor betrayed her anger, Eponin guessed what the warrior was feeling, as she could feel herself getting mad as well.
"Are you calling your Queen a liar?" Xena asked bluntly, deciding quickly to just call this Thelestris person on what she had implied rather than trade witty banter. She just wasn't in the mood for it.
"Of course not!" Thelestris insisted, a feigned look of shock coming over her features. "I'd call it 'artistic license.'"
"Thelestris," Eponin began in a warning tone.
"No, Eponin, it's all right," Xena drawled lazily. "Perhaps you'd like to see my artistically dramatized sword skill first hand?" she asked, switching her weight to the balls of her feet.
"I'd love to," Thelestris drawled back, motioning her friends out of the way and drawing her sword. Xena just stood there, hands at her side and waited for Thelestris to make the first move.
"Absolutely not," Eponin said, stepping between the two combatants.
"Oh, I won't hurt her too badly," Thelestris said, trying to angle her way around Eponin.
"No, you won't," Eponin said, staying between Thelestris and Xena. "In fact," Eponin said, looking over at Xena and seeing mayhem in her eyes, "you won't hurt her at all but you'll end up in the healer's hut," she stated succinctly. "For at least a week."
"Aw, Eponin," Xena said silkily. "Thelestris just wants to come out and play," she continued with a mock pout that somehow managed to look very threatening. "Tell you what," she said, holding up a hand as Eponin turned to say something. "How about no weapons, and your little friends can play, too," she proposed, gesturing towards the other four amazons.
"I don't need the help," Thelestris said, putting her sword back in its sheath.
"Actually, that sounds fair to me," Eponin said, looking at Xena's ready stance. 'Maybe I shouldn't have asked her to help out today,' Eponin thought. As the weapons master of a village full of warriors, Eponin fully understood Xena's position as Queen's Champion and why appearances were so important. She herself had been challenged for her position directly after a stay in the healer's hut and though she loved her Amazon sisters dearly, she knew how ruthless they could be.
Xena's keen hearing picked up on the other Amazon's placing bets on the outcome of the fight. She shook her head ruefully as she realized the bets were placed at even odds.
Thelestris had walked over to her companions and spoken a few low words, then they separated and surrounded Xena.
"Ready to begin?" Eponin asked, watching Xena carefully. Xena nodded and the other five combatants chorused their assent. She had seen Xena fight many times before, and she started this battle they way she started all of them. Xena stood, her weight forward and her arms hanging at her sides and waited. "All right then. Begin."
Thelestris stepped in, attempting to grab Xena's right arm from behind. Pivoting backwards on her right foot, Xena brought up her left elbow sharply, connecting solidly with the side of Thelestris's head. The fight was on.
Eponin watched closely. Xena's fighting style was amazing. After that first moment of almost complete stillness as she waited for an attack, Xena made one powerful move that set her into a motion that didn't stop until there were five Amazons at her feet.
The fight had lasted three minutes.
"Anything you'd like to add?" Eponin asked Xena, having finished her critique of Thelestris and her cohorts.
"No, not really. You covered any suggestion I could have made," Xena said blandly. "But I don't suppose you'd like to spar?" she asked, turning away from her former opponents, but speaking loud enough to be heard clearly. "I could use an actual workout," she finished sardonically.
"Sure thing," Eponin said, smirking slightly at the laughter garnered by Xena's barbed comment.
"When Lorien returns, you won't have a place here," Thelestris spat, storming off the practice field with her friends in tow. That last comment sent up a murmuring amidst the gathered Amazon warriors, and Xena frowned.
"Who's Lorien?" she asked Eponin quietly, noting that the color seemed to have drained from Eponin's face.
"We aren't supposed to talk about Lorien," Eponin said. "Ephiny would send me out to patrol the edge of the marshes if I said anything," she finished, shuddering at the thought of spending any amount of time in that stinking place.
"Come on," Xena said, grabbing Eponin by the arm and leading her into the weapon's hut. The hut had a storage facility in the back for the main stockpiling of excess weaponry. Each Amazon was allowed to take their weapon of choice upon receiving their warrior's mask. The front area contained practice weapons, which were usable, but were blunted in such a way that any accidents in the practice fields were less likely to be lethal. It was a show of complete confidence in a warrior's skill when they were allowed to practice with real weapons.
Xena idly picked up a pair of wrapped chobos and twirled them in her hands. "Come on, Eponin. I've known you awhile now and I'd hate to put the pinch on you," Xena said. Eponin snorted.
"Gabrielle would probably be a little upset if you killed her weapons master," Eponin commented.
"I know," Xena said, grinning in a distinctly ruthless manner. "That's why I'd hate to do it."
"You can't really cut off the flow to people's brains," Eponin stated firmly. "Can you?" she added uncertainly.
"You wanna' find out?" Xena drawled walking towards Eponin where she had retreated to a corner of the room.
"All right, all right. Can't you just bribe or cajole like normal people?" Eponin said, holding her hands up to signal her cooperation.
"Nah. This is much more fun," Xena said with a broad smile. "So spill it."
"Lorien was an Amazon here," Eponin started.
"No, really?" Xena said sarcastically.
"Do you want to hear this or not?" Eponin said, seating herself on the edge of a rack of blunted swords.
"Sorry. Do go on," Xena replied, making herself equally comfortable against the stand containing other wrapped chobos.
"Anyway," Eponin continued, letting out a loud breath and crossing her arms. "When Terreis died and Gabrielle was given her rite of caste, Lorien left. Apparently she had a long conversation with Melosa - some say it was an argument - and afterwards, Lorien broke her warrior's mask, representing her split with the Amazon Nation. Melosa declared Lorien dead to us, and we were not to speak of her again."
"That was succinct," Xena commented dryly.
"Hey," Eponin protested. "I'm a warrior, not a bard."
"So what's this about a return?" Xena asked, ignoring Eponin's indignant remark.
"Well, Lorien is something of a legend with the younger Amazons," Eponin started to explain. "Thelestris joined us recently from another tribe, but she probably heard about Lorien from them."
"I thought Melosa decreed she wasn't to be spoken of?" Xena interjected.
"Will you stop interrupting me?" Eponin asked. At Xena's somewhat contrite look, Eponin continued. "Even though we were ordered not to speak of her, most still did, but only behind closed doors. So, it's rumored that Lorien didn't actually break her mask and is still a member of the nation."
"So what does that have to do with me and my 'place' here?" Xena asked, eyes narrowing.
"Well," Eponin said, looking down, scuffing the toe of her boot along the floor and looking distinctly uncomfortable. "Terreis had offered her the Rite of Caste. She turned it down, but the mere offer gives her certain rights. One of this is the right to challenge the for the mask if the current Queen is ruling under the right of caste that they were offered."
Xena hummed, thinking. "If she had a valid claim to the Queen's mask and didn't break her own mask, why did she leave?"
"She was Terreis' lover," Eponin said quietly.
"Oh," Xena responded, genuinely surprised. It seemed strange to her that they hadn't met or at least heard of Lorien when Terreis was killed. "There's more, isn't there?" she asked, seeing that Eponin still looked uncomfortable.
"Yeah, well, it's been rumored that she left because she blames Gabrielle for Terreis' death and didn't want to live here while she was Princess. Lorien respected Melosa and wouldn't have dreamed of challenging her for the mask, but some think that Lorien planned to return after Melosa's death so she could challenge Gabrielle's rank," Eponin said casually, wincing at the stillness and silence coming from Xena's side of the room. Eponin looked up at the warrior, and saw that her face was blank, but her hands were clenched into fists at her sides.
"Finish the rest of it, Eponin," Xena said, knowing enough about Amazon law to expect what was coming.
"Because Gabrielle assumed the rank and position of Lorien's partner, it is a matter of both honor and rank. Lorien could name a champion, but Gabrielle could not," Eponin finished, cringing a little.
"I think we'll hold off on the sparring," Xena said, leaving a relieved Eponin behind.
I don't know how long I ran. Time had ceased to have any meaning for me back in the warlord's camp, and day and night had no impact on me, either. I stopped when I was tired, slept when weary, and foraged when hungry. I do know that I found a stream almost right away, as the camp had been near a water source. I followed the stream up river, and I sometimes wonder how different my life would be if I had run the other way.
The warlord's camp was on a broad, flat plain, with tall grasses and the occasional tree. At my first rest stop under one such tree, I looked back and saw a very clear trail that even my untrained eye could detect. Some survival instinct must have dictated my actions from that point on, for realizing how easily I could be followed if anyone cared to pursue, I spent the next five stretches of travelling time walking knee deep in the stream against the water's flow.
The cold water, however, woke up a part of me. I had become used to the pain caused by my constantly beaten body, but cold was not familiar to my foggy mind. The warlord's tent was always warm. I do not write his name for the simple reason that I do not know it. I have never known what he was called, except that I was to call him 'Master.' I was his property and I existed solely to amuse him and anyone else he instructed me to obey, as he was fond of reminding me. The cold, however, reminded me that I was a person and that I had a choice. I could return to my master and he would whip me for attempting to escape, or I could trudge on into the unknown.
I trudged on.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called as she entered the Queen's hut.
"Oh, hi Xena," Gabrielle said distractedly from her seat on the bed with her back up against the wall and her legs tucked underneath her. She went back to her reading after offering the warrior a small smile.
"Gabrielle, we need to talk," Xena said, seating herself on the edge of the bed next to the bard.
"In a bit, hold on," Gabrielle said, unrolling more of the scroll and still reading.
"Gabrielle," Xena said a little more forcefully, placing a hand on her arm.
"What?" Gabrielle said, looking up startled. "Xena, what is it?"
"Well, now that I have your attention," Xena said wryly, "we need to talk about someone named Lorien."
"Oh, gods, Xena," Gabrielle said, smacking the warrior on the shoulder. "I thought you had something awful to tell me."
"Gabrielle, this is serious - " Xena started, only to be interrupted by the bard.
"Ephiny told me all about Lorien this morning, while you, warrior princess," Gabrielle said, poking the warrior in the ribs causing Xena to jump a little in her seat, "were out playing with Amazons instead of unpacking all this stuff."
"Ephiny told you about Lorien?" Xena asked, somewhat confused that Ephiny had mentioned it when Eponin was sure that Ephiny didn't want Gabrielle to know.
"Yes. And how did you hear about Lorien?" Gabrielle asked, her eyebrows drawing together.
"Someone mentioned it at the practice fields and I grilled Eponin for the details," Xena answered.
"You didn't leave any marks, did you?" Gabrielle asked lightly, smiling.
"No, I didn't leave any marks," Xena said, tapping Gabrielle on the nose. "A certain Amazon Queen, but I'm not naming any names, would be very upset if I did," Xena said, smiling back. Gabrielle's eyes twinkled at Xena's teasing. It had taken a long time for Xena to show this side of herself to Gabrielle, and Gabrielle never got tired of seeing it. Suddenly, a horrid thought came to the bard.
"Xena, you didn't put the pinch on her, did you?" Gabrielle asked suspiciously, knowing how closed-mouthed Eponin could be.
"Of course not!" Xena said, smirking openly. "I just threatened to."
"Xena," Gabrielle began, a warning tone to her voice.
"Before you get all upset at me, bard, Eponin didn't believe me."
"She didn't believe you'd put the pinch on her?"
"No, she didn't believe I could put the pinch on her. Apparently," Xena said, laughing as she remembered the looks on Thelestris and her friends' faces after the short fight that morning, "your Amazons don't believe I can actually do most of the things that appear in your stories, bard."
"Why are they always my Amazons when they're doing something stupid?" Gabrielle asked, mock pouting slightly.
"Whoa there," Xena said, holding up both of her hands and trying not to stare at the lower lip Gabrielle had stuck out invitingly. "They are never my Amazons, stupid or otherwise," she pointed out reasonably.
"Can't they be Ephiny's Amazons?" Gabrielle asked hopefully, ducking her head and looking up at Xena through her eyelashes and giving her best puppy look.
"Nope," Xena said cheerfully, grinning. "You're the Queen, and aren't they lucky?" she finished, earning a smile from Gabrielle.
"Thanks," Gabrielle said looking up into Xena's incredible eyes.
"So how did the subject of Lorien come up?" Xena asked, a little uncomfortable with how the conversation was going. After kissing Gabrielle in the dreamscape, Xena figured she had - in her own way - told the bard how she felt about her. Since her return, Gabrielle had not broached the subject, so Xena assumed that, while Gabrielle loved her dearly, her feelings were only those of friendship. When Xena was being honest with herself, she acknowledged just how much that hurt, but for the most part she realized that this was for the best. Gabrielle deserved better.
"Oh!" Gabrielle said, remembering the scroll in her lap. A light blush stole across her features, and she hoped Xena wouldn't notice. After the kiss in the dreamscape, Gabrielle had hoped Xena felt for her what she felt for Xena, but Xena had never mentioned it, even in passing. Though she had to live with the knowledge that Xena's feelings didn't run as deep as her own, she was eternally grateful for each day they had alive and well together. "There's a whole pile of scrolls written by Lorien in with Terreis' things," Gabrielle said, gesturing to the one in her lap. "I've been reading since the council ended."
"How did the council go?"
"Umm, fine. Just fine," Gabrielle said, a little to enthusiastically.
"Not buying it, bard," Xena drawled, noticing immediately that Gabrielle stiffened up at the mention of the meeting.
"Weeellll," Gabrielle said, drawing out the word and fidgeting with the scroll. "Theyneedmetostaylonger," she got out in a rush.
"All right," Xena said, surprising Gabrielle with her ready agreement. Xena wanted to see if she could find out more about this Lorien person to determine if she really posed a threat. Though the rumors worried her a little, she realized that they could be just rumors.
"You're not mad?" Gabrielle asked, concerned.
"No, I'm not mad," Xena assured her. "I'd rather leave tomorrow like we planned, but if they need you a few days longer, that's fine." Xena stopped and frowned at Gabrielle. "It is just a few days, right?"
"Oh yeah," Gabrielle said, nodding her head and patting Xena on the arm. "Priestess Kahla needs to speak with me."
"And you need to stay longer to do that?" Xena asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Apparently," Gabrielle said, sighing, "this meeting has to take place the day after tomorrow under the Hunter's Moon."
"Priestesses!" Xena exclaimed, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.
"I'm sure there's a very good reason," Gabrielle said.
"Like what, exactly?" Xena drawled. Gabrielle stopped her protest to really think, then realized she couldn't come up with one good reason.
"It's lucky?" Gabrielle ventured.
"Luck? Ha!" Xena said. "I think they just want to keep you here. Not that I blame them."
"Oh?" Gabrielle asked innocently. "And why wouldn't you blame them?" she inquired, with a twinkle in her eye.
"Ah ah ah." Xena admonished. "Now you're just asking for compliments. That doesn't count," she said. 'Gotta' be more careful about that,' Xena reminded herself. During her time in Tartarus, Xena had realized that missing Gabrielle was a far greater torture than one the gods could devise. After her return, she often found herself starting to do or say something uncharacteristically demonstrative and had to stop herself before she made Gabrielle uncomfortable. 'She knows how you feel,' Xena told herself, 'so just let her decide what she's comfortable with.' The only time Xena intentionally let her guard down was at night when they slept in each other's arms, both needing the reassurance that the other was there.
"But how am I supposed to remember just how wonderful I am if no one tells me?" Gabrielle asked, wrinkling her nose at Xena.
"Well, now. That's a good point." Xena pretended to think for a moment, and Gabrielle looked at her suspiciously, noticing the mischievous glint in her eye. "Tell you what," Xena drawled, leaning closer. "How about, every single time I'm thinking about how wonderful you are, I give you a nice Tickle!" Xena said, pouncing on the too slow bard and suiting actions to words, grinning broadly at Gabrielle's squawk of laughter.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled, giggling and struggling for breath, squirming underneath Xena's upper body leaning over her and pinning her to the bed, kicking her legs and generally creating a ruckus. "Xena! Stop! That!"
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I'm still thinking about how wonderful you are," she teased, bending low and touching foreheads with the bard as she continued to dance her fingers along Gabrielle's ribs.
"Then stop thinking about it," Gabrielle gasped, looking up at Xena and finally managing to clamp her hands around the warrior's wrists. Unfortunately, pulling with all her strength only moved the hands from her sides for a moment.
"Nope," Xena said, smiling broadly. "You're just so cute when you're laughing I can think of nothing else," she declared dramatically. 'That was a mistake,' Xena thought, taking in Gabrielle's deep green eyes at close range and the flush on her cheeks. Her fingers unconsciously slowed, and Gabrielle was able to breathe again, taking in deep slow breaths. Without her permission, Xena's fingers slowly caressed Gabrielle's sides, and Gabrielle's eyelids lowered slightly.
Entranced by Xena's strong face so close to her own, without thinking about it first, Gabrielle raised her head slightly. Gabrielle caressed Xena's cheek she reached for Xena's lips with her own. Xena's breathing stopped at Gabrielle's touch as Gabrielle leaned closer, their lips a hair's breadth apart.
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny asked poking her head in the door and knocking at the same time. "Hera's tits!" she exclaimed, the usually unflappable warrior uncharacteristically swearing as Xena pulled back sharply and stood up to stand beside the bed. A corner of her mind told her to get out and shut the door - maybe post a guard or two? - but the rest of her mind was still processing the image of the walking, talking advertisements for platonic love in a clinch. So she just stood and stared, her mouth hanging open.
Gabrielle recovered the power of speech first. "Uh, Eph," she stammered, blushing deeply. "We were just, uh," she continued, her mind racing for a suitable explanation.
"We can talk later," Xena said, standing up and running a hand through her hair and barely fighting back a blush to match Gabrielle's. Quickly composed, Xena walked past the still staring regent. "Later, Eph."
"Uh, come on in, Eph," the embarrassed bard said, smiling sheepishly. A command from her queen seemed to break Ephiny from her stupor, and her legs moved her into the room, if somewhat stiffly, and she closed the door behind her gingerly as if reluctant to close off her only avenue of escape. "So what's up?" Gabrielle asked, leaning against the wall of the hut from her position cross-legged on the bed and forcing her mind off the near kiss.
"I was wondering if you've gone over Lorien's scrolls," she said hesitantly.
"Yes, I've started reading them," Gabrielle said, leaning over and picking up the scroll she was currently reading from its forgotten place on the floor next to the bed.
"I'd like to look them over when you're done, if I may," Ephiny requested.
"Sure, but don't you already know this story?" Gabrielle asked. Ephiny shook her head and looked a little embarrassed.
"I've heard it, but only second or third hand," she said quietly. "Terreis and Lorien were very good friends, and they're both gone. I wanted to read what Lorien had written."
"Of course, Ephiny. If you'd like, you can just take them now. I can read them later," Gabrielle offered immediately.
"Oh, no. Just whenever you're done is fine," Ephiny hastily assured her. "They belong to you, and it is right you should read them first."
"Ephiny," Gabrielle said reproachfully, frowning slightly. "These belong to the people who knew and loved them. I only met Terreis briefly, and I think I would have liked her, but I never really knew them."
"That's why you should read them first, bard," Ephiny said, smiling, her voice taking on a formal tone.. "It would be an honor to their memory for a storyteller of your skill to learn of them, and perhaps speak of them?"
"All right, Ephiny," Gabrielle returned the smile and the formality. The small pieces of the story she had been able to read so far had already touched her. "I will speak of them."
"Good," Ephiny said, nodding her head. "Now, what exactly did I walk in on here, my Queen?" she asked, mock glaring down at the young woman seated on the bed.
"That was, um," Gabrielle said, inwardly cursing that Ephiny had made her blush again just as she had gotten it under control.
"Look," Ephiny said, holding up a hand to stop the stuttering bard. "I wasn't born yesterday, and I know what that was. I guess what I'm asking is, when in Artemis' name did that happen? And why didn't you tell me?" she demanded, though the smile in her eyes belied her tone. Now that she had a chance to process the idea, the whole thing seemed painfully obvious, and she didn't understand why she hadn't thought of it before.
"Just now," Gabrielle muttered, looking down at her folded hands.
"Just now, like you feel you told me 'just now' or 'just now' just now?" Ephiny asked, then tried to make sense of her own question.
"'Just now' just now," Gabrielle clarified, somehow deciphering Ephiny's comment.
"You two just got together just now?" Ephiny asked again, needing to make sure she was following.
"Not really. We were talking, then she was tickling me, and then I almost kissed her, then you came in and she left and what am I going to say to her when she gets back?" Gabrielle prattled off with a series of very expressive hand gestures.
"Oh Gods, Gabrielle. I am so sorry," Ephiny said, mentally kicking herself.
"It's not your fault, Eph. We should have had this talk a long time ago. I mean, she kissed me once, and we didn't talk about it at all and - "
"Wait! Back up. She kissed you once?"
"Yes, but she was dead at the time, and -"
"Whoa! She was dead at the time? Isn't that a little, umm ... "
"No! When Xena was in Autolycus' body, I got pulled into this kind of dreamscape place, and it was Xena and not Autolycus there and we talked and she kissed me - "
"And you didn't talk about the kiss when she was dead after she was alive again, right?" Ephiny rubbed her temples with her thumb and forefinger. This was giving her a headache.
"Exactly. So we should have talked about it, but we didn't and it just about happened again and what if we don't talk about it?" Gabrielle suddenly thought, finding that idea more horrifying than thinking up something to say. 'All right,' she told herself. 'So they're equally horrifying.'
"Hey, don't worry," Ephiny said, seating herself on the edge of the bed and pulling a confused bard into her arms. "This will all work out," Ephiny assured her, rocking her gently.
"What if it changes everything? I shouldn't have tried to kiss her." Gabrielle asked in a small voice, pulling back to look Ephiny in the face as she voiced the fear that had kept her silent all this time. "What if that made her uncomfortable and she leaves?"
"That woman came back from the dead for you. Nothing is going to make her leave you."
"No problem. What are regents for?" she teased, earning a smile from her friend. "Look, I'm going to get going, but I'll see you for dinner, all right?" Ephiny asked, standing and making her way to the door.
"Yeah, that'll be fine," Gabrielle said as Ephiny opened the door to leave. "Oh, and Eph?" she asked, causing Ephiny to pause in the doorway and look back at her. "Don't mention this to anyone, all right?" she requested hopefully.
"What? Our Queen is having a romance and you want me to keep this quiet?" she asked incredulously.
"Ephiny! I am not having a romance. Xena might not even feel the same way," Gabrielle said seriously.
"I was kidding, Gabrielle." And then Ephiny was gone.
Letting out a long-suffering sigh, Gabrielle unfurled the scroll she had been reading and picked up where she had left off, hoping the story would distract her from worrying.
My whole world was narrowed down to the feel of the water on my legs and the sting of the cuts along my back, arms and torso. Some were caused by a whip; others by a knife. All were remembrances of the price of disobedience and I feared being caught. With that in mind, I glanced behind me, noting for the first time that I was bleeding. Luckily, the force of the stream dispersed the blood, and just a few lengths behind me, no trace of it was left. It would not leave a trail, and so I was unconcerned.
One foot moved in front of the other, one step at a time. I could not think further ahead than that one step. I did not know where I was going or how long it would take to get there. I just knew I needed to be further away from where I was at each moment. The only thing that marked the passing time was the change of terrain. The land started sloping into hills, then the long grasses of the plains gave way to trees and bushes. Eventually, the hills gave way to a forest-covered mountain. Some corner of my mind made small note of these changes, but the rest of me just moved onward.
At one of my stops to rest, I noticed my feet were raw and bleeding from the rocks of the river. Thankfully, they were numb from the cold and I looked at them as if they were someone else's feet; as if they were giving someone else pain. I wore just a simple linen skirt - a strip of cloth tied around my waist, really. My breasts were bare as my master insisted, so he could play with them at his leisure while entertaining guests or holding councils of war. Though the stream was cold, the air was warm, and all my illusions of modesty and dignity had already been stripped from me until my spirit was as bare as my breasts. So I removed the filthy linen and wrapped my feet as best as I was able and resolved to walk into the forest and away from the stream.
I do not know what kind of madness made me take this course of action. Move away from a reliable water source? Ridiculous! Maybe a corner of my mind had given up and insisted the rest of me do so as well. Maybe a corner of my mind knew what would happen and that my salvation lie within the forest. Despite the source of the plan, I accepted it and followed it, first stopping to drink my fill and thank the river for its kindness.
I walked under the thick canopy of trees, and it seemed an eternity. The scenery was the same, for all about me were trees and earth and shadows. I could not see the sky, and even during the day it was dark. It was cool in the forest, and I could feel the goosebumps stand up on my body. Eventually, I came to a clearing and saw that it was night. The moon was out and looked so strange and alien to me that at first I did not recognize the silvery orb floating in the sky. It's light showed me a small mound of green grass covered somehow in wildflower, and I think I wept at the beauty of this little moonlit glade.
I lay on the grass amidst the sweet-smelling wildflowers and prayed to the gods that I might die; that my last vision in this world might be this enchanting place. My weariness finally caught up with me and I realized how spent the reserves of my body really were. My wounds had scabbed over, but they were tender and red and I was sure they were infected. My ribs stood out against my skin and I couldn't remember when last I had eaten. I realized I was going to die and I thanked the gods for their mercy in taking me from this world instead of handing me back to my master.
A bird call sounded, and I smiled despite the pain, thinking how lucky I was to have survived such torment and to at last be allowed to cross over in peace. My journey was over and I was so very grateful. My mind drifted as I watched the moon watching me, and the smile didn't leave my face until I realized there was a group of silent warriors around me.
I sat up then gasped as a wave of dizziness hit me. The silent warriors did not move, merely pointing their spears and arrows at me, and I marveled at their great dark faces. Their visages were animal, but their bodies human and female. Instead of hair, they had feathers, and there were beads adorning their clothes and weapons, making me wonder how they snuck up on me without a sound. I panicked, thinking that my master had summoned inhuman warriors to track me and take me back to him, and I scrambled into a crouch and started backing away. Their leader, or the one I assumed to be the leader, for she stood in front, removed the animal face, and I realized these were women wearing masks.
Her eyes were questioning and kind, but it is only in hindsight that I know this. At the time, kindness was so foreign to me that I did not recognize it in her face. Slowly, she put down her spear and her mask, approaching me with one hand outstretched palm up and speaking softly.
One of the others grabbed her arm and said, "Terreis, no!"
"Let go of me, Valaska," she said in a cold hard tone, jerking her arm away.
"Let's just kill her and go. She's trespassing on our lands," the one called Valaska whispered, thinking I would not hear.
"That is not how we treat women who come to us," Terreis said sharply.
"We're in the middle of a war," Valaska countered.
"She needs help," the one called Terreis said simple. "I order you to stand down," she finished, and the one called Valaska dropped her hand and blushed at the rebuke. Terreis turned to me again.
"It's all right," she said in a much warmer tone, resuming her approach. I grew angry. I did not know if they were going to take me back to my master or try to save me, but I knew they would not kill me. I did not want to leave this place alive, for here was peace. I wanted to lie down in the beautiful glade and die, but this woman would not let me. Her face was that of a goddess, that much I could tell, and her voice was reassuring, but I would not fall for such tricks. This was a deception and these people wished to taunt me with hope before I was enslaved again.
"What's your name?" she asked, getting closer. I retreated backwards towards the edge of the glade, hoping my spent limbs would carry me far enough to hide, so that I could wait them out and return. But first, I had to get away.
Terreis grew nearer, and when she was just about close enough to touch me, I acted. I think I surprised both of us with how quickly I moved. I flung a handful of dirt into her eyes and fled into the night.
I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and the shouts of alarm rising into the night.. Then I heard a voice cry out, "No. Let her go," just as I found a fallen log and a trench to hide in. I slipped into the covered spot, my breathing ragged and painfully loud to my ears. I waited until my body had calmed down, then I listened. I heard nothing but the sound of the forest, so I crept from my sanctuary. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, but I was determined to die in my glade, and no other place.
When I was once again standing on the small grassy hill amongst the wildflowers, there was a small satchel of food and a water skin waiting for me. Though I wished only to die, my body took over and I consumed the offerings. Though I suspected this was a trick of some kind to enslave me again, my base survival instincts would not be denied. And so, tired but full for the first time since I escaped from the warlord, I slept in the beautiful glade, knowing that my death was just delayed.
"That wasn't how I expected that encounter to go at all," Gabrielle mused aloud, looking up from the scroll and staring off into space at the opposite wall. Eventually, the sight before her eyes registered, and Gabrielle noticed the angle of the sun's rays slanting into the room through the window. "I'm late for dinner!" she exclaimed, then hurried out of the hut to make her way to the dining hall.
"Eponin. Spar. Now," Xena said in a low growling voice, having sought out the weapons master immediately upon leaving Gabrielle in the Queen's hut with Ephiny. Eponin looked pleadingly at the other masters she had been conversing with, but none of them seemed to want to save her from sparring with the visibly agitated warrior princess. In fact, they seemed to find it amusing, which made Eponin angry.
"Something funny?" Eponin asked Solari, glaring at her.
"Talk to Solari later," Xena said through gritted teeth.
"Fine. Let's go," Eponin said, with one last glare at Solari. Xena and Eponin made their way quickly to the practice yard, and without a word, both warriors drew their swords.
"Come on," Solari said, dragging the hunt master and the healing master after her. "I gotta' see this." Tyra and Rania protested their rough treatment at the hands of the scout master, but grinned and followed when Solari threw up her hands and ran to the practice field.
Word spread that once again Xena stood on the practice field, only this time she stood against Eponin to spar, rather than inexperienced warriors to teach. The two combatants circled each other as Amazons who heard the news dropped their chores and converged upon the field.
Eponin closed distance, taking a lazy swipe at Xena's left flank that was easily parried. Xena returned with a twirling of her wrist and an overhand cut towards Eponin's head. Eponin casually caught the blade against her own and stepped back a pace for a moment before re-engaging with a slow series of attacks to test Xena's defenses.
Xena recognized the standard training series and found Eponin's rhythm, parrying by rote in what seemed more of a dance than a fight. Eponin returned the series again, faster this time, then again still faster, her blade a blur of motion. On the last attack, where the series should have ended with a thrust at Xena's midsection, she instead made a swipe to Xena's throat. Xena reversed the motion of her parry, catching Eponin's blade a hair's breath from her neck and smiled.
Uh oh, Eponin thought as Xena launched her own series of controlled attacks, giving her own test of Eponin's defenses. Eponin's blood sang with the heat of battle, and Xena let out a low laugh as she found Eponin rising to the challenge of her exacting standard.
Like a teacher reading a student's lessons, Xena wordlessly pulled every attack and defense from Eponin she was capable of, and a few Eponin pulled off through sheer adrenaline and determination. Xena felt the thrill of combat sing through her veins, and though Eponin was not her equal, she was a worthy opponent who allowed her to practice advanced skill rarely called upon in her travels.
Eponin fought like never before, and though a part of her longed to deny that here was a skill that far surpassed her own, another part - a part that realized she had grown complacent - gloried in the challenge and the chance for improvement that Xena represented.
They went around and around, their movements dictated by instinct and the muscle memory instilled from years of practice before slowing and eventually coming to a stop as if by some silent agreement as Eponin was exhausted and Xena had worked off her frustration. The combatants noticed for the first time there was a large silent crowd watching, their awe at the battle leaving them without a thing to say.
Xena sheathed her sword and raised an eyebrow. "Huh. Quiet Amazons. Never thought I'd see the day," she commented wryly.
"Oooh, Xena made a joke," Ephiny rejoined, sheathing her own sword and shaking the tired limbs loose. "All right," Eponin called out to the crowd. "Show's over. Don't you have work to do?" The spell broken, the Amazons started talking about the fight and wandering back to their forgotten chores.
"So," Eponin said, turning to Xena when only a few Amazons were left talking amongst themselves out of earshot. "Did you just give me the workout of my life over the Lorien thing, or was this about something else entirely?" she asked quietly.
"How about a drink?" Xena responded, obviously avoiding the question. 'Ah,' Eponin thought. 'Something else is bothering Xena.' Knowing that if Xena wanted to talk she would, and if she didn't, prying would just piss her off, Eponin let the subject drop. She wasn't feeling up to going another round with the Warrior Princess, so she motioned with one arm for Xena to lead the way and the warriors went to the kitchens to grab a couple flagons of wine.
"It's not dinner time yet," Saear, the master cook, informed the pair.
"Really, I could have sworn ... " Eponin said, pretending to think, then making a big show of looking out the window, causing Saear to look as well. Using the distraction, Xena quickly snitched the wine, hiding it behind her back and edging towards the door. "Oh, my mistake," Eponin said apologetically. "I'm terribly sorry for the interruption," she continued as Xena made good her escape. "I'll be back on time!" she assured the cook, then made her own way out as well.
"Mmmm," Xena said, unstoppering the wine and sniffing it delicately.
"Here, let me have one," Eponin said, to which Xena handed over a flagon.
"Couldn't we have just asked?" Xena wondered out loud as they made their way into the empty dining hall.
"Nah. It's more fun this way," Eponin said, using Xena's earlier words against her. That got a half smile from the warrior, and Eponin chuckled, seating herself at the long table as Xena sat opposite her. "To the Queen," Eponin said, making the standard opening toast.
"Ah, to the Queen," Xena agreed, glad that Eponin had immediately taken a drink and missed Xena's slight frown.
"So, not that we mind or anything, but what brought you and Gabrielle to the village?" Eponin asked, still drinking directly from the flagon.
"We helped a town just a few days ride south of here," Xena explained. "We figured that since we were so close we'd stop by."
Eponin nodded. "So everything's going fine in the helping people business?" she inquired.
Eponin nodded again. "Argo doin' all right?"
Eponin was still nodding. "Not one for conversation, are you?"
Eponin was still nodding, but now also looking around the dining hall for inspiration. 'Hmmm. I wonder if ... ?' "Hold that thought," she said, then stood up from the table as Xena continued to drink and starting collecting the decorative knives and spears from the walls before piling them in the center of the table between her seat and Xena's. "All right, here's the deal. I pick a spot on one of these walls. From my seated position, I say I can hit it with a spear or a dagger. We decide how many pulls from one of these large flagons of very alcoholic wine each spot is worth. If I hit the spot, you drink. If I miss, I drink. Then it's your turn. Got it?" Eponin explained a common Amazon drinking game.
Not one to get rip-roaring drunk and play with sharp objects, Xena was about to refuse, but then realized that if she ended up in the healer's hut, she probably wouldn't be expected to talk to Gabrielle about that kiss. 'Or "almost kiss,"' Xena silently amended. 'I think she was going to kiss me, but what if I'm remembering it wrong? What if it's just wishful thinking on my part?' Xena had been startled by her reaction to the heated look in Gabrielle's eyes when she had leaned closer, her lips a breath away. It had been unsettling, and had done things to Xena that required a very strenuous workout to get it out of her system, but Xena couldn't help but wonder if the bard felt the same way. 'What if Gabrielle was just experimenting? She is the Amazon Queen, and she's never kissed a woman before.' The thought made Xena frown, and suddenly drinking a lot and throwing knives seemed like a great idea.
"Got it," Xena said.
"Okay. How about the knothole about seven feet from the ground almost directly behind you for two drinks?" Eponin asked, squinting, turning her head a little to the side and looking over Xena's left shoulder.
"Knife or spear?" Xena asked.
"Knife," Eponin said. Xena nodded as Eponin picked up a knife, checked its balance, then flung it over Xena's left shoulder to land squarely in the center of the knothole. Xena took two drinks.
"All right. Just above the ceremonial mask over the Queen's chair. Spear. Five drinks," Xena said, pointing all the way down the long table to the other side of the hall.
"Hmmm," Eponin said, considering. "Three drinks. Spear's got a longer range."
"Yes, but it's not as accurate and it's more awkward sitting down," Xena pointed out.
"Fair enough," Eponin said, then watched as Xena hefted a spear in one hand, twisted at the torso so she was facing the proper direction and throw the spear at the intended target. Eponin drank.
"So," Eponin said, when there was one spear and one knife left on the table and the flagons were almost empty. "What really made you run out to spar with me?" she asked, tilting slightly in her seat and slurring her words. Xena sat steadily, but the impression she gave of constant alertness was softened and her eyes were a little glassy.
"Gabrielle almost kissed me," she admitted, enunciating each word carefully, then putting her elbow down on the table and propping up her head in one hand. She drank from her flagon and Eponin did the same, the game actually forgotten half a candlemark ago. After the first 'mark, they had started swapping battle stories, then amusing anecdotes, then embarrassing childhood tales. When they had run out, they started asking questions, and Xena learned all about Eponin's unlucky wooing of Saear.
"Gabs did what?" Eponin said, referring to her Queen affectionately, if not as formally as she would sober.
"Gabrielle. Almost. Kissed. Me. Did I stutter?" Xena clarified, drinking again.
"Wow," Eponin said, getting a dreamy look on her face. "She's so cute, too! You lucky dog," she continued, the drink making her bold - or stupid - enough to ignore the fact that a comment like that to a sober Xena would result in a nice long stay in the healer's hut.
"Yeah," Xena said, equally dreamy before sitting up straight and replacing her usual stoic look. She frowned.
"So what happened?" Eponin asked, missing the sudden change in the warrior.
"Hmph. Ephiny walked in before we actually kissed and I haven't seen Gabrielle since."
"Shouldn't you go talk to her?"
"What'll I say?"
"That, my friend, is for you to decide."
"Knothole in the rafter right above us. Knife. Finish off the flagon," Xena said after studying the ceiling for a moment.
"The knothole on the underside of the rafter? It'll never stick," Eponin said. Xena raised an eyebrow, grasped the knife in a now steady hand, and looking Eponin right in the eye, threw the knife, sinking it into the wood with a loud THUNK. Xena continued to look right at Eponin as the weapon master's gaze traveled upwards.
"Son of a Bachae," she muttered. Eponin drank. "Hmmm. Almost dinner time," Eponin mused, hearing what could only be chattering Amazons approaching the doors.
"Dinner time?" Xena asked, her eyes losing the glassy look and her face growing tense with the returned awareness of her surroundings. 'Dinner means Gabrielle. I'll have to talk to Gabrielle.' Though the thought sobered the warrior immensely, she was still in such a state that it didn't occur to her that Gabrielle couldn't very well talk to her in a hall full of Amazons. "I, uh, gotta' go check on Argo," Xena said, standing abruptly.
"Waitaminute," Eponin protested. "Aren't you going to talk to Gabrielle about that kiss?" she asked, a little too loudly for Xena who was all too aware that the other Amazons were starting to arrive.
Xena leaned over the table and spoke in a low growl. "We didn't actually kiss. And you will not mention that to anyone," Xena demanded, frowning at the rebellious look on Eponin's face. "I mean it, Eponin, unless you'd like Gabrielle and I to extend this visit for at least two weeks, during which you will spar with me every day and I will not go easy on you anymore. Got me?"
Eponin's face quickly drained of all color and she nodded silently.
"In fact," Xena added, turning to go, "we never had this conversation."
"What conversation?" Eponin asked innocently.
"Good," Xena drawled, before fleeing the dining hall. 'Warriors don't flee,' she sternly reminded herself. 'They make tactical retreats.' She hoped Eponin kept her uncharacteristic ramblings to herself. 'It was easier being a warlord when I could just kill people when I didn't want them to talk,' Xena mused, making her way to the edge of the village. 'Of course, no one ever said this whole redeeming myself thing would be easy.' Xena slipped past the sentries at the edge of the building and made her way into the forest. 'Of course, she was really drunk. Maybe she won't remember.'
Xena moved without even a whisper of sound through the underbrush, not disturbing any of the flora or fauna around her. 'Becoming one with the forest, Gabrielle would probably call it,' Xena thought with a smirk. She wasn't sure where she wanted to go, and was not, in fact, familiar with every inch of this forest, though her innate sense of direction gave people the impression that she was.
Further and further from the village Xena traveled, slipping into the dark shadows cast by the thick canopy of trees overhead. The low light made seeing difficult, and so she reached out with her senses, every scent and sound and change in the movement of the air around her against her skin painted a picture. There was a squirrel behind her and to her right climbing up a tree, cheeks puffed out carrying nuts and there were birds in the trees all around. Xena knew, without looking, where each one was.
Eventually, she came to a little clearing with a small grass-covered hill and wildflowers. The moon was clearly visible through the break in the trees, and Xena looked up at it, a small peaceful half-smile coming over her features. She ascended the small hill - just a bump in the ground, really, and removed her sword, but kept in near to hand and lay down amidst the wildflowers and grass, looking up at the night sky, suddenly wishing that Gabrielle were there.
'Gabrielle,' she mused to herself. 'What to do about Gabrielle?'
Everything was changing. Xena sighed and frowned, wondering if that was really such a bad thing. 'Yes,' she thought emphatically. All of the changes in her life had brought nothing but pain to herself and others. Lyceus' dying, becoming a warlord, meeting Caesar. All these events had forever changed her, marking her soul like fate had taken a searing brand to it. Even meeting Hercules had caused more pain, for even though she didn't regret turning from her dark path and helping people as she had dreamed long ago in Amphipolis, she was no longer the girl she had been. That girl had died with Lyceus, and the woman she was now couldn't let go of her terrible past. Every day as she struggled along this new road, she looked back and remembered all the destruction her anger had wrought. And though she fought for good, it was never - could never - be enough.
'Enough. Enough of this self-pity,' she scolded herself, letting the peace of the glade wash over her and settle her wayward thoughts. 'You've established that change is bad, so where does that leave you?' she asked herself. 'Hopelessly in love with someone who deserves so much better than you,' was the stark brutal answer. Xena's heart and mind waged a war while she lay on the hill patiently awaiting the outcome.
'But I've changed. I'm not the person I was then. Can't I be what she needs?'
'Perhaps before Cortese I could have been, but I've done so much since then I can't be sorry enough for. I don't deserve to be happy.'
'Doesn't Gabrielle deserve to be happy? Wouldn't I give her anything in my power to provide just to see her smile?'
'But how could I be what she wants? And would I let her have something - no matter how much she wanted it or how big she would smile - if it was bad for her or would hurt her?'
'Of course I wouldn't. How could I ask her to spend the rest of her life with me? How could I bind her to my side with my love for her? At least now she's free to go. How could I be that selfish?'
'What if she doesn't love me like that? What if she leaves me?'
Growling out loud and pounding her fists into the grass at her sides, Xena silenced the 'what ifs' running through her mind.
'That's the real problem, isn't it, Xena?' she taunted herself. 'You know she's going to wake up one morning and realize what you really are. She'll decide she can't handle your past. She'll look at you, and you'll expect the trust and acceptance you've always seen, but it won't be there. No, you'll see fear and disgust in her eyes. That day will break your heart, but you'll live. If you were lovers and she looked at you like that, you wouldn't survive.'
Weariness, frustration, and a little too much wine overtook her and Xena fell asleep leagues away from the Amazon village.
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