~ 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 Three

Xena ran into the village and headed towards the Queen's hut, bounding up the wooden steps as she reached the outer porch-way. Prax and Geilissa were on duty outside and she greeted them both warmly.

"Uh, Xena?" Geilissa spoke up tentatively as she watched Xena make for the door. "Queen Gabrielle asked us to tell you that you can't go in."

"Oh? Oh right, I see." She decided to go along with Gabrielle's game instead of making the guards feel uncomfortable with their orders, even if given at Xena's expense. "Is Gabrielle in her main quarters or is she bathing now?"

Prax smiled, aware of what task Gabrielle wanted Xena to perform before she was to be granted access to the royal quarters. "The Queen is bathing Xena, and she asked me to inform you that the shutters are not closed properly."

"Oh, aren't they?" Xena raised an eyebrow towards Prax, sensing collaboration between Gabrielle and the young guard. "Uh, fine. I'll just go for a walk around the Queen's hut then, to uh, you know." She began backing round the corner of the wood and stone building. "To see that everything's alright."

"Of course." Prax replied, pretending to turn back to her conversation with Geilissa. As Xena disappeared round the side of the hut the two guards broke into muffled laughter before settling back to their duty, knowing that their protective presence was in reality redundant now that Xena had arrived.

Xena skulked silently for a while, before kneeling by the window shutter to Gabrielle's bathing chamber. She could hear the young bard reciting snatches of favourite stories, along with the sounds of trickling water, drips and splashes as she washed. The warrior closed her eyes for a few moments, picturing her love's naked form in the hot tub. Her image became all the more vivid as Xena breathed in the heady aromas of jasmine, lavender and bougainvillea floating through the shutters to greet her; scents that, for Xena, were synonymous with the fragrance of Gabrielle's hair and soft skin. She smiled to herself and opened her eyes, wanting to swap the vision for the reality she now knew she could share with her companion.

Xena cleared her throat and began to hum quietly. The sounds from the tub ceased as the warrior's rich, melodic tones drifted inside to Gabrielle. Xena relaxed into gentle scales and lulling notes while she thought about the song Gabrielle had told her to sing and realised she didn't have a clue how 'The Little Lamb Of Poteidaia' went. She remembered Gabrielle singing the song once or twice in villages when they had occasionally needed to take the minds of children off pending danger from a raiding party or some resulting injury. Now however, she couldn't recall a single word of the lullaby. She decided to improvise, rather than give up and so after a few moments of thought, she began to sing.

"The little lamb of Poteidaia,

fleece so white ~ ya shoulda seen her.

Then one day, oh violent irony!

How the village faced the tragedy.

Straying arrows. Oh poor lamb!

Now there's mutton, not just ham."

"Xena!" The shutter flew open, followed by a sponge filled with water that promptly hit Xena in the chest. "Those are not the words to the song and you know it!" Gabrielle's head came into view.

Xena stood, picked up the sponge between thumb and forefinger and tossed it back through the now open window and into the tub. "Yeah well, that's what ya get for not giving me a song I know." She looked lovingly at Gabrielle for a moment and grinned. "You clean up so nice."

Gabrielle chuckled in spite of herself. "I don't know why I'm laughing Xena, you've just wrecked a favourite song from my childhood!"

Xena leaned through the window and offered Gabrielle the orchid. "Got one thing right though."

"Oh, it's beautiful Xena." Gabrielle reached out and took the flower. "Where did you find it?" She found a small empty vial by the bath that had been holding dried crushed lavender and filled it with fresh water from a bucket. Slipping the orchid into it, Gabrielle reached over and stood the vial on a nearby table.

Xena always enjoyed the expression Gabrielle had when she saw something beautiful and this was no exception. "I won't lie to you, Ephiny actually gave it to me. She must have taken pity on me when you gave me your ultimatum and picked it on or near the practice fields for me."

"It's almost the same blue of your eyes, Xena." She beckoned to the warrior to join her. "Did you realise?"

Xena leapt across the window ledge and landed quietly on the floor. "No, I just thought it was pretty and you'd like it." She and Gabrielle shared a knowing look, they both knew full well how much Xena appreciated natural things of beauty and the shallow comment was not meant. She turned back to the shutters, closing and latching them properly, then removed her sword and chakram and leaned them against the wall, swiftly followed by her armour and shoulder guards.

"Hey! Slow down, warrior." Gabrielle propped her arms on the edge of the tub and rested her chin on them. "Now I don't have to worry about you catching me watching you, I'd like to enjoy this." She smiled mischievously. "Unless of course, you have any objections?"

Xena laughed. "No objections I can think of...except...." She lifted her hand to her chin as if in deep thought and looked at Gabrielle. "Maybe you could look a little less like I'm something on your plate ready to rip to shreds and devour?" She dropped slowly to one knee to remove one of her boots and grieves, bowing her head to hide the huge grin spreading across her face.

"I do not look like that, Xena!" Gabrielle scooped up a handful of water and threw it in Xena's direction, hitting her intended target. "Well, maybe I do a little ~ it's not every day I have such a wonderful vision to bathe with." She relaxed by the tub's edge again. "Besides, you shouldn't look so good to eat."

Xena blew out of the corner of her mouth, lifting her now dripping fringe from her eyes and switched knees to remove her other boot and grieve. "God's I've taken an innocent and created a monster!" She placed her boots and grieves with her weapons and armour then slowly slipped off her armbands and bracers, placing them with the other items. "Ya know, if we had a drum I could do this properly for you." She raised her arms and swayed her hips gracefully.

Gabrielle was suddenly aware of a tingling in the pit of her stomach, radiating down to her sex and was surprised to realise her mouth was watering. "Maybe you could dance for me on our wedding night, Xena. I can tell it definitely has its advantages." She reached out to the warrior. "Please come and join me here my love, I want so much to be near you."

Xena quickly lifted her leathers up and over her head, dropping the garment by her feet and swiftly stepped out of her small britches. She smiled to hear Gabrielle's sharp intake of breath as she stood naturally and cocked her head to one side. "I gather I meet with the Queen's approval then?"

Gabrielle's hand was still extended to Xena. "Very much so and I'm longing to give back to you at least something of what you gave me last night." She looked intently at the warrior. "That is, if you'll allow me to? If you show me how to, Xena? If you'll give yourself to me and trust me?"

Xena moved forward to take Gabrielle's hand, sensing her own desires growing. "Allow you to, Gabrielle? Trust you?" She stepped into the tub and sat down on the ledge with her shoulders resting against the wall, so that only her legs were in the tub. She closed her eyes briefly. "You're the only one I think I can give myself to." She leaned forward to place her fingertips beneath Gabrielle's chin and met her eye to eye. "The only one I want to surrender to and stop being a warrior!"

Gabrielle turned around fully so that she could kneel between Xena's knees, wrapping her arms around the warrior's hips and rested her head against her stomach. "You are precious to me Xena." She lifted her head, her gaze met by clear blue eyes. "For all your toughness, the soldier in you, the dangerous warrior princess." She smiled. "I know the gentleness and uncertainty in you, the tender warmth and the wonderful joy you bring."

Xena stroked Gabrielle's hair. "Yeah well, don't tell everyone. I'd like to keep some semblance of my reputation intact, thank you." She brought both hands up to cup Gabrielle's face gently kissed her forehead, each cheek, then lowered her head to brush Gabrielle's lips with her own. "As for showing you how to love me, I'll guide you if you want me to, but something tells me that with your bard's imagination and the scrolls you've read recently..." She smiled. "Not to mention the fact that right now your touch and scent are driving me crazy, I doubt I need to show you anything at all, Gabrielle. Just follow your instincts my love. I think you'll know if what you're giving to me is...pleasing."

"By the gods Xena!" Gabrielle's voice was just above a whisper. "I've been waiting for this so long. It seems an eternity since we entered Amazonia this morning." She ran her fingers down Xena's cheek, slipping one hand through raven hair to clasp her neck and draw her in for a deeper kiss, running her tongue lightly over Xena's lips and teeth, demanding entry; she was eagerly complied with. Gabrielle's free hand rested on Xena's thigh and pushed outwards so that she could move closer into the warrior's body.

For a short time the rediscovery of each other's mouth seemed all-important, but eventually Gabrielle wanted to explore more of the woman she longed to touch and to please. She gently pulled away from Xena's lips to kiss her way down her neck and across her shoulders. Xena's contented sighs encouraged Gabrielle and she began to move her lips down the warrior's chest to one of her breasts and slowly took the firm flesh into her mouth. She sucked softly, feeling the nipple hardening against her tongue.

Xena breathed sharply in, swept up by the sensations caused by Gabrielle's circling tongue and caressing lips. She followed it with a barely audible response. "Oh yessssss." Slowly lifting her hand, she stroked Gabrielle's hair and held her head against her breast before letting both hands come down to rest on Gabrielle's shoulders.

Gabrielle moved to the other breast, running her tongue over the creamy bronzed skin and across the rich, dark aureola, savouring the hint of salt from Xena's exertions on the practice fields. As she softly licked the nipple, causing it to harden and rise, Gabrielle brought her hand up to stroke the other breast her tongue had left moments earlier. She thrilled at the low moan that escaped Xena's lips and was excited by how her touch drew from the warrior sounds she had previously only fantasised about hearing. "You like this, Xena?" Gabrielle lifted her head to tenderly kiss the hollow of Xena's throat. "And this?"

The warrior's eyes were half closed. "Yes, Gabrielle. I like this. Very much."

Gabrielle craned her neck and captured Xena's lips once more, allowing the warrior's hands to drift down from her shoulders, round to her abdomen and up to cup her breasts, gently kneading and stroking. She closed her eyes and momentarily soaked up Xena's touch, before pulling back just enough to ensure the warrior knew who was loving who this time. There was no protest from Xena and Gabrielle resumed her attentions to her beloved's throat, shoulders and breasts.

Xena closed her eyes and tipped her head back, resting it against the wall. She was surprised that her guard was down and quickly dropping further and further away with every heartbeat, but smiled at what was happily taking its place as Gabrielle touched her. The world outside could disappear as far as she was concerned as all that mattered was melting into Gabrielle's love and submitting to her passions. Gone were her days of merely using sex to gain power and control over warlords or favours from them. Gone were the times of taking what she wanted from whomever she pleased, without a single thought or consideration for her actions beyond her own lust and pleasure. This was different and it felt good; being with Gabrielle was right, filled with mutual love and longing. "I never want this to end, Gabrielle." Xena's thoughts unconsciously slipped into whispered words.

Gabrielle looked up briefly and smiled to see Xena's eyes still closed in reverie. "It never has to now, my love. Not ever." She whispered in return as she bent her head and kissed her way down the warrior's chest. Moving backwards slightly in the warm water, Gabrielle continued tracing her lips down the contours of Xena's ribs and abdomen, sometimes softly nipping at the taut muscles as she grazed across the warrior's stomach, intrigued by the taste of her and silkiness of her skin. Xena's breathing became ragged as Gabrielle licked her way down to her navel, stopping to dip her tongue into the sweet hollow. She slid her hands up Xena's thighs, stroking the relaxed but powerful muscles and circling her thumbs through soft raven curls. She pressed gently outwards, encouraging the warrior to ease her legs further apart and thrilled at the quiver that rippled through Xena, accompanied by a deep guttural moan. She continued to stroke Xena's thighs and mound while caressing her abdomen with her tongue. The fragrance of Xena's musk was intoxicating, but Gabrielle held back from the desire to run her tongue over the warrior's sex. She needed to know Xena wanted her this intimately and would let go, giving control to her, before giving in to her own desire to taste her beloved and drink in her essence.

Xena's hand suddenly clasped Gabrielle's shoulder. "Gab...Gabrielle. My love, what are you doing?" The warrior's breathing was heavy.

Gabrielle couldn't help but grin. "Well if you haven't worked that one out, my sweet..."

"I mean you don't have to...love me with your tongue like that, if you don't want to."

"Oh but I do want to, Xena." Gabrielle's tone was low and sensuous, sending a delicious chill up the warrior's back. "Why? Don't you want me to touch you here with my mouth?" She softly ran her index finger through Xena's dark curls across her clitoris and through the length of her opening, delighting in the wetness that awaited her.

Xena jolted upright involuntarily. "Oh gods!" She sank back against the wall again. "Yes I do, Gabrielle. More than anything right else right now, I...I want you so much. Oh...please Gabrielle!" Xena tilted her hips forward, giving in to her longing.

Gabrielle smiled. "well then." She didn't hesitate as she felt Xena press towards her. She lifted the warrior's left thigh over her shoulder, slipping her hand beneath her buttock for support as she kissed her way through black mossy down. Easing Xena's right leg further outwards, Gabrielle ran her hand lightly down the warrior's shin, bringing her foot to rest on her thigh beneath the water. Bending her head to the ruby treasure now open to her, Gabrielle ran her tongue slowly through the slick folds, enjoying the earthy flavour that greeted her, along with the sudden shiver that ran through Xena from the intimate presence of her mouth. She pushed forward into Xena as far as she could with her tongue and firmly circled the walls of her centre, repeating the movement several times before withdrawing to tenderly suck the lips of the warrior's labia, eliciting sighs and the low tones of her name being called. Gabrielle steadily moved forward to claim her prize, feeling her own desire soar as she took Xena's swollen clitoris between her lips and sucked on it softly, causing the warrior to cry out and clamp her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. Xena felt a total connection to the woman passionately loving her and drawing her towards a precipice she would joyfully leap from, without fear of falling anywhere other than more deeply into Gabrielle's love and protection.

Alternating gentle sucking with firm strokes and swift circles with her tongue, Gabrielle sensed Xena moving closer to her climax as her moans became more audible and rapid. She silently promised the both of them that she would make this wonderful moment last, never to be forgotten. Gabrielle reached beneath and round Xena to grip her hips, steadying them both without interrupting her ministrations and could feel a subtle change in Xena's movements as the warrior took a deep breath and held it.

Xena sensed the richest exhilaration washing through her from the sensations Gabrielle filled her with and suddenly felt herself rushing through nothing but light and colours as her climax hit and lifted her. "Oh...by the gods...Gabri...elle!" Her cry was loud enough to be heard well across the village, but she didn't care as the waves of delicious sensation crashed over her constantly while Gabrielle slowed but did not stop, prolonging her ecstasy.

Gradually, Xena's shudders subsided and Gabrielle slowly brought her ministrations to a reluctant halt. She kissed her way tenderly across Xena's mound and over her thighs, easing the warrior's leg from her shoulder and pulling her gently into the warm water of the tub to join her. As their faces became level to each other, Gabrielle saw tears coursing down Xena's cheeks and was initially shocked. "Xena! What's wrong? What happened? Did I hurt you?" She brushed a hand down Xena's face. "Gods, if I hurt you I couldn't forgive myself!"

"Ssshhhh, my love." Xena's mellifluous tones soothed Gabrielle's sudden anxiety. "You didn't hurt me, silly. I love what you've given me." She held Gabrielle close to her, kissing her hair and forehead. "You have taught me so much over our few years together, Gabrielle. How to live again, how to laugh, how to appreciate life, how to forgive, how to really love..." She looked deeply into Gabrielle's shining green eyes. "How to love again, Gabrielle. How to truly love. And what you gave me here...I can't begin to think of the words to describe how complete you've made me feel." Xena leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle deeply. "I love you so much." The taste of herself on Gabrielle's lips was exciting, but Xena resisted the sudden impulse to lift her from the water and lose herself in Gabrielle's own essence.

Gabrielle stroked Xena's face and wiped the tears from her eyes. "I love you too. You are so much a part of life to me, the best part. I couldn't imagine living without you, anymore than I could imagine surviving if someone tore out my heart." She returned Xena's kiss with an equally deep one. "You are heart and soul to me and I pray the gods give me wisdom and love enough to always to treat you as the lover and friend you are to me, and try always to serve you as your Queen."

Xena smiled. "You really will be my Queen won't you, when we're joined?" Xena sank back in the tub and held Gabrielle to her. "I'll be an Amazon." She laughed and shook her head. "I never thought I'd actually end up joining a tribe of Amazons! Strange how things sometimes work out."

Gabrielle turned in Xena's arms to rest against the warrior's chest. "Does that trouble you, Xena? Becoming an Amazon, I mean?"

"No, it doesn't trouble me." She gazed warmly at Gabrielle. "I welcome it now. Now I know I belong at your side and with this tribe of the Amazon Nation. It's just that...well, a long time ago I was given the chance to join a tribe of Amazons in Asia Minor."

"You've never mentioned this before Xena. What happened?"

Xena's expression fell and for a moment she looked desperately sad. "I couldn't change, Gabrielle. Not back then, I don't even think I wanted to. Let's just say events soured and we mutually agreed never to cross each others paths again."

"Events soured?" Gabrielle raised her head to look at Xena.

Xena sighed and glanced down at Gabrielle. "I had rejoined Borias after leaving Lao Ma's kingdom. We were leaving the Far East of the known world and were heading slowly for Greece. I cared for Borias, Gabrielle. I cared very much, but I never loved him. To me he was..........................a convenience, a means to an end, a way to raise my own army so that I wouldn't even need him. Oh, we kept each other warm at night and I'll always treasure his memory as the one who gave me Solan." She faltered briefly and felt Gabrielle squeeze her hand. "During our travels we came across this Amazon tribe and forged an alliance. We should have known it wouldn't work. As we got to know each other and I began to appreciate the strengths and codes of the Amazons, I was invited by their Queen to leave Borias and our army and join them instead. I was intrigued by the offer and spent a lot of time with the tribe. Eventually, I began a relationship with one of their warriors, but Borias found out. It could have simply ended there, but the Amazon I was involved with was betrothed to the Queen's daughter so we were both in big trouble when Borias went crazy with jealousy and announced to the whole tribe exactly what he thought of us. To cut a long story short, I managed to convince the Queen that I'd seduced and enchanted their Amazon warrior and so she was more or less innocent of any crime. Perhaps the only decent thing I did at the time. The leader of the Royal Guard challenged me for the offence against the Princess, we fought and I killed her. It was a duel within their law, but it still went down badly with the tribe. The whole event wrecked the alliance, along with whatever relationship I had with Borias, although we did come back to Greece together. Then I discovered I was pregnant with Solan and, not long after that, Borias was killed in battle. Almost everything I touched back then, Gabrielle, seemed to end up wrecked or dead."

Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes briefly. "That wasn't you back then, Xena. That person you were, the...warlord, the destroyer ~ she's gone now. She was purged away piece by piece by all the people you met like Lao Ma, M'lila, Kaleipus, Hercules and Ioalus, maybe even those Amazons too, despite what happened." She cupped Xena's face in her hands and smiled. "And then, when each of them had helped you to gradually understand what was right, you found the strength, the wisdom and the courage to walk away from the past darkness into the light. That was down to you, my love, no one else. And that's where I..."

"And that's where you found me." Xena finished the sentence.

"Yes." Gabrielle smiled again, before becoming serious once more. "Xena, do any other Greek or Mesopotamian tribes know you were involved with Amazons in Asia Minor?"

"I don't know to be honest, Gabrielle." Xena scooped up a handful of water and rinsed the remaining traces of tears from her face. "News travels, so the story may have reached other amazon groups. Obviously, Artemis knows, although she's never taken me to task over it and she didn't mention it last night. Ephiny and Solari know, Melosa knew too. I told them at the time we helped bring about peace with the Centaurs."

"Is that what all that was about?" Gabrielle took Xena's hand and began kissing the warrior's fingers one by one. "They wanted to honour you somehow didn't they, as did the Centaurs and you wouldn't let them, would you?"

"I couldn't Gabrielle, not with the events of the other Amazon tribe on my conscience. What happened was wrong. I knew the Amazon Princess and warrior were betrothed to each other. All I really felt was lust for the warrior and I didn't like the Princess, so I just wanted to break them up." Despite the serious tone of their conversation, Gabrielle's tender ministrations were causing Xena's desires to rekindle. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before, Gabrielle. At the time, you'd received Right Of Cast and had been accepted as the Amazon Princess here. That, along with the new peace with the Centaurs, made it an exciting time and I didn't want to take that away from you. Although I was surprised I wasn't charged or something by Melosa when I told her. She said it was up to the Asia Minor tribe to pursue it further if they chose to and not for a Greek tribe to intervene. After that...well, I suppose it slipped back to where all my other memories of past evils are locked away and it didn't occur to me to bring it up again...until now."

"Until now." Gabrielle smiled. "I'm glad you told me Xena. At least if Amazons from Asia Minor choose not to attend our joining, we'll know why." She ran her fingers through Xena's hair and squeezed her shoulder, then laid her hand against Xena's breast. She looked intently at the warrior. "Xena, this water is not going to stay warm forever. Why don't you sit in front of me here and let me wash your hair and the rest of you?"

Xena grinned and moved forward to rest back against Gabrielle and allow herself to be washed. It felt wonderful to relax and experience the simple, practical affection she and Gabrielle had often performed for each other in the past, but now with an openness and appreciation she never used to afford herself. For Gabrielle, the task was now an honest act of total love, no longer hidden behind the guise of friendship and it didn't matter anymore if her heartbeat increased, just as it was doing now in fact.

The two spent more than another candle mark in the tub, until they both felt scrupulously clean from head to foot and perfectly sated by each other's love and lust. The water had become just a little too cool to enjoy further and Gabrielle began to complain of an ache or two from lying or sitting in the tub. Xena stood up and gracefully stepped out of the tub, picking up a large drying cloth and draping it over her shoulder. Grabbing a second cloth, she reached for Gabrielle, who was now standing, and wrapped it round her before scooping her up into her arms. She carried Gabrielle out into the main chamber, where they found their saddlebags neatly stored in a corner and their clothes unpacked, clean sets laid out on the large bed.

"I see you were busy before you got into the tub." Xena playfully dumped Gabrielle onto the bed.

"Xena, I didn't do anything except get straight into the tub when I came in from the practice fields. Prax and Geilissa probably asked a couple of young warriors or horse-tenders to bring our things in from Argo, or did it themselves."

Xena looked disconcerted. "Yeah, but it was all here when you came in, right?"

"No it wasn't Xena." Gabrielle grinned suddenly, realising what Xena was inferring. "Oh, I get it! You're worried whoever it was, brought everything in while we were making love and overheard us, right?"

"Worried? I'm not worried, Gabrielle. Just a little concerned to think of someone being in your quarters while we had our guard down." Xena presented a mischievous grin. "I doubt if anyone in the near vicinity missed the noises we were making in the bathing chamber."

"Oh gods, I hadn't thought of that!" Gabrielle sat up and placed her hand over her mouth. "Half the village must have heard us. Oh great, I can just imagine what some of Solari's comments will be tonight." She chuckled quietly before looking up. "Still, it's too late for inhibitions now...as for someone being in our quarters Xena, it's a little unlikely to be some assassin or enemy warrior now isn't it, sneaking through a village of some seven or eight hundred Amazons? And even if it was ~ if I'm with you, where's my concern, with or without your guard down?" She beamed at Xena. "I'm afraid one of the things we'll need to get used to is a guard or kitchen tender bringing something in for us or doing something for me or you. One of the prices for being Queen and consort, my love."

Xena laughed. "Uh uh...'future' consort, Gabrielle. I haven't made it yet!" She couldn't help but grin in return, disarmed by Gabrielle's smile and ready acceptance of their circumstances.

"You will though, Xena." Gabrielle got up and began to dry herself off ready to dress. "When this mess with Agradon and Ares is sorted out, you will be."

Unbeknown to each other, Xena and Gabrielle had both whispered in their minds, 'Please dear gods, I hope so.' In silent response to Gabrielle's comment. They finished drying themselves and quickly dressed, as they discussed lighter matters of what food would be at the feast and which story Gabrielle would tell the Amazons for entertainment if asked. Eventually they turned to their saddlebags to unpack their other belongings and to re-pack those items needed for the journey ahead regarding the challenge.

Xena carefully removed the white arrow Artemis had given to her from one of the saddlebags and turned towards Gabrielle. "This is the arrow I told you about."

Gabrielle reached out and took it carefully. "I see what you mean about it not being practical, but it is very beautiful, Xena." She walked over to a shelf where she had been stacking her scrolls. "I guess we might as well keep it with them for now, I don't know where else it should go do you?"

Xena shook her head. "Haven't a clue, although Artemis did say I'd know what to do with it when the time came and since it's not to be used for combat, I don't suppose it's meant to go with us when we go up against Agradon."

A knock at the door interrupted any further conversation about the arrow, so Gabrielle slipped it into one of her scrolls and called out to whoever was outside the door to come in. Prax and Geilissa stepped in, explaining that they were there to empty the water from the tub and to take any garments to be cleaned or weapons to be polished. Gabrielle thanked the two young guards and asked them to make sure they both allowed themselves enough time to get ready for the evening feast.

Xena tried to see if Prax or Geilissa had the look or tell tale smirk of having listened in on their sexual intimacies. If they had, their faces didn't betray it and they remained discreet as they carried out their duties. Xena mentally chided herself for doubting the young guards' respectful attitude and went back to sorting through the saddlebags. After half a candle mark, the guards had finished their task with the tub and left with the clothes Gabrielle asked them to take for cleaning. They also took Xena's sword for polishing, at Gabrielle's suggestion and Xena's reluctant agreement. The warrior was not happy about anyone other than herself dealing with her weapon and insisted on the sword's return the moment it had been treated. She pointedly refused to unclip her chakram and hand it over.

Gabrielle kindled a small fire in the grate and brewed some tea from the infusion of herbs and fruit left with them earlier. She and Xena then sat together with two hot mugs, discussing the challenge ahead, the battle that might ensue and the hope of finding Prisca alive.

"I wish I could go with you, Xena." Gabrielle sipped at her mug and stared into space before turning towards the warrior. "You've been trying to find the words to tell me I can't come with you, haven't you?" She smiled warmly.

Xena breathed an audible sigh of relief. "Yeah, I have. I really have, Gabrielle." She reached out a hand and rested it on Gabrielle's shoulder. "There's lots of reasons for you not to be there and only one reason I can think of for you to come with us."

"Okay, the 'many reasons' for not going, I can think of too and although I think I know what's the 'one reason' for not going, I'd still like to hear it from you, Xena." Gabrielle bent her head forward to run her chin along the warrior's knuckles.

"To be by my side, because I love you Gabrielle and don't want to be apart from you. Simple as that." She stroked Gabrielle's face and then sat back with her mug.

"Thank you." Gabrielle looked affectionately towards Xena, before leaning back with her own mug. "As I said earlier, there are some things we'll have to get used to and I realise that, as much as I wish I could go with you, my place is here with my Amazon sisters as their leader now."

"I guess that's another price for being Queen." Xena was quietly pleased they didn't have to argue about why Gabrielle shouldn't now deliberately put herself in danger unless absolutely necessary. She drained her tea, managing to avoid most of the gritty dregs from the herbs. "Still, I can't lie to you Gabrielle. I'm glad I'll only have the raid on Agradon to be concerned about rather than be worrying whether or not you're safe during whatever takes place there."

Gabrielle decided not to rise to the comment and insist on how she could take care of herself, especially when she noticed the sly smile creeping across Xena's face. Instead, she thought of the other Amazons who would accompany Xena. "I suppose Solari's going with you?"

"Yes, along with Ephiny too." She noticed a hint of disappointment on Gabrielle's face. "Eponin will be staying to keep an eye on you though, and Ephiny'll be back to catch up on girl-talk with you before you know it."

Gabrielle laughed. "I'm sure she will be." She put her mug down slowly and became serious for a moment. "Bring my Regent home safe and sound, Xena. Keep an eye on her, Solari too. I don't want to be in the position of having to explain to Xenan why his mother or Aunt Solari can't see him anymore."

Xena was moved by Gabrielle's concern. "Hey, Eph's my friend too, remember? Of course I'll look out for her, Solari as well. Just remember, those two are no less likely to save my hide than I am to save theirs! They're good warriors Gabrielle and they'll be just fine." She leaned forward and scooped up Gabrielle's hands in her own. "All the Amazons going with me are skilled fighters and I swear I have no intention to come home with fewer Amazons than I go with."

"I know you don't, Xena. I just pray you'll be coming home with an extra Amazon, if you find Prisca. I also hope no one's discovered the secret of that chalice before you get to Agradon'e camp...wherever he is." Gabrielle looked towards the window and realised the light was just beginning to fade. "It'll be dark soon Xena, we might as well get moving towards the feasting area. I'm sure plenty of people will have gathered there by now."

"Not until my sword's back safe and sound!" Xena was adamant. "I can't go wandering off without it, Gabrielle. It wouldn't feel right."

"Okay we'll wait a little longer, but I'm sure Prax and Geilissa won't let any harm come to it." Gabrielle stood up and walked over to the grate to dowse the glowing embers left from the fire with the remaining water in the pot still hanging there. "Actually, it's probably at the blacksmith's place, just on from Solari's hut. We could pick it up on the way, if you want?"

"That's a great idea. What's the blacksmith's name, Gabrielle?" Xena was already striding for the door when a knock sounded. Since she reached the door after another step, Xena opened it, delighted to see her sheathed sword in the hands of a smiling young man with a mane of blond hair and dressed simply in leather breeches and a cambric shirt.

"Oh that's just beautiful timing. Thanks." Xena reached for the sword and was given it without hesitation. She drew it and gasped at the shine, bent her head to cast her eye down the shaft and couldn't see a single nick that hadn't been polished out. "Damn, I never thought I'd come across anyone who did a better job on my sword than me!" She re-sheathed her weapon and extended her right hand to the visitor. "Thank you...and welcome, by the way."

The young man gripped Xena's arm in a warrior's greeting and bowed his head. "Thank you Xena, you honour me. Actually it was a real pleasure to deal with such a wonderful piece of workmanship. Who was the smithy?"

Xena laughed. "Believe it or not, it was me! I couldn't find the sword with the size and weight I wanted, so I found a good blacksmith and he taught me the basics, then talked me through the entire process while I made it." She pulled a face. "Gods! My shoulders have never ached as much in my entire life! People who smith as their trade will always have my respect."

Gabrielle approached the door and when the young man saw her he immediately dropped to one knee, clenched a fist over his hear and bowed his head. "My Queen!" He then looked up with a smile. "It's so good to have you back with us, Queen Gabrielle. I am very happy to see you again."

Xena looked confused for a moment, glancing from Gabrielle back to the young man. "Uh, you're a little bit uh...male, for an Amazon, aren't you?"

Gabrielle stepped forward, chuckling at Xena's puzzlement. "Xena, this is Timalcus, the son of our blacksmith, Oenus." She reached out a hand to the young man, who accepted it as he stood up and pulled Gabrielle into a warm embrace, before letting go and standing back. "Mind you, Timalcus is really a blacksmith in his own right these days I should think, aren't you?"

"Yes that's right." Timalcus swept a hand through his hair to brush it back from his shoulders, where it had fallen forward as he bent over to greet Gabrielle. "Though mother still handles the bulk of the work. I help out when I come here to stay from time to time, but I prefer more intricate, decorative work with shields and swords. Occasionally even with jewellery, if I'm asked to make something by a merchant, or for an Amazon who wants something special for some reason." He grinned and eyed Xena intently with his final comment, receiving a brief nod in understanding.

"I'm still not clear though, Timalcus." Xena looked at Gabrielle and raised an eyebrow, lifting her sword and scabbard over her shoulder as Gabrielle stepped behind her to buckle the weapon into place. She looked back to the blacksmith. "You greeted Gabrielle as an Amazon would, but men aren't...I mean, since when have men been...?"

"I'm an honorary Amazon, Xena." He laughed. "You know, a bit like you're an honorary blacksmith!" He folded his arms across his chest and continued. "Some of my friends tease me over the issue ~ a lot! ~ when I'm at home with my father at Lannis, but I was thrilled to be made an honorary Amazon by Melosa when I reached my sixteenth summer. It pleased my mother immensely and I think it makes life easier for the village when I'm staying here."

"I think I can understand that." Xena nodded. "There are certainly some here who, for good reason or bad, distrust or even despise men."

"Oh yes, that's true enough." Timalcus still smiled, but his expression was slightly sad. "And some of those reasons have made me ashamed for my sex at times. To be honest, it's because of that I would gladly stand as a brother with this people if ever they asked me to, but I could never stand as a comrade with an army of men." After a few moments he grinned broadly again. "Besides, how could I not stand with the people who have helped raise me with love and strength and who have more recently given me my betrothed?"

"You are to be married?" Gabrielle was joyful at the news. "That's wonderful Timalcus! Who is to be your bride and bond-mate?"

"It's Iphitus, my Queen." Timalcus smiled proudly. "One of your finest, strongest warriors and the most beautiful and kindest woman I know." He turned to Xena. "Iphitus is one of those going with you to fight Agradon, Xena. I know she will not let you down. She's proud to be one of your warriors and will serve you loyally."

Xena reached a hand out and rested it on Timalcus' upper arm, noting the obvious strength in the limb. "Thank you. You have my word that I'll lead the Amazons as wisely as I possibly can when we leave to find Agradon. With a show of the right kind of strength and cunning, we may not even have to enter into a full-scale battle. We shall see. And it'll be me who'll be honoured to have Iphitus and the other Amazon warriors at my side, believe me."

"I believe you Xena, and I trust in your abilities and your loyalty to the Amazons. I am sure you will do everything that needs to be done." Timalcus faltered slightly. "And I'm sure almost everyone here believes that too."

"I note a 'but' in there, Timalcus." Gabrielle joined in.

"So do I." Xena raised an eyebrow. "What's wrong?"

Timalcus sighed heavily. "Xena, you already know there is a love in this village for you and a readiness to receive you and forgive you for what happened...before." He glanced at Gabrielle, who nodded once and smiled in encouragement. "Most of the Amazons here are loyal to you now and will certainly commit themselves to you when you join with Queen Gabrielle. One of those who refuses to forgive you however, and to my shame, is my own mother."

"Oenus!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Why, for the love of Zeus, would our blacksmith be so stubborn towards Xena?" She defensively reached for Xena's hand and held it tight.

"I'm sure Oenus believes she has good reason for her views, Gabrielle." Xena's tone was calm. "Go on Timalcus, what does your mother think?"

"That you're not...you're not fit to be the consort to the Queen when you're..." Timalcus trailed off and lowered his eyes.

"It's alright, Timalcus." Gabrielle spoke up again. "No Amazon sister need fear repercussions for holding an honest opinion, not even our outspoken blacksmith!" She smiled warmly at the young man.

"I'm sorry, Xena." He looked up again to be met by a steady gaze from the bluest eyes he thought he'd ever seen. "She doesn't broadcast her views widely, but she does think you're a wife-beater and don't deserve the love of our Queen." The remark was met by a long silence.

Eventually, Gabrielle broke the stillness. "Perhaps I should speak with Oenus."

"Gabrielle." Xena smiled briefly at Timalcus before turning her full attention to Gabrielle. "Maybe that isn't the wisest of ideas just now. Look, you will be my Queen in every sense when we are joined but for the moment I'm just beginning to learn what it means to let go and give in to your control happily and willingly." She gazed intently into Gabrielle's eyes, trying to convey the importance of what she was saying. "I don't want to contradict you on this issue my love, not as my partner, certainly not as my Queen, but it may be prudent to wait until I've received whatever the Council has in mind as a just punishment, before you tackle those Amazons who have a...problem with me."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "I guess you're right, Xena. It probably would be better to wait until the Council has had their way and the dust has settled."

"You're to be punished?" Timalcus was surprised at the comment.

"It seems that's not such common news, unlike our becoming bond-mates!" Xena grinned at Gabrielle and then addressed Timalcus. "It's to do with Amazon Law, my friend. Believe me, things will be better all round when justice has been seen to be done for my...my actions, my crimes, my offences...whatever you want to call them. Then even the Amazons like Oenus might be a little more willing to forgive this 'wife-beater' and give her a second chance."

"You are not a wife-beater, Xena!" Gabrielle lifted her hand to Xena's cheek to ensure they were eye to eye.

"Oh, Gabrielle." The warrior looked into firey green eyes and took comfort from the love she saw burning there. "How else do you think it seemed to the tribe when I rode in and dragged you out the way I did that morning? Okay, we weren't lovers in the total sense then, but were very much a part of each other ~ we just hadn't realised it fully." Xena lifted a hand to stroke Gabrielle's face. " My sweet love, the Amazons witnessed me treating you appallingly! They saw me abuse you, hurt you and try to kill you for Zeus' sake! They did see a wife-beater to all intents and purposes and for some here, and that includes me, it's going to be a long time before the memory of that horrible day truly fades."

Gabrielle saw nothing but love and concern written over Xena's face. She smiled gently in return, stood on tiptoe and kissed the warrior's cheek before turning to Timalcus. "Has Oenus considered the fact that, if Xena is unfit to be the Queen's consort because of what happened, then surely I am unfit to rule as Queen for causing the events that provoked the warrior princess in the first place?"

Timalcus stammered. "I, I...I don't understand, my Queen."

"Actually, it's painfully simple Timalcus." Gabrielle slipped her left hand into Xena's right and gestured to the blacksmith with her free hand. "Come on, let's head for the feast. I've really worked up an appetite this afternoon and I'm looking forward to enjoying a good meal with Xena and all my friends here. I'll explain what I mean as we go."

The three moved from the Queen's quarters and headed towards the village centre, followed at a discreet distance by the two royal guards who had begun their duties for the evening watch. As they walked, they were greeted from time to time with smiles and respectful nods from Amazons preparing to make their own way to the celebrations.

Gabrielle began to explain to Timalcus why she believed it was wrong that Xena be regarded as guilty of an offence, while no one even mentioned what she herself had been responsible for. "The point is Timalcus, I harboured a demon because I believed her to be my daughter. In reality, the only connection between her and I was my giving birth to her. Hope was..." She faltered and Xena wrapped a strong arm around her. "Hope was never my child, the whole event was just a freak of nature. Not even nature! It was far from being natural, thanks to the evil of Dahok and I was blind to the truth until it was too late for several good people, including Xena's own son, Solan." Gabrielle reached out and clasped Timalcus' large hand, her voice little more than a whisper. "Tell me my friend, how would Oenus have reacted towards me had Hope murdered you?"

Timalcus had his eyes fixed firmly on the ground ahead of him as he listened carefully to Gabrielle. Nodding slowly, he lifted his head and his heart melted to see Gabrielle's eyes filled with tears. "I understand, my Queen." He squeezed Gabrielle's hand and smiled warmly. "Thank you for telling me this, I realise it can't be easy to share and I don't think it is fully understood by most in the village. If I may, I would like to speak to my mother and explain to her what happened, tell her just the way you have told me."

"Yes." Gabrielle took her hand back and wiped her eyes before her tears could betray her emotions. "Please tell Oenus what I said. I hope it helps her see Xena in a different light."

Xena spoke up. "I only hope it doesn't have Oenus calling for both of us to be punished!"

Timalcus couldn't hide his grin. "That's extremely unlikely, Xena. Mother has pledged her service to Queen Gabrielle in the temple before Artemis. I doubt very much she'll ever see her as anything other than Artemis' Chosen One." He lifted a hand and pointed. "That's the smith-works over there and mother's hut next to it. I promised to attend the feast with her and meet Iphitus on the way. If you'll excuse me, my Queen?"

"Of course, but promise me something, Timalcus?" Gabrielle's mood was lighter as they approached the village centre.

"Anything, my Queen."

"Come and join us at our table tonight, even if only for a short time?" She glanced at Xena, who responded with a nod.

Timalcus beamed. "It'll be an honour. Thank you." With that, he bowed low and then turned towards the smith-works. Xena and Gabrielle watched him go, then stood still for a few moments to enjoy the last few deep scarlet rays from the rapidly setting sun.

"Gabrielle?" Xena let her arm slide from Gabrielle's shoulders and settle around her waist as they walked off again. "How come I don't hear you telling Timalcus not to call you 'Queen' and just call you 'Gabrielle' instead? You do it all the time to other people."

"It just seems to make everyone more comfortable Xena."

"Except you."

"Except me." Gabrielle grinned. "It was really hard for Timalcus when I first asked him just to call me by my name. A lot of Amazons saw it as too familiar or disrespectful."

"Even though it's not a problem for the others to do it?" Xena raised an eyebrow.

"It all came down to the issue of Timalcus being male and only an honorary Amazon because of his mother." Gabrielle shrugged. "Finally, he came to me and Ephiny one day and asked if he could simply use my title whenever he spoke to me. Xena, he had a split lip from being cuffed by a warrior for insolence, just because he called me Gabrielle!"

"Thank the gods he didn't call you Gabs!" Xena chuckled.

"It wasn't funny, Xena!" Gabrielle smiled but maintained her serious tone. "I felt terrible that someone had hit Timalcus just for referring to me by name. Anyway, of course I agreed to his request, but he wouldn't reveal who hit him, even when I asked him to. He really is loyal to the warriors he smiths for."

"I expect it was Oenus who cuffed him." Xena gestured towards the bonfire they were nearing and a large table where Ephiny and Solari were laughing with some other Amazons, silhouetted in the firelight.

"What makes you say that?" Gabrielle began to greet both known and unfamiliar faces as she and Xena neared their table.

"Oh, just a hunch, I guess." She grinned at Gabrielle. "I can't imagine anyone being able to cuff the blacksmith's son and get away with it...except the blacksmith herself."

Xena and Gabrielle reached their table and were welcomed by Ephiny and Solari on one side of them, Eponin and Coronis on the other. Xena purposely caught Eponin's eye and winked at her, nodding towards Coronis as she did so. Eponin reddened and suddenly found a very interesting patch of table to study, but she couldn't prevent the ear to ear grin forming on her face and Coronis wondered what exchange had just taken place between Xena and her friend as she watched the warrior sit down with them.

Ephiny eagerly linked her arm through Gabrielle's and leaned in to whisper. "How was the singing and the orchid?"

Gabrielle burst into laughter briefly, causing Xena to look round quizzically for a moment from where she was talking with Eponin and Coronis. "Well one out of two wasn't bad I suppose. The orchid was perfect."

Ephiny looked puzzled. "I thought Xena had a wonderful singing voice."

"She does Eph, and I love her voice. Tunefulness wasn't a problem, it was the way she made the song up because she didn't know the real words." Gabrielle cast Xena a dark look, but grinned when she realised she hadn't caught the warrior's eye. "Let's just say Xena's version was nothing like the traditional one of Poteidaia and far from ending up with a lamb that was the mascot of the village, this one ended up as pot roast!"

"Oh." Ephiny paused, then grinned wickedly towards Gabrielle. "At least it didn't put you off enjoying each other's company during the afternoon, did it!"

Gabrielle felt her ears and neck grow warmer as she blushed. "Was it that obvious, what we were doing?"

Ephiny smiled warmly and squeezed Gabrielle's arm. "Apart from the wry comments about how thin the bathing chamber walls are or how much water was going to be left in the tub, it was just wonderful to hear two people we care about, so wrapped up in their love for each other." Ephiny's voice dropped even lower as she whispered. "And to be honest, some of us were astounded to realise just how passionate our ice princess over there could be."

Gabrielle closed her eyes and willed herself not to laugh. As she opened them again her gaze was met by both Ephiny's and Solari's mischievous grins. "Oh, I wondered how long it would take you to join in, Solari."

Solari feigned her most innocent expression. "Queen Gabrielle, you wound me deeply!"

"Cut the goat's poop, Solari!" Gabrielle chuckled. "I can almost believe you were betting with other warriors on when Xena and I finally got out the tub!"

"That's just a vicious rumour." Solari laughed, not from the comment but because Gabrielle was very near the truth without realising it.

Xena leaned across the table and playfully fixed Solari with one of her most ferocious looks. "You're not upsetting the Queen are you, Solari?"

"By the gods Xena, I wish we could concentrate that and bottle it. One flash of a look like that and it'd be like having a gorgon on our side!" She grinned at Xena's raised eyebrow. "And no, I'm not upsetting our Queen, I'm the victim of a royal onslaught here!"

"That's okay then." Xena smiled and turned back to Eponin and Coronis, leaving Solari open-mouthed.

Gabrielle reached over and softly punched Solari's shoulder. "Ha! Looks like I can get away with anything tonight."

"Mmm, looks that way." Solari rubbed her shoulder in mock pain. "But the important thing is..." She grabbed Gabrielle's hand before she could withdraw it. "You will be encouraged to do just that Gabrielle, because we've all missed you. We always do when you leave us to wander the land with Xena." She let go and leaned slightly forward, suddenly quiet for a few moments before looking up and meeting Gabrielle's gaze. "I've missed you, my friend. And while I'm not exactly known for gentle words around here I want to say this before I've had much wine tonight and before I get wrapped up tomorrow in preparing the warriors with Xena." She looked intently at her Queen. "Are you home with us now, Gabrielle? Are you and Xena really here to stay, or will you move on again once this situation with Agradon is resolved and after you have joined as bond-mates?"

Gabrielle reached over and clasped Solari's hand, realising the warrior had merely uttered what was likely to be on many minds in the village. Without taking her eyes off Solari, she addressed her Regent. "Ephiny, you can tell better than I can, is the whole village gathered here yet?"

Ephiny stood and looked around, roughly assessing the numbers gathering. "More or less, Gabrielle, apart from the guards on duty around the village perimeter."

"Good!" Gabrielle stood up and smiled at Xena and her friends. "If you'll all promise not to look up my skirt...I think now is a good time to speak to everyone." She clambered up onto the table and looked around at the Amazons talking contentedly or drinking from the cups being served before the feast was presented. She raised her hand, calling for quiet. Within moments, all that could be heard was the crackle of the bonfire, evening calls from some of the forest's birds and the occasional sound from the last of the Amazons making their way to the feasting area.

Gabrielle looked around at the many groups of Amazons, some seated at tables that had been pulled out of various huts for the occasion, most seated on the logs normally used at village celebrations. She cleared her throat and spoke up with the projection of a well-practised bard. "Amazons! My friends. I thank you for the warm reception you have given to me and to Xena, this morning when we entered the village and again here, this evening. I am sorry to have stayed away from you so long this time, but I'm grateful for the journey I've been able to share with Xena during these past four seasons. It has been a good journey, because of our adventures and also in what we have shared together emotionally and spiritually." She glanced at Xena and smiled, receiving a loving look in return before turning back to her listeners. "I return to you a summer older, richer in my heart and hopefully wiser too. It is time for Xena and I to make our home with you all. It is time for me to serve you fully as your Queen..." Gabrielle was unable to complete her sentence, for the spontaneous cheers and applause that erupted. She jumped down from the table, grabbing Xena's hand. She turned briefly to Solari. "Does that answer your question?"

"It more than answers my question, Gabrielle." Solari beamed.

Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand, addressing her softly as the crowds around continued to cheer. "Xena, I know we've discussed this and it's always been on our minds that one day I would return here to rule properly but suddenly, so much has happened. We've become lovers and we're going to be joined. You've given yourself up to the will of the Amazon Council and to this challenge ahead. I'm going to rule here and you'll be an Amazon and my consort. Xena, tell me now if you are at all unsure about this. I'm still prepared to walk away from here with you. After all, this challenge will be void if I abdicate and pass the Queen's Mask to Ephiny. I would still rather be a simple bard at your side and know that you're happy with me, than commit my life to this people as their Queen and find that you cannot be happy at my side." Gabrielle ran her fingers down Xena's face and rested her hand on the warrior's shoulder. "We can still have adventures together Xena, but I expect most of them will be here in Thessaly. It's important to know if we really can make a home here together; I need to know if you can really make a home here with me."

Xena had never seen such an expression of love and need on her beloved bard's face. She remembered her conversation with Artemis, regarding the issues of home and of being consort, and was suddenly struck by how little if any was left of the innocent and occasionally clumsy village girl she had first met in Poteidaia. Here was a strong-willed, clear-thinking and beautiful Amazon, yet one who was still prepared to love her and be with her, whatever the cost. Xena was astounded and realised without hesitation that home would never be an issue for her since her home was standing right in front of her.

With her free hand, Xena reached up and cupped Gabrielle's chin, speaking slowly and deliberately. "I could recite all kinds of Amazon ritual phrases Gabrielle, to show you how much this warrior and future Amazon is committed to her future Queen and the people here, but that will all be said in good time anyway." She smiled, loving the gentle green eyes that sparkled before her in the firelight. "Gabrielle, right now I have never been so sure of anything in my life. You are my lover, my best friend and my sister, everything good that touches my life has its source in you. Sure, I walked away from a dark life, but it's you who sustains me and keeps me striving for what's good. Where we go means little to me now but being together Gabrielle, that means everything to me and I couldn't ask for a greater happiness than that. What's important is that you're content with what lies ahead and are happy to accept your duties over this people and accept this ex-warlord as your companion."

"Thank you." Gabrielle responded simply and then smiled. "Xena, I don't think I've ever heard you say so much mushy stuff in one go.ever!"

Xena laughed and pulled Gabrielle close to her. "Well, I've just about run out of mush now." She bent her head and kissed Gabrielle deeply. The Amazons' cheers and applause that had been dying down burst into life again.

Gabrielle grinned as they broke the kiss, climbed back on to the table and managed to haul up her reluctant partner with her. She waved for silence and began to speak to the crowds again once they settled down. "Friends and sisters, you honour me with kindness and celebration. I hope I shall honour you with the fair and strong leadership you deserve. I know that my duties will be easier with the support and guidance of our Regent, Ephiny and with Xena, the one who by the grace of the gods blesses me with wonderful companionship." The crowds cheered their approval again and Gabrielle tightened her grip on the warrior's hand. Only Xena could tell that Gabrielle was growing nervous as she publicly broached the next subject. "I realise that some of you remain ill at ease because of Xena's...offences, under our laws. I don't know how I can convince your hearts that what happened four seasons ago was due to circumstances that hurt and betrayed both of us and I was as much to blame for what took place. Be that as it may, Amazon Law dictates justice for Xena's actions towards the tribe, our Regent and this Queen. Out of love for the tribe and for me, Xena has willingly submitted herself to whatever the Council rules." Gabrielle faltered slightly, but felt the reassuring squeeze of Xena's hand. "Why our laws do not call for similar justice concerning my actions towards Xena, I can only ask you to question. However, I do request of every Amazon in this village that, once the Council has dealt with the matter in the way it deems right, you will unconditionally accept Xena as your sister and as my bond-mate. If you cannot do this, then neither should you accept me as your Queen."

After a period of silence and as Gabrielle and Xena stepped down from the table, one voice after another spoke up from the crowds. Affirmations of commitment and loyalty to the young Queen were made known. Affectionate terms were called out to Xena, along with words of trust in her as a future Amazon. Acceptance of Amazon Law in all its forms was voiced, along with the belief that, though seemingly harsh, any punishment Xena received would be fair and just.

Eventually, an Amazon of some sixty-five summers stood up and motioned for quiet. She was tall, dark-haired and still had the appearance of a well-toned athlete despite her age. She bowed graciously towards Gabrielle's table, before speaking up in rich and authoritative tones. "My Queen, I am Tethys. I have the privilege and occasionally difficult responsibility to sit with our Council and I am the one who first requested charges to be brought against Xena and see justice served. Please know and understand that this decision, in agreement with my fellow crone Lysidice, and accepted by the rest of the Council, was not and never has been out of malice towards Xena. It was only out of love for what is right." She rested her steady gaze on the raven-haired woman next to Gabrielle. "Xena, do you know of my past reputation as a warrior? Stand and face me, child."

Xena rose slowly and smiled, knowing it was the respected and uncommon age of the Amazon before her that allowed Tethys room to be less than respectful herself. "I know of it, Tethys. Your past deeds are legendary and your fighting prowess matched only by your diplomacy and wisdom, some say granted by Athena herself."

The Amazon waved, dismissive of the compliment. "That may or not be the case, Xena. The point is you and I were cut from very similar cloth. We both live or have lived by the sword. We also live by a code. Granted, yours has changed somewhat since your wild days with Borias and then misguided days with Ares and it will change again as you join this tribe." Amazon and warrior princess exchanged a wry smile at the comment. "We both know that, for a warrior to live beyond their fortieth year is unusual and to live a productive and fulfilled life after that is even less common. I have that blessing here in Thessaly. You, Xena, have lived a remarkable life up until now, perhaps even charmed by the gods and I doubt you have even passed further than your thirtieth summer yet. Now you intend to stand with the Amazons here, just as I chose to do so many seasons ago." She cast a steely look at the warrior. "What I want you to know, before I bore my sisters into the embrace of Morpheus, is that who you are and what you are is respected, as I was when I first came to this people Xena. You have given yourself to Amazon Law without question and this pleases the Council. When the events with Agradon are concluded, happily I pray, and you have undergone the penalty decided by the Council, any Amazon who still refuses to accept you is foolish beyond words and will have me to deal with." Tethys suddenly laughed. "And be assured Xena, these days I may be nearer Charon's boat than a war horse, but I can still pack a punch and wield a sword with the best." The Amazon sat down, exchanging a respectful nod with Xena who made note of the looks of admiration and affection cast in the crone's direction from those around her. In her own way, Xena was quietly excited to be in the presence of someone whose exploits were part of familiar childhood stories. Stories that could be heard still, from a passing bard trying to earn a handful of dinars in a tavern.

Ephiny stood up and looked around the crowds, breathing in the sweet evening air, scented with aromas from the impending feast. She savoured the moment before raising her voice and addressing Tethys. "Thank you for what you have shared here tonight, Tethys. We are grateful to you and the Council." She then spoke to everyone. "Sisters. Tonight is a time for laughter and celebration. Our Queen has returned to us for good and we can begin to make preparations for a royal joining. If Artemis is smiling upon us we shall also have our young warrior, Prisca, restored to us very soon when fifty Amazons ride with Xena to find the warlord Agradon and finally deal with that monster once for all." Ephiny paused briefly and allowed a satisfying feeling of pride for her people to wash over her. "Amazons, as you feast tonight raise your cups to each other in good cheer. Remember too to lift your cups in salutation to Artemis and Athena, pray for our victory over Agradon, for the swift and sure swords of our warriors and for the restoration of Prisca." She reached for her almost empty wine mug and smiled towards Gabrielle and Xena as she continued to address the village. "But to commence this evening, and with my Queen's permission, I ask you all to raise your cups with me in good cheer to our Queen Gabrielle and Xena!"

The response was unanimous as cups were lifted by Amazons most standing, some remaining seated, but all in agreement with the Regent's sentiments. Voices happily murmured words of good wishes and hopes of blessings from the gods. As the joyful sounds quietened, huge platters of game, meats and fish descended upon the tables, along with breads, fruits and cheeses brought by kitchen tenders and warriors who had volunteered to help with the celebrations. Fresh wineskins were produced, as were jugs of ale and cider. Eventually, no Amazon could complain that they were not within arms reach of the fare and all the servers joined their own groups of friends to enjoy the feast themselves.

Gabrielle leaned back in her chair and spoke to Ephiny about some of the things said before the feast began. She was particularly pleased to have heard what Tethys said and admitted that it calmed her fears over what the Council thought concerning Xena. She felt relieved knowing there was no malice involved and asked Ephiny to tell her about Tethys, as she knew little regarding any of the Council crones and was intrigued by the earlier exchange between Xena and the aged Amazon.

"Gods! Where do I start?" Ephiny grabbed a hunk of bread and some pheasant and sat back in her chair thoughtfully. "Tethys of Mysia came to the Thessalian Amazons about twenty-five winters ago, before the time Melosa was Queen."

Gabrielle grabbed Ephiny's hand as she finished a mouthful of bread. "Wait! That's Tethys of Mysia?" Ephiny nodded in response. "The same Tethys who fought and slew a hydra single-handedly in Lydia?"

"Well Tethys always rolls her eyes at that story and insists she was with three other warriors at the time, so hardly single-handed." Ephiny smiled.

"And the same Tethys who actually trapped Pan once for insulting a group of Amazons?" Gabrielle was excited at the prospect of hearing about known adventures, straight from the warrior's mouth.

Ephiny laughed out loud. "Now that one is definitely true. I've even heard Tethys tell the story herself. It's great fun!"

"By the gods Ephiny!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "I grew up hearing the stories about Tethys. Now I understand what Xena meant about knowing Tethys' reputation. I had no idea she and our crone over there were one and the same person."

"They certainly are the same person." Ephiny smiled. "And I'll tell you something honestly. I've been grateful for Tethys' wisdom and patience on many occasions and I've learned a lot from her. We don't always agree on a matter, but her opinion is valuable to have in difficult times. Remember that, Gabrielle."

"I will, Eph." Gabrielle leaned towards one of the platters to pick up some fruit and cheese, before turning back to Ephiny. "When did Tethys become one of the Council crones?"

Ephiny finished another mouthful of pheasant, then sipped her wine thoughtfully. "About fifteen summers ago, I think. She retired as a warrior and took up training some of our novices in the skills of sword and dagger. It was about that same time she was invited to join the Council."

At the mention of weaponry, Gabrielle's thoughts turned to the challenge ahead and the warriors going with Xena to face it. "Xena tells me Charis is excellently skilled in the use of daggers...and the bow. Was she trained by Tethys?"

"Very much so, Gabrielle." Solari joined in the conversation, allowing Ephiny the chance to finish what was on her plate. "Charis and Prisca are actually Tethys' nieces."

"Her nieces?" Gabrielle was surprised. "She must have much younger siblings then."

"Had, Gabrielle. Had younger siblings." Solari continued as she picked up a nearby wineskin to fill both her and Ephiny's cups. "Tethys' mother died when her home village was raided by bandits and that's basically why she left home and became a warrior. Her father remarried, so she had another two sisters from that marriage. One sister was lost to fever that struck many in the village when the girl was no more than ten winters old, the other went on to marry happily and have two healthy daughters."

"Charis and Prisca?" Gabrielle asked.

"That's right." Solari nodded. "By then, Tethys had ceased her wanderings and adventures and had settled here, returning to the village now and again to see her family." She took a long draft from her cup before continuing. "Tragically, fever struck the village again some years later and claimed the rest of Tethy's family except for her nieces. When it had passed, the village was cleansed by fire, the dead cremated and then word was sent to Tethys asking her to take care of her nieces."

"That must have been very hard for her and the children." Gabrielle gazed into her now empty cider mug.

"It was at first." Solari leaned back in her chair. "But it wasn't too long before Tethys and the girls were inseparable and she brought them up to learn as many skills and as much Amazon Law as they were able to absorb."

"She must be deeply concerned for Prisca." Gabrielle refilled her mug from a nearby jug. "Strange though, she doesn't seem to show it the way Charis does."

"Sounds like someone else not a thousand leagues from here!" Ephiny moved closer to Gabrielle and whispered. "Remember how she told Xena they were cut from similar cloth?" She waited for Gabrielle's nod. "Well take a good look at Tethys Gabrielle, that's gonna be your warrior princess in about thirty-five summers time." The comment had the desired effect of lightening the mood again.

Gabrielle smiled at the comment and wondered how much truth there might be in what Ephiny suggested. She leaned to her right and felt the familiar warmth of Xena's leathers and the cold touch of her armour. The warrior was in deep conversation with Eponin, discussing raid strategies and sharing known accounts of previous skirmishes with Agradon. Without interrupting her train of thought, Xena reached back with her left hand, knowing instinctively where Gabrielle's left arm was. She ran her knuckles down the soft but well-defined forearm and linked fingers with Gabrielle's hand, squeezing affectionately.

Gabrielle looked across some of the nearby tables and recognised Pyras, their healer, evidently enjoying herself though still casting a dark glance occasionally at Eponin for disobeying her orders to remain in her hut. She smiled to herself, wondering if the healer's bite was as bad as her apparent growl. She drew her thumb along the back of Xena's hand, noticing with a wicked sense of joy that her touch made the warrior momentarily lose her thread of conversation, then glancing toward some of the other tables, Gabrielle noticed three figures walk into view. She soon recognised them as Timalcus and his mother, guessing that the chestnut-haired Amazon draping an arm across Timalcus' shoulders was Iphitus. The trio approached the table and bowed their heads formally to Gabrielle and then to Ephiny.

Timalcus introduced Iphitus to Gabrielle and they stood talking with their Queen briefly about their wedding plans. Oenus listened contentedly, her pride and approval of the match obvious each time she spoke of the plans Timalcus and Iphitus were making. Eventually, Gabrielle suggested they sit at her table for the feast. Timalcus and Iphitus happily did so, taking seats along from Ephiny and Solari. Oenus however remained standing until Gabrielle looked at her questioningly and the nearby evening guard took a pace forward, ready to approach if their Queen requested.

Gabrielle raised her hand to the guard and shook her head, turning back to the blacksmith. "Oenus, is something wrong?" She realised Xena had also turned her full attention to the Amazon.

"My Queen." Oenus looked at the ground for a moment, before looking back at Gabrielle with unmistakable respect. "I believe I have been wrong about certain...things." She looked at Xena and then addressed her Queen again. "Can you forgive my foolishness? Both of you?" She spoke slowly and quietly. Her stance and tone of voice revealing that she was not used to admitting to being wrong.

Gabrielle mentally breathed a heavy sigh of relief and noticed the knowing smile on Ephiny's face. She stood slowly and took Oenus' arm in a warrior's greeting. "Timalcus has spoken to you this evening already, I see." Xena smiled, relieved for what was being said but also amused in seeing Gabrielle greeting someone the way a warrior would, it seemed strange compared to her usual spontaneous hugs.

"My son has spoken to me, you're right." She looked away from Gabrielle and met Xena's steady gaze. "I'm not sure what to say except that I'm sorry to have misjudged the situation back then."

"You simply didn't have all the facts to judge the whole situation." Xena stood and offered her hand to the blacksmith. "Even so, you didn't misjudge what you saw, Oenus. What I did was wrong. I wouldn't be accepting the Council's judgement and punishment if that were not true."

Oenus clasped the warrior's arm in a sincere greeting. "I still didn't fully realise what had happened, Xena." She smiled warmly at Gabrielle. "My Queen." Her tone softened. "Gabrielle, what you told Timalcus could not have been easy to do. As a mother I...well, I don't know what I would have done had something happened to Timalcus. Perhaps I too would have sought vengeance."

"Vengeance, Oenus, may be well and good in its place." Xena let go of the blacksmith's forearm. "As long as it's justified and aimed towards the right person." She slipped her arm around Gabrielle's waist. "Perhaps my actions could be justified, but not who I chose to unleash them against. Whichever way we look at it, attacking Gabrielle and the Amazons here was unjustified and wrong. Hurting her and this tribe was an error I'll always regret making."

Gabrielle smiled at Xena and then turned to Oenus. "If we could only go back in time, we would both make different decisions. Unfortunately, we can talk about 'if only' forever." She glanced down to the table and became aware that their friends were all listening closely. "The truth is Oenus, we can't rectify what is in the past, but we can change today for the better and go on from there."

"Gabrielle." Ephiny beckoned to her young Queen. As Gabrielle leaned over, Ephiny whispered in her ear. "Unless that's a quote you stole from an unread scroll of Sophocles, this tribe is gonna thrive under your wisdom." Ephiny met Gabrielle's gaze with a beaming smile.

Gabrielle laughed. "Thank you...I think!" She then turned back to Oenus. "Would you spend the rest of the evening with us here now?"

"I'd be honoured to, thank you." Oenus backed away and joined her son and Iphitus.

Gabrielle watched Oenus make her way down the table to sit with Timalcus and Iphitus, then she turned to Xena. "Well that didn't go badly." She reached across the table for some bread and a piece of quail.

Xena grinned. "No, it didn't. Let's just hope it's a good omen concerning any other less than happy Amazons." She drained her wine mug and stood up. "I'm going to speak with Solari for a while about our preparations."

Gabrielle suddenly grabbed the warrior's hand. "Xena, please don't stay away from me too long. We really only have tonight before you leave to face Agradon and I..." She trailed off and gazed at Xena's armour.

Xena crouched down taking both of Gabrielle's hands in her own and meeting her gaze. "Gabrielle I understand and, believe me, I feel just the same. We are gonna win this challenge ya know. We'll beat Agradon and, if the gods have any kindness, we will triumph over Ares too." Her heart melted at the look of concern in Gabrielle's eyes. "Hey!" Xena brought a hand up to Gabrielle's cheek. "I'm coming back Gabrielle, me and all the other Amazons too. If I didn't believe that, I'd be encouraging you to run away with me, away from all this; away from everything. Just be together."

"Xena, you couldn't do that if you wanted to." Gabrielle stroked the warrior's face. "Any more than I could really run away from my duties here, if we didn't want to stay."

"I know." Xena smiled. "But the thought's there. Besides, we do want to stay here, right? This is where we belong now and this is where I want to be with you, for as long as we breathe." She stood up and kissed Gabrielle's forehead. "I do need to speak with Sol, but I'll be back here before your quail gets cold, okay?" Xena waited for Gabrielle's nod before walking a few paces down the table to sit with Solari, taking her wine mug with her. Timalcus moved up, giving Xena sufficient room for comfort as she sat down and greeted those around her.

Solari refilled Xena's mug from a nearby wineskin and whispered in the warrior's direction. "Xena, you and I don't need to spend time talking tonight. Eph and I are going with you, remember? We have tomorrow morning to talk and however long our journey takes to reach Agradon's camp...when we actually know where we're going."

"I know that Sol, but I needed an excuse to come over here." Xena grinned mischievously and turned to Timalcus. "You have my full attention now and if we keep our voices down, Gabrielle will be none the wiser."

The young blacksmith casually leaned forward and looked over Xena's shoulder towards Gabrielle who had taken Xena's seat and was now happily talking with Eponin and Coronis. Winking conspiratorially at Solari he settled back in his seat. "We're fine, Xena. Now, what did you have in mind?"

"Well...I'm not sure really." Xena raised an eyebrow. "Something special. It should be unique and very beautiful. It has to be...oh Hades' testicles I don't know!" She hissed. "I haven't done this before. You're the jeweller, Timalcus!"

The blacksmith remained patient and good-humoured. He was used to warriors not always knowing what kind of joining gift they wanted for their bond-mate but he was content that, with a little coaxing Xena would know exactly what would be appropriate. "Alright, how about a cup of some kind?"

"No." Xena was definite. "Too impersonal." She sipped her wine.

"A bracelet perhaps, or something to go around her neck?"

"Nice idea, but could be dangerous in battle or during a hunt." Xena shook her head. "Too easy to get it caught on something."

"That leaves out earrings too, then?"

"Yeah." Xena nodded. "Besides, Gabrielle only really wears those for special occasions or ceremonies. I want this to be something she'll wear daily."

"Some kind of pin or clasp?" Timalcus offered. "Like they have over in Britannia, perhaps?"

Xena was horrified at the idea but didn't raise her voice. "I don't think anything that reminds us of Celtic peoples or Britannia would be very sensible, Timalcus."

"I don't understand, Xena." Timalcus was puzzled. "What's wrong with the styles of other lands?"

"It's okay, there's no reason to assume you know." Xena kept her smile, but lowered her voice. "That's where we encountered Dahok." She sighed heavily when Timalcus remained puzzled. "Timalcus, that's where Gabrielle was raped by him and impregnated with Hope."

"Oh gods, I'm sorry!" Timalcus kept his voice to a whisper and placed a hand over his mouth. "How could I have been so stupid? I'm sorry, Xena." He looked into Xena's blue eyes and felt quickly calmed by her gentle gaze.

"You didn't know, Timalcus. How could you have known?" The warrior's voice was still quiet and steady. " Gabrielle just knew something was different inside her, something had changed. She has dealt with it and goes on dealing with it. Dahok was flame and spirit rather than an actual physical entity, I can only guess that things would be much more difficult to deal with had the god taken on human form or something. Even so, it was a horrible, terrifying experience for her and all I can say my friend, is that I know my wedding gift to Gabrielle should be very Greek and, if possible, very Amazon." She smiled encouragingly, deciding not to compound the issue by revealing to Timalcus how that was also the time Gabrielle had lost her precious blood innocence, killing Dahok's priestess.

Timalcus seemed lost in thought for a moment, before looking up again. "Xena, I love Gabrielle dearly and would obey any command she made as Amazon Queen, because of her strength of character and the strength of her love. I guess I never realised until now just how strong she must be...in her heart and in her thoughts."

"She's stronger than me in more ways than I can count." Xena took a long draft from her mug. "That's why this has to be such a special joining gift...she's the real source of my strength when it comes down to doing the right thing, Timalcus. Gabrielle's my heart."

"That's it!" Timalcus hissed, as he grabbed Xena's left hand. "Oh that 's so perfect!"

"What? Tell me, tell me!" Xena felt swept up on excitement like a child at Winter Solstice.

"Xena, a ring!" Xena's sudden change in expression suggested she was not so convinced. "A simple, perfect band of gold to wear all the time. Look, I realise all sorts of people have all sorts of rings on all different fingers." He placed Xena's hand on the table and splayed her fingers. "But it's something Pyras mentioned once, about this finger." He indicated Xena's third finger. "Xena, you know about blood and nerves and stuff, well some Greek healer or other has said there's a direct link from this finger straight to the heart via the blood vessels. The heart, Xena! If Gabrielle wears your ring on this finger it'll be like saying you're connected to her heart and she's connected to you." He looked at Xena's expression and felt his enthusiasm ebb away. "Okay, I guess you're right, it's not a good idea."

Xena seemed deadly serious for a moment, before she broke into a beaming smile. "On the contrary, Timalcus. I think that sounds perfect."

"Wonderful." Timalcus chuckled. "I have just the right piece of gold at my workshop in the smith-works."

"Uh, I guess we just need to agree a price for this now?" Xena asked tentatively.

Timalcus looked at the warrior thoughtfully and then frowned. "You may not like my price, Xena."

The warrior narrowed her eyes, but kept her smile. "Timalcus, this is Gabrielle we're talking about and our joining ceremony. If I have to pay you back for the rest of my days, it'll be worth any price."

"Any price?" Timalcus grinned.

Xena was suddenly suspicious, but still didn't care about the cost. "Any price."

"Done!" Timalcus spat in his hand, offering it to Xena.

"I don't need to spit and shake with you." She knocked back her last mouthful of wine. "I just want to know what you're charging me for the ring and your labour."

"You said any price, Xena." Timalcus wiped his hand on his breeches.

"I know what I said, Timalcus." Xena looked around for the nearest wineskin. "I just want to know how it translates into dinars."

"It doesn't." Timalcus reached past Iphitus and picked up a wineskin. He shared an affectionate smile with his betrothed as he turned back to Xena with the skin. He noted the look of puzzlement on the warrior's face. "Xena, not everything I make has to have a dinar value!"

Xena refilled her mug and then topped up both Timalcus' and Solari's mugs. "What are you talking about? Will you stop speaking in riddles and tell me what you want from me for the ring."

"Okay." Timalcus leaned forward and met Xena's steady gaze as he nursed his refreshed mug of wine. "Xena, I'd like you to accept it as a gift."

"I can't do that!" Xena only just managed to keep her voice to a whisper. "I can't accept something so precious for nothing."

Timalcus smiled. "Not going to welch on a deal now warrior, are you? You agreed to my price."

"I didn't realise you meant nothing!" Xena was touched by the blacksmith's generosity, but thought the loss to his own purse would be too great. "Timalcus, a piece of gold big enough to make even the simplest of bands would be worth...at least the price of a good dagger."

"Xena, let me tell you something about the piece of gold I intend for this ring." He sipped his wine and reached for a plate of olives. "I was given the nugget by an ex-soldier who'd retired after the Trojan wars and settled down to live quietly with his family and farm for the rest of his days. In short, he gave me shelter and meals for a couple of days when I was travelling and I made him some new farming tools, re-fenced his goats and re-shod his horse. He gave me the nugget and told me to make something beautiful for the Amazon Queen. Although I didn't pursue it, he dropped hints that he had battled with the Amazons at some point in his life and had always regretted it. Anyway, I took the gold piece back with me to Lannis and intended to make something for Queen Melosa. Sadly of course, that wasn't to be, because of Valesca." Timalcus watched Xena nod sadly in response before he continued. "I don't think anyone thought for a moment that Valesca would actually win the challenge and kill Melosa...it was a real shock, Xena." He became quiet for a moment and ate a couple of the olives he had in his hand, spitting the stones onto the ground between his feet.

"She was a good Queen." Xena sipped her wine and smiled at Timalcus. "Melosa's memory will always be honoured and her rule remembered with respect, especially for the peace she brought between the Amazons and Centaurs."

"With a little help from you and Gabrielle, of course."

Xena grinned. "It didn't take much really. Both sides were ready for peace, but neither one would make the first move; just too dammed proud."

"Perhaps, Xena. Still, you're right, Melosa was a good Queen. Kind too. I remember once, I couldn't have been more than four or five summers old, I'd managed to crawl through a hole in her hut and found myself in what must have been a war council or something. Needless to say, one or two of the Amazon warriors would have had my backside beaten soundly for my behaviour and Oenus reprimanded for not keeping an eye on me, but Melosa would have none of it. She picked me up and sat with me on her knee, I played with the feathers on her necklace while she dealt with the business at the table. I'll never forget that... Anyway, Gabrielle is our Queen now and your joining is the perfect opportunity to use that gold piece appropriately, just as I was asked to by the one who gave it to me. Xena, please let me do this for you and for Gabrielle. It would mean a great deal to me."

Xena lifted her wine mug in a toast to Timalcus. "Alright my friend. You go ahead and make the ring and I'll be honoured to place it on Gabrielle's finger." She drained the mug's contents and stood to go. "Thanks, Timalcus. I appreciate this very much."

"Xena, we can discuss patterns and markings when you return." Timalcus rested his hand on the warrior's wrist. "But what excuse can I use to measure Gabrielle's finger for the ring size?"

The warrior sat down again, grinning. "Actually, that's easy." She placed her left hand on the table and spread out her fingers. "Once, when we visited Amphipolis together, we spent an afternoon going through a chest mother kept some old things in that belonged to me and my brothers, Toris and Lyceus. There was a small bronze ring I'd worn when I was not much more than a child. I tried it on and it would only go as far as my knuckle on this finger." Xena pointed to her little finger. "Gabrielle slipped it on and it fitted perfectly onto this finger." She indicated her third finger.

"Splendid Xena!" The blacksmith reached into a leather pouch at his belt and withdrew an iron ring that had attached to it countless other iron rings of all kinds of sizes. "Okay, if you'll just sit with me a few moments longer I can get Gabrielle's measurement from your little finger."

Xena casually looked over her shoulder towards Gabrielle and was relieved to see she was still engrossed in conversation with Eponin. She caught Solari's eye. "Ya don't think this is a bad idea, do ya Sol?"

Solari grinned broadly. "Xena, I think you are going to make your bard and our Queen a very happy woman...and I am so impressed by how sneaky you can be!" She lifted her mug and toasted Xena. "I'll make you a promise too. When we come up against Agradon in the next few days, I'm gonna make sure we bring you home as unscathed as possible so you can place that ring on Gabrielle's finger."

"All done here, Xena." Timalcus had tied a thin piece of cord to the iron ring he pulled from Xena's finger. "You'd better get back to Gabrielle before she wonders where you are."

Xena clapped Timalcus on the shoulder as she stood up. "Thanks. Hope you and Iphitus enjoy the rest of the celebrations tonight." She looked at Solari before turning away from the table. "When we go up against Agradon I'll be watching your back too Sol, yours and Ephiny's. Queens orders!" She grinned and walked back to Gabrielle.

Solari was looking suspiciously at the young blacksmith as he tied a second cord to another iron ring, larger than the first. "What's the other one for, Tim?"

Timalcus looked up from the rings he was fitting back into his leather pouch. "You don't think she realised I took her own measurement, do you? It's just that I can get two rings out of that gold piece, Sol and if Gabrielle starts asking about a joining gift too..."

"You think of everything, my friend." Solari lifted her mug and toasted the young blacksmith.

Xena sat down by Gabrielle just as several Amazons began calling for Gabrielle to tell a story or two. Gabrielle looked at her returned companion, torn between wanting to cuddle up with Xena at the table and wanting to please her tribe.

Finally Xena helped Gabrielle make up her mind. "Go ahead my love. I'll be right here watching you and listening to you. After the wonderful welcome we've had here, it seems only fair to give a little entertainment tonight, especially for those warriors going with me tomorrow." She smiled at Gabrielle. "You know how much they love your stories here and I'm in the mood for a tale too. Besides, I know that twinkle in your eye ~ you can't wait to step into bard mode can you!"

In answer, Gabrielle leaned into Xena and kissed her cheek. "Thank you. I love you." With that, she stood on her chair and lithely bounded over the table. A hush soon fell as Gabrielle mentally ran through the new stories she'd written that had not yet been shared with the Amazons. She took a deep breath and smiled at the crowds before calling out in a strong voice. "I sing of Cecrops, a mariner dreadfully cursed by Poseidon and of how Xena, the warrior princess, helped him defeat the god to find peace."

Xena grinned at her beloved's choice of story, appreciating that many Amazons here had never travelled as far as the coast and consequently loved stories set on ships at sea. A server came up quietly behind the table to offer Xena and those around her a flask of port and as the dark red liquid was poured, the warrior heartily began a meal of pheasant and bread. She allowed herself the rare luxury of letting her thoughts drift for a time while she soaked up the tale Gabrielle was skilfully recounting.

The evening wore on and the Amazons were calling for a fifth story from their young Queen, but wanting to return to Xena's side, Gabrielle politely excused herself and made her way back to the table. She sighed as she sat down. "It seems strange to walk away from such an enthusiastic crowd without so much as a chipped dinar for my work." She reached for her cider mug. "Especially after a four story performance!"

Xena smiled indulgently. "You really were on good form tonight. I always loved the story of Hades and Core, although I didn't realise you'd written up our adventures with Ulysses or Cecrops, or the events surrounding Hercules when we helped prove his innocence when the hind was murdered."

Gabrielle looked over the rim of her cider mug at Xena and took several deep swallows before setting it down. "Let's see... I wrote up the story about Hercules and Selena the hind last summer, and the story of Cecrops the following autumn, but I hadn't put quill to scroll about our adventure with Ulysses. I thought they'd like another story with the sea involved, since they liked the one about Cecrops so much, so just told it as I remembered it."

"You uh...you certainly remembered it differently to me Gabrielle, and ya toned down some of the things that actually happened." Xena raised an eyebrow.

Gabrielle grinned in return. "Well I hardly thought it appropriate to talk about how my future consort was swept off her feet by the King of Ithaca, only getting him to back down when we discovered his wife Penelope was still alive and not dead as he'd been told."

Xena was very careful not to choke on the mouthful of port she had just taken. "Come on Gabrielle, we've been through all this. You know that if I'd realised you loved me back then the way I already loved you, I'd have never let myself get drawn to Ulysses'... attraction to me." Gabrielle's expression was unreadable for once. "Gabrielle, ya know there was never really anything there between me and Ulysses, don't you?" She paused, trying to gage the bard's reaction, and realised as Gabrielle's face broke into a smug grin that she was being baited. "By the gods! You almost had me worried for a moment there." She knocked back her mug and drained its contents.

"Consider it final payback for your yarn about wedding nights in olive trees, Xena." Gabrielle smiled contentedly.

"Uh huh?" Xena eyed Gabrielle thoughtfully. "Of course, I was just a little disappointed to find you'd left out some of the funnier moments onboard Ulysses' ship."

"Funnier moments?"

"You know, Gabrielle. The funnier bits." Xena slowly put her mug down, then clutched one hand to her head, the other to her stomach and swayed dramatically. Spinning round, she reached out one hand and clasped Gabrielle's shoulder. "For the love of Zeus, kill me Xena! Kill me!"

Gabrielle laughed, despite feeling teased again. "Xena, sea-sickness is not funny!"

"Oh come on, how can you say that?" Xena noticed Ephiny and Solari, Eponin and Coronis were all watching with amusement. "It's incredibly funny when you have it, my love! It's a shame you left it out of the story."

"I really hate you sometimes you know, you rotten old..." Gabrielle slumped back in her chair, chuckling.

"Uh uh uhhhh." Xena playfully chided. "Is that any way to talk to your future bond-mate?"

"I suppose, next Xena, you'll be expecting me to be eternally grateful to you for showing me which pressure point to jab for alleviating sea-sickness?" Gabrielle reached for some cheese and olives, munching one of the sweet fruits and spitting the stone out into her hand to drop it onto her plate.

"Yeah well, you can if ya like." Xena picked up the flask of port, offering it to her friends before refreshing her own cup. "Just don't forget, that particular cure does odd things to your appetite and taste buds, as you well discovered onboard Cecrops' ship."

"Ugh!" Gabrielle grimaced. "Don't remind me. I never want to be offered raw octopus again as long as I live!" She broke off a piece of cheese and put it in her mouth, savouring the strong flavour.

"Strange how you kept calling it squid, though." Xena grinned. "Guess your taste buds weren't the only things confused at the time."

Gabrielle swallowed and picked up a couple of olives. "Okay, so I'm no fisherman when it comes to telling apart creatures of the sea! At least I know a good olive when I have one." She popped one of the olives into her mouth and leaned closer to Xena with the other fruit between thumb and forefinger. Placing it into Xena's smiling mouth, she allowed her fingers to linger against the warrior's lips, tracing their contours. "One other thing, Xena." Gabrielle's grin was almost feral and she dropped her voice to a seductive whisper. "My taste buds may have been confused back then, but right now they've never been sharper and I would very much appreciate a little more of my favourite dish, before we sleep tonight."

Xena promptly stopped chewing. "And this favourite dish would be...?"

"Why, warrior princess of course!" Gabrielle finished with a triumphant smirk.

Xena caught Gabrielle's hand and kissed her fingers, running her tongue lightly across the tips. "You wanna retire for the night and go back to your hut?" Her blue eyes burning into Gabrielle's eyes.

Gabrielle let go of the breath she was holding. "I'd like to retire from here Xena, and go back to our quarters with you, yes!"

"Well why didn't ya say so?" Xena stood up purposefully and offered Gabrielle her hand. "My Queen?"

Gabrielle took Xena's hand and stood up. "Thank you, my champion." She grinned.

"Hey, I like the sound of that when you say it." Xena smiled at Gabrielle, before turning to Ephiny and Solari. "See you two bright and early at daybreak?"

"Oh have a heart, Xena!" Solari laughed. "Just after daybreak, okay?"

Xena chuckled and reached out to clasp Eponin's shoulder. "Look after that eye, Ep. Don't get up to anything too...physical in the next couple of days or so, alright?" She noticed Gabrielle, Eponin and Coronis all raise their eyes and shake their heads in disbelief. "Whaaaat?"

"Just say good night, Xena." Gabrielle tutted.

"Good night Xena." Xena smirked, then spoke her farewells to friends at the table, as did Gabrielle.

Some of the Amazons, noticing their Queen leaving the feast, stood to bid her good night. Eventually she and Xena managed to get away from the celebration area and make their way back slowly to the Queen's quarters. They were followed discreetly by the royal guard posted to the night watch. Despite the knowledge they would be facing some difficult days ahead, Xena and Gabrielle felt at peace with the Amazon tribe and with each other, walking without speaking, an arm around each other's waist, content in their silence. Nearing their hut, they realised the guards with them had quickened their pace, catching up with their Queen and Xena and passing them with dutiful nods.

Gabrielle was pleased with their diligence. "Even when you're by my side, they don't stop looking out for me!" She smiled. "Now that's something I can't get used to."

"Mmmm? Oh that!" Xena snapped out of her reverie. "Well, they're just doing what guards are supposed to do for their Queen, checking everything's alright for you. If they didn't perform their duties properly they'd soon have Eponin to answer to...and probably me too!" She smiled reassuringly and slowed their pace further, allowing the two Amazons to do what their responsibilities required. She and Gabrielle reached the outer porch-way just as the guards were coming out of the hut.

One of the Amazons bowed her head to Gabrielle. "All is as it should be, my Queen. We lit a couple of lamps for you and checked that fresh water is available." She turned to Xena. "Everything is secure. We shall be here, should either of you need anything."

"Thank you." Xena acknowledged the guard. "Just make sure the early watch know to wake me at dawn, if I'm not already awake."

The guard nodded in response and wished both her Queen and Xena a peaceful night, before taking up her post with her sister Amazon.

Xena and Gabrielle stepped through the doorway to be greeted by the welcome sight of a small cheerful fire, with a pot of water heating for tea, and fresh fruit on the table.

"Gods!" Xena laughed. "I could really get to like the luxury of being looked after like this."

"Not as much as our looking after each other, I hope?" Gabrielle stepped up to Xena and took both of the warrior's hands in her own.

"Never, Gabrielle." Xena leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "I couldn't like anything as much as that."

Gabrielle grinned wickedly and leapt forward. "Catch!" She threw her arms around Xena's neck and wrapped her legs around the warrior's hips, her weight easily caught and supported by Xena. "Now, could we pick up from where we left off this afternoon, please?"

"You mean, from the point I dumped you onto the bed?" Xena cocked her head to one side.

"Well, sort of." Gabrielle placed a hand beneath Xena's chin and sealed her mouth with her own.

Without breaking the kiss, or dropping her cherished cargo, Xena walked over to the bed and sat on the edge, finally pulling her lips away from Gabrielle's. "I suggest we take off my weapons Gabrielle, before we have an accident."

Gabrielle reluctantly let go and clambered round the back of Xena. She unfastened the sword and rested it against the wall, within easy reach from the bed. Xena unclipped her chakram and dropped it by the sword. A hiss from the fire alerted them both to the water now boiling in the pot and Gabrielle scooted across the room to remove it without burning herself. Debating whether or not to make some tea, Gabrielle decided she couldn't be bothered with the water, as what was waiting for her by the bed was far more important. She turned around and was met by the sight of Xena, naked except for her boots and the huge grin she wore.

"Well that should definitely give you the element of surprise over Agradon, Xena!" Gabrielle folded her arms and leaned against the stone chimney. "Is this going to be part of your new strategy, by any chance?"

"Only where you're concerned, Gabrielle." Xena laughed. "To win your love and laughter." She stretched out a hand in Gabrielle's direction.

Gabrielle smiled and walked slowly over to Xena. As she drew level to the warrior and raised a hand toward her, she suddenly thumped Xena in the chest with the flat of her hand. Her lightening movement knocked Xena off balance and toppled her backwards on to the bed. With a shrug and a smirk, Gabrielle addressed an open-mouthed warrior. "Well so much for the element of surprise, Xena! Doesn't for long, does it!" She grinned triumphantly for catching Xena unaware and then knelt down to begin to unlace the warrior's boots.

Xena raised her hands in mock surrender, sitting up to reach over and stroke the golden head now resting on one of her knees. "I gather we decided it's okay for the Amazon Queen to remove my boots, then?"

"Let's just think of it as a Queen's concession, Xena." Gabrielle placed Xena's boots by her sword and chakram then got up to remove her own clothes, dropping them where she stood and swiftly moved onto the bed to happily find herself wrapped in Xena's powerful arms.

The night air was warm and fragrant as Xena and Gabrielle spoke tender words of hope and comfort to one another about the future. Gentle words gradually made way for passionate cries, as they gave to and received from each other without holding back physically or emotionally. Neither wanted to give in to sleep, knowing the following day would bring preparation for a journey that would separate them; a journey that could result in a dangerous battle for Xena and the Amazons going with her. Eventually however, they succumbed to Morpheus' calls to slumber, falling into deep dreamless sleep, the god keeping a promise to Artemis that he would protect and refresh the warrior and bard during their unconscious hours. Morpheus was well aware how all too soon the dawn would arrive and thrust these two humans into further twists and turns of fate. The only question remaining was, would their fates remain entwined as hoped for, or become unravelled by Ares and his schemes?

End Of Part Three

Continued In Part 4

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