~ It Never Rains, But It Pours! ~
by Red Raven

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and certain other significant mortals belong to MCA/Universal (how I wish it were otherwise!) and no copyright infringement is intended. The gods are up for grabs (generally) while any other mortals are mine all mine!

Warning: This story does contain scenes of violence in places and reference to rape (not graphic), so please tread carefully if this bothers your reading enjoyment or go away altogether.

This story also depicts a relationship between two women in love and contains scenes of graphic sex. That's the way I see it and so that's the way I tell it. Consequently, if you're under the age of consent or homosexual relationships are still illegal where you are, or if it's just not your cup of tea, do me a favour and go read something else!

Chronology: This story takes place about a year after events found in "One Against An Army" and specifically relates to the events in "The Bitter Suite". Events found in 'future' episodes therefore have little or no bearing on what unfolds here.

Personal Note

This is my first attempt at Xenite fan-fic. I don't ask that you be overly critical, but if you think it's lousy, I'd like to know why. Similarly, if you enjoy what you read, be my guest to come and massage my ego a little and share why you like it. Either way, you can reach me by Email below.

Red Raven

Part Two

The cave remained dark, both braziers having long burned themselves out in the night and the fire itself was no more than a pile of warm ash. Xena's highly tuned body clock told her it was daybreak. She had been awake for the last candle-mark, thinking through everything Artemis had spoken of during her nocturnal visit and was mentally attempting to find the best way to inform Gabrielle of what lay ahead.

'My Gabrielle.' Xena closed her eyes and smiled to herself before turning towards the sleeping bard. 'My lover.' She pondered the intimacies shared the previous evening as she stroked Gabrielle's hair. 'My beloved...My Queen.' Gabrielle stirred and turned towards Xena.

"Good morning, sleepyhead." The warrior addressed two half-open eyes, gently tapping their owner's nose before entangling her fingers in dishevelled hair. Gabrielle yawned and reached for Xena, pulling herself in for a cuddle.

"Mmmmmm..." As she trailed her fingers down Xena's side Gabrielle became conscious of the cool feel of silk and tugged at it. "I don't remember this, Xena. Did you buy it the last time we came through a town?"

All thoughts of a well-prepared speech went out of Xena's head. "No Gabrielle, it was a gift from Artemis. She was here last night."

Gabrielle came to with a jolt and sat up. "Artemis? When? What did she want? Is she still here? Oh why didn't you wake me, Xena? I bet it was important. Was she upset that we...I mean, she wasn't annoyed was she? Oh, she couldn't have been though could she, otherwise she wouldn't have left you a gift, would she? What did she say?"

Xena listened with amusement until Gabrielle had finished. "Which question would ya like me to answer first?" She raised an eyebrow and laughed. "More importantly Gabrielle, shouldn't you be starting with 'Good morning Xena, my love, how are you?' as your first question? Then tell me how happy you are that we made love last night, or were you not too struck by what we shared?"

Gabrielle blushed and stifled a chuckle. "I'm sorry Xena." She reached out to run her fingertips down the warrior's face and rested her hand on Xena's shoulder. "This is wonderful and it feels so right! I love you so much! And... last night, when you touched me, I think I realised...Xena, I knew how a caged bird must feel when it's released into all the colours of the world!" She beamed at the woman she loved and could now respond to openly.

Xena was quiet for a moment, simply enjoying the soft expression on her lover's face, before brushing the tousled fringe from Gabrielle's forehead. "I think I'm gonna check outside. If the storm's all done, as I hope it should be by now, we'll take everything outside the cave and have something to eat. Then I'll tell you all about Artemis' visit while we get ready to leave this place, okay?"

Gabrielle pulled Xena into her for a lingering kiss before letting go. "I'm okay now. Just don't be too long." She looked around the bedrolls for her shift, discarded the previous evening, and put it on. Xena picked up the torch from where she had dropped it after they first entered the cave, then stopped by the saddlebags to pick up her flints, along with the second torch. She lit both and leaned one against a rock to give Gabrielle some light. After greeting Argo, the warrior made her way out of the cave, pausing just long enough to snatch up her sword.

Leaving the torch burning in the passageway, Xena slipped through the now dripping vines. She was met by a cloudless, rose-tinted sky and breathed deeply, revelling in the early morning freshness after the night's rain. The warrior checked the vicinity to confirm seclusion and safety for Gabrielle and herself, before shrugging off the silk robe. She dealt with her own basic needs, then laying her sword against a boulder, she enjoyed a convenient wash in one of the many large rain-filled rock pools. By the time Xena returned to the cave, Gabrielle already had the bedrolls and saddlebags packed and these, together with their weapons, Xena's leathers and armour, were piled neatly ready to be carried out.

Between the two of them, Xena and Gabrielle brought everything out in one trip, Argo being content to follow them once the warrior beckoned her with a low whistle. Xena dressed, gave Argo a couple of apples and then prepared a simple meal of bread, cheese and fruit for Gabrielle and herself, while Gabrielle slipped away a short distance to see to her own needs before dressing and joining Xena for their morning meal. As they ate, the warrior tried to explain to Gabrielle everything Artemis had told her. It did not go at all the way she had planned in her head during the early hours.

To the casual observer, it might have seemed that a Greek comedy was unfolding, setting a small, wildly gesticulating woman, against an evidently large warrior who was trying to pacify whatever verbal battle ensued. What was actually taking place was a far cry from comedy.

"I'm not angry with you, Xena, it's Ares!" Gabrielle was in tears and trying hard not to lose her temper. "How dare he do this now! How could he? Why can't he just let you go? Why does he have to be such a bastard?" Xena winced at Gabrielle's choice of words. Profanities from the lips of the young bard seemed foreign and harsh.

"Gabrielle." Xena lifted a hand in supplication. "Please try to see this as the one, perfect chance to end his tricks forever. Not to mention that it's the opportunity I need to be accepted by the Amazon Nation as your bond-mate."

"I can't Xena! All I can see in this...this...mess, is the choice between losing you to Ares or losing you to Persephone and Hades ~ and I'm sorry, it might be selfish of me, but I've had enough of 'losing you' to last a lifetime! We're finally, actually together, Xena, and I want the chance to find you; to discover you." Her voice softened. "Now I have you in my grasp I want us to spend the rest of our lives exploring each other, mentally and spiritually, and without doubt physically. I don't need the permission of the Amazon Nation for that!"

"You do as their Queen, my love...you know you do." Xena reached out her hand, which Gabrielle accepted and sat down next to the warrior. "Gabrielle, my heart is breaking to see you hurting so much over this and believe me when I say if there were another way around it I'd consider it, but the simple truth is, there isn't one. I must deal with this. I have to face Ares' influence on my life, our lives, once and for all ~ and sever it! In the same way, whatever happens, you have a responsibility to the Amazon tribe as their Queen and to yourself as your own person...and to me as the one who loves you and needs you to be strong in all this. I know it may sound cruel, but you have to deal with this as the leader of a people, not only as friend and lover to me. You have to face your responsibilities as Queen over those who trust you Gabrielle, who believe in your abilities and also love you very much."

"I'm aware of my responsibilities, Xena." Gabrielle blinked away fresh tears. "And I know you're right, but it doesn't make the situation right! Zeus could have just snapped his fingers and put everything back to how it should be, but no! He had to listen to his odious, obnoxious son." She got up and began pacing up and down in front of the warrior. "Xena, when you died, you came back to me because I loved you and needed you. When we were blind to the truth once and poisoned by hatred, we tried to kill each other, but we overcame it ~ and are healing from it all ~ because of what we share. We are meant to be together Xena! Now we are and I don't want you to do this. I love you and I need you now, more than ever! And I...and I...."

Xena stood up and grabbed Gabrielle as she walked within reach and turned her around. "And if you tell me you would prefer me to walk away from this challenge for the sake of our love, instead of facing it because of our love, then everything we have, Gabrielle, will count for nothing! Don't you see that? Everything becomes meaningless. Honour, trust, integrity, our belief in the greater good, all that we've achieved together...and that includes our love!"

A few moments elapsed as bard and warrior regarded each other intently. Gabrielle knew she could not win this argument. She recognised the futility of looking for a way out of the challenge. If Xena couldn't see a way out, then it didn't exist. She also understood her responsibilities to the Amazon Nation completely, needing only one condition to ensure her fulfilment of them as a fair and competent leader ~ Xena, to stand with her at Thessaly.

Gabrielle's anguished expression slowly eased as her lips broke into a smile that broadened into an enormous grin and she shook her head. "You really know how to overstate a point sometimes, don't you!" She began to chuckle, lightly. Xena was somewhat bemused by Gabrielle's sudden change from one emotion to another and couldn't help but smile herself.

Gabrielle stepped closer to Xena, so that their faces were as close as their respective heights could allow, and proceeded to stab the warrior's breastplate with her index finger, emphasising everything she spoke. "Just - make - sure - you - win! Come - back - to - me - whole - Xena! I - can't - rule - in - Thessaly - without - you!" She stepped back, grasping Xena's shoulders. "Have you got that warrior? Because I swear, if you don't come back to me..."

"Once this is all over..." Xena lifted Gabrielle off the ground to be at eye level with her. "You won't be able to shake me loose from you!"

Gabrielle's expression turned serious again. "I'm depending on it, Xena." She leaned in to brush the warrior's lips with her own.

Xena lowered Gabrielle to the ground. "So am I." She pulled her into a hug, kissing the side of her head.

"Do you think you can beat this Agradon and his men before they discover what the chalice can actually do?" Gabrielle eased away from Xena and began to rearrange the saddlebags, ready for their imminent journey.

"Gabrielle, getting the chalice back will be the easy part as far as I'm concerned. It's facing Ephiny and your Amazons again that scares the Hades out of me!"

"Xena, I'm serious."

"You think I'm not?" Xena ran her hand down down Gabrielle's arm. "Look, about Agradon... he's strong, he has the strength of a madman, but he really is cracked and that should make him careless one-on-one."

"What about what Artemis said about the twenty or so men he's killed in drunken rages?"

"Gabrielle, in a warlord's camp one drunken brawl is much the same as another. The chances are, that when one of his men got too much confidence from wine and attacked Agradon, he attacked alone. Agradon, on the other hand, would always have a second in command at his side or, at least, some soldier wanting to please the warlord and gain his favour. Doesn't matter how evil or cruel a leader is, he'll always have those loyal to him... It's when the loyal ones turn, then a warlord's had it. I guess that's the only reason I'm surprised Agradon's still in charge. I'd have thought he'd have been killed by his own, long before now." Xena picked up her saddle, raising it onto Argo's back. "Besides, we might not have to kill him then and there, maybe we can bring him in to be judged by the Amazon Council. If I can get through to his men, convince them to follow me instead of Agradon, all I have to do is make them feel incredibly homesick before sending them back to wives, mothers and farms or whatever." She stooped to finish buckling the saddle underneath the mare.

"Do you really think you can do that?" Gabrielle looked at Xena hopefully as the warrior stood up again.

"Well, I'll give my best try, that's for sure." Xena smirked. "There are certainly some advantages being a woman when it comes down to making soldiers pine for home."

Gabrielle grinned, but her smile soon faded and she became thoughtful. "Judging by what you told me, Artemis is expecting you to kill Agradon, isn't she?"

Xena froze for a moment as she picked up Argo's bridle. "It could come to that in the end Gabrielle, and I have to be honest here..." She turned to face the young bard. "I won't shed any tears for that monster if he finishes his life at the end of my sword, or any Amazon's sword for that matter." She placed the bit in Argo's mouth and lifted the bridle into position.

Gabrielle tentatively grasped Xena's wrist. "For once, neither will I."

The warrior turned back to Gabrielle, concerned. "I've never heard you speak like that before, Gabrielle. Why now? Why Agradon?"

Gabrielle's voice lowered slightly. "It's something Charis told me once Xena, when an Amazon scout party was attacked by Agradon's men."

"Charis... She's one of the royal guards, right?"

"Yes she is." Gabrielle began handing the saddlebags to Xena. "She's a good warrior too, as was her sister Prisca, apparently."

"Was?" Xena gave Gabrielle her full attention. "What happened?"

"The scouts, there were four of them, were taken by surprise outside Amazonia, beyond our Thessalian borders about two summers ago. One warrior died in the attack, two were left for dead and Prisca was taken by Agradon's men." Gabrielle sighed heavily. "I knew the attack had taken place and that one of our warriors had been abducted. I didn't know Prisca was the sister of Charis until Charis told me herself later."

Xena closed her eyes and briefly honoured the dead Amazon warrior in her thoughts, then mulled over what Prisca's fate may have been. She hoped the Amazon had died swiftly by the sword of one of Agradon's men, instead of meeting with the brutal warlord himself. She took another saddlebag from Gabrielle and buckled it securely across Argo's flanks. "Did Ephiny send warriors after the scouting party when the women failed to return?"

"No Xena, I did." Gabrielle was met by a puzzled expression from the warrior. "It happened during that summer you went to help out at Amphipolis and rebuild the blacksmith's place, remember?"

Xena nodded slowly. "And you decided it was a good opportunity to stay with Ephiny, to learn more about Amazon Law."

"That's right, and I did, I learned a great deal. I missed you terribly, though..." She looked affectionately towards Xena, who nodded in agreement.

"Yeah, me too."

"Anyway, while I was there the two scouts managed to get back to the village and raise the alarm, even though they were badly injured. They also brought back our dead sister." The family term for the Amazon warrior was not lost on Xena. She recognised Gabrielle's growing sense of kinship towards the Amazons and it pleased her.

Gabrielle broke off from the conversation briefly, re-checking that the saddlebags were all closed properly. "I realised the importance of locating Prisca as quickly as possible and was sure Ephiny would take the right action. She's full of surprises though." Gabrielle smiled at the thought of her Amazon friend and looked up at Xena. "Ephiny was about to take charge when she made the point of telling me that, since the Queen was present it was a decision she should make. Xena, it was actually on the tip of my tongue to ask where she was, when I suddenly remembered she meant me!" Xena had to work hard to stifle the grin that was threatening to break through, but she managed to keep a straight face as Gabrielle continued. "So I said we should send six warriors to locate the warlord. Three to return and report on where they were camped and three to remain nearby to establish where Prisca was being held while we organised a silent night raid to rescue her. Ephiny encouraged me to give the order, so I did."

Xena nodded, sensing her heart tugged by pride over Gabrielle's ability to take control and apply strategy. "But they didn't find anything, right?"

"No, they didn't. They followed Agradon's trail to the coast, where a local port confirmed horses and gold were traded for a ship that had set sail in a hurry. They weren't heard of after that...until now."

"Until now." Xena repeated, as she checked quickly over the saddle and saddlebags, making certain nothing had been missed. "Why haven't you mentioned all this before, Gabrielle?"

"Looking back, I'm not sure why I didn't, Xena. Maybe at the time I thought what happened should be handled by the Amazons. If I'd told you, you might have turned it into a personal quest or something, but you had your own work to do and debts to fulfil."

"Funny how things work out though, huh? Now it looks like it's become my business after all."

Gabrielle nodded in agreement. "Xena, do you think Prisca's still alive?"

The warrior gently took Gabrielle's hand and clasped it tightly in her own. "Gabrielle, if Prisca still lives, we'll bring her home. That's a promise." She gathered up Argo's reins in her free hand and took a deep breath of morning air. "You ready for this?"

Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand. "It'll be fine, Xena. We're expected. It's not going to be comfortable, but it'll be...I'm sure it'll be alright. Besides, if any Amazon wants to lay a finger on you they'll have to go through me first, remember?" She grinned. "Somehow I doubt they'd want to annoy their Queen the moment she arrives." Gabrielle gazed suggestively at Xena. "So I'm ready for this, yeah. The question is, are you ready for me?"

Xena raised an eyebrow. "Somehow Gabrielle, I sense that to be a highly loaded question." She offered a cockeyed grin, before letting her features take on a serious expression once more. Without taking her eyes off Gabrielle, she called out in a strong voice. "Artemis, we're ready to go. You can do your stuff now!"

The warrior felt nothing more than the sensation of a light breeze and had hardly completed her sentence before realising the rocky valley had disappeared and was now replaced by the lush green forest of Thessaly. "Do you feel alright, Gabrielle?"

"Just fine." Gabrielle looked around. "Well that sure beats getting on a horse or a ship! Think we could always get about like that?"

Xena laughed, as she and Gabrielle began walking, Argo taking up the pace willingly. "I doubt Artemis really wants to get into the public travel business just yet, even for one of her Queens." She dramatically bowed at the waist towards Gabrielle, causing her to chuckle. "Still, I' better not forget my manners... " She looked up. "Thank you goddess!"

"You are both welcome." The unexpected reply rustled through the trees. "And keep in mind Xena, my Amazons are as nervous about welcoming you into the village as you are about meeting them again. Be strong, and be wise. Gabrielle, my child, my blessing goes with you. Be all you are meant to be as Queen to my Amazons." The voice faded to a whisper. "You have company, my children."

Xena's senses tingled as she looked up at the trees ahead, where four vine ropes suddenly dropped to the ground, followed by four descending masked Amazon warriors. She restrained herself from the natural impulse to draw her sword and take up an aggressive posture back to back with her companion, even when she could hear four more warriors descending from trees behind them. Instead, she and Gabrielle adopted the traditional salute, raising clasped hands above their heads with thumbs downward, both to greet the Amazons and reveal weapon-free hands.

A few moments passed as another two masked Amazons made their presence known, approaching on foot from the bushes. Despite the feathered masks, Gabrielle and Xena recognised the wearers simply from their stances. Gabrielle bit her tongue to prevent herself from calling out in greeting to Ephiny and Solari, realising that a short, but necessary ritual was about to take place. She only hoped Ephiny would allow for Xena's unfamiliarity with one of the more serious Amazon customs.

"Amazons, stand down." Ephiny's voice was clear and strong. Spears and swords that had initially been pointing towards the 'intruders' swung to the ground. Amazon masks were tipped back to reveal faces and Xena and Gabrielle lowered their hands.

Ephiny came nearer, with Solari no more than a pace behind her, both still masked. After a slow, deliberate bow of her head to Gabrielle, to acknowledge her presence, Ephiny addressed Xena. "You have offended the Amazons, Xena. Do you deny this?"

"I do not deny the charge." Xena kept her tone calm and even. As she spoke the words of ritual answer, Gabrielle was surprised that the warrior knew them.

Ephiny continued. "You have offended the Amazon Queen and her Regent, Xena. Do you deny this?"

Gabrielle restrained herself from verbally defending the woman she loved, despite longing to express to Ephiny how completely the 'offence' towards her as Queen had been forgiven and was continuing to heal. In the same way, she reminded herself, her own offence towards the warrior had been just as great, but that too had been thrown into the sea of forgiveness. Instead, she settled on patiently listening to Xena's reply.

"I do not deny the charge." The warrior stated simply.

Ephiny again addressed Xena. "You came to us in force. You came to us with weapons drawn. How do you now approach us, Xena?"

The warrior closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. She reached slowly for her sword and pulled it free, bringing it down before her with the hilt tipped towards Ephiny. "I come in peace. I come without weapons." Allowing the blade to hang down, Xena knelt on one knee and laid her sword at the Regent's feet, then unclasped her chakram and placed it beside the sword on the ground. "And I come in humility." She stood up again.

Ephiny was taken aback to see Xena's eyes brimmed with tears, though her face remained fixed and emotionless as was so often the case. She wanted nothing more than to embrace the two friends she been so desperately worried about in private, but now was not yet the time and as Regent, she had to complete this formality. She breathed in and managed to maintain her authoritative tone. "Are you prepared to face the charges brought against you, Xena, to stand before the Council of your own free will, to accept judgement upon you and thereby be reconciled to the Amazon Nation?"

"I am prepared to face the charges brought against me. I am prepared to stand before the Council of my own free will, to accept judgement upon me and be reconciled to the Amazon Nation."

With Xena's final answer, Ephiny removed her mask and met the warrior eye-to-eye. "Xena, welcome back!" She reached out to wrap her arms around Xena's shoulders, expecting the usual non-response of simply being allowed to embrace the stoic warrior, albeit briefly. To her surprise, she found herself picked up and all but crushed against Xena's chest in a bear hug.

"Gods Eph, it's so good to see you again and know you're alright." She spun round once and then gently lowered the Regent, without letting go. "I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am for what happened."

"I know, Xena." Ephiny whispered. "And I realise things may not be entirely easy for a while between some of my sisters and you..." She and Xena broke the embrace and held each other's forearms in a warrior's greeting. "But we'll get there together. You have my word as Regent and as your friend." Xena smiled at Ephiny and allowed her to brush away the single tear she couldn't blink away.

"Eh hem." Gabrielle quietly coughed. "D'you think the Queen could get in on the act now?"

Ephiny turned towards Gabrielle, for a moment her broad grin replaced by formal respect. "My Queen." She dropped to one knee and lowered her head. As she did so, Solari and the other eight Amazons followed suit. Ephiny looked up to be greeted by Gabrielle's smile and outstretched arms, which she gladly rose to meet. "I've missed you so much, Gabrielle...welcome back. I'm just glad to see you in one piece." Ephiny screwed her eyes up briefly and silently mouthed 'Sorry Xena' over Gabrielle's shoulder to the warrior, receiving raised eyes in return and a mouthed 'It's alright, Eph' in return.

Ephiny eventually broke her warm embrace with Gabrielle and stepped back, allowing Gabrielle to greet Solari in the same way.

"My Queen and my friend." Solari wrapped Gabrielle in her arms and hugged her tight, before letting go and addressing both Gabrielle and Xena. "I almost thought we wouldn't see you two again. Well. Not alive, anyway!"

Xena greeted Solari with a warrior's arm clasp, then pulled her in for an affectionate hug. "That very thought had actually crossed my mind too." Xena whispered as they separated. "But life goes on, Solari, and it's far too short for vengeance...I guess some of us bone-headed types just have to learn the hard way." She rapped her knuckles against her temple for emphasis.

Gabrielle winced at the sound. "Xena!"

"Sorry...oops." She lifted a sheepish grin.

"I'm going to say hello to the others." Gabrielle turned and walked towards the other Amazons, to be greeted by bows and reverent mumbles of welcome. Her whispers of "Please...call me 'Gabrielle', don't keep calling me 'highness' and 'Queen' all the time...." filtered back to Xena, Ephiny and Solari as they spoke in low tones beside Xena's horse.

"She never changes, does she?" Ephiny commented with a grin.

Xena glanced up at Gabrielle and turned back towards the Regent. "I hope she never does Ephiny, she's perfect just the way she is."

Solari exchanged glances with Ephiny. "I guess once we settle the dust of your, um...the things we need to sort out..."

"It's alright Solari." Xena chided. "You can say 'crimes'. I know your laws, remember? Or at least enough of them."

"Yeah, I noticed." Ephiny joined in. "Nearly word-perfect on that ritual of 'Admission After Hostilities' today." She laughed.

"Hey, whaddaya mean by 'nearly'." Xena playfully shouldered Ephiny. "Besides, why did you pick that particular one? You know I would have accepted a standard arrest from the guards."

"This way just seemed a little more respectful Xena." Ephiny glanced at the ground and looked at the warrior's sword and chakram still lying there. "When our priestess came to me, confirming that Artemis had visited her in a vision and repeated what the goddess had said about the challenge and everything, I knew that the Xena I trust and love as my friend was on her way back." She looked up and met the warrior with a steady gaze. "I didn't want you bound by ropes and marched into the village like some prized villain."

"I would have deserved it though, Eph." Xena stated simply. "Any other person, Amazon or outlander, who had ridden into the village with murder in mind, injured the Regent and abducted the Queen, would be facing a likely death sentence now, wouldn't they?"

"That's different, Xena." Ephiny placed her hand on Xena's shoulder. "There was reason for what you did." She raised her hand gently to cut the warrior off before she could speak. "Alright, maybe not exactly thought out reason, or sane, or logical. But it was understandable." She took a deep breath while she tried to judge Xena's expression. "Can I...may I mention Solan?"

Xena's expression pained for a fleeting moment, then softened to a smile. "Yes. You can speak of my son, Ephiny. I want him to be remembered."

"Solan was a true light, Xena. A handsome, good-hearted boy, who would have grown into a wise young man had he been allowed to reach manhood." Her voice shook very slightly. "Xenan loved him like a brother and misses him so much. We all do. The Centaur village really isn't the same without him. And when I look at Xenan and think it could have been him...it could have been my son, Xena." Both warriors slipped an arm around each other's waist as they steadied one another. "Well, I for one can understand, at least partly, why you did it." Ephiny reached her free arm up to Xena's shoulder. "I'm not the only Amazon at the village who feels the same, Xena. And I'm not the only mother who's wondered if she wouldn't have done what you did, given the same circumstances." She stepped away slowly from the warrior. "There'll never be a death sentence hanging over you, not by order of the Council, or the Queen, her Regent, or by the wish of the Nation." Ephiny smiled, the mood beginning to lighten again. "Oh, and there's the other issue of course, regarding our Queen and you. It means we need to tread carefully where Amazon Law's concerned. We have to appease the Council, without angering or upsetting our Queen beyond what's reasonable, don't we, Xena?"

Xena raised a quizzical look towards Ephiny, sensing she was going to say something about her and Gabrielle becoming lovers, but was unsure how the subject would be broached.

Ephiny continued. "I gather you and Gabrielle, finally uh, gave each other your hearts?" She raised her eyebrows, trying to give as innocent a look as possible.

Solari couldn't hide the smirk that spread across her face, but refrained from the 'I bet that's not all they gave each other' comment that was bursting to be said. She looked up to see Ephiny trying not to laugh at the gradually reddening warrior princess, then glanced at Xena herself.

The Regent continued, struggling with her rising laughter as Gabrielle and the other Amazons overheard and glanced up from their own conversation. "The priestess of Artemis explained that part of the challenge was to do with a certain matter of the Queen's future consort proving, what was it now? Worthiness and loyalty, wasn't it Sol?"

"I think that's what she said, Ephiny." Solari grinned. "Yeah, I'm sure that was it. That's why, as I was trying to say before..." She smiled broadly at Xena. "Once the dust has settled on, alright, the 'crimes', we need to deal with Xena, I guess we should be seeing a lot more of you. An awful lot more of you in fact, right?"

"Oh ha ha. I get it. Yeah, there's a real belly laugh in there for everyone!" The disgruntled warrior could feel her ears burning as she continued to redden. "Ephiny! Solari!" Xena hissed. "This only happened last night! It's all new to Gabrielle and I, but you talk about it like it's old news!"

"Oh Xena!" Ephiny laughed and pulled her friend into a hug. "I admire your wisdom and experience as a warrior so much, but sometimes you can be so naÔve!" She felt herself firmly pushed away and held at arm's length by Xena, who was wearing a less than friendly expression. Ephiny suddenly knew what it must feel like to be a warrior without weapons, standing before the smoking nostrils of a dragon.

Some of the other warriors, who had already spent time in conversation with Gabrielle, began to approach cautiously, not sure if they should raise their weapons and attack or not.

Xena's glare melted as quickly as it had formed and she slowly pulled the Regent back into her arms and burst out laughing. "Son of a bacchae! Was it that obvious? All this time?" She reached out and grabbed Solari's arm. "You both knew...even though we didn't?"

Solari clasped Xena's arm with her free hand. "Just about everyone knew, Xena, especially over the last few seasons when we read the scrolls and messages Queen Gabrielle sent to us." She smiled at the warrior. "You may not have admitted your feelings to each other 'til last night, but some of us were well aware of how you looked at each other, from the day you first entered the village." As she let go of Xena, Solari decided not to mention how some of the guards had even been betting on 'when' and 'if' factors.

"Xena." Ephiny stepped back from her friend and spoke tenderly, noting that she liked this newly tactile warrior. "Gabrielle was obviously in love with you, even long before she took up the Queen's Mask. During the times I spent teaching her our laws and customs, along with what would be expected of her as our future Queen, she spoke of you with such a depth of feeling and concern, it was easy to recognise how she felt. With you, it was a little harder to spot since you're so damned clever at hiding your feelings! Still, even you couldn't disguise some of the ways you looked at Gabrielle or spoke about her, until we knew we weren't only looking at our Queen in Gabrielle, but also at the future consort in you." As an afterthought, she stooped down and picked up Xena's sword and chakram. "Here, you might as well have these back for now, since you're on our side again." She smiled warmly.

"Thanks Eph." She clipped her chakram back on her right hip and swiftly lifted her sword over her shoulder to re-sheath the weapon. "So Artemis told you in advance, like a prediction, that Gabrielle and I had...uh, become more than close friends? Even before the events of last night?"

"Not exactly." Ephiny laughed. "The main vision came to our priestess two days ago, informing us of the missing chalice and how Artemis would approach you for the task of retrieving it, that's how we learned Agradon was back in the country and got the instruction to search him out. As for our knowledge that you and Gabrielle had become, shall we say, more involved? That was brought to me and then to the Council last night by our priestess." Ephiny shrugged. "The rest you know, Xena, but there was a lot of excitement and very little sleep after the second vision was reported. It was good news for the tribe and assured the Council that leniency should be used when considering how to deal with you."

Xena smiled, shaking her head as she realised that Artemis must have visited her Thessalian priestess soon after leaving the cave the previous night. "So you just had confirmed what you knew all along?" Ephiny and Solari both nodded. "Gods! That must have been a real shock, in more ways than one then, when I dragged Gabrielle out of the village behind a horse!" Xena raised an eyebrow towards Ephiny and was suddenly struck by her use of humour for the first time, regarding what had been a terrifying event.

Gabrielle was now near to Xena and the two Amazons. Hearing at least the last part of their conversation, she joined in the light mood. "I just hope it wasn't the taste of some Amazon pre-nuptial ceremony ahead of us." She walked up to Xena's side, squeezed the warrior's hand, then turned to Ephiny and Solari. "Seriously though Ephiny, if you really did believe Xena and I would become bond-mates, you must have had serious doubts to say the least, after what happened, didn't you?"

Solari and Ephiny looked at each other, then Solari replied. "We didn't really know what to think, Gabrielle. At first we..." She glanced at Xena, who smiled briefly and nodded in encouragement. "We thought Xena would have surely run you through with her sword, if being drawn behind a horse hadn't killed you. But, after we got your message we just knew that if you could somehow come through all that and still be with each other, it would only be a matter of time before you actually sorted out your future together." She grinned sheepishly. "We just expected to see you both a bit sooner, instead of having to wait four seasons!"

"Yeah." Ephiny joined in. "If it wasn't for the fact that Gabrielle's such a regular writer and managed to keep in touch every moon or so, we might have sent out a couple of warriors to bring you both back two seasons ago!"

"So our...relationship...this will be common knowledge by now?" Xena rested her arm across Gabrielle's shoulders. "No surprise to anyone?"

"Not amongst the Amazon Nation, Xena." Ephiny tucked her mask beneath her arm and adjusted a bracer that had come loose. "I expect there'll be a few dry comments regarding how it's about time and, of course, everyone will want to celebrate in some way or other. I've no doubt you'll get a few digs in the ribs about a new bed being made for the Queen's hut as the traditional tribal gift to Queen and consort. You'll probably even hear other comments from a few warriors who had their own hopes of becoming intimate with the Queen if it didn't work out with you, Xena." She glanced at Gabrielle, who was beginning to blush furiously. "Sorry Gabrielle...I didn't mean to...uh..."

"It's alright, I suppose I should be flattered." Despite her embarrassment Gabrielle recognised that some comments and innuendo were inevitable, although she was genuinely surprised at the mention of other warriors being attracted to her. She had never noticed, but then she only had eyes for a certain warrior princess. She felt Xena's arm tighten around her shoulders slightly and looked up to see an extremely smug look appearing on the warrior's face. Gabrielle couldn't help but grin. "At least it looks like someone will enjoy being the centre of attention where those sort of comments are concerned, knowing that she's won the Queen's heart...and her bed!" She dug an elbow in Xena's midriff.

"Whaaat?" Xena looked down at Gabrielle, feigning her most innocent expression.

"You know what." Gabrielle began to chuckle.

"On the whole, though..." Solari joined in the laughter. "There'll probably just be a lot of congratulations offered, along with wanting to know when the joining ceremony will be planned. You will let us have the pleasure of helping you arrange a full royal joining, won't you?"

"As if they have a choice!" Ephiny laughed.

Gabrielle gulped. "That sounds ominous! I have read about the ceremony, but I didn't realise it's so very involved. Can't we just have a simple joining in Artemis' temple?"

Ephiny turned to Gabrielle, her expression gentle. "Don't worry, it's not quite the ordeal it sounds, though a joining ceremony for a Queen and her consort is special for us and can't be undertaken lightly." She noticed Gabrielle pale slightly and reached out to take one of her hands. "Gabrielle, please trust us ~ it will be wonderful, you'll see."

Gabrielle sighed, realising her idea of a quiet ceremony was not going to be a possibility. "Okay Eph, but when we can finally make preparations, royal joining or not I don't want the village to exhaust supplies for us or drive us to Tartarus and back with their fussing! That's an order!" She finished with a mischievous grin.

"Your and Xena's wishes will be taken seriously, Gabrielle." Ephiny laughed at the cynical look that was shot back at her. "Honest, my Queen!"

Xena was enjoying listening to the banter, but suddenly became serious. "Ephiny, Solari, there's nothing I would rather be able to do than walk into the village with Gabrielle, have our intentions made known and then relax with everyone as we make exactly those plans. "We can start to settle into Amazon life, I can help to train your warriors and Gabrielle will begin to take on her royal duties more completely." She took a deep breath and sighed. "It's more complicated than that though, isn't it? What with the Council ~ I'll still have to undergo their sentence, won't I?" Ephiny nodded apologetically and the warrior continued. "We also have to discuss this situation with the chalice and Agradon and prepare for a raid, possibly even a battle that might turn very bloody."

"For what it's worth, Xena..." Solari spoke up. "Our priestess was very clear about what Artemis had said. We expect several scouts back tomorrow from their quests to gathering information regarding where Agradon and his men can be found. And that's not all." Solari smiled proudly. "When I told our warriors what might be expected of them because of this challenge and asked for volunteers to follow you, every woman offered to fight at your side!"

Gabrielle couldn't resist bringing back a lighter tone to the conversation and turned to her Regent. "Perhaps Xena's not the only one with rival suitors, Ephiny. Guess I'd better keep a close eye on my consort and keep certain other warriors well away from her!"

Xena responded with a throaty chuckle, then coughed softly and met Solari's proud expression. "Thanks Sol, I have no doubt of your warriors' loyalty to Gabrielle and, as a consequence, to me." She was not ready to accept that it could be down to her rather than Gabrielle that the Amazons would be so ready to follow her into battle.

"Xena, we all honour Gabrielle as our Queen and are so happy to have her back with us again." Solari grinned apologetically at Gabrielle, aware that she was probably going to be embarrassed again by her open admission. "We love her and will gladly obey her, but don't doubt for a moment that you also have a place of honour with us, both as a trusted friend and as a fellow warrior! That won't change, Xena, whatever happened four seasons ago and whatever has to take place under our laws concerning the Council and their judgement on you." An easy silence settled as unspoken respect passed between Xena and the dark-haired Amazon.

Eventually Ephiny spoke. "Xena, the Council has already decided that this challenge must take president over any punishment due, so for now, we go back to the village to relax and enjoy the day together. We'll talk strategy, you'll select the warriors you need and make plans with us about how best to fight Agradon and his men. We'll feast tonight and celebrate the return of Queen Gabrielle. Then, we'll settle for probably the last peaceful night we'll have in a while and await our scouts tomorrow. After all, there's little we can do about actually going after Agradon until we know for certain where he is."

Xena nodded thoughtfully. "Ephiny, there's one more thing. Gabrielle told me about the abduction of one of your warriors, Prisca." Ephiny nodded, acknowledging what Xena was talking about. "If she is still alive, I want to make sure she's found and brought home."

"Xena, nothing you could do would more readily win the hearts of all our sisters than rescuing Prisca and bringing her back to us." Ephiny grasped one of Xena's shoulders for emphasis. "I was going to raise the matter with you, but I'm glad to see you've already decided to try and find her. And I do pray she's still alive to be brought home to us and to Charis, her blood sister." She paused for a moment and sighed, stepping back from the warrior. "Gabrielle, you and Xena should both know that Charis and I have had some difficulties, during this past year. She's been torn between her duties as a royal guard, and wanting to leave the village to search for Prisca. So far she's remained obedient to Eponin as head of the royal guard and true to her designated post, but she has often questioned why we didn't send out a warrior party to try to follow Agradon when he left the coast by ship."

Xena shook her head. "Like looking for a fishing hook at the bottom of a murky lake."

"Charis has always accepted that we couldn't actually search the known world." Solari offered in defence of the Amazon. "But she could hardly say nothing could she? I mean, it's not like we're talking about a goat that's run off!"

"I know, Sol. They're very close, both as sisters and as friends." Ephiny looked at Solari sympathetically. "That's why I've been patient with her." She turned to Xena. "Now we have the chance to take action and find Prisca, hopefully alive, but it's up to you whether or not you want to take Charis with you to face Agaradon. Charis, of course, expects to go with you."

"You say that like you think she'll be a problem." Xena raised an eyebrow.

"I'm saying it like I'm not sure Charis, being Prisca's sister, will be a strength or a weakness for the task ahead. I just think you ought to know." Ephiny noticed Solari's hard stare. "Don't look at me like that Sol. I know you care about Charis, believe me I do too, but you know it's only fair that Gabrielle and Xena are aware of the situation."

"Hey it's alright." Xena, dropped her arm from around Gabrielle and picked up Argo's reins. "I think I can just about sort out the warriors I need to take with me, based on what I see on the practice fields this afternoon...uh, with your permission, of course........." She glanced both at Ephiny and Gabrielle in turn, both of them amused as they nodded in unison. "...and I can watch them at the feast tonight. Besides, I did play warlord for a while, remember?" She grinned at her friends. "Charis will come with me or stay, depending on her skills and character, not on who she is to Prisca, and if she comes with me and turns into a liability, I'll just kill her. Can we go now?" She began to walk in the direction of the Amazon village. "By the way...that last bit was a joke ya know."

Solari stood with hands on hips. "I'm so glad the ex 'Destroyer Of Nations' is on our side these days!" She gently laid a hand on Gabrielle's and Ephiny's backs as she strode through the middle of them to catch Xena up and walk with her. "See you back at the village."

Gabrielle nodded to Ephiny as they picked up the pace behind the two warriors and the other Amazons followed, ever alert for any unseen threat in the forest. It was still early morning as the group made their way towards the village, occasionally accompanied by bird calls from hidden lookout posts, replied to by one or more of the Amazon warriors in the group. Although nervous for how the Amazons in the village would receive Xena, Gabrielle was confident that Ephiny and the words from the priestess of Artemis had prepared everyone for the warrior's arrival. An added comfort was the deep sense of affection Gabrielle had for the tribe and the knowledge that it had been unquestionably reciprocated since the confusion Valesca had initially brought so long ago.

"I'm looking forward to catching up on girl-talk later on with you, Ephiny." Gabrielle linked arms with her friend. "One of the few things Xena doesn't posses amongst her...many skills." She dropped her voice for the last two words to give an accurate impersonation and causing Ephiny to chuckle.

"That's a good one Gabrielle, but I bet you don't do that within earshot of the warrior princess?"

"Uh...no! Can't say I have yet." Gabrielle was thoughtful for a moment. "Eph?"


Gabrielle laughed at the shortened version of her name, normally disliked by the young bard. "Do you think it will be alright, between Xena and the Council? Do you have any idea what punishment they might sentence her to?"

The Regent gave a heavy sigh. "Well, given that the death sentence is out and they won't consider exile ~ they won't separate our Queen from her future consort, Gabrielle ~ I'm not entirely sure what they will settle on. All I can tell you is that whatever it is, Xena will receive it without argument and, knowing her, probably without breaking a sweat." Ephiny grinned, emphasising her trust in Xena's forbearance. "They could decide on some kind of physical challenge, like a forty day fast or hunting for the tribe's food for so many days, or rebuilding the healer's hut or something." Gabrielle looked puzzled. "Oh, it's in need of some minor repairs and we just haven't got round to organising the workers needed to do it."

"Could they decide on some kind of painful punishment?" Gabrielle was suddenly concerned. "And if they do, could I overrule them?"

"They might." Ephiny stopped walking and turned to Gabrielle, the Amazons following behind also halted and waited patiently. "Gabrielle, they could sentence Xena to run the gauntlet through lines of our warriors, or they could decide on a public beating or flogging and no, neither you as Queen nor I as Regent can intervene." She realised Gabrielle looked horrified and rested a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle, you must trust our laws and accept that none of us is above them. If we were, it would make a mockery of Amazon code and conduct. Whether Queen, or healer, warrior or farmer or whoever in the Nation, we must abide by our laws."

"I know, Ephiny and you're right, but I love Xena and I don't want to see her hurt anymore because of me or my connection to the Amazons." Gabrielle's voice was only slightly louder than a whisper. "I know you forgive her for what she did to you Ephiny, and she and I have let go of the all the hurt and betrayal we caused each other too. From what Solari said, the warriors hold nothing against her and I know in my heart there are almost none who feel that Xena must be punished for what happened."

"I understand what you're saying Gabrielle and I swear that if we could simply say to Xena that everything's alright again and the past has blown away like chaff on the breeze, we would. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that laws have been broken here and although this may come as a surprise to you, Xena will want to go through this punishment. In fact she needs to go through it, because without it she will never feel free to live amongst us."

Gabrielle frowned, confused. "Is this some strange code of practice among warriors, Ephiny? Because if it is, you're absolutely right ~ it is a surprise to me and I don't understand it at all!" Her rising voice caused Xena and Solari to stop and look back towards her. She smiled and waved to them. "It's alright, go on! Just getting to grips with a point of law!" She waited until the two warriors continued walking before turning back to Ephiny, who was tutting good humouredly. "Well, it wasn't a lie Ephiny, we are discussing law. So...explain it to me Eph, please explain how or why Xena would actually want to be punished."

Ephiny ran her fingers through her shoulder length blond curls and switched her mask to the other hand, thinking about how best to phrase her answer. "Xena's a great warrior, Gabrielle. No, more than that, she's recognised across the known world almost as a legendary figure! Remembered once as a warlord, the 'Destroyer Of Nations', bloodthirsty, perhaps even evil. Now she's known for doing good, for bringing reconciliation to warring peoples, healing and saving lives, protection of the innocent, ending the power of warlords. Those who think she's gone soft usually find out the hard way that she's tougher and stronger now in some ways than ever she was before." She turned to her friend without slowing the pace. "You write about Xena's adventures all the time Gabrielle, you know these things better than anyone!" She waited until Gabrielle looked up to meet her gaze, before smiling and continuing. "The point is, Xena has a depth of integrity and honour now that's matched only by her formidable skills as a warrior...and her love for you. For her to stand beside you as consort and champion, without paying her debt to Amazon Law, would be like asking her to forget Solan, or spit on Lyceus' sarcophagus, deny Cyrene as her mother or assume that your rule here at Thessaly is worthless. She can't do it, Gabrielle. What happened may have been totally out of character for Xena, a lapse in judgement, temporary insanity at the hands of the Furies ~ call it what you will ~ but it happened and as an honourable warrior she must be purged from it. She has a need to cleanse thisthis...reversion, to what she once was. Gods Gabrielle, what happened made her appear as a wife-beater! Xena knows that's not the person who can stand at your side, protect you and lead your warriors...can you grasp how important this is to Xena? And how important it is to us that justice is seen to be done?"

"Justice! You call this justice?" Gabrielle was quiet for several paces. As the village came into view, she looked at the Regent and sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, Ephiny. It is about justice, isn't it? And about purity and respect? Not wanting the Amazon Nation to be viewed as weak or careless in it's laws, right? If nothing was done, we might be seen as the harbour for a criminal and Xena might be viewed as getting away with whatever she wanted to with no recompense." She smiled sadly and shook her head. "A great representation for the people who belong to Artemis!"

"I think you do understand, Gabrielle." Ephiny spoke softly.

"Yeah, I understand Ephiny. Doesn't mean I have to like it though, does it?" Gabrielle felt her good humour sag as her heart ached for what her beloved warrior may have to face. "Thank you though, Ephiny. "She reached out and squeezed the Regent's hand. "At least I can accept the wisdom behind it, even if I find it hard to accept what actually has to happen to Xena."

Solari and Xena had stopped outside the open gates of the village and were speaking quietly, waiting for Ephiny and Gabrielle so that as Amazon Queen and Regent they could enter first. A young Amazon approached the warriors tentatively and told them she had been ordered to take good care of Argo for Xena. The warrior relinquished the reins to the girl and asked her to treat the mare to a rubdown and a good meal of oats. The young girl beamed and promised she would take care of the legendary Argo as if she were her dearest friend. Argo had nickered softly at the comments, as if agreeing with the sentiment.

Xena and Solari watched the girl lead Argo away to the stables. "Legendary Argo?" Solari laughed.

"Oh gods, Solari!" Xena groaned and dramatically put her hand over her eyes. "That's all I need! A horse with an inflated ego!"

Gabrielle reached the gates and sensed that, from the sea of faces that greeted her, almost the entire tribe was waiting to greet her arrival. Amazons lined the path, stretching from the entrance to far beyond the village's central well. Initially nervous, having been away from them for so long, Gabrielle remembered the last time this people had seen her she was being dragged out of the village by Xena. But her nervousness soon left her as she began to recognise faces, delighting in smile after warm smile that greeted her and hearing her name being hailed. She could even make out the sound of Xena's name also being called in welcome and she breathed a sigh of relief.

Ephiny stepped forward and raised her hand for silence. "Amazons! Sisters! Artemis has blessed us with a great day today. Our Queen has returned to us, as has our truest friend. Xena peacefully completed the necessary ritual and now respectfully awaits Council ruling for what occurred before. Receive her again as one of our own. Welcome our Queen home with warmth and join us in celebration tonight at the rise of the moon." With that, Ephiny gestured to Gabrielle to enter the village, then turned to Xena to find her slowly reddening, though smiling happily.

"Nice speech Eph! What's your bard routine like?" Xena reached her hand to Ephiny, who took it gladly as the two walked into the village to deafening cheers and war cries as the Amazons made known their joy at seeing the return of Gabrielle and Xena. "This isn't quite the welcome I'd expected, Ephiny...well, maybe for Gabrielle, but for me...?"

"What did you expect? That we'd pounce on you and wrap you in chains the moment you set foot in the village again? Come on Xena, we're Amazons, not barbarians!"

"You mean there's a difference?"

Ephiny playfully dug Xena in the ribs as they followed Gabrielle down the corridor of affectionate hands reaching out to clasp shoulders or grasp hands in greeting. "I can't wait to get you on the practice field this afternoon, Xena. I think I owe you at least one murderous attack!" She grinned wickedly. "But for that remark you'd better make it two!"

"I look forward to it Ephiny...and just to show I care, I'll go real easy on you!"

"Oh you will, will you?" Ephiny toyed with the idea of grabbing the warrior and getting a firm headlock on her, but decided their frivolity might be misconstrued as the beginnings of a brawl.

"Yeah, I will. I'll fight ya left-handed, if ya like and I can...hey! I know who's missing!" Xena stopped in mid handshake with a couple of warriors. "Where's Eponin?" Hearing the mention of Eponin, Gabrielle hung back long enough to be caught up by her friends.

Solari responded to Xena's comment, calling over to Ephiny. "Oh let me, Eph! Please let me tell her!"

The Regent grinned affectionately at Solari. "Sure, go ahead. Then, perhaps when the village gets back to work after everyone's said hello to our...prodigals..." She looked pointedly at Xena. "You can take our warrior princess over to say hello."

Xena was curious. "What's going on?"

Solari sidled up to Xena. "Well, the roof of the Queen's quarters needed some repairs and Eponin volunteered for the job...this would be two days ago, just after the first vision came to our priestess. Well, like the rest of us, Ep thought the first vision also confirmed that we'd be seeing you two again soon, so any repairs that needed doing had to be done straight away. The hut's been empty for a while you see, so we kinda...uh neglected it a bit."

"Wait a moment." Gabrielle was also interested in hearing what happened to Eponin, but was curious about the Queen's hut. "Why weren't you living there, Ephiny? You were entitled, you know."

"Oh I did for a while. Let's just say I had a more interesting offer." She laughed and beckoned Solari by her side.

"I've been referred to as a lot of things before, but never as an 'interesting offer'. I'm not sure if I'm insulted or not." The Amazon walked over to Ephiny and slipped her arm around the Regent's waist.

"Oh yeah, congratulations, Ephiny." Xena smiled at Gabrielle as she watched the bard's face register what the two Amazons were referring to. "Solari told me the good news and I'm glad for both of you!" Xena turned to Gabrielle. "Solari and our Regent here have been busy waking up to the fact that they're meant to be together."

Gabrielle laughed. "So I gather. Though I bet it didn't take you as long to find out as it took us!" She walked over to Ephiny and Solari and embraced them together, one arm around each of them. "I'm so happy for you and I hope Artemis smiles on you daily."

By now, the Amazons were gradually breaking away from the welcoming party and beginning to return to their mending, hunting, weapon-making, battle practise and all manner of tasks required for efficiently running an Amazon village.

Xena coughed quietly. "So uh, what happened to Eponin?"

Amazons and Amazon Queen unravelled from their embrace and Solari addressed the warrior again. "Oh yes...Eponin. Well basically, she finished the job on the roof, stepped back to admire her handiwork and somehow didn't realise she'd stepped back into nothing but air until she was flying like a stone!"

Xena could tell, from the laughter being unsuccessfully held at bay, that Eponin evidently survived to tell the tale, but she still winced in sympathy. "Is she alright?"

"More bruised ego, than anything else." Solari continued. "She's got the most colourful black eye I've ever seen, but that's nothing compared to the head to foot rash she's got from the barrow-load of nettles she fell into! Pyras, our healer, was on her way back to her hut after collecting them for some or other brew and was passing just in time to break Eponin's fall! Since Pyras already had Eponin with her, she wheeled her all the way to the healer's hut, lying half-winded in the barrow but still managing to scream obscenities like a banshee!"

"That must have been quite an exhibition!" Gabrielle smiled as the laughter died down. "Could Xena and I go to see her now, on the way to...uh, my quarters? Our quarters? Oh Ephiny, help me out here. What do I do? Is it alright for us to be together now the village knows about us, or would it be seen as wrong for the Queen to be sharing her quarters with her bond-mate before the joining?"

Xena and Ephiny exchanged glances, then an amused warrior turned to Gabrielle. "Do you mean to tell me that, of all the Amazon laws and rules and regulations and customs you've been storing away in that head of yours, you missed out one of the most important parts?"

Gabrielle reddened, suddenly pleased that the greeting party had quickly dwindled and the village was returning to its normal morning routine. "I didn't miss it out Xena, I....Well I just..."

"Yeah?" Xena's eyebrow had raised and Gabrielle made a mental note to get her back (somehow) for her teasing.

"Oh alright, I skipped to the good parts! I did mean to read about everything that happens before the ceremony, but the ritual seemed so wonderful and then the scroll had all these amazing descriptions of how bond-mates can pleasure each other and...well..."

"Did you like the pictures, Gabrielle?" Xena's face was deadly serious.

"There are pictures too?" Gabrielle was astonished. "I didn't see any of those."

"Oh sure!" Xena continued. "Don't tell me you didn't see the one that goes with the olive tree ritual?"

"The olive tree ritual?" Gabrielle was intrigued.

Xena cleared her throat and struck what she believed to be a bard-like pose. "Upon the joining night of the Amazon Queen and her consort, the bond-mates are to locate the oldest living olive tree within a league of the village and consummate their love within its branches, for at least two candle marks. This is to be an offering to Artemis, a supplication to Athena and um...a request to Aphrodite to bless the village richly with wisdom, truth and uh...fertility!"

Gabrielle had almost been convinced by this remarkable performance, until she noticed that Ephiny and Solari both had their hands over their mouths and eventually even Xena could no longer keep a straight face.

"Xena!" Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and looked at the ground, desperately trying not to laugh. "I almost fell for that!" She looked back up to find Solari with tears rolling down her cheeks and both Ephiny and Xena biting their bottom lips and silently laughing, their shoulders shaking. "Right, I see, yeah. Pictures huh! Olive trees, by the gods! Xena, if you think you're going to be in the same quarters as me here, you'd better come to me on your knees, clutching an orchid and singing 'The Little Lamb Of Poteidaia' before I let you come anywhere near me!" She threw her best glare at the warrior, then turned on her heel to go. "Is Eponin in her hut, or still at the healer's?"

"Uh, she's in her quarters, Gabrielle." Ephiny managed.

"Okay." She looked back at Xena. "When you're done here, perhaps you'd care to join me with our sick friend?" Xena nodded, as Gabrielle turned and did her best impression of an indignant walk. Once she thought she was out of earshot, she let go of the giggles she could no longer restrain.

"Xena?" Ephiny began. "You don't think you teased her a bit too far then, do you?"

The warrior grinned and nodded in the direction Gabrielle had marched. "I don't think so, I can hear her laughing in the distance. I'd know that precious sound anywhere!"

"Zeus' beard! I can't hear anything other than the usual village noises and the breeze!" Solari gazed at Xena. "I never cease to wonder at you, old friend!"

"Hey, less of the 'old' if you don't mind!" Xena adjusted a bracer and her sword, combed a stray lock of hair from her eyes and turned from her friends. "I'm gonna check on Argo, then go see how Eponin's faring." With that, the warrior moved off, her long easy stride quickly putting distance between her and the two women.

Eponin's hut was cheerful, with sporadically placed flowers from well-wishers. Gabrielle had greeted the guard and let herself in silently, in case Eponin was asleep. She had a deep affection and respect for this Amazon, who had shown such patience when teaching her the skills necessary to be an Amazon. She knew her early days of learning had been a painfully slow process, or just plain painful at times! Eponin had somehow looked past Gabrielle's lack of co-ordination and her initial inability to concentrate on anything 'warrior-like'. She treated her like the Amazon Princess she had been, without being soft or sycophantic and when she got something wrong, which was frequent, Eponin had always gently but firmly made her begin again, without irritation and without ever giving up, or allowing her to give up for that matter.

Gabrielle quietly approached the bed where she could see Eponin lying, pulled a chair over to the bedside and sat down, unsure if her friend was asleep or simply dozing. "Eponin?" She whispered, noticing the now fading red welts over the Amazon's face, arms and midriff, then winced to see the blues, purples and yellows of an enormous bruise covering her left eye, from forehead to temple to cheekbone.

"Go away Pyras...please." Eponin mumbled and turned onto her side without opening her eyes. "I'm tired of your prodding and your teas and your poultices. Just let me be, alright?"

Gabrielle stoked the Amazon's hair, being careful not to go near the eye. "It's not Pyras, Eponin. It's your favourite student."

Eponin opened her eyes immediately and tried to sit up. "Gabrielle! My Queen!"

"Hey, don't you dare get up for me, Ep! Just you lie still!" Gabrielle leaned in with both hands on the Amazon's shoulders, but was still surprised that she managed to restrain her. She noticed a cup on a small table near the head of the bed and reached for it, sniffing what was left of the contents and realised why the Amazon was weak as a puppy.

"I expect the healer wants Eponin to sleep, rather than scratch." Xena's soft tones drifted across the room.

Gabrielle looked up and smiled. "You made it, then?"

"Yeah, just had to see Argo was alright, then came straight over." She walked to where Gabrielle was sitting and stood by her side.

"You'll forgive me for not being on form...but I'm so glad to see you both." Eponin was determined to sit up and lifted a hand towards Xena and Gabrielle. "At least prop me up against my pillow, so I can talk to you for a while ~ strictly speaking, I'm just groggy, not an invalid!"

Xena grinned and stepped forward to slip one arm around Eponin's back and another under her legs, easily lifting her into a sitting position.

Eponin yawned, then stretched briefly. "Thanks Xena, now I can say hello properly." She turned towards Gabrielle, bowed her head and placed a fist over her heart. "My Queen. I am joyful at your return and am here to serve." She looked up and grinned mischievously, winking with her good eye. "Well, I would serve you if I could move!"

Gabrielle leaned forward and gently hugged the Amazon, not wanting to irritate the nettle rash. "It's wonderful to see you too, Eponin. I really hope you're feeling better very soon."

"Yeah!" Xena joined in. "I hear you got beaten up by a wheel-barrow." She reached over and clasped Eponin's arm in a warrior's greeting. "That's quite a beauty you picked up, Eponin!" She nodded at the Amazon's eye.

"Gods! I don't think I'm ever gonna live this down." Eponin frowned and then giggled. "It's not everyday the head of the royal guard, warrior, trainer and one of the most co-ordinated women of the village falls head over tit off a roof!" She put her hand over her mouth and looked at Gabrielle. "Sorry."

"Why do people always do that with me?" Gabrielle shook her head. "I rarely hear anyone apologise to Xena if they curse or swear in front of her! Do I appear so innocent at times?"

Eponin and Xena exchanged glances then both turned to Gabrielle. "Well, yeah!" They chorused together.

"Oh great!" Gabrielle laughed. "Maybe I should work on that."

Eponin reached out and took Gabrielle's hand. "Anyway my Queen, are you well?"

"The Queen is very well Eponin, but Gabrielle's a lot better!"

Eponin took the hint, as always given by Gabrielle. "And how's your staff-playing coming on? Still working on it I hope?"

"Oh, you know...it's coming along." Gabrielle smiled.

"You'd be proud of her, Eponin." Xena put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "She's fast and strong...in her head as much as in her fight, these days."

"So it's true then?" Eponin noted the warm affection radiating from her two friends. "About you two becoming bondmates."

"Yes, it's true." Gabrielle smiled happily. "I suppose you've been a little out of it the last couple of days, if Pyras has been making you sleep most of the time."

"Not most of the time, but a bit too much. Still, I'm really glad you finally found each other's hearts." She smiled broadly and reached her hand out to squeeze Gabrielle's wrist, before her face became serious again. "I did wonder, you know...I didn't think I'd see both of you alive again after...I'm sorry Xena, I realise that's in the past now. I mean no offence to either of you."

"It's alright Eponin." Xena smiled gently. "There's none taken and besides, the offence was mine, remember?"

"Ours, Xena." Gabrielle spoke up and clasped the warrior's hand. "The law here may rule differently, but we both made terrible decisions that resulted in offences against each other." In answer, Xena laid her hand softly against Gabrielle's cheek and looked into sea green eyes, feeling her heart swell with love.

"Uh, would you two like to be alone for a while?" Eponin asked.

Gabrielle reluctantly pulled her gaze from Xena and smiled at the Amazon. "No Ep. It's just very strange that, in all this time, Xena and I have really only spoken to each other about what happened back then and how we felt. We haven't talked openly with other people yet."

"Artemis and I kinda thrashed some of it out, Gabrielle." Xena whispered. "Who do you think convinced me it was right to come home to the Amazons?"

"I know." Gabrielle nodded. "But I was asleep at the time, remember?"

"You spoke with Artemis?" Eponin was astounded.

"Yes, and I have to admit...." Xena grinned. "She's not half bad, as gods go!"

Eponin chuckled. "That's the Xena I know and love, ever disrespectful! So anyway you two, would you like to talk now?" She glanced from warrior to bard. "To me? You're welcome to if you want to, but if not...." A bang at the door cut Eponin off in mid sentence and Xena leapt to her feet, recognising the sound of a foot against a door, rather than knuckles. Eponin raised a calming hand to Xena's right hand, which was already resting on her chakram. "If that's you Pyras, go away, I'm absolutely fine!"

"It's not Pyras, it's lunch!" Solari's voice could be heard from outside the door. "C'mon, someone please open this door before our arms drop off!"

Gabrielle bounded over to the door at the mention of lunch and opened it. Solari and Ephiny both walked in, balancing trays of bread, cheese and fruit, along with wineskins and waterskins.

"My Queen." Solari nodded as she walked past Gabrielle to a large table and began laying out her fare.

"Thanks Gabrielle." Ephiny grinned and joined Solari at the table.

Xena used the diversion to look Eponin over, not doubting the abilities of the healer, but accepting that she wanted her own peace of mind concerning Eponin's well-being. She could tell the bruising looked much worse than the eye injury actually was. Similarly, although still red, the rash from the nettle stings was not as inflamed as it probably had been.

Eponin realised she was being scrutinised and caught Xena's eye. "Well physician, what's your prognosis? Will I live?"

Xena laughed, quietly. "Yeah, you'll live. You look fine to me, Eponin."

"Well thank the gods someone thinks so!" Eponin rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. "Xena, d'you think you could ask Pyras to stop plying me with her teas? I don't think I've needed to scratch once since you and Gabrielle's been here and I really think I've slept enough!"

Xena looked across the room to watch Gabrielle helping Ephiny and Solari arrange platters and mugs around the table. "I don't really want to muscle-in on your healer's territory, Ep. But I'll mention how much better you're looking, if it'll help." She glanced back to notice Eponin swinging her legs off the bed to slowly stand up. "Wanna hand?"

"I think I'm alright, a little sleepy still from the last potion, but fine really. Just let me see if I can get over to the table without my knees buckling!" Eponin walked slowly over to the table and greeted Ephiny and Solari, Xena walked silently behind, just close enough in case Eponin needed her. Eponin managed to reach one of the seats, refusing to sit for the meal until Gabrielle had done so.

Eventually the five women were enjoying the light meal, with Xena and Gabrielle being brought up to date with four seasons worth of Amazon events, news and village gossip. The Amazons in turn hung on every word Gabrielle spoke as she related some of the adventures she and Xena had been through. They were especially impressed with Gabrielle's account of how Xena single-handedly caused the cream of the Persian army to flee back to where they came from.

"Yeah well, there weren't that many men and I don't think they'd acclimatised to our weather!" Xena tried to divert the interest. "What was amazing was how your young Queen here took a poisoned arrow through the shoulder, knew she probably didn't have long to live, but still talked me into staying to fight at Tripolis rather than take her to safety and locate the antidote". She leaned forward on one elbow, mug in hand and grinned towards Gabrielle.

"Gods Gabrielle! Solari placed her own mug down, harder than she intended and spilled some of the contents. "You never mentioned this in your messages to us."

Ephiny's face registered concern. "Yes Gabrielle, why didn't you let us know this had happened?"

Gabrielle blushed and tried not to choke on the piece of cheese she had almost finished. "To be honest, since it all turned out fairly happily, I didn't want to sound sorry for myself that I'd been hurt or sound boastful that I'd come through it. Xena saved the day. She saved me with the antidote taken from the Persians themselves and, most importantly, prevented the likely devastation of Athens. If I'd died, the news would have reached Amazon lands soon enough."

"Yeah maybe, by way of some smug Persian scout!" Solari spat. "Unless of course... Well you survived the battle, Xena!" Her tone softened. "You would have brought our Queen's body back to us, wouldn't you?" There was no response from Xena.

"Would you have come back to us, Xena?" Eponin met the warrior's unreadable expression. "With our Queen's body, if the worst had happened?"

Xena still appeared lost in thought for a moment before she looked up. "No. I couldn't have done that." She reached across the table and rested her hand on Gabrielle's wrist. "You see, if Gabrielle had died in Tripolis from that Persian arrow, I would have joined her on Charon's boat soon after from a Persian sword." She glanced from Eponin to Gabrielle and held her gaze before smiling gently and drawing her hand back. "To be truthful, I didn't expect to survive the battle for long anyway, just intended to take as many with me as I could. Somehow though, I knew I could hold on as long as there was the possibility that Gabrielle still lived and I could either get her to the antidote or the antidote to her. If I'd lost her, I..." Xena's voice wavered slightly and she lifted her mug to her lips. "If I had lost my love,... my bard,... my Queen, there wouldn't have been much point for me to carry on anyway."

Gabrielle had sat back in her chair, nursing her mug of wine in both hands while she listened to Xena. "That's mutual you know, Xena." She spoke quietly.

Ephiny nodded slowly. "You two really have found something deep and unique, haven't you?" She grinned, firstly at Xena and then at Gabrielle. "You couldn't easily survive apart now, could you?"

"Not for long, no." Xena smiled back, her voice quiet but even. "I found my heart in Gabrielle and, I realise it may sound very 'unwarrior - like' but take her away and my life is gone. Gabrielle truly is my light and my soul-mate, if you like, in every sense of those words." She looked round the table to be met with affectionate smiles and nods. "I know that without a shred of doubt, even if it has taken a while to realise. But I'll give my life to it's last breath now, in serving, loving, protecting and advising Gabrielle and maybe, some day I might even work out what I did to deserve her."

Gabrielle was deeply moved by Xena's words and realised it was one of those rare occasions when she was utterly speechless. She reached for an apricot and sat back, simply content to enjoy the smile spreading across her warrior's face and soak up the easy warmth of good company around the table.

Ephiny turned to Gabrielle. "You know, Gabrielle, I never really appreciated that story you tell sometimes, about our being created with two heads, four arms, four legs and so on, and then Zeus threw thunderbolts at us when he got upset one day. All that stuff about us being split in half, which is why we spend our lives looking for the other half of our soul, it never really sounded true to me." She leaned over the table and scooped up a few olives before resting back in her chair once more. "Now though, I look at you two and I realise it has to be to be true. Then I...well, I look at Solari over there and count myself blessed too." She nodded in Solari's direction and saw her all but trying to climb into her wine mug as her neck and ears grew steadily red.

"So!" Solari put her mug down and reached for the wineskin, the conversation becoming far too intense and personal for her liking. "Did you pick up a good scar from this adventure, my Queen? Are you beginning to resemble a true Amazon warrior?"

"I guess you could say that." Gabrielle stood up and grinned, lowering her top just enough to reveal the scar below her collarbone. "But if this is going to turn into a drinking game of 'Show And Tell', you can count me out!" She adjusted her top and sat down, noticing the intense look of desire that had appeared on Xena's face. "Still if you want to start comparing and counting scars, you'll never out do the warrior princess."

"Huh?" Xena suddenly realised attention had been turned in her direction. "Oh yeah, right. Whatever." She mumbled into her mug, waiting for the conversation to change.

Ephiny picked up on Xena's discomfort and stood up. "Well, it's past midday Xena, I guess we should start making our way over to the practice fields and start sorting out who you need to take with you against Agradon. Also, don't forget..." She offered a wicked grin. "I want a little one-on-one with you!"

Xena drained her mug and stood up. "How could I forget?"

Solari collected the mugs and platters together, then placed her hand on Eponin's shoulder. "It's good to see you looking more alive than you've seemed the last couple of days. Do you feel up to some fresh air and giving Xena a hand collecting some fighters together?"

"Yeah, I'd love to." Eponin replied. "But if we run into Pyras and she thinks I should still be in here, you all have to back me up! Right?" She was met with general laughter and agreement from the others as they all made their way to the door.

As they came into the midday sunshine Ephiny greeted the guard who had been keeping a protective eye on Eponin's quarters and invited her to join them. The guard happily agreed and was introduced properly to Xena and Gabrielle as Coronis.

"That's a good name for an Amazon." Xena offered, as the group moved slowly through the village at Eponin's pace. "And are you like your namesake, the crow?"

Coronis grinned and ran a hand through hair as black as Xena's. "I don't know if I'm much like a crow Xena, but I hope I'm as sharp-eyed and as swift. Actually, my family worshipped Athena and of course, Coronis is another of her titles; they named me after her."

"Do you still see your family?" Gabrielle joined in. Xena noted a slight sadness in her tone and realised how long it had been since Gabrielle had last visited her parents and sister.

"From time to time, my Queen." Coronis bowed her head respectfully, then looked up with a smile. "My parents are tanners in Lannis, a small village about half a day's ride from here."

"I know Lannis." Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Didn't we stop there to use the well once?"

"Yes we did." The warrior replied. "If I remember correctly we had been collecting berries on our way into the Amazon village. We got covered in juice and started to attract some rather unpleasant insects."

"Why, by Hades, were you two collecting berries?" Solari chuckled.

Gabrielle looked from Xena's smirk to Solari's smirk and sighed. "It was just a gesture to the cook. Last time we'd visited, a certain warrior princess confided to the cook that I was a little homesick and would she mind very much making a small batch of nut-bread just for me. Needless to say, it was wonderful nut-bread and it did make me feel better. So, I asked the cook if we could bring her something next time we came by and she said to bring berries, as she never had enough for the sweet toothed warriors in the village."

"That's very true, actually." Eponin laughed. "Berries and honey. We always seem to be running out!"

The conversation promptly turned to what each in the group considered to be the cook's best kind of sweet pastry or fruit bread. The topic being food, Gabrielle as always had a considerable amount to say on the subject and made several suggestions. Xena used the change in conversation to swap places with Solari, allowing the Amazon to walk by Ephiny's side and enabling Xena to move closer to Gabrielle. She slipped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, receiving a warm smile in response and a wink.

"Don't think I didn't notice that look you gave me earlier, Xena." Gabrielle whispered.

"What look? When?"

"You know what look." Gabrielle's eyes shone with mischief. "Back at Eponin's quarters, when I showed the others the scar on my shoulder."

"Oh yeah, that look!" Xena's feigned innocence disappeared, replaced by a throaty chuckle. "Well I did wonder just how much was going to be on show to everyone, ya know!"

"Do I note a hint of jealousy there, warrior?"

"Maybe." Xena smiled broadly. "All I'm saying is, now the apples are spoken for I don't want anybody else thinking they can shake the tree! If you see what I mean?"

"I think I get your point." Gabrielle giggled. "Still, I meant what I said before, Xena."

"What was that, my love?" Xena was enjoying this light-hearted, if slightly suggestive banter with Gabrielle.

"About you coming near me or rather, not coming near me after your earlier 'speech' regarding a certain olive tree ritual."

Xena halted in her tracks. "Gabrielle!" Her outburst caused the rest of the group to turn all attention in her direction and she gave a short, uncharacteristically nervous laugh. "Just discussing uh, sleeping arrangements for tonight...I mean, deciding how we want everything laid in the Queen's quarters. No! That's not what I mean...uh, what do I mean?"

"Xena!" Solari caught the warrior's attention. "Could I give you a bit of advice? You know, one warrior to another?"

"Uh, sure." Xena noticed the look on Gabrielle's face and realised the young bard was losing the battle against keeping a straight face.

"When you find yourself in a hole, Xena." Solari laughed. "By the gods, stop digging!" With that, Gabrielle burst out laughing and was closely followed by the others, including a slightly embarrassed Xena.

A few more paces and the practice fields came into view, sounds of metal striking metal and the clash of quarter staffs drifted over to the group as warriors sparred with each other and novices learned the forms and techniques of various weapons.

"Oh, thank the gods!" Xena mumbled under her breath as she quickened her stride and headed towards a group of warriors practising dagger throwing and archery.

Solari cast a knowing grin towards Gabrielle and Ephiny, affectionately laid a hand first on Eponin's shoulder, then Coronis' and sprinted after Xena. She caught the warrior up quickly and fell into step with her. "So, I guess we're gonna need to work out a little tension here, right?"

Xena turned and raised an eyebrow. "Solari, I hope your weapon skills have kept up with your sarcasm." She cast a wicked grin at her friend. "Because I'm in real need of a good workout and if you're not up to some decent sparring, you'll be spending tonight's feast in the healer's hut being stitched up!"

Solari wrapped an arm around Xena's shoulders. "Just you worry about your own moves, my friend. I hear you've gotten soft over the past four seasons without the Amazons to keep you on your toes!"

Xena suddenly pulled up as she and Solari neared one of the practice areas. "Who's that Sol?" She nodded to a group of Amazons working on throwing daggers at various wooden shields, upright logs depicting human figures with vital areas marked in paint and several swinging targets hanging from a large tree.

"Which one, Xena? There are five fighters over there!" Solari watched for a few moments in the direction the warrior hd nodded. "Oh that fighter!" She smiled proudly as she and Xena watched a tall, blond-haired warrior, about twenty-five summers old.

The Amazon retrieved three daggers from the centre of a shield and slowly walked back about twenty paces. Suddenly, she spun round to throw the first dagger at a target on her left, leapt forward into a tight roll and as she came up from the ground, let fly the second and third daggers. Running forward towards a tree, the Amazon jumped up to a branch and hoisted herself swiftly, hooking her knees over the same branch to hang upside down. From this position, she reached both hands to the back of her belt, pulled out another two daggers and threw them simultaneously in the direction she had run from. The whole fluid action took less than ten beats of a steady heart and without so much as the sound of creaking leather. To the applause and joyful shouts of a handful of fellow Amazons, the warrior gracefully dropped from the tree, twisting in mid air to land on her feet and walked over to collect her weapons. The last two daggers she had thrown were both embedded dead-centre in separate shields. The first dagger thrown was buried up to the hilt in a straw-filled leather bladder that hung from another tree. The remaining two weapons had impaled the hearts of two of the painted human figures. Once she had collected her weapons again, the Amazon walked over to a small group of warriors standing by a table that displayed a selection of weapons. She put the knives down, picking up a bow and a full quiver of arrows, then stood chatting contentedly with the other women there.

"Damn, she's good!" From where she stood, Xena had observed the young Amazon and was impressed by her skills. "Well, I guess there's an easy choice for my first fighter." She grinned at Solari.

Solari nodded in agreement. "Xena, you've just watched Charis in action."

"That was Charis?"

"Uh huh." Solari couldn't hide the sense of pride in her voice for the young Amazon. "Probably the finest blade thrower I've ever known, Xena. She's fast, she's deadly accurate, with a strength to match most of our best warriors and on the few occasions we've needed a silent assassin, Charis is unsurpassed. She's a dedicated guard too; Gabrielle and Ephiny are in safe hands when she's on duty."

"I gather you rate her fairly highly as a warrior then?" Xena grinned.

"Without question." Solari smiled. "Her archery is excellent and she can hold her own as a sword-hand against the best warriors."

Xena took on a serious expression. "Do you think she could act reliably and obey me at all times, even in a crisis Solari, given that one of the objects of defeating Agradon is to find and rescue her sister, Prisca?"

Solari spoke without hesitation. "Xena, I believe that if I were in battle with you against Agradon and it came down to full scale hand-to-hand combat, I would be happy to be back-to-back with Charis there, whether Prisca featured in the battle or not."

Xena looked towards the fighters again to see Charis and two other warriors begin archery practice. "Well my friend, that's good enough for me. Charis will join us against Agradon."

Solari was extremely pleased. "You won't regret that decision, Xena."

"I'd better not." Xena elbowed Solari playfully. "If I do, I'll tie you to a tree and leave you to the vultures!"

As Solari and Xena continued to watch three separate groups of Amazons practising with bows, making mental notes of who should and should not make up the raiding party, Gabrielle and the others joined them. Coronis excused herself and made her way to a group of warriors sparring with swords. Xena noticed the look on Eponin's face as she watched the young guard walk off.

"Coronis has good form, Eponin." Xena caught the Amazon's attention. "What do you think her aim and timing's like?"

Eponin seemed at a loss for words for a moment, before she smiled at Xena. "Not sure yet, but maybe with a little coaxing I may find out."

"I'm sure you will." Xena grinned, then placed an arm each round Ephiny and Solari as she winked at Gabrielle. "So! How about that fight, girls?"

"Thought you'd never ask." Ephiny replied.

"What d'ya wanna begin with Xena?" Solari nodded towards the practice areas. "Sword? Cudgels? Quarterstaff?"

"I think I'll leave the quarterstaff lesson to Gabrielle today." The warrior reached over her shoulder and drew her sword. "How about a little swordplay?" She turned and strode across to the field, limbering up as she went.

"That sounds good to me." Solari unsheathed her own sword.

"Uh uh, Sol." Ephiny placed a hand over Solari's sword arm. "If you don't mind my love, this first one's all mine!"

Solari smiled warmly at the Regent. "Anything for you Eph, go get her and knock her on her backside!"

Ephiny grinned back at Solari. "That's highly unlikely, you know!"

"Oh I realise that." Solari called, as Ephiny walked after Xena. "But it's more encouraging than telling you to watch out for the ground when Xena knocks you flying!"

Ephiny responded by lifting her sword in salute and poking her tongue out, before spinning round and running to catch up with the warrior. Solari re-sheathed her sword and walked over to Eponin and Gabrielle, who were discussing sweeping techniques with the quarterstaff.

"Well my Queen...sorry." Solari began. "Gabrielle, would you care for a little staff-play with one or two warriors?"

"I'd love to, Solari." Gabrielle playfully twirled her staff in front of her. "It'll be good to find out just how far Xena's stretched me as a fighter on the road."

Eponin grinned at Solari, who was looking impressed at this statement. "I'm glad to see our warrior friend saw fit to keep up your training and keep you on your toes!"

"She certainly keeps me on my toes, Ep. Sometimes that's the only way I can reach that hard head of hers!" She raised her staff vertically and swept it down hard, stopping short of Solari's forehead by less than a hand's breadth. "Sorry, Solari. You're just too tempting a target standing there."

"It's alright...highness!" Solari smiled good-naturedly and pushed the staff away with her fingertips. "Just remind me to keep in your good scrolls and never, never approach you when you're in a bad mood or having a tough time one with your cycle, one moon or other!" She turned to Eponin. "How about you, Ep? Feel like limbering up with a staff?"

"Believe me, I'd love to Solari." Eponin folded her arms across her chest. "But I think Pyras is going to be annoyed with me as it is, coming down here with you. If I start sparring before this eye's better, she'll have me under quarters-holding for life!"

"She won't really mind you watching, will she?" Gabrielle leaned on her staff. "It would mean a lot if you'd tell me whether or not I've improved since our last time of training. Besides, maybe I can learn a few new tips from you."

"Gabrielle." Eponin placed a hand on her Queen's shoulder. "The first time I ever saw you pick up a staff, you didn't know which end was which or even how to hold it, let alone fight with it. I've watched you walk down here from my hut and I can tell, just from the way you hold your staff and spin it, it's balanced in your hands and you're as one with it. If Xena's been helping you train and learn, I doubt very much there's anything more I could teach you." She grinned towards Solari. "And if what Xena said is true, you can stand your ground in battle these days too, so I'm certainly gonna watch you and thoroughly enjoy seeing you knock some of my sisters on their backsides! Especially if they're one or two of those who think of you as a wonderful Queen, but still regard you as a totally uncoordinated warrior!"

Solari turned towards the field. "We'd better get over there fast, or we'll miss the fun between Xena and Ephiny."

Gabrielle smiled affectionately at Eponin as they each placed an arm round each other's shoulders and began to follow Solari. For Eponin, the sleeping potion had all but worn off since the meal, so she hastened the pace and the trio quickly made their way across the first field, safely away from the archers. They soon came to another clearing where some thirty or forty warriors were sparring, fighting in twos or fours and using either sword, or sword and dagger. Gabrielle took a few moments to look around proudly at the impressive women who made up part of the large Amazon army, her army. She shot up a silent prayer to Artemis for their safety and wisdom in battle, for courage and their ability to protect one another.

Solari pointed out a small crowd of warriors, from where could be heard the sounds of two swords clashing. "Looks like we've found our girls!" She, Gabrielle and Eponin walked over to the group, which immediately made way, with respectful nods and words of welcome, for their Queen and respective leaders of the Guard and Royal Guard.

To the casual onlooker the fight, taking place in the centre of the circle, might have appeared a duel to the death. To all in the circle however, this was pure enjoyment for their Regent and soon-to-be General as they wheeled around each other, slicing and parrying, lunging at and side-stepping one another. For Xena and Ephiny, the exhilaration from sparring together after so long clearly showed on their faces, although the Regent and those few who knew Xena well, realised the warrior princess was not fighting with anything near her full strength. If she were, the fight would have been be over shortly after beginning; a reminder of Xena's superb skills and unsurpassable strength with a sword, rather than a belittling of Ephiny who as a fighter, was formidable in her own right.

Regent and warrior continued to circle each other, tempting and teasing one another with openings and dummy attacks. Ephiny eventually saw her chance and made a split-second decision, tucking into a tight roll and hitting the ground between Xena's feet with perfect timing. She rolled straight though the warrior's legs, leaping up and twisting round to sweep her sword downwards. Xena anticipated Ephiny's position and immediately dropped to her knees, raising her sword over her head and pointing it downwards, past her shoulders. Had it been any other opponent, Ephiny would have been able to slice their head from their shoulders. Instead, her sword was halted by Xena's blade. She stepped back in readiness for the warrior's next move and remained alert.

Xena rose from the ground and spun round, a huge grin on her face. "Nice action, Ephiny! Ya even got close, but you're not fast enough ~ Xenan could'a rolled quicker than that!" She raised an eyebrow.

Ephiny tried not to smile and kept her concentration. "Just warming up, Xena. Next time, you won't even see me!"

"Yeah, well it's my turn now." With that, Xena let out her high-pitched war-cry and with lightening speed turned a single-handed cartwheel towards Ephiny with her free hand, then somersaulted backwards over the Regent's head to land immediately behind her. As Ephiny spun round, her sword swept through nothing but air as Xena had dropped to the ground once more and promptly grabbed both of Ephiny's ankles. She jerked upward, lifting Ephiny clean off the ground and threw her unceremoniously onto her back. Ephiny just had time to raise her sword as Xena stood over her and somehow snaked her own sword down the Regent's blade to lift it clear out of her hands and catch it. Thunderous applause and whoops broke out from the group as Xena held both swords in her left hand and offered her right hand to Ephiny.

"God's Xena, how did you do that?" Ephiny graciously acknowledged her defeat, allowing herself to be pulled up into the warrior's embrace. "I've seen you disarm plenty of opponents before but never like that! How did you wrap your sword round mine the way you did?"

Xena stepped away from Ephiny and handed her sword back to her. "Believe me, that wasn't totally planned, Eph. I was actually trying to force your sword-hand down to the ground so I could step on it and disarm you that way."

"Yeah I know that one, I've used the move myself often enough." Ephiny and Xena made their way over to Gabrielle and Eponin, who were still applauding with the rest of the group. "Xena, you're bleeding!" Ephiny grabbed a sword cloth one of the nearby warriors was holding and took hold of Xena's right arm.

"Oh damn!" Xena looked sheepishly at the Regent. "That always seems to happen with that move." She raised her arm, allowing Ephiny to look at two dripping cuts, one on her wrist and another on the underside of her arm, just above the elbow.

"I'm not surprised you're sliced here!" Ephiny scolded. "No wonder you lifted my sword away ~ you caught my blade in the crook of your arm and used your shoulder strength to just pull!"

"Well I said it wasn't planned!"

"Gods Xena, I wish you'd take better care sometimes!" Gabrielle came over and helped Ephiny stem the bleeding.

"Look, it's just a tiny couple of cuts!" Xena became defensive, although she was secretly enjoying the gentle attention from both lover and friend. "And what is this anyway? A 'let's pretend to be Xena's mother' day?" She laughed and pulled away, the cut on her wrist had already stopped bleeding and the blood flow from the other wound was slowing.

"Thank the gods you heal so damned fast girl!" Solari came over with a waterskin. "That's the last thing we need for your challenge with Agradon ~ you outta action!" She handed the skin over to Xena who promptly doused the cloth in cool water to wipe away some spots of blood from her sword hilt, rather than clean her arm as had been expected.

"I'll just run over to the accident table and clean up." Xena stated matter of factly. "I'll be back shortly." She strode off through the crowd, one or two warriors falling into step with her, partially to make sure she dealt with the wounds properly, but mainly to ask about a couple of moves she made during the sparring match. Gabrielle, Ephiny and Solari exchanged glances and shook their heads as they watched the warrior stride across the field, engrossed in conversation with the accompanying Amazons.

Eponin stepped forward and folded her arms, before addressing her Queen. "You know Gabrielle, once you've joined with Xena and she becomes an Amazon herself, you'll be able to order her to be a little more careful."

Gabrielle grinned at her friends. "You really think she's gonna listen to an order like that? I'll just be her Queen, remember! Who "says she'll listen to me?"

"She's got a point, Ep." Ephiny laughed and put her arms around Eponin's and Solari's waists. "Anyway, maybe something a little less 'sharp' for now huh? Gabrielle, would you like to dance with Solari and a staff for a while? Warm up a bit and show some of our warriors here just what you're made of?" She winked at Gabrielle, knowing as did Eponin and Solari, that their Queen was far more skilled with the staff now than the Amazons generally believed or gave her credit for.

"Why not? Yeah, let's work up an appetite for tonight!" She leaned towards Solari and whispered. "Sol, please don't go easy on me. I really need this. If you knock me flat on my arse, I'll probably have deserved it for not paying attention!"

"If you're sure, Gabrielle?" Solari threw her a wicked grin. "I don't want to be known as the Amazon who beat her Queen to a pulp! And I especially don't want to face Xena if I injure you!"

"I'm sure." Gabrielle grinned at Solari just as wickedly. "But just remember, you'll have to get near me first if you want to even come close to hitting me!"

Solari excused herself for a few moments to walk over to a weapons barrel and select a quarterstaff. Gabrielle moved into the circle and began limbering up slowly. She could hear whispers from some of the warriors and guessed they were probably thinking Solari would go easy, remembering that Gabrielle was no warrior, along with hoping that their Queen had learned to duck, otherwise she could get badly injured. Calming her excitement, Gabrielle exhorted herself to remember she could outsmart Xena with this weapon, but also reminded herself not to be overconfident or try to show off. She was determined have the surrounding warriors celebrate her return knowing she was their equal on the battlefield, at least in the art of quarterstaff fighting.

Solari walked into the ring of watchers, which had now grown since the knowledge of Xena's sparring and the Queen's presence had rippled out across the other fields. Gabrielle and Solari stretched and warmed themselves up ready for combat, each twirling their staff in front and around themselves. They constantly tried to cast menacing looks at each other, but failed miserably as each expression turned into an affectionate grin or a wink.

"Hades flames!" Solari thumped her staff into the ground. "Are we gonna spar Gabs, or laugh ourselves to death?"

Gabrielle lifted her staff and pointed it at Solari, her face deadly serious. "Don't ever call your Queen by that name again Solari!" She hissed. "Is that absolutely clear?"

Solari faltered briefly. "I....Gabrielle, I'm sorry." She felt herself reddening as she looked down at the ground then back at her sparring partner. "My Queen, I...I meant no offence. I'll never call you that again if you don't...like it." She suddenly grasped that she was being toyed with. "Oh very clever, Gabrielle"!

"Gotcha!" Gabrielle chuckled. "And you deserved it. "She could hear bursts of soft laughter from the surrounding warriors and suddenly recognised one warrior's laughter apart from the others. She quickly looked across to where Eponin was standing and saw Xena by the amazon's side. Xena lifted her hand to her lips, blew Gabrielle a kiss, then made a fist and mouthed 'Go get her!'

"Alright, Solari." Gabrielle lifted her staff horizontally in front of her and saluted her friend. "Shall we?"

Solari was happy to comply. "Let's dance, my Queen!" She raised her own staff and stepped quickly towards Gabrielle.

The two circled each other jabbing double-handedly as they tested each other's strength and looked for weaknesses. Solari suddenly whipped upwards with her right hand for a shoulder hit on Gabrielle's left side, but had been well anticipated and the staff sailed harmlessly over Gabrielle's head, enabling her to jump forward, then turn and thump Solari squarely between her shoulder blades.

Replying to one or two gasps from the crowd, Solari laughed. "Hey! That was just a lucky shot!"

A 'duet' flew back at her. "Yeah, right!" Solari and Gabrielle didn't need to look up to know the comment came from Xena and Eponin. They smiled at one another as they began weaving around each other again.

Gabrielle swung her staff back and up in an arc, slicing down towards Solari's head, but her attack was skilfully blocked by the Amazon's raised weapon. Solari replied with a sweep to Gabrielle's legs, which the Queen jumped, landing gracefully and ready to lunge for her opponent's midriff. Solari parried this move away, along with several jabs and lunges that followed in quick succession. Gabrielle then spun round, swinging up from the left to hit Solari's right shoulder, but found no contact as Solari dived to the ground, rolled and jumped up behind Gabrielle, offering a blow to her Queen's back, similar to the one she had received earlier. The Amazon found her attack blocked however, by Gabrielle's weapon, lifted defensively above her head. Before Solari could step back for another attack, Gabrielle swiftly bent forward and hammered her staff through her own legs to find purchase against Solari's ankle.

Solari let out a howl. "Son of a" As Gabrielle dropped to one knee and swept round with lightening speed to clip Solari's calves, lifting her clear off her feet and flat on her back. "...bacchae!"

"Well now warrior." Gabrielle stood up and rested the end of her staff on Solari's chest. "I would suggest you yield." She smiled down at her friend and offered her right hand.

Solari accepted good-humouredly and allowed Gabrielle to pull her up from the ground to the ecstatic cheers and applause exploding through the crowd. "That was wonderful, Gabrielle!" Solari swept her Queen into a bear hug and spun her round, before letting her down again. "I knew you'd improved a lot, but that was good, truly good!"

"So much for your wanting me to teach you a few new tips, Gabrielle." Eponin shouted over the crowd. "I reckon you could teach your own warriors a thing or two!"

Gabrielle looked affectionately towards Eponin and shouted back. "Thank you Eponin. That means a lot coming from you!" She glanced over from Eponin to see Xena applauding enthusiastically and smiling proudly. The sight filled her with a deep sense of joy and as far as she was concerned, this response was the most important reaction of all the warriors standing around her. She mouthed 'I love you', in Xena's direction and was thrilled to receive the same silent affirmation from the one whom Gabrielle knew was never keen on public demonstrations of affection.

Xena waited for the cheering and clapping to die down, believing the warriors' reaction to Gabrielle as a proven fighter to be well deserved and long overdue. Eventually, she slowly walked forward and began to deliberately circle Gabrielle. "So, you think you can fight now, huh? Think you're a true Amazon?"

Gabrielle recognised the routine immediately and maintained a stony expression. "I can give as good as I get, warrior. As well you know." She began nonchalantly throwing her staff from one hand to the other as she watched Xena.

The crowd, at first unsure of what was happening soon realised the tension between Gabrielle and Xena was an act. One by one, each Amazon relaxed and instead began soaking up the electric storm they sensed growing in front of them.

"I still reckon you've a lot to learn, Gabrielle." Xena's tone was deep and sensual.

"Is that so?"

"That's so." Xena gave a feral smile. "I also think you're small for an Amazon."

"Small huh?" Gabrielle made a mental note to definitely get Xena back later for that comment. "Well warrior, you know the smallest of spiders can have the deadliest of bites."

The look she received from Gabrielle with her last comment sent a shiver up the back of Xena's neck. She silently promised both herself and Gabrielle that the moment they could conveniently leave the practice fields, they would settle into the Queen's quarters and enjoy a far more intimate one-on-one, in private.

"Then I've got one thing to say to you, Gabrielle." She raised an eyebrow.

"And that would be?" Gabrielle had gradually raised her staff as they spoke, so slowly it had gone unnoticed by the crowd.

Xena beamed towards her beloved and gave a shout. "Sunrise!" She drew her sword with imperceptible speed and leapt towards Gabrielle.

Bringing her sword arm down hard, Xena's blade was perfectly blocked by Gabrielle's staff, held aloft by powerful arms and locked shoulders. The explosive sound of the initial clash between wood and steel left some in the crowd wondering how Gabrielle even managed to withstand the blow, let alone successfully block it. But the genuine smiles exchanged between the duellers were based upon the sure knowledge of each other's moves, over seasons of practised workouts together. Xena knew the limits of Gabrielle's strength and Gabrielle trusted Xena not to go beyond them. During such routines they could anticipate each other's every movement, every step, each attack and each defence, but never allowed their concentration to slip in case either one of them introduced a slightly different move in order to keep one another alert.

The surrounding Amazons were delighted by the performance, which appeared to increase in pace after every ten moves or so. Xena lunged and sliced to be blocked or forced back; Gabrielle jabbed and swung to be parried or held at bay. Once or twice, a surprised look from the warrior would reveal that a jab from Gabrielle had hit its mark and it was usually followed by a swift side-step by Xena and a rap with the flat of her blade either on Gabrielle's knuckles or her rear. They continued sparring beyond a quarter of a candle mark, impressing their Amazon audience with the stamina of their young Queen and the varied skills and abilities of both of them.

Only when tiredness began set in on well-exercised muscles did Gabrielle reluctantly call out to Xena. "Moonrise!"

The pace between Gabrielle and Xena changed, beginning to slow down and finally halted by the time the next quarter candle mark had been reached. They each raised their weapon in salute to the other, Xena then re-sheathed her sword and stepped forward to join hands with Gabrielle. Thunderous applause and cheers went up for the performance by Xena and Gabrielle and the two smiled appreciatively as they made their way over to Ephiny, Solari and Eponin.

Ephiny grasped Gabrielle's shoulders and kissed her cheek. "Gabrielle, I doubt there'll be a sister in the village now who thinks for a moment that you can't fight." She reached out to clasp Xena's arm. "That was incredible! You two really are the prologue and chorus rolled into one!"

Xena laughed heartily. "Well, this prologue and chorus are looking forward to a hot tub and a little relaxation for a couple of candle marks now, if that's alright with everyone?"

"No problem." Eponin joined in, before turning to note if any royal guards were present. "Prax! Geilissa!" She called over to two young guards, both striking in appearance with red hair and vivid green eyes. "Can I pull you away from the practice fields for a time?"

The two walked swiftly over, both respectfully placing right hands over their hearts and bowing before Gabrielle and Ephiny. "My Queen. My Regent." They chorused simply before looking up and smiling.

"What can we do, Eponin?" Prax addressed her superior.

"Please attend to the Queen's quarters without delay." Eponin stated. "Provide our Queen and Xena with hot water for bathing and a fresh waterskin for drinking. Also make sure that fruit and wine are present and then ensure whoever's on duty for the third watch is there and ready to serve."

Geilissa spoke up. "That's us, Eponin." She smiled broadly at Gabrielle, then briefly dipped her head out of respect. "That's why we're both here for our Queen. In case we're needed."

Xena couldn't help but smile at the obvious affection both these royal guards had for Gabrielle. There was nothing false or ulterior in their attitude, merely a willingness to serve a leader they loved. It contrasted starkly with Xena's own dark days as a powerful warlord, when she was obeyed out of lust and fear rather than love and loyalty. She closed her eyes briefly against the memory, deeply grateful to be in the midst of a moral people and at the side of one who had so changed her life for the better.

Gabrielle reached out a hand affectionately and placed it on Geilissa's arm. "I'm very grateful for your kind attendance. And for your attention to your duty." She looked across to Prax. "Both of you. And please, call me Gabrielle won't you?"

The two royal guards grinned and stepped back as Prax spoke up once more. "Unless there's anything else? We'll go and prepare your hut, highness. I mean, Gabrielle!" Gabrielle shook her head, confirming that there was nothing more. The two guards turned and walked away for about ten paces then sprinted towards the village.

Xena watched them until they were out of sight. "I was impressed by those two sparring earlier, while I was dealing with this." She briefly lifted her arm. "I'd like them both to come with me Eponin, if it's OK?" Eponin nodded and Xena turned towards Solari, handing her a small piece of parchment. "Sol, I've written down the names of fifteen Amazon warriors, who I'd appreciate going with me against Agradon. I'd like you to add Prax and Geilissa to that list and choose another thirty-three fighters for me. I want a raiding party of fifty warriors. We can discuss the details during tonight's feast if that's alright?" She looked at Solari, Eponin, Ephiny and Gabrielle each in turn and was met with nods of approval. "Splendid!" Xena looked around and realised most of their Amazon audience had either gone back to weapon practice or were heading back to the village. "Well, for now then..." She turned on her heal, still holding Gabrielle's hand. "If my Queen is in agreement, we shall be otherwise engaged for the next two candle marks!"

Gabrielle wiped the perspiration out of one of her eyes. "Oh I'm definitely in agreement." Then she let go of Xena's hand and stepped back. "Wait a moment! Haven't you forgotten something?"

"What?" Xena was genuinely puzzled.

"I told you, you're not coming near me until you make up for certain 'olive tree' comments, remember?"


"I meant it, Xena!" Gabrielle put her hands on her hips.

"Gabrielle!" Xena seemed at a total loss. "Oh come on my love, you're joking, right?"

"Xena my love, I am totally serious!"

"I was only teasing earlier and...and..." She pointed at Gabrielle. "You laughed, I heard you! You know I was only teasing."

"Yeah well." Gabrielle folded her arms in front of her. "It was one tease too far." She noticed Coronis making her way across the field and waved to her, then beckoned her over. "Coronis, would you be kind enough to escort your Queen to her quarters please?"

"Yes my Queen...I mean Gabrielle." She grinned sheepishly and then caught the annoyed look in Xena's eye. "I'd be, um, honoured."

Gabrielle noticed the guard's discomfort and smiled. "Don't mind Xena, Coronis. We've just had a slight misunderstanding." She turned to Xena with her best innocent smile, which caused Ephiny, Solari and Eponin to start chuckling. "Haven't we, beloved?"

Xena shook her head, knowing she was defeated. "Yeah, a misunderstanding."

"You are happy for me to escort Gabrielle back to the Queen's quarters, Xena?" The last thing Corinis wanted was to get on the wrong side of the warrior princess. She glanced towards Eponin, who smiled affectionately and mouthed to her that everything was alright.

Xena couldn't help but grin. "Sure Coronis, it's fine. You go ahead to the village with Gabrielle." She noticed the guard visibly relax.

"You do remember what I told you Xena, don't you?" Gabrielle had begun walking backwards, towards the village.

"Told me?" Xena raised an eyebrow.

"What I asked you to do, before...you know!"

Realisation washed over the warrior's face. "Oh that." She looked up at Gabrielle. "Oh no! By the gods, you're serious aren't you, Gabrielle!"

Gabrielle cast a wicked grin at Xena. "Very!" With that, she turned on her heal and headed for the village at a slow run, Coronis jogging to catch up.

Xena watched the two figures continue at a slow, steady run, grateful that at least Gabrielle was sensible enough not to amble and let her muscles cool down too rapidly. She turned to the others. "Of all the inconsiderate, misunderstood, selfish...Huh! Hades testicles! Never fall in love with a bard, Ephiny. Just don't ever do it!"

Solari grinned. "Am I a bard, Eph?"

"Not last time I looked, Sol." Ephiny chuckled.

Xena slapped a hand over her eyes. "Oh shut up you two!" She glanced up at Eponin. "Don't suppose you know where I can find an orchid, real fast, do you?"

Eponin shrugged her shoulders. "Beats me, my friend. I'm not a foliage expert."

"No, you just like dropping in on it don't you Ep." Solari giggled briefly. "Sorry Eponin."

"It's alright Sol." Eponin smiled warmly. "You can apologise on the practice field when Pyras finally gives me permission to breathe again."

"Do any of you know where I can find an orchid." Xena was trying hard to hide her sense of desperation.

"Oh Xena!" Ephiny stepped forward. "I have to put you out of your misery." She reached behind herself and pulled a long stemmed flower from her belt. "Here, take it!"

Xena tentatively reached for the dazzling blue plant and cradled it in her hand. "It's beautiful, Ephiny. Where did you get it?"

"Let's just say you're not the only one around here with many skills, Xena." She said, with a wink. "So what are you hanging around with us for? Haven't you got a Queen or bard to go and make up with?"

Xena stepped forward and rested her hand on Ephiny's shoulder. "Thanks Ephiny, you're a good friend." She looked over to Eponin then Solari. "Maybe see you in a couple of candle marks then!" With that, she turned towards the village and set off at a slow run.

"Better make it three or four, I wager." Solari whispered to Ephiny.

Ephiny laughed and put an arm round her lover's shoulders. "I got one for you too, my heart." She produced a second blue orchid from her belt and gave it to Solari.

"Oh Eph, for a tough Regent and a wonderful warrior, you're softer than a lamb's belly!" She placed a hand against Ephiny's cheek and kissed her passionately. "

"Not the sweetest of sentiments, Solari." Ephiny whispered as they broke the kiss. "But coming from you that's pretty good." She turned to Eponin. "I expect you're feeling up to the feast tonight, aren't you, Ep?"

"Absolutely!" Eponin laughed. "If our healer even tries to make me stay away from the celebrations, I'll ask you and Gabrielle to pull rank!"

"And will you be coming alone?" Solari smirked. "Or are you finally going to show some warrior mettle and approach Coronis?"

"Sol!" Eponin was taken aback.

"Oh come on Ep, don't 'Sol!' me. I know you care about her." Solari playfully scowled before continuing. "What you seem to be missing though, is that Coronis feels exactly the same way about you! Only she thinks you're just being a good friend and leader towards her."

Eponin's jaw dropped. "she does? Are you sure?" Ephiny and Solari both responded with various affirmations as Eponin put her hands on her hips and scuffed one of her boots in the dirt. "Well, I'll be a sow's nipple!" She looked up and grinned. "I think I'm going to freshen up then go invite Coronis to sit at our table tonight...Ephiny, where did you find those orchids?"

"Come on." Ephiny moved towards the village, pulling Solari with her. "I'll show you on the way. They're just along the field boundary over there." The three headed back towards the village, talking about orchids, hot tubs and the evening's celebrations.

End Of Part Two

Continued in Part 3

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