Xena stood outside the cave, having followed Lorien's tracks to the entrance. A sense of relief came over Xena at having found what she sought, but at the same time, a sense of apprehension came over her. 'Something isn't right,' she told herself. 'If Thelestris isn't lying, where is the army or followers Lorien is supposed to have?' Xena's face took on a thoughtful expression as she puzzled out the possible implications.
Countless scenarios quickly made their way into Xena's mind agile. 'No matter,' Xena thought. 'Whatever is really going on doesn't change the fact that Lorien is a threat to Gabrielle.'
A small drop of water slipped down the side of the rocky surface of the stalactite, its path pre-ordained along the smooth line where countless drops had traveled before it. It stopped for just a moment, poised at the tip of the stone, hesitating. Finally, it fell, soundlessly falling through the air. It landed in the small pool of water, making a happy 'plink' of greeting to all the other drops who had gone before, and they in turn rippled outwards, spreading the news that another of their own had followed where they had led. As the ripples died down, another drop formed and began its descent.
Lorien stared at the droplets, their rhythmic movements fascinating her. She sometimes wished that she were a water droplet and that she could rejoin those she belonged with through a simple journey along a well-worn trail down the side of a stalactite. Still staring, Lorien did not bother to turn her head and look when she heard a noise behind her that was totally alien to her cave. It had been soft and subtle, but a human footstep was very distinctive in its strangeness to Lorien's ears, for she had avoided human contact and had been largely successful.
'Maybe she'll kill me,' Lorien thought, finally peeking to her side where the dark shadow approached, unconcerned at the thought. 'Then again, maybe she just wants to talk. I don't have any tea,' Lorien told herself, giggling a little at the strange thought. She hadn't thought of tea in moons. 'Well, might as well get the conversation going.'
In some corner of her mind, Lorien thought it strange that she had been found after all this time. The lonely cave had become her home when she had left the Amazons in order to keep her promise of peace to Terreis. After her last talk with Melosa, she hadn't expected to ever hear from them again.
'So why is this woman here? I don't recognize her.' Lorien stood and faced the stranger, her eyes taking in the tall, solid frame and the obviously functional sword on her back.
"Hello," Lorien said, her voice hoarse and thick-sounding from lack of use.
"Lorien," Xena said, and Lorien recognized by the tone of voice that it was not a question.
"Yes. And you are?" she asked.
"The name's Xena," Xena said, walking forward and staring hard at Lorien.
"Xena. You're not an Amazon," Loren said, wondering what could have brought a woman warrior to her home. 'The mask,' Lorien thought, her eyes widening. 'She's here for my Warrior's Mask.' Lorien crouched down a little, backing away from Xena, her foot accidentally landing in the small pool, displacing the water and causing it to splash across the floor. Though she had buried the mask in her glade after Melosa had refused to break it, she knew this Xena woman would not believe her and must be intent upon spilling her blood.
At Lorien's movements, Xena also crouched into a fighting stance, her hand raising slowly to her sword. Lorien bent low, retrieving her own sword from its resting place under her bedroll. Xena noted that, though Lorien herself was unkempt, the sword was meticulously cared for.
"You can't have the mask, Xena," Lorien said. Melosa's last order to her as an Amazon had been to keep her mask, and therefore the Horns of Actaeon, safe from those who would use its power for evil. Lorien had not heard of Xena, but a woman warrior who was not an Amazon who wanted Lorien's mask could only be trouble.
"It's not yours, Lorien," Xena said, the whispering sound of her blade leaving its sheath punctuating her words and her eyes narrowing at the seeming confirmation that Lorien was after the Queen's Mask.
"It is mine by right. It was given to me," Lorien said, stepping forward and circling the other woman warily.
Xena watched Lorien's stance and the grip on her blade, silently taking her measure. 'She's experienced and in good shape. Slightly shorter, so I have reach advantage. She looks strong, if a bit dirty. Lets see how fast she is,' Xena thought.
A flick of her wrist sent her sword snapping towards Lorien's head, but the blow was easily turned aside. The returned attack sent Lorien's sword towards Xena's midsection, but her parry was true as well.
Something wild and joyful rose in Lorien's being and shone in her eyes.
Lorien pressed on with a series of attacks that left her sword a blur. When each of the attacks was parried by Xena's equally quick blade, Lorien smiled.
The smile should have been chilling, but Xena felt her face break into a cold smile in return.
The dance had begun.
A downward swipe to the head was turned aside by Xena's blade, and she returned the blow, crouching low and making a sweep for Lorien's legs. Rather than jump over the blade, Lorien crouched as well, parrying with the flat of her blade and placing her other hand behind it to absorb the stroke and stop it cold.
A flick of her wrist, and the edge of her blade made an improbable shot towards Xena's chin, causing the warrior to stumble back, slightly off balance.
Though just as fast, Lorien's attacks did not have the reach and power of Xena's. Even so, Xena smiled again and again as Lorien's strange tactics saved her. 'She doesn't fight like anyone I've ever seen,' Xena thought, studying her enemy and looking for some pattern in her blows.
The first pass they had made, Xena recognized. It had been a rather basic sword series, but was delivered with such devastating speed, that a lesser swordsman than Xena would have been hard-pressed to make the appropriate defense. Now Lorien's attacks and parries seemed to be without form or thought; they seemed to come from some inner instinct.
'So she wants to play?' Xena thought, her eyes narrowing dangerously. She consciously let go of her training and discipline, letting her mind empty. Without thought or intent, Xena watched her blade meet Lorien's again and again, seeking its opening to end the fight for good.
Some force awoke in both women as they circled each other, slashing and blocking in an unrecognizable and chaotic series of blows that left them both heaving for breath.
Backing away, Xena remembered too late the water splashed earlier, and she lost her footing for just a split second. The distraction was enough, though, and before she could blink, her blade was flying from her hand to land behind Lorien.
Growling low in her throat, Xena glared at Lorien, angry at the insult of being disarmed. She rose into the air, intending to flip over Lorien's head and retrieve her weapon, only to be met mid-flight by Lorien's body.
Lorien dropped her sword, intent upon killing the woman bare-handed, and knocking Xena out of her flip with a shoulder to the midsection. They landed heavily on the floor of the cave. Lorien quckly straddled Xena and wrapping her hands around her throat. Instinctively, Xena grasped Lorien's wrists and attempted to remove her hands, but something allowed Lorien to hold on.
'Gabrielle!' Xena's mind screamed as she fought for air. With a powerful strike to the inside of Lorien's elbow, Xena unlocked the grip of one hand. Grabbing that arm and gathering her strength, she flipped Lorien backwards, her head landing in the shallow pool of water. Pulling back, Xena escaped Lorien's last grasp on her throat.
"I will not let you hurt Gabrielle," Xena snarled, missing the look of confusion, then recognition that passed over Lorien's features. Two quick jabs to the prone woman's throat, and Xena knew it would all be over in thirty seconds.
'Gabrielle will be safe,' Xena thought, looking into the green eyes of the woman before her as the blood fought to reach her brain. 'Green eyes. She has green eyes, like Gabrielle.'
Lorien gasped, her body not responding to her commands to move the warrior and stand. Something in her told her what was happening. She knew she did not have long to live, but her mind took her back.
"Her name is Gabrielle," Melosa said, her face drawn with grief as she looked upon Terreis' lover. "She's very young, but Ephiny says she tried to save Terreis, putting her own life in danger."
"I don't want to hurt Gabrielle," Lorien ground out.
"Who is the woman with her?" Lorien asked, her voice sounding hollow to her own ears.
"Xena, the Warrior Princess. The Destroyer of Nations. They say she's reformed."
"You mean the warlord?" Lorien asked incredulously, her attention temporarily focused on the conversation and not at the hollow ache where her heart used to beat.
"Of course you don't. Right now, all you want is to live," Xena said, a corner of her mind shocked at her own viciousness. 'But this is what you really are, isn't it Xena?' she asked herself silently, unable to deny the thrill of power coursing through her.
"Never planned it," Lorien gasped, a drop of blood sliding down a smooth path on her cheek and landing in the welcoming pool of water by her head with a "plink" noise.
"Not a warlord anymore," Melosa said, sighing, knowing of Lorien's hatred for warlords. "There's something going on there with the warrior and the bard. It's almost like they're ..."
"Don't lie to me," Xena hissed. Lorien managed to shake her head slightly.
"Wouldn't hurt Gabrielle. Rightful Queen," she said, as another drop of blood joined the first, then became a slow trickle. "She saved you. Like Terreis saved me. From the darkness."
Lorien watched the new Princess walking timidly, the warrior hovering protectively at her side.
"And you saved her," Lorien continued. "Wouldn't break that."
"I don't believe you," Xena said flatly.
"Didn't mean Queen's mask. Meant mine. Horns of Actaeon," Lorien said, her eyes starting to glaze over. She was not, however, in a great deal of pain, but was acutely aware of the warmth traveling down the curve of her cheek to drip off the lobe of her ear and into the pool of water. 'I got my wish,' she thought with a smile as her life started slipping away. 'I'm nothing more than those drops of blood falling into the water.'
Then the pain hit her as Xena quickly jabbed her neck again, reinstating the flow of blood to her brain.
Not waiting for Lorien to recover, Xena grasped the front of her shirt and pulled her up to meet her eyes.
"What do you mean you weren't talking about the Queen's Mask?" Xena asked, her voice low. Her arms were steady, but she felt as though her insides were shaking so hard that she was surprised at her steady grip. 'What if Lorien isn't the villain here? What if I had murdered an innocent woman?' The thought shocked Xena to her core, and she thought of trusting green eyes gazing at her and a soft voice speaking of the greater good. Xena felt nauseous as she considered the idea that if the woman in her grasp were telling the truth, then she was the only thing that could save Gabrielle.
"It's real," Raine said, frowning slightly and looking over to see the equally worried face of Dara nod in confirmation.
"Real," Ephiny said flatly, falling heavily into her chair. Her hopes had been set on the mask turning out to be a fake, and now that she knew it was real, she wasn't sure what to do to protect her Queen. Her friend. 'The one time they agree with each other, and it has to be about this.'
"I'm afraid so, My Regent," Dara said, turning the mask over in her dark, weathered hands. "This is really Lorien's mask, these are really the Horns of Actaeon, and our Queen really has a few problems here."
"Our Queen is capable of meeting this challenge," Gabrielle said, walking into the room.
"My Queen," Ephiny said, jumping to her feet, her eyes taking in the look of determination and the flash of anger on her queen's face. She had seen that look before when Gabrielle had faced Velaska for the Queen's mask, and though Ephiny was glad to see it, a part of her grieved for the girl Gabrielle had been. She was a Queen now, and a woman who looked fully prepared to defend her throne.
Inside, Gabrielle was shaking. 'What in Tartarus am I doing?' she asked herself. There was a sense of the surreal surrounding the whole situation that was painfully reminiscent of the time she defended the mask from Velaska. Without Xena. 'Maybe that's it. Maybe I'm just so used to Xena taking charge and solving my problems that idea of solving them myself is just unreal.'
"My Queen, there must be some ... " Ephiny began.
"You know there is no loophole in this law. There's no way to get out of fighting Thelestris. I found a firsthand account of Lorien turning down the Right of Caste, and because it was offered to her first, she has grounds to challenge."
"Gabrielle," Ephiny said quietly, frowning and coming to stand next to her friend. "Please tell me you have a plan."
"Oh, I have a plan all right," Gabrielle said just as softly. 'Yep, I have a plan. I'm going to get myself killed, she thought, grimacing mentally. "As the council has determined that the mask is real, when will the challenge be?" Gabrielle asked, addressing the council.
"Well, that's a tricky point," Dara said, looking around at the other elders. "There is the matter of Kahlia's omens and the ceremony tonight."
"Yes," Raine agreed, seeing the other elders nodding. "Normally, a challenge of this nature would take place as soon as possible. Now that we've verified the mask, it's possible. The tricky part is that Kahlia needs the actual Queen to be there. If Thelestris wins the challenge, then Lorien is the Queen, and she's not here," she said bluntly.
"Right," Dara agreed. "If Kahlia needs you there instead of Ephiny, then she'd need Lorien there instead of Thelestris, so in the interests of the nation as a whole - not that we're playing favorites or anything - the challenge will take place tomorrow."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said, smiling to herself and leaving the council chamber.
"Is she stalling for time?" Dara asked, looking at the regent who was watching the closed door. "Is she waiting for Xena to come back?"
"I have no idea," she said, moving to the window and watching Gabrielle make her way to the Queen's hut.
'Let's look at this logically,' Gabrielle told herself as she left the council chamber. 'Thelestris wants to kill you, take your mask, and start a war. You can't stop her unless you kill her. With a staff, no less - that'll be messy.' Gabrielle stopped and frowned a moment at the macabre path her thoughts had taken.
"Why don't you just hand over the mask now and save your worthless hide?" Thelestris asked, leaning against the doorway of the Queen's Hut, her arms crossed over her chest.
"Thelestris," Gabrielle said, her voice low and her eyes narrowing.
"You're not an Amazon Gabrielle, not really," Thelestris went on, ignoring the interruption. "You don't understand what the nation needs and you're weak."
"And you think you'd do better?" Gabrielle challenged, stepping up to the larger woman.
"I think a one-armed blind farmer would do better," Thelestris said, pushing away from the door and leaning over Gabrielle. "Your warrior can't save you, Little Queen."
"If you think Amazon Law is going to stop her from tearing this village apart if anything happened to me, you're just an idiot," Gabrielle said, shaking her head ruefully.
"When I am regent and I unite the nation, one warrior won't be able to stop me," Thelestris countered.
"Is that really what you want? To conquer the other tribes?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.
"It's what we all want. You're just too stupid to see it," Thelestris said, stepping closer.
"So you've somehow found Lorien's mask and are making a false claim on the throne so you can get lots of people killed? What about honor? What about loyalty?" Gabrielle said, her eyes flashing.
Thelestris' body stiffened and she stepped closer to the Queen again, until their faces were inches apart. "False claim?" she hissed, glaring into the Queen's angry face. "You have no grounds to make that accusation, or I'd challenge you on my own behalf and prove it through combat," she snarled.
An idea began forming in the Queen's agile mind. "If I had grounds for that accusation, you would have to challenge me, or you wouldn't have grounds for Lorien's challenge, would you?"
Thelestris smirked. "Even if you did have grounds, I'd just beat you to death," she said coldly, sending a chill down Gabrielle's spine. After a moment of staring hard into the Queen's eyes to let her words sink in, Thelestris pushed past her and went on her way.
Shaking off the cold feeling running through her at Thelestris' words, Gabrielle entered the hut, a thoughtful look on her face.
Nothing but the curved bow of the Hunters Moon lit the courtyard. Kahlia stood on the dais before an altar that had been set up in front of the wooden throne, her back to the gathering Amazons. Most milled about uncertainly, hoping they were not standing in the way of the ceremony, but not wanting to miss Artemis message to their Queen.
The altar was simply two logs, their tops and bottoms cut away to make a flat surface stacked one upon the other. It came to Kahlias mid-thigh while standing, but was just below chest-level when she knelt before it. A white cloth with pictures of hunting Amazons being led by a she-bear running around the border was laid over the altar, and a carved wooden bowl lay in the center. Next to the bowl was a ceremonial knife and Kahlias priestess mask. The knife, though made of bone, was never in need of sharpening and could cut as well as its metal counterparts. The mask was not unlike a warrior's mask, except that it was a little smaller and carved with symbols representing the Priestess link to the Goddess Artemis.
Two pairs of Amazons stood at the foot of the two sets of stairs leading onto the dais on either side. Each pair consisted of one priestess and one Royal Guard, and all four stood at attention facing the crowd as they talked amongst themselves.
Upon the arrival of the Queen, the crowed parted, making way for the women in the stern-looking masks who escorted Gabrielle.
Inwardly shaking, Gabrielle stood tall and proud, once again wondering what message Artemis had for her and for the nation. Looking around, Gabrielle realized that the light of the moon was dim enough that it cast just a pale glow on the surroundings, occasionally glinting off bits of metal and the eyes of the women around her. She could not make out any faces, her eyes not yet accustomed to the lack of light, and so stopped trying and looked straight ahead, approaching the dais from the left where the moon rose.
Kahlia moved to the top of the stairs to greet her Queen and knelt before her as Gabrielle raised the Queens mask high before wearing it, signifying that she came before Artemis that evening as a representative of the nation and not an individual.
Gabrielle walked to the throne, head high and shoulders back, an energy suffusing her being as she thought of all those who came before her as Queen and all those who would come after. Sitting upon the throne, a sense of timelessness came over her, and she felt a strange sensation travelling up and down her spine as each set of dimly glowing eyes turned to her.
Kahlia moved to stand before the Queen and the altar, kneeling to both her sovereign and her goddess. Donning her own mask, she removed some incense from her robes and placed it in the bowl where it immediately lit, causing a fragrant smoke to rise into the air.
"Great Artemis, Patron of our People," Kahlia intoned, staring into the bowl. "You have made it known to me that you wished to speak to the Queen of our Nation under the Hunters Moon."
Gabrielle rose as the steady beat of drums came from the priestesses surrounding the dais. As she knelt before the altar, Kahlia lifted the bone knife, holding it above the bowl so that the tip of the blade pointed down.
Lifting her hand, Gabrielle grasped the knife in her fist, the sharp edge splitting her skin and her warm blood dripping down the blade to land in the bowl with a sharp hiss, the smoke taking on the distinctive smell of blood.
"By this blood, know that the Queen of Amazons is here before you, Great Huntress. As she bleeds, so does the Nation. As the Nation bleeds, so does she," Kahlia said, nodding her head at the masked Queen who released the blade.
Laying the knife down across the top of the bowl, Kahlia continued. "What is your will, Oh Goddess? Show us a sign!"
At these words, the moon brightened, the arched sliver casting enough light that the women in the courtyard could see each other clearly. The light shone brightest on the dais, then coalesced into one bright ball hovering over the throne. The ball spun, expanding outward before taking on a vaguely human shape and resolving into the form of Artemis, standing on the seat of the throne and facing the Nation.
Never before had Kahlia stood face to face before her Goddess, and overcome, she backed away from the altar until she had room to fall forward, prostrating herself before the deity. The assembled Amazons followed suit, kneeling down and bowing forward at the waist to touch their foreheads to the ground.
"Artemis," Gabrielle breathed, her experience with gods allowing her to sense the presence behind her.
"Hear me," Artemis said as Gabrielle turned to face her. "The time is almost upon us when the sundered tribes of the Amazons must unite. Prepare. Let the tribe's strength be your strength. Let your strength be theirs."
Gabrielle stood facing the goddess, standing tall and proud. Kahlia attempted to gain the Queen's attention, urging her to kneel, but Gabrielle was focused on the figure before her.
"You must be prepared to deal with those who would weaken your tribe. Strength is the key."
Artemis removed the mask from Gabrielle's face and held it in her hands. A swirling mist of light surrounded the goddess before coalescing around the mask. Gabrielle heard a voice in her mind whisper, 'The mask was given to you, but you must have the strength to take it.' And then she was gone, leaving the mask upon the seat of the throne.
Gabrielle looked out over the crowd and nodded at Ephiny, who gave the sign to light the torches. 'This is my one chance,' Gabrielle thought suddenly. 'I could leave the mask there and walk away.' Gabrielle closed her eyes, turning her vision inward and looking into her heart. 'Can I leave them? Can I step away and leave them with an empty throne? If I step down before answering the challenge, the mask will be in contention? How many people would die or get hurt so I could walk away?'
Picking up the mask, Gabrielle felt a strange warmth shoot up her arm and encompass her whole body. A calm overcame her, dispelling the nervousness that had been tickling the back of her mind since she decided on her course of action.
"I'm not going back," Lorien said, a look of fear crossing her face briefly, before being replaced by a carefully neutral expression.
"I'm not asking you," Xena hissed, leaning over the still prone form. "You're going to show up and stop Thelestris. Got me?" she asked, her eyes taking on a wild look.
"Take my mask," Lorien said quickly, her mind racing. 'I can't go back there. I can't go back there'. These words played through Lorien's mind over and over, their rhythm matching the wild beating of her heart.
"Your mask?" Xena asked, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"If you have my mask, then you speak for me," Lorien quickly explained. "You can save the Queen and I can stay here. I can't go back there."
Finally remembering that obscure point of Amazon Law, Xena nodded slowly. "All right," she drawled out. "Then hand it over."
"It's not here," Lorien said, flinching at the cold blue gaze leveled in her direction.
"Then where is it?" Xena snarled. "I don't have time for games."
"It's in a glade. A beautiful glade. It's south of the village," Lorien said quietly, her mind playing back the time she had spent there. 'I can't go back there.'
"I know it. But you're coming with me," Xena said flatly, refusing to acknowledge Lorien's protests. Telling herself it was just as far as the glade, Lorien got shakily to her feet and retrieved her weapon as Xena did the same. In silence, the two warriors left the cave.
The warriors walked through the forest, both moving with a barely concealed edgy energy. Lorien looked about, ever mindful of the life around her, her senses picking up each creature and instinctively determining whether or not it was a threat. Xena looked ahead, her attention absorbed by thoughts of Thelestris and Gabrielle, wondering what the former had planned and if the latter was all right.
"Tell me about Gabrielle," Lorien said softly as they moved onward. 'I can't go back there.'
"What about her?" Xena asked, eyeing the other warrior suspiciously.
"I've never met her. Only saw her once, but briefly. It was when I left after word reached the village that Terreis had - " Here Lorien's voice broke, the wounds still raw and bleeding after all this time. Struggling for composure, Lorien continued. "Well, word reached the village. I spoke with Melosa and ... I - left," Lorien finished, her voice lost and desolate sounding against the backdrop of the idle chatter of the forest. 'I can't go back there'
Lorien slowed down for a moment, taking a few deep breaths before speaking again. "So, tell me about her," Lorien said, her voice audibly forced into being light. "How was she raised? What does she look like? Is she as fine a warrior as you?"
"She's not a warrior," Xena said flatly, frowning as they walked. "She's the kindest and gentlest soul I've ever known," she finished, her voice softening as she spoke of the bard.
"One doesn't preclude the other," Lorien said, thinking of her own warrior and how her kindness had dragged her soul from the darkness. "So if she isn't a warrior, what does she do?"
"She talks. A lot," Xena said dryly, her lips pursing ruefully. Lorien shot the taller woman a questioning glance, and Xena continued, haltingly at first, but then warming to her subject as she spoke quietly of the young woman she had come to know. "She was raised in a little village called Potedeia. It's mostly shepherds and some farms. A very simple life, but even there she had more guts than common sense. She didn't really fit in. She always wanted to be a bard, but there was no support for her dreams there. I think that's why she followed me when I came through town."
"She just up and followed you?" Lorien asked, intrigued.
"Hmm," Xena agreed, nodding slowly. "I wandered by, found some slavers trying to take a group of women. She was there, and offered to go with them if they left everyone else alone. Like I said, more guts than common sense." A slow grin spread over Xena's face.
"That was very brave of her," Lorien said, wondering if the girl had any idea what her life could have been like if the slavers had taken her. "I assume you stepped in."
"Yes. Then she followed me out of Potedeia. I couldn't get rid of her. After awhile, I didn't want to."
"What does she look like?" Lorien asked, trying to picture the girl in her mind. She only had a vague recollection of the small woman.
"Like a sunny day," Xena said, surprising herself at the turn of phrase. "She's about so high," she quickly went on, raising her hand to roughly shoulder-level, "with red-gold hair and green eyes."
"Mm. She pretty?"
"What's she like?"
"She's more compassionate than is good for her. She tells amazing stories. She sees the good in people, no matter how buried it is. And she's always getting into trouble," Xena finished, a wry grin twisting her lips.
"What kind of trouble?"
Xena snorted. "Every kind of trouble there is," she said dryly. "I can't count the number of times I've had to go rescue her."
"She ever rescue herself?" Lorien asked, raising an eyebrow at the warrior.
"She doesn't have to. That's why I'm there," Xena said, raising her own eyebrow in return.
The torches lit just as the dark clouds on the horizon rolled over the village, blocking out the meager light of the moon. Able to see each other now, the crowd looked around uncertainly, still shocked by the sight of their patron goddess in the flesh.
"I demand my Right of Challenge," Thelestris called out, striding through the mass of stunned warriors, Lorien's mask in hand. Arriving in front of the dais, every line of her body speaking of defiance, she stood proudly.
"The challenge is to take place tomorrow," Ephiny said, climbing the steps to stand by her Queen.
"No," Thelestris called out, turning to face the assembled Amazons. "You have all born witness to our Goddess. Now is the time we must prepare. Now is the time we need a strong Queen." Grinning, Thelestris added, "One who has their mask handed to them by Artemis, not taken away."
The Amazons muttered to each other, the events of the evening sinking in to their thoughts.
"You have heard Artemis. She says strength is the key. This bard," she said, her drawling voice lending insult to the term, "knows nothing of strength."
Gabrielle stood in shock. 'The challenge is supposed to be tomorrow. I had until tomorrow,' she told herself. She had spent the afternoon skimming Lorien's scrolls, looking for references to her unwillingness to rule. She had thought that maybe, just maybe, if she had found enough written proof in Lorien's own writing that she would never return, it would be enough to act as a witness to Thelestris' lies. Except for the one conversation with Terreis, there was nothing she had found. 'I needed more time,' she thought.
"Gabrielle, I hope you have a plan," Ephiny whispered to the Queen, interrupting her thoughts as a peal of thunder punctuated Thelestris' tirade. The noise broke Gabrielle from her stupor, and she looked down at the mask in her hand, wondering that such a light object carried such great weight. A flash of lightning went off in the distance, and Gabrielle's head shot up to glare at the woman standing insolently before her.
"Hear me Amazons," Gabrielle said, her voice carrying over the buzz of the crowd and stopping Thelestris mid-word. She held the mask in a death-grip, her knuckles stark white against the dark wood.
Let the tribe's strength be your strength. Let your strength be theirs, came the words, echoing in Gabrielle's mind.
"This challenge is met," she said, facing the crowd and missing the shocked look on Ephiny's face.
"But she's started helping out with the fighting. She's actually pretty good with her staff now," Xena said.
"A staff? Odd weapon for an Amazon Queen, isn't it?" Lorien asked, genuinely puzzled.
Xena narrowed her eyes at the other warrior. "She fights only when she has to. She doesn't kill. She doesn't need a sword." Xena's voice was clipped and her tone brooked no argument.
"That's all well and good, up to a point," Lorien said, ignoring Xena's warning tone. "But what if she had the choice of saving you or killing someone?"
"I'd rather die," Xena said flatly. "I don't want her to ever find out what it's like to take a life."
"What if it was saving herself or killing someone? What would you have her do then?" Lorien pressed.
Xena's jaw clenched, the question searing through her brain. 'What would you have her do then, Xena? Is the girl's innocence more precious than the girl herself?' Xena strode ahead, turning her back on Lorien and continuing on her way.
"You didn't answer me, Xena," Lorien challenged.
Xena turned and whispered, "I don't know," before continuing on her way. Each was lost in their own thoughts, and silence fell over the pair. Her emotions running high, Xena turned the question over and over in her mind, examining it from every angle. 'I can only hope to never face this situation,' Xena thought, questioning her own motives. 'Do I want to save her the pain, or do I want to save me the pain?' Her heart lurched at the mere thought of Gabrielle having to make that choice. 'For as long as I can prevent it, she won't have to decide. I'll keep her safe for as long as I am able.'
It was near dark when they reached the glade, and though they had walked all day, they were not prepared to stop now. Lorien immediately made her way to her masks hiding place, quickly working to uncover her prize.
"It's not here," Lorien said, looking around the glade in shock.
Her first reaction upon returning to the glade was a wave of nostalgia so strong and bittersweet that she had swayed a little, her knees weakening at the force of it. 'Terreis, love, I'm so sorry,' she apologized silently for the countless time. 'I know this isn't what you would have wanted,' she thought, referring to her self-imposed exile, 'but I couldn't stay there. I would have done so much wrong.' Tears stung her eyes as the emptiness in her chest expanded for a moment, threatening to swallow her whole.
Now she knelt over the hole she had uncovered, her mind trying to wrap around the knowledge that it was empty.
"What do you mean, it's not here?" Xena asked slowly, her mind reeling at the implications as she went to hover behind the kneeling woman.
"I mean it's not here," Lorien said angrily, standing up and spinning around to face the stone-faced warrior. "How much clearer do I have to be?" 'I have to go back, don't I Terreis?' Lorien looked up into the night sky, tears blocking her vision. Her breathing picked up at the thought, memories of the village flooding her. Memories of Terreis. Memories she tried to keep locked up tight where they could not hurt her.
"Tartarus," Xena cursed, turning her head away. It all clicked into place, and she had been played a fool. "Thelestris knows where this glade is. She must have found the mask, which means she has it." The blood drained from Xena's face before Lorien's eyes. "Which means she could have can challenge Gabrielle in your name."
Lorien shook her head. "No. That can't be right," she said, her mind screaming 'I can't go back there.'
"Come on," Xena said, wrapping a hand around Lorien's elbow and dragging her, even as Lorien dug her heels in to stop her. Lorien reacted instinctively, sending her fist flying towards Xena's face, her eyes losing focus as seasons old memories resurfaced.
The punch was easily deflected and countered by the taller woman, but Xena was surprised when her fist met empty air as Lorien ducked out of the way, breaking for the treeline and safety from this dark figure who chased her.
"Oh, no you don't," Xena muttered, flipping over the fleeing figure and grinning, only to have the grin fade and be replaced by a look of disgust when Lorien flipped over her in turn and disappeared into the trees.
"Choose your weapon, then," Thelestris said, a smile crossing her features.
"Ephiny. My staff," Gabrielle said flatly, not turning to look at the regent, but instead staring into Thelestris's eyes.
"Gabrielle, don't do this," Ephiny said urgently. "We can put it off until tomorrow, and if you leave tonight, I can answer the challenge for you. We can find a way."
A leader should never ask anyone else to do something they themselves would not.
"Get. My. Staff," she commanded, her voice low as the answering peel of thunder to the previous flash of lightning boomed across the sky. Ephiny searched Gabrielle's profile for any uncertainty, and in the flickering torchlight, a series of shadows was thrown across her face, and by some trick of the light she saw an old woman where her young friend had stood.
"Yes, My Queen," Ephiny said, kneeling before the woman and bowing her head low in respect. Shaking off her unease and hoping Gabrielle had some secret plan, she turned to retrieve the staff as she had been ordered.
Thelestris backed away from the dais, keeping her eyes on the Queen and a circle formed around her. The watching Amazons grew silent as the full realization of what was happening swept over them. Their fate and their future, it would seem, rode on the outcome of this Challenge. Their Queen, kind and wise, but unblooded in what would be a time of great change stood against a warrior whose policies and views were largely unknown.
Looking out over the crowd, Gabrielle watched the different emotions play over the faces of her people: the hope and fear for their futures evident in their eyes.
I did not realize until her eyes met mine without reproach or accusation that it was a cause she was both willing to kill and to die for. Lorien's words about Terreis crossed Gabrielle's mind.
'Can I do any less?' she asked herself, scanning the sea of faces and seeing women who had stood before her to face down an angry god to keep her safe. In her mind's eye, she saw the faces of those who could not stand before her now, for their souls had been sent to Eternity in that same struggle.
"I ask you again, Thelestris," Gabrielle called out over the silent crowd as a light drizzle began to fall. "Are you willing to die for this mask and all it stands for?" Gabrielle jumped lightly from the dais, as Ephiny approached on the ground, kneeling before her and presenting the staff in the light of the guttering torches.
"Are you willing to kill for it?" Thelestris countered, putting on Lorien's mask, a surge of warmth flooding through her warding off the chill of the night.
Staff in hand, Gabrielle approached her opponent.
She donned the mask.
"Lorien! Get back here!" Xena called, quickly vaulting into a tree and running along the limbs, her body balancing easily on the small rounded surfaces. Her eyes scanned the swaying limbs, quickly picking up which ones looked to have been walked upon and which were moving naturally with the high winds. Xena's blood pumped high in her veins, her body kicking in and sending her through the trees at a rate only a few Amazons could match.
A laugh bubbled up from Lorien's throat as the muscles in her legs gathered and released, the jouncing of each limb helping to send her on to the next. Tree walking was one of the Amazon skills she had been able to learn alarmingly fast, and the familiarity of it soothed her in a way she hadn't expected. Candlemarks passed as she ran, not caring where she was going, but knowing she had to escape the woman who chased her. She loved running up here, but had forsaken the mode of travel when she had left the village, it reminding her too much of Terreis. 'Terreis ...'
Xena could only watch in shock as Lorien tumbled from the tree. 'Amazons don't fall from trees,' came the thought unbidden to Xena's mind, the weariness setting into her body heightening her sense of the absurd. 'Pull it together, Xena,' she told herself sharply, flipping out of the trees to land next to Lorien's sill form. 'You can laugh about it later. After Gabrielle is safe.'
Xena grabbed Lorien by her tattered clothes and pulled her roughly upright. "You listen to me," she said slowly, her voice low and commanding. The seriousness of the situation hit Xena suddenly and harshly as the full realization of all that was at stake gripped her heart.
Lorien was limp in her grasp. A flash of light seared the sky in the distance, illuminating random bits of the forest through the leaves. Only then did Xena see the sticky blood matting her hair. Carefully, Xena laid the woman back down, berating herself for letting her anger move the woman before she had checked for injuries. There were no obvious broken bones, but several large bruises where Lorien had met some tree branches on her fall. Probing gently, Xena checked the wound on the side of Lorien's head. The bleeding was already slowing, the actual tear being very small. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
Xena lifted each eyelid, noting that the left eye was a little slow in reacting to what little light there was. Cursing softly, Xena patted Lorien carefully on each cheek.
Lorien's eyelids fluttered open of their own accord and she groaned, reaching a hand up to hold her aching head.
"What in Tartarus did you think you were doing?" Xena demanded, weariness and anger taking over again, but her hands were gentle as she helped the woman into an upright position.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to run," Lorien explained. "Just, please, don't grab me." Lorien's eyes widened as she noticed the barely contained fury in the set of Xena's body, and she held her own body still. Xena consciously relaxed her body, taking in the sincerity in Lorien's voice and demeanor. 'There's a story here, but I don't have time to find out what it is.'
"Listen. Are you going to be all right?" she asked, gentling her tone.
"Yeah, yeah," Lorien said, rubbing her face with one hand.
"Thelestris has your mask. She knows where the glade is, so she must have found it. That means she can challenge Gabrielle in your name." Xena's voice was flat and her eyes hard. "Are you going to help or not?"
Lorien nodded, her own gaze hardening as she thought of the woman who had tried so valiantly to save Terreis being challenged in her name. 'Oh, Terreis,' Lorien thought helplessly, her face crumbling. 'I wish you were here now. How could I let this happen? I have to go back. I can't go back!'
"Then we have to move. Can you stand?"
"Yeah," Lorien got to her feet shaking off the resulting dizziness and nausea. "Look, the regular path will be too slow. "It'll only take half a candlemark if we take the trees," Lorien pointed out.
"It's dark, it's going to rain, you have a head wound, and you want to run across tree limbs some more?" Xena asked, taking in Lorien's slightly wobbly stand and the pallor of her face. She frowned at the woman, torn between wanting to reach Gabrielle as soon as possible and knowing that she needed Lorien there in one piece to stop any challenges from Thelestris.
"Exactly," Lorien confirmed, her face breaking into a grin. "We don't have the time to waste," she continued, her face suddenly serious, a sense of urgency in her voice.
"You're going to get yourself killed," Xena volunteered reasonably, her own features stretching into a grin as some of the fear that they wouldn't arrive in time abated.
"Yes, but we can bypass the sentries if we keep high enough, and if the situation doesn't need me, I can disappear again. Agreed?" Lorien asked.
Xena nodded once sharply, willing to let Lorien fade into the forest again if Gabrielle was in no danger.
Gabrielle hefted the staff, the smooth wood soothing and familiar to her hands. She shifted her balance automatically, lowering her center of gravity and moving her weight forward. She shook her head slightly to settle the mask as she and Thelestris circled each other warily.
Thelestris made the first move, thrusting her staff easily at Gabrielle's midsection: a blow that was easily turned aside. Gabrielle returned the attack, making a lazy swipe towards Thelestris' feet, which was, in turn, easily blocked. Lightning flashed in the distance, and the rain came down harder.
"Done playing?" Thelestris asked lightly.
"No, I could do this for hours," Gabrielle growled, moving forward with a flurry of blows towards Thelestris' body. They were blocked easily and Thelestris laughed, a low eerie sound welling up from the depths of the mask. A rumble of thunder echoed the laugh as Gabrielle squared her shoulders and stared at her opponent.
Thelestris' staff was a blur as she pressed her Queen back towards the dais. Gabrielle just had time to know she wasn't fast enough to block before she found her staff already meeting her opponents. She didn't have the time to wonder where the speed came from before she was attacked again, and this time she met the staff confidently, pushing back with her legs and arms, sending Thelestris staggering back.
Growling, Gabrielle pressed the advantage, her mind emptying as she gave herself over to the battle. Joy and anger warred within her, as each hit scored against her increased her rage, and each blow she landed sent a strange elation running through her.
The rain fell, but Gabrielle didn't feel it. The lightning and thunder made no impression on her as she focused on her opponent. The crowd of watching Amazons was forgotten. There was nothing but Thelestris, her staff, and the knowledge that the woman wanted nothing less than her death.
They came at each other again and again, striking arms and thighs when a block wasn't fast or strong enough. The blood pounded in Gabrielle's ears, her body meeting the challenge as she called upon every skill and reflex she possessed.
A solid hit to the ribs and Gabrielle gasped, reeling backwards and automatically grabbing at her side. She barely registered the blow coming towards her head fast enough to snap her head back, the edge of Thelestris' staff hitting the mask and splitting Gabrielle's lip.
The mask flew from her face, and Gabrielle sank to one knee in the mud with the sharp tang of blood in her mouth, feeling a weariness settle across her limbs as each pain and ache made itself known.
Leaping into the nearest tree, Xena gave Lorien a hand up, helping her steady herself.
"Would you believe I actually feel steadier up here than down there?" Lorien asked, her dizziness lessening. Xena only shook her head as Lorien lead the way, the two figures moving carefully together on the damp tree branches. Eventually, they moved higher, running and jumping along branches that could barely hold their weight and passing undetected by the silent sentries below.
'Nobody thinks to look up,' Lorien thought, looking behind her to see Xena's form following. "We're almost there," she whispered, stopping near the trunk of a tree and waiting for Xena to join her. "These next few trees go over the walls, but we have to stay very high to not be seen."
Xena nodded her understanding, motioning Lorien to proceed her. Carefully, Lorien climbed higher and navigated the tree path, passing over the walls. Looking up through the leaves, she had an unobscured view of the moon through a break in the dark clouds. Her vision swam, and she shook off the unsettling feeling, leaping to the next tree with little regard for her safety. Shaking off a wave of dizziness, she moved on, jumping again as a light drizzle began to fall.
Her tired body hit the final limb, and she was back in the village, looking over the dais, the yard surrounded by torches. Her heart lurched, and the nausea hit her again, as memories of her life here assaulted her senses. She reached out a hand to steady herself against the trunk of the tree just as Xena joined her, landing on the same branch.
Her perch shaking beneath her, Lorien's body jerked, and she tumbled headfirst towards the ground fifty feet below.
Xena reacted quickly, falling flat on the limb, gripping it with her legs and one hand. Her free hand shot out, grasping Lorien's ankle in a firm grip, stopping her fall.
'Hades,' Xena thought, realizing that Lorien was once again unconscious. Xena closed her eyes briefly, looking up and wondering how she was going to get both of them down from the tree alive. She opened her eyes, and immediately closed them again when she saw Gabrielle and Thelestris circling each other in the distance, staves in hand.
Slowly, Xena opened her eyes, holding her breath and hoping she had imagined the scene before her. She could see Thelestris make a test thrust towards Gabrielle's middle, and she ground her teeth in frustration as her muscles protested the weight trying to pull her off the limb.
She wanted to scream, but knew Gabrielle needed all her attention focused on Thelestris. She wanted to throw her chakram, but was too far away and didn't have a hand free. She wanted to drop Lorien and stop the challenge, but knew she needed Lorien for that. Lightning flashed in the distance, and the rain came down harder.
Xena growled in total frustration, her anger lending her strength as she tried to lift the unconscious woman. Lorien raised a few inches before her boot began to slip, and Xena immediately halted her actions. Holding on to Lorien, and the hope that the challenge could still be stopped, Xena watched the fight unfolding.
Gabrielle raised one hand to her lip, feeling the blood there. The mask gave me strength, she realized, and in that moment she knew she would die in the mud and the pouring rain.
Thelestris advanced slowly, a respect for the kneeling Queen evident in her approach. Expecting some trick, Thelestris shifted her grip on her staff. Gabrielle looked at her defiantly, taking in the wariness of her approach.
'Damn you to Tartarus,' Gabrielle thought, glaring at the woman. It had taken a fight to earn her respect, and now Gabrielle was going to die on Thelestris' terms. Thelestris brought her staff around in a vicious overhand arc, and Gabrielle watched as it swung towards her against the backdrop of the stormy sky and the Hunter's moon.
Time seemed to slow as the staff approached aimed unerringly for her unprotected head, a streak of lightning illuminating the scene. 'What about my own strength?' Gabrielle wondered, and she grew angry.
She brought her own staff up in both hands, leaning back and absorbing the blow. Snarling, she sprung forward, her shoulder meeting Thelestris' stomach and sending her back. Before she could recover, Gabrielle sent her staff towards Thelestris' face, feeling the edge of the wood scraping against her jaw, and then her cheek, lifting Lorien's mask from her face.
A flash of lightning streaked across the sky, lighting up Thelestris' shocked features. An angry gash had opened along the side of her face. Seeing the blood of her opponent seeping out of the wound and on the end of her staff, Gabrielle grinned.
'Without the masks, it's just us. And now we'll see who deserves to wear one,' Gabrielle thought, landing a series of vicious blows to Thelestris' midsection before she regrouped and the fight commenced.
Xena saw Gabrielle falter, the Queen's mask flying through the air to land in the mud.
"Come on, Gabrielle. Get up," she said, willing the bard to stand and fight. Xena released the limb with her hand, holding on with just her legs, and gently lowered her upper body until she was watching the fight upside down. She held her breath as Lorien's boot began to slip again, quickly moving her other hand to gain firmer purchase on her leg.
She could feel the blood rush to her head as she strained to stay on the limb over the fifty foot drop. She gasped, then held her breath as she saw Thelestris make her overhand swing. Saw the lightning make the scene impossibly bright for just a moment.
Gabrielle blocked, and she could breathe again.
Ignoring the painful cramping in her legs and hands, Xena pulled, the cords in her neck standing out with the strain. "Dammit, Lorien," she gasped, pulling the woman upwards until her calf was cradled against her chest and she had one hand wrapped firmly around her knee.
"What if it was saving herself or killing someone? What would you have her do then?"
The question echoed in Xena's mind as a crash of thunder sounded, and seeing the fight below, she had her answer.
"I want you to live, my bard," Xena whispered, pulling with her legs and abdominal muscles until she could get one arm wrapped around the tree limb with Lorien hanging from her shoulder by her knee. "I want you to live."
A foreign feeling of helplessness washed over Xena and unfamiliar tears welled up in her eyes before spilling over her dirt-streaked face. "I wanted to protect you. I'm so sorry, Gabrielle," she whispered, her heart screaming in anguish.
She held on to her last hope of saving the girl she knew with a death grip. Her nature rebelled against the idea that she could do nothing, and her anger rose. 'I have to try. I have to try.'
Xena managed to crawl onto the limb, hanging on to Lorien's leg through sheer determination. With the little bit of strength she still possessed, she pulled herself into a sitting position before grabbing Lorien's other leg.
She paused to catch her breath, keeping an eye on the fight. 'They're both still alive. Good.' She growled, lifting Lorien's limp body, pulling her up into the tree. Her muscles shaking from fatigue, she finally accomplished her task.
Out of patience, Xena slapped the woman, and Lorien awoke slowly. Getting her bearings, Lorien swayed on the branch before grabbing hold, disorientation evident on her features. She looked up into Xena's face, and gasped at the look of wide-eyed shock there.
Thelestris finally gathered her wits and began blocking Gabrielle's blows again, but she could feel the tightness in her ribs and favored her left side. Seeing the advantage, Gabrielle pressed, striking with all her strength and wearing her opponent down.
She felt Thelestris' ribs crack under her staff and the woman staggered backwards before rushing the bard, her eyes wild and angry. She attacked seemingly at random, swinging her staff again and again. Gabrielle blocked the erratic blows, her own anger rising.
"Yield," Gabrielle commanded, engaging Thelestris' staff with her own and pushing her back.
"Never," Thelestris growled, and Gabrielle couldn't see a shred of reason in her eyes. She brought her staff around, striking Thelestris' chin, snapping her head back. Shaking off the resulting disorientation, Thelestris came again, getting in a lucky shot to Gabrielle's knee. Gabrielle cried out, falling again, and this time Thelestris didn't hesitate.
Neither did Gabrielle as the end of her staff first found Thelestris' solar plexus, knocking the wind out of her, before cracking against her knee, dropping her to the ground.
Thelestris grimaced and moved to strike again, but Gabrielle's brought her staff around full force, hitting her temple with a loud crack as her skull shattered.
Panting and battered, Gabrielle gasped loudly, her face forming a grimace as she used the end of her staff to gain purchase on the slippery ground and rose unsteadily to her feet. She stared blankly at the trickle of blood running from Thelestris' ear and nose to the earth below. The rain poured even harder, washing over Gabrielle's pains and the wounds of her fallen opponent. Her staff fell from numb fingers and she staggered a few steps away from the corpse as the staff ht the muddy ground with a sodden thud.
Time stretched and her lungs labored to pull air into her body. Her knees started to give way and she gasped at the pain. Even though only a handful of heartbeats had passed since her staff had met Thelestris' head with a sickening crack, it felt like an eternity before strong arms enveloped her.
Xena saw Gabrielle go down again, and she rose while watching in wide-eyed helpless horror as her gentle bard cracked the would-be usurper across the skull. "Gods, no," she breathed, seeing the grim determination on Gabrielle's face as she delivered a killing blow. Lorien forgotten, Xena jumped down the tree, finally flipping onto the dais, her eyes on the bard as all emotion left her face and she gazed dully at Thelestris' body.
She saw Gabrielle's staff hit the ground, and as her knees buckled, Xena caught her, wrapping long arms around the Queen and pulling her close.
Gabrielle's body jerked with recognition, and she tried to pull away as the heat of battle left her, leaving her cold and shivering. Xena held on tighter, one arm around her waist and the other around her shoulders, keeping the smaller woman upright.
"Xena, I - " Gabrielle started to explain, he voice breaking. She felt cold and empty, and she wondered why she wasn't crying.
Several Amazons stepped forward to help their Queen, Ephiny among them.
"Get back," Xena snarled. When they moved away, Xena returned her attention to the unsteady woman in her arms. "Shh," Xena soothed, lowering herself and the weakened bard to their knees in the mud and cradling the woman against her chest. "I know, I've got you," she murmured reassuringly, stopping the bard as she tried to speak again and rocking her gently.
Gabrielle's body shook, and she looked down, unable to meet Xena's gaze. She knew enough to know that her presence helped the warrior when her dark memories surfaced, and that Xena's affection must be tied to her innocence somehow. No, she couldn't look into those eyes, because what she would see would kill her.
Xena called her name, the warrior's hand finding her chin as she tried to pull away again, shaking her head. "Shhh. Gabrielle. Gabrielle, look at me," she asked softly, turning the bard's face to her own. Xena's thoughts raced, but she couldn't find the words to make the pain go away. 'She wanted me to love her, and Gods forgive me, I could deny her that. But now she needs me. She needs my love like I need hers, and that I could never deny her. I understand it far too well. She can make her own choices. I can't stop her from growing, but I can be here, and I can hold her. As long as she'll let me, I will,' Xena vowed silently.
Gabrielle looked up, but her eyes flickered about, looking everywhere but Xena's face. Xena saw the dull sad knowledge in Gabrielle's eyes, and her heart broke.
"Look at me," she said again. If her heart broke to see the loss of innocence in Gabrielle's gaze, it tore to shreds as the bard's eyes closed, unable to meet Xena's. 'Please don't shut me out. Please,' Xena's heart gasped.
Xena closed her own eyes tight, her mind screaming at her to say something, but she didn't have the words. Unable to speak, and torn asunder by the blank look on the bard's usually expressive face, Xena ducked her head, finding the bard's lips with her own and kissing her with all the emotion she possessed.
Gabrielle's eyes shut tighter as she felt the fierce touch of Xena's lips. The mouth moving against her own spoke of love and passion and desperation and fear. Gabrielle was helpless against the brutal honesty of it as it tore down the defensive walls the loss of innocence had started to build. It commanded and begged her to stay all at once, and she did, a part of her that was lost being anchored to solid ground.
Pulling back, Xena spoke her name again, and it was an entreaty she couldn't ignore. Still, her body stiffened with fear as she opened her eyes to meet Xena's own.
There was no disappointment or anger in that look. Gabrielle saw only love and forgiveness and understanding in the depths of Xena's eyes. Suddenly, she knew what Xena felt when she would just look into her eyes after a battle, and the bands around Gabrielle's heart released. The cold emptiness inside warmed and filled as Xena whispered, "We'll get through this. Together."
Their lips met again, and all they knew was their love for each other and the rightness of the other's body pressed against their own. They did not notice the flash of lightning, or the rolling thunder, or the cheering Amazons as their kiss spoke for them, telling the other what was in their hearts.
A slender figure balanced easily at the top of the tree overlooking the dais. Carefully, she climbed down, her mouth curving into a smile as the warrior and bard kissed. She stopped fifty-five feet above the ground, looking down affectionately at Lorien's slumped form. 'Nobody thinks to look up,' she thought, her soft smile turning into a wry grin.
She dropped down on the branch next to Lorien, her heart thudding in her chest as she quickly reached out and steadied the injured woman.
Lorien looked up, her eyes creaking open slightly, then flying wide at the sight before her.
"T - Terreis?" she asked, her voice cracking on the word.
Terreis nodded, unable to speak for a moment. Her eyes roamed over Lorien's face and figure, taking in each plane and hollow. Lorien, in turn, drank in the sight of her departed lover greedily, reaching out a trembling hand to stroke her hair, then move to cup her cheek.
"Terreis," she breathed, pulling the woman to her with shaking arms and holding her close to her aching heart. Terreis returned the embrace and they both cried quietly, rocking together. "This can't be real," Lorien finally said after drawing a quivering breath, her voice thick with emotion. "I hit my head."
"So I see," Terreis said, touching the injury and question and laughing softly. She ran her fingers lightly over the cut, and it closed as her fingers passed. "I'm real," she assured her lover. She pulled back slightly, looking down at the ground below them. "But I can't stay," she finished softly.
"I'm not going to let you go," Lorien insisted, pulling her close again.
"I have to," Terreis countered firmly. Then her voice softened and she added, "but I have a little bit of time left."
"How - ?" Lorien began, but Terreis touched her lips gently to quiet her.
"Artemis owed me a favor."
"Why now?" Lorien asked, a part of her still having trouble believing that Terreis was really here.
"She didn't realize she owed me until tonight," Terreis explained, looking over the muddy field where the challenge had taken place. "And I needed to talk to you."
"Forget talking," Lorien said, kissing the woman in her arms fiercely and tightening her hold. 'Gods, I've missed this,' she thought as Terreis returned the kiss.
Finally, the broke apart, their breathing quickened. "Don't leave me," Lorien said. "Take me with you."
"I wish I could," Terreis said, biting her lip and resting her forehead on Lorien's shoulder, the tears returning. Coming to a decision, she sat up, wiping the tears away and looking into Lorien's eyes. "But it's not your time. You have a decision to make."
"I decide to go with you," Lorien said, resting her cheek against Terreis', reveling in the familiar touch. Terreis turned her head and kissed Lorien softly on the cheek.
"That's not your choice," Terreis said, smiling at her lover's stubborn streak.
"But you said I get to make a choice," Lorien argued.
"Lorien," Terreis began, her tone serious. "There are some things that just happen to us. We don't get to choose them. We don't get to decide." Terreis pulled back and brought her hands up to cup Lorien's face. "But how we react to these things - that's what we get to decide. That's where our choices lie."
"I don't understand," Lorien said, bowing her head and bringing one hand up to lightly rub Terreis' forearm.
"I died," Terreis said gently, frowning as Lorien winced at the words. "That just happened - to me, and to you, and to us. But how you choose to react to that is what you have to decide. There's so much to do, yet, and I don't get to decide to be here for it. You can, if you want."
"I can't - I can't forget you," Lorien whispered hoarsely, her body shaking.
"Oh, Love," Terreis said, shaking her head and kissing Lorien's brow. "I'm not asking you to forget," she whispered, pulling Lorien close once again and rocking her slowly in her arms. "I'm asking you to make a difficult decision. Queen Gabrielle and Xena have made theirs. You have to decide if losing me is going to cripple you. You have to decide if you will live or exist. You have to decide if you can let me go."
"It's so hard," Lorien sobbed, breaking down and crying within Terreis' protective embrace.
"I know, Love. I know." The clouds overhead parted, and the Hunter's moon shone down on the pair. Terreis' own tears fell, and her voice was husky as she spoke. "I have to leave now, Lorien. I love you."
"Gods, I love you, My Heart," Lorien said, straightening up and brushing Terreis' tears away with her thumb. Terreis tenderly wiped Lorien's tears away as well.
"No matter what you decide, I'll be waiting for you in Eternity," Terreis whispered.
Lorien kissed her lover's lips, memorizing the feel of the woman in her arms, and then she was gone.
"Good-Bye," Lorien whispered into the empty night.