Copyright: A lot of these characters, such as Xena and Gabrielle, are owned by renpics and associates. Other characters, such as many of the Amazons, and (most of)  the plot are m i n e. Also note that the detailed Amazon Nation system is very much my idea so do not use my concepts without permission. I worked hard on it.

Violence: There is violence in this story… some of it might be slightly gruesome but even I can only take so much!

Subtext: Any subtext becomes main text here. There is no sex so far.

Feedback: I would love feedback on this story so please email me:  red_hope@yahoo.com

Homepage: http://www.redhope.net 

TFWWM mailing list:http://groups.yahoo.com/group/tfwwm

Notes: For those fans of this story, I apologize for taking over three years to make a finished piece of this. I have come to love this story, what I've done with it, the time I've put into it between imagination and research, and sadly I did run low on time. I am much focused on it now though as I've set aside a lot of time. This section will be the conclusion after Xena's year but this is merely the ending to the beginning so be prepared!

Series: Other            Series Number: 13                                     Story Number: 53

March 31st 2003, Monday

To Find What was Mine

By Red Hope

Section Four A

Part 7: Gabrielle's Fifth Year

The wooden mask slightly flickered back the candlelight, which were placed around in the room. The thinly screened but dark eyes stared directly at its owner.

"I'm so proud of you," murmured Gabrielle as she slipped behind her girlfriend.

Ephiny's lips creased into a warm smile. She continued to study her new mask as she held it up before her. "I can't believe it."

The princess slid her arms around Ephiny's waist and lowered her chin down onto Ephiny's shoulder. "Why?" She shifted her head to place a gentle kiss to Ephiny's neck but returned her chin to its home. "I had every faith."

"I know," quietly agreed the Amazon. She faintly shook her head. "I just… it means I'm a real Amazon now."

Gabrielle squeezed her girlfriend's waist just some. "You always have been… with or without a mask."

Ephiny lowered her mask and held onto it with one hand – the mask now at her side. She turned in Gabrielle's arms; a smile on her face. "Thank you." With her free hand, she touched her girlfriend's cheek and leaned in for a soft kiss.

The small bard returned the depth of the kiss and pulled back with a faint moan of enjoyment. Her glazed eyes fluttered open, a smile on her face.

"We should get some rest." Ephiny glanced over at their beds, which they'd conveniently pushed together last week when they arrived back at the Academy.

Gabrielle sighed while she shifted her hands to Ephiny's hips now. "You're right. Classes will be early."

"Like always," reminded the Amazon. Ephiny started for her small wood closet so she could tuck her Amazon mask away.

The princess, however, went to her closest to change into her nightshift.

Ephiny was already set for bed, having thrown it on when they first got back from dinner this evening. If it was one thing she always tired of quickly it was the peasant attire she had to wear while at the Academy. She decided she much preferred her Amazon leathers over the itchy material that peasants wore.

Gabrielle had her nightshift on and was quickly hanging up her blue top and long brown skirt for tomorrow. She hurried as it was too cold to remain out of bed long when in a nightshift.

Ephiny though went around the room and began blowing out the candles except for two of them. When she came to Gabrielle's side of the room, she smiled at her girlfriend as she watched her climb into bed. Once Gabrielle was in the bed, Ephiny blew out the candle set on the windowsill and she made her way to the bed.

Gabrielle scooted over to let the Amazon crawl in with her. She then sensed strong, warm arms pull her back over some. "You know what I was thinking about?"

"Hmmmm?" murmured the Amazon.

"I was thinking about how proud of you I was when you returned from your Amazon Judgment that day."

Ephiny smiled. "I was pretty proud of myself too," she lightly bantered.

Gabrielle sighed and lightly slapped her girlfriend's thigh. "I'm serious."

The young Amazon smiled more and nuzzled Gabrielle with her nose. "Thank you," she murmured after pulling back some. "It won't be long 'til you try out for your sword."

Gabrielle sucked in a heavy breath then slowly released it. "I know." She rolled onto her back now and her girlfriend shifted in closer. "I do that in the beginning of the spring."

"After the first budding of flowers."

The princess was deeply considering the trial that would face her once she graduated from the Academy. It caused her to shiver.

Ephiny instantly sensed it. She already had her arm around Gabrielle's waist but she now put her right leg over top of Gabrielle's. "You'll past it with flying feathers." But her joke was slightly lost on her girlfriend. So she gently squeezed Gabrielle's lower torso to show support. "Come on, you'll pass it, Gabrielle."

"What happens if I don't?" countered the bard.

"Then Eponin will continue to train you until you're prepared."

"But…." Gabrielle turned her head to the right. "Then everybody in the Nation knows I failed."

"No, everybody knows you're not ready yet." Ephiny lifted her hand and gently touched Gabrielle's cheek. "Some of the best warriors in the Nation didn't pass the first time. Nor would you be the first or the last." She paused, leaned in, and placed a soft kiss to Gabrielle's temple. "If that even happens and I think you'll pass it easily."

"Why?" quietly asked Gabrielle.

Ephiny smiled again. "I think you're a natural with the staff. You learned very quickly this past summer."

"I got off to a slow start," admitted the bard.

The Amazon somewhat shrugged. "That doesn't surprise me. I think Eponin had the challenge of breaking through your slave training."

Gabrielle was silent for awhile as she considered what Ephiny told her. She had to admit that Ephiny did have a point about Eponin needing to almost retrain Gabrielle's line of thinking since her days with Hecht.

"And you've learned a lot this past summer too. Not just in staff training but with Ambassador Majorie and taking charge of recording the Nation's history.

"Anybody could have done it," brushed off the bard.

"You think so?" opposed the Amazon, "So that's why so many other Amazons have done it too?"

Gabrielle turned her head to her girlfriend and offered a glare even though she knew Ephiny couldn't see her expression.

Yet Ephiny knew it was there and she smirked. "Give yourself a chance, love," she whispered and leaned in for a soft kiss.

Gabrielle turned onto her side without breaking the kiss, her hand lightly touching Ephiny's cheek. After the kiss, she murmured, "Thank you."

"Thank you too," offered back the Amazon. "We should get some rest."

"I know." Gabrielle quickly placed a kiss to Ephiny's forehead then snuggled in closer to Ephiny's embrace. She closed her eyes and her breathing didn't take long to slow down.

Ephiny touched her forehead against her girlfriend's and she wasn't far behind in falling asleep.

When the sun touched over the horizon, the two Amazons woke up and prepared for another day of classes at the Academy. After they got ready, they stepped into the main part of the dorm where the Orion was sitting on the foot of his bed.

"Good morning," greeted Gabrielle, she stepped up to him.

Orion smiled as he stood up. "Good morning." He then smiled to Ephiny, who was coming out of the bedroom last. "Good morning, Ephiny."

The Amazon smiled brightly at the young man. "Morning, Orion."

"Where are Twickenham and Stallonus?"

"They already went to breakfast, they couldn't wait," teased Orion.

"But you waited," stated the princess.

Orion nodded his head. "I waited for you two."

Ephiny smiled at his politeness then she came up behind her girlfriend. She lifted the heavy wool and leather coat from her arm and held it open. Her girlfriend didn't hesitate to put it on with her help.

"Thank you," whispered Gabrielle.

Ephiny merely squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder in response.

"I'm starving," announced the bard.

Ephiny rolled her eyes and walked past the Amazon Princess.

Orion shook his head and said, "There's a surprise." He then held up his arm.

Gabrielle looked down to the door where Ephiny stood with the door open. She saw the smirk expression of Ephiny's face. So she quickly took Orion's arm and walked down the aisle between the beds until she came to the door where Ephiny stood. "At least somebody knows how to be polite these days."

The Amazon shrugged and watched as the pair walked past a little more. She quickly took her opening and her right hand shot out to pinch Gabrielle's butt.

Gabrielle's head quickly shot around but she didn't have a chance to say anything because of Orion.

"How did you sleep?" asked Orion.

The princess flashed a smile and replied, "Pretty well. You?"

"A little restless," admitted Orion. "But I am quite hungry too." He and Gabrielle shared a laugh.

Ephiny however just rolled her eyes and followed behind.

When the group entered the mess hall, they were waved down by Twickenham, Stallonus, and Euripides. First they went over to say good morning to them then they went to get their breakfasts. When they returned, their table quickly came to life with all the chatter and clanking.

"So tell us about the Amazons, Gabrielle," cut in Stallonus.

The princess relented from groaning because she was somewhat happy to be away from the Nation despite she loved it there. "Its different," she mildly teased.

"What do the… the f-f-feathers in your h-h-hair mean?" To ensure his question was understood, Twickenham pointed to them.

Gabrielle knew which feathers were in question.

"They mean something in particular, don't they?" inquired Orion.

The Amazon Princess slowly nodded her head. "They each mean something different."

"I noticed Ephiny has the same colorful one as you do," pointed out Euripides. "It must state that you're Amazons."

Ephiny smiled at the young man's interpretation.

"My gold feather means I'm of the royal line," explained Gabrielle.

"And the blue feather?" questioned Orion.

Gabrielle shyly laughed and she spotted the huge smirk on her girlfriend's face. "Welllll… that one is a bit more complicated."

"Ooo we do have time for a brief story, Gabrielle." Euripides wickedly smiled.

The bard gave her best sigh but she could never deny a story. "Okay." She grinned when all the boys scooted closer so they wouldn't miss a single word.

"The blue feather stands for excellence in diplomacy." Gabrielle paused as her friends' expression grew with understanding but interest. "While I was in the Nation this summer I was being taught how to be a reasonable diplomat by the head of Diplomatic Affairs and Relations. Her name is Ambassador Majorie. On certain nights the ambassador would sit down to give me lessons on how…."

"By sweet Artemis, princess," breathed Ambassador Majorie. "Repeat to me again what you have promised?"

Gabrielle fidgeted some with her staff in her hand but she kept her eyes on the ambassador. "An economical pact of fair trade, we give Potidaea a wagon and half of regular oil and wagon and a half of extra virgin. In return the Nation receives two wagons of seafood."

The ambassador studied the princess and she also considered the terms that the princess offered. "What kind of seafood?"

The young Amazon felt a small sense of relief since the ambassador was showing interest. "A mix really between perch, bass, tuna, halibut, prawn, squid, eel, turtle, caviar…." She paused and revealed a faint grin. "And hopefully some oysters."

Ambassador Majorie blinked. "Oysters?"

Gabrielle refrained from chuckling. "Yes, ambassador. The constable promised a few bushels of oysters."

The ambassador stared at her young student. "Perhaps this pact could serve the Nation well."

The princess flashed a smile and her relief was clearly evident now. "Do you think it'll pass council?"

"Only with my support," affirmed the ambassador.

Gabrielle looked away for a second and glanced about the ambassador's office. She then gazed back at the ambassador, who sat at her desk. "Ambassador, I do have one favor?"

Majorie curiously studied Gabrielle. "Go on, princess."

Gabrielle shyly smiled and licked her lips. "Well Constable Rasmus said he'd agree to the pact if he could tour the groves."


After Gabrielle cleared her throat she very quietly added, "He's actually here now for the tour."

The ambassador suddenly sprung up from her chair at her office desk. "Princess Gabrielle!"

The young Amazon took a faint step back from the ambassador. She dipped her head momentarily then lifted it again.

Majorie settled down and chastised herself for reacting as she did. She sighed then came around the desk to stand before her student. "I apologize, princess." She felt calmer when Gabrielle looked up at her again. She was about to ask Gabrielle something but she was cut off.

"I did as you taught me. I gave him one of the finer huts so that he's fully accommodated. There's also a guard near his hut to assist him with anything."

Majorie was slightly stunned but she was also very proud. "Did he say when he wished to see the groves?"


The ambassador remained quiet as her thoughts ran through her head. "Well then that gives us the afternoon today to write out a rough pact." She then began to grin. "And you, princess, will be hosting the constable since this was all your idea."

Gabrielle's mouth opened, she said nothing, she closed her mouth, and she nodded her head.

The corner of Majorie's mouth curled up into a deep, lopsided grin. "May the queen have mercy on your imprudence and approve of the pact."

The princess's head slouched some as she considered how hastily and presumptive she acted with the constable and pact.

Majorie started to walk back behind her desk again. Despite she was being hard on Gabrielle she was also quite secretly proud of her student. Gabrielle may have acted imprudently yet she acted unlike most would have not on such an excellent opportunity. "Now then, let's rough out this pact, shall we? Where should we begin, princess?"

"Wow," whispered Twickenham.

"You really pissed that ambassador off huh?" teased Stallonus.

Orion elbowed him.

"I highly doubt that," declared Euripides.

"Well I was lucky because Constable Rasmus was very happy with groves. To further encourage him, I gave him an entire tour of the Nation. He was quite content that we could make a pact."

"How did the negotiations go with the council and queen?"

Gabrielle let out a huge breath at Orion's question. "Well I was really lucky. The constable decided to waver and he decided he'd give two wagons of seafood for two wagons of extra virgin oil."

"That was the final pact?"

"Pretty much," confirmed the princess.

"Did the q-q-queen get on your c-c-case?"

Gabrielle slumped some with a groan muffled between her lips.

Ephiny patted her girlfriend's back lightly. "She got an ear full."

"You got your feathers shredded," teased Stallonus.

The bard straightened up again and went into story mode again. "After the constable left the Nation with an escort for Potidaea, the queen spoke with me."

Vara smiled as the princess approached the Administration Hut that she always stood guard. "Good afternoon, princess."

Gabrielle sighed and stopped next to the guard. "I wish it was."

Vara lost her smile. "Troubles, my princess?"

"More like I am in trouble."

Vara couldn't resist her amused expression. "I heard."

Gabrielle's jaw dropped. "Gods. You're joking."

"Of course not, my princess. Gossip moves faster than Artemis herself."

The princess laughed now as she ran her fingers through her sunny hair. "I believe it."

"It particularly moves fast when it involves a beautiful princess."

The younger Amazon's cheeks rosed over, which made her dip her head down.

Vara smirked but she decided best to change the topic. "Do not fear the queen or her… anger."

"Easier said."

The guard shrugged then quietly added, "The queen is great but even she knows when to bow."

Gabrielle was confused and trying to process the guard's statement.

Vara touched the princess's shoulder. "Just stay calm while in there, my princess."

"I will," whispered Gabrielle. She moved closer to the door. "Thanks, Vara."

Vara smiled brightly when the princess remembered her name. "Good luck, my princess."

The princess rolled her eyes and entered the hut.

Vara sent a silent prayer to Artemis for the princess's sake.

Gabrielle strolled through the corridor until she reached the queen's office door. She knocked on the wood door and when she heard the queen's voice, she entered. "My queen." She bowed her head.

"Have a seat, princess." The queen set aside her scroll and put her quill in its inkwell. When her eyes were level with the princess's, she began her lecture. "Despite the excellent pact produced between Potidaea and the Nation it has come to light your incompetence in handling it."

"My queen…." Gabrielle held her tongue fast when Queen Melosa held up a hand.

"Listen, princess and listen well." The queen held the princess's gaze strongly. "I understand that you have been receiving nightly lessons from the ambassador. Despite the fact you are receiving such lessons and knowledge does not acquire you to be an ambassador or emissary for this Nation. You currently hold no authority to make any pacts or promises of the like for this Nation." Melosa stopped and saw that the bard was intently listening. "You may be the princess of this Nation but that does not give you authority. Your title as princess is merely an image at this current moment, nothing more."

Gabrielle broke the gaze for a second, her eyes lowering but she looked up again.

"You may not always have Ambassador Majorie there to save your feathers. I will expect you to better conduct yourself in the future, princess." Queen Melosa leaned forward some. "Or can you not honor your gold feather, princess?"

The feather in question seemed to come to life and fall forward, against Gabrielle's cheek. The bard, without thought, brushed it back behind her ear again then she nodded her head. "I honor my gold feather, my queen." She held her eyes still with the queen's. "Always."

"Very well. See that your actions do not repeat."

"They will not," promised the bard.

"You're excused, princess." Queen Melosa watched the young Amazon rise up and silently slipped out of her office. She let out a huge sigh and returned to her scrollwork. It wasn't but a quarter of a candlemark when there was a knock at her door. With an even bigger sigh, she called, "Come in." She was remotely surprised when Ambassador Majorie strolled into her office. "Majorie," she greeted.

"My queen." The ambassador bowed her head then asked, "May I sit?"

"I take it this must be an in depth visit?" Melosa held her hand out to a chair before her, recently vacated by the princess.

"Yes, well I believe we have something to discuss." The ambassador took her seat.

Melosa took a deep breath and leaned back into her chair, forgetting her work. "What is the problem, Majorie?"

"You're being too hard on Gabrielle. Neither I nor the council agree to your harshness with her."

The queen considered the ambassador's words. "I do not believe I am. She broke protocol, Majorie and you know this… so does the council."

"I don't argue that, nobody does. However the fact remains that the princess just brought us two things that the Nation has been lacking since the Nation was established."

Melosa's eyes narrowed.

Majorie noted the stiffness of the queen so she pressed her point harder. "We now will have a seasonal supply of seafood and something to do with the extra barrels of oil sitting around in the stock huts." She leaned forward. "Second she brought us a smith through her bardic skills." She suddenly shot her right arm out and pointed off in that general direction. "The army is praising her for finding a female smith." She dropped her arm to the chair. "And the latest word on every Amazon's lips is the princess's name."

"The princess is no hero," barked the queen.

Majorie's eyes darkened and she rose up. She grabbed the edge of the desk and leaned over the queen. "Melosa, do not deny the princess's success. You certainly haven't denied her of her mistakes." She leaned forward just slightly more so that her eyes were perfectly level with the stubborn queen. "If you do not recognize her for her success then the Nation certainly will without you." She straightened up, stomped out of the office, and slammed the door behind.

The ambassador hotly walked out of the Administration Hut but she gave a curt nod to the guard.

Vara intently watched the ambassador proudly walk off. She slightly grinned because earlier she'd seen Ambassador Majorie stalk into the hut with a mission on hand. She'd never seen the ambassador so enraged before but Vara pretty well figured it out. Her grin spread wider at the thought of Ambassador Majorie confronting the queen about Princess Gabrielle. She'd already heard the thick and heavy gossip about the queen's refusal to honor the princess's success with the pact and needed smith. Now she had great new gossip about the ambassador's confrontation with the queen.

Stallonus laughed and hooted some. "That's great! The ambassador ripped her a new as-"

"Stallonus," warned Orion.

"That's amazing," whispered Twickenham. "What happened after t-t-that?"

Gabrielle smiled some.

Ephiny touched her girlfriend's arm to keep her silent for a moment. "Maybe we should head to class while Gabrielle tells the rest."

"Yes, that would be quite wise, Ephiny." Euripides rose up with his empty plate. The others followed him.

Once the group of friends finished getting rid of their plates, they started into the Great Hall and towards their classroom. Gabrielle picked up with the last of her story of the blue feather.

"I can't believe this." The Amazon Princess was awe struck as she watched the Nation celebrate. They were celebrating her.

"Why?" insisted Solari, "You helped the Nation."

The bard shook her head and faced her friend. "Yes… I didn't save the Nation."

Eponin came up behind her student. "You must understand, princess that helping the Nation is in some way saving the Nation." She smiled at the confused look on the princess's face. "Without any help, the Nation would stop being progressive. You have brought honor and success to the Nation just as you have to yourself."

The bard sighed and shook her head. She stared at the various Amazons all dressed up and dancing around the fire. "I also broke the rules."

"Perhaps," murmured the weapons master, "but learning from your mistakes is just as honorable, princess."

Gabrielle returned her focus to her mentor. She faintly smiled. "Thank you, Eponin."

"You are welcome, Gabrielle." Eponin signaled to the crowd of Amazons with her mug. "Enjoy it, princess. We always celebrate when honor and success is given to the Nation."

Gabrielle's crispy green eyes finally settled on a familiar figure that materialized out of the depths of the crowd. Suddenly a smile lightened her face.

Ephiny closed in on her girlfriend. "Hi."

The princess took Ephiny's hands into hers. "Hi."

Solari shifted away from the couple and went to Eponin's side.

Ephiny stole a warm kiss from Gabrielle then she quietly asked, "Would you like to dance?"

The princess groaned and replied, "Remember what happened last time."

Eponin smirked and piped in, "Time to dance, princess."

"Eponin," growled the princess.

"That's Master Eponin," tormented the weapons master.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes.

Ephiny was about to ask again but she stopped when she heard the music settle. She gazed over her right shoulder at the dais, the queen had risen. "Come on." She climbed down to her knees with Gabrielle while Solari and Eponin followed suit.

Queen Melosa stepped to the edge of the dais once her Nation kneeled before her, except for one. Her eyes fell on that one. "Ambassador Majorie!" Her voice rang through the celebration grounds.

The ambassador dipped her head in respect then weeded through the kneeling Amazons. She then climbed the dais next to the queen.

Melosa quietly cleared her throat and called out, "Up here, Princess Gabrielle!"

The princess sucked in sharp breath. She stood up and made her way to the dais. She stepped up and slipped between the queen and ambassador. She held still despite she felt the nervousness rip through her body.

Queen Melosa remained facing the Nation. "Tonight we celebrate for many reasons. First we must honor our princess for bringing success to the Nation." She then signaled to the ambassador.

Majorie smiled at that Nation and mentally pulled her speech from her memory. "Princess Gabrielle has honored the Nation with two great successes. The princess has brought us a fine smith and created a powerful economical pact between our Nation and Potidaea. May the Nation thrive from such honors." She now faced the princess just as the queen did the same. "I can only hope the seafood will be as amazing as the smithing work, princess."

Gabrielle realized it was a joke and she grinned. She heard a low dim of laughter throughout the Nation.

Majorie now revealed a blue feather and a thin piece of leather. With the queen's help, she neatly tied the feather nearby the other two but a little further back so it wouldn't be in the way. Then she and the queen faced the Nation once more.

Queen Melosa took a deep breath. "Now, my Amazons honor our princess as she has honored us!"

The crowd of Amazons all cheered in report.

Majorie bent towards the princess and whispered, "Join your Nation, Gabrielle."

The bard peered up at her mentor and smiled. "Thank you."

Majorie nodded and held a stern look but her eyes were soft. She then nodded to the queen and followed behind the princess.

Queen Melosa straightened up fully and waited for the Amazons to settle down again. "Priestess Narkissa!"

The priestess did not hesitate to appear from the shadows of the celebration. She glided through the kneeling, silent Amazons and ascended the dais. "My queen," she murmured.

The queen scanned the crowed until she found her target. "Master Eponin."

The weapons master rose up and sought out her charge in the crowd, it was distinct charge too. She wrapped her fingers around the bowing woman's arm.

"Up here, Andra!"

Master Eponin escorted Andra to the dais then let her step up to the queen and priestess. She then stepped away and knelt.

Andra never liked being the center of attention. Now she wasn't sure what she was getting herself into when she took Gabrielle's offer. In her head, she repeated that this had to be a good choice because she certainly wasn't surviving alone.

The queen licked her lips some then called out, "Our second reason for this celebration." She held her hand out to the smith. "Before the sun is overhead we will have welcomed a new member to the Amazon Nation, Andra." She signaled to Narkissa.

The priestess took the signal and faced the smith. "Andra, you have been honored with a caste to become an Amazon. Before Artemis, do you promise to protect and aide the Amazon Nation?"

Andra's mouth was dry but she summoned all of her strength before this great Nation. "I swear before Artemis that I will serve my Nation with my strength and skills."

Melosa sensed the sincerity in the newcomer's words. She signaled the priestess finally.

Priestess Narkissa revealed a bronze feather that shined vibrant colors. She cupped the feather between her hands lifted far above Andra's head.

Now the queen reached up and held the bronze feather over the blacksmith's head.

The priestess took a deep breath then called out, "Artemis, Andra has come to us and joins your Nation of honored female warriors. Bless her spirit and let her become one with you."

Queen Melosa now dropped her head back and searched the dark skies. "Artemis, Andra has taken the caste of Amazon. She has promise to serve your Nation with all her strength and honor that you so desire. Please guide her always even through the darkest moments."

Now the pair carefully began tying the reflective, colorful feather into place. When they finally had the feather secured they released Andra's hair and she sensed the new weight.

Together Narkissa and Melosa turned back to the Nation and announced, "Welcome Andra to our Nation!"

Automatically the crowd roared their approval with yells and obscure words.

Melosa felt a faint smile tug at her lips. She could actually see that the Nation was excited to welcome a blacksmith into an already versatile Nation. She bent to her side some and uttered, "Join your Nation, Andra."

The blacksmith held her breath as she gazed up at the queen. "Thank you." She received a brief smile then she went down the steps of the dais. When she made it to the bottom, she was instantly greeted and welcomed into the Nation, her new home.

Gabrielle couldn't refuse as she pushed through some of the Amazons. She approached Andra and she couldn't hold back her smile. "Welcome, Andra."

Andra was relieved to see a familiar face yet without notice she was suddenly in a hug with Gabrielle. She somewhat laughed and hugged the young woman back. "Thank you." When the hug ended she had a huge smirk on her face. "So does this mean I have to call you 'my princess'?"

The princess laughed and grasped her friend's arm. "Please don't."

"I wasn't planning to," bantered the smith.

"That's sooo cool," whispered Stallonus.

Gabrielle quietly laughed as she leaned back in her desk chair. "It was luck." She now realized that many of the other classmates had gathered around to listen to the tail end of her tale.

"It wasn't," cut in Ephiny, "it was skill."

The princess rolled her eyes at her girlfriend. "It was luck I found her."

Ephiny shook her head at Gabrielle's lack of faith.

Orion twisted his head around when he saw the teacher come into the room. "Uh oh." He nodded at the teacher. "We better sit."

"You will tell us more?"

Gabrielle smiled at Euripides. "I promise." She then watched her friends as well as the other student disperse to their seats. Ephiny took her seat next to her.

"You'll be the top student."

The bard did a double-take.

"You will be." Ephiny now grinned. "Didn't you see how the other students came over to listen? They didn't even hear the story from the start."

The princess shook her head and had not time to say anything as the teacher began class.

The rest of the day dragged on through the classes and then later it was time for homework followed by dinner. By the time the pair was back in their room after dinner, Gabrielle felt something amiss. She couldn't decide whether she was tired or if it was something else. As she sat at her desk, she stared blankly at the half written scroll. Off to her right she spotted the pirate's journal, Xena's journal.

The bard stretched her hand out and her fingertips grazed over the leather bound journal. It was no thin journal but one that was quite alive, especially in Gabrielle's waking and sleeping mind. She'd read over the journal more than she could count yet the entries never seemed to change. It was the same heartache, the same anger… the same lust for revenge. Yet between it all Gabrielle picked out pieces of hope that Xena secretly clung to, each and every day.

Slowly Gabrielle tore her eyes away from the journal. She took a sidelong view of her girlfriend, who was at her desk on the opposite side of the room. She now got up and went to the door but she paused. "I'm going to go for a walk."

Ephiny stopped scribing. She studied her girlfriend for a quiet moment. "Okay. I'll see you in a bit."

The princess nodded then silently left other than the door creak.

Ephiny stared at the closed door and she debated whether to follow. She sighed and decided it was best for her girlfriend to have some alone time. She tried to go back to her writing.

The bard entered the cool fall evening. She debated whether to run back in for her cloak but she decided against it. She would be warm enough between her top and long skirt. Slowly she made her trek across the grounds and found her way into the gardens. It'd become one of her favorite places recently.

Gabrielle followed the stone bath until she came to the empty bench. She settled down into it and pulled her legs up to sit cross legged. With a heavy sigh, she lifted her eyes to the heavens and watched the stars.

"It's a bear, Gabrielle."

"I still do not see this bear, Xena." The young girl laughed and patted her friend's stomach in sympathy. "I think you should be the bard some day."

The teenager groaned and turned her head to Gabrielle. "Why is it so hard for you to see this bear?" Xena lifted her arm straight up and tried to trace her bear out. "See it?"

"Xena, we went over this the last two moon cycles." The girl now giggled. "Every moon you bring up this bear." She turned her head to Xena too. "It’s a ladle."

Xena's arm flopped back down onto the blanket that they shared out in the middle of the field. "Why do you have to be so stubborn?"

Gabrielle's mouth popped open and she shot up onto her side, staring down at Xena. "Me! You're the one that brings up this silly bear all the time."

"It's not silly," protested the older girl.

"Well it's not my fault you're imagining stars up there."

Xena suddenly had an offended look. "You're rotten, Bri."

Gabrielle grinned now.

"That's it!" Xena quickly vaulted upward and attacked her prey with fast moving fingers.

Gabrielle went on her back and began kicking and squealing. "No! No! Noooo! Gods no, Xena!" Hysterical laughter erupted from her. "Nooo! Stop!"

Xena relished the onslaught. "My bear is not silly!" Her sea blue eyes twinkled brighter than the stars.

"Okay, okay! Your bear isn't silly!"

Satisfied that she won, Xena stopped and lay back down.

"Well…." Gabrielle finally started to catch her breath again. "At least we do agree on one thing."

Xena looked at her friend, her arched eyebrow made the question.

"We both see that warrior up there."

Together the pair lifted their eyes to the sky and focused on the outline of the mighty warrior with his sword raised.

Gabrielle's memory drifted away yet she was still staring at that amazing warrior in the night sky. Instinctively her right hand lifted and her hand curled around the feather necklace. Her thumb rubbed up and down the feather in a habitual ritual.

Gradually the bard scanned the stars until she came upon the ladle. She tried desperately to find that bear Xena always tried to show her. Yet she still couldn't find Xena's bear… in all these years she still had yet to find it. She could only wonder when she'd discover it if ever.

Suddenly Gabrielle's head jerked to the right when the stones shifted under somebody's weight. She sadly smiled when her girlfriend appeared from the shadows and joined her on the bench.

Ephiny was silent and she mimicked Gabrielle's study of the stars. "Beautiful, aren't they?"

The bard only moved her head in agreement.

Ephiny relaxed back into the bench. She noted how Gabrielle clung to her necklace that Xena had given her many seasons back. She felt an ache fill her. "You really miss her, don't you?"

Gabrielle licked her lips before whispering, "More than anything else." She bit her lower lip, her head drooping down. "Now she's probably gone."

The Amazon touched her girlfriend's closest knee. "You don't know that, Gabrielle."

"Ooo gods, Ephiny," whimpered the bard, who lifted her head up. "There's absolutely no hope that she's alive." Her lower lip quivered against her quaking emotions. "And by Hades himself I doubt I'll even see her in the afterlife." She dropped her gaze. "She'll be in Tartarus and I'll be in the Elysian Fields."

"Don't give in, Gabrielle." Ephiny clasped her girlfriend's shoulder. "You have no idea what has happened or what could happen."

"I've read her journal, Ephiny… over and over." Gabrielle kept shaking her head. "There's no way she'd ever made it." She choked on her next thoughts but she forced them out. "I didn't tell you this but…." Her eyes met Ephiny's. "She found Lila… my sister."

Ephiny's face fell from the news. Never once had Gabrielle told her and she hated that Gabrielle had carried that weight alone for so long. "Where is she?"

"I don't know… Xena's journal doesn't say." Gabrielle bit her lip. "Her last entry was about how everything was going well but she was waiting for this Roman Nobleman to find her." She was silent as she ran that last journal entry through her mind. "She was infatuated with him."

Ephiny silently studied the other Amazon.

"She was consumed by the power he had… could have. Her last moon cycle of entries were often about him, about the power."

The older Amazon considered the bard's word, she digested them then finally something came to mind. "She was changing course."

The princess curiously looked at Ephiny.

"She wanted control, Gabrielle… control over her life, her future and she knew she could only do that through power."

"Power is found through knowledge," murmured the bard.

"And fear," added Ephiny, her eyes filled with sadness.

Gabrielle shook her head. "It's not true, Ephiny." She knew exactly what her girlfriend was getting at now. "Xena could never become… become a monster."

"Not on purpose," whispered Ephiny, "but from certain events… it could rearrange anybody."

The small blond licked her lips and her eyes lowered to the ground.

"Lila must have been captured."

Gabrielle's had snapped up. "She's probably dead." She laughed bitterly and her hands started to fist up.

"You don't know this, Gabrielle," hotly reminded Ephiny. "Besides that everybody knows killing a slave is a waste of money."

Despite the ugliness of Ephiny's words they were also true. Any good slave was a live one that could do the work. It was only when a slave could not perform their duties did they become appealing to kill. If it was one thing Hecht taught her it was that survival in the slave world would be saw through making herself worth keeping alive. She'd always kept her head down and worked as hard as she could and it'd kept her alive.

"I hope you're right," finally spoke up Gabrielle.

"Don't give in so easy, Gabrielle." Ephiny reached over and clasped her hand with Gabrielle's. "In time you will be queen of a powerful Nation. When you have that power you can utilize it… to help you."

The bard hadn't considered this at all. She curiously studied Ephiny for some answers. "I could seek out my sister then?"

Slowly Ephiny nodded. "You'll have power, influence, and people outside the Nation will help. It is possible."

"I hope you're right."

The Amazon squeezed the princess's hand. "I am." She was relieved to see the faint smile on Gabrielle's face. "We should go get some rest."

The bard had to agree; it was getting late. She stood up and it felt good to stretch her legs out long. She didn't break her hand contact with Ephiny and instead laced their fingers together.

Quietly the pair strolled through the silver garden and went back to the dorm. When they were curled up in bed and in each others arms it wasn't long before they drifted asleep. For once after so many moon cycles, Gabrielle was finally able to rest well. Ephiny's words had stirred a lot of her hope again, something to hold onto again.

Gradually the late summer leaves turned into the fall leaves, they were beginning to break from their branches and glide to the receding grass below. The sun had moved further across the sky and the days were becoming shorter and shorter. The fall breezes were coming alive and bringing a cold chill at night time.

The classes at the Academy continued to be rigorous and much of the students' time was spent doing work or preparing for testing. Yet for Gabrielle, Ephiny, and their friends it was their third term but their final season, they held the place of iūnior. It wouldn't be until after the Winter Solstice that they would be a senex and preparing for graduation. However by mid-fall through the term, the iūnior class was given a new rule that would be instilled for the future and a requirement to graduate. In every student's senex term it'd been decided that they must enter into a program where they would gain first hand experience at being bards. The Academy believed it would be an excellent way to weed out the true bard from the unaccomplished ones and give each aspiring bard the true taste of what it was like to be a bard.

The program required each student to go every fortnight to one of the selected handful of taverns, inns, and theaters in Athens to perform before an audience. The student would do it for free unless it so happened that a patron truly felt to give them money however it was free for the establishment's owner. In turn, the student was waved from having to attend one class of their choice. The new program was known as the Internus program and each student was labeled as an Internus Poiētēs, which Gabrielle had found quite suiting since they were intern bards or poets.

At first there were many rebukes about the program and objective of the program but only because many students were nervous. Despite many aspired as bards or poets there were only a few that could decently perform before an unknown audience. Even Gabrielle had to admit she was nervous about the idea of performing in front of an audience yet she would meet the challenge. In the end, Gabrielle understood the program's intent and she agreed with the idea. And it was something she tried not to worry so much about until it came closer, when she entered into her senex term.

Right now though she was more concerned as to why Feodoras had come to the dorm tonight. The last time he had done this at the same time last fall, it wasn't good news.

Ephiny trailed behind her girlfriend, out of the room and into the boys' portion of the dorm.

Gabrielle was before Feodoras and asking what was going on.

"You have visitors," replied the grounds keeper.

Ephiny was curious.

"They're here to see you too, Ephiny."

The two Amazons exchanged looks and they had to only guess once.

"I will show you to them," started Feodoras, "but you can't visit too long as it is getting late."

"Of course," replied Gabrielle.

"I'll get our coats," murmured Ephiny.

The grounds keeper turned around and went back out of the dorm.

The bard grabbed her coat from Ephiny and hurried out to follow Feodoras. Feodoras led her and Ephiny across the grounds and into the main Academy building where their classes were held. He showed them into a warm room where there was a small fire going in the fireplace for them. He slightly smiled when Ephiny and Gabrielle automatically lit up at seeing their visitors.

"I will leave you to visit but I'll be back shortly."

"Thank you, Feodoras." Gabrielle offered a smile before the man closed the door on his way out. She then turned to smile at her surprise visitors.

"We didn't know you were coming," spoke up Ephiny.

"That was the idea, sister." Eponin grinned from ear to ear.

Ephiny laughed and scooped up her friend into a hug.

Solari was all smiles and happily gave the princess a warm hug. "It's good to see you, Gabrielle."

"Its great to see you," murmured the bard. "How are you?"

"Well." Solari brushed back a piece of hair.

Gabrielle's attention flickered over to the quiet figure next to her. "Andra."

"Gabrielle." The blacksmith had her hands behind her back.

"I didn't…."

The blacksmith shrugged despite her heavy coat hid most of the shrug.

The princess shook her head but she was smiling. She stepped up to the smith and hugged her tightly. "Thank you for coming."

Ephiny now realized she hadn't said hi to the other quiet figure to Eponin's left. "Gryta, how are you?"

The historian had a thin smile. "I'm great."

Ephiny stepped up and hugged her. "Thank you for coming out here."

Gabrielle now made her way over to Eponin and Gryta. She happily greeted and hugged them each. When she stepped away, she saw Ephiny was finishing her short conversation with Solari. "Let's sit." She held her hand out to the sofa and sofa chairs that went around the fireplace.

The group made themselves comfortable wherever they felt they could go. Once everybody was settled down, they all started talking at once about everything including the Nation, the latest gossip, the Academy, and other recent news. Everybody was enjoying the conversation, especially the latest and greatest gossip in the Nation.

Suddenly all the Amazons laughed together and Solari barked out, "See, Gabrielle? You're still the main gossip topic in the Nation and you're not even there!"

The women all laughed together except for Gabrielle, who was merely shaking her head and sinking in her seat.

"To be honest, Solari," cut in Gabrielle, "I think its you who heads this G Force."

The group all cheered with laughter and Solari flushed red; she'd been completely caught.

"I don't admit to a thing."

"But your cheeks certain say enough," pointed out the weapons master.

There was a round of snickers.

"I'm really surprised you four came," spoke up Gabrielle.

"It was really Eponin's idea," pointed out Solari.

Gryta leaned forward in her seat some so she could have a clear view of Solari. "And you just came to collect on more gossip about the princess."

Solari shot an offended look at the other Amazon. "I am so insulted. The princess is one of my closest friends."

"Yes, keep your friends close but your gossip even closer," teased Eponin.

The women hooted again in laughter.

"You have to admit that the trouble Gabrielle stirred up with Andra and the pact with Potidaea was the best ever!"

Ephiny was grinning at Solari's absolute fascination with gossip. "I think you stirred up the trouble, Solari."

"Wait!" Solari held up an index finger. "I heard some of the really good stuff from a very good source."

"Who might that be?" probed Eponin.

"The little shadow by the Administration Hut."

Everybody had confused looks and tried to figure out who Solari was referring to.

"Wait." Gabrielle perked up as it struck her. "You mean Vara?"

"Yyyeeesss!" Solari laughed. "That girl hears it all… she has some of the biggest ears." She put her hands up to cover her ears. "She has like… elephant ears."

"Like you know what an elephant looks like," snorted Eponin.

"I've seen them in a circus once," proudly stated Solari.

"You are a circus," jibed the historian.

Solari glared at Gryta. "You have a mean streak... I never saw that coming."

The historian wickedly grinned.

Gabrielle sighed despite she was enjoying all the bantering. She now looked to the silent blacksmith. "How are you taking to the Nation?"

Everybody's eyes fell on her.

Andra cleared her throat and shifted uneasily in her chair. "It's taking some time."

"I understand," started the princess, "it took me some time too."

Solari rolled her eyes.

"Especially with certain," Gabrielle decided to emphasis her point again, "certain Amazons." Her eyes rested on Solari.

The young Amazon snorted.

Andra was grinning but she went serious as her focus returned to Gabrielle. "It will take me some time to get use to it all. I lived alone for much of my life after my father died. To switch over to this it's…."

"It's not easy," finished the weapons master.

The blacksmith nodded her head. "But everybody has been really great and helpful."

"I'm glad to hear that." The Amazon Princess smiled at the consideration that her Amazons were showing the blacksmith. Then a thought occurred to her and she peered over at Eponin to her far right. "How goes it with the smith hut?"

"Well actually." Eponin's eyes lit up at the topic. "I have worked out a proposal that I will give to the council some time this winter. If it is approved then the Nation will untie the funds to build the smith hut this spring."

"That's great," breathed the bard. "How long will it take to build the hut?"

"Not long at all," confessed Eponin. "What will take more time is getting all the pieces for the forge. Once we have that installed then the rest will be easy… the hut built around the forge." Eponin glanced over at the blacksmith. "Two moon cycles?"

"Around there… maybe two to three," agreed Andra. She looked at the princess now. "What will take time is getting all the pieces for the smithy. The building will be the easy part."

"Did you bring all your tools?"

The blacksmith looked at the historian then replied, "Yes. Everything is being stored in the armory until the smithy is built."

"How long have you been forging for?" Ephiny's head faintly tilted to one side.

Andra seriously considered the amount of time, her eyes hazed over. "I began learning when I was about ten summers old."

"Gods," breathed Gabrielle.

The blacksmith faintly smiled at the princess's astonishment.

"You found a good one," piped in Solari, her grin directed at the princess.

"Nothing but the best," proudly stated the bard.

There was a low din of chuckles around the room. Then before anybody could begin another conversation there was a low knock at the door and Feodoras poked his head in.

"It's about time, Gabrielle and Ephiny." The grounds keeper then slipped back out and waited for them to disperse.

"You weren't headed back to the Nation now or….?" Gabrielle looked between the four friends. She stood up and everybody else rose up too.

Eponin shook her head. "We're going to stay at an inn in Athens for a few nights."

"How much time did you take away?" Ephiny was actually impressed the queen would let them all go for so long.

"About seven days," answered Eponin. "I needed a break."

Ephiny's eyes narrowed at Solari. "And what's your excuse?" She shot a grin at her friend. "You went with Gabrielle and me this past summer."

Solari shrugged. "I'm the queen's favorite."

Simultaneously everybody rolled their eyes.

Solari then slinked up to the princess and put her arm around her. "I'll really be the future queen's favorite."

The bard laughed but started walking to the door with her friends. "Yeah you always will be, Solari."

"I knew it!" Solari looked back at the group and stuck her tongue out.

Ephiny laughed but turned to her sister. "She's full of it."

The weapons master shrugged yet she didn't hide her grin. "Something she's eating."

Ephiny leaned closer and whispered, "Or somebody?"

"I so heard that, Ephiny!" yelled Solari.

"Sssssh!" ordered the princess. Gabrielle had her hand on the door handle but she was shooting a dangerous look at her friend. "It's late."

Solari cringed. "I'm sorry." Yet she could tell Gabrielle relented with a cute smile.

When the women got out of the Academy building, they found Feodoras waiting for them. Feodoras joined them on the trek to the stables.

"We will come by tomorrow to let you know where we're staying," informed the weapons master.

Both girlfriends moved their heads in agreement.

When they came to the front of the stables, they stopped and faced one another except Feodoras, who stood a few paces away.

"We'll see you tomorrow," promised Eponin.

The group exchanged hugs and goodbyes for the night then grounds keeper came over to them.

"I'll escort you four out." He then looked at the two students. "You two will be fine going back to the dorm?"

"Yes, sir," replied the slave.

Feodoras nodded. "Goodnight then, ladies."

"Goodnight, Feodoras and thank you." Gabrielle grabbed Ephiny's closest wrist.

"Thanks, Feodoras," called Ephiny as she was hauled away.

The two Amazons hastily made their way back to their dorm and quietly slipped through as the boys were all asleep. When they got into their room, they found it almost dark except for the one candle. Ephiny carefully picked up the candle and lit several others around the room to help.

Gabrielle had slipped out of her cloak and was putting it into the dresser closest. "I can't believe they're here."

"I can't either." Ephiny also slipped out of her cloak and tucked it away. "Did you know?"

"Not at all." The bard had a bright smile. "That means we have our two days off with them."

Ephiny laughed at her girlfriend's excitement. "Yes we do… after classes tomorrow."

"What should we all do?"

The Amazon shrugged as she continued to pull out her nightshift. "We'll find things to do in Athens."

The princess head was bobbing but she was quickly thinking over the things they could do. "I'm surprised that Andra came too."

Ephiny glanced over at Gabrielle, who was also getting into her nightshift. "Why you say that?"

"I don't know." The bard shrugged, which helped the nightshift settle into place. "I just didn't expect to see her."

Ephiny had a faint grin. "Come on, we need to get to bed."

"I'm just going to run to the pot," mentioned the princess. She quietly opened the door and snuck out into the main portion of the dorm.

Ephiny though climbed into bed after blowing out half the candles. She melted into the cool bed but it quickly warmed for her. She then heard her girlfriend come back in then slip under the sheets. "Tired?"

Gabrielle stifled a yawn while she nodded. "Very."

"Get your homework done?"

"Yeah thank the gods." Gabrielle snuggled into her girlfriend. "I'm not very good at poetry."

The aspiring poet quietly laughed. "Just ask if you need help."

"I'm making it," promised Gabrielle.

The older Amazon couldn't resist her grin. "Sleep well."

"You too, Eph." Gabrielle leaned in for a quick kiss before they both dozed off.

By the time Helio's started his chariot ride across the sky; the students were up and bustling in the Academy. Both Ephiny and Gabrielle could barely wait for their classes to end so that they could see their friends. Gabrielle found it increasingly hard to focus in her classes as she thought about her friends only being a half of a candlemark ride away in Athens.

When the classes came to an end, the girlfriends hurried back to their dorm. They barely even took a moment to say hi to the boys as they breezed past them into their room.

Orion and Stallonus exchanged curious looks.

"What was that?" muttered Stallonus; he was twisted around at his desk.

"I'm not sure." Orion glanced at the closed door to the girls' room. "I guess they have plans tonight."

"D-d-didn't you hear?" Twickenham looked between his two friends, who were shaking their heads. "Their f-f-friends came t-t-to vi-i-isit."

"From the Amazon Nation?" Stallonus was suddenly flooded by excitement.

Twickenham furiously nodded his head.

"By the gods!" Stallonus popped up from his chair and began beating on the girls' door. "Gabrielle!"

Gabrielle rushed to the door and threw it open. "What's wrong?"

Stallonus suddenly shied away with a step back. His cheeks were somewhat red when he realized he'd never seen so much of Gabrielle's body.

The bard realized what he was being shy about so she glanced down at her outfit. She wore her brown skirt, tall brown boots, and her green halter top. She cleared her throat and lifted her gaze to the young man. "Yes, Stall?"

Orion quickly cut in to save his friend. "We just heard that your friends from the Amazons came last night."

The princess smiled. "They did… late last night. We're going to see them in Athens."

"How long are they staying?" Stallonus finally recovered yet his cheeks still flushed.

"For a few days."

"Do we g-g-get t-t-to meeeet them?"

Gabrielle smiled across to Twickenham. "If you guys would like to." She glanced over her shoulder to Ephiny back in the room. "What you think, Eph?"

The Amazon came over to her girlfriend's side and looked at her other friends. "Sure, guys. Maybe tomorrow since we'll all have off?"

Stallonus had the largest smile out of everybody. "I can't wait! Are they all dressed like Amazons?"

Gabrielle chuckled before responding. "Yes, Stall."

"Where are they staying in Athens?"

Gabrielle now shifted her attention to Orion. "We're not sure. They'll be here soon to meet up with us."

"Can we meet them really quick?" pressed Stallonus.

Gabrielle laughed but she heard Ephiny groaning behind her. "I would say yes but I think we're going to be in a rush, Stall." She noted the sad expression on his face. "I promise you'll meet them tomorrow. They'll probably want a tour of the Academy."

"Sweet," murmured Stallonus.

"Actually we need to go," reminded Ephiny. She went back into the room and picked up their cloaks plus Gabrielle's small pouch. What nobody did notice was that Ephiny had carefully wrapped her sword up in the cloaks.

Gabrielle stepped into the main portion of the dorm as Ephiny went around her. "We'll see you guys later tonight."

"Have fun." Orion offered a smile.

"We will." Gabrielle went over to him and gave a feather kiss to his cheek. "Have a goodnight too."

Orion's smile widened. "We will."

The princess also gave Stallonus a kiss on the cheek as well as Twickenham as she was headed out. She held the door open for Ephiny then waved bye to the boys.

Ephiny eyed her girlfriend as she hurried down the steps. "They'll probably be at the gates."

Together the pair rushed across the grounds to the stables, in record time tacked their horses up, and walked to the gates with their horses in tow.

Feodoras stood at the gates with two soldiers that were the hired guards for the Academy. "I see you two finally showed up. They've been waiting." He directed to the four mounted women on the outside of the grounds.

"We're sorry," apologized the bard.

"No rush," offered Eponin from up on her horse.

Feodoras pulled out a scroll from inside his cloak along with a quill. "When will you two be back tonight so the guards know?"

The bard looked to her girlfriend for an answer. "Moon high?"

"No later," agreed Ephiny.

Feodoras scribed it in scroll then rolled it up. "Be safe then." He then peered up at the four armed women. "But then again…." He chuckled. "Get moving before it gets any later. Helios will be setting in about a candlemark, enough time to make it to Athens."

"Of course." Gabrielle stepped through the gates then mounted Torqueo.

Ephiny followed her girlfriend's example.

"Bye, ladies." The grounds keeper smiled then headed back into the Academy.

The group of Amazons turned their horses in the right direction and started off at a walk down the road. Once they were far down the road, Ephiny called for everybody to stop.

"What is it?" questioned Gabrielle.

Ephiny shot a wicked grin. "Take your cloak and satchel." She held them out.

The bard grabbed them and decided to just put them on. She then intently watched as Ephiny revealed her sheathed sword under her own cloak that rested in her lap.

The weapons master was one big grin and shaking her head.

Ephiny lifted her sword and stated, "Never leave home without it." She reached behind and hooked it into place.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes yet as she looked to her friends, they all were armed. "I feel like I'm traveling with an army."

Solari laughed and teased, "You forgot your staff."

"I do have my wits, you know." The princess gave her friend a challenging look.

"True," agreed Eponin. "Those lips of yours are a weapon."

"I bet they are, aren't they, Eph?" shot Solari.

Ephiny directed a dark glare at her friend.

Solari smirked and shot back, "That's for last night."

"Okay, let's go." The weapons master decided she had enough of the bantering and hurried the group along.

The six Amazons continued their journey to Athens and it wasn't long before they entered through the city walls. And no matter how many times Gabrielle came to the city, she was always entranced by it all. She loved the city but more than anything she wanted to see Corinth soon.

They all agreed at once that they needed to eat, which Eponin had been prepared for. Earlier in the day Eponin, Solari, Andra, and Gryta had done some scooting around the city and found a place for dinner later. So they took a slow ride through Athens until they were on the south-west side of the city. The crowds kept them at a slow walk but they eventually found themselves at a small stable

The Amazons untacked their horses, stabled them, and paid the stable boy to care for them and feed them. The group then went into the busy tavern called the Fishhead. When they entered it, the tavern was packed with customers but Eponin managed to find a large, round table in a corner.

Gabrielle took a seat, her back to the crowd but she noticed Eponin took the seat that let her see everything in the tavern. She found that curious but as she thought about it she now understood why.

Ephiny sat next to Gabrielle, her hand brushing over the bard's bare knee.

The princess flashed a smile at her girlfriend.

Andra was the one that hadn't sat down yet. She did hang her cloak on the back of her chair then looked at everybody. "I'll get us a barmaid and drinks."

Solari sprung up. "I'll help. What's everybody want?"

"Port," voted the weapons master.

"Cider for Gabrielle and I."

Solari looked at the historian now. "Gryta?"

Gryta seemed to be debating. "Port, thanks."

"Okay we'll be back." Solari hurried off with Andra ahead of her.

Gabrielle felt herself relax and a content feeling washing over her. "I was surprised by everybody coming." She then glanced at Andra, who was at the bar. "Especially Andra."

Eponin leaned back in her chair until it touched the wall behind her. "It was actually her idea to come."

"Really?" The bard was now double shocked.

 "Yes." Eponin's eyes flickered between Andra's back and Gabrielle. "One day I was in the office talking to Hali and Calandra while Andra was there. Hali mentioned that I should take a break." She stopped and shrugged. "After Hali and Calandra left my office, Andra suggested that it'd be good to see you and Ephiny."

The princess was still stunned.

The weapons master's lips spread into a grin. "Why so surprised, princess?"

The slave shifted out of her shocked features. "I just… I didn't think she thought much of me."

Ephiny was curiously studying her girlfriend.

The weapons master shrugged again. "I think she sees you as a little sister. She said she's never had any siblings."

"Huh," murmured the princess. She said nothing else as Solari and Andra came back to the table.

The blacksmith came to Gabrielle first and served her drink first.

Gabrielle peered up. "Thank you."

Andra paused and smiled. "You're welcome."

Then it was the first time that Gabrielle realized the fact that Andra had deep blue eyes. She stiffened some as those eyes reminded her of somebody else.

"Are you okay, Gabrielle?" Andra touched the bard's shoulder.

The princess shook it off. "Yeah, yeah… sorry." She turned away.

The blacksmith let it go and served Ephiny her drink next.

Solari had given Gryta and Eponin their drinks but she started for the bar again. "I got ours, Andra."

"Thanks, Solari." The blacksmith decided to take her seat.

Gabrielle took a long sip of her warm cider then after putting the mug down, she toyed with the handle. She leveled her eyes with her historian. "How goes the research?"

"Well, my princess." Gryta had a broad smile suddenly. "We're up to fifty scrolls now."

"At that rate you'll have to submit an approval for a scroll house," teased Ephiny.

The bard huffed. "Could you hear the response now?"

Gryta laughed. "Maybe when your hut and mine are popping at the seams with scrolls then they'll build us one, princess."

"You're probably right."

"Well maybe by that time you'll be the queen," suggested Andra.

"A lot of good that does with the council." The weapons master snorted. "Sometimes going back to a monarchy system would be easier."

"But not safer," pointed out the bard.

Slowly Eponin agreed. "I do like the republic government but at times it seems so slow."

The barmaid then appeared by the table and smiled at all the women. "Welcome, ladies."

Solari had shown up too and handed the blacksmith her drink. She then took her seat.

"Tonight our fresh fish is sea bass with feta, wrasse with feta and oil, and tuna with a thyme and grape sauce. Everything is served with vegetables, which are asparagus and beans." The barmaid then stood patiently and took each Amazon's order then quietly left to put their orders in.

"I can't believe you got wrasse," spoke up Solari.

Eponin grinned. "I've never tried it."

"It sounds good though," commented Gabrielle.

"I'm just excited to get fish."

"You've never had it huh?" Ephiny relaxed back in her chair with her cider.

Solari shook her head. "This'll be my first meal."

"That's why I picked this place," mentioned the weapons master.

Solari gave the weapons master an appreciative look.

"So how go classes?" Eponin shot a teasing grin at the two students.

"Really good," replied Gabrielle.

"We did just find out about this new program we have to do." Ephiny let out a dramatic sigh.

Gabrielle swatted her girlfriend. "It's not that bad."

"What you have to do?" Andra took a sip of her port but kept her interest focused on the pair.

"Weeeelllll...." Gabrielle questioned her girlfriend but Ephiny shrugged back. She sighed but went into the explaNation about the program. By the time she explained it all, the other Amazons were smirking at the two students.

"What?" barked Ephiny.

"You hate getting up in front of people, Ephiny."

Ephiny glowered at her sister.

"I'm not much better," admitted the princess. "It'll be good for us both." Her left hand slipped under the table and squeezed Ephiny's knee. "Besides." She shrugged while her right hand curled around her mug. "I know I'll have to get in front of the Nation later down the road."

"Lucky you!" teased Solari. "I couldn't do it."

"You're good with words and capturing people's attention," murmured Ephiny to the princess.

The young bard wasn't as confident but she could only hope she would be. "Time will tell."

Ephiny now covered her right hand over Gabrielle's under the table. She gave a gentle squeeze to emphasis her support.

"When will you graduate?" The historian leaned forward as she was so curious.

"Some time this coming spring." Gabrielle's head dipped as she considered it more. "They haven't said when just yet."

"I want to come to see," stated Solari. She held up her mug in honor.

"Here, here!" Eponin tapped her mug against Solari's. "To see my sister graduate will be an honor."

"Yes, I wouldn't miss it for the world." Andra held up her mug.

The historian sighed then held up her mug. "What the Hades!"

The group laughed at Gryta.

"To the princess and Ephiny's graduation!" cheered the four Amazons and they knocked mugs together.

After Solari took a long drink, she grinned at the princess. "Then you'll be taking over as princess."

The bard dared a challenging look. "I thought I was."

"Yes but you don't have any of the duties." Solari shot a dangerous grin.

The princess now eyed the weapons master.

Eponin merely shrugged as if she didn't know what Solari was talking about. Yet under the table she quickly kicked Solari hard.

Solari's head whipped around to Eponin.

The weapons master narrowed her eyes.

"I've really heard some good things too," mentioned the blacksmith. She noted Gabrielle's confusion. "About you, I meant. The Nation seems to really approve of you."

Eponin restrained from groaning and sinking in her chair. She heard Solari snickering beside her. She made a mental note to have a discussion with Andra about refraining from the praises.

Yet Andra did take notice of the weapon master's annoyance. She didn't really care as she admired Gabrielle very much. "As a matter of fact the Nation seems fairly excited for you to be the queen later."

Gabrielle sat there rather shocked.

Gryta was the next closest to Andra and she hastily kicked her now.

The blacksmith pretended like she didn't feel a thing. She may be an Amazon but by no means did she understand all the traditions so she could play dumb. She'd heard about the system of never praising the princess for her actions or who she was until it was later, which she didn't agree with.

"Just remember you have to earn it," spoke up Eponin, her eyes fell on the small princess. "The Nation won't respect you otherwise, princess."

"I understand," muttered the slave.

Ephiny had been biting the inside of her mouth the entire time. She was split between agreeing with Andra and following Amazon traditions. She could remember the times when she was never allowed to praise Terreis, which was hard on her then. Now it so happened she was dating the current princess and she was often in a dangerous position.

Gabrielle could tell that the topic needed to be change and quickly. She cleared her throat and said, "By the way, some of our friends from the Academy wanted to meet everybody."

Ephiny felt her body loosen up when the topic switched around.

"Who's that?" interjected Solari.

"We've been friends with them since we started at the Academy."

Ephiny nodded her agreement. "Orion, Stallonus, Twickenham, and Euripides."

"We'd mentioned that we'd probably be giving you four a tour of the Academy tomorrow and that you could meet them then."

Eponin scanned everybody's faces and saw nobody disagreeing. "Sounds good to me."

"Gods… Stallonus will be excited."

Gabrielle laughed at Ephiny's statement. "He will be." After a content sigh, she shot her next question at the weapons master. "How is the Nation doing?"

The weapons master's head bobbed for a bit. "Well… really well."

"I was wondering, when will Maired be taking the priestess's position?"

Eponin didn't really have an answer so she shrugged. "It's in the air right now."

"But I think the army has selected a possible successor for the stratègos," informed the historian.

The princess and Ephiny's attention instantly shot up at the news.

"Really?" Ephiny leaned over the table some as if getting closer would help her hear better. "Who is that?"

Gabrielle was toying with her mug but she was centered on Gryta.

"What's her name?" Gryta looked to Eponin for help.

"Kaylee," simply supplied the weapons master.

The historian grinned as she looked back at the Academy students. "That's it. Kaylee is her name."

"I don't recognize the name," muttered Ephiny.

"She's from the Thessaly Nation actually." Eponin cleared her throat then took a drink from her mug.

"She just arrived after you two left for the Academy," further added Solari. "She's pretty hot too for her age."

Eponin groaned while everybody else laughed at Solari.

"How old is she?"

Eponin tasted the last of her port as it washed down her throat. "I believe about forty winters old… give or take."

"Well how old is Commander Kalonice?" The blacksmith had an odd expression. "She can't be that old."

"She is actually," started Eponin, "she's pushing fifty-five or maybe more. She's been the stratègos for about fifteen springs. It'll be hard to match let alone out do Commander Kalonice."

"She is an excellent stratègos," agreed Gryta.

"So who is this Kaylee?" interrupted the princess. "I mean is she well known in the Thessaly Nation?" She then fixed her eyes on Solari. "Solari?"

"What?" barked the young Amazon.

"You know all the gossip." There was a huge smirk on Ephiny's face.

Solari sighed, rolled her eyes, and then she straightened up. "Well from what I've heard-" She was cut off by everybody laughing at her. She waited for a few heartbeats for everybody to settle down.

"Go on." The princess still couldn't suppress one last snicker.

Solari proudly cleared her throat. "Well I heard that Melosa actually recruited her from the Thessaly Nation."

"Wait, who's the queen in that Nation?"

Solari looked at Eponin for help. "Antiope?"

Eponin only nodded.

"Queen Antiope," repeated Solari when she turned her head back to Gabrielle. "Who actually happens to be Queen Hippolyta's sister."

"Wow," murmured the bard, her eyes wide. "Which Nation is Queen Hippolyta's?"

"The Epirus Nation," quietly mentioned Ephiny.

Solari nodded her agreement. "But wait, this keeps getting better. I heard that Kaylee was trained by the best Amazon warrior ever."

Eponin was now curious, her chair's front legs slamming into the floor. "Who?"


The weapons master's eyes darkened into a black. "You're joking."

Solari held up her hands. "Never." She lowered her hands to the table again. "But I'm just telling you gossip… who knows if it's true."

"No." Eponin leaned her chair back with her mug in her lap. "I've heard that Penthesilea is in the Thessaly Nation… Queen Hippolyta sent her to protect her sister."

"So it could be true that Kaylee was trained by Penthesilea. That's what I hear." Solari gazed at everybody. "Supposedly it was Queen Melosa that went to the Thessaly Nation and recruited her."

"How'd the queen hear about her?"

Solari shrugged at Gryta. "You know how word travels in the Nations."

"The queen did go on a trip back in the summer," muttered the princess. "That's what it must have been about."

"Most likely," agreed Ephiny.

The group then went quiet when the barmaid arrived. She quickly handed out four of the plates, which she'd balanced two on her arms very carefully. She then hurried back to the bar to pick up the other two meals and slid them in front of their owners. "Anything else, ladies? More drinks?"

"I need more." Eponin held up her mug and handed it over.

"Me too." Solari held hers out.

The barmaid took it but gazed at the weapons master. "Port?" After Eponin nodded, she looked at Solari. "Cider?"

"Yes, ma'am."

The barmaid double checked to see if anybody else wanted anything then she hurried off.

Gabrielle picked up her fork but didn't touch her meal yet. "So this Kaylee must be good if the queen went all the way to Thessaly to recruit her?"

"Must be," readily agreed Solari.

The princess now realized nobody was touching their dinners. At first she couldn't understand why then she moved her fork into the food and that was when the other Amazons picked up their forks. Gabrielle just contained a grin at realizing she'd had complete control over that situation and the Amazons did that out of respect. "I can't wait to meet her then."

"What's she look like?" inquired Ephiny.

Solari was busy taking her first bite of sea bass. She softly moaned then it hit her that Ephiny had asked her a question. She shyly laughed. "Sorry." She had a lopsided grin when Ephiny chuckled at her. "She's like… Gabrielle and Andra's height… maybe a hair taller or so." Solari thoughtfully considered Kaylee's physical appearance. "She has about shoulder length straight hair. Its red too… but not like fire red."

The bard perked up. "Auburn?"

"Yeah, exactly. And her eyes are sorta a grayish to blue shade."

"It sounds like you got a real good look, Solari." The blacksmith finished her comment with a snicker.

"Haha! Don't start acting like Gryta."

The historian snorted and went back to her meal.

"She has broad shoulders… chiseled features, she really carries herself well."

Ephiny thoughtfully chewed on her tuna and really enjoyed the smoked flavor mixed with the cheese. After she took a sip of her cider, she asked her sister, "What you think of her, Eponin?"

The weapons master didn't reply as the barmaid came up and gave her the refilled mug. "Thank you," she murmured then retuned her eyes to Ephiny. "I don't know yet. I've only briefly met her. She's already going through some rigorous tryouts with the polemarchos I hear."

"You'll be working with her a lot if she becomes the stratègos." The blacksmith lifted a dark eyebrow at the weapons master.

Gabrielle caught Andra's look and for a heartbeat it caught her off guard. She quickly dropped her head and picked at her tuna.

"I know," murmured the weapons master. "We'll see if she can make the cut even."

"Anybody else trying out besides her?"

Eponin considered Ephiny's question then nodded. "I think there are two others trying out for stratègos."

"Hmph." Ephiny went back to her meal.

"I guess time will tell," mumbled the bard between her food.

Then the Amazons all went silent as they enjoyed their meal. By the time dinner was over the barmaid appeared and took their clean plates. She stood there, plates in one hand and her other hand on her hip. "Dessert?"

The group exchanged looks.

"What's the dessert?" spoke up the princess.

The barmaid smiled at the small blond. "A fennel tart that is honey-caramelized."

"Mmmmm." The distinct noise came from the blacksmith. "I'll have that myself."

Gabrielle let out a soft giggle and she nodded at the barmaid. "Me too."

"I don't think I can handle anymore." Gryta leaned deep into her chair, her hands on her full belly.

"One for me," piped in Solari.

"Me too," chimed in Ephiny.

The barmaid's gaze settled on the weapons master.

Eponin's lips puckered as she tried to fake her debate.

Ephiny smirked. "Come on, sister."

The weapons master let out this huge sigh. "Okay."

Gabrielle's lips twisted into a smile when Eponin grinned at the idea of dessert.

"I'll be back shortly." The barmaid reminded herself that five of the six wanted dessert.

"So where to next, princess?"

Gabrielle tapped her fingers on the table but she didn't reply to Eponin.

"The market?" asked Ephiny. She caught the excitement flowing off her girlfriend now. "The market then."

Solari groaned. "Always those damn markets. You're like a fly to shit with a market, princess."

The bard opened her mouth to rebuke the comparison.

Eponin got the drop on it by reaching out just as Solari took a drink of her cider. She tipped the mug up higher and the cider went pouring over Solari's lower face.

Solari sputtered the cider away and wiped her face off after slamming the mug down. "Eponin!"

"That was the princess you just insulted," chided the weapons master.

Solari had a frown but Eponin succeeded her. After she settled down, she looked at the princess. "I apologize, princess."

"Its okay, Solari." The bard offered a smile to help the situation.

Eponin approved of it and leaned her chair back again. "We'll go to the market then."

Solari sighed and somewhat slumped in her chair. She knew at times her mouth could move faster than her thoughts and that always irritated her when it happened. She'd decided long ago, when Ephiny and Gabrielle began dating, that she seemed to pick the wrong things to say and the wrong times to say them.

Gabrielle noticed her friend's internal upset. She would make sure later to talk to Solari to settle her down. She looked to Andra. "How goes your training?"

The blacksmith shifted out her thoughts when Gabrielle's question came at her. "Fairly well. My father had trained me some with a sword when I was young. I haven't forgotten any of it."

"So you've chosen the sword?"

Andra nodded at the princess. "It'll be my primary weapon."

"The princess's primary weapon is the staff."

The blacksmith looked from Gryta to the princess again. "Really?"

Slowly the slave nodded her head. "I don't believe in killing."

Andra quietly admired the young woman more. "How old are you, princess?"

"I'll be seventeen this spring."

The blacksmith tilted her head. "I wish I was as wise as you when I was at that age. It may have saved me a lot of heartache."

The weapons master had finished her swig of port. She'd been carefully listening since Andra was showing a habit of praising the princess. "The princess has been through hard times, Andra. She's had to grow up quickly."

The bard now studied the stoic weapons master.

Andra though was staring at the princess but then the princess looked to her. She turned her gaze away. "The training goes well, princess." She hastily stated to detour the topic back. "I will be happy when I am to go for my Amazon Judgment."

"When will it be?"

"Too early to tell yet, princess." The smith rested back against her chair.

Just then the barmaid returned with the desserts. She passed them out and gave everybody clean forks to eat with. She then disappeared into the bustling crowd at the tavern.

"Ooo wow," murmured the bard. She let the sweet tart swirl around her tongue. "This is really good."

"Mmmhmmm." Andra had a satisfied grin.

Eponin was very delighted she'd gotten the dessert but she didn't let anybody know it. With hooded eyes, she peered over at Gryta. "Want a try?"

Gryta couldn't resist. She took the weapons master's fork and pierced a tidbit. Once her tongue wrapped around the delicate morsel she groaned from how amazing it was. "By Artemis." She gave Eponin's fork back and straightened up in her chair, her neck craned high.

Gabrielle was curious as to what the historian was about to do.

Within a flash, Gryta bolted from her chair and tracked down their barmaid.  When she came back to her seat, everybody was grinning at her. "What?" She glowered at them all. "I'm not full anymore."

The Amazon Princess laughed and covered her mouth to stifle it better.

The Amazons finished their desserts and waited for Gryta to eat hers. Afterwards, they all stood up and Eponin sought out the barmaid. She paid her along with a tip then followed her friends out of the tavern.

"To the market?" asked the excited slave.

Eponin couldn't resist her smile. "Yes, my princess." She touched the bard's shoulder. "You and Ephiny lead."

Ephiny had a lopsided smile as her excited girlfriend grabbed her hand and started the Amazon procession to the market.

Eponin shifted closer to Solari and Gryta. "Keep your wits about yourself."

Andra heard the weapons master's advice so she shifted closer to the princess. Her hand shifted under her cloak and rested on the hilt of her generic sword. She didn't like the fact that Gabrielle wasn't armed with anything.

Finally the group shifted into the well torch lit market where it was still fairly busy even at night.

"Athens never sleeps."

Gabrielle peered up at Ephiny when she whispered that to her. "I think you're right, Eph."

The first stop they made was at a clothes stand. Gabrielle was quite interested in finding something more to add to her slim wardrobe. She'd only had her long brown skirt with blue top, and her short brown skirt with her green halter top. She couldn't forget her two Amazon attires but both were reserved for when she was in the Nation.

"What you looking for exactly?" Ephiny shifted closer to her girlfriend.

"I'm not sure. At least another top to go with my long skirt."

Ephiny nodded her head and helped sift through all the articles of clothing. She came upon a simple white blouse, which was much like the blue on Gabrielle already had. "This?"

The bard had something in her hand and set it down. She stepped back for a better image of it. "Yeah, I like that." She carefully took it from Ephiny and held it against herself.

"That's ten dinars there, beautiful." The merchant now came in for the attack on his customer.

"Ten dinars!" Gabrielle dropped her jaw for emphasis. "By the gods." She threw it back on the stack of tops. "No thanks."

The merchant picked up the top. "Okay, okay… eight dinars."

The princess crossed her arms over her chest. "Two dinars."

The merchant was the one to give the outrageous look. "Hades, girl… this is a fine piece of woven shirt."

Andra had pulled away from her exploring of the clothes. She'd picked up on the bartering between the merchant and the princess. She came closer to the princess but stayed behind her. She pulled her cloak open a little and revealed her sword.

The merchant couldn't ignore seeing the glinting sword that the older woman behind Gabrielle had. He saw her lift it out of her sheath some then when he looked at her face, he went a little pale. "Perhaps we can reach an agreement at five dinars. That's half off."

The bard had caught the sudden change and followed his eyes. She twisted around and saw the blacksmith quickly pulling her cloak forward again. She furrowed her eyebrows and turned back to the merchant. "Four dinars."

Eponin hadn't missed a beat of it. She could only wonder if the princess would later confront the blacksmith or not. She decided to let it ago and see what unfolded otherwise she'd handle it on her own later.

"Okay, okay… four dinars." The vendor happily took the money then handed over the shirt.

"Thank you." Gabrielle folded up the shirt then tucked it into her pouch at her side. She also put the tiny bag of dinars back in her satchel too.

The friends then continued on their way through the market. It wasn't long before they happened upon what was a familiar sight for Andra. Eponin and Gryta both decided they had to stop there. So everybody made a beeline across the market and went to the blacksmith's stand.

Andra also followed underneath the tent and she sensed Ephiny and Gabrielle just behind. She saw the blacksmith was a bulky man with a shaved head, only pants on and his leather apron on. She intently watched him finish with upsetting the metal in his hands before he would move into the punching technique.

Ephiny, Solari, and Eponin all moved about in the smithy, finding the various weapons quite unique and beautiful.

Gabrielle stopped in front of a table of daggers. She ran her hands across them. "He does nice craftsmanship," she muttered to herself.

Andra came closer to the blacksmith and watched him place the metal back into the forge. "How long you've been forging?"

The burly blacksmith looked up to the small woman. "Fifteen seasons now."

The female blacksmith nodded. "You have nice work."

"Thank you." He pulled out the metal that was in the last stages of shaping into a sword. "Where you from?" He could easily tell she wasn't from Athens.

"Stagira," simply replied the Amazon.

"Nice area I've heard." The blacksmith set his hot metal onto the anvil. He picked up his hammer.

Gabrielle had finished looking at everything but she knew her friends would be longer. So she unknowingly slipped out of the tent and went into the busy street but waited just nearby the flap.

Andra smiled at the other blacksmith. "Yeah, thanks. I'll keep that in mind. If you'll excuse me." She shifted past and went out of the tent after seeing the princess left.

Eponin, from a side glance, saw what was happening so she repositioned herself closer to the entrance but never stepped out. She tilted her head a little to listen better.

"Not much for weapons huh?"

Gabrielle quickly rotated her head to Andra as the new Amazon came out. "Not really."

Andra moved closer to the princess. "It's a last defence," she agreed.

"Or a quick way to intimidate?" The bard arched an eyebrow at her friend.

The blacksmith at first couldn't understand what the princess meant but then it struck her. "I didn't think-"

"I saw," stated Gabrielle. She cleared her throat while folding her arms over her chest. "I'd like to think I can barter without having to intimidate my opponent."

"I did not mean to insult your skills, Gabrielle."

The slave relented some and touched Andra's right arm. "Just save the weapons for people who need to be intimidated."

"Of course." Andra dipped her head in respect. She felt the bard's hand leave her arm. "I apologize."

"Thank you," whispered the bard.

Eponin faintly smiled and went back over to her sister and Solari.

Gabrielle decided it was best to change the topic. "Are you comfortable in the Nation?"

Andra could tell that her friend wanted only the truth. "I am trying." She now rested her right hand on her sword hilt. "It will take me time. I like it though."

"I'm very grateful that you joined us." The younger woman smiled softly. "We truly needed a blacksmith."

"That is not why I ever chose to come," stated Andra.

The princess studied her friend.

Andra could tell that Gabrielle wanted the truth. "It was more your words that helped me decide, Gabrielle. I know I've been living alone for far too long. I've been on the road too many seasons."

"You traveled a lot?"

"Yes." Andra sighed. "My father liked to travel… it was what actually killed my mother." She shook her head at the distant memory. "She'd fallen ill… it killed her. Yet my father refused to settle anywhere." She gazed at the princess. "I suppose I am more my father than my mother."

"Perhaps," softly spoke the princess; her own parents coming to mind. "So you hope to settle in the Nation?"

"Yes… I believe I am ready." Yet Andra shrugged. "Who knows if anybody will settle for me though."

Gabrielle said nothing as she studied Andra and how her wavy dark brown hair floated around her face. She read into the depth of Andra's blue eyes. She could tell that Andra was as much of a lost soul as Gabrielle was. Maybe that was the key to their bond since the beginning back in mid-summer.

"I think I understand," finally whispered the bard. "You could say I've been moving around a lot."

"Time to make a home," stated Andra. She mirrored the smile that was on the princess's face.

"Exactly." Gabrielle's attention was stolen away when the Amazons filed out of the smithy. "Buy anything?"

Solari held up her new toy. "Nothing like poking around with one of these!"

Gabrielle laughed at seeing the dagger. "I saw that one." She then shifted her interrogating look to her girlfriend. "Eeeph?"

The Amazon shook her head several times. "Nope. I was good."

Gryta merely held up her empty hands for her answer.

Eponin though moved past everybody. "And I refuse to answer, princess." Before anything came out of the princess's gaping mouth, she went into the sea of bodies.

The rest of the Amazons hurried to catch up with the weapons master. The Amazons continued milling through the market but nobody really bought anything afterwards. It started to become late and Eponin decided it was best for them to head back. She had no intent on making Ephiny or Gabrielle late for the Academy.

So the friends hurried back to the stables and tacked up their horses. It wasn't long before they began their journey through Athens and Eponin made sure to point out their inn. They then began the short ride back to the Academy gates and once there, everybody said goodbye with hugs.

Gabrielle and Ephiny waved together as they went through the open gates. When they were through, the guards pushed the gates closed the dropped the wood timber to lock it. Quietly the two girls made it across the grounds and stabled their horses before finally making it back to their room for the night. It didn't take them long to slip away into their dreamscapes where pleasant dreams filled them.

The following day the bard and her girlfriend spent the day giving their friends a tour around the Academy. The visitors seemed to appreciate the beautiful grounds of the Academy along with the satisfying food. At lunch time, Ephiny and Gabrielle had invited the boys to join them. The boys were well received by the four Amazons and there were many stories passed around. All four of the young men were very excited to meet other Amazons and hear more about the Nation.

For the rest of the days, Ephiny and Gabrielle spent them with their friends. It wasn't until about four days after their arrival did the Amazons decide it was time to go. The four Amazons had packed up from their inn then trekked out of Athens to the Academy. There the guards met them and they requested to see Gabrielle and Ephiny.

One guard hurried off and sought out Feodoras. It wasn't long before Feodoras showed up with the two students that'd been quietly doing homework in their room. The princess and Ephiny came out of the gates and smiled at their friends.

"Time to go," sadly mentioned the weapons master.

The bard felt her shoulders slump a little. "Yeah we know."

"Thank you for coming." Ephiny scanned each of her friend's faces.

"It was our pleasure," replied Eponin.

Gradually the group said their goodbyes and refrained from getting upset, Gabrielle may have been the slight exception. She'd been so touched by the surprise visit from all four and she couldn't help as a few tears came down her cheeks.

"Hey its okay." The blacksmith stepped up for another hug.

Gabrielle chuckled some and hugged her friend again. "I'm sorry."

Andra had a sad smile while she stole a heartbeat to rub the younger woman's back. "We will be back for graduation."

The bard pulled back and quickly wiped her tears back. She felt Ephiny touch the small of her back. "We'll be in the Nation for Solstice break."

Andra brightened at the news.

"I forgot about that," murmured Solari.

Then a thought occurred to the princess. "But we may not be there right away. Actually...." She focused solely on Eponin. "Can you tell the queen that Ephiny and I plan to go to Articia to see my grandfather."

The weapons master understood. "I'll relay the message to the queen."

"Thank you."

"We should be on our way," ordered the weapons master. She mounted her mare now.

The other three Amazons shifted to their horses too and swung up onto them.

"Study hard, ladies," ordered Eponin.

"We will," promised Ephiny. She smiled up at her sister.

Eponin briskly nodded then pulled her mare around to head off.

"Be safe everybody!" called Gabrielle. She shifted closer to her girlfriend. When Andra, Solari, and the historian turned to wave goodbye, she and Ephiny waved back. "Eponin is too proud."

Ephiny sighed as she now understood what her girlfriend meant. "Truth be told, she's a bigger mush ball than you."

Gabrielle laughed. "Come on, Eph. We need to finish our homework."

Ephiny conceded and headed back into the Academy.

On the slow walk back to the dorm, Gabrielle's thoughts took her away for awhile. She then snapped back when something occurred to her. "Ephiny?"

The older Amazon pulled away from her own thoughts. "Yes?"

"I meant to ask, why do you and Eponin always call each other sister?" Ephiny was mildly confused and Gabrielle noted it. "Because you've told me you're not blood related."

"Actually in a way we are," replied Ephiny.

The bard stopped walking and grabbed her girlfriend's arm. "But…?"

Ephiny's lips creased with a grin. "We became blood sisters."

"You mean you did a ritual?" After Ephiny's nod, Gabrielle became even more curious. "How'd it happen or… who did it?"

Ephiny chuckled at the princess's curiosity. "Well it was many, many seasons back that Eponin and I did it. We went to Priestess Narkissa and she performed the ritual." Her head tilted in question. "Why do you ask?"

Gabrielle continued the trek towards the dorm. "I was just curious about why you two call each other sister when you're not blood related and I've never noticed anybody calling each other sisters when they're not related."

Ephiny absorbed Gabrielle's long winded explaNation. "It doesn't take very long… just a day."

"What is the ritual?"

"First there are no witnesses other than the priestess, yourself, and whoever you're bonding with. The priestess cuts both women's palms and ties them together. After that, they stay in a quiet room within the temple for a full day. After a day has passed, the priestess will let them out and tell you that the ritual is over and that you're now blood sisters."

The bard had knitted eyebrows as she tried to figure out why they would spend a day together. She decided she couldn't quite understand so she finally asked. "Why for a day?"

"The idea is that the two future blood sisters are supposed to talk about their pasts so they get to know each other. They also sleep together, eat together… like they're family. Its time set aside to experience each other, develop more, and become sisters."

"Huh." The slave found the information interesting. She could think of one person who she'd want to share the ritual with yet the detail about sharing her past wasn't something she thought she could do. "Do they have to share their pasts?"

Ephiny stopped at the bottom of the steps to the dorm. She turned to her girlfriend. "Its apart of the ritual… if it is to work properly." She saw how Gabrielle hung her head some. "You don't want to share what's happened huh?"

"Not really." Gabrielle lifted her dark green eyes. "But if I were to ask somebody to become my blood sister then I shouldn't be concerned about what they'd think about my past to begin with."

Ephiny lightened at hearing Gabrielle's resolution about the problem. "Very true." She then ascended the steps while saying, "Come on."

"Is that an order for the princess?" teased the bard.

Ephiny rolled her eyes. "Come on, princ-ass."

Gabrielle's mouth hung open for a few heartbeats but she hurried up the steps.

When the girls got into the dorm, they found their dorm mates already working on their homework. They quietly slipped by and went into their room to finish up their own work. Eventually this ritual continued for several moon cycles as the students went to classes, dinner, homework, and to sleep. The days became shorter while the nights lengthened and the leaves had turned and some were beginning their decent to the ground.

It wasn't until there was a brisk chill in the air did the Winter Solstice come near. The Academy released the students ten days prior to the Winter Solstice so that everybody had time to travel far and wide to family or friends. It was Gabrielle's intention to see Cornelio so she and Ephiny went directly to the small town of Articia. It only took them a day's ride but they were glad to make it considering the brisk nights. It would only be a matter of days before the first snow could possibly fall.

The bard felt incredibly excited as she rode through the metal gates to Cornelio's compound. She and Ephiny went first to the stable and settled Torqueo and Diana in for the night. And despite Gabrielle was a little saddle sore she couldn't help but hurry across the grounds to the main house. When she knocked on the door, she was greeted by a young slave and he peered up curiously at her.

"Yes, ma'am?"

Gabrielle settled some as she realized she hadn't met him the last time she was here. "Hi, I'm Gabrielle." She held her hand out to Ephiny. "This is my friend Ephiny."

The young man was a little younger than Gabrielle with sandy blond hair, brown eyes, and a few hairs taller. "Gabrielle?" He chewed on the name then suddenly his face lit up. "Oh yes. Master Cornelio has been waiting for you."

"Who's that?" called a girl's voice.

The slave stepped aside as a small girl came in the doorway. "Gabby! Auntie Ephiny!"

Gabrielle took a step back when Mary threw herself into her embrace. "Ooph," she gasped when the air was knocked out of her. "Its good to see you too, Mary."

The girl laughed and hugged tighter. "I missed you." She finally released Gabrielle then came after Ephiny for a hug.

The older Amazon felt the wind wrung out of her too when Mary hugged her. "How are you, cutie?"

Mary smiled when she released Ephiny. "I'm great now!" She boasted a huge smile. "How are you, Auntie Ephiny?"

"I am wonderful." Ephiny bent forward some, her eyes levelling with the child's. "Are you ready for Solstice?"

"Yes, I can't wait!"

Gabrielle couldn't stifle her giggles. "Have you been good this past seasons cycle? Senticles won't come otherwise."

Mary smiled at the blond, who'd become an old sister to her. "I've been very good." She had her hands behind her back and she rocked back and forth on her heels. "Even grandfather says so."

The older slave stepped closer to Mary and put his hand to her back. "I am Julian."

"It's nice to meet you." Gabrielle held out her hand for a shake.

Julian accepted the brisk shake and also took one from Ephiny. After the introduction, he quietly asked, "Did you wish to see Cornelio? He said he'd be expecting you any day now."

"Yes, we'd like to see him." Gabrielle held her smile and she followed Julian and Mary inside.

"Grandfather will be happy to see you, Gabby." Mary came over to Gabrielle's left side and took her hand. "He's missed you a lot."

Gabrielle felt the sadness wash over her. "I've missed grandfather too." She lifted her head and studied the back of Julian, who was leading. "Julian, how long have you been here?"

Julian moved off to the left some so he could twisted his head back to Gabrielle as he spoke. "About two moons now."

"Not long then," confirmed Ephiny.

"No, I am just getting use to the compound now." Julian offered a smile for his next words. "Cornelio is a wonderful man."

"How did you come to his house?" inquired Gabrielle.

Julian cleared his throat. "I was purchased at the market in Articia."

"I didn't realize Articia had a slavery market. It didn't when I was last here."

Julian sighed and slowed down some to get closer to the girls. "From what I over heard from my previous master, the slave market in Articia is new. It seems that slavery is flourishing."

The princess licked her lips then quietly asked, "How many were sold along with you?"

Julian shrugged then answered, "I think somewhere near seventy-five. Give or take."

"Gods," muttered the bard, her head shaking.

Mary squeezed Gabrielle's hand to get her attention. "Grandfather says he's trying to stop the slavery."

The Amazon Princess quietly absorbed the girl's faith in Cornelio. She resolved that it was best not to refute her hopes because she could only hope for the same. "And he just may."

Mary beamed at the older girl's response.

"Here we are." Julian came up to the office door and knocked on it. When his master called him in, he poked his head through. "Gabrielle and Ephiny are here, sir."

Cornelio brightened at the news. "Bring them in, Julian."

The young slave stepped back some as he pulled the door open for the girls. He let them all file in then he followed in last.

"Gabrielle, I'm so happy to see you made it safely." Cornelio was already up from his chair and desired a hug.

Gabrielle didn't hesitate to hug him as much as she could. She'd come to love this man that'd taken over the lost role of her father. In many ways, he'd given her a new foundation in life to stand upon and she would never forget that of him. "How have you been, sir?"

"I'm well. You look well yourself?"

The princess nodded her head. "Very well, sir."

Cornelio didn't lose his smile but he turned his attention to Ephiny. "Its wonderful to see you again, Ephiny." He held out his hand.

The Amazon quickly took it and gave a strong shake. "I'm glad I could come too."

"You're always welcomed here, Ephiny. I always appreciate you bringing Gabrielle here." He released her hand and stood tall and strong despite his age. "Gabrielle has always been a daughter to me."

The bard felt a flush burn over her cheeks.

Cornelio looked over to Julian and Mary by the door.

Julian dipped his head a little. "Did you need anything else, sir?"

"No, Julian. Thank you." The master faintly smiled at Mary. "Why don't you help your Aunt Maria and grandmother prepare dinner, Mary."

"Yes, grandfather." Mary grabbed Julian's closest hand. "I'll see you later, Gabby and Auntie Ephiny."

The two Amazons twisted around to the young child and smiled at her then said goodbye. After the two young slaves were gone, Ephiny and Gabrielle returned their focus to the master of the house.

"Sit down, please." Cornelio signaled the three chairs in front of his desk. He also sat back down.

The two Amazons took seats next to each other and became comfortable.

Gabrielle stole a quick glance out of the nearby window and saw Helios was beginning to set. The red and orange colors streamed into the office yet her attention was taken away from the sunset when Cornelio said her name.

"Gabrielle, how's the Academy been?"

The student quickly smiled. "It's been very busy but good, sir."

"How goes it for you, Ephiny?"

The older Amazon's head bobbed. "Well, sir."

"You both will be graduating this spring?" He received a nod from both young women so he continued on. "I plan to be there for your graduation. You must inform me of when it'll be."

"We will do that," promised Gabrielle.

"Have you considered your plans afterwards, Gabrielle?"

The bard crossed her legs at her ankles and slightly fidgeted with a button on her long jacket. "I was thinking of completely joining the Amazons, sir." She quickly peered up from playing with the button. "If that is okay, sir?"

The master slowly smiled. "I don't see why not, Gabrielle. I believe that is where you belong especially since you are their princess."

"I know, sir but I wanted to seek your permission first."

A bit of warmth flowed through Cornelio at Gabrielle's concerns for his approval. "Thank you, Gabrielle." He folded his hands in his lap. "You will become quite important to the Amazons."

The bard curiously tilted her head. How could he be so sure of her?

Cornelio smiled at his slave's uncertainty. "All in time, Gabrielle." He then went a bit more serious. "I would though like for you to visit here."

"Of course, sir." There was a smile on Gabrielle's face as she added, "I would miss you and everybody else if I went too long without a visit."

Cornelio chuckled. "I am glad to hear it." He stretched his legs under the desk some before he asked, "How long will you be staying?"

"A few days, sir." Gabrielle glanced at Ephiny then back at her master. "The Nation will be missing us if we do not show up for Solstice."

Cornelio dipped his head. "I wish you could be with us." The princess felt her panic rise some and Cornelio was able to pick it out. "But I understand, Gabrielle."

The bard faintly relaxed and quietly stated, "The Nation has a large Solstice Festival… especially for the children."

The master felt a smile take his lips at the thought of the children. "Well you must be there since you are the princess."

"Thank you, sir."

Cornelio straightened up in his chair. "Why don't you go get settled in. I'll have Julian bring your things to your room."

"We can get them, sir," interjected Ephiny.

Cornelio held up a hand briefly. "It'll keep him busy, Ephiny." He then picked up his quill from his ink well. "I will see you both for dinner."

The Amazons took the hint and rose up from their chairs.

"Thank you, sir." Gabrielle smiled then followed Ephiny out of the office. With Ephiny at her side, they made the trek upstairs and went into the guestroom that they always stayed in when they came. Ephiny took a minute to ready the fireplace in the room since she knew the night would be cold.

Gabrielle made her way around the dimly lit room and lit about two-thirds of the candles. "Can I help?" She asked after getting the candles lit.

Ephiny was bent in front of the fireplace and she shook her head. "I've got it." She knocked the two flint stones together next to the thin twigs and dried leaves. She leaned back when the leaves caught on fire followed by the twigs. Next she rose up and placed the flint stones back on the ledge of the fireplace. "We should stay warm for the night."

Gabrielle nodded but she glanced over at the open window. "I should go ahead and put the mat over."

The Amazon nodded at the princess. "Yeah, good idea."

The bard went around the large bed and picked up the woven mat that rested on the floor. She held one end and it unrolled easily. Then on her tip toes, Gabrielle managed to hook the mat over the open window. Finally the mat was tied down on the two bottom corners.

Ephiny had been resting on the edge of the bed and working her boots off.

The slave shifted back over, bent down, and helped Ephiny get her boots untied.

"I can do it."

The bard paused and peered up at girlfriend after hearing her harsh tone.

The Amazon sighed and grabbed Gabrielle's hand. "I'm sorry." The corner of her lips curled under. "I just… with being here… it reminds me of things… for you."

For a moment Gabrielle was confused then it struck her. "Its okay, Ephiny." She tilted her head to one side; a smile caressed her soft lips. "I'm not doing this out of slavery habit… doing it to help."

"I'm sorry… that was stupid."

The bard shook her head and went back to untying the right boot. "No its not… you're not."

Ephiny shifted to getting the left one off. When her boots were finally pulled off it seemed to remove some of her edginess. "Thank you."

The princess rose up and set the boots aside. "Want your jacket and sword off?"

The Amazon tried to not grimace when her bare feet touched the cool floor.

Gabrielle efficiently took the long jacket and removed the sword in sheath. She went over to a wood trunk near by, lowered the sword down, and covered it with the jacket.

"Going to lie down too?"

The princess faced her girlfriend. "Yeah… I need to rest." She lost her eye contact. "I'm slightly saddle sore."

Ephiny had an amused expression but she climbed up onto the bed. She just flopped down and sensed her spine realigning into place.

Gabrielle had her boots off in no time flat and was resting next to Ephiny. "Thank you for coming, Eph."

The Amazon laced her hand through Gabrielle's. "Why wouldn't I?"

"Because you don't have to."

"Hmmm well I don't think the queen would be too happy that I left the princess alone." Quickly she was hit with a swat of Gabrielle's hand. Ephiny chuckled and turned her head to the right. "Of course I'd come."

The couple remained silent for awhile, both their eyes closed but neither of them asleep.



"Were you planning to perform the blood sister ritual with somebody?"

The bard chewed on her lower lip but she finally answered. "I was thinking about Andra."

Ephiny never stirred and remained quiet. After she took in a deep breath, she finally said, "I kind of thought so."

"I don't know what it is… I feel like I've known her for some time."

Ephiny's lips twisted into a silly grin. "That's how I felt about Eponin."

There was an instant smile on Gabrielle when she heard Eponin's name yet she lost it when a thought came to her. "I'm scared though to tell Andra about my past… about being a slave."

Ephiny briefly squeezed her girlfriend's hand. "Well if she wasn't meant to be your blood sister then you couldn't trust her with that information."

"I know," murmured the bard.

"So are you scared? Or don't you trust her?"

The princess bit her lower lip then quietly replied, "I think I'm just scared. I don't think Andra would be judgmental about it."

"I don't think she would be either." Ephiny considered the new Amazon. "She seems fairly open minded." She now opened her amber eyes and twisted her head to the right again. "Honestly I don't think there would be many judgmental Amazons in the Nation."

Gabrielle understood Ephiny's suggestion. She was now staring deep into Ephiny's soft, golden eyes. "I know but… I'm worried for the Nation more so than worried about the Nation." At seeing Ephiny's confusion, she further explained. "I'm just worried that if rumor spread outside of the Nation about the princess being a slave that it could put the Nation in potential harm."

"Do you really think it'd be a major threat?"

The bard's thoughts traveled back to her days when she was in Hecht's compound. She knew how valuable she'd recently become by taking on the princess caste of a powerful Nation. If Hecht ever found out that she'd become an Amazon Princess, he could easily demand to have her returned and the local government would force the Amazons to do so. The continuing thoughts of what could happen made Gabrielle's head spin. "Yes," she finally whispered, "it would be a huge threat."

Ephiny felt her anger bubble up inside because she knew this would be Gabrielle's shadow for life. She was also amazed at how Gabrielle was so concerned for the Nation's safety. "You'll never be able to escape this," she hotly whispered.

"No." Gabrielle quickly wiped a tear away from her right eye. "As long as there's slavery or I am alive." Her throat grew tighter as her thoughts raced about how she was trapped for a lifetime.

Ephiny sensed her girlfriend's distress and she hastily rolled onto her side. She rested part of her body on Gabrielle and placed a sweet kiss on her temple. "It'll be okay, Gabrielle… I promise."

The bard bit back her tears. She would not cry anymore about being a slave because she'd wasted too many tears on something she had no control over. She'd promise herself that with the Amazon Nation she would begin a new life. She would be Gabrielle, the Amazon Princess, and not Gabrielle, the slave.

The couple remained quiet and Ephiny held fast to her girlfriend. Gabrielle gained control of her emotions and felt her resolve strengthen again. She was thankful for Ephiny at moments like these despite she felt Ephiny had seen her at her weakest too many times.

It wasn't long though before there was a knock at the door.

Ephiny released her girlfriend and slipped out of the bed.

Gabrielle sat up and sat cross legged in the bed. She brushed her hair back as Ephiny opened the door.

"Hi, I brought your things." Julian stepped in with the two saddlebags on either arm. He carefully laid them on the floor next to the trunk.

Gabrielle now smiled when she saw Mary poke her head in too. "Hi, Mary."

The child smiled broadly. "Hi!" She held her hands behind her back. "I am to tell everybody that it is almost dinner time."

"Ooo wonderful." Gabrielle shifted to the edge of the bed. "I'm starved."

Ephiny smirked at the princess.

Gabrielle pretended to ignore it as she grabbed her boots.

Julian slipped into the doorway but let Mary move past him. "I'll see you girls down there." He left with the door closing behind him.

Both Amazons hastily put their boots on and laced them up.

Mary patiently waited despite her tummy was rumbling.

"What's for dinner, Mary?" Gabrielle straightened up and came over to the small girl.

"We're having lamb shish kabobs and flatbread then baklava for dessert."

"Mmmm." Ephiny even hummed at the thought of a wonderful dinner. "Lead the way, Mary." She held out her hand.

Mary took Ephiny's hand and then took Gabrielle's. She led the two older girls out of the room, down the hall, down the steps, and towards the dinning room.

The dinner began as soon as Cornelio arrived and started it himself. The meal was quite good and Gabrielle couldn't recall having such an amazing meal since her days here in Cornelio's house. After a full meal, the Amazons felt quite exhausted and well ready for bed yet Mary still retained some last energy.

Mary had just finished her piece of baklava and happily gazed across to Gabrielle. "Gabby, will you tell us a story?"

The resting bard lifted an eyebrow at the request. She tuned her head to Cornelio.

The master dipped his head and quietly said, "If you feel up to it, Gabrielle."

The princess turned her attention back to Mary. "Well… I suppose I can tell a short one."

Mary beamed. "Please!" She wiggled around in her chair.

Gabrielle rose up from her chair and stood behind Cornelio but Cornelio took a moment to move his chair around. The bard considered her many stories she could tell then finally decided on one. "I sing a song about two best friends that met as children and never had a worry about thing."

Everybody around the table fell silent and they were captured by Gabrielle's magical voice.

The bard dove into her story and brought the story to life before her listeners. Her hands and tones moved with the story and her body animated every part. She smiled as her listeners lived through the story with her. When she finally reached the end, she paused and whispered, "And maybe one day they will meet again."

Adara was still stunned but she spoke up first. "That was beautiful, Gabrielle. Thank you."

Gabrielle saw everybody's appreciative expressions however her concern was on Cornelio. She was solely focused on him.

Cornelio had his left elbow on the table and her hand propped up to hold his chin in his palm. He lowered his elbow from the corner of the table and now smiled. "My wife is correct. That was beautiful, Gabrielle." His smile shifted into a faint grin. "It seems the Academy has honed your skills."

Gabrielle bowed her head in respect when she lifted it again, she quietly stated, "It has, sir. Thank you for sending me."

 "It has been my pleasure." He then twisted his head around to get a sidelong view of everybody. "And I believe it is late." He caught sight of all the dishes on the table. "The dishes can wait 'til tomorrow."

"We will get them into the kitchen at least," offered Maria.

"Thank you," agreed Cornelio. He then rose up and moved his chair back into its home. "Thank you for dinner, ladies."

Adara enjoyed her husband's gratefulness. She stood up and began collecting the plates.

Cornelio came over to her and when she paused, he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek gently. Without another word, he disappeared out of the dining room.

Everybody except Julian quickly picked up the dishes and moved them into the huge tub of water in the kitchen. Julian hurried out of the house but made sure to snatch his cloak for the brisk air outside. He took care of his final evening chores before it was bedtime.

It wasn't long though before Gabrielle and Ephiny were taking Mary upstairs and putting her to bed. Then the two Amazons went to their room and quietly prepared for bed. When Ephiny and Gabrielle finally slipped into bed they curled up together and went into their dreamscapes within a short time. It was a fitful night of rest that both Amazons were grateful for. Just a couple of days ago the pair had been taking their exams, which meant little sleep and tonight was their first chance to rest well.

A candlemark after sunrise the couple finally rose up from the warm bed. The sun's rays streamed through the mat over the window and quickly the bard shot out of bed to pull the mat away. When she wiggled back under the covers, Ephiny pulled her in close and kissed her softly.

"Sleep well?"

Gabrielle smiled at her girlfriend. "Yeah I did. You?"

"Yes… I was exhausted." Ephiny ran her index finger along Gabrielle's exposed shoulder. "What do you want to do today?"

The princess was silent for awhile as she gazed out of the window, which overlooked the courtyard. "I want to see mother this morning."

The older Amazon had been expecting that response. She pressed her lips against Gabrielle's shoulder then whispered, "Then we will."

It wasn't long before the girls emerged from their room and went downstairs for breakfast. After they had a quick breakfast, they donned their jackets and went into the brisk morning outside. Together the pair silently trekked across the compound until they were upon Hecuba's grave.

Ephiny stopped several paces away and let her girlfriend have her space.

The Amazon Princess carefully walked up to the simple stone that was placed in the ground by Cornelio. She bent down until her knees rested on the firm ground. "Hello, mom." Gabrielle brushed her hand over the engraved stone and moved any collected leaves and dirt. "I miss you."

Ephiny stood still, her eyes closed, and listening to the sounds around the compound.

"I've been doing well at the Academy… just as you always expected." Gabrielle sadly smiled. "Some days are harder than others but I keep fighting." Unconsciously she reached up and wrapped her fingers around her quill necklace. "I keep hoping I'll see Lila again especially since Xena's journal."

The bard licked her lips as her thoughts strayed to Xena's journal. "Her journal doesn't say if Lila is alive… or not. It is a start though." She cleared her throat some. "Ephiny seems to think that when I am queen I'll be able to have more resources." For a heartbeat she bit her lower lip. "I won't give up though, mom. Not until Lila is home."

Gabrielle brushed back a strand of her blond hair. Her thoughts traveled to her father, who was buried back in Potidaea near the destroyed house. "One of these days…." She leaned forward some and whispered, "when I am queen, I will take you home… to father." Her green eyes lifted and scanned the compound before lowering to her mother's grave. "You should not be here."

The princess took in a shaky breath. She felt her raw emotions now bubbling to the top. Her eyes began to sting despite she held strong. Gabrielle lifted her right hand and kissed her fingertips then pressed her hand against the stone. The chilled stone return a frozen kiss. "I love you, mom." With that, Gabrielle stood up and folded her arms against her chest.

Ephiny now moved from her still position.

Gabrielle sensed the warm hands grasping her shoulders tightly. She gave in and turned into Ephiny's embrace.

Ephiny held her girlfriend tightly while rubbing her back. "Sssh. It's okay."

And Gabrielle held the dam against her emotions until they ebbed into calmness again.

The days wore on as Helios moved across the sky twice and then by the third day, the Amazons were preparing to leave and journey to the Nation. It would be a long trek from Articia to the Nation if they would make it in time for the start of the Solstice Festival. The festival was something Gabrielle did not want to miss and not just because she would be expected to be there but also since she wanted to see it.

The Amazons rode at a gallop across the wooded lands headed towards the rising sun. It took them two and half days before they reached the borders of the Nation at Helios high. Gabrielle slowed her horse when she sensed that she was in familiar woods and Ephiny did the same.

"We should dismount," mentioned the bard.

Ephiny agreed and quickly swung off of Diana.

Gabrielle did the same and took Torqueo's reins over his head and went to her saddlebags.

Ephiny had made sure to pull out her mask and it as pushed overtop of her head. When she glanced over at the princess she saw she'd unlashed her staff. "Ready?"

The bard adjusted the reins into her left hand and staff in her right. With a nod, she continued the walk into the Amazon Woods just ahead.

It wasn't but a quarter of candlemark before three undetected Amazons glided down from the trees to halt them.

Ephiny and Gabrielle didn't hesitate to give the Amazon peace signal.

The three patrol Amazons hadn't bothered to unsheathe their swords but they pulled back their masks.

Gabrielle smiled at seeing a familiar face, her hands lowering back to her side.

"My princess," greeted Maired, her head bowed.

The princess's cheeks flushed as the three Amazons all bowed in respect.

Maired straightened up and smiled. "Its good to see you both made it."

"I didn't dare miss the festival."

The apprentice priestess laughed and shifted closer to the two young Amazons. "Of course not, princess." Her attention shifted to Ephiny. "How are you, Ephiny?"


Gabrielle now smiled at the other two Amazons but she only knew one of them. "I haven't seen you in awhile, Deka."

"My apologies, princess. I am often on patrol duty."

"Nothing to be sorry about," assured the princess. She then stepped closer to the unknown Amazon yet something about her seemed recognizable. "I'm Gabrielle."

The Amazon, who was older and about Gabrielle's height stepped up and held out her arm. "Yes, I know. I am Kaylee, princess."

The princess clasped the Amazon's arm and briskly shook. "It's great to meet you, Kaylee." Now Gabrielle realized why she thought Kaylee struck a cord. Solari's description of the new Amazon had come to mind. Gabrielle quickly held out a hand to Ephiny. "This is Ephiny."

The Amazon now smiled at Ephiny as she absorbed the young Amazon. "Hi, Ephiny." She accepted the arm shake from Ephiny.

Maired brought back the princess's attention to her. "May we escort you into the village, my princess?"

"Hmph." The bard smirked. "I have a feeling that really wasn't a question."

"Not particularly since it's required," spoke up Deka.

Kaylee gave a stern nod. "It is protocol." 

The princess chuckled and stated, "By all means then… Ephiny would love an escort."

Ephiny snorted, shook her head, and began walking in the direction to the village.

The princess and her Amazons started on their trek to the gates of the Nation. Gabrielle was quickly asked by Maired about how the Academy was going and the bard reeled into a conversation.

Ephiny remained quiet for the most part since she was weary from the journey. She'd taken some time to study the surrounding forest and found it was rather blanketed by brown leaves. It wouldn't be long though before the first snow would coat the leaves. The distant smell of horses and grilling food was floating on breeze from the village. Just at the thought of food made Ephiny's mouth water and her stomach gurgle. She may be worn out but not enough not to eat something soon.

The air was an invigorating cold that wasn't quite at the point of biting. The sun was directly above them and keeping them warm against the chill. Ephiny even sensed her dark cloak warming against her skin and she was thankful for it. Then no more than a hundred paces ahead the gates seemed to rise up from the horizon.

Ephiny's eyes narrowed as she sought out the guards at the gates and she finally spotted one in each watchtower at the corners of the gate. Then there were several Amazon guards at the closed gates also keeping watch. Ephiny knew that this was a potential time for attacks with the festival. The gates always remained closed at this time unless there was an emergency.

When the group approached the gates, two of the guards quickly opened the small door on the right gate door. After they stepped through, the guard quickly shut it and the guard on the inside put the wood bar into place again. Finally they arrived at the stables and they stopped at the entrance.

Gabrielle came to a stopping point in her conversation with Maired and she smiled. "Well I think we're okay from here."

The apprentice priestess dipped her head. "I am glad you're here, princess. We need to return to duty."

"It was good to see you again, princess." Deka offered a warm smile.

Kaylee also bowed her head some then her eyes met Gabrielle's. "It's nice to finally meet you, princess. I look forward to working with you in the future."

"Thank you, Kaylee. I'm glad we met too." The bard said goodbye quickly then followed Ephiny into the stables.

The three patrol Amazons slipped away and hurried through the busy village.

"I can't believe how busy it is here."

Ephiny peered across the stall to her girlfriend. "The Nation is getting ready for the festival."

"It's still five days away."

Ephiny slightly grinned because this was Gabrielle's first Amazon Solstice. "And thank the gods we do this every other seasons cycle."

"Why is that?" That bard was curious about that tradition.

"Well because it does take a lot of work," explained Ephiny, "And also some dinars. So the council many seasons back decided it was best to do it every other Winter Solstice. The Solstice we don't have the festival is a time for family to spend it together instead of with the entire Nation."

The princess thoughtfully chewed on that new information. She understood the concept too. Finally she had Torqueo's tack off and his saddle along with the bags. She unhooked the saddlebags and hung them on the door. She then hastily put some feed in his bucket and she was happy to find the water bucket already filled. She snatched her staff from the stall wall, picked up her saddlebags, and slipped out of the stall. "I'm ready."

Ephiny smiled as she just finished too. She led the way out of the stables but stopped in the entrance way. "I'll come get you in half a candlemark?"

The slave nodded her head. "Yeah, I'm starved but I want to get settled in and cleaned up."

The older Amazon completely understood. She nodded then leaned in for a sweet kiss. "I'll see you in a bit."

Gabrielle had a wistful expression when Ephiny ended the tender kiss. Her eyes fluttered open and she whispered, "Okay. See you then."

The pair went their separate ways to their huts. As soon as the bard stepped into her hut, she leaned her staff against the wall next to the door – an old habit. Gabrielle was relieved to sit down at  her desk for a moment and not feel her body bouncing up and down. She knew later tonight when she would go to bed that her body would still feel like it was bobbing up and down in Torqueo's saddle. Luckily this time though she wasn't saddle sore.

The small bard placed her saddlebags on her empty desk then pulled out her clothes so they wouldn't smell too much like leather. She tucked them away in her dresser then moved the leather bags on top of the oak dresser. Once more the bard flopped into her desk chair and just moaned in relief. "Gods."

Gabrielle stared out of her window in front of her desk. She took some time to take in the bustling village. Then for the first time, Gabrielle noticed some of the differences unlike earlier. There were strands of garland hanging along the overhangs of some of the huts. She also picked out wreaths hanging from other huts. She huffed and wondered if she would get garland or a wreath. She would have to ask Ephiny. The princess should certainly have either if not both.

The smirking bard now twisted her head around and stared at her hut. She sighed when her eyes fell upon the dead fireplace, which she knew she needed to get started if she planned to be warm tonight. Slowly she forced herself from the chair and went to the fireplace. Beside the fireplace was a stack of wood but the fireplace was already stoked with wood.

Gabrielle picked up the flint stones from the mantle then knelt down. She worked her hands underneath the wood to where the leaves and twigs rested. It wasn't but after a few tries and she had the sparks jumping onto the leaves. With success burning before her green eyes, the bard stood up and returned the stones to their home. And for a heartbeat, Gabrielle debated whether to cover her window with the mat but decided against it since it was too early yet.

The slave now took a few steps back and sat down on the warm fur that she'd pulled out before leaving this past summer. She'd been told by Solari that the fur was of a deer that Terreis had killed, her first kill from her first hunt. Terreis had saved the fur and had it made into this warm sitting mat for the fire. It was enough for two people to sit on or one person to mostly lie on. Gabrielle decided to test out the laying part of it and she stretched out her back on it, her wool and leather jacket poured off of her.

Gradually her eye lids grew heavy and her forest eyes couldn't be seen. Gabrielle rested her hands on her stomach that had grown taut over the past summer. Briefly her thoughts conjured up what this Solstice Festival would be like but her imagiNation eventually put her to sleep. Her breathing was shallow and her propped up legs slid down to meet the rest of the fur or the heavy cloak.

There was a sudden knock at the door however the bard never stirred. Next came a second set of knocking but still nothing. Eventually the door cracked open and curly, dirty-blond headed Amazon poked her head through and she scanned the room only to rest her gaze on the sleeping bard.

Ephiny's lips curled into a silly grin at seeing the princess completely passed out by the fire. Silently she eased body through the door so that it wouldn't squeak. She then took a seat next to the bard and enjoyed the slow rise and fall of Gabrielle's chest. Ephiny had a soft smile as she played with Gabrielle's bangs, brushing them off to the side. She was hungry yet she wanted to let Gabrielle sleep just a little longer. She knew she was tired so Gabrielle had to be even more exhausted.

The Amazon let out a faint sigh then pulled her legs in to sit cross legged. She still stared down at her girlfriend. Her mind went over many of the events and changes for her and Gabrielle. It'd been more than a seasons' cycle since she met Gabrielle and two seasons since they'd been together. She truly admired Gabrielle for all of her strength and will to keep going despite her tormented past. At the beginning she was quite skeptic that Gabrielle would make a decent princess let alone a queen some day. Yet as time had worn on, Gabrielle had reshaped herself into an amazing young woman and Amazon and Ephiny could only imagine what kind of queen Gabrielle would be.

"Maybe there's hope for this Nation after all," murmured Ephiny, her hand sweeping across the bard's soft cheek.

The princess stirred from Ephiny's voice reaching into her dreamscape yet she didn't wake up.

Ephiny licked her lips. Her thoughts narrowed down to her relationship with Gabrielle, which had become slightly peculiar lately. She and Gabrielle had been together for two seasons now yet their relationship still failed to be consummated. Ephiny never once brought it up as she deemed it of little importance at the start especially since they were a new couple. But as the moon's cycles faded in and out, she began to wonder if there was something wrong or out of place. She knew it would only be a matter of time before she would have to face the issue with Gabrielle. Until then, she left it alone and found her enjoyment in the light touches, kisses, and cuddling.

The Amazon gave out a heavy sigh and decided it was best to wake her girlfriend before the afternoon wore on any later. She bent forward and brought her lips to Gabrielle's. Gabrielle responded with a soft moan and Ephiny slightly deepened the kiss for a longer response.

Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open and a smile graced her pink lips. "Hi."

Ephiny chuckled and brushed her nose across Gabrielle's. "Hi, sleepyhead."

The bard stretched her legs out and her arms over her head. "I just wanted to test this fur."

Ephiny straightened up some, a smirk breaking her face. "What's your opinion?"

"Quite comfortable." Gabrielle stopped her stretch then sat up. "How long where you here for?"

"Not too long. I tried to hold my stomach off to let you sleep a bit longer."

The slave touched her girlfriend's cheek and smiled. "Thank you. Ready to eat?"

"Yes." Ephiny gave an inquisitive look. "Are you?"

"That's a silly question," teased the princess, "I always am." She then climbed up onto her feet and Ephiny did the same.

The girlfriends gathered themselves and Gabrielle made sure to take her staff. They went directly to the food hut and there were only a few scattered Amazons eating a midday meal. It didn't take them long to fill up their plates and go over to an empty bench.

It wasn't long though before two familiar Amazons entered the hut and approached their table. Gabrielle stopped eating and smiled up at her two friends. "Solari, Eponin." She put her fork down and stood up to give them each a hug.

Ephiny also stopped eating and gave her sister and best friend a hug.

The weapons master and Solari both took a seat at the table, Solari next to Ephiny and Eponin next to the princess.

"I am glad you both made it safely."

Gabrielle patted Eponin's leg. "I had the best protector."

"Run into trouble?" quipped Solari.

"No, thank Artemis," replied Ephiny. She pierced several of her peas. "We had a safe ride here."

"Glad to hear it," agreed Eponin. She then switched her focus to the princess. "How go classes since we were there?"

"Really well." The bard pushed her peas around some then added, "Exams were hard but we worked just as hard." She noted Ephiny nodding her head in agreement. "I can't believe we'll be graduating in the spring."

"It's not far." Eponin flashed a grin at the students. "Right around the corner."

"How was Articia?"

The princess smiled at Solari's consideration. "It was good. I was glad to see my grandfather."

Ephiny quickly took notice about how Gabrielle considered Cornelio her grandfather. She knew it wasn't by mistake or to hide anything since Solari and Eponin both knew of Gabrielle's position with Cornelio.

"Visit your mother too?" softly asked the weapons master.

The bard slowly nodded but said nothing as she ate some of her peas then picked up her flatbread.

"You do know you'll be doing some training and classes after the Solstice Festival?"

Gabrielle had broken off a piece of flatbread but she stopped from eating it. She peered up at her mentor. "Since I have a moon off before the Academy?"

The weapons master nodded her head. "If you're out of shape or not honed, I would suggest getting ready." Her eyes then rested on her sister. "Same for you."

Gabrielle and Ephiny looked at each other then simultaneously they said, "We need to run." '

Solari laughed at the pair then smirked at them. "A little out of shape?"

The princess released a light groan. "We've been so busy we haven't had a chance to do anything."

The weapons master patted Gabrielle's back while saying, "Well you have seven days to get ready."

Gabrielle shook her head but she stuffed the bread into her mouth to refrain from saying anything smart.

Eponin tilted her head some at the quiet princess. "Also you'll be taking some classes with Andra. You and she are about at the same level now."

The bard was about to say something but her mouthful of bread made her stop. She quickly swallowed the dry food down then asked, "She's moving that fast?"

"She's quite good," admitted Eponin. "She's pretty well mastered her sword."

"You think she'll be taking the sword challenge?" spoke up Solari.

Eponin only nodded her head.

"Wow," murmured the bard.

Ephiny curiously looked to her sister. "When will Gabrielle have her sword challenge?"

The weapons master considered Gabrielle's training so far. She knew Gabrielle had become quite good with her staff but they'd just touched into the sword at the end of the summer. She calculated in her head how long it would be and finally answered, "Most likely at the end of the summer."

The bard huffed. "Knowing me, it'll be next summer."

"Have some faith, Gabrielle." Solari wagged a finger at the princess. "And work at it."

Eponin was happy Solari hadn't said any compliment but kept to encouragements.

Gabrielle's thoughts ran wild with the training program she'd been doing with Eponin. A question came to mind though and she turned her head to her mentor. "Will I have to use my sword after I pass the challenge?"

"Not at all," replied Eponin, "it is your choice. You may continue with the staff or something else." She folded her arms on the table and leaned against them. "We'll actually have a required class where you learn the basics of many weapons. It's really a safety feature too incase you find yourself without your chosen weapon."

"It's really good for you incase of challenges," piped in Solari.

"Challenges?" The Amazon Princess felt her body automatically tighten just at the word. "What challenges?"

Eponin sighed; she hadn't covered that topic yet knowing it could instill some fears.

"When you become queen," explained Ephiny, "you could be challenged for the mask as queen."

Gabrielle's jaw was slack but she snapped it shut.

"And whoever is challenged may select the weapon for the battle." Solari's head bobbed a few times to confirm her own words.

The bard seriously considered this new information. She never knew anything of this Amazon tradition or law but may be in some way it made sense. "So can anybody challenge the queen? Can I be challenged now as the princess?" She looked between the three Amazons for answers.

"No you can't be challenged now as the position of a princess is more for image and a time for training."

Ephiny picked up after her sister and answered the other question. "And the queen can be challenged by anybody as long as they're an Amazon from this Nation."

"Sooo hypothetically speaking I could challenge Queen Melosa right now?"

All three Amazons bobbed their heads.

"You just won't win," informed the weapons master.

The princess frowned at blunt statement but she knew it was true. There was no way she'd ever beat the queen nor did she want to challenge her. "So why would somebody challenge the queen anyway?"

"Typically because the queen is weak one way or another." Ephiny shrugged then added, "Queen Melosa took power though blood line but her mother took power through a challenge."

"So if, for example, I challenged Queen Melosa and won can Queen Melosa turn around and challenge me back?"

Ephiny bit her lower lip, her answer was quiet but it was defining. "No because the loser of the challenge is killed."

Gabrielle stared at her girlfriend as she realized the future position she could be placed in when and if she became queen.

"Just a slight insurance to make the queen rules well," joked Solari.

The bard cleared her throat. "I would say so." She nervously brushed her hair back and everybody picked up on it.

Eponin's heart dropped at the sight of her student becoming slightly pale and worried at all of the pressure. "It something you won't ever have to fear, Gabrielle if you're a fair and just queen." She now rested her hand on the bard's knee. "Nor something you should be worried about right now."

"I know," murmured the princess. She peered up at Eponin and whispered, "But its apart of being the queen and I know I have to accept that if I were to become a good queen."

Slowly the weapons master nodded her head. "Yes."

Ephiny didn't like the new mood set between them and she decided it was time to change the topic. She didn't want her girlfriend think too much about such things despite it was unavoidable now. "When does the tree arrive?"

The slave's head quickly whipped around at Ephiny's question. "Tree?"

All three Amazons grinned at the princess's instant curiosity.

For the rest of the day, Gabrielle and Ephiny helped around the village with getting things ready for the festival. The princess quickly found out who the main coordinator was of the festival and it was an older Amazon by the name of Tanya. Tanya was a council member and appointed by the council and queen to handle the festival this year. It so happened that when each festival came that a different member of the council would have the duty to run the festival. It so happened it was Tanya's turn.

Yet by the mid afternoon Councilor Tanya excused Ephiny and the princess from doing anymore work. She knew the pair had done a lot of traveling to reach the Nation in time for the festival. She'd thanked them both then hurried them away from all the activity. The couple decided that maybe it was time for a warm bath in the hot springs since they most likely needed it.

Ephiny and Gabrielle each went to their huts to collect clean clothes then they met in the bathing hut. It was actually fairly quiet and they found a room where there was nobody in it. So they'd stripped and Gabrielle gingerly stepped into the small, steaming pool and each deeper step seemed to sooth her muscles.

The Amazon however didn't waste time and ignored the steps by just sliding off the edge and into the water.

The bard rolled her eyes as she leaned against the wall of the pool. "Gods." She sighed, dropped her head back, and heavily breathed the steam into her lungs. "Whoever built this bathing hut should be considered a goddess."

Ephiny quietly laughed before she bent her knees until she was completely under water. When she popped back up, she wiped the water from her eyes and her wet hair dripped down her shoulders.

Gabrielle decided to follow suit yet when she broke through the water though she found herself right in front of Ephiny. She almost jumped back having not expected her girlfriend there.

Ephiny smirked then reached up to brush a few stray pieces of Gabrielle's blond hair. "Hi."

The slave slightly grinned. "Hi back." She leaned in for a quick kiss then she went to the edge of the pool. She scanned the ledge and her eyes honed in on her target. Effectively the bard lifted herself enough to grab the bar of sandalwood soap. "Here, you're first."

"Ooo no the pri-"

"Go first or this soap will be in your big mouth," stated the glowering princess. At Ephiny's teasing smirk, Gabrielle readied to insert the soap into a teeth baring cave.

"Okay, okay!" Ephiny laughed and held up her hands. "Here." She received the soap and washed her body first.

The bard went back to leaning against the side of the pool. She admired the scene of her girlfriend soaping her body down. The scent of sandalwood flowed through the steam and filled Gabrielle's senses. She loved the scent. "I'll do your hair."

The Amazon nodded after finally getting cleaned up. With her head turned sidelong, she handed the soap to her girlfriend then shifted so she was just in front of Gabrielle.

Gabrielle knew she'd need quite a bit of soap since Ephiny's curly locks were so thick. She soaped up her hands really well, placed the bar on the ledge, and started on Ephiny's hair.

Ephiny closed her eyes and enjoyed the sensation of small but strong fingers working through her hair. Her scalp was also getting a nice massage and it soothed her. There was a brief pause as Gabrielle retrieved more soap for the lower portion of Ephiny's hair.

Finally the bard was done and whispered close to her ear, "You're finished, Eph."

The Amazon almost groaned but she dunked herself anyway and worked the soap out of her locks. Sometimes the soap came out easy and other times it took a bit more effort. When she figured she had it all out, she lifted up out of the water and found Gabrielle was already washing her body. She refrained from sighing now since she'd planned to try and wash her girlfriend's body.

It wasn't long before Gabrielle was finished washing and needed help with her hair. Her girlfriend easily accepted the offer and soaped up her hands. This time though, she moved in closer to Gabrielle's back than she normally would do. Her breasts lightly pressed against Gabrielle's upper back while her hands worked through the blond strands.

The princess wasn't blind to what her girlfriend was trying to do; it caused her to grin wickedly. She knew some time ago that Ephiny was ready to sleep with her but she'd never made that mental step. Something in her held her back and it wasn't something she was ready to confront just yet. Right now she was accepting the many levels of kissing, the touching, and always after the cuddling. She became lost in Ephiny's soothing fingers and a quiet moaned filtered between her lips, which made her snap out of it. "Ephiny?"

The Amazon leaned in and brushed her lips against Gabrielle's right ear. "Yes?"

A slight chill rippled down the bard's spine. "Is my hair done?"

Ephiny's eyes narrowed because she knew she was losing at the game. Yet she wasn't going to accept total defeat so she lightly nipped at the back of Gabrielle's ear. "Yes," she purred.

Gabrielle's body was certainly responding but her emotions were wild. She quickly retreated by disappearing into the water and coming up on the other side of the small pool. When she had the water out of her eyes and focused on her smirking girlfriend, she stated, "I'll get you."

"Please do," teased back the Amazon.

The Amazon Princess rolled her eyes and placed the back of her palms on the ledge. "You won't be saying that later." She arched an eyebrow and her eyes gleamed. With that, she hauled herself up out of the water until her butt met the cool stone floor.

Ephiny's mouth went dry at seeing the display but she decided maybe this time she'd use the steps. She made some random decision about whether she'd be able to lift herself out or not when her body felt a little weak.

Gabrielle already had her towel out and drying herself off but she paused and tossed Ephiny's towel to her.

The Amazon just caught it before it smacked her in the face. She took her time drying herself because she was too busy looking over Gabrielle's body. In past times she'd seen her girlfriend's body but this was completely in a different light. In the past they weren't together or too busy for her to take the time yet today she had all the time before dinner.

Gabrielle was bent forward and toweling her legs and feet off when she picked up on Ephiny's leering gaze. Instantly her dark green eyes narrowed into a dangerous degree.

Ephiny wasn't any fool and saw the quick change. She shifted back with a step then she took two steps away when her girlfriend straightened up, towel at her side. Then Ephiny's amber eyes were wide as the sun when Gabrielle suddenly twirled her towel tightly. "Gaaabrieeeelllee… don't do it."

The bard was hunched forward some, the towel tightly wrapped between her right and left hand. She was prepared to snap it. She knew for a fact that Ephiny hadn't learned how to make a whip out of her towel… yet. "I need to teach you a lesson about staring. It's not polite to stare at your princess." She stalked forward.

Ephiny had an offended look. "I was not staring I was admiring you. It was a compliment." She took a few steps back, her hands now coming up and her towel hanging from her right hand.

"Liar!" challenged the bard and she promptly snapped the towel at Ephiny.

The Amazon squealed and jumped back just in time. "I am not!" She then saw Gabrielle preparing for another attack and she hastily came up with another response. "I can't help it, Gabrielle… you're so beautiful."

The bard snickered and came closer. "I am but that doesn't mean you need to stare."

Ephiny's jaw dropped at Gabrielle's outright pride. "You can't blame me for it!"

"Wrong answer!" The princess jumped forward and her towel came snapping through the air.

This time Ephiny yelped in pain and spun away as another towel whipping came at her. "Gabrielle!"

Gabrielle was twirling her towel tightly again and taking aim. "That's princess, Ephiny." She snapped it but made sure to miss. "Get it right."

The Amazon couldn't believe her ears at seeing Gabrielle's fierce display. "Well princ-ass, I am-" Ephiny screamed when the towel whipped her just at the side of her bare stomach. She dropped her head and saw the small red mark forming.

"What was that, Ephiny?" Gabrielle's contained laughter finally bubbled up and it was rather evil. "What'd you call me?"

The Amazon cleared her throat and said, "I called you princ-ass!" She held up her towel as a shield just as the whip came at her. "Ha!" But she wasn't fast enough to deflect the next attack just over her right breast. She screamed in pain and jumped away from her opponent. She needed a plan before she'd get back backed into a corner. She decided she required some time first. "Please don't snap that towel again."

"Ooo I don't plan on stopping until we're clear." Gabrielle bared her teeth in a snaring grin. She was bent over, arms stretched out with the towel at the ready. "Not 'til I feel you've been taught a lesson."

Ephiny took a faint step back. "I had every right to do what I did."

"No you didn't," challenged back the princess. She took that faint step closer. "You have to apologize, Ephiny."

The Amazon licked her lips and looked to her right at the wall then to her left at the pool about ten paces away. Her head snapped around when Gabrielle's towel snapped right in front of her.

"Don't even think of escaping," growled the bard.

Ephiny held up her hands again. "I wouldn't dare, my princ-ass."

Gabrielle snarled then shot her towel out.

Ephiny was prepared and she dropped her towel, her right arm exploded out so fast. The towel wrapped around her upper arm and down to her wrist.

Gabrielle stood shock.

Ephiny smirked. "Your turn, princ-ass."  She gritted her teeth then suddenly began to swing.

Gabrielle screamed as her feet were lifted off the floor, she soared through the air but she held tight to the towel in complete fear. "Eeephinyyyy!"

The Amazon laughed so loud that it rang in the small room. She brought the swinging to a dead stop when Gabrielle was coming over the pool.

The princess's feet connected with the ledge near the pool and she stumbled forward but her right hand stopped her when it hit the wall. She jerked her towel free and faced her daring girlfriend. "That's it!"

Once again Ephiny's laugh filled the room and Ephiny quickly jumped up high when the towel came at her knees. She then turned yet she got whipped directly on the right butt cheek. She screamed in reaction but she wouldn't give up, she wouldn't lose the war. Ephiny raced around the pool and bent to her right just as she came to the wood bench. Her hands neatly scooped up her and Gabrielle's clothes.

The bard realized what was happening and she chased after Ephiny, her towel taking aim. "Don't you dare, Ephiny! I will kill you!"

Ephiny had the clothes bundled up in her left arm, her right hand on the door handle, and the door was slightly ajar. "Laaah-ooo-seeer!" She viciously laughed and flung the door open just in time so that Gabrielle's towel snapped against the door. She then bolted out of the room.

The few dressed Amazons that were gathered in the central portion of the bathing hut all turned their heads when a young, naked Amazon came bursting through. Earlier they'd heard the pair horse playing and they'd all been getting some good laughter out of it. They all then suddenly turned their heads when somebody back in that same bathing room yelled out, "Ephiny!!!" Simultaneously the group snickered.

Ephiny came to a skittering stop by the exit of the bathing hut and she hastily threw on her leathers, at her feet were Gabrielle's clothes and her extras. She didn't fear Gabrielle coming after her because she knew Gabrielle was too shy to come out naked from the room. She heard the next angry yell from her girlfriend asking her to come back to the bathing room. She knew better than to go back to the fuming girlfriend so she slipped her feet into her sandals then gathered the articles at her feet and raced out of the hut with a sinister laugh.

Gabrielle was grounding her teeth when she realized Ephiny was never coming back. "Great," she growled and looked around in the bathing room. "What now?" Her eyes rested on Ephiny's towel on the other side of the pool. "I am going to kill her." Her teeth were grinding hard as she stalked over to the other towel. "I will get her. She's only won a battle… not the war," she hissed while yanking the towel off the floor.

The bard tossed the towel over her shoulder and took a moment to tie her own towel around her waist so that it covered down to her knees. Next she brought Ephiny's towel across her back and tied it just between her breasts. She stomped over to the door but she came short when she realized she'd be walking out in front of a few of her Amazons.

Gabrielle's anger dissipated into fear. Her heartbeat picked up. "Ooo sweet Artemis… I can't do this." She slightly moaned and covered her hand over her face. Then another fear sprang into her mind and Gabrielle peered over at her right side. Her hands checked to make sure her slavery brand was perfectly hidden.

"Okay." The princess straightened up and stared at the door. "I can do this," she whispered. "We're all women here… same stuff." She sucked in a deep breath. "I can do this," she said in a slow mantra that started in her head. She squared her shoulders, put on a stoic mask, and grabbed the door handle.

The group of Amazons stopped talking and giggling when the door to that bathing room opened again. They bit their lower lips as the young Amazon came proudly sauntering out of the bathing room.

The Amazon Princess didn't look any of them in the face and made a clear beeline for the exit of the hut. Yet when she made it to the door, she came to a complete halt with her hand on the door. She just realized she was about to walk out in front of her Nation with only two towels to cover her dinar and prizes. Gabrielle tried to quickly think of what to do but nothing was forthcoming. As she considered her options, she heard the Amazons' whispers filtering back to her. Suddenly she grinned.

The four Amazons that were leisurely sitting on chairs went silent when the princess came around the corner and cleared her voice.

Gabrielle noticed how the four older Amazons' attention completely rested on her. She couldn't hide her embarrassment.  Again she cleared her throat and finally said, "I was just wondering if you ladies could help me…?" She tried to remain stern so that they wouldn't start laughing at her.

One Amazon rose up from her spot and bowed some, her wet locks of hair falling forward. "How can we help, princess?" She straightened up and tried her best to control the smirk that was clawing at her lips.

The bard almost groaned when she had confirmation that the Amazons knew she was the princess. "Um… well…." She stopped herself so she could gather her wits; she was the damn princess for Artemis's sakes. Gabrielle was now composed and finally asked, "I was wondering if you four were about to leave?" She knew none of them weren't since they were relaxing and socializing.

The standing Amazon licked her lips and questioningly gazed at her friends but she turned back to the princess. "As a matter of fact we were, my princess. How may we help?"

Gabrielle suddenly beamed at the offer for assistance.

Ephiny had made it back to her hut in record time, especially since the cold was nipping at her damp skin. Yet she made it back to her hut she suddenly felt really bad. She'd tossed her items onto her dresser and went back out of the hut with Gabrielle's things. She knew that if she didn't return to her girlfriend that there would be more than Hades to pay. With that thought in mind, she picked up her pace into the fastest jog that her sandals let her go. Just as she came halfway to the bathing hut, she saw something very strange and it made her stop.

There off to her left about fifty paces were the four Amazons from the bathing hut and they were hiding something or somebody. Ephiny tilted her head some at how one Amazon was in the front, to the left and right, and the fourth walked in the rear of whatever was in the middle. She now squinted and caught sight of a small, blond princess being secretively escorted across the village. "Ooo you're so good, Gabrielle."

The young Amazon licked her lips and decided that her girlfriend was perfectly hidden despite many passerbies were trying to get a clear look. She laughed some then took off in the direction of Gabrielle's hut. She made it in record time before Gabrielle and her escort. She was thrilled to find that Gabrielle hadn't yet put the mat over her window so she tossed Gabrielle's clothes and sandals through then squirmed through herself.

Just as she heard the door starting to open to the hut, Ephiny was scrambling to the foot of the bed and she sat down. She slapped Gabrielle's clothes in her lap, sandals on the bottom, and a huge gigantic smile on her face.

Gabrielle laughed at the Amazons as she stepped backwards into her hut. She held onto the door while saying, "Thank you Gredel, Oriona, Page, and Medora. I really appreciate it. I owe you four big!"

Gredel, who had been the first one to offer help to the princess, laughed and happily said, "It was our pleasure, princess."

"You can pay us back by getting Ephiny," called out Page.

The bard laughed. "Ooo I plan to."

"Have a good evening, princess," spoke up Medora, "I'm sure we'll see you at dinner."

Gabrielle smiled at the four then said goodbye with a wave. She closed the door and when it was shut, she dropped her head against it and let out a heavy sigh.

Ephiny remained silent and still but her massive smile still wide across her face.

Finally the Amazon Princess straightened up then turned around but she jumped back with her hand over her chest. "By the gods! Ephiny!"

The Amazon didn't flinch and didn't change her expression.

"What in Hades are you doing in here?" The slave's eyes then lowered to her things in Ephiny's lap. That seemed to jar her earlier anger so her eyes darkened. "Eeeephinyyy."

The Amazon licked her lips and held still.

The bard stalked forward.

"How about a truce?" finally offered the girlfriend.

Gabrielle's eyes responded by narrowing. "I don't think so." When she was close enough, she launched herself at her girlfriend.

Ephiny screamed and caught the small bard, who threw her onto her back. Gabrielle's clothes tumbled to the floor in a messy pile.

The couple began rolling around on the bed, laughing and giggling. They came to a stop near the edge and Gabrielle was on top but her towels were all askew.

Ephiny's laughter settled down and her soft smile took over. "Truce?"

The princess grinned and rubbed her nose against Ephiny's as a peace offering. "Truce… for now." She relaxed against the stronger woman and absorbed the closeness. The mix of leather and sandalwood scent filled her senses and calmed her. She shifted around some to get a bit more comfortable.

Ephiny tightened up when cold feet connected with hers. "Yikes. Your feet are freezing."

"Well that happens when you're forced to walk on cold ground with bare feet," whispered the annoyed bard.

The Amazon offered a warming smile but it was lost on Gabrielle. "I was coming back."

"I'm sure you were," teased Gabrielle.

Ephiny chuckled and whispered, "Let's sit by the fire so you can warm up."

The bard considered the idea and decided it was a good one. She rolled off of Ephiny and went over to the fur. She sat down cross legged and already started to feel warmer.

Ephiny picked up Gabrielle's articles and placed them on the bed again. She then neared the fireplace but noticed it was slightly low on wood. She gathered up two cut logs and tossed them in to help it. Satisfied it was growing stronger, she took a seat by her girlfriend. "Much better."

Gabrielle couldn't contain her amused smile. She leaned over, wrapped her right arm around Ephiny's waist, and rested her head on her shoulder.

The Amazon kissed the top of Gabrielle's blond head. "Feel warmer?"

"Definitely," murmured the bard.

The couple remained silent as they enjoyed the warmth of each other and the fire. Ephiny stole a quick look out of the window and saw the sun's setting rays were streaming across the clouds. She turned her head back to Gabrielle, who merely stared into the fire because she was lost in her thoughts.

"You should get ready," murmured the Amazon. "Dinner will be soon."

Gabrielle stretched her legs out and the fire warmed the bottom of her feet quite well. "I guess I should." She wiggled her toes some then stood up. "Think I should wear my princess ensemble?"

Ephiny dropped her head back some and grinned up at her girlfriend. "I would but just skip the extras."

The bard thoughtfully considered it and agreed. She went to her dresser and pulled out the leathers. It wasn't long before she had everything on and she had a moment to brush the knots from her hair.

Ephiny hadn't moved but she heard the distinct sound of Gabrielle putting her boots on.

"Do you need to go back and get your boots?"

Ephiny glanced around her shoulder. "Yeah I better." She now stared at her stretched out legs and the sandals. "It's going to be cold tonight."

"Mmmm," mumbled the bard. She stood up after lacing her boots and she stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. She ambled over to her window and put the mat into place to block out the evening chill. "You ready, Eph?"

The Amazon popped up onto her feet and met her girlfriend by the door.

The princess picked up her staff and opened the door.

"After you, princess." Ephiny emphasized her point by bowing.

Gabrielle eyed Ephiny then she proudly started through the door but picked up her jacket from next to the door. She swung her jacket on, buttoned one button, and tossed her staff into her right hand.

The Amazon came out and they started their quick walk over to her hut first. When they got in, Ephiny quickly put her boots on and grabbed her dark jacket too. She then hurried Gabrielle out of the hut so they could make it to dinner on time. The pair walked into the bustling hut and went into the dinner line without a second thought. After they picked out their meals, they exchanged quick kisses then separated.

Princess Gabrielle rose up onto the large dais where all the officials ate together. She contained her sigh because she sometimes felt she never fit in with the group. She knew it was because she was young and as she'd gotten to know the others she'd become more relaxed. Gabrielle found her usual spot open and quickly took it.

The weapons master was soon to follow as she ascended to the table. "Princess."

The bard smiled at her friend and mentor. "Hi, Eponin."

Eponin flashed a smile back then took a seat on the opposite side of the table but a few chairs down.

Next to follow were several other officials such as the priestess, the stratègos, several of the councilors, Ambassador Majorie, the master healer, and several others.

Gabrielle's spot to sit was to the left of the queen, who always sat at the head of the table. She'd noted a long time ago that councilor Rena was on the queen's right. The bard then always had the priestess sitting to her left. She was relieved for that much because she adored Priestess Narkissa. 

"It's good to see you're back, princess," warmly whispered Narkissa.

The bard smiled up at the priestess. "I didn't want to miss the Solstice Festival."

The priestess's body shook with a silent laugh but her smile gave her away. "Your first one here, isn't it?"

Gabrielle enthusiastically moved her head in confirmation.

"You will enjoy it then." Priestess Narkissa went silent though when she saw the queen rise up onto the dais.

Gabrielle studied the queen and realized she had a thin plate of food and dark circles under her eyes. She could only image what was causing the queen so much stress. She made note to herself to catch up with Solari about the latest gossip.

Despite Queen Melosa's worn features, she still held herself strong. She proudly walked down to the head of the table, lowered her plate and mug, and sat down. Her back was ridged, her eyes piercing, and her stoic manner in place. "We shall begin." She'd picked up her fork and started eating. The Amazons at the royal table all followed suit after the queen's approval.

Gabrielle had always found that tradition rather fascinating. She'd always wondered if the queen wasn't present then if everybody would follow her. She'd received her confirmation several moons back when her and her friends ate at the tavern in Athens. Yet as she considered it, she thought about how in her family they always waited for their mother to begin the dinner since she'd been the one to cook it. The traditions were somewhat similar.

"So how goes the Academy, princess?" questioned the queen.

The bard had taken a bite of her flatbread but she didn't respond until she swallowed. "It is going well, my queen."

Queen Melosa nodded then gave a curious look. "Do you and Ephiny expect to graduate this spring?"

"Yes, my queen. We're not exactly sure when this spring but yes."

The queen's head bobbed a few times. "I am glad you'll be finished soon."

"I assume you will return here when your schooling is complete?"

The bard turned her attention to the head councilor. "I believe so." She then faintly grinned and added, "But I believe my schooling will not stop once I am here."

Councilor Rena chuckled and so did the weapons master.

"You have a ways to go," confirmed the queen.

The princess peered up at the queen but said nothing.

"You will succeed, princess," spoke up Narkissa. She now felt the chilling looks from the stratègos. Her eyes met the stratègos's and she gave a challenging look.

Commander Kalonice's eyes narrowed but something of a grin played with her lips.

"I plan to," proudly stated the princess.

The priestess lost her focus on the stratègos and looked at Gabrielle again. "I am glad to hear it."

Queen Melosa now decided a change of topic was needed. She gazed down the table until she found her new target. "Councilor Tanya, how goes the preparations for the festival?"

The councilor had just taken a drink from her mug. She nodded to the queen. "Quite well, my queen. Things are on schedule."

"You plan to be ready in time?"

"Of course, my queen… as always."

Gabrielle carefully listened to the councilor's report. She felt excited just from hearing about it.

"When does the tree arrive?"

The councilor smiled at the queen's question. "Tomorrow actually. The cutting will begin tomorrow morning at first light."

Queen Melosa now directed her words at the stratègos. "I would think some of the best warriors are on the cutting team…?"

Commander Kalonice grinned at the queen. "Would you expect any less, my queen? I have my finest prepared to cut."

Melosa had a distant grin but she lost it just as quickly.

"What day will it be decorated?"

Everybody's eyes shifted to the princess at the break of her voice.

Councilor Tanya quickly answered back. "The following day, princess." A warm smile caressed her lips. "I expect you to be there to help with that."

Gabrielle beamed at the offer. "I wouldn't miss it." Then a random thought came to mind and she decided to ask Councilor Tanya. "What kind of tree is it?" She noticed though that the councilor wasn’t going to answer but signaled to somebody else.

The director of the agricultural department took over the question. "It is a Greek fir, princess some of the finest in these parts. We've been growing them for many, many seasons."

The bard hadn't formally met the head of agricultural department but she knew her name, Lelia. "How big can they get?"

"Quite tall, princess… about as high as the walls."

The princess was quite impressed because that meant the tree would be seen from outside of the Nation. "Is this particular one that tall?"

"Yes, you'll be able to see it from outside the village." Director Lelia enjoyed the princess's continued questions. She appreciated the princess's natural curiosity and need to understand. 

"We grow this particular tree just for this festival," added the queen.

Gabrielle looked to the queen. "I didn't realize that."

The stratègos grinned at the young princess. "There is still much to learn, princess."

The Amazon Princess nodded her head.

Commander Kalonice turned her head to the right and gazed at the weapons master not far down. "How are the plans for the smithy, Master Eponin?"

"It is going well, stratègos. Andra and I plan to take a trip soon to Aegae to see how much a forge will cost us."

"Yes, it will not be long before the spring comes."

Eponin nodded at the stratègos's statement. "It won't be."

Councilor Rena gave the weapons master a challenging look. "I hope your proposal and numbers are good, Master Eponin."

The weapons master refrained from sighing. "Of course, councilor I will make sure of that."

"I have every faith in that, Master Eponin."

Eponin was slightly relieved at the head councilor's confidence and hidden support.

"We were fortunate enough to take on a blacksmith thanks to the princess," stated Councilor Rena.

"And don't forget the fish this coming spring," spoke up Ambassador Majorie.

Mostly everybody chuckled at the ambassador's excitement about the future seafood.

"I personally look forward to the oysters," spoke up the stratègos.

"Not if I beat you to them, stratègos," chided the ambassador.

The group at the table laughed.

"What are some of the other seafoods we expect, princess?"

Gabrielle turned her head to Director Lelia. "If I recall correctly, there will be other things like tuna, halibut, perch, bass…" She stopped in the middle of her thinking but brightened as she recalled the other seafood. "Prawn, eel, some squid."

"Quite a variety," agreed the agricultural director.

"Yes there is."

Director Lelia tilted her head some before asking, "How did you come upon the pact with Potidaea?"

The slave was quiet for a heartbeat then she knew it was best to be honest. "I am originally from Potidaea. My father and the constable go way back so I was able to talk him into the pact."

"Well I have to say I've greatly appreciate the pact, princess. It has put our excess olive oil to use along with an increase in production for the olive groves."

Gabrielle smiled at the director. "I was happy it worked out."

"Even if you were a little ahead of yourself," reminded the queen.

The princess tried not to sink into her seat because she needed to remain proud of her decision this past summer. "Yes I was imprudent, my queen but I wasn't foolish."

The ambassador stifled a laugh that wanted to break from her. She could tell the queen's annoyance was heightening at the princess for her blunt but honest statement. "You did a fine job, princess," rescued the ambassador, "And with some more proper training you can acquire permission to authorize such pacts."

Queen Melosa felt her anger increase another level.

Gabrielle swallowed because she sensed the tension from the queen. She decided it was best to ebb it and quickly. "Maybe once I've assumed some duties and had some more experience, ambassador. Particularly after the queen has trained me." Gabrielle gave a curious stare at the queen.

Queen Melosa relented some and quietly stated, "Perhaps." She then picked up her mug.

Priestess Narkissa's hands were in her lap since she'd finished her meal awhile ago. Her right hand wondered over to the princess's knee and she squeezed it.

The bard tried not to jump but she did give a side glance to the priestess.

The priestess patted the small knee then removed her hold.

It wasn't much longer before the group broke apart and everybody went their separate ways. Some Amazons were beginning to leave the dining hut already. Gabrielle though sought out her group of friends in the bustling, loud hut and it didn't take her long.

Ephiny smiled up when she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Hey."

"Hi." Gabrielle scooted in when Ephiny made some room for her.

"How'd it go up there?" inquired the girlfriend.

The slave sighed and shook her head.

Eponin appeared at the table too and took a seat across from the couple. "Nothing like some politics, princess?"

The bard groaned and dropped her head into her hands. "I hate sitting up there some times."

Ephiny chuckled and patted her girlfriend's back.

"You could always start a new tradition," spoke up a new voice.

Gabrielle lifted her head to Jocasta.

Jocasta grinned at the princess. "You can get rid of the royal table and let everybody mingle together."

Gabrielle snorted.

"As if that wouldn't start up a lot of politics," joked Solari.

The bard turned to Solari and said, "I need to talk to you later."

Solari had a smirk now. "Ooo? About what, princess?"

The princess rolled her eyes. "Some stuff… I need to ask you about."

"I'll tell you anything," teased Solari. "Or show you."

Ephiny shot a warning look to her best friend.

"Anything Ephiny might have left out."

Gabrielle pointed a finger at her friend. "I've already had to deal with enough of that crap today, thank you."

"Yes, I heard rumor about the beautiful princess sashaying through the village in only towels," spoke up Adonia.

The princess's own dangerous look now centered on Adonia. "I was not sashaying."

Adonia's smirking features grew wider. "That's not what I heard."

Gabrielle groaned and decided to give up.

"Yeah what was that all about?" Solari wiggled forward in her seat as if getting any closer would help her read Gabrielle's thoughts. "It’s the latest gossip in the Nation. Something about you and Ephiny."

Princess Gabrielle hotly stared down her girlfriend. "See what you started?"

"Me!" bellowed the Amazon, "As I recall you were whipping me first."


Gabrielle's eyes flickered to Solari and she could have sworn Solari's ears had just grown. "Look you," she pointed a finger at the gossip queen, "don't you start anything or else there will be Hades to pay with me."

Adonia couldn't help herself. "Now that sounds like less of a threat and more of a pleasure, my princess." When she had Gabrielle's attention, she quickly added, "Do you offer private whippings to everybody?" Yet before she received her answer, she was smacked hard by Jocasta.

"Ooo you'll get a whipping alright," warned Jocasta.

Adonia gave a peace offering to Jocasta by saying, "Yours would be much more exquisite then, love."

Quickly Jocasta's sunny smiled revealed itself again.

"I heard from a good source, princess that you make towels look quite sexy," teased Solari.

Gabrielle ran her tongue along the back of her teeth. Her frustration was mounting very quickly.

Ephiny's wicked smile appeared in Solari's direction. "Better than you could, Solari."

Solari's jaw dropped. "Is that a challenge, Ephiny?"

"No, it’s a fact." Ephiny's eyes gleamed fiery amber.

Solari tried to stare down her best friend but was failing. "Fine!" She threw up her hands. "I'll leave it alone then."

Ephiny enjoyed her win and also received a kiss on the cheek from Gabrielle.

"My hero," murmured Gabrielle so that nobody heard but her.

Ephiny's body quaked with a few silent laughs.

When Gabrielle straightened back up, she immediately felt two strong hands on her shoulders. This caused her to drop her head back and she was met by the smiling face of Andra. Gabrielle didn't hesitate to jump out of her seat and throw her arms around the blacksmith.

"I see you made it back safely," whispered Andra into the bard's ear.

Gabrielle smiled while pulling back but not without relinquishing her hold. "Yes, we had a safe trip here. How are you?"

The blacksmith released one hand and brushed back loose pieces of Gabrielle's blond hair. "I am well. You?"

"I'm tired but good." The princess shifted out of the warm embrace and held her hand out to the table. "Sit with us."

Andra briefly considered it then nodded. "Alright."

Ephiny ordered everybody on the bench to scoot down again.

Gabrielle sat back down but in Ephiny's earlier spot.

Andra then took Gabrielle's spot.

"So do you know everybody here?" offered the princess.

"Everybody but two," answered the blacksmith, her eyes rested on those two.

"Okay." Gabrielle started with Jocsta. "That's Jocasta and to Jocasta's right is Adonia."

"Pleasure to meet you both," stated the blacksmith.

Jocasta had her brilliant smile. "You as well."

Adonia leaned forward some. "So you're the famous blacksmith?"

Andra laughed at the young Amazon. "By far I am not."

Adonia's grin widened. "That is not what has been going around."

Ephiny dared to ask. "What is going around?"

Solari quickly took up the question. "They're calling Andra Princes Gabrielle's blacksmith."

Once again, the bard groaned and dropped her face into her hands. "You got to be kidding me." Her voice was muffled.

"Well that is fitting, princess," started Jocasta, "since you sought her out. The Nation will thrive now that we have a blacksmith."

"Yes well she does have a name besides the princess's blacksmith," complained Gabrielle.

Now everybody understood Gabrielle's implications and annoyance.

Adonia peered across Jocasta and looked at Solari.

Solari understood Adonia's expression and she only nodded.

"When will we have a smithing hut?"

Andra smiled at Jocasta. "We plan for the spring or late spring."

"Are you excited, Eponin?"

The weapons master nodded at Jocasta. "It will be nice."

"How about the headache about getting the metals?" teased Adonia.

"All in due time," simply stated Eponin. She then shifted her attention to Gryta, who was approaching the table.

"Hello, ladies," offered the small warrior Amazon.

Gabrielle climbed to her feet and met the Amazon.

"I am glad to see you, princess." The historian gave a brief hug. "How was your journey and the Academy?"

"The journey was tiring as is the Academy."

The historian chuckled. "You will be finished soon."

"Yes." Gabrielle smiled at that thought. "How goes things for you?"

"Very busy, princess." Gryta folded her arms over her chest. "I would like to speak with you in the next day or two."

"Of course, Grytra." Gabrielle clasped the Amazon's arm. "We'll meet up tomorrow."

"That would be good." Gryta smiled her appreciation. "I must go though." She waved at the group at the table. "I'm sorry I can't visit." Her eyes then fell upon Ephiny. "How are you, Ephiny?"

"I'm great, Gryta. You?"

"The same." The historian smiled at the princess and quietly said, "I'll see you tomorrow then."

"Goodnight, Gryta." Gabrielle watched the historian quietly leave the hut. She went back to sitting beside Ephiny.

The group continued talking for another half of a candlemark until they felt it was getting late. Plus the food hut was rather empty by that point. Just as they all stood up and started saying goodnight, Andra grabbed Gabrielle off to the side.

"Are you headed to bed now?" quietly asked Andra.

The bard shook her head. "No, I plan to be up for a bit. Why?"

"I was just wondering if I could come over for a visit…?"

Gabrielle glanced over at Ephiny, who was busy with Solari. "Yeah." She looked back at Andra. "Just let me say goodnight to Ephiny."

The blacksmith nodded then watched as Gabrielle went to Ephiny.

Ephiny smiled at her girlfriend and slipped her arm around her small waist. "You headed to your hut?"

"Yes, I was going to visit with Andra. You don't mind?"

Ephiny chuckled and shook her head. "No. We've spent the last several moons together." She then grinned at Solari. "I think Solari and I are going to catch up."

Gabrielle also grinned despite an unexpected ping of jealousy shot through her. "Alright. Have fun." She stood on her tiptoes to steal a kiss.

Ephiny lightly touched Gabrielle's cheek as they kissed. When she pulled back, she whispered, "Sleep well tonight. I'll be by earlier for that run."

The princess groaned and rested her hand on Ephiny's jacket covered stomach. "I almost forgot."

Solari snickered. "Ephiny will whip you into shape again."

"Don't I know," joked the bard. She patted Ephiny's stomach. "I'll see you then."

"Night." Ephiny watched her girlfriend leave then she returned her focus to Solari.

Andra and Gabrielle slipped out of the warm dining hut and into the brisk night. They pulled their jackets close and also walked closer together to block away the wind. They didn't say much since they were too concerned about getting into the princess's warm hut. When they did get in, they hung their jackets by the door on the wood pegs then Gabrielle offered a seat by the fire.

The blacksmith got comfortable on the fire and was warmed. She watched as the princess put a few logs into hearth, which caused the fire to snap in hunger.

Gabrielle settled down beside her friend, her legs stretched out and her hands behind her to support her upper body. "How have you been?"

"Pretty good." Andra smiled to guarantee her words. "I'm finally getting settled in."

"I was wondering how that was going." Gabrielle chuckled at Andra's extreme sigh. "Hasn’t been that bad?"

The blacksmith softly laughed. "No, not at all. My training is going well."

Gabrielle's eyebrows naturally furrowed with her thoughts. "I heard that you and I will be taking a class together after the festival."

"I've heard that too." Andra brushed back several of her wavy, dark locks. "I'm not sure what the class is… Eponin won't tell me."

The princess bit her lower lip. "Huh." She drummed her fingers behind her. "I wonder what it is."

Andra only shook her head. "How's the Academy been? Exams?"

"The exams were tough but Ephiny and I studied a lot. I think we did okay."

"You won't find out 'til you go back huh?"

Gabrielle's head bobbed a few times. "When we get back we have about… four moons of classes then we graduate."

Andra proudly smiled at the bard's future success. "I plan to go to your graduation."

The princess suddenly had a shocked expression. "Andra, you don't need to come all the way to Athens for that."

"Why would I not?" countered the older Amazon. "I wish to see you graduate."

Gabrielle let out a faint sigh. "It would mean a lot if you came."

Andra smiled at Gabrielle's acceptance. "Thank you." She then shifted some by pulled her legs in to sit cross legged. "I was wondering about something."

The Amazon Princess tilted her head, her questioning eyes locked on her friend.

"Do you know much about these… raids that go on this coming spring?"

Gabrielle lowered her head and stared at the fire. She hadn't learned much about these mysterious raids that happen during the spring and fall seasons. She'd never questioned anybody about them after deciding that some day she'd be taught about them. However from the bits and pieces she'd collected, she had an idea. "Honestly I am not sure what they are… or entail but I have some ideas."

Andra knew Gabrielle was much younger than she but she was hoping she knew something of them. It'd been just about one season for Andra now in the Nation but she knew it'd almost been four seasons for Gabrielle. "I've heard some things too."

The bard licked her lips. "I believe they have something to do with…." Gabrielle trailed off as she tried to find the right word. "With keeping the population up in the Nation."

The blacksmith chuckled at the bard's description skills. "Well I have found it slightly odd how there are no men here yet several women are pregnant."

Gabrielle couldn't help but laugh now. "I know… I was thinking the same thing when I first joined the Nation."

"I think these raids are connected to it somehow."

The bard slowly nodded. "That's what I think too."

Andra lifted a dark eyebrow at her friend. "Are you thinking the same thing?"

Gabrielle smirked and replied, "That a Nation of masked women raid a village for sex?"

The blacksmith laughed and shook her head. "Gods." She ran her hand through her locks again. "That has to be a sight."

"Well…." The princess shrugged as best as she could. "I guess it’s the only way to do it."

"Hmph." Andra smirked. "I would say since two women together won't make a child and they won't let men here."

"Men are just baby makers anyway," joked Gabrielle.

Andra laughed. "Gods."

Gabrielle's devilish smirk came over her face. "You know I've always considered myself a single-minded person."

Andra had a wicked grin and carefully listened.

"Of course if I got married I'd have to ask my husband if it was okay."

Andra roared with laughter and between her laughter she rasped, "Say… say that… to another… Amazon."

Gabrielle was laughing some too but she shook her head. "They'd hang me over the wall for it."

The blacksmith settled down. "Or you could just tell the queen."

"Ooo gods… there's no way in Hades."

Andra cleared her throat some then seriously asked, "How are things with you and Ephiny?"

The young Amazon felt a smile touch her lips. "We're doing well." Yet her expression fell. "There's just some underlining tension though."

"What's that about?"

Gabrielle shrugged.

The blacksmith poked her friend on the side. "You can tell me, Gabrielle." She gave an encouraging smile. "We're like sisters."

Gabrielle's warm smile formed at hearing herself be called a sister. "It's just that… well Ephiny and I have been together for about two seasons."

Andra only nodded but was listening very carefully.

"And Ephiny and I haven't exactly...." Gabrielle lifted her right hand and waved it around in the air. "You know."

Andra arched an eyebrow.

Gabrielle giggled at the look. "You know, Andra."

The blacksmith bit her lower lip then said, "Had sex, Gabrielle?" She enjoyed the hot flush that washed over the young woman.

"Yeah," she shyly muttered.

"Well," started the older Amazon, "do you feel ready to take that step? It is a big step."

"Ephiny seems ready."

"I didn't ask if Ephiny was."

Gabrielle's lips puckered some then she shook her head. "I don't feel ready, I think. I'm not sure why either."

"Then don't do anything, Gabrielle." Andra now shifted her body around so that she faced her friend. She smiled when Gabrielle straightened up and faced her too. "Besides that you're still young. You're only what?"

"Sixteen springs old."

"How old is Ephiny?"

The bard did a quick check in her head. "She'll be nineteen summers old."

"Ooo," murmured Andra. "I see."

Gabrielle dropped her head to one side. "What?"

"It's just that Ephiny is… in a different stage of her life, so to speak." She sensed Gabrielle's instant annoyance and she quickly gathered up Gabrielle's right hand into her own. "I'm not saying you're at different maturity levels, Gabrielle or anything. As a matter of fact, you're very mature for your age." She squeezed the small hand then released it. "Let's just say that Ephiny is at that experimental stage."

Gabrielle chuckled. "I am too."

"Yes but not as much as Ephiny." Andra then rested her elbows on her knees and lowered her chin to her hands. Her blue eyes were solely centered on Gabrielle. "I think you need to figure out why you're not ready."

The bard nodded her head but her thoughts were on the problem between her and Ephiny. She had ideas about why she wasn't ready to be with Ephiny but she didn't want to face those reasons, especially with Ephiny. "It will change everything, won't it?"

"Yes," murmured Andra, "Everything." She knew how innocent and naive the bard was and she hated the thought of her losing it. "Has Ephiny been with anybody?"

Gabrielle's eyebrows knitted tightly together. "I don't know actually. She's never talked about it."

"Ever ask?"

"No… never thought to." A faint chill of nervousness rippled down the bard's back. "I'm not sure if I want to know."

Andra patted her friend's knee. "Give it time… and don't push yourself to do anything." She then gave a warning look. "Or let Ephiny push you into anything."

"I won't," promised the young woman. Gabrielle shifted a little then said, "Do you mind if I ask you about something?"

The blacksmith's lips curled into a grin. "You can ask anything."

"I was wondering if you'd heard of the blood sister ritual?" Gabrielle became nervous as she played with the end of her skirt.

"No, I really haven't," confessed Andra. "What is it?"

"It's an Amazon ritual performed by the priestess so that two women, not of blood, can become blood sisters."

The blacksmith absorbed the information then it dawned on her what her friend might be implying. "Did you wish to perform it with somebody?"

The bard let go of her skirt and lifted her head finally. "I do but I am nervous about something."

"What's that?"

"Part of the ritual deals with telling your blood sister about your past." Gabrielle shook her head then whispered, "I don't exactly have a pretty past."

Andra could only imagine what it was that caused that much fear in her friend. She gathered up the young woman's hands into her own. "Whatever it is, it wouldn't matter anyway." She smiled at Gabrielle. "It's about who you are… not what you've done. That past can be forgiven and never control the future."

Gabrielle swallowed. "That's just it… the part about who I am."

Andra now was concerned. She squeezed the princess's hands. "What is it, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle's head dipped down and her eyes shut against her rising fears. She had to tell Andra or how would she ever be able to consider this woman her older sister. She bit into her resolve then lifted her head, her emotional green eyes appearing again. "I'm originally from Potidaea and when I was young my town was attacked by a warlord."

The blacksmith couldn't imagine where this story would go but she knew she wouldn't like it.

"My mother, sister, and I were captured by the warlord and eventually sold into slavery."

Andra straightened up with shock. "Gods… Gabrielle…."

The princess face was as dark as her eyes. "I have a master now but he's more like my grandfather. He's the one actually sending me to the Academy."

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't know."

"I know… I've wanted to tell you… I just…."

Andra pressed the palm of her hand against the bard's cheek. "It's okay." She then softly smiled. "It doesn't change anything either." Yet she paused then quietly added, "I lied… it does change something."

The bard's body was jolted by fear.

Andra ran her fingertips under Gabrielle's chin. "I'm even prouder to be your friend."

Gabrielle didn't know what to say but she quickly gathered the older woman into her arms. "Thank you," she whispered.

Andra picked out all of the emotions in Gabrielle's voice. She rubbed the bard's back then slowly let her go. When they were comfortable again, she grinned and teasingly asked, "So will you go through the blood sister ritual with me, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle was racing between all of her emotions and she laughed. She began to cry from being relieved and happy about Andra's response. She pulled the blacksmith in for another hug while saying, "Of course."

Through the rest of the evening the friends continued talking and relaying their past couple of moons. Gabrielle was happy to find out that Andra was starting to fit into the Nation. She knew how at first it all seemed overwhelming but once there's a set routine it wasn't so bad. After a few candlemarks, Andra decided it was best she left especially when she noticed how tired her young friend was. She said her goodnight with a warm hug then slipped out of the hut. It didn't take long for Gabrielle to get ready for bed and even less time to fall asleep. Despite how well she slept it just didn't seem long enough as Ephiny started banging on the door bright and early.

Gabrielle let out the largest, annoyed groan ever and threw open her hut door. "What?"

"Good morning, sunshine." Ephiny beamed a huge smile. "Time to run."

Gabrielle was about two heartbeats from slamming the door shut but she remembered her promise. She grumbled and walked into the washroom.

The Amazon strolled into the hut and closed the door. "Sleep well?" Her only response was grunt from the washroom. "Just not long enough," she muttered to nobody but herself.

The girlfriends eventually collected themselves and started their early morning run through the Nation and surrounding woods. It was a good candlemark run and within the first half, Gabrielle was sure she was going to throw up but Ephiny urged her on. Eventually the nauseas feeling subsided and Gabrielle actually felt like she could run even faster but she refrained from doing such.

After breakfast, Gabrielle and Ephiny went to seek out Councilor Tanya to see if she needed any help with the festival preparations. They soon found themselves thrown into the preparations and doing whatever the councilor needed them to do. Yet it was around Helios high when the entire Nation came to a screeching halt as the main gates opened up with a lot of yelling and hollering.

At the entrance of the village, there was the tip of a gigantic fir tree. Gabrielle had stopped her chores and came by the gate to see what the entire ruckus was about. She was in complete awe at seeing dozens of Amazons working on hauling the tree on its side using three open ended wagons. It took six pulling workhorses, eight pushing Amazons, and four directing Amazons to get the tree through the gate, through the village, and to the central location next to the queen's dais.

Gabrielle stayed along side the event. She then was so curious to how they would ever get it to stand up in what look to be a big tree stand. She was stunned even more as fourteen Amazons centered the base of the tree near the tree stand and then they lashed down ropes. Soon the tree was filling Gabrielle's vision as it rose up from the wagons and up into the air before it slid directly into the tree stand.

There was a loud cheer through the Nation while the fourteen Amazons steadied the tree with their ropes. Two other Amazons disappeared under the tree and quickly worked to tighten the tree stand around the tree's trunk. Then finally they tied several ropes on branches deep in the tree and nailed the other ends into the ground.

The fourteen Amazons, one by one, snapped their ropes free. And everybody held their breath to see if the tree would topple or not. After several heartbeats there was no movement from the tree and every spectator Amazon started cheering about the success.

The rest of the day carried on in haste as every Amazon realized that tomorrow would begin the Winter Solstice Festival. By the afternoon, Gabrielle was given the duty to have several Amazons, including herself, decorate the tree. Once Gabrielle was able to find out where the ornaments were stored, she had them carted to the tree and directed the Amazons where to hang the ornaments on the tree. The bard was quite successful with the task and it was truly her first time ever instructing more than one person on what to do. She was relieved to find that all ten of the Amazons listened to her carefully and carried out every order in earnest.

When the sun hung low in the west sky, the princess felt rather worn down yet quite proud. She stood a hundred paces back, the tree in her full view, and her hands rested on her jacket covered hips. Slowly a corky smile creased her lips at the sight of the beautifully decorated tree. She then sensed another Amazon beside her then a warm voice broke the silence.

"It looks amazing, princess." Councilor Tanya clasped the bard's upper shoulder in appreciation. "You did a nice job."

"I didn't do a thing but tell them where to place the ornaments," replied the bard.

The much older Amazon chuckled at the princess's refusal. "Yet without any guidance I can guarantee you that they would have placed all those ornaments in one spot on that tree."

Gabrielle quietly laughed and dropped her hands to her side. "Perhaps." She then took a few steps forward and called out, "Page, put that one further to the left. There's one already there just to your right, over your head."

Page stopped from hooking the ornament and dropped her head back. In fact there was the same ornament already placed not far away. She grunted at that then moved around the tree to the left. "Here?" she called out.

"Perfect," called the princess.

Councilor Tanya folded her arms over her chest and thoughtfully smiled. She knew she made the right choice in asking Gabrielle to decorate the tree. "Thank you for taking care of this, princess."

The Amazon Princess faced the councilor again. "It was my pleasure… I've enjoyed it."

"I do have another request to make of you."

Gabrielle picked out the councilor's serious tone and her own expression tightened. She shifted closer to the older Amazon then softly asked, "What is that, councilor?"

"I was wondering if perhaps you would tell a story tomorrow… during the festival."

The bard went still as the councilor's request swept through her mind. She'd truly expect anything but this and she was frozen by shock.

"Princess?" tried again the concerned councilor.

"I'm sorry." Gabrielle brushed away her astonishment by shaking her head. "I just… I wasn't expecting that."

Councilor Tanya realized that the petite, young princess was in fact frightened by the opposition to speak before many Amazons. "I believe it would be mostly young children that would come to listen."

Gabrielle sucked in her next breath then forced a grin. "I have feeling it won't just be that." Now her body trembled and she wasn't sure if it was from the cooling evening or the thought of getting up before so many people. She steadied her emotions and reminded herself that this was why she wanted to become a bard. A bard performs before an audience and Gabrielle knew once she entangled not only herself but her audience into her stories that her nervousness would stop. Finally with some conviction building up, she smiled and stated, "I would love to, councilor. Thank you for asking."

Councilor Tanya suddenly smiled happily at the princess's agreement. She grabbed the bard's closest arm, never losing her smile. "Thank you, princess. It will be a wonderful treat for the young ones."

At the thought of all the children, Gabrielle melted and her confidence even grew. "I hope so." She then saw that the decorating Amazons were finished up with the tree. "I should help them." She took a step backwards.

"I will meet with you in the dinner hut, princess."

"See you then, councilor." The bard flashed a brilliant smile, spun around, and hurried to the Amazons.

For the rest of the evening, Gabrielle found herself busy first at dinner then followed by meeting up with Councilor Tanya, who was slowly recruiting Gabrielle's help for the festival. The bard had no problem readily agreeing but she hoped she'd have time to also enjoy the festival. After dinner, Gabrielle was due to catch up with Gryta to discuss how the research and recording of the Nation's history was going thus far. She'd come to discover just how many scrolls Gryta had lined up in her room on the wood floor. That left the princess's rubbing the back of her neck and wondering what to do about it. Maybe this winter she would get a chance to ask somebody for help on building a small shelving unit to hold them.

Gabrielle made it back to her room rather late and quite weary again. She hadn't seen Ephiny except during the morning and also at dinner. She knew that she needed to rest soon because Ephiny would show up as soon as Helios began his ride across the sky. It didn't take Gabrielle long to prepare for bed, stoke the fireplace, and crawl into her cool bed. Tomorrow would be the Solstice Festival and it would be a long but exciting day for the bard.

The bard slept fitfully after being worn out by the day's activity. Her dreams were obscure but calm and when the sun kissed the eastern horizon, there was a loud knock. Gabrielle merely stirred but turning to the other side of her bed yet the knock jarred her awake the second time. She sat up quickly just as the third set of knocks came to her door. "Come in, Eph."

The curly-haired Amazon pushed the door open then slipped in so that the cool air wouldn't get into the hut. She smiled at her girlfriend, who was sitting on the edge of the bed and was between yawning and stretching. "Good morning."

The princess sleepily smiled and muddled her already knotty looking hair. She slid off the bed, went to Ephiny, placed a kiss on her cheek and murmured, "Good morning," close to her ear. Gabrielle then dragged herself into the washroom to clean up and organize her hair.

Ephiny took her usual spot on the foot of the bed and she enjoyed watching her girlfriend prepare for the run. "Sleep well?" A solemn nod from the bard. "Good dreams?" A second nodding confirmation. "Ready to run?" This time she received a shake of the blond head and it made her chuckle.

Gabrielle straightened up after lacing her boots but she still sat in her desk chair.


The princess sighed. "I think so."

Ephiny stood up and approached her girlfriend as she stood up too. She encircled Gabrielle with her strong arms and leaned in. "Happy Solstice."

Gabrielle's eyes and face suddenly lit up at the realization of today. "Happy Solstice too, Eph." She leaned in for a tender kiss.

The Amazon ended the kiss with a gentle bite to Gabrielle's lower lip. "Let's go," she whispered. At hearing Gabrielle's groaning protest, she quickly moved to the door.

The bard had her simple leathers on that exposed most of her body. When she came near the door, her bare stomach, legs, and arms were taken over by goose bumps from the nipping cold air. She pushed through it though and started her morning run with her girlfriend.

During the portion of the run that went through the village, the two young Amazons saw the beginnings of Nation stirring awake. A few select Amazons were already out and finishing the final preparations for the Solstice Festival. Gabrielle fell slightly behind her girlfriend when she became curious as to what was happening but then when she saw the gates just ahead, she hurried up.

Ephiny quickly shot a grin at the princess's curiosity. She led them out of the cracked open gates and went into the woods.

The run was only a candlemark compared to the usual candlemark and half. By the time they returned to the village everything and everybody were busy and the two Amazons were just able to squeeze past. They each went to their huts and hastily changed before joining the bustling festival.

The great Solstice Festival was one of the major highlights for the Nation, especially for the children. It seemed as if every Amazon came out of the woodworks for the event since there was absolutely no space or room to move around. In front of the Solstice tree there was a mini dais and then there was somebody dressed up in quite an unusual outfit and sitting in a heavy wood chair. Gabrielle decided to watch the event as so many children lined up at the foot of the dais to have a chance to sit and talk with the figure. The bard bit her lower lip as she tried to recall what this red and white clad figure was called then it struck her: Senticles. Now she began to really wonder who was dressed up as Senticles but it would have to wait until later.

Gabrielle now began wondering around the village to the various stands that were up. Each stand had a different game going on that somehow related to the holiday. The children could win various toys too that were all brought in from the nearby town or handmade by certain Amazons.

Then the bard finally made it to the more adult area, which was located in the sparring fields. At the fields there were several Amazons practicing for the later event of a challenge. There were different challenges depending on the Amazon's weapon of choice. Gabrielle wondered over to the stand where people could sign up and she was instantly greeted.

"Care to sign up, princess?"

The Amazon Princess chuckled and shook her hand and hand at the older Amazon. "I know I'll be beat my first time."

The Amazon softly smiled and shifted some in her chair. "You don't know 'til you try."

"No but thank you." The princess glanced at the Amazon to her right, who was signing up. She then smiled back down at the Amazon she'd been talking to. "I was curious though." At seeing the Amazon's attention on her, she continued. "How many are signed up?"

"Would you care to see the roster?" The Amazon picked up the scroll and held it out.

Gabrielle shifted around the table and read through the names that she wasn't too familiar with many of them. As she neared the bottom, she paused and recognized one particular name. "Gryta signed up."

"Yes, your historian is quite good."

The princess noted the Amazon's association of Gryta to her. She handed back the scroll. "When do the challenges start?"

The Amazon's smile widened. "Around Helios high, princess."

"Thank you." Gabrielle smiled then headed off again to keep exploring all the events. Then somebody quickly hurried up behind her and wrapped their arm around her shoulders. "Hi, Solari."

Solari smiled happily. "How are you, Gabrielle?"

"I'm great."

"How'd the run go?"

The slave chuckled and shrugged her shoulders. "It's getting easier."

Solari finally freed her arm and adjusted her long jacket again. "Still sore?"

"Not as bad," confessed Gabrielle.

"Ephiny said she was sore as anything." Solari laughed along with Gabrielle. "What'd you need to talk to me about?"

Gabrielle brightened up at her friend's reminder but then her excitement went dead just as she recalled why she wanted to talk to Solari. "I was just curious about what you may have heard."

"Wait." Solari grabbed Gabrielle's arm while coming to an abrupt stop.

Gabrielle faced her friend.

"You want to know about what rumors I've heard?" Solari's voice was low but very teasing.

The princess let out a heavy sigh then nodded. "I am worried about the queen."

Solari quickly looked around at the Amazons wondering past them. Her hand shifted down to Gabrielle's wrist and she hauled her friend off of the small street. She found an empty bench that was out of the way and sat down. "What you want to know?"

Gabrielle folded her hands in her lap. "I just noticed how the queen looked stressed. Is something going on since I've been at the Academy?"

Solari carefully considered the princess's question and concerns. "The Nation is close to a war with the centaurs."

The princess stiffened at the news. "What's happened?"

Solari shook her head. "Queen Melosa thinks that a centaur killed her sister." She stared down at her open hands in her lap. "She hasn't proved it but she's almost sure." She lifted her eyes to Gabrielle again. "If she proves it, there is no doubt that the queen and council will decide on war."

Gabrielle's right hand was tangled in her blond locks as she considered this new information. "Can't the Nation and the centaurs just agree to hand over the murderer?" At Solari's shaking head, her hand flopped down into her lap. "Why?"

"The centaurs refuse to say who let alone extricate them. They're actually claiming that it wasn't a centaur that killed Terreis."

 "What happens if the queen can't prove it was a centaur or anybody else for that matter?"

Solari's expression fell. "Then… Terreis will never be avenged." She lowered her gaze down to the ground. "The war will most likely happen still. The tension is building a lot… it hasn't been this bad in many season cycles."

"You really think the queen will attack the centaurs without the proof?"

Slowly Solari nodded her head and looked at her friend. "I wouldn't doubt it. It may take several season cycles just because she'll have to win over the council." She paused and considered a few more things then added, "The queen's mother was killed by a centaur in battle."

Gabrielle sighed. "And now Terreis." She shook her head.and chewed on her lower lip then quietly asked, "What does the Nation think about the war?"

"The Nation is split in half. Honestly...." Solari's head tilted in her thoughts. "Honestly its split by the age groups. The younger Amazons aren't really promoting the war… it seems to be the older Amazons that are pushing for it."

"Because of previous wars?"

"Exactly. They all are still seeking revenge from the past." Solari let out a huge sigh. "The scary part is if we have this war and if we survive it then the young Amazons will want revenge later."

"And the cycle never ends," murmured the princess.

"Yes," quietly agreed the now distraught Amazon.

"It has to stop," argued the bard.

Solari frowned at her friend. "Only the queen can stop it. She sets the tone through the Nation… the council can only keep her at bay. If most of the Nation is behind the queen or the council then that is the final say."

"So if the queen rallies more of the Nation behind her then she can begin the war?"

"Yes… that is why there isn't one right now because the council has half and the queen the other half."

Gabrielle breathed heavily as she took in all of the information. She never knew the system was so complex but it worked quite well since it always left the Nation empowered. "There has to be a way to stop it."

Solari held her tongue for once when she thought of the one way to stop it. She knew it wasn't the right way so she said nothing instead.

The princess shook away her thoughts and worries then sadly smiled at her friend. "Thank you for telling me."

"You're welcome." Solari clenched and unclenched her hands in her lap. "Sorry it is such bad news."

"It's okay. I just like to know what's going on." Gabrielle stood up with Solari. "I think we should just enjoy the holiday right now."

Solari now smiled brightly. "I can't argue with that."

The two friends continued their strolling through the festival grounds. They enjoyed watching some young Amazons try at the various games. It was about a candlemark before the sun was high when Ephiny caught up with the pair. Gabrielle greeted her girlfriend with a brief kiss then mentioned she was rather hungry and she got a laugh from both Amazons. The small group decided to head over to the food hut for lunch then catch the challenges afterwards.

It wasn't until after the challenges that Gabrielle was sought out by Councilor Tanya. The councilor requested Gabrielle to come to the small dais by the Solstice tree to begin her story. Gabrielle didn't hesitate to hurry to the center of the village with her friend and girlfriend trailing along side. When she arrived there, she was surprised to already see several children circling around the dais.

The councilor smiled when the princess appeared by her. "Are you ready?"

The princess only nodded.

"Follow me."

Councilor Tanya escorted the bard through the crowd of children and some older Amazons then up the small dais. She and Gabrielle faced the crowd and she rested her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. After a deep breath, she loudly announced, "Princess Gabrielle is an aspiring bard and has agreed to tell us a Solstice tale today." She smiled at the children. "Please give her your full attention." She then bowed her head at the princess and stepped down the dais. As soon as her last step brought her to the ground, she was happy to hear and see the children praise the bard.

Gabrielle licked her lips and smiled at the excited children. She took a heartbeat to clear her throat then began speaking. "Now did everybody have a chance to see Senticles today?" After seeing all the enthusiastic nods, Gabrielle chuckled and shifted closer to the edge of the dais. "Well you are very lucky to have seen Senticles and tell him what you wish for this Solstice." She grinned at seeing the children's interest peak. "You see in far away Greek Kingdom there was an orphanage full of young children, just like you, who were not so lucky." Gabrielle paused and watched all the children lean forward towards her. "In this kingdom ruled a bitter and angry king named King Silvas. King Silvas was so bitter that he didn't allow his kingdom to celebrate the Winter Solstice."

The children gasp in surprise.

A grin curled the corner of Gabrielle's lips. She realized how much she too was enjoying this. She bent forward some and held out her arms. "Whenever one of his subjects were caught celebrating Solstice he would charge them and find them guilty. The celebrating subjects would be given at least a season's cycle of hard labor. But you know what was even far worse?"

The children shook their heads together.

"Well it so happened that on Solstice day King Silvas planned to evict the children of the orphanage for not paying their moon's rent."

"What an awful king," cried out a young girl.

Gabrielle straightened up now. "He was very cruel," she agreed. "Yet there was still hope because the day before Solstice, before the eviction, a great hero showed in the town." She paused and straightened up then proudly announced, "Xena the Warrior Princess."

All the children awed at the hero's name, their eyes bigger than Helios.

Ephiny stood off to the side with her best friend. She folded her arms against her chest and carefully listened to her girlfriend weave the tale of Xena the legendary hero and her partner that stopped a cruel tyrant from destroying Solstice and saving the orphanage. Ephiny realized the entire time she was smiling because of Gabrielle's talents as a bard.

Ephiny's thoughts also wondered off to Gabrielle's concept of Xena the Warrior Princess and her partner. She'd heard other such tales and she knew they were based off of Gabrielle's best friend and Xena's loyal partner was always Gabrielle herself.  There was no mistaking it. After some time, Ephiny had come to realize that it was Gabrielle's way of keeping Xena alive and the relationship they'd harbored since children.

The only fear Ephiny ever had was that if the real Xena showed up again would she be anything like Gabrielle's heroic Xena? Something in her told her that it was highly doubtful but she would never tell Gabrielle, so long as it wasn't important.

Quickly Ephiny came out of her thoughts as Gabrielle neared the end of her story. She glanced at Solari, who was totally engrossed in the tale.

"'Tobias, now take care of these people, okay? Don't be stubborn.' And she petted the donkey, who heehawed his response very sadly. After she told Tobias that she would miss him, she continued down the road with Xena." The bard paused and considered her next lines. "The pair continued down the road a little ways but Xena stopped and said to her friend, 'That was a nice thing you did back there.' Gabrielle merely shrugged. 'What would I do with a silly, old donkey anyway?' Xena's grinned at first then teased her friend. 'Uh huh.'"

The bard licked her lips then moved across the dais some before continued her story. "Gabrielle just shrugged again before replying, ' They needed him more than me. Besides, they seemed pretty nice. After all, it is Solstice.' Xena had moved closer to her beautiful, golden horse and pulled out something that was wrapped in cloth. 'That's right… Happy Solstice.' She held out the item to Gabrielle. Gabrielle carefully unwrapped the item but sadly smiled at her friend. 'I don't have a gift for you.' Gabrielle continued to stare down at the small gift, a sheep carved out of wood. The warrior clasped Gabrielle's shoulder to get her attention then whispered, 'Gabrielle, you are a gift.'"

Ephiny was jarred out of the story when Gabrielle described the gift as being a wooden sheep. Her memories quickly raced back to the wood sheep that sat back at Gabrielle's desk in the Academy. It was the same wooden sheep that Gabrielle had discovered in the remains of her old home in Potidaea along side Lila's Lammy. Now she began to summarize there was some connection and she'd have to ask Gabrielle later.

The children continued to praise the Amazon Princess and thank her for the story. Gabrielle warmly received each girl's thank you and some of them even hugged her. After the children finished, she slowly made her way to Ephiny and Solari with a smile on her face.

Ephiny enjoyed the warm glow that surrounded the bard. She'd never thought she'd ever see Gabrielle as beautiful as she did in that moment.

"Beautiful story, Gabrielle."

The princess thanked Solari.

"The Academy has paid off," gently teased Ephiny but she hugged her girlfriend while whispering, "I'm so proud of you."

Gabrielle pulled back with a smile but she release Ephiny when Councilor Tanya approached them. She warmly received the councilor's words of praise and thankfulness. Then the young group of Amazons continued on their day with the festival and trying out some of the games even.

By the time it became dark, the entire Nation was cramped into the food hut and enjoying a very rare feast. The kitchen had put together a usual meal that consisted of wild goose, olives covered in a special cheese and oil sauce, a light salad mixed with grapes and nuts, Gabrielle's favorite nutbread, and then for desert was the famous Solstice pudding. When the dinner was finished, the mothers took their worn children to their huts and prepared them for bed. It wasn't long though before the late night Solstice Festival went into full swing with the finest wine and leftover pudding.

The Winter Solstice Festival turned out to be just as popular as it always did. The children thoroughly enjoyed every amusement as much as the older Amazons. Gabrielle was included in that list of Amazons that now adored the festival. She especially loved the dancing later that night because for once she could dance with the group and nobody would remember from being so drunk.

After the festival ended the next day, it wasn't long before winter took full control and light, gentle flakes glided down from the sky about seven days later. During the day they never stuck to the ground but by that night the flakes collected on top of one another until they were even with most Amazons' ankles. While some Amazons loved the snow others were complaining about the mess but Gabrielle was quite content by the peacefulness of winter.

The princess had been spending training time with Master Eponin and Andra but today she and Andra were given off. It was a rather important day though as Andra and Gabrielle quietly stood before the priestess in Artemis's temple.

"Gabrielle, Andra...." The priestess had the two Amazon's full attention. "You will become blood sisters before Artemis here in her temple. You must remain in each other's company for one day. The time you spend together is a time to learn of each other… your pasts, your dreams… your fears…." Narkissa held up her hands as she stood between the two younger Amazons. "Your love." She watched as Gabrielle and Andra nodded their heads. "Your hands, please."

Gabrielle was nervous about everything but she held up her right hand. Andra was to her right so Andra lifted her left hand.

Priestess Narkissa materialized a golden dagger from under her robe. "I will now cut your skin so that your blood may be free to intertwine." She first took the princess's hand and whispered, "Cup your hand." Once Gabrielle followed her instruction, she brought the side of the blade down and in lightening speed, she cut Gabrielle's palm.

The bard gritted her teeth at the stinging sensation, she also resisted from clenching up her hand.

The priestess turned Andra, who already had her hand cup. She quickly repeated the process. She hastily twisted around to the altar behind her and placed the dagger on top of a strip of red silk. Narkissa then grabbed the bleeding hands and brought the blacksmith's palm down on Gabrielle's. After the Amazons linked hands together, Narkissa picked up the dagger and also the silk sash. She wiped the golden dagger clean on the silk cloth, hid it back in her robe, and brought the silk strip over the linked hands.

"Now your blood is Andra's," whispered the priestess to the princess. Her eyes flickered to Andra, "Your blood is Gabrielle's." She wrapped the sash around the linked hands then tied it at the top. "Let us now pray to Artemis for her blessing." With that she held up her hands, turned around, and dropped her head back until her eyes met those of the green emerald eyes of the Artemis statue. "Artemis, I bow before you as your priestess." She began to kneel down to the hunter green pillow.

Together Andra and Gabrielle held out their hands and link hands to the statue while calling out, "Artemis, I bow before you as your Amazon." The Amazons knelt down behind the priestess until their knees met pillows as well. They held their linked hands tightly while letting their heads remained bowed before Artemis.

Priestess Narkissa sucked in a deep breath then finally spoke out. "Artemis, two of your Amazons have come to me to be forever bound as blood sisters. Princess Gabrielle and Andra wish to become blood sisters so we ask for your blessing. If you deny these two as sisters then strike."

Gabrielle actually held her breath, wondering if something like that could ever happen or ever has in the past. She heard and saw nothing, which made her relax again.

Andra could sense the tension in the princess but she held her tongue but she did grin a little.

 The priestess quietly went into a chant while the two Amazons remained silent and their heads down. When Narkissa finished her gentle song, she remained silent and still for quarter of a candlemark. Finally she rose up and faced the two women, her hands lifting up in acknowledgement for them to stand.

The blacksmith and Gabrielle climbed to their feet and held out their linked hands.

The priestess remained emotionless as if she were almost possessed. She gingerly undid the silk binding but whispered, "Do not let go." She removed her dagger once again from her dark green robe and carefully cut the long sash into two pieces. "Andra."

The blacksmith released Gabrielle's hand finally and held hers out but palm up.

Narkissa easily tied one piece of the sash across Andra's hand to stop the bleeding. She then repeated the process with Gabrielle. Once her hands were at her sides again like the Amazons, she softly spoke, "Andra and Gabrielle, you are now blood sisters."

The bard's face spread into a wide smile and she revealed it to Andra.

Andra silently chuckled.

"Now sisters, you shall retire to a room for the day until tomorrow at this time. You will remain there and share time together. I will stop in on occasion to bring you food and drink. Understood?"

"Yes, priestess," replied the princess.

"Very well." The priestess turned and beckoned them to follow her through a side door. She led them down a long corridor that was lined with doors. She finally came to a stop before one door and pushed the heavy wood door open. "In here."

The sisters slipped past the priestess and were dazzled by the large room. Gabrielle was rather surprise that the Nation would provide such a luxury to the temple. Then she decided that it was the temple that was very much the heart of the Amazon Nation.

"If you require anything, please just call on me." Priestess Narkissa stood in the doorway.

Gabrielle faced the old priestess and smiled at her. "Thank you, priestess."

Suddenly Narkissa's worn expression broke with a tender smile. "My pleasure, princess." She paused while grabbing the door handle. "I believe my daughter will stop by."

"We'd like that," agreed the bard.

"Thank you too, priestess," pitched in Andra. "I know this means a lot to us both."

Gabrielle nodded her agreement.

The priestess now recalled one of the many reasons why she decided to take on the priestess-hood so many season cycles ago. She bowed her head then promise, "I will stop in soon. Enjoy what the temple offers." With that, she quietly close the door and glided down the hallway.

Gabrielle had her head hung down and she intently studied her wrapped up hand. She flexed it a few times.

Andra silently took a chair by the window and curious stared at her new sister. "What do you think?"

The bar d chuckled as her hand fell back to her side. "I can't believe it. I'm so excited though."

The blacksmith grinned at her sister's enthusiasm.

Gabrielle broke her eye contact with her sister and now studied the room. It was quite large she'd decided as soon as she first entered- probably the size of two huts. Off to her right were two beds and a table between them where a large, thick candle rested. When she gazed off to her left there was an entrance into another room.

Slowly the bard wondered over to the doorway and the light streaming into this room from the ceiling above revealed a large bathing tub. "Gods," she murmured.

Andra pulled up to her feet and curiously peered into the room. "Wow. That's a bath."

Gabrielle had a brief grin but she stepped up to the empty bath. "I wonder if the priestess will fill it for us?"

Andra laughed as she literally took Gabrielle's meaning. "I'm sure Priestess Narkissa will be happy to haul all the water into here."

The slave spun around and quickly slapped her sister on the stomach. "You know what I meant." She then walked around the tub and she noted a wrack off to the right wall that held towels. She then went to the edge of the tub and peered into it. Suddenly her face wrinkled up with confusion. "What is that?"

The blacksmith shifted to the tub. "That?"

"Yeah," answered Gabrielle to the pointing blacksmith.

Andra had her head tilted to one side in confusion too. She brushed back a lock of stray curly hair then she reached forward as far as she could.

Gabrielle giggled when short Andra couldn't reach the interesting wood plug in the middle of the tub.

Andra glared at her sister with dark, hooded blue eyes. "Funny."

The bard covered her mouth to contain her laughter.

The blacksmith decided to solve the problem by just hopping into it. She pulled the wood plug and it dawned on her now. "Ooooo," she murmured. She grinned up at Gabrielle. "It’s a drain. I can sort of make out the pipe that's connect to it."


Andra's lips crease together as she thought of another explanation. "Like a tube."

The bard brightened at now understanding. "Well that's easier than bucketing it out."

"Can only imagine where it drains to," she muttered. Andra inserted the plug again but as she was prepared to hop out again, she spotted something else on the wall of the tub. "What is…."

Gabrielle shifted some and saw what Andra was questioning next. "You might not want to-" She was suddenly cut off by Andra's yelling.

"Hera's tits!" The blacksmith's wet hands frantically worked to plug the hot, burning water. She hissed in pain against the burning water yet she managed to plug it in time. "By the gods," she growled while flapping her hands to dry them. She twisted her head around and flashed her sister a dark warning look. "Don't even say it."

The princess was biting her lower lip so hard to stop her laughs. She cleared her throat then carefully offered, "You might want to unplug the drain to let out the water."

Andra narrowed her eyes at Gabrielle but she took the suggestion. Once the water was out, she hopped out of the tub. "Well I guess that answers your earlier question."

The bard was perplexed.

"The priestess won't be bringing us hot water."

Gabrielle came around to the other side. She made her way back into the main bedroom. For some reason, she had her eyes up and something on the ceiling made her stop.

Andra had been drying her hands on one of the hand towels by the washbasin in the bathing room. She came out and lifted her gaze when she saw the awed bard. "Sweet… Artemis."

Beautifully painted on the ceiling was the very same tree that was depicted on the doors of the temple. The tree's branches reached up to the skies where there was the depiction of Artemis and her green eyes watching over her Amazons that were worshipping her from below on the ground. The branches that were the longest designed a circle and they bent around until they met the roots that spread below ground. The central roots spread out far and deep to show how well rooted the tree was. The roots were so strong that they extended all the way into the Amazon Land of the Dead where brave, loyal Amazons rested but still worshipped their goddess.

"I've never seen anything… like this," breathed the astonished bard. She thought for a moment she could remain there for candlemarks just studying the stunning artwork. As she memorized the fresco piece by piece she couldn't help going back to Artemis's vibrant green eyes. She was almost positive if she stared long enough, she could pick out an even smaller image of a forest in the goddess's eyes.

Andra lightly clasped her sister's shoulder and whispered, "Before I just thought I was lucky to be an Amazon."

The princess tore her attention away from the fresco and looked to her sister.

"Now I realize I am honored to be an Amazon," proudly whispered the blacksmith.

Together the Amazons gazed upon the fresco and admired its glorious beauty for some time. It seemed to touch deep into their hearts and lift their spirits higher than any tales could about Artemis and the Amazons. This was exactly where these two women were meant to be and it'd been fated. So maybe it was just a little bit more than Gabrielle and Andra being in the right place at the right time.

When the Amazons broke away from the fresco, they began talking for several candlemarks. They did as they were instructed by the priestess; each sharing their stories from start to current. Gabrielle was moved just as much as Andra was by her sister's story. Andra could feel every emotion and see every event that her sister described. And Gabrielle envisioned each place that Andra traveled and cried for each fear or her heart fluttered with Andra's happiest moments.

It wasn't until just at sunset when there was a knock at the door. Maired stood before the two Amazons, her right hand with a tray of food and wine while in her other hand was a bag dangling. She only spoke for a brief moment before she wished them goodnight and promised to see them in the morning. After she was gone, the Amazons found sleepwear in the leather satchel for them but first they decided to eat.

The new sisters spent the rest of the night talking and sharing. They laughed at times and other times they cried. It was the rarest day for them both and the memories they created with each other were burned forever in their mind. Gabrielle couldn't have been happier that she spoke to Andra about becoming her sister. By the next day when they were allowed to leave, she knew she'd made the right decision in asking Andra for her sisterhood.

Two days after the blood sister ritual, the sisters found themselves back in Eponin's capable hands. The weapons master continued her rigorous training with the pair. Her hopes were that by the time the princess went back to the Academy that Andra would be trained enough to join the regularly training Amazons. She disliked having Andra separated from the rest of the students but she knew it was necessary until Andra learned enough. Yet it still isolated Andra from the rest and Eponin wasn't too fond of that idea.

It was the seventh day since the two Amazons became blood sisters and it was nearing sunset already just as Eponin ended the training. However Eponin didn't dismiss the pair and ordered them to follow her off the sparring field. She came to a stop by a bench and gently ordered, "Sit down."

The blacksmith and princess took a seat on the bench.

Andra sheathed her sword behind her back.

Gabrielle was toying with her staff but her focus was fully on her mentor.

Eponin was quiet and pacing, which never meant well. Finally she came to a stop before the two green Amazons. For a heartbeat she almost seemed to glow with fire from the setting sun behind her. Her long, dark wool jacket fluttered in the winter breeze but it settled around her body. Her hard molded facial features spoke volumes. "In two days…." She folded her arms across her chest. "You two will be tested."

The bard licked her chap lips then posed the question that was between her and Andra. "What is the test?"

Eponin's serious expression broke apart by a grin. "It is a survival test."

It quickly dawned on Andra first. "From the lectures?"

Now it struck Gabrielle and she breathed heavy, which developed a fine mist in the air. "You mean wilderness survival, Eponin?"

"Yes." The weapons master read both Amazons' faces before continuing. "It is a part of every Amazon's training. An Amazon is required to know how to survive in the wilderness with nothing but their weapons. You've heard me lecturing about the survival techniques for the past five days." Her hard expression returned. "Within two days you both will be prepared for the test… just like every Amazon."

"What does this test… entail exactly?" spoke up Andra.

The weapons master nodded at the blacksmith's question. "You both must go out into the Amazon woods but remain within the borders so that patrol can keep an eye on you. You will be required to stay out there for two nights and on the third day you may return. You will be allowed your weapons and a pack that will have your bedroll, waterskins, as well as furs."

"What weapons are we allowed to take?" inquired the bard.

Eponin held out a hand to Gabrielle as she answered. "You can take your staff, a sword, and dagger. Whatever you feel you can carry or you may need." She folded her hand back against her chest. "You will be required to hunt for your food, start a fire, cook your meal, and monitor your surroundings."

"What about anything extra?" Andra quickly thought of an example. "Could Gabrielle take her scrolls?"

The bard curiously studied her teacher but when she shook her head, Gabrielle inwardly sighed.

"This is a time of reflection as well," stated the weapons master. "Out there…." She pointed to the Amazon woods far beyond the walls of the Nation. "You will be one with Artemis and you will be dependent upon her. Only the Amazon that does not give herself to Artemis during this test is the one that returns to the Nation before the third day."

Gabrielle chewed on her lower lip and she nervously fiddled with her staff still; it rolled between her sweaty palms. "Eponin, I know you told Andra and me about how you can start fires using two tree branches but will you actually show us?"

"Yes." Eponin faintly smiled at the bard's concern. "I know I've only told you about certain skills and techniques, which require more hands on examples. These next two days I will show you how to build fires, make the fire pit, what wood to look for so its smokeless, how to skin your kill, how to monitor your camp's perimeter, and so on." She paused and noted that Gabrielle seemed more nervous compared to Andra so she did her best to reassure her. "This isn't has hard as it seems. Many Amazons have thoroughly enjoyed this test just because they had some time alone, to reflect, as well as learn very important skills."

Gabrielle softly smiled at the thought of actually putting the techniques to work.

"We'll start practicing tomorrow when Helios awakens." Eponin lowered her arms to her side finally. "Good work at training today. I think we're finished."

The sisters stood up and together the group made their way back to the village but Eponin broke away. She had work to do in her office hut before she could head in for dinner. For several heartbeats the sisters were quiet as they walked across the darkening Nation. Andra though surprise Gabrielle by walking closer and wrapped her arm around the princess's shoulders.

"You'll do fine."

The bard's nose crinkled up. Her body continued to flow with her staff at her side. "I don't know… I don't like the idea of hunting and…." Her nose wrinkled even tighter as her colorful eyes peered up.

Andra chuckled and she patted Gabrielle's back. "Skinning it?"

"Yeeah," drew out Gabrielle.

"Well you need to eat to survive," reminded the blacksmith, "and you're not wasting."

Slowly the bard moved her head in agreement. She released a hefty sigh then she noted the dinner hut shaping just ahead. "Well I guess I better enjoy these next few meals in the hut."

Andra chuckled despite her concern about her younger sister. She knew once Eponin demonstrated everything these next two days it wouldn't be so bad.

And to Eponin's word, she spent the next two days preparing the Amazons how to survive on their own in the wild with minimal supplies. The weapons master noticed that Andra seemed to pick up on things much faster than Gabrielle. She figured it was due to the fact that Andra may have been shown by her father in the past from all the traveling they'd done. She knew that Gabrielle was a mix of a village girl and a slave, neither of which required survival skills. She was please though that when Gabrielle did learn something she remembered it very well. The princess also had a natural tendency to always question Eponin until she felt she fully understood something. Despite Gabrielle's constant questions were frustrating to Eponin at times she also appreciate it because she knew that meant Gabrielle would always remain open minded. It also meant that Eponin would grow very patient.

By the third morning since the announcement of the upcoming test, the two sisters found themselves being escorted to Master Eponin's office by Ephiny. Gabrielle walked in the middle with Andra to her right and Ephiny to her left. She sensed the full support of her girlfriend even though they hadn't been able to spend much time together recently. Ephiny was far too busy with her training classes as well.

"You ready for this, sister?" lightly bantered Andra.

The princess tossed a glare at the blacksmith. "More than you," she teased.

Andra laughed then briefly touched the small of Gabrielle's wool covered back. "We will see."

The bard understood the teasing challenge from her sister. "You'll be back in the Nation before me."

The blacksmith snorted.

Ephiny carefully watched the exchange, a grin on her face.

"And you'll be in the bathing hut as soon as we get back."

Gabrielle heartedly laughed and agreed.

"You feel ready?" questioned Ephiny.

The bard's attention switched to her girlfriend. "I think so. Eponin taught us a lot."

"She's quite knowledgeable." Ephiny folded her arms against her chest in hopes to stop the chill in her body. "Just make sure to get a fire built first."

"Gods. I know." Gabrielle shivered at the unspoken cold.

Shortly the group entered the Eponin's office to find her bustling over some scrolls. She finished up her current scroll then put her quill away. She leaned back in her chair and studied the Amazons. "Ready?"

Andra and Gabrielle exchanged looks then nodded to the weapon's master.

"Excellent." Eponin stood up and came around her desk. "How are you, Ephiny?"

The young Amazon smiled while brushing back some loose, curly locks. "Great. You, sister?"

"Well." Eponin flashed a smile then went to a corner of her office to pick up two leather packs. "These are yours." She held out one to Gabrielle then the other to Andra. "The weapons you requested are in there."

Gabrielle arched an eyebrow at her teacher. "How many daggers?"

"Six… as requested." Eponin mirrored back Gabrielle's grin. She then went and picked up a bow and filled quiver. "And yours." She held out the weapons to Andra.

The blacksmith gratefully took the weapons that she planned to use for hunting.

Gabrielle had decided on daggers to use for hunting. She just didn't trust herself with a bow and arrows yet. However she was quite efficient with daggers and she'd surprised Eponin and Andra with her ability with them. Neither of them expected her to be so quick and aim so perfectly with them. She hadn't quite expected it either but she attributed it to her seasons old lessons from Xena.

Quickly the group left the office hut and Eponin lead them to the center of the Nation. She then stopped and faced Andra and Gabrielle. "You two will be split up as I told you but Andra will be going through the north gate."

"I'm on the south side," decided Gabrielle aloud.

Eponin slowly nodded. "Ephiny, will you escort Andra to the north gate. I'll take Gabrielle to the south."

Ephiny understood her sister's silent implications. She faced her girlfriend and enveloped her in a long hug. She kissed Gabrielle softly then whispered, "Be safe. You'll do fine." She forced herself to move away then signaled the blacksmith to follow her.

The princess remained still aside from leaning against her staff and watching Ephiny walk away with her sister. She sighed and rested her eyes on the weapons master.


Gabrielle straightened up, adjusted her pack, and started the trek to the gates.

"Remember everything I taught you," reminded the weapons master.

"I will," promised Gabrielle.

Eponin softly smiled. "You'll do fine out there."

"I know I will." Gabrielle's corky grin shaped her soft expression. "I am actually excited."

Eponin's body loosened at hearing the news. "I am glad." She gently touched the princess's mid back as they arrived at the sealed south gates. She came to a stop.

Gabrielle stopped too and faced her mentor. "It'll give me time to think of some stories."

Eponin chuckled at the bard. "Good. See that you be safe. If you get into any serious trouble don't hesitate to find help." She crossed her arms. "This isn't a test of stupidity."

Gabrielle was somewhat amused but she also took Eponin's words seriously. She touched her friend's closest arm and promised, "I will."

Eponin nodded, uncrossed her arms, and held out her left arm to the open but guarded side doors of the wall. "I will see you on the third day, princess." Her head bowed in respect.

Gabrielle looked from her mentor to the guards in front of the small door. She straightened herself out then walked towards the door.

Master Eponin lifted her head and proudly watched the Amazon Princess walk through the door without another look or word. She waited for some time until Gabrielle dissolved into the thick woods far beyond the gates. She let out a long sigh then exchanged formal nods with the gate guards before leaving for her office.

Princess Gabrielle began her journey through the dense Amazon woods. She gazed about her surroundings and enjoyed how everything was well lit since there were no leaves to stop the sunshine. The thin layer of snow however was rather bright as it reflected the light. She decided to make her first stop to the Great Oak and then she'd already picked out a spot for the next two days.

It was within a half of a candlemark when Gabrielle found the Great Oak. She approached it slowly and with her free hand, she touched it. With her head dropped back, she gazed up and up to the highest branches that seemed to touch the skies. She then kissed the tip of her fingers and pressed the kiss into the tree's trunk. After sending a prayer out, she continued on her way to the camp area she had in mind.

It took another half of a candlemark before Gabrielle found her campsite. It was an area nearby the canyons that she often climbed or ran up when she was exercising or looking for a place of solitude. There was also a nearby stream that was only partially frozen by a thin sliver of ice on top. The stream ran through the canyon pass and ended in a pool on the edge of the Amazon woods.

The princess debated whether to make camp now or later. Well she figured she had plenty of time just yet so she decided to carefully make her way up the canyon pass to the top. The pathway hadn't been touched since the snowfall, the snowy path completely untouched. Gabrielle made sure to take care so that she wouldn't slide or fall so the trek up took a little longer than normal. When she finally came to the top, she went to her usual spot that overlooked the entire Nation.

Her vibrant green eyes rested on the beautiful Solstice fir tree that stood in the center of the village. It made her chuckle at the memories of the amazing festival. She sighed while leaning against her staff. Gradually a smile touched her lips as her thoughts wondered to the first time she ever came up here on the canyon ledge. She was stunned by how many changes that she'd seen in herself these past seasons. There were still plenty left to go.

After some unknown time, Gabrielle went back down the pathway and went back to her originally intended campsite. She scanned the white land and spotted what she was most concerned about finding. It was a large rock that would serve an important purpose later.

The bard found a nearby tree and she shook the branch liberally until all the snow flopped off. She swung her pack off and hung it on the branch to keep it dry. She then faced the rock that would become her arms and legs future frustration. She licked her slightly chapped lips, huffed while rubbing her hands, and she went to the frozen rock.

The princess gripped the cold rock as best as she could and with all her strength, she shoved the large rock forward. It didn't take her too long to move the rock and reveal perfectly dry ground underneath. She then stood in the center of the brown earth and carefully kicked more snow out of the way. Next she began kicking some of the dirt out of the way so that it was fresh.

"Now for the wood," spoke the bard aloud. She scanned the area and knew she'd need to go into the woods for it. She first went to her back and grabbed three of her daggers for safety. After she tucked them into certain hiding spots with her long jacket, she placed her staff against the tree that her pack hung from. She went into the woods, her boots crunching the snow as she went.

It took a little less than a candlemark for Gabrielle to find enough fire wood. She went back to camp with an armload and dropped it nearby the formed fire pit. She meticulously picked out three pieces of branches meant for a certain fate later. She organized the wood into the fire then she hastily went to the edge of the woods and dug through the snow. There she found her source of flint for the fire. She put the leaves on that same rock from earlier but made sure it wasn't snow covered. She realized it'd take some time for the leaves to dry so she busied herself.

She first discovered a snow covered log close by so she hastily brushed the snow off so it would also dry before sunset. She then worked on removing more snow by closer to the fire so that she could later put her bedroll and furs there.

Finally she went back to the now drying log with her three branches. With two branches on the ground and one in her lap, Gabrielle revealed a dagger. She easily began stripping down the branch, which she'd recently cut from a tree. This branch would be very important later when she would need a skewer for her dinner. The other two dry branches would be cut down to size to help start the fire later.

Around mid-afternoon, Gabrielle found herself kneeling beside the fire pit and rigorously trying to bring life to a fire. She huffed when the spinning of her small piece of wood didn't ignite anything. She blew with frustration up at her bangs then went back to trying.

The princess was growing a little annoyed that she couldn't get the fire started. Many times Eponin had shown her and eventually she caught on then from that point on she always had it. This though seemed different. There was something missing.

"Gods," growled the angry bard. She forcefully yanked the little piece of wood and her branch out then studied them. She'd had a few sparks earlier but the leaves weren't catching them enough. She slipped the wood back underneath the piled wood and tried again. This time though, she leaned forward and tried gently blowing.

She knew not to blow too hard or else it wouldn't work at all. She spun the wood between her palms rapidly and when the sparks began jumping at the leaves, she carefully breathed on them.

The sparks grew stronger and hungrily ate at the leaves piled up.

Gabrielle grinned when she realized her plan was working. "Thank the gods." She pulled back her hands quickly when the sparks became flames and quickly ate the dried branches. She stood up and stretched her sore legs from squatting so long but she was happy it worked. It wasn't long before the content bard was placing pieces of actually firewood onto the fire. Once she decided it was safe to leave the fire, she went to her pack and retrieved her other daggers. It was time to find dinner.

It was about a candlemark and half before the sun would set and Gabrielle was tucked behind some snow covered brush. Her eyes were locked on the bunny that was feasting on a patch of revealed green grass. A patch of green grass that Gabrielle had conveniently uncovered just for this reason.

The bard remained crouched behind the brush, her breathing somewhat ragged because of her thoughts. She knew she had to kill this rabbit if she planned to eat tonight but Hades if she liked the idea. She ate rabbit fairly often actually but tonight not only was she planning to eat it but watch it die, by her hands.

Gabrielle's inner turmoil was silenced though by her growling stomach. She sighed, silently reached into her jacket, and removed three daggers. She held two of them in her left while she held the third by its tip. All she had to do was carefully peer around the edge of the bush and throw it at her mark. It was so simple.

She knew she could do this, she reminded herself. She took a steady breath and prayed to Artemis that her aim would be true. She snuck around the brush with her dagger at the ready then with a silent growl she threw the dagger.

The rabbit sensed the immense pain before it all quickly stopped. It remained on its side with its blood slowly draining out onto the green grass.

The princess tucked her daggers away and stared at the dead animal. Her eyes suddenly stung and she knew she hated this next part more than anything else. She knelt down by the rabbit and picked it up but carefully removed her dagger first. She wiped the dagger clean in the snow yet she knew shortly it would only be bloody again.

Gabrielle tried to will her emotions to stop but she couldn't help it. She had to skin the animal if she planned to cook it and eat it. She bit her lower lip hard while she carefully began the process of removing the skin. Eponin had shown her several times where to start and how to do it without bruising anything. She also showed Gabrielle the difference between meat and fat so that she could remove as much as she could. Then there were the organs to deal with.

Gabrielle finally had all the skin off the animal and it was fairly clean. She'd been trying so hard not to get upset but yet her cheeks were stained by tears and her lower lip bitten too hard. Finally she stood up with her catch, bloody hands, and a bloody dagger. When she returned to camp, she quickly skewered the rabbit through the sharp branch she'd made. The bard then placed it over the fire using her makeshift spit unit.

Hastily she cleaned her hands and dagger with one of the waterskins before returning back to the fire. She felt more settled now that everything was clean and the rabbit looked more like food than an animal. She sat on the dried log and watch the food cook for some time. She also was happy to see that because of the heat from the fire, the spot for her bedroll was drying. Just before sunset she planned to put her bedroll down with her furs.

Gabrielle peered down at her hands and flexed them. She wished she had her scrolls and quill with her so that she could write. She also knew too that she was rather exhausted and tonight's sleep would come easy. She wondered about what she would do tomorrow.

After the needed amount of cooking time and rotating the rabbit, the food was ready for eating. Gabrielle also found it was rather dark with the exception of red and orange flooding the western sky. She picked up the rabbit skewer and sat down on the log. When she tried the meat, her stomach growled very happily.

"Mmmm… this is pretty good," she commented to herself. "A little gamey though." She shrugged but continued ripping pieces of meat free to munch on. It wasn't long before she was full but there was still some left so she decided to set it aside. The skewer was run into the ground close to the fire so that the meat would remain warm.

Finally feeling worn, the bard collected her bedroll and furs from the satchel and brought them to their ground by the fire. She shivered when the warm fire chased the cold away from her. She was relieved that the camp fire managed to keep her so warm; she'd half expected it not to.

With her staff in a hand's shot along with daggers, the slave sat down on her bedroll and furs and worked on getting her boots off. When she had them off she felt somewhat chilled but luckily the special wool socks on her feet still kept them toasty. She crawled under the furs and was surprised that the bedroll was definitely dry.

The weapons master had explained that the bedroll that her and Andra were using were special. Gabrielle found herself asking how they were unique and Eponin showed them how the bedrolls, on the bottom, were coated with a waxy material to resist from soaking any water. The princess was dazzled by the idea and was right now very grateful for it.

Gabrielle sighed happily and snuggled into her furs. She rested on her back and stared directly up to the twinkling stars. She smiled at the stars that made her think back to her days with Xena. The stars were one of her constant reminders of her best friend.

The bard drummed her stomach lightly and whispered, "I wonder where you are, Xena." Her eyes stung against her wondering thoughts but she held control. It'd been too many seasons for her to continue crying about the past or even somebody that may be long gone. Yet Xena's shadow seemed to follow her every step no matter what.

Slowly the princess transitioned into her dreamscape. Her dreams were calm and didn't reveal any dangers. When the quarter moon reached the height of its peak, there went an unusual danger in the camp.

Gabrielle stirred when there was a gently ripping noise. Her mind woke first before her body and her mind quickly informed her hands to grab her staff as her hips lifted her up. Her confused eyes rested on the subject that'd awaken her.

On the other side of the fire stood a very tense but wild wolf, his neck stretched out and his teeth tangled in the rabbit meat that dangled from the skewer. His eyes though were locked on the small petite human on the other side of the fire after being caught in the act of stealing her meat.

Gabrielle sucked in a breath and held a staring contest with the wolf. She carefully observed him and she was absolutely awed by his beauty. His fur reflected the yellow and orange fire against is pure white coat. He would have blended in with the snow perfectly if it wasn't for the fire mirroring of his coat. And as Gabrielle tried to quickly read into his eyes she could pick out fear from him, which surprised her.

The wolf released the meat and recoiled his neck. He sensed the need to flee yet he only took one step back.

The Amazon Princess acted quickly by getting to her feet, her staff defensively positioned.

The wolf reacted by hastily running several paces away to stand next to the log. He faced the human again though despite his sensed told him to run.

"Wait," hastily ordered Gabrielle. She held up a free hand in a halting motion. She rammed her feet into her boots and ignored lacing them up. She started around the fire.

The wolf crouched some, his fur rearing up on his back, and his teeth flashing the fire.

Gabrielle came to a quick stop. "Wooo." She held up her hands but the staff still in her right hand.

The wolf now started to growl, his tail at attention.

Gabrielle glanced at her staff and realized the problem. "Hades," she muttered. She regretted not grabbing a dagger for extra safety but maybe she could work this out. "Okay… wait." She knelt down very slowly and lowered her staff into the disturbed snow then held up her free hands. "Its okay, see?"

The wolf did seem to understand, his teeth hidden again, his growl ended, and he wasn’t hunched forward.

"You hungry huh?" The bard scooted closer to the remaining rabbit and pulled the skewer from the ground. She held it out towards the white wolf in hopes it'd keep his attention. "You want some?"

The wolf looked between the rabbit to the human holding it. His eyes were narrow in distrust but he was very hungry. Earlier he'd found the fur and organs of a rabbit then sniffed down its remains to here. He unconsciously licked his lips with his long tongue.

Gabrielle slightly grinned. "Come on." She easily pulled free a piece of meat and held it towards him. She noticed he wasn't about to budge so she gave the meat a good toss.

The rabbit meat landed about two paces away from the wolf or rather two paces closers to the human for the wolf.

The white wolf took one step forward but his eyes remained on the human. He carefully took the last step then stretched out his neck to snatch the meat. He happily chewed on it then swallowed it.

"Good huh?" The Amazon smiled then ripped another piece. She threw it at him and it landed right at his feet.

The white wolf scooped up the meat. He then rested his eyes back on the human. Maybe if he stayed right here, she would just keep feeding him anyway. The human didn't feel as much as a threat as before not that she didn't have that long branch in her hands. In the past he'd seen similar humans like her in this area but he always stayed clear.

The Amazon ripped a large scrap then threw it to him.

This time the wolf was ready and he jumped up some to catch it in his mouth neatly.

Gabrielle responded by giggling.

The wolf remained still when the human made a funny noise from his actions. He stood still and meat hanging from his front teeth. He tilted his head at her some. He was confused by her soft expression.

The slave covered her mouth with her freehand to silence herself.

The animal ate his meat then waited for more food.

Gabrielle figured she only had so much rabbit left and so much of a chance to get this wolf to trust her. The easiest way to her heart was through her stomach and she figured this wolf was no different. She pulled another tidbit free and threw it but made sure it wasn't as far.

The wolf lowered his eyes to the morsel that was now two more paces forward, closer to the human. His nimble steps brought him closer since he couldn't resist eating. He picked up the meat but soon as he ate it another piece came at him. He chewed it too but the third piece was thrown two more steps ahead.

Gabrielle held her breath because she wondered if the wolf would come. The proximate would be very close to her.

The white wolf took one step and tried to stretch his neck out to grab it but he couldn't. He straightened up again and stared at the human that could easily attack him if he went any closer.

Gabrielle kept her eyes on him. She tried to remain calm and not displaying any fear.

The wolf watched her eyes and his earlier prickled fur had rested back down. He stretched out his front right paw and went forward gradually. He gingerly picked up the rabbit piece with his tongue and front teeth.

The princess happily took in the fact that he trusted her. She slowly stretched the skewer out sidelong so that he had easy access to the remains of the rabbit.

The wolf sniffed the food then nibbled on some. After several heartbeats between the two strangers, the wolf started taking bites of the meat while Gabrielle merely watched him eat. She still held the skewer while her left hand rested on her left knee.

"Hi," whispered Gabrielle to the eating wolf. "I'm Gabrielle."

The wolf kept eating but his eyes studied the human.

"You must be very hungry to come into my camp."

The animal pulled the last hunk of meat from the spit and hastily chewed it up.

The bard placed the skewer down in the snow.

The white wolf finished his meal then stared right at the lively green eyes of the human. He blinked and twisted his head at her some.

Gabrielle's lips pulled with a smile. "Your eyes are like mine."

The eyes in question blinked again and the wolf dropped his mouth open some. His long tongue just slightly poked out between sharp teeth.

The Amazon bit her lower lip from giggling at the sight. She pondered what to do next and she really wasn't sure. She considered that first she'd see how much the wolf would trust her. So she stretched out her right hand out again but her palm was up.

The wolf tensed but he didn't move surprisingly. He studied the human's green eyes then he lowered his head down but never failing to lose his focus. He first sniffed the human's hand and logged her scent into his memory. He decided this was what a Gabrielle smelled like. 

Gabrielle dared an even more dangerous maneuver and she wiggled her fingers under his soft chin.

The wolf was shocked and quickly jumped away from her touch.

The Amazon Princess mostly expected it and tried not to chuckle at his shyness. She very slowly stood up and he moved away from her more when she did that. "Its okay." She knew that was all the progress she was going to make tonight with him. She knew this would make him wonder too when she walked away from him and went to her bedroll with staff in hand.

The slave placed her staff by her bed again then shoved her boots off. She slipped between her furs and got comfortable. She remained sitting up but staring over at the bewildered wolf.

The wolf stood still and wondering why this odd human wasn't worried about him. He tilted his head when the human lay down. He snorted some, which caused a mist to develop. He lowered his head and sniffed the bare skewer but he could still smell the remains of the rabbit. He then lifted his head and stared at the strange human.

Gabrielle sighed contently and closed her eyes but she couldn't sleep knowing the wolf was still here. She didn't feel threatened by him but instead she was very curious about him. She'd seen a couple of wolves in her childhood but mostly after they'd been killed by shepards. What was even more interesting was that none of those wolves were ever a solid, pure white and had a lot of gray in them. This wolf also had green eyes and Gabrielle didn't find that natural to wolves but she wasn't exactly an animal expert either.

The white wolf in question finally sat down on his hinds. He merely watched the small human resting in the bundle of furs by the fire. He slightly shivered against the cold and from some of the heat radiating off the fire. He glanced over his right at the dark woods and debated whether to leave. He'd have to find a hole to curl up in or some uncovered ground, which could take a long time.

Slowly he turned his head back to the human and the fire. He noticed on the opposite side of the fire from the human there was clear ground. He dipped his head a little at the natural instinct that wanted to go over there. He now noticed his hind legs, tail, and butt were getting chilled as well as wet from the snow. He stood up quickly then after making his choice, he silently trekked over to the left side of the fire. He sniffed the ground all over to make sure it was what he wanted, he did a few circles, and laid down into a curled up ball.

Gabrielle had been watching the entire scene through slotted eyelids. She smiled as she closed her eyes completely then drifted into a peaceful dreamscape again. The rest of the night was quiet as an Amazon Princess slept fitfully and a lost wolf stayed warm by a human's fire.

When the sun kissed the eastern horizon the wolf woke up and saw that the human was still asleep. He got up and decided to stretch out first. Then afterwards he moved away from the slowly dying fire.

Gabrielle woke up about a candlemark later and she yawned with a big stretch over her head. She slumped back in her furs then glanced around the small fire to see if the wolf was there. She didn't see him but when she sat up she quickly spotted him sitting by the log and intently watching her.

"I bet you've been up for awhile," muttered the sleepy bard. It then struck her that she needed to put wood into the dying fire before she would have to redo everything again. Gabrielle stumbled into her boots and grabbed some nearby wood. She stoked it into the fire and watched the flames grow larger. She then fell into her furs but bent forward to lace her boots up. It seemed to take a lot of effort simply because she was still sleepy.

After she was finished, she stared over at the wolf then at the skewer on the ground. "Well… what to do about breakfast since you ate mine last night."

The wolf just stared at her.

Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her bedroll. "Some quail would be nice." Her cheeks puffed out then she let out the big puff of air. "What to do…." Suddenly she grabbed her daggers and staff then whirled up onto her feet with her jacket falling around her body. "Quail, I think."

The wolf stood up onto all fours.

The princess tucked her daggers into her belt, placed her staff by her hanging satchel, and took off into the woods.

The wolf raced to the edge of the woods and his eyes followed the disappearing human. His inner turmoil went on then just before Gabrielle was gone from his sight, he hurried off. He followed her trail and when he caught up, he made sure to stay several paces behind her.

The bard sensed him behind her but she didn't bother to acknowledge him. She enjoyed keeping him in mystery about what she was doing instead of paying attention to him. She finally sought what she was looking for and it was a small but large enough log. She came up to it and with strong hands she rolled the log over. When she did this, on the ground was moist dirt and countless amounts of bugs.

"Perfect," she murmured. Gabrielle then sought out a hiding place and she noted the wolf was at the other end of the bush. She gazed across to him.

The wolf hung out his tongue at her.

Gabrielle almost laughed but she focused on her mission at hand. She'd have to wait for some time but it would work.

A candlemark later Gabrielle found herself in the camp, two quails cooking, and a patient wolf waiting for her to share it. When the meal was ready, Gabrielle found herself giving tidbits to the animal while she ate. The scraps she set down close to the wolf but not so much that it'd scare him.

The princess had picked out a plan for today. She would practice with her staff by executing some regular moves and drills then she'd have a talk with her new friend. So for several candlemarks the Amazon worked her technique and on an occasion the nearest tree found itself to be an opponent.

The white wolf remained in the camp and watched the human move around with the big branch. He'd found some ground that was melted by the sun so he remained rather comfortable. He was also very entertained by how this human moved so well when just earlier this morning she was anything but agile. He was quite taken by the demonstration.

Gabrielle reached her cool down part and within quarter of a candlemark she stopped with heavy breathing. She'd tossed her wool jacket ages ago onto her bedroll but now she needed a drink. She picked up a waterskin from a hanging branch to her right. She happily drank and she also sensed her sweaty skin getting chilled from the cold air.

The princess went to her bedroll and sat down to keep warm by the fire while her body calmed.

The wolf stood up, walked over, and sat down on the edge of the ring between the fire and snow. He stared at the human while she rested.

Gabrielle had a crooked grin. "Liked that huh?" She picked up her cool waterskin from her lap and took one last drink before setting it aside. "And to think I still have a lifetime to master this thing." She tapped her staff to her right.

The wolf twisted his head.

The bard giggled at him. She then settled down and seriously stated, "We need to have a talk. Tomorrow I go home so you need to go home too."

The wolf's only response was a blink.

Gabrielle drummed her fingertips on her knee. "I can't take you back. You need to go home, boy."

The wolf dropped his tongue out because he was slightly too warm between the fire and the sun.

The bard chuckled but lost her amusement. "Not like you can understand me."

The wolf seemed to sense that the small woman was distraught so he leaned forward and grabbed the string attached the waterskin. He started to drag it out of her lap.

Gabrielle quickly grabbed the waterskin and tried to pull it back. "Hey!"

The wolf mocked growl as he tried to pull it from her hands.

"Aaah!" The bard fell forward but her hands still clutched the waterskin. "I don't think so." She fought back and pulled her arms back as she sat up again. "Got you now!"

The wolf shook his head while pulling hard. He wasn't putting all his effort into it so he started sliding forward towards the human. When he felt too close, he let go.

Gabrielle laughed as she triumphantly won the battle. She smirked then instinctually reached out to pet the wolf.

The animal jumped at the unexpected touch and he backed away several paces.

The princess sighed at the still evident distrust between them. She knew it would take some time. And what was she thinking? She couldn't take this wolf back to the Nation let alone to the Academy in sixteen days. When she looked up at the sitting wolf, she became sad at the thought of him being alone. He had to have a pack, right?

The slave knew her mood was growing sober so she had to change it. "How about a story, boy?" She popped up onto her feet then picked up her jacket. After she swung it on, she took a stand in front of the wolf and started a long, heroic tale. The rest of the day and night went on with two strangers from two different worlds blending together.

Melpomene, Deka, and Gryta continued on their patrol around the borders. They'd also been on a lookout for a particular Amazon that'd been due back in the Amazon Nation this morning.

"I hope she's okay," murmured Deka. She shifted her white wool jacket some to give her better access to her sword.

"She better be." Gryta huffed while her boots crushed the snow neatly.

Melpomene, the senior grade healer, sighed at the pair.

"You just don't want to do the history work alone," teased Deka.

The historian smirked. "You got me pegged." Yet she was really concerned about the princess since she was six candlemarks overdue from returning to the Nation.

Eponin had been near close to sending out a search party until Deka, Gryta, and Melpomene showed up at the gates prepared to go on patrol. They promised they would go out and find her then report back.

The patrol Amazons fell silent as they continued through the melting forest. They were coming up on the Great Oak then something caught Gryta's attention.

"You hear that?" The historian stopped and listened.

"Somebody is coming," stated Melpomene.

The three Amazons hurried to the oncoming noise and they were relieved to see the Amazon Princess happily traveling through the forest towards the Nation.

"Princess!" called Deka.

The bard stopped and smiled at the group. "Hey." She veered around and came to the small group. She noticed how they seemed almost relieved to see her but then she saw how Deka was reaching for her sword.

"Princess there's a wolf behind you!"

The other two Amazons reached for their swords.

"Wait," quickly ordered the princess but it was too late.

The white wolf just off to Gabrielle's right raced ahead of her and stood between her and the Amazons. He stood tense, muscles alive, and his teeth bearing at the Amazons.

"Stop," instructed Gabrielle. "It's okay."


"Be quiet." Gabrielle had her hands up towards them. "Just put your swords away, please. He's fine."

The Amazons slowly and carefully sheathed their weapons. They never moved their eyes away from the angry wolf.

When the swords stopped scrapping against the sheaths, Gabrielle's attention lowered to her new friend. "It's okay now, boy. Come on."

The wolf relaxed under the woman's soft voice. He huffed at the three Amazons and walked away from them. He stood next to the princess again.

"Well he's real cute," muttered Gryta.

The healer Amazon huffed out .

"Yeah," started the princess, "I'm not sure where he came from. He came into my camp the first night."

"He didn't hurt you?" inquired Deka.

"No… he was hungry actually." Gabrielle stared down at the wolf. "I guess he's lost… separated from his pack."

Melpomene folded her arms against her chest. "It seems you are his pack, princess."

The bard lifted her head. "I guess so."

"We need to get you back to the Nation," cut in Deka, "Everybody is worried… especially Eponin."

"What? Why?" Gabrielle adjusted her pack. "Something happened?"

"They thought something did when you didn't show up this morning," answered Gryta.

Gabrielle groaned. "I was busy trying to chase off my friend here." Her eyes fell to the wolf, who peered up at her.

Gryta slightly grinned at the sight. "I see it worked."

"Funny." Gabrielle glared at her historian.

"Come on, we can walk and talk back to the Nation." Deka directed the group towards the gates.

The group of Amazons tried to encircle the princess on either side but they quickly found that the wolf wouldn't let anybody to Gabrielle's right side. It was established that her right side was his. So everybody marched on Gabrielle's left side instead.

"Eponin was about to send out a search party."

"Ooo sweet Artemis," murmured the princess. "I'm going to be in trouble."

Melpomene shook her head. "I don't think so as long as she knows you're okay. We would have been the ones in trouble if we returned without you." She then considered it and stated, "I think I'll actually run ahead and let her know."

"You sure, Mel?" questioned the princess.

"It's best to do it." The healer didn't say anything else then hurried off at a run to the gates.

The rest of the group made it to the gates a little more than a quarter of a candlemark later. They were greeted by three inpatient Amazons namely Ephiny, Andra, and of course Master Eponin.

"Where were you?" quickly interrogated Eponin.

"And more importantly, what is that?" The blacksmith pointed at the white creature sitting beside the princess.

Every Amazons' eyes lowered to the handsome wolf.

"Um… I can explain everything?" Gabrielle showered her brightest smile on the three worried Amazons.

A half a candlemark later after much explaining, Gabrielle found herself in her hut finally and tossing her belongings onto the bed. Next she tossed herself into the comfortable bed. "Godsss!"

Ephiny stood still in the room, her hands on her hips. She stared down at the wolf to her left. "Well does he at least have a name?"

Gabrielle quickly sat up with her tussled hair. "No actually." She shrugged and added, "Sometimes I call him Wolfe."

Ephiny was shaking her head, her curly locks swaying back and forth. "Only you would go into the woods and return with a wolf."

"A white wolf," reminded the bard.

The Amazon threw up her arms. "With green eyes no less."

Gabrielle quietly laughed then went silent. "Come here, Eph."

Ephiny came over and sat on the edge of the bed then happily sensed warm arms encircle her waist. "I missed you."

The bard had sat up and rested her boots on the bed frame below. "I missed you as well." She kissed the side of Ephiny's cheek. When she lifted her head, her eyes met another set of green ones and she smiled.

The wolf twisted his head at the two humans in each other's embrace. He'd never seen such a thing. He became very curious so he tensed up, stretched his neck out, and his tail went parallel with the floor. He sniffed them and noticed how their smells mixed together.

Gabrielle chuckled at her new friend's curiosity.

"He acts like you," muttered the Amazon.

"Hey!" Gabrielle poked Ephiny in the ribs.

The Amazon yelped and swatted at her girlfriend's offensive hand. "You ready for dinner?"

"I think so." Gabrielle squeezed Ephiny's waist then let go. When Ephiny stood up, she slid off the bed and bounced up.

The wolf moved away from the pair and sat by the door.

"You hungry too, boy?" The slave went to the animal and stood near him. She lowered her hand to him, which he sniffed but she didn't try to pet him.

"You can't take him to the dining hut," pointed out Ephiny.

The princess turned her head. "Well I don't think I'll have much choice. He'll follow me there."

The Amazon sighed and shook her head because she wouldn't win. She decided to quickly get the fire started in Gabrielle's fireplace before they left. When she was finished they all exited the hut.

When they made it into the dining hut, Gabrielle noticed how the wolf stayed quite close to her than normal. While she was in the food line the wolf followed along her side and he was picking up many looks from all the Amazons. Gabrielle sighed because she knew it would make him skittish especially since he kept looking between Gabrielle and the open door of the dining hut.

The princess steadied her plate in her hand and bent down some. She ran her fingers throw his thick coat. "It's okay, boy."

The wolf slightly jumped at the unexpected touching yet he seemed to calm down.

Gabrielle moved in the line with Ephiny just behind her. She then parted from her girlfriend and headed for the head table. As she walked between the rows of tables, she spotted many of the Amazons down casting their eyes to the wolf that was on her heels. Gabrielle refrained from grinning but she remained neutral like she did this everyday.

The next hurdle would be the queen, Gabrielle concluded. She could only imagine what the queen would say about the wolf and what would happen. All day she'd been working on reasons why the wolf should be allowed in the Nation. She could only hope the reasons were sensible in Queen Melosa's mind.

The princess found her usual seat so she placed her food down. She pulled out her chair but paused then looked over at her furry friend. "Stay there, Wolfe."

The wolf twisted his head then sat down behind Gabrielle's chair but closer to the wall.

Gabrielle smiled at him then took her seat. She waited patiently as the other officers began arriving and sitting. It wasn't until the priestess showed that Gabrielle received any response about the beautiful wolf behind her.

The priestess first lowered her meal onto the table then faced the wolf. "I see you had a very successful time in the woods, princess."

The bard twisted in her chair and her eyes rested on the wolf. She cleared her throat then peered up at the priestess. "Yes, he's been pretty determined to follow me."

Priestess Narkissa thoughtfully smiled at the princess. She then neared the wolf.

Gabrielle grew worried. "Priestess, he's a bit…." She lost her words when Priestess Narkissa gently rubbed the wolf behind his ears.

The wolf's eyes slid closed and he leaned into the comforting touch. He seemed almost in a trance.

The bard was absolutely perplexed how the priestess managed to touch him without scaring him. Anybody else that even was close to him made him skittish let alone touch him.

Priestess Narkissa kneeled down while still soothing him. She stopped scratching his ears and her hands slid down to the sides of his face.

The wolf's sparkling green eyes fluttered open to level with the priestess's.

The priestess leaned in closely and whispered, "Ἀρτέμιδος φύλακας ροστατεύστε την ριγκήισσα."

Gabrielle's mouth opened to ask what the priestess said to the wolf. She didn't understand the tongue whatsoever but her question faltered on her lips. She was absolutely dazed by the spell between the wolf and the priestess. She watched in amazement as Priestess Narkissa rubbed the wolf's long back then stood up.

"He his quite beautiful, princess." Narkissa contained her grin that threatened her lips at seeing the princess's dumbfounded expression. She took her seat next to the young Amazon. At Gabrielle's silence, the priestess softly spoke, "Beauty begets beauty, my princess."

The princess was absolutely at a loss.

The priestess refrained from saying anything else as the queen arrived at the table. She knew what one of the upcoming dinner topics would be as he sat proudly behind the princess.

Queen Melosa saw everybody was at the table. She signaled for everybody to begin their meals.

"So how went the survival test?" inquired the stratègos. Her eyes flickered between Eponin and the princess.

"It went well," reported the princess.

"Slightly behind schedule but well," agreed Master Eponin.

Commander Kalonice slightly grinned. "Yes, I heard reports that the princess was missing in action this morning."

The bard faintly flushed.

"I hear it is due to your pet behind you." The queen motioned to the wolf directly behind the princess's chair.

Several of the officers on the opposite side of the table all tried to get a glimpse of the creature. Several of the officers were mildly shocked and it wasn't because he was a wolf but by his white coat and steel green eyes.

"Word gets around quick," mumbled the princess; she lifted a piece of meat to her lips.

"The queen knows everything, princess." Councilor Rena's tone was dire. "She is the driving force of the Nation."

The slave could have contested to the queen knew everything speech. Instead she shoved the meat between her lips to keep her mouth occupied.

Then the question finally came to life, the one Gabrielle dreaded these past couple of days.

"What do you intend to do with him, princess?"

The queen's question hung in the air like summer humidity for what seemed to be a very long time. Gabrielle pretended to have a mouthful so that she could think out her strategic plan. The princess gathered her wits; she reminded herself that she was a bard with a skill.

"I really don't intended to do anything, my queen."

Many of the Amazons around the table paused in their eating. The ambassador was one of them and despite she was tempted to intervene in the mess she would not. She'd been teaching her student several moons how to negotiate and this was a prime example.

Queen Melosa's expression tightened and remained on the princess.

Gabrielle quickly regrouped with an explanation. "He's not my pet is what I mean, my queen. He simply came into my camp the first night and has followed me since." She paused before adding, "I even tried to rid of him before returning to the Nation but he is relentless."

"Sounds like a particular princess we know," chimed in the stratègos.

The princess's expression instantly darkened at Commander Kalonice.

The stratègos thoroughly enjoyed the warning sign from the princess especially since she hadn't expected it. Maybe the princess did have some bite behind her. However she was silenced faster by Queen Melosa's disapproving look.

"Besides," charged on the princess, "is there any law stating he isn't allowed?" Her eyes flickered between the queen and the head councilor, the highest powers in the Nation.

"There… is none," finally reported Councilor Rena.

Queen Melosa remained very silent as she stared down the princess.

Gabrielle held her position and never faltered.

Priestess Narkissa slightly shifted, which caught the queen's attention.

Queen Melosa saw how the priestess's darkening eyes narrowed in some warning.

The queen held strong then lowered her gaze to the princess. "He may stay, princess." She then relaxed back into her chair and returned to her meal.

Gabrielle bit back her smile from winning.

Narkissa calmed too as she won against the queen. She was relieved that nobody saw the subtle exchange between her and the queen. The queen and council may hold power over the Nation but it was the priestess that reined control so directed by Artemis.

"I do ask of one favor, princess."

Gabrielle's head turned to the director of the agriculture. "Yes, Director Lelia?"

"See that your wolf doesn't find his way into the flocks or chicken huts."

The princess offered a confident smile. "Of course."

"Thank you." The agriculture director settled and went back to her meal.

The rest of the night melted away as the dinner came to an end but Gabrielle found herself at her friends' table again. And sitting directly behind her was the topic of conversation. Gabrielle relayed how her survival test went then how she befriended the striking wolf. All the Amazons at the table were absolutely entranced by the bard's story of her two days in the woods. They also couldn't believe a wolf would follow her back to the Nation.

After the long talks, Gabrielle realized she needed to feed the wolf before he found his own means. Yet the wolf remained seated nearby and patiently waited for Gabrielle.

The bard stood up and bent down to the wolf's level. "You hungry, boy?"

"You haven't picked out a name yet?" inquired the weapons master.

"I guess I need to huh?" The princess straightened up.

"Especially since he's your charge now," teased Master Eponin.

"How about Wolfe?" offered Solari.

Gabrielle shook her head. "That's his nickname. Right, boy?"

The wolf perked his ears up.

"Daemon?" supplied Ephiny.

"What's that mean?"

Ephiny grinned at her girlfriend then answered, "Guardian spirit."

"Hmnmm." Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest. She studied the wolf then asked, "Daemon?"

The wolf twisted his head.

"Try Artemesio."

The bard glanced from Jocasta to the wolf. She cleared her throat. "Artemesio?"

The white wolf whined and twisted his head the other way.

"I don't think so," muttered the princess.

Andra was sitting next to Ephiny. She twisted around to watch her sister and the wolf toe to paw.  She simply stated, "Faolan."

The wolf stood up on all fours and wagged his tail happily.

"Huh." Gabrielle grinned then said, "Faolan?"

The wolf wagged his tail more vigorously.

"I think that's a winner, Andra."

The blacksmith chuckled at her sister's words.

"What does it mean?" inquired Adonia.

Andra turned back around. "It's Gaelic… for little wolf." She turned her head sidelong to her sister and the wolf. "I've heard the name in the past when my father and I traveled to those lands."

"Well he's by no means little," huffed out the weapons master.

"No," consented the bard, "but he likes the name." She centered on the wolf. "You hungry, Faolan?"

The wolf kept wagging his tail but now his tongue hung out.

"Okay, let's see what we can scrap up." The princess walked around the table and headed for the kitchen before it got any later. She rounded the corner with Faolan right behind. "Hello?" she called into the empty kitchen.

Suddenly a bulky but worn out Amazon with an apron came around a hidden corner. "Princess Gabrielle," she greeted warmly. "What can I help you with?"

The bard stepped into the kitchen more and when her furry friend sat by her side she signaled to him. "I was wondering if you had any scraps for him?"

The Amazon's eyes fell to the white wolf. "Sweet Artemis." She carefully came closer yet stopped a few paces from the wolf. She bent over and leveled her eyes with the wolf's. "He's quite handsome." She straightened up. "Is he shy?"

"Yes actually."

The Amazon nodded her head. "It will take him some time then… and some good food." She chuckled then put her hands on her apron clad hips and twisted around in the clean kitchen. "I think everything has been pretty well cleaned." She then held up her right hand with a pointed finger. "Give me two heartbeats." She whirled around and disappeared behind the same corner again.

Gabrielle smiled at the wolf. "I bet she has something good left, Faolan."

Faolan's ears jumped up and his tail swooshed across the floor some.

The princess grinned then saw the chef coming back to her.

"Here we are." The Amazon held out a small leather satchel full of some unknown goods. Then in her right hand was a large size bone. "I figure he can carry this."

The bard received the satchel.

Faolon received the bone and quite happily.

"Just bring the satchel back tomorrow." The chef smiled at the wolf while saying, "I'll be sure to have something for him ready tomorrow night, princess."

"Thank you." The princess was taken by the Amazon's helpfulness. "Please call me Gabrielle."

The chef now smiled at the princess and held out her arm. "I am Crystal."

Gabrielle mirrored the smile. "And this is Faolan."

When the chef released the princess's small hand she stated, "Well I am glad Faolan will give the leftovers a good home."

The wolf was lying down and gnawing on the bone already.

 Gabrielle laughed. "Yes, he will."

"I must go, princess. I need to finish cleaning."

"Thank you again. I will see you tomorrow."

The chef smiled at the promise. "Goodnight, Gabrielle." She then disappeared.

Gabrielle dropped her gaze to the wolf. "Come on, boy. Let's go say goodnight to the others."

Faolan climbed up to his feet and followed the princess out of the kitchen.

"It looks like you found some things," stated Eponin.

"Sure did." Gabrielle held up the small satchel. "Crystal was very helpful." As her arm hung at her side again, she announced, "I think I'm going to head to the hut."

Ephiny stood up and came around the table. "I'll go with you." She turned to everybody. "Goodnight, Amazons."

"Goodnight," called the friends.

Gabrielle and Ephiny started off but the princess paused and waved to her friends. When they stepped out of the dining hut, they were hit by the cold air. "I am glad the fireplace is already burning."

"Me too," grumbled Ephiny.

When they returned to the hut, Gabrielle gave her furry friend his meal to keep him busy. She then climbed into the bed with Ephiny and they snuggled for most of the night with gentle talks. Eventually they fell asleep in each other's arms until the early morning when there was some whining.

Gabrielle moaned softly at the sound. She finally forced herself up into a slight sitting position to see what was wrong.

Faolan paced around in front of the door.

The bard was confused for a second then it hit her. "I'm sorry, boy." She extracted herself from Ephiny and the bed then went to the door. She opened it up enough to let the white wolf slip through. She left it open while going to fireplace to stoke it.

For a heartbeat, Gabrielle wondered if the wolf would return or not. She tried not to worry herself and instead went to the washbasin to clean up. When she came back out she was surprised to see Faolan resting on the fur in front of the fire.

The wolf lifted his head and his tongue rolled out. Next to him was his bone that was rather small now.

Gabrielle ran her fingers through her knotty hair and smiled. "Good morning." Then a thought occurred to her as she wondered back to the washroom muttering, "He's probably thirsty." She reappeared with a small bowl and she picked up her waterskin on her desk leftover from the survival test. She made sure to close the door while on her way.

Faolan got up and wondered over to where Gabrielle lowered the filled bowl. He lavishly drank up the water. He then went over and sat beside Gabrielle in front of the fire.

Gabrielle turned her head to him.

Faolan looked at her too with his tongue slightly poking out.

The bard noticed his expression was very soft. She dared to try again so she reached out slowly with her palm up.

Faolan lowered his head some and sniffed her hand, confirming it was still her. He then lifted his head and waited.

Very carefully, Gabrielle brought her hand to the top of his head with her fingertips touching first.

The wolf didn't move and he didn't even flinch. He just stared back at the human.

Gabrielle smiled happily when he let her touch him. She gently rubbed his head then down to his shoulders.

For quarter of a candlemark, the pair remained in each other's presence while Ephiny slept. Eventually the Amazon wiggled out of the bed and suggested they get ready because training would be soon.

And that day rolled into the next with the same routine each day. There were lectures with Eponin and training with her too. Each day Faolan also took on an unknown studious position among Eponin's ranks. He always went into the lecture hut, sat by the door, and listened then when it came time for practice he too went. The first time he saw that Amazon with the blue eyes and curly dark hair fighting against Gabrielle, he almost attacked her. Gabrielle had to reassure him that it was okay. So eventually Faolan realized it was just make believe much like the day he'd watch Gabrielle practice in the camp.

Master Eponin would always stand off to the side of the sparring of the sisters. She would direct them, teach them, and intervene at some points. She'd come use to Faolan sitting right beside her and also watching the sparring with her. As if he too understood all the moves and techniques.  

But eventually the day approached for the two students to return to the Academy. It was the third day before the students were due back at the Academy and three days were just enough time for them to make it. Ephiny and Gabrielle were well packed and now were preparing their horses.

At Torqueo's stall door sat Faolan, he was patiently waiting for Gabrielle. And at the entrance to the stables waited several Amazons that wished to say goodbye to the pair. When the small group exited the stables, they were surprised to see everybody there including Eponin, Andra, Solari, Jocasta, Adonia, and Gryta.

"It's like a damn party," joked Ephiny.

Eponin smirked. "Yes, we're excited to see you two go."

"Especially the princess since she stirs up so much trouble," chimed in Solari.

"You're not going to be my favorite anymore," threatened the bard.

Solari snickered.

"Come on. You two don't need to be late." The weapons master guided the group towards the gates.

When the entourage arrived at the gates, everybody said goodbye to the princess and Ephiny as well as wished them good luck at the Academy. Gabrielle was solemn especially when the last person she hugged was her sister. Andra though promised that she would come down for the graduation as did several others in the group.

Finally the Academy students slowly trudged out of the door in the gates and vanished into the woods. Eponin let out a heavy sigh but she sensed the blacksmith next to her.

"Hard isn't it?" the blacksmith murmured.

"It is but I remind myself one thing."

Andra folded her arms over her cloaked chest. "What's that?"

"In about four moons we'll be permanently stuck with them."

Everybody in the group broke out laughing at the weapons master's truthful words.

When the pair arrived at the Academy, they were warmly received by Feodoras despite he wasn't so sure about Gabrielle's new company. He let the wolf come into the Academy but he warned that Gabrielle would have to take it up with Gastacius in the morning. The bard's stomach knotted just at the thought of talking to the master bard. She had to though if she wished Faolan to stay within the Academy grounds.

So by the next morning, Gabrielle rose earlier than normal and with determination she went into the Great Hall. Right behind her was her white shadow and she figured the master bard out to see the wolf first hand. She was called into his office, which surprised him as students were rarely up this early. He also was shocked by what came in behind the student.

For half a candlemark, Gabrielle debated with the master bard about why Faolan was allowed on the Academy grounds. Gastacius was taken aback by the student's persistence and eventually he caved into her demands. He sighed in absolutely relief when the relentless woman left his office. He'd never seen quite a display but he'd grown a healthy respect for Gabrielle's talking skills.

So with the master bard's gracious consent, Faolan was allowed in the Academy along with scraps from the mess hall. He was never allowed in the classrooms as he would be quite the distraction but he was allowed to remain by the door to the classrooms. He was also allowed to stay with Ephiny and Gabrielle in their dorm house but only in that dorm house.

Faolan continued to follow his friend to and from the classes, across the grounds, and out on rides or walks. He especially enjoyed the walks out of the grounds and into the surrounding woods. The forest was very much apart of him and at times he yearned to feel that life again but it was too lonely.

Gabrielle had grown a very deep bond with him. She figured it was why he stayed so near her and never wondered off. She found a lot of comfort in knowing he was always by her side, always loyal. And in some odd way, Gabrielle had come to realize Faolan had become another anchor in her life.

That bond was gently tested when the winter started to sooth to the oncoming spring and it was time for the senexes to begin their Internus program in the city. The program began on the Spring Solstice and so Gabrielle, along with other students, were carted into Athens. Gabrielle was nervous about performing while Faolan was edgy about entering a huge human city. He'd never once experience such a life shaking event but he dared not to leave the Amazon's side. 

Each time Gabrielle and Faolan went to Athens, which was every fortnight, they both became more comfortable with their own inner turmoil. Gabrielle became a more confident Internus Poiētēs while Faolan grew calm in the city because in a lot of ways he realized it was just as wild as the woods.

The princess was sliding off the cart on her fourth fortnight in Athens so she was feeling much more comfortable with speaking. Tonight though she was working at a tavern that she hadn't been rotated to yet. She smiled at her fellow students in the cart and said, "Good luck tonight, fellas."

"You too, Gabrielle," called Orion as he watched the young woman and wolf climb the steps of the tavern.

The bard adjusted her satchel at her side then her staff in hand. She stepped into the tavern and she ignored the turning heads mostly due to Faolan. She approached the bar and smiled at the owner.

"You must be the bard from the Academy." The tavern owner put his clean mug away then came around the bar. "I am Kratos."

"Gabrielle," answered back the student, who took the man's large hand. "Thank you for having me."

"Trust me I appreciate it just as much." The owner released her hand just as he spotted the animal next to her.

Gabrielle caught his motion so she quickly asked, "I hope you don't mind?"

The tavern owner's hands went to his hips. "He seems calm enough."

"He is," promised the bard, "He won't cause any problems."

"I'll take your word on it." Kratos put his hands on his hips before adding, "If you do well enough I'll throw in dinner for him too."

Gabrielle chuckled. "You're on."

The tavern owner smiled then he held his hand out to the small stage. "Its all yours, bard."

"Thank you." Gabrielle patted her leg to signal her fuzzy friend to follow. She climbed up onto the stage while the wolf remained by the steps in a guard mode. She'd left her staff and satchel with him too. When she was up in front of the audience she captured their attention immediately. Many of the patrons already knew that an aspiring bard from the Academy would be performing tonight but some patrons happened to be passerbies. 

"Well…." The Amazon Princess brushed her skirt then asked, "Are there any requests?" She received a response for a heroic but comical tale. Gabrielle paced the stage briefly as her mind worked out a story. She stopped then loudly asked, "Have any of you heard of the warlord Zagreas?" When everybody shook their heads, Gabrielle reeled into her story about a crazy warlord and dumb giant named Gareth, whom tried to defeat a legendary heroine.

As the bard wove her tale to her audience something caught her eye or rather somebody. She only slightly faltered in her barding but nothing anybody would quite catch.

The brief subject of Gabrielle's distraction was a short, curly blond haired man in the far back. He was quietly listening to the story as was the much taller man to his right.

When Gabrielle finally wound down the end of her story, she felt relieved. She loved telling stories but right now she wanted to hear somebody else's story or rather some bodies'. She finished her tale and the audience applauded her wildly. Just as she stepped down from the stage not only was she greeted by Faolan but also many of her listeners. She tried to refuse any dinars they offered but many insisted so she found herself twenty dinars richer.  

By the time her listeners finished speaking with her, she was approached by a man about her own height. Gabrielle's face suddenly hurt from her huge smile.

"You did a beautiful job, Gabrielle."

"Iolaus," happily welcomed the bard.

He was quickly pulled into a warm hug.

"It's been so long since I've seen you."

Iolaus chuckled then shrugged. "I've been busy."

"You and your friend," offered the princess.

"Yes." Iolaus turned some and signalled towards his friend with a jest of his chin. "I want you to come over and meet him. You have some time?"

"Of course." Gabrielle picked up her satchel and staff then caught Iolaus's attention. "I want you to meet mine too." She held her hand out to the white wolf.

Iolaus blinked at the wolf but then he bent down. "Wow."

"Faolan, this is my friend Iolaus."

The wolf picked out Gabrielle's gently tone so he carefully neared the small man. He sniffed him first and logged Iolaus's scent away in his memory.

"Hey." Iolaus happily petted the animal and whispered, "You're quite handsome, aren't yah?"

"He is that." Gabrielle smiled at her friend's appreciation for the wolf.

When Iolaus stood up he started for the other side of the tavern. "Come with me."

Gabrielle weaved through the tables with Faolan behind her. She came to Iolaus's table and instantly Iolaus's friend stood up to welcome her.

"Gabrielle, this is my friend Hercules."

The Amazon Princess stepped forward and met the man in a brisk arm shake. "It's nice to meet you, Hercules."

"You as well," rumbled his deep voice. "Iolaus has talked a bit about you."

Gabrielle sensed her cheeks warming.

Hercules admired the look on the young woman yet he held his hand to the table. "Sit with us and eat."

"Thank you." Gabrielle took a seat then settled her satchel and staff on the floor and she noted that Faolan sat next to her chair. "Ooo." She peered up shyly at Hercules. "This is Faolan."

The demi-god bent to his right and smiled at the wolf. "Nice to meet you, Faolan." He offered his hand to the animal.

Faolan stood up and stretched his neck out. He carefully absorbed and filed away Hercules's scent. He let the human rub his head then he took his seat next to Gabrielle again.

"He's quite beautiful," admired Hercules.

The bard quipped a softly smile. "And quite bright too."

"Where did you find him?" inquired Iolaus. "I don't remember him."

The princess brushed back a few strands of loose blond hair. "He actually found me. I was out camping just outside the Nation when he came into my camp."

"Huh," murmured Iolaus. "Listen, I'll go get you a meal." He started to rise up but Gabrielle's voice caught him.

"It's okay actually. The tavern owner will bring it to me… its apart of the deal." When the small man took his chair again, Gabrielle explained, "The Academy has an agreement with certain inns and taverns where we're allowed to perform for practice. In agreement, the tavern owners get a free bard to bring in crowds and all they have to offer is a free meal to the bard."

"Iolaus mentioned you're an aspiring bard at the Academy."

"I am," confirmed the slave. She was about to add more but she was cut short when the tavern owner appeared.

"As promised, Gabrielle." Kratos held two dishes in his hand. He placed the larger one in front of Gabrielle. Then he bent over and slid the second next to Faolan, who didn't wait for any Amazon approval to eat. Kratos straightened up again, a smile on his face. "I've never had so many customers in my tavern especially pleased ones. I've had a few other Academy bards in here before you but they didn't draw a crowd in like you did." He stopped to place his hands on his hips. "Please take an unconditional invite to my tavern anytime, especially when you finish with the Academy."

"Thank you, Kratos. I will keep the offer in mind always."

"Please do." The tavern owner stepped away but paused to say, "My barmaid will be over shortly with your drink." His eyes fell to the wolf happily eating his meal. "And a bowl of water." He glanced at the two men. "Do you fellas need anything?"

"Just a round of drinks too," answered Hercules.

Kratos stiffly nodded. "Right away." He disappeared in the ocean of customers.

"Well," started Iolaus, "you're becoming famous before you even graduate."

The young bard's cheeks flushed.

"You tell an excellent story," agreed Hercules. "You'll do well after the Academy."

"I'm afraid I won't have much time to be the traveling bard." Gabrielle picked up her fork.

"The Amazons?"

Gabrielle nodded at Iolaus's question then she began eating.

"I wouldn't worry," argued Hercules, "word of mouth travels faster than any mortal can."

Iolaus chuckled but he agreed.

The Amazon Princess swallowed down her tidbit. "I've heard quite a few tales about you two." She grinned when the two men had curious looks. "A friend of mine in the Academy relays them to me quite often. He's a big fan. He particularly liked telling me about you and the Amazon women, as he puts it."

Iolaus smirked at his friend's words. He held is tongue because he could only wonder what Hercules would say.

"Well… Queen Hippolyta and I worked things out." Hercules presented nothing else as his emotions were still raw from that time ago.

"And I appreciate it." The princess reassured the demi-god with a smile. "She is an amazing queen. It would have been blow if we lost her."

"She is," quietly agreed Hercules. His blue eyes lifted when the barmaid appeared with the drinks. He gratefully took his.

"How are things in the Nation?" Iolaus could tell a change of topic was required.

Gabrielle finished eating her fish and moved onto a side item. "They are well for the most part."

"Still troubles with the centaurs?"

The Amazon Princess answered with a sigh. "Unfortunately."

"Who is the queen?"

Gabrielle's attention switched to the demi-god. "Melosa."

Hercules rolled the name around in his mind. "The name is familiar." His fuzzy eyes settled on the bard again. "The age old war between the Amazons and centaurs?"

"Yes." Gabrielle shook her head while roughly spearing her peas. "The older Amazons can't seem to let go of their hatred."

"It takes time." Hercules lowered his mug to the table. "And the right leader."

"I'm starting to realize this."

"Didn't a centaur kill the queen's sister?"

Gabrielle looked to Iolaus. "Yes, that is how I became an Amazon. I tried to… tried to save her." She shook her head at the old memory from over a seasons' cycle. She sensed Iolaus's gentle touch on her hand for a heartbeat.

"You did what you could," spoke the small man as he removed his hand. "Now you can honor her memory."

"I do… everyday." The slave finished the last of her meal and felt rather content. She leaned back into her chair, her hands on her stomach. "Where are you two headed?"

"Well we were just passing through." Iolaus exchanged looks with Hercules. "But we're headed to Claydon."

"When do you graduate, Gabrielle?"

The bard grinned at the demi-god. "This spring."

"Excited?" inquired Iolaus.

"I can't believe it," admitted the bard, "but I can't wait."

Iolaus took a draw of his port but after he put his mug down he posed another question. "How is Ephiny?"

Gabrielle was remotely surprised her friend recalled Ephiny at all. "Ephiny is doing really well. She's excited to graduate too."

Iolaus explained who Ephiny was to Hercules. Then he faced the slave again. "Does Ephiny have any position in the Nation or will she?"

"Not that's assigned to her," replied the bard. "But that could always change if something comes up." She thoughtfully considered her girlfriend and concluded that Ephiny did have a lot of potential in the Nation in some officer's spot. She let go of the idea for now as it was far too early to tell.

"When do you have to get back to the Academy?"

Gabrielle released a faint sigh. "Fairly soon actually… they'll come by to pick me up."

"Well tell me more about yourself, Gabrielle before you have to go." Hercules leaned back in his chair with his mug in his lap.

The small woman bit the inside of her lip and debated what to tell the pair. She only told them the generic things about being from Potidaea and who her family was. She also explained how her 'grandfather' paid for her schooling at the Academy. By the time she told them the longwinded information, she found it was time to go.

Hercules and Iolaus stood up together when the bard rose up.

"Thank you for having me." Gabrielle dazzled her biggest smile. "It's nice to see an old friend." Her eyes shifted to Iolaus then rose up to Hercules. "And make a new one."

The demi-god stepped forward and held out his hand. "If you ever need any help or get into a bind don't hesitate to find us."

Gabrielle held Hercules's hand while her left hand covered his strong hand. "Thank you, I really appreciate it. I pray I never have to take you up on that offer."

"Just in case," assured the hero. He finally let go and watched as Iolaus came around the table.

"I'll walk you out." Iolaus touched the small of Gabrielle's back. "I'll be back."

"No rush." Hercules took his seat again. He then rubbed Faolan's back and said, "Goodbye, boy."

The wolf's eyes sparkled at the demi-god then he dissolved into the crowded tavern with Gabrielle and Iolaus. He came out onto the porch and took a seat beside the Amazon Princess.

Gabrielle was busy saying goodbye and hugging her friend. She thanked him for his company and asked him to visit the Amazons someday. She quickly described where the Nation was located just as the cart rolled up. After one last hug and word of goodbye, Gabrielle hastened down the steps with Faolan vaulting down. When she got into the cart with her furry friend, she waved at the small man at the top of the steps.

"See you soon, Gabrielle!" Iolaus watched her and the full cart of bards absorb into the crowds of Athens. He could only wonder when he'd see his young friend again but right now he had to return to Hercules.

Just as Gabrielle's visit with Iolaus and the legendary Hercules went quickly so did the rest of her senex term. She continued her fortnight visits to various inns, theatres, and taverns. She was especially warmly welcomed to any of them that she'd previously performed in. By the time her program was completed, she'd already made a name for herself in Athens, which excited her to no end.

It was a moon before graduation when Gabrielle found out the exact date. Graduation was set to be on the day of the next full moon however every bard had to pass their final. The senex bards were absolutely excited and stressed at the same time of the thought of the final exam as well as graduation. The final exam held true to the rumors as every senex bard was required to go to Athens and take a stand on a gigantic stage in the famous Theatre of Dionysus, which the Academy owned.

When Gabrielle heard they would be performing in the Theatre of Dionysus, she almost fainted because she knew that theatre could seat over seventeen thousand people. She also knew it was where some of Greece's most famous tragedies were written by playwrights such as Aeschylus and Sophocles. She knew she could never compare to such amazing talents yet Hades if she would fail her final exam when she was so close.

That day of testing finally arrived and the senex bards were all carted into Athens. The students were either rattling on out of nervousness or they were like Gabrielle and quite silent from inner fear. Gastacius of course accompanied them as he would be in the front row at center to grade them. He also warned them that he would have three teachers far in the back trying to strain to hear their voices at the top of the theater.

The students were brought into the back of the theater where they were told to remain until it was time. Once they were called up by one of the teachers, they would walk out onto stage, introduce themselves, and start their tale.

Orion was sitting next the Gabrielle, who was next to Ephiny on a marble bench.

Euripides was pacing back and forth in complete anxiousness.

On the other side, Twickenham and Stallonus sat together along with a few other students. Stallonus had his head against the wall and trying to remember to breathe. Twickenham was beside himself as his right leg vibrated and his head was down, eyes shut too.

Just watching her friends made Gabrielle nervous and the only reassurance she had was Faolan at her feet. Occasionally she would lean forward and pet him just to comfort herself.

"It'll be okay, Twickenham."

Twickenham lifted his head at Gabrielle's voice. "N-n-no it-t-t-… no it-t-t- won't." He suddenly got to his feet and walked away, going down the marble hallway.

"Let him work it out," softly soothed Orion.

The princess frowned as she watched Twickenham stomp down the hallway.

Ephiny reached over and slid her fingers through Gabrielle's.

The slave though kept chewing on her lower lip. "We have to remember what we've been taught.; about getting up in front of crowds."

"You are correct," agreed Euripides. He stopped pacing then faced his friends. "Perhaps we should go over what it is we need to do."

Gabrielle perked up at the idea. "We should." She then leaned forward and called, "Twickenham!"

The upset student wondered back down to his group of friends. He stood next to Euripides, a questioning face.

Euripides gently touched Twickenham's shoulder. "We are going to go over what we've been taught when dealing with crowds."

"O-o-o-okay." Twickenham returns to his seat next to Stallonus, who is now focused on his friends too.

"First we have to speak slowly," offered the Amazon Princess.

Ephiny chimed in, "Remember to breathe deeply. It'll help relax you."

Euripides added another. "We can focus on somebody familiar in the audience to help us."

"Like Gastacius," suggested Stallonus, "because he's the damn reason we're here."

The group chuckled but continued with the exercise.

"Have your story well planned out in your head," offered Orion, "but not too detailed."

"Ther-r-re has t-t-to be emot-t-tions in our st-t-tory," supplied Twickenham.

Gabrielle bounced up onto her feet without hitting Faolan. She shifted in front of the group, opposite of Euripides. "Remember that once you draw your audience in it'll be much easier. It's just that first step to get them."

"Also body language," reminded Stallonus.

Twickenham was shaking his leg against the floor. He was frightened because of his speech problem. He felt as if he could easily fail the test compared to his friends. "I-I-I can't-t-t do this."

Gabrielle became solemn again at seeing her friend's attitude. "Twick, you can beat this."


Everybody noticed how his stutter was growing stronger as his final exam grew nearer. It would be a bad collision of things if there wasn't some solution.

"There has to be a way to get some control on your speech," tried Gabrielle.

Twickenham vigorously shook his head.

Euripides tilted his head in thought about Twickenham's problem. "Perhaps the solution is that Twickenham needs to take his stutter to his advantage."

Twickenham confusingly stared at his friend.

The slave was rolling Euripides's riddle -like words through her head. Suddenly it struck her like a blind cyclops from nowhere. "That's it!" She bounded over and grabbed Euripides into a huge hug then she kissed his cheek. "You're a genius, Eurip!"

Euripides, for once, actually flushed from the compliment and affection.

"What's he saying?" interrupted Stallonus.

Gabrielle shifted and bent down in front of Twickenham, she gathered his hands into hers. "What Euripides means is that you need to tell a story where your stutter is important." Her lips curled up into a devilish grin. "Where your main character does have a stutter."

The concept now struck everybody else in the group, especially Twickenham, who would have never thought of the idea.

Gabrielle stood up quickly and looked at her friends. "Come on. Let's work out a story together for Twickenham to tell."

Ephiny grinned at her girlfriend's concern for Twickenham's success. "A famous hero that has a stutter," she started.

"Great." The Amazon Princess beamed.

"He's tall, dark, and has short dark hair," described Orion.

"Originally from Olympia."

Gabrielle smiled at Stallonus. She then led the group forward as they thought of the concept of a realistic but true hero that also happen to have a stutter. By the time the friends outlined the character and a story for Twickenham, a teacher arrived with a student that had just performed. The student seemed relieved but not excited either.

"Gabrielle of Potidaea," announced the teacher, his eyes on the student already. "You're up."

Gabrielle held her breath as her stomach pitched. She was given words of assurance from her friends and Ephiny offered her a strong hug. She started down the hallway and Faolan didn't falter to follow behind her.

The teacher paused at the exit towards the stage. His eyes dropped to the wolf. "He cannot go out there."

"I know, hold on." The student knelt down in front of her friend and smiled at him. "Okay, boy you need to stay here." She twisted some and pointed to the gigantic stage. "I'll be right there; you can see me from here."

Faolan's ears fell back on his head and his face pulled back.

Gabrielle read it as fear and she leaned in for a gentle kiss to his head. "I'll be fine."

The wolf sat down which allowed him to lick the human's soft cheek.

"See you soon." After one last rub to his head, she rose up and faced her teacher.

The teacher stood with his hands behind his back. He looked quite formal in his toga and so was his tone of voice. "I would say good luck to you, Gabrielle however you do not require it."

The student tasted the teacher's words. She dipped her head in respect then turned to face the audience or what seemed to be an ocean of heads. After a confident breath, she walked out onto the stage. She knew what her first step was and that was to introduce herself. "Good evening, everybody," she called out, "I am Gabrielle of Potidaea." Before she could say another word there was a loud cheer from the field of audience that she hadn't expected.

Many of the voices in the audience cheered out her name or just yelled words of enthusiasm. This seemed to relax the aspiring bard since it meant people were familiar with her.

"Well I would say some of you know of me." Gabrielle chuckled and smiled at the gigantic crowd. "I plan to keep to my tradition that many of you know." She neared the front center of the stage, her hands behind her back. "Are there any requests out there?" she called out.

Gastacius was very surprised by the response from both the crowed and the student. He twisted some in his seat as the people began crying out their requests.

There was one name that was being chanted, "Xena, Xena, Xena!"

The slave laughed and held up her hand for some silence. "Xena it is then." She dipped her head while thinking about what story she should select then it came to her. Her electric eyes met the audience again. "I thought since I am in the famous Theatre of Dionysus I would follow some of the historical works produce here with a drama." Gabrielle walked away from the edge of the stage as a few listeners called out her name.

The student spun around with a huge grin on her face. "Xena was known as the Warrior Princess a legendary hero yet early in her life… she was a legendary among the hated." Her voice thundered through the now silent theatre. "She was known as a murdered… a killer because she was once a warlord… a very dark and feared warlord."

The audience held their breath, waiting for the bard to continue.

"She was considered a disease in Greece as she swept across the lands with her army." Gabrielle threw out her arms to emphasis her point and some of the crowd gasped. "During her conquest she wreaked havoc on one small town known as Cirra and ultimately changed one girl's life." Gabrielle stepped closer to the edge of the stage and her next whisper was loud, "One girl's life who would forever haunt the Warrior Princess."

Gabrielle reeled into her dramatic tale about a crazy woman that sought revenge on the Warrior Princess for that one fated day that the ex-world destroyed her world. The audience was entranced to hear about this crazed warrior's attempt to hunt down, plot, and end up failing to kill Xena. Yet Gabrielle's closing of the story left the audience absolutely held into their seats.

"'I'm glad you saved her," stated Gabrielle. Xena pulled away from the scene of the crazed warrior lashed down. She finally replied, 'It was the right thing to do.' And when the two friends left the jailhouse, the crazed warrior suddenly had a wild grin. 'The right thing to do… that's what they think.'" The princess lost her demonstration of the feral grin that the character would have had. She then bowed before her audience and when she straightened up there was an unbroken silence.

Suddenly the crowd broke out applauding and cheering for Gabrielle of Potidaea. Many of them begged for her to continue into the sequel.

"I would love to tell the rest but…." Her eyes lowered to the master bard then back up. "There are other amazing bards to still go. Thank you everybody!" She waved to them all and carefully made her way to the back exit. She could only pray to Artemis that her shaky legs would carry her all the way. She climbed the steps up to the exit way where Faolan patiently waited for her. She noticed the teacher was already gone.

When Gabrielle stepped through the doorway and came into the corridor a ways, she leaned her back against the wall. She slowly slid down it with her eyes closed and a moan vibrating between her lips. She sensed her wolf beside her. She gradually lifted her head when the audience's chanting voices reached her ears.

"Gabrielle, Gabrielle, Gabrielle!" they demanded greatly.

The bard grinned at her success and that her name would be on everybody's lips. Her grin shifted into a soft smile at Faolan. "You hear that, boy?"

Faolan wagged his tail across the floor, his ears perked.

The Amazon Princess forced herself to get up particularly when she saw the teacher approaching with another student. She wished the fellow student good luck then she made her way down the corridor to her friends. She wasn't about to tell them everything right now as it would make them too nervous about when they'd go.

When she settled in her spot next to Ephiny, she remained passive. Faolan sat down at her feet then he slowly slid down onto his belly.

"How'd it go out there?" inquired Ephiny first.

Gabrielle shrugged. "It wasn't too bad." She didn't make eye contact with of her friends.

Gradually a deep, knowing smirk grew on Ephiny's face. "Gabrielle?"

The princess met Ephiny's light amber eyes.

"We could hear the audience in here."

Gabrielle's instantly went into a setting sun shade. She scanned her friends' faces, which confirmed that they too heard the audience. She cleared her throat then quietly said, "I uh…."

The Amazon chuckled at her girlfriend and touched her cheek lightly. "It's okay. I'm proud of you."

"All of us," stated Euripides.

"Thank you," whispered the slave. Her subtle fears about her friends' reaction were destroyed by their support. She then turned to Orion to her left and quietly asked, "What name are you going to use?"

Orion stared down at his hands and after some long silence, he looked at Gabrielle. "I was thinking Orion."

Gabrielle frowned in response. She'd found out over a seasons cycle ago that Orion was merely his nickname. His real name was Homer and she rather preferred it. She even tried to call him by his proper name but Orion wouldn't let her.

"You should go by your proper name," chimed in Stallonus.

Orion sighed while leaning against the wall.

"You don't-t-t see any of u-u-us going by other n-n-names."

Euripides was still standing up, too excited to sit at all. He folded his arms against his chest. "The real Orion is merely a fable but you are more." His eyes locked with Orion's. "Don't make your name a fable but a legend, Homer."

Orion toyed with his white toga as he debated. He wasn't sure what to do.

Gabrielle patted his friend's knee. She knew he had to decide for himself.

Faolan suddenly lifted his head when the echoing sound of sandals came to him. His green eyes centered on the teacher that was escorting a student back. He simply yawned and rested his head back down on his paws.

The teacher had a small scroll in his hand. He rolled it open and read out the next name. "Homer of Smyrna."

Orion rose up to his full but short height then stepped around his friends. Everybody wished him luck and he gave them a confident smile.

Orion was led to the entrance way. After the teacher's words of confidence, Orion stepped out and into the great theatre. He was absolutely dazed by the size and sheer mass of people; thousands upon thousands of people. In his mind, it seemed almost impossible to be scared because the beauty of the theatre stole away any time he had to be fearful.

Orion stepped up to front stage center. He first took a deep breath then announced, "Good evening, everybody. I am…." He faltered and he noted how the master bard became curious. "I am Homer but some may know me as Orion."

There was a sudden applause from previous fans he'd picked up in the taverns and inns.

Orion did a faint bow then when he straightened up, he had a grin. "Tonight I would like to share with you an epic but comical poem I've called Batrachomyomachia or for some of the non-Greek, The Battle of Frogs and Mice."

The crowd hooted between cheers and laughter of the poem's title.

Orion spun into his verses about a mouse that met the Frog King. Throughout the singing he would have to pause and let his crowd shake off their laughter. He then would continue on and by the time he finished the tale, his crowd adored him.

After he thanked his listeners and bowed, he hurried off stage. It wasn't long before he joined his friends and he didn't have to tell them how well it went. The audience's ringing voices were crying out Homer loud enough for all to hear.

The rest of the evening trickled by as each of the friends made their way out onto stage. Twickenham was the last to go and he was also the most nervous. Yet he held fast despite his stammer and he used the story that he and his friends worked out. To his pure amazement, the crowd ate up his fascinating story about a hero, who had a stutter and it seemed to make the hero all the more realistic.

When the final exam ended, the Academy surprised every student by taking them out for a dinner and celebration. One of the taverns that the students had performed in had been set a side just for the event. All of the teachers were there and even Gastacius stayed through the meal and party. He also went around to each student and congratulated them on a fine job. He particularly spent the most time with the student from Potidaea more than any other student.

By the next morning, Ephiny and Gabrielle found themselves rushing to write out invites to be sent out. They were please to find out that the Academy was already expecting such from their students so several messengers were waiting in the Great Hall. Ephiny wrote the message for the Amazon Nation while Gabrielle wrote one to Cornelio. They both could only hope that some of them would be in attendance for the graduation.

And the graduation, it was only twenty days away from when they sent out word. The senex students busied by finishing up the last of their classes and the homework was actually lighter. The teachers always planned it as such because they knew the senex students were always too excited to remain focused on their studies. Plus they figured it had something to do with the coming spring weather as many students would go for walks or into the city.

Just as Gabrielle, Ephiny and Faolan were doing today. They decided after class to take their horses for a ride and give Faolan a good run to keep him fit. They followed their usual trail, which was very clear now that the snow was gone and the sunshine could still beam through the budding leaves. Eventually they found their way to the beautiful lake that they'd discovered seasons back.

Gabrielle dismounted first and took Torqueo's bit from his mouth.

The horse whined happily when he could freely move his mouth. He didn't wait to lower his head into the new, lush grass that'd been growing.

Ephiny followed her girlfriend's example too. She was relieved to be getting some air and peaceful time away from the Academy.

Gabrielle went to her horse's light saddles and fished around in it. She produced a waterskin and bowl, which she filled up and gave to Faolan.

The wolf greedily lapped up the water. His fluffy chest was failing and rising quickly from the running.

The Amazons silently trekked down to the edge of the lake but it was Gabrielle who bent down to touch the water. She shook her hand free of the water then reported, "It’s a bit chilly."

Ephiny knelt down next and also tested the temperature. "Not too bad."

"You first," teased the princess.

"Ooo no… royalty first," shot back Ephiny.

The slave shot a dark look at her girlfriend. "I don't think so. I'm not going in."

Ephiny's amber eyes darkened into a golden brown. "Come on, sissy."

"No." Gabrielle did her best dark look she could conjure up.

Ephiny only laughed then stood up quickly.

The bard slowly climbed up to her short height but something made her tense up. "Ephiny, no!!" She dug her boots into the slippery, soft ground that was easily giving way. She tried to push her girlfriend away but it was a losing battle.

"Get those feathers wet!" Ephiny was behind Gabrielle, her hands pushing against Gabrielle's mid back. "In you go!" She gave a powerful shove and she hysterically laughed when Gabrielle went face and belly first into the lake.

The water's mirror image was broken by a tangle of arms and legs thrashing around in the water.

Ephiny took a step back, her hand over her mouth to calm her laughs when a very angry bard looked up at her.


The Amazon took another step back, her expression full of laughter and mirth.

Gabrielle growled as she stood in waist high water. Her blond bangs were pasted to her forehead and water running down her slightly bronze body. "You are a dead Amazon!" She suddenly smacked the water with her hands so that it would spray at Ephiny.

Ephiny laughed while jumping out of the way of the water attack. "Missed me!" Her eyes went as wide as Helios when the pissed off princess came charging out of the water.  "Oh Hades' balls!" She sprung into action at a fast run.

"Ephiny!" bellowed the bard, who was right on her heels.

Faolan lifted his head as his friend began chasing the other human. His head gradually rotated to the right as they went all over the place. He yawned after deciding there was no threat then he lowered his head back down to his paws. He was too comfortable under the tree's shade to want to participate.

Gabrielle was catching up to her girlfriend and she saw they were coming back towards the lake. She pushed herself harder then suddenly she gave out a cry.

Ephiny knew it was coming. She was suddenly slammed from behind by her girlfriend's body but she was sent off her feet.

The two Amazons screamed and for once it seemed as if they had feathers as they went flying over the lake. They then came crashing down into the serene waters with a huge splash.

Gabrielle bobbed to the top first and found her prey when a soaked, curly headed woman sputtered out water form her mouth.

"Gabrielle," growled the Amazon. "These are my best leathers!"

"And this is my best outfit," shot back the bard, who was in her green halter top and brown skirt. "Now we're even."

Ephiny's eyes darkened and swirled. "Not by a long shot." She flashed a grin then dove under water.

"Oh sweet Art-" Gabrielle's words were cut off when she was drug underwater by the yanking on her ankles. She found her lungs already tight having not caught any air in time but her problem was easily solved by a sweet kiss from Ephiny.

The two kissing Amazons broke through the ceiling of water, lips still sealed. The water continued rolling down their body and between their lips and touching bodies. Gabrielle returned the fire in the kiss. Ephiny pulled back for a moment to breathe but her girlfriend didn't give her much time. She was suddenly taken by a hungry kiss.

Gabrielle moaned between the kissing and her right hand was locked in Ephiny's hair while her other was gripping Ephiny's ass. She dug her nails deep into Ephiny and received a growl.

Ephiny already had one arm around Gabrielle's waist yet her other hand was free. She ran her nails down Gabrielle's mid to low back and enjoyed the sharp intake of breath from Gabrielle.

The bard suddenly found Ephiny backing her up until they were on the beach line, which was thin. She was carefully brought down but still being kissed.

Ephiny had her girlfriend laying on the bank and her own body on top. She pulled away from the kiss, her lips trailing down to Gabrielle's soft, moist neck.

Gabrielle moaned and her back instinctively arched. "Ephiny," she murmured between the hazy desires.

The Amazon continued her pursuit with gentle bites and soft kisses. Her lips finally made it to the peeks of Gabrielle's covered breasts. One hand was over Gabrielle's left breast while her other was trailing up the inside of Gabrielle's thigh.

The location of Ephiny's hand sprung Gabrielle's eyes open. "Ephiny, wait."

The Amazon pulled back, her face confused and worried. "What's wrong?"

Gabrielle's eyes were coming back from a dark green to a lighter shade. "I… I can't… do this."

Ephiny's head slightly fell forward, her eyes closed. She hastily rolled away and fell to her back on the bank side as well. "We need to talk about this, Gabrielle."

"I know," murmured the bard. She dropped her head against the wet ground, her hands over her face. Her eyes were tightly shut against her various emotions and body's feelings. "Just… not right now." She removed her hands and turned her head to Ephiny. "We will," she swore.

Ephiny glanced at her girlfriend then turned away. She knew Gabrielle would need some time but she wasn't sure yet how much. It may be more time than anybody could really provide to Gabrielle.

The couple remained still and silent on the lake side for a quarter of a candlemark. They were both in their own thoughts and emotions. Gabrielle processing what almost happened and probably should have happened but why she wouldn't let it. After some time, Ephiny eventually got up and went to dry off.

Slowly the pair found themselves in a warm embrace close to the horses and Faolan. Ephiny was sitting with her back against a tree and Gabrielle between her legs and arms. They never spoke but only enjoyed each other's comfort and presence. It was enough for now.

They left the lake after two candlemarks of being away. They only rode at a walk back to the Academy as too much of a run would cause a stronger wind which meant they'd get cold. Eventually they made it back in time for dinner and they fell back into their usual pattern for the remaining days until graduation.

And graduation did come to the senex bards as they thought it never would for them. The entire Academy closed down for that day with the exception of the guards, whom watched the gigantic groups migrate to Athens. The students, teachers, and other various staff arrived in Athens and went to the Theatre of Dionysus by the mid morning and were then broken apart. The students that weren't graduating were led away by many of the teachers and taken to certain rows in the theatre.

The teachers that remained behind took the senex students into the back of the theatre so they could be prepared for the ceremony. The female teachers worked with the few female students while the male teachers took care of the guys. To say the least, the scene was insane as the senex students and the teachers ran around like Hades broke open.

It wasn't until mid afternoon that Gastacius walked into the back of the theatre and stood very still. He watched the insanity for a few heartbeats then he cleared his throat. Everybody came to attention at seeing his presence. He cleared his throat one last time then announced, "Are we ready to begin?"

One teacher stepped forward, "I believe so, sir."

The master bard glanced at all of the students that were formally dressed in black togas. He himself wore a silk maroon toga while the teachers wore a light blue. He nodded at the teacher then further added, "We will begin then in a quarter of a candlemark." He started to step away but paused and smiled back at the students, "There are many families and friends out there." With those as his final words, he strolled off calmly.

Suddenly the madness lived again as the teachers and students finished getting prepared. One teacher was calling out names down by the exit way, it was the order of who went first in the assembly. He quickly stole a look outside and saw that the stage was indeed prepared with rows of chairs. He also was dazzled by how many people were attending the graduation and it wasn't just locals but families too.

The chattering crowd made a loud din throughout the theatre but it went silent when a prominent face showed up on stage.

The master bard smiled at the people attending the graduation. He held out his hands while calling out, "Welcome to the Theatre of Dionysus!"

The crowd clapped and cheered but instantly stopped when the master bard lowered his arms.

"I am Gastacius from The Academy of Performing Bards in Athens. It pleases me to see such a large turnout of family and friends here at the graduation." He paused and shifted in his stance some. "Today over fifty of the Academy's students will be graduating and this is a record breaking number this spring. For the past two seasons cycles these students have been working diligently and without fault to become confident and hone their skills as scribes, poets, and playwrights. Yet underneath these broad talents all of these students are bards and soon to be graduates of The Academy of Performing Bards!" He turned to his left and gave the signal.

The audience cried out as the master bard stepped off to the side of the stage and students filed out.

Gabrielle was in the theatre and watching some of her classmates step out. She looked at Faolan, who sat off to the side. She reached over and patted his head. "I'll see you soon, boy." She then straightened up just as it was her time to step out.

Faolan went to the exit, sat, and watched his human friend stroll down to the stage.

The Amazon Princess held her breath at seeing the audience so clearly before her compared to at night. For some reason she felt more nervous today than she did the night she performed here. She took her chair next to Euripides.

Ephiny leaned over Euripides some and whispered to Gabrielle. "You see them?"

Gabrielle scanned all the faces but then they stuck out like centaurs.

There in the mid-row off to the right wing was a huge group of leather clad women with feathers in their hair.

The princess chuckled and teased, "I can't believe it."

"I told you they would come." Ephiny wanted to add more but she stopped because the precession was finished

The slave though was wondering if Cornelio made it. She hastily searched over the faces but she came to a quick stop by the middle row in the center. She was suddenly excited to see Cornelio, Adara, Maria, and little Mary. Just as she was settled back into her seat, her sight floated back to the Amazons and two distinct faces surprised her next to the Amazons.

"By the gods… it's…."

Ephiny had the hugest, knowing grin ever on her face once her girlfriend realized it. She gave a small wave to the two familiar faces that Gabrielle had just recognized.

Cyrene and Toris waved back at the Amazon.

Gabrielle was beside herself. "You… you… how'd you… when did you… Ephiny," she hissed.

Ephiny switched over to an innocent look. "Well, you told me to send out word about the graduating date. You never said who."

Gastacius walked back to the center stage and teacher was at his side. The teacher held a basket with scrolls, which were sealed by red leather thongs.

The master bard faced the audience. "First we will begin with the awards for certain students that excelled." He slightly turned so that he was now partially facing the crowd and the students. He already had all of the names and awards memorized. He picked the top scroll out, held it firmly, and began his short speech. "Our first award goes to that bard, who showed an advanced skill in the form of playwright. We believe this bard will become most successful in the realm of playwrights particularly with classical Greek tragedy. We give this award to Euripides."

Euripides for the first time had a dumbfounded look, which was quite the odd expression on such a usual man. He hesitated at first but Gabrielle and Ephiny urged him to his feet.

Everybody started clapping while Euripides went to collect his award. He was shaking but happy as he received the scroll in one hand and shaking the master bard's hand.

Gastacius waited until the student sat then he went onto his second award. "The next award is given to that bard that has excelled in the way of scribing. This bard will most likely become one of the most renowned scribes especially for a kingdom as so many are in need of such talent. This award is given to Sibella."

Again the crowd applauded and some were cheering out Sibella's name.

After the master bard handed out the award, he picked out the third. He cleared his throat then began his speech. "This award is given to the bard, who has outclassed all other bards in the way of poetry. We believe this bard's verse will be sung on every future poet's lips. This award we give to Ephiny."

The color drained from Ephiny's face as she mumbled, "He's joking."

Orion bent over with Gabrielle and said, "Go, Ephiny."

Gabrielle arched her eyebrow at her girlfriend. "Get up there, Eph."

The Amazon fumbled and tried to get to her feet. She went out of her small row and approached the master bard. She flushed deeply when familiar voices hooted out her name.

Gabrielle giggled at the Amazons in the crowd calling out Ephiny.

"Thank you, sir," whispered the Amazon.

Gastacius smiled while shaking the young woman's hand. "You earned it, Ephiny." He gave her the award after the handshake.

Ephiny smiled and quietly walked away.

The master bard took the next award and held it firm while speaking. "This fourth award goes to a bard that set-aside time during their busy studies to help other bards. This giving bard not only performs well but this bard helped other bards find their own greatness. This award we give to Theron."

The awarded bard took a few heartbeats to realize he'd been called. He quickly shot up from his chair in the back row and claimed his award. He was all smiles as he took his spot in the back again.

"This next award is given to a bard that shows the flare and dramatics for what it takes to be a bard on the stage. This bard, we would say, is quite dramatic and not only do they tell their stories but they act them. This bard's methodology places life into every story they do. We give this award to Stallonus."

Stallonus was sitting next to Theron and Sibella.Theron slapped the bard on the back for a great job. Stallonus nervously laughed then climbed to his feet. He adjusted his dark toga and went to the master bard.  He nervously shook the master bard's hand and received his award. But then he came over his small fear and he faced the crowd. "Woohooo!" he called out and the crowd roared in laughter.

Stallonus quickly retreated before the teacher or master bard could threaten him.

Gastacius sighed while shaking his head despite he was grinning. He retrieved the next award. "Now this award is something new this spring. We started this award because one bard demonstrated a certain fear yet they didn't let it stop them. When the final exam came this bard took something that many saw as a negative and used it to their advantage. This award goes to the most improved bard and that is Twickenham."

Twickenham's jaw fell open. He looked over at Stallonus for confirmation.

"Get up there, buddy," urged Stallonus.

Twickenham ran his hand through his short brown hair but he got up. He went to the master bard and slightly bowed. "Thank you, sir. Thank you so much."

"It is my honor, Twickenham."

After the hand shake, Twickenham took the award and just as he did somebody called out, "Go Twicky!"  Twickenham peered up at the audience, his cheeks red, and yet he smiled at the young woman waving to him. It was his girlfriend.

Finally it was time for the last award. Gastacius didn't touch the basket. Instead he began his speech he'd been working on since late last night. "The final award is our most prestigious award. It is an award given to a bard that excels beyond any teacher's dreams and beyond my expectations. It is for the bard that starts out at the bottom and finishes far beyond their peers. This bard will become the one most likely to succeed as a legend." The master bard paused as his final thoughts came together. "This spring was excessively hard to pick out that bard and so hard that we could not settle on a final bard. For the first time, this award will be given to two bards as they both are exceptional in their own ways. This award goes to Homer of Smyrna and Gabrielle of Potidaea!"

Orion sat motionless.

Gabrielle forgot to breathe. She looked at Orion and rasped, "By the gods."

Orion came to himself and he grinned. "They had nothing to do with," he joked.

Gabrielle laughed and together she stood up with him. Without notice, she suddenly grabbed her friend into a gigantic hug.

Orion laughed happily and held strong in the hug.

The theatre was ringing with a roar of happiness.

"Come on," offered Orion, his hand held out.

Gabrielle held onto her friend's hand and was led through the row. She never released Orion's hand as they shook hands with the master bard and accepted a scroll each. She then faced the crowd with Orion and she soaked in the chanting of her name and Homer.

Ephiny listened to the Amazons shouting out Gabrielle's name at the top of their voices. She suddenly stood up and began clapping loudly.

Euripides jumped to his feet and joined Ephiny's clapping.

Twickenham and Stallonus followed suit.

Gabrielle and Orion twisted their heads around. They smiled together when they realized all their classmates were standing and praising them. Then the most unexpected sound broke throw it all as a wolf's howl vibrated through the theatre. Gabrielle's eyes went wide in Faolan's direction and she covered her mouth to stop the laughs.

The audience laughed together at the white wolf's appreciation for the arts.

Gabrielle glanced over at the master bard and mouthed an apology. When Gastacius merely shrugged she felt relieved.

The bards finally bowed to the audience and quietly went to their seats for the last of the graduation.

When Gabrielle came to her seat and broke away from Orion she found herself in a powerful hug from Ephiny.

"I'm so proud of you," murmured the Amazon into the princess's ear.

"And I am proud of you too, poet," whispered back the bard.

The Amazon's broke the embrace and took their seats like the rest of the students.

Gastacius nodded at the teacher by his side.

The teacher power walked off stage from behind while another came on stage with two baskets in hand. The new teacher took the same position beside the master bard.

The master bard quietly cleared his throat then announced, "Now we began with the diplomas from The Academy of Performing Bards. Each bard will receive this document as recognition of their time at the Academy. This will go alphabetically. Please hold your applause for the end." He picked up the first scroll from the closest basket. "Adonis of Marathon," he called out.

The bard rose up from his seat in the front row. He stepped up to the master bard.

The master bard continued down the list of graduating bards. Each time a bard went forward, some portion of the crowd called out that bard's name. After reading off the fifty names and handing out the scrolls, Gastacius faced the audience and called out, "Quickly I want to invite the family members, friends, and underclassmen to a fine, local taverna just around the corner called Cameo. There we will celebrate these bards." He then held out a hand to the alumnae bards. "Congratulate the students who are now true bards!"

There was a rhythmic clapping as the audience rose up to their feet and continued applauding.

Every bard had a smile as they too stood up.

Gabrielle went to Ephiny first and hugged her tightly- both her scrolls in her right hand.

The Amazon happily chuckled while hugging her small girlfriend back.

"We did it, we really did it."

Ephiny squeezed tightly and pulled back in the embrace so that she could look at her girlfriend. "Yes, we did." She then twisted her head around when people began ascending the stage. "Let's find everybody."

Gabrielle hurried out of the row with Ephiny in tow. She stopped at the end of the row, gazed over at her fuzzy friend, and met his eyes.

Faolan didn't wait any longer. He bounded out of the exit and raced across the stage.

The princess bent down and hugged him around the neck.

The wolf whined happily at her then when she pulled back he licked her cheek.

"Come on, boy you have to meet some people."

Faolan snorted but he faithfully followed the Amazons. He was carefully not to get stepped out as he weaved through the mass of humans. He took his usual right side to Gabrielle and sat. He tilted his head back and studied the humans surrounding Gabrielle and they were quite the variety.

Gabrielle went first to Cyrene and Toris since it'd been so long. She engulfed Cyrene into the largest and longest hug ever followed by Toris. She was on the brink of tears.

It was at least half of a candlemark before Gabrielle and Ephiny did all of the introductions between Cornelio's house, the Amazons, and Cyrene's side. Cornelio warmly greeted every Amazon and each Amazon warmly received the man. Eponin and Solari especially received well to Cornelio since they knew the truth about his position with Gabrielle. They knew if it wasn't for him that Gabrielle may have never gone to the Academy, met Ephiny, and ultimately become their princess.

Ephiny and Gabrielle were amazed to see so many Amazons showed as it was Eponin, Solari, Andra, the historian, Adonia, Jocasta, and unexpectedly Masika, Ambassador Majorie, and Priestess Narkissa.

The priestess finally had a moment with the princess. Her emotions were full of pride at the princess's success. "Congratulations, princess."

The bard softly smiled and pulled the priestess in for a warm hug. "Thank you." When she broke the hug she said, "I didn't expect you here."

"I did not want to miss this." Priestess Narkissa folded her arms behind her back. "Despite I already have a daughter I feel as if you're mine as well."

At the mention of being a daughter, Gabrielle's happy mood slightly faltered as her mother came to mind. Yet she knew in her heart that her mother was there with her as was her father. "Thank you, priestess that means a great deal."

"Maired asked that I apologize on her behalf that she could not come." The priestess slightly grinned. "She said somebody had to stay behind and run the temple."

The slave quietly giggled. "I understand."

"She wishes you congratulations though," added the priestess.

Gabrielle smiled at that but her attention was caught by two other older Amazons.

"Princess, congratulations," honored the ambassador.

"Yes, princess this is quite a success," agreed Masika then she wickedly smiled. "I had a feeling that mouth of yours would pay off."

The princess tried to swat at the council member but she certainly missed.

Ephiny was busy talking between Eponin, Solari, and Cornelio with his wife.

Mary wiggled between the groups and came over to somebody or rather something that had caught her attention from the start. She smiled at the white wolf. "Hi, I'm Mary."

Faolan stretched out his neck and sniffed the girl. He memorized her scent. He was also taken with the fact that he was pretty much eye level with her.

The little girl gingerly brought her hand over his head then lowered it. When her fingers went through his fur, she was all smiles.

Ephiny broke away from the conversation and touched Gabrielle's arm.

The bard pulled away from her own chatting and turned her head to Ephiny.

"We should head to the tavern."

The princess's realization came over her face. "You're right." She called out, "Everybody we should take this to the tavern. I know I am starving personally."

The friends and family all broke out laughing but they agreed. The large group slowly began migrating through the theatre.

Andra came up along Gabrielle's left side since her right side was occupied by a certain wolf. "I'm very proud of you, sister."

The bard paused and stole a quick hug from her sister. "Thank you, Andra and thank you for coming all the way down here."

"It was my pleasure and honor to see you graduate." The blacksmith then signaled to the scroll in her sister's hand. "May I see?"

"Of course." The princess hastily unrolled one scroll and handed it to her.

Andra read through the scroll and slowly a smile etched her lips. She then traded for the other scroll. When she was finished, she rolled it up and returned it.

Gabrielle shifted closer to quietly ask, "How is the Nation?"

The blacksmith laughed. "You always have concerns for your Nation."

"I wouldn't be a good princess otherwise."

Andra slowly nodded. "The Nation is well and wait 'til you come home." Slowly a grin eased over her lips. "We've begun production of the smith hut."

"Sweet Artemis, finally," breathed the bard.

"We'll talk about it later." Andra touched her sister's arm. "This evening we're celebrating yours and Ephiny's success."

Gabrielle conceded as her mood went higher and higher through the rest of the afternoon then into the night. She spent candlemark upon candlemark with her family and friends. She was still getting over her shock that Cyrene and Toris came all this way. She could only imagine what troubles they went to so that the tavern was closed, to travel, and the expense. She planned to spend as much time as she could with them.

Gabrielle never felt so many emotions as she did on this day. The last time she ever recalled being this happy was on her fourteenth birthday so many moons far back. And it was in that one thought that her mind roamed far away to where and who Xena was now. To the one person she wished more than anything that could be sharing this day with her.

To be continued.

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