~ It Never Rains, But It Pours ~
by Red Raven
Disclaimers: Please see Part 1.
Gabrielle was troubled but couldn't work out why. She had the nagging feeling that Xena was in danger. Determined not to assume the worse, she shook the thought from her mind and decided the uneasiness she felt in the pit of her stomach must have been something she ate. She left her quarters, greeting her guards and walked into the afternoon sunshine to head for the smith-works.
She still felt stupid for causing the vision of Xena and her sister Amazons to disappear the way it had. Artemis had kindly but firmly denied her a second chance, telling her to use the experience as a reminder that some things in life cannot be touched without serious consequence. At least she knew they were all safe. "Well, as of two nights ago". She whispered to herself.
Reaching the smith-works, Gabrielle was greeted by the clang of iron, the hissing of steam and the booming from the bellows, bringing her quickly out of her reverie. She stood in the doorway watching Oenus and Timalcus working side by side, fascinated by the remarkable mixture of brute strength, gentle co-operation and evident artistry of both mother and son as they worked together. She had no idea what they were making, but she enjoyed watching them as Timalcus lifted and depressed the bellows while Oenus used long handled tongs to hold a piece of iron deep within the white-hot embers of the furnace. Then Oenus would lift the iron onto an anvil, where Timalcus would hammer and shape as the two blacksmiths turned and moved together, before Oenus plunged the iron once more into the depths of the flames. For a fleeting moment, Gabrielle saw the terrible image of Dahok in the furnace and memories of the demon flooded her mind.
The imagined vision thankfully disappeared as Oenus looked up from her work and realised the smith-works had royal company. "My Queen, greetings!" She bowed her head briefly and rested the iron in the furnace to remain hot, before taking off her thick leather apron and walking over to Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, my Queen." Timalcus rested a palm against his heart and nodded respectfully as he advanced. "It's good to see you. Are you well, my friend?"
"I am well Timalcus, thank you." Gabrielle could always find a genuine smile in response to the disarming charm of the fair-haired young man. "I wanted to see you, actually. I'd like your advice and to ask you to make something for me."
"It would be a pleasure." Timalcus turned to his mother who nodded her approval. "If you'll give me a moment to wash off the day's heat and grime I will be with you straight away."
"As long as I'm not taking you away from important work?"
Oenus chuckled. "Nothing that can't wait for a little while." She watched her son walk away from the hot furnace and out of the smithy, then turned back to Gabrielle. "My Queen, may I speak frankly, as a mother?"
Gabrielle was taken aback by Oenus' directness. "Um, yes... I mean, of course you can." She thought Oenus wanted to speak about her son and was surprised when she didn't.
"Gabrielle... child, what troubles you? Your smile is true enough, but I can see you are not happy."
Gabrielle folded her arms and leaned against a rack of horseshoes. "Guess I haven't conquered that stoic leader-type look yet, huh?"
Oenus smiled slowly. "I think it suits well enough those Amazon sisters of your age and younger, it's just not totally convincing for those of us who know a child's pain even when they laugh and smile."
Gabrielle sighed before slowly relating what was on her mind. "Oenus, I can't explain how and I can't explain why, but since early this morning I have had the strangest sense that something's wrong."
"Here at the village, or out there with our army?"
"With our army."
"What do you fear?"
"I don't know, I'm not sure. I realise I should be concerned about my Regent and Solari, Iphitus and all my people, but... Well, it may sound odd, but I think... no, I feel that something has happened to Xena." She watched the blacksmith nod gravely. "I realise it's stupid, but..."
"Oh no, my Queen!" Oenus cut her off in mid speech. "Forgive me, but never call such feelings stupid, Gabrielle. They echo how strongly your and Xena's hearts and minds are united."
Gabrielle suddenly didn't know what to think. "You believe something has happened, then? By the gods, how do I find out? What do I do if it's true?"
"Calm yourself." Oenus sensed the panic rising in her Queen's voice and hesitantly reached out to steady her, happy that Gabrielle grabbed her forearm in return. "You may have sensed nothing more than a dream or vision that Xena has experienced. Still, if something has actually happened to her, there is nothing you can do until she returns to the village." She watched Gabrielle reluctantly nod in understanding. "Then again, remember for a moment who we are speaking of. Xena is one of the finest, strongest and most experienced warriors there is. She will find a solution to whatever situation she now faces."
Gabrielle looked earnestly into the blacksmith's face and whispered. "What if she's dead Oenus? Tell me she's not dead... please?"
The blacksmith placed both hands on Gabrielle's shoulders, held her at arm's length and smiled warmly. "Gabrielle, my Queen, either accept or deny your incredible bond with this woman. If you accept it, then know that you will strongly sense her loss the day that occurs and that day is not today, is it?" She waited for Gabrielle to shake her head, accepting the simple truth. "If you deny this meld of your hearts and minds, then go about your royal business and forget these feelings until Xena and our army returns."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and stood straight, pulling her shoulders back. "Thank you, I guess I needed to hear that." She nodded, though more to herself than Oenus. "Xena's either fine or she's not, but she's not gone from me. If she's hurt, she'll get back here somehow. I think... I think I'll ask Pyras not to leave the village for the next few days for any reason, just in case, and I will ask our boundary posts to be extra vigilant and alert us the moment they sight our people returning."
"Spoken as an Amazon Queen, Gabrielle." Oenus smiled thoughtfully. "Xena's strong. She will return." She heard the approaching footsteps of Timalcus. "Speak with my son for a time and ease your mind from these fretful notions." Oenus bowed from the waist and stepped back towards the iron she had left in the fire. "My Queen."
"Thank you Oenus." Gabrielle smiled and turned to Timalcus as he entered from the back of the smith-works. "Could we walk by the river for a while?"
"I couldn't think of a nicer place to walk in this sunshine, my Queen." He drew level with Gabrielle and politely gestured for her to exit the smith-works ahead of him.
They made their way to the west gate of the village and turned towards the river, Gabrielle guiding them away from the willow trees, not wanting to intrude where she thought Eponin and Coronis would probably be spending the afternoon together. All the while they were followed at a short distance by the royal guard, watching out for their Queen.
"So, my Queen..."
"Timalcus please, just for one afternoon, would you call me Gabrielle? Just today?"
Timalcus noted sadness in the gentle green eyes, where a natural joy and sparkle usually captured his heart every time he looked into them. "I'll do whatever you ask, my..." He took a deep breath and closed his eyes before looking back again. "Gabrielle."
"Thank you." Gabrielle offered an affectionate grin. "You and I are just about the same age Timalcus, and right now I could use a friend and a brother. I don't have brothers back in Poteidaia and I haven't really got to know Xena's brother Toris. I'd be glad if my honorary Amazon sister could actually be my brother now and then. " She finished with a chuckle.
The young man beamed. "I shall always be your friend, Gabrielle and if you think of me truly as a brother, I'll try always to honour that too!" He pointed towards some boulders on the edge of the riverbank. "Over there. Why don't we sit by the river for a while and watch it ripple by? The rocks will be warm from the sun and we can talk."
"Sure, that looks a good spot. " Gabrielle walked to where Timalcus had pointed and vaulted gracefully onto one of the higher boulders, to be joined less gracefully by her companion, choosing the adjacent boulder. Gabrielle's royal guard realised their Queen and Timalcus had stopped for a while and so the two Amazons sat contentedly in the lush grass to talk quietly of village events and their sisters who were with Xena in Dardania.
Gabrielle leaned back to enjoy the warm sun on her face and reached out for a nearby blade of grass, playing with it. "Timalcus, I want to give Xena a gift when we are joined and I'm at a loss what to get her."
"I see." Timalcus retained a soft but serious expression. "And you want me to help you think of something?"
"Mmm." Gabrielle nodded. "But maybe actually make something for me, that would be special to both of us, somehow appropriate for a warrior, but personal." She plucked the blade of grass and ran it across her chin. "I mean, what do I get as a joining gift for Xena?"
"That's a tough one." Timalcus nodded thoughtfully, stifling a grin. "How about a breast dagger that has a beautifully carved handle with your and Xena's initials interwoven on it?"
"Uh uh, no. No weapons."
"Okay, how about a new set of leathers and armour for, ah... for special occasions?" Timalcus leaned forward to rest his chin in his hand.
"Well, she could certainly do with something like that, especially if she's going to be Queen's consort, but... No Timalcus." Gabrielle sat up straight. "It wouldn't be personal enough and knowing Xena, it wouldn't last very long either. She'd probably forget she was wearing it and wreck it on the practise fields with Solari!"
Timalcus chuckled at the thought and decided to guide his Queen to the gift he felt sure she would want. "Perhaps a piece of jewellery would be appropriate? Plenty of warriors carry something on them from a loved one."
Gabrielle bit her bottom lip in thought. "That sounds good, but what though? Xena would dismiss most pins and broaches as vain trappings and she thinks earrings and necklaces are unpractical, even dangerous on the battlefield!"
"And she'd be right, of course." Timalcus feigned deep thought for a few moments. "What about... Oh I don't know, you may not like the idea."
"Gabrielle gave her full attention to the young blacksmith. "What about what?"
"My Qu... Gabrielle, in my workshop I have a piece of rich gold. It could be fashioned into a band that Xena could wear on her finger." Timalcus watched as Gabrielle cocked her head on one side to consider the suggestion and he silently asked any god who was listening, to make his friend say yes. "It would not restrict her in battle, it would be something she could wear always and, you have my word, it will be very beautiful."
"It wouldn't interfere with her swordplay?"
"It would be on the fourth finger of her left hand." Timalcus wagged the finger he meant. "Not her sword hand."
Gabrielle's mouth tipped up in a lopsided grin. "That sounds wonderful, Timalcus." Suddenly the grin dropped to a frown. "But how are you going to get Xena's ring size?"
"Ahh... measuring the warrior's finger..." Timalcus still didn't give into the delicious laughter he felt welling up inside from knowing he already had correct measurements for both Queen and consort and neither knew of the other's gift. "Let's just say, Xena isn't the only one with many skills!"
Gabrielle lay back in the sun and giggled. "That phrase seems to get everywhere!" As her laughter gradually faded, she rolled onto her side and propped her head on her hand. "Timalcus, do you worry for Iphitus when she's away from the village? I mean, I realise it's none of my business..."
"Iphitus is one of your warriors Gabrielle, and you are Queen to both of us." He grinned affectionately. "I think that makes it pretty much your business when she's on Amazon duty. Besides, you are also a friend to us and I know you ask out of concern." The young man studied the rock between his feet and was silent for a few moments. "Yes, I worry for Iphitus when she's away from the village and I miss her." He glanced up to be met by an expression of genuine care. "What can I say, Gabrielle? She is all I could ask for in a partner. I trust her with my life and my dreams. She's my lover and my best friend rolled into one; she has a tender heart, a spirit of fire and a mind as sharp as a... as a chakram!"
Gabrielle laughed. "She sounds wonderful Timalcus, and you sound very much in love."
"She is and I am." He lay back against the rocks. "I suppose that's why I can see how much you love and care for Xena and probably worry about her just as much as I do about Iphitus."
Gabrielle dropped her gaze, trying not to give in to her fears again. "Yes I do, Timalcus. Just like you."
"Xena and Ephiny will return in a few days with our army and they will all be fine Gabrielle, just wait and see. It'll be great!" Timalcus sat up with a smile. "They'll all come home victorious and we'll celebrate the defeat of Agradon, the return of Prisca and Xena's perfect win over this challenge from Ares!"
Gabrielle kept her eyes fixed on the rocks in front of her. "I hope so. By the gods, I really hope that's what happens."
Solari and the Amazons with her had ridden steadily during the day, all afternoon and throughout the night. Each Amazon, in addition to her own horse, had two horses tethered to the saddle. This enabled them to travel continuously, switching from mount to mount without a break in the journey, but also without endangering the horses beyond exhaustion. The additional horses were courtesy of Agradon's now ex-army and Solari recognised that an unbroken ride back to Thessaly was the only chance Xena had to survive. By the time the sun rose again, she knew they were almost at Amazon borders and home.
Throughout the journey back to the village, Solari and Iphitus took turns to ride close at Xena's side, leaning down low from the saddle from time to time to check that Xena was still conscious. Solari was aware that Xena was losing body heat, even with the cloaks and blankets covering her. Despite this, as long as she could hear Xena breathing or be reassured from the squeeze of the warrior's hand or a few whispered words, Solari maintained the hope that Pyras would know what to do if they could reach the village in time.
As dawn passed, melting into a peaceful morning, Iphitus rode beside the litter while Solari had moved back onto Argo. The young Amazon leaned down as low as she could without falling from her saddle to tell Xena that they were almost home. She received no response. She reached a hesitant hand out to Xena's shoulder and shook her gently, repeating the good news, but the warrior neither moved nor spoke. Iphitus tried to stay calm, calling to Solari, who noted the shake in Iphitus' voice and leapt off Argo immediately. She raced round to the litter, calling a halt for the other Amazons as she did so. Kneeling by Xena, Solari called to her, receiving nothing in response. She took Xena by both shoulders and shook her gently, telling her to wake up, but the warrior remained silent and motionless. Looking for signs of breathing, she found none. Refusing to give in to her rising alarm, she slipped her hand beneath the blankets and was encouraged to find Xena was no colder than the last time she checked. Solari thought through what little she understood of Xena's practises and disciplines, eventually smiling knowingly, trusting her senses once more. She pulled a dagger from her belt and held the cold metal beneath the warrior's nostrils for several long moments, finally seeing what she had hoped for. She exchanged a look of relief with Iphitus as condensation appeared on the dagger from Xena's almost imperceptible breathing. Finally placing the dagger back in her belt and laying her other hand gently on the warrior's chest, she nodded when she could at last confirm the unnaturally slow heartbeat.
Solari stood up. "It's alright. Xena's okay, she's in deep meditation. I guess she's slowing her heart down the best way she knows how, to slow the blood loss. Whatever, she's still with us, so let's get her home now. Fast!"
Taking advantage of Xena's self-induced state, the Amazons covered the remaining distance at a gallop, knowing the path ahead to be level enough to keep the litter steady behind Argo. By the time word reached Gabrielle that some of the army had returned with Solari, they had already pulled up outside the healer's hut, where Solari jumped off Argo, ran up the wooden steps and burst through the door without bothering to knock.
Pyras was working at her bench with her apprentice, grounding up various dried leaves and bark into a powder. She spun round to confront the impolite intruder, but the curse died on her lips when she saw who had entered the hut and guessed instantly that trouble was at hand for one of her people. "Bring her in!" She barked at Solari, before swinging round to her apprentice. "Stoke fire, prepare stitching, get willow bark for pain and bring bandages!" Ever devoted to her mentor, the young apprentice dashed away to carry out the orders diligently and with a speed that was well practised.
Solari turned to the doorway to give the order for Xena to be carried in, but Iphitus had already taken the initiative and was helping Prax and Geilissa carry the litter into the hut, the doorway just large enough to pass through with their burden.
"Here!" Pyras gestured to a nursing bed by the window and the three Amazons carried the litter over to gently lift the seemingly lifeless form onto the bed, aided by Solari. A slight frown on the healer's face was the only indication of her shock at seeing Xena badly injured.
As soon as Xena had been laid down, Pyras began pulling away the blood-drenched hide and cloths from the warrior's left leg. All the while she questioned Solari about the wound, when it happened, what kind of knife had been used and how it had initially been treated. Solari did her best to answer everything the healer asked, even being met with a knowing nod and laughter when she mentioned packing the wound with cobwebs in accordance with Xena's instructions. When Pyras finally reached the damaged thigh to find it bleeding freely, she cursed in a language Solari only recognised as not Greek. She muttered and grunted, shaking her head as she tended to the leg, her apprentice providing the extra pair of hands when needed, or the needle and twine for stitching, along with swab cloths and herbs as the healer required them. Solari watched closely for the next three quarters of a candle mark, acknowledging to herself that, were she not so concerned for her friend she would find the procedure fascinating. Pyras finally gestured to the young apprentice to complete the stitching, having successfully stopped the bleeding, then she ushered all the Amazons except Solari out of her hut and began choosing the most suitable herbs to wrap into the dressing.
Solari watched her sisters filing out, thanking them for their help and telling them to get a good meal and some sleep, knowing full well they would do neither while Xena was in danger. She closed the door and started to walk towards Pyras, when a sudden commotion caused her to spin round just in time to catch Gabrielle charging through the door.
"Let me go, Solari!" Gabrielle struggled against the strength of the Amazon's embrace. "Let me go right now!"
"Keep Queen back 'til work finished, Solari." Pyras spoke calmly but adamantly as she watched her apprentice complete the stitching of the wound. "She's no help, yet. Don't let go."
"I'm sorry Gabrielle." Solari tightened her grip around her Queen's waist, which she found only marginally easier than holding on to a squirming eel. She realised Gabrielle had been carrying her staff when she burst in, but had mercifully dropped it by the door in her rush to get past.
Gabrielle was frantically trying to reach Xena and lashed out without thinking. "Let me go Sol, Xena needs me!" One flailing limb caught Solari beneath the chin and for a moment Solari and Gabrielle stared at each other, but Gabrielle soon took advantage of the surprise punch and broke free.
"Oh no you don't!" Solari darted forward to wrap her arms around Gabrielle once more and swept her off the floor, pinning her arms to her sides.
"You poisonous banshee! Let go of me, Solari! I'm your Queen, for Hades' sake!" Gabrielle struggled ferociously, but this time she couldn't break Solari's powerful hold and there was no escape. "Let me go! That's an order!"
"I'm sorry, my Queen. Tomorrow you can have my head on a platter, but for now you're not going anywhere 'til Pyras has finished!" Solari closed her eyes, not doubting that she'd be fighting tooth and nail to reach Ephiny if she were the one being tended to. "Please, Gabrielle... I know you want to go to her, but do as Pyras asks for now. Please, my friend." Reluctantly, Gabrielle slackened in her arms and the struggling ended. After a few moments Solari allowed her captive to lift one arm away from its imprisonment, grateful when Gabrielle's hand sought hers and clasped it tight. The two remained this way, never taking their eyes from Xena as older and younger healer worked on the woman who held their focus and at least one of their hearts. As they watched, Solari quietly explained to Gabrielle what had happened in Agradon's tent.
Another half candle mark passed and Pyras finally stood back from the nursing bed to turn her attention to Gabrielle and Solari. She bowed to the young woman who was no longer an intruder but the Queen she loved and served, then she addressed Solari. "You may let Queen go now. See my girl for your wound." Solari squeezed Gabrielle comfortingly, then loosened her grasp, nodded to Pyras and stepped towards the young apprentice, who was already preparing a fresh dressing, needle and twine, having heard Pyras' directive.
Gabrielle walked round to the left side of the nursing bed and interlaced her fingers with Xena's. She noticed how pale her warrior was, compared to her normally healthy complexion and was concerned about the blue tinge carried by her lips. She bent gently forward and kissed Xena, gasping when she realised how little heat she could actually feel radiating from her. Adding the symptoms together, Gabrielle could almost hear her own heart breaking when she realised Xena was dying in front of her, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
Pyras came up behind Gabrielle and hesitantly touched her arm. "My Queen..."
Gabrielle looked up. "Thank you Pyras. Thank you for all you've done." She offered a warm smile of gratitude. "It isn't... It isn't enough though, is it?"
Pyras sighed and closed her eyes for a few moments. "I am good healer, my Queen, Xena is good healer too, but too much blood gone is one thing we never able to make better." The regret in her voice was obvious as she took Gabrielle's free hand in her own and held it tight.
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "I know. I've seen this before, a long time ago when we were trapped between the Thessalian army and Marmax's army... Xena had spent a long time trying to help a young soldier. Whose side he'd fought on didn't matter to her." She leaned over and kissed Xena's forehead. "He was a life that needed saving. Sadly, she couldn't save him because he'd lost too much blood. He was cool to the touch, as Xena is now and his lips were blue, like Xena's." She turned back to Pyras. "How long... How long before we lose her?"
Pyras dropped her voice to little more than a whisper. "If this someone else... one, perhaps two candle marks. But this Xena, and she's strong. She be with us until night." Pyras let go of Gabrielle's hand and stepped quietly away to join her apprentice and Solari.
Gabrielle thanked Pyras again and knelt by the bed, resting her free hand on Xena's chest. "Xena, I don't know if you can hear me my love, but I want you to know you're home and I'm not leaving you."
"I'm right here, my heart." The voice was weak and unsteady, but unmistakable. "I've been awake since you so gallantly crashed in here and called Solari a poisonous banshee." She finished with a small smile.
Despite the circumstances, Gabrielle couldn't prevent her own small grin at the mention of what she'd done. "So you... you've heard everything else as well?"
"Yeah, I heard." Xena opened her eyes and turned her head slightly to look up at Gabrielle. "I'm aware of how much blood I've lost since yesterday, Gabrielle. It's not a surprise to hear you talk about it."
Gabrielle pressed her face into Xena's hand, kissing the knuckles, the wrist and the palm. A single tear trickled down her cheek, but she was determined to remain strong for as long as she had Xena with her. "You broke your promise, warrior."
"Promise?" Xena's gentle expression was almost mischievous.
"The promise to take care of yourself for me. You know I'll never forgive you for that, don't you?" Gabrielle smiled affectionately.
Xena slowly raised her index finger and stroked Gabrielle's nose. "Well, you'll just have to spend the rest of your life working on a suitable punishment for me. Then I can spend eternity carrying it out for you when we're together again, okay?"
"Okay." Gabrielle was having difficulty fighting her tears. "I'll think of something, don't you worry." Xena responded with what seemed to be a small chuckle, but the sound was too weak to be certain. "Xena, I need to contact Cyrene and Toris for you. They're almost a day's ride away." Gabrielle took a deep breath and brought her emotions under control again.
Xena closed her eyes. "Mother will want to be here for the funeral; Toris too, if he's at home to be told." She cleared her throat softly and looked up again, speaking a little more freely. "Gabrielle, for many years I've always assumed my body would one day rest next to Lyceus in Amphipolis. But my home's not there anymore, it's here with you."
Gabrielle could no longer pretend to be strong and cried quietly, clutching Xena's hand and sobbing into the edge of the bed. Solari had discreetly stood nearby since having her arm cleaned, stitched and dressed. Now she stepped forward and rested a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
Xena noticed the Amazon step into view. "Hey, my old friend. Thanks for getting me back here."
Solari bit back her tears and forced a grin. "Hey to you too." She allowed her expression to become serious again. "Xena, what do you want us to do?"
Xena swallowed hard and drew a slightly laboured breath. "I'd like my body to be given an Amazon funeral, if the Queen and Regent are in agreement." Solari acknowledged Xena's request. "Then, if my mother really wants to, let her take my ashes back to Amphipolis, otherwise scatter them somewhere in or near the Amazon village, okay?"
"Anything, my friend." Solari smiled through gritted teeth.
Gabrielle found her voice again and looked up, straight into the lapis eyes of Xena. "I promise you that your wishes will be carried out." She kissed Xena's hand once more and stood up. "I'd better send word to Amphipolis." She went to the door and opened it, surprised to find what appeared to be most of the village quietly milling about outside.
The crowds turned as one when Gabrielle came onto the porch. She was taken aback by the vigil of her people for Xena and took a few moments to collect her thoughts before calling for the one Amazon scout she knew to be fast and whose name she could recall. Pasiphae came forward immediately and bowed low to her Queen, listening intently to her instructions and nodding in understanding. Gabrielle grasped the young Amazon's shoulder and whispered her thanks before walking back inside the healer's hut. She wanted so much to speak to her people and tell them what had happened, but she knew she would be unable to tell them that Xena was dying without drowning in her own sorrow. She went straight to Pyras and asked for one of the healer's small unmarked scrolls, normally used to list medical procedures, herbs and healing plants.
Quickly, Gabrielle scribed a concise but heartfelt message to Cyrene, sealed it with candle wax and handed it to Solari. "Would you give this to Pasiphae when she returns with her horse? She knows what to do with it."
Solari smiled gently. "Of course, Gabrielle."
"Then, would you tell... Could you let everyone know what happened? I know I should tell them Sol, but I just... I can't speak to them yet."
"I will Gabrielle." Solari instinctively gave Gabrielle a brief hug, just long enough to comfort without drawing out renewed tears. She stepped over to Xena and gently took her arm. "I'll see you on the practise fields in Elysia, if the goddess wills it. Then maybe I can finally learn to best you."
"You can but try, Sol." With the little strength she had left, Xena tugged Solari closer so she could whisper. "Watch over Gabrielle for me, Solari. Please keep her safe."
"Always, my friend. And with my life." She whispered her answer, squeezed Xena's arm and realised that she badly needed to leave the hut before she dissolved into her own emotions. She turned to Gabrielle with a final smile and headed for the door. Stepping outside, she promised herself that after she'd given Pasiphae the scroll and announced the sad news to the village, she would find the nearest woodpile and turn it into splinters. Desperation was eating her heart and mindless swordplay was all she could think of to ease the pain and deal with her own tears.
Pyras had kindly made her excuses and taken her apprentice with her to visit one or two ill Amazons, leaving Gabrielle and Xena alone. Gabrielle sat with Xena during the rest of the afternoon, sometimes sharing happy memories, occasionally whispering words of love, now and then offering water to sip or adjusting Xena's pillow, but never leaving her. Eventually Xena asked for more water and Gabrielle realised the small bucket and cup nearby were both empty.
Gabrielle promised to be no more than a few moments and went to the door, intending to ask one of her royal guards to fetch water for Xena. She picked up her staff, lying by the door where she'd dropped it, and carried it close to her like the comforting old friend it somehow seemed. Half expecting the healer's hut to still be surrounded by Amazons, Gabrielle was relieved to find only Iphitus, Prax and Geilissa, along with the other women who had returned with Xena from Dardania. They sat round a small fire in the fading daylight, sharing a wineskin while they spoke in quiet voices. Gabrielle greeted her guards softly from the open doorway and they hesitantly approached to bow and await their Queen's request. As she began asking about fetching some water, she realised both her guards had strange expressions on their faces and were staring over her shoulder into the hut. She turned, almost expecting that the Amazons had witnessed Xena's final breath from where they stood, but the sight that greeted her caused a rage to burst within her from a place Gabrielle never even dreamed she possessed. The god of war was standing by Xena's bed.
Gabrielle sped towards Xena's bed with staff in hand, screaming deafeningly. "Ares, you bastard! Leave her alone!" Without a thought for her own safety she flew at the god with staff raised and cracked the weapon hard against his temple.
"Ow! Gabrielle, it's lovely to see you too." Ares easily caught the second blow, heading for his chin, and held onto the end of Gabrielle's staff with an immovable grip. "Why Gabrielle, I can almost see the fire in you! I knew there had to be a more interesting reason why Xena fell for you so hard." He reached up with his free hand and rubbed the side of his head. "Ya know, you have a real thing about not taking life, but you never stop to think about all the men you've maimed or knocked literally senseless with this staff of yours, do you?"
Gabrielle refused to rise to Ares' taunts. "Haven't you done enough, Ares? What do you want?"
"Well, in a moment or two..." He tugged the staff out of Gabrielle's hands and let it drop to the floor. "I want to pay my last respects to the very mortal warrior princess here." He giggled, in the high-pitched way Gabrielle normally found despicable and stupid, but under the circumstances it made her angry. "First though, I'm going to tear that sweet head of yours from your body." He turned briefly to Xena. "Are you watching closely, my love?" Xena's jaw twitched as she stared at Ares, the only movement she now seemed capable of. Ares looked up to see a group of Amazons approaching through the door with weapons raised. "Oh, please!" He snapped his fingers and each Amazon dropped like a stone and slid out of the door again, propelled by some unseen force, the door slamming behind them as Ares turned back to Gabrielle. "Don't fret, they're just asleep. I wouldn't want to harm any of your precious Amazons now, would I?" He placed his hands on his hips and eyed Gabrielle up and down, nonchalantly rolling the quarter-staff backwards and forwards beneath his foot. "Now, where was I? Oh yes, I should have done this a long time ago, Gabrielle."
"Done what?" Gabrielle was too angry to be afraid and was casting worried glances towards Xena, wondering how much longer she could hold on.
"Why, tear you limb from limb!" Ares stepped towards Gabrielle and raised a hand.
"Don't you dare, Ares!" The feminine voice halted the god in his tracks and materialised into Artemis.
"Yes dear brother, you really should learn to pick on others your own size. Like me for instance!" Athena stepped out of nowhere and stood beside Artemis.
Ares groaned and slumped onto the edge of Xena's bed. "I could really do without the family gathering just now." He turned his head and grinned at Xena. "What do you reckon? Hey, you don't look too good, my friend."
Xena regarded Ares in much the same way a venomous snake might stare out its prey before striking the fatal blow, but was helpless to act against the god. Being unable to move, her sense of frustration seeped from every pore.
The god's grin was almost unbearable. "Why Xena, you're as weak as a kitten. No, weaker!" He let out another irritating giggle. "Seriously, it breaks my heart to see you this way. Truly it does."
Gabrielle decided to wipe the silly grin off his face once for all, god or no god, and dashed forward to retrieve her staff.
"Oh no, no, no my dear." Ares' hand whipped out at lightening speed, entangling in Gabrielle's hair and causing her to yelp. "You know, you need arms to wield a staff and yours are coming off right now!"
"Somehow I don't think so, brother." Artemis raised her hand. "That's enough!" Instantly Gabrielle disappeared from Ares' grasp to reappear at Artemis' side, the arm of the goddess draped protectively around her shoulders. She bent her head and whispered into Gabrielle's ear. "You were right of course, Gabrielle. He is obnoxious."
Athena moved towards Ares, her eyes narrowing and her sword-hand reaching for her weapon. "Ares, you really are an infantile bully at times, do you know that?"
"Hey I'm just kidding, okay? It's about time that annoying little Amazon Queen of yours was put in her place, that's all."
"It's about time you learned to treat our sister's chosen people with a little more respect!" Athena drew her sword. "And perhaps it's about time these mortals saw you put in your place, hmmm dear brother?"
"Now look Athena..." Ares raised an apologetic hand. "Just wait a moment, will you?"
"It's alright Ares, you can even tie one of my hands behind my back if you want, just like last time." Athena smiled at her brother. "Won't make any difference though... if you've forgotten?"
Ares giggled nervously and cleared his throat. "Look I'm sorry, alright? Let me pay my respects to Xena and I'll go. After all, I've got the whole of eternity to play with my favourite warrior princess in Tartarus, haven't I?" He nodded in Xena's direction and Athena re-sheathed her sword, stepping back towards Artemis and Gabrielle.
Gabrielle looked up at Artemis quizzically, the question she longed to ask dying on her lips as the goddess silently gestured to her to be quiet.
Ares turned where he sat on the bed and slid closer to Xena, his manner almost gentle so as not to move her where she lay. "So Xena, looks like you'll be off to see Hades anytime now huh?" He was met by the coldest stare Xena could muster. "Oh come on, don't be like that. You gave this challenge your best shot and failed, that's all. I'm gonna miss you and all the goody, goody deeds you and Gabrielle do around the place, I really am." He looked round and caught Gabrielle's eye, winking at her before turning back to the warrior. "Still, look on the bright side. You and me, in Tartarus, forever. Not quite the same as old times I guess, but we'll have some fun. Just you wait and see!"
For the first time since Ares arrived, Xena smiled slowly and took a deep, painfully laboured breath. "You don't know, you bastard, do you?" She took another breath. "I guess daddy doesn't tell you everything."
Ares laughed briefly, then frowned. "What are you talking about Xena?" He looked round at his divine siblings. "She must be delirious." He leaned closer to Xena. "I don't understand... What don't I know?"
Xena swallowed hard and whispered as loudly as she could to the immortal. "Ares, this really is goodbye for you and me. You can look for me all you want in Tartarus, you son of a bitch, but I'm not gonna be there to greet ya!" Her head slumped back on her pillow, the exertion having taken its toll on her fading frame.
Ares leapt to his feet and bellowed. "Xena, you're crazy! What d'ya mean, you won't be there? Where in Hades' name do you think you're gonna be? The Elysian Fields?" He faltered when he saw the amused expression on Xena's face and wheeled round to Artemis, the satisfied look on the goddess' face confirming his fears. "No way! She's mine and she belongs in Tartarus! How, by all that's sacred could a blood-thirsty warlord like that ever get into Elysia where I can't even keep an eye on her?" He turned to Athena. "Well?"
"Ares, you've just said yourself that you're aware of the deeds Xena has carried out over these past years with Gabrielle." Athena brushed a stray lock of hair from her cheek. "Did it never occur to you that Xena might actually redeem her soul from the clutches of Tartarus?"
"Yes but..." Ares fell silent, thinking through what he could possibly do to change the situation and recognising how blind he'd been to what Xena had managed to achieve. His silence continued until he eventually looked up, smiling. "Well, I guess there's nothing I can do about Xena's eternity in Elysia." He sat back down on the bed. "At least, not if she dies right now." He leaned quickly towards Xena and brought his face close to hers. "Alright Xena, I know when I'm beaten... but this is only temporary. You and Gabrielle are planning to have a joining ceremony, right? So let's call this an early wedding present, okay?" As he spoke, Ares quickly snaked his hand across Xena's leg, tearing the bandages away in one swift movement and clamped his hand down directly into the wound. The stitches gave way and a renewed blood flow pooled around his fingers.
Weak or not, the cry of pain Xena screamed out hit the confines of the hut and reverberated. Her left hand was trapped beneath the weight of the god, her right clawed pitifully at his shoulder. Ares took little notice. His eyes were closed in concentration and his jaw locked.
Gabrielle was trying unsuccessfully to escape the gentle but vice-like hold of Artemis. "He's killing her! Get him off her! Artemis, do something!" She turned her pleas to Athena. "Please goddess, can't you see what he's doing?"
Artemis exchanged a look of total disbelief with her sister and shook her head, hugging Gabrielle to herself. "Hush now, child. I know what it looks like, but somehow I don't think Ares is killing Xena... And is he going to be in a huge amount of trouble for what he is actually doing!"
The conversation from across the healer's hut fell on deaf ears as Ares continued to concentrate his energies on Xena and the warrior began wondering why and how she could feel her strength returning to her limbs, when she should be dead by now. The initial agony of Ares' probing touch had passed. Xena felt a warmth coarse through her, followed by the wonderful sensation of being able to breathe again and finally the restoration of her full strength began and was completed as Ares sat back and pulled his hand away from her thigh. The wound could no longer be seen and there was no scar; it was as if it had never happened.
Ares shrugged his shoulders and cracked his knuckles. "So! Bet you're feeling better now, huh? Go ahead Xena, you can thank me."
Xena sat up, as if she had woken from a refreshing sleep. "Thank you Ares!" She threw a powerful right cross into the god's face, sending him collapsing into an untidy heap on the floor. "Artemis, Athena..." Xena nodded in their direction. "I apologise, but Ares had that coming to him!"
Athena beamed. "We couldn't agree more with you, Xena. Oh, and welcome back, by the way!"
Xena grinned as Gabrielle turned to Artemis, bewildered. "Xena's not going to die now?"
"No child. Xena is not going to die now."
"But if Ares was capable of healing Xena, why didn't you..."
Artemis stroked Gabrielle's face. "Do you remember when we spoke about how the gods abide by laws, just like the Amazons?"
Gabrielle nodded. "You said you all had to abide by what Zeus ruled on this challenge and not interfere, and I said Ares would cheat."
Athena laughed and joined in the conversation. "That's right, Gabrielle. And for just about the first time ever, I'm rather glad our brother broke the rules!"
Artemis shared her sister's smile. "Even so, Ares will be in a great deal of trouble for disobeying Zeus." Gabrielle responded with a worried look. "Don't be concerned, he will not reverse what my brother has done here tonight."
A groan floated up from the floor, followed by an oddly sheepish god of war. "By Rhea, I always forget what a punch you pack, Xena!" He stumbled to his feet and addressed his sisters. "Well, I'm going home." He cast a last look at Xena. "See ya around princess, and uh... listen, don't let on too much about what I've done here, okay? I've got a reputation to maintain."
"Don't worry Ares." Xena smiled sweetly. "You'll always be affectionately thought of as a heartless bastard by everyone around here."
"That's funny, Xena. Yeah, that's really funny." With that, the god of war vanished in a blue ball of lightening.
Gabrielle turned round from the two goddesses and watched Xena swing her legs over the edge of the bed and stand up, stretching her arms above her and to the sides, then cracking her neck. The sight of Xena alive and whole before her chased all other thoughts away and she did the only thing she was capable of. She ran straight for Xena, allowing herself to be swept up and wrapped in the wonderful embrace waiting for her. Xena spun Gabrielle round once and then happily hugged her, raining her face, neck and hair in kisses.
A polite cough from Artemis caused the reunited mortals to turn round. "We should return to Olympus now and see what Zeus has in store for Ares... this time!" She raised her eyes to the ceiling and tutted softly.
"Artemis, I'm a little confused." Xena stood with one arm wrapped round Gabrielle's waist and addressed the immortal with a sincere smile. "This challenge... where do I stand now? Have I won, or what?"
"Where do you stand, my warrior?" Artemis folded her arms. "That is a fine question. Well, at least concerning the chalice you have no concerns. Ares argued that the two mastiffs made immortal were enough to secure his triumph. However, with all credit to our father in this matter, Zeus decided that it was the spirit rather than the letter of the challenge that was important and since no humans drank from the cup, the dogs were irrelevant."
"Immortal mastiffs?" Gabrielle laughed and shook her head. "There are god-like dogs running around?"
"I'll explain later, Gabrielle." Xena prodded Gabrielle's ribs. "Uh, not that I care particularly about the animals... but what happened to them?"
"Hades took them in the end." Athena joined in. "Now they're playmates for Cerberus. Actually it has to be said, they must have had an effect on the creature as I've never seen that sour-tempered old monster with such a happy disposition!" Mortals and immortals laughed together, happy to share the less serious notion.
As the laughter faded, Xena spoke. "And the other side of the challenge?"
"You've won, fair and square, Xena." Gabrielle was definite as she looked from warrior to goddesses. "Well, hasn't she?"
Artemis smiled and raised a hand to emphasise her words. "As far as my chosen Queen and her consort are concerned, Ares has no further say in the matter. Xena, there is none more worthy nor so full of devotion to my Chosen One here and you have my blessing, as both patron goddess and as a friend." She tapped her index finger against her lower lip. "As for Ares and his future interference in your lives... That, I'm afraid, remains to be seen."
Gabrielle sighed heavily. "Do you mean to tell us, after everything that Xena's been through, Ares could still be allowed to irritate us?"
"Gabrielle, it's alright." Xena tried to soothe the upset.
"It's far from alright, Xena." Gabrielle touched Xena's cheek and smiled before turning back to the goddesses. "He could still annoy us whenever he wants?"
"If Zeus is swayed by Ares." Athena took up the conversation. "Then yes, he probably could pick up where we all left off a quarter moon ago! However, this is not yet over. Firstly Xena, I'm sorry to mention the fact but you should now be sitting in Elysia somewhere getting reacquainted with your brother and playing with your son." The goddess watched Xena smile sadly at the thought of being so near to seeing Lyceus and Solan again. "Ares will be judged concerning his disobedience for that, but also the fact that you've proved your worth as Amazon consort and have restored the chalice of... Xena, where is the chalice?"
"Still with Ephiny and the rest of the army at Dardania, so it's safe enough I warrant."
"There then!" Athena lifted her hands and shrugged. "I think it's only our brother who believes he hasn't forfeited all rights on your life, Xena. As far as the Pantheon is concerned, we shall all stand by Zeus' decision. I only trust it will be to judge Ares as having lost this challenge and exile his hand from both your lives for good."
The four were silent for a time as they considered what had been said. Finally, both Artemis and Athena drew near to Xena and Gabrielle and embraced each of them warmly, blessing them with a sense of peace and wishing them happiness for their future. Artemis left them in no doubt that she would remain in contact through her priestess and intended to ensure a very special royal joining in the near future. Then the immortals stepped back and soon their forms faded into nothing.
Xena took a deep breath, squeezed Gabrielle's shoulders and kissed the top of her head affectionately. "I just don't know what to make of these past few days, Gabrielle. So much has taken place I'm not sure I've kept up with it all."
Gabrielle looked up at her warrior. "I only know that I'm glad this challenge business is all over and you're back with me." She smiled warmly. "What do you want to do now?"
"Well, I guess there may be a few Amazons in mourning. We should let them know that any rumours of my demise are a little... exaggerated." She grinned.
Gabrielle bit her bottom lip. "Actually it's not just a few Amazons, Xena."
"Oh right, you asked Solari to mention it to other Amazons, didn't you?"
"Better make that just about the whole village, Xena."
"The whole village thinks I'm dead or dying?" Xena's eyebrow crept up.
"Everyone was outside the healer's hut Xena, sort of just waiting... hoping and praying that you'd be okay. When I went to call a scout to ride to Amphipolis, I asked Solari to tell them all that..."
"It's okay, Gabrielle." Xena grinned. "We can sort it all out. I'm quite touched to think an entire Amazon village would even consider mourning my passing."
"It happened once before, Xena."
"Doesn't count. I wasn't completely dead."
"You were deader than you are now. I mean were now! Oh, I don't know what I mean!" Gabrielle chuckled. "You're here and alive, and that's all that matters."
Xena ruffled Gabrielle's hair. "Well, mother's gonna have a shock from your message, that's for sure."
"Oh Xena!" Gabrielle's hand flew to her mouth. "Gods! There's no way to catch Pasiphae before she reaches Amphipolis."
Xena remained calm. "Don't worry. It won't be very nice for Cyrene and Toris to travel down, thinking they're coming to my funeral, but it can't be helped now. At least, when they know everything's alright, they could stay with us for our joining, couldn't they?"
Gabrielle nodded enthusiastically. "I think that would be wonderful. Of course, we'll have to tell them we're together first."
Xena laughed. "I can't speak for Toris, but I hope mother will be pleased. I think she will be. For now though, I think I'd like to see Solari and let her know everything's in good working order again." Xena stepped away from Gabrielle. "Then perhaps I should uh... see the Queen in her quarters and let her know everything is definitely in good working order. What do you think, my love?"
Gabrielle grinned broadly. "From death bed to Queen's bed in the matter of a candle mark, huh?"
"Something like that." Xena dropped her voice suggestively and sent a shiver down Gabrielle's spine. "Of course, if you have other duties..."
"Nothing! None! Go! See Solari, put her out of her misery, but don't be long. I'll be waiting for you in my hut, okay?"
"Sounds good to me, Gabrielle." Xena leaned over and slowly kissed Gabrielle's lips, then stood back, offering a feral smile and bowing low. "My Queen." She headed for the door and left the hut, jumping just in time to avoid trampling on the Amazons still out cold from Ares' enchantment.
Gabrielle watched Xena go, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath, grateful that her life, so near to being shattered, was intact and whole again. She left the healer's hut and headed for own quarters, first checking that the unconscious Amazons were comfortable and merely sleeping as Ares said. Confident that they were alright, she crossed the quiet village and entered her own hut, laying her staff against the stone fire hearth while she began preparing a small fire.
Suddenly Gabrielle stood up and placed her hands on her hips. "I can't do this! It's too unfair!" She turned away from the half-made fire, went to the main table and grabbed her quill and a clean piece of parchment. Scribbling a note in the dim light of an oil lamp, she placed it on her bed, hoping this would be the first place Xena would look as she came into the hut. As an afterthought, Gabrielle took a white orchid from a nearby pot of sweet-smelling flowers and rested it across the message. With a final look of satisfaction, she picked up her staff and sprinted out the door, heading for Eponin's hut.
Xena neared Solari's quarters, situated near the smith-works, and soon located the Amazon warrior standing in the middle of several piles of hacked up wood, still swinging her all but blunted sword at an upright log. Xena made out from the Amazon's curses that she was crying, her tears and anger directed alternately at the Fates, Ares or Zeus for allowing Xena to die from a stupid and avoidable accident. The warrior princess placed a hand over her mouth as she watched her friend finally slump to the ground, throwing her sword to one side, and giving into a grief that shook her shoulders and tore uncharacteristic sobs from her throat.
Xena knew that if she approached Solari from behind she risked a swift defensive punch from the highly trained Amazon, but decided it would be a small price to pay for taking away the sorrow that was now happily unfounded. She came silently towards her friend and stood two paces behind her. "Well, ya pretty much killed the wood stacks! D'ya think they still pose a threat to the village?"
Solari bolted to a standing position, instinctively grabbing her sword and swinging round to face the intruder who dared to sound like the friend she'd watched dying. Her jaw dropped when she saw who had approached. "Is this a trick? What are you? Who are you? Are you Ares?" Solari's demands poured from her lips in a persistent flow. "If you're Ares, you son of a bitch, tell me! If I could kill you for what you've done to Xena and Gabrielle I would! Well? Answer me, you snake!"
Xena grinned but spoke softly, realising for the first time that she carried neither her sword nor chakram, and was well aware of Solari's blade hovering little more than a hand's width from her eyes. "Solari, listen to me carefully. I know this is weird, but it's me. I'm not dead, I've been healed. The gods intervened... well, one of them did." She was encouraged to see Solari's sword lower half way to the ground, a puzzled expression replacing the look of suspicion. "If it weren't for you my friend, I could well have been dead by this afternoon, but you got me back fast enough and now... now I'm back!" She shrugged her shoulders.
Solari dropped her sword. "Xena? How? What...?"
Xena beamed, quickly closing the gap between the two of them and swept Solari off her feet. "Sol!" She hugged her friend tightly, then pulled back to kiss her joyfully on the mouth before letting her drop to the ground.
Solari gasped and grabbed Xena's shoulders. "It's really you, Xena?"
Xena laughed loudly. "Yeah, it's really me and I'll tell ya, I've never been so glad to be alive!"
Solari retrieved her sword to re-sheath it and washed away her tears in a nearby water butt, then the two warriors wrapped a strong arm round each other's shoulders and moved off in the direction of the Queen's quarters. As they walked, Xena explained just what events had brought her back from the brink of death. The two occasionally met other Amazons who were initially shocked to see Xena, but soon relished the good news of her restored health and strength. The warrior was grateful that word of mouth would soon rectify the assumption of her imminent demise, but was pleased when she saw Pyras in the distance and had the chance to tell her herself.
The healer was heading back to her hut, shuffling through a handful of freshly picked plants, when her path crossed that of Xena and Solari. Her look of disbelief was soon replaced by one of suspicion, followed by a rapid series of right-handed gestures.
Xena recognised Pyras' arm waving and finger jabbing as signs to ward off evil spirits. "Pyras, I'm not some malevolent entity ya know!" She laughed. "I'm very much alive, thanks to you first, then one of the gods." As much as she revelled in the irony of her healing at Ares' hand, Xena decided it was prudent not to mention too freely that the god of war had saved her life. She was well aware what it could imply without a full explanation.
"You truly better? No damned trick?" Pyras stood her ground with clenched fists on her hips.
"Truly better, Pyras." Xena smiled. "And no damned trick, I assure you. Thank you for everything you did for me today. If the gods hadn't intervened, at least I would have died comfortably and with no pain, because of you."
Pyras shrugged. "You should be dead, Xena."
"I know." The warrior nodded.
The old healer's face slowly lit up with a broad grin. "Glad you alive, though. I am, Xena. Very glad you alive, for village and for Queen."
"The whole village will be glad, Xena." Solari joined in the conversation. "Once they all know. Then, when Ephiny and the others get back, we can have a real celebration!"
Xena and Solari shared a few more words with Pyras, then continued on their way to Gabrielle's hut.
"Where's the royal guard?" As the two reached their destination, Solari was concerned by the absence of Amazons outside the Queen's quarters.
"It's alright, Sol. they're probably amongst those out cold by Pyras' hut." Xena grinned. "Besides, we're the guard here now. What more could an Amazon Queen ask?"
Solari smirked. "Sure." She stopped suddenly. "Listen, I should really get back to my hut and let you two have some time alone."
"Yeah and you will, but come and say goodnight to Gabrielle first. You parted so sad this afternoon. Besides..." Xena grinned wickedly. "Don't ya want an apology for being called a poisonous banshee?"
Solari laughed heartily. "That was under duress, Xena. Gabrielle wouldn't normally curse anyone quite so dramatically!"
"That's as may be." Xena had reached the door to Gabrielle's quarters. "I still reckon you deserve an apology, Sol. Don't you think so, Gab..." She swung the door open to a very dimly lit hut and no Gabrielle. "What the...? Gabrielle!" Xena called from just inside the door. "No fire, just a small oil lamp, she's not here, Solari."
The Amazon joined Xena and they moved into the hut together. Solari walked straight to the main table to light another couple of oil lamps from the flame of the first one. The improved light enabled Xena to see Gabrielle's message on the bed and she strode over, picking up the parchment and the orchid lying with it. Xena recognised the quill-hand immediately and scanned through the words addressed to her.
'Xena my beloved, please don't be annoyed with my impatience. In my joy at having you restored to me I neglected to fully realise just what Cyrene will go through when she receives the message I sent with Pasiphae. I can't let your mother deal with that grief for longer than she has to, so I'm leaving for Amphipolis immediately. Don't worry, I'm not going alone, I'm taking Eponin and Coronis with me and maybe a couple more warriors. If the gods are kind to us all, we should all be back in Thessaly in little more than another day. I love you my warrior, and I'll see you soon. Try to stay out of trouble. Gabrielle.'
Xena lowered the note with a sigh and smiled at the last comment. "I'll try, my love... and I'm not annoyed with you. Just take care."
"Is everything alright?" Solari came over and stood quietly at Xena's shoulder.
Xena rested the orchid against her cheek and handed the message to Solari. "Gabrielle's gone to Amphipolis to let mother know she doesn't have to attend a funeral after all."
"She didn't have to go herself. She could have sent another scout." Solari scanned the note.
Xena smiled warmly. "No, not Gabrielle. It was her message that carried news of my apparent death and she feels responsible for causing Cyrene unnecessary heartache. My mother is a good woman Solari, and I love her dearly. She and Gabrielle have become close over the past few years, even though they've only met a handful of times." She grinned. "I suspect Cyrene even regards Gabrielle as another daughter. I'm gonna saddle Argo and go after her, make sure she's alright."
Solari sighed. "Why not let her deal with it now, as she's already gone? She hasn't gone alone." She tried to gauge Xena's reaction, not wanting to appear interfering. "Gabrielle's learning to rule here Xena, and part of that means learning to make decisions without you."
The warrior nodded and smiled slowly. "Yeah, I know. But believe me Sol, it's not always gonna be easy to stand back and let Gabrielle make all the decisions, in case she makes... mistakes."
"Makes mistakes?" Solari cocked her head on one side.
Xena hesitated. "Pretty bad of me huh? I know Gabrielle's not a child and she's certainly not the naÔve young woman who followed me out of Poteidaia. She has some real skills where arbitration's concerned or bargaining is called for. It's just that... Well, it's difficult to actually imagine Gabrielle... Imagine her being..."
"Being in charge?" Solari offered.
"That's it! In charge!" Xena chose her words carefully as she continued. "All this time, Gabrielle and I knew she'd return here one day to take up her duties fully and I've always accepted it. Now that time's actually here, it's a little like seeing Gabrielle becoming a warlord. Oh, a benign one and one with wisdom, but a warlord nevertheless." She looked up to see Solari with a patient expression on her face. "Sounds stupid on my part, right?"
"Not at all." Solari walked over to the table and snuffed out all but one of the oil lamps. "Xena, you and I are both warriors. I've seen plenty of battles, but you, you've lived the battle! You've been a warlord and known the violence, the bloodlust and victories that go with it, haven't you?" She watched Xena slowly nod in agreement. "You've also known the pain and frustration of making a wrong decision sometimes, right? I mean, the Destroyer of Nations was still human, wasn't she?"
Xena smiled. "Just about, yeah."
"Well I guess you're... look, don't take this the wrong way, but you're scared, aren't you?" Solari hesitated, but Xena's expression remained passive. "Of watching Gabrielle fail? Seeing her make a mistake?" She watched her friend tilt her head and frown in thought. "Then again, what do I know?"
"More than you think Sol. I am scared of that, you're right." She grinned affectionately. "Over the years we've been together it's almost always been me who decided where we went and what we did, so if anything went wrong I could blame myself. Where difficult circumstances called for diplomacy or a little philosophy, a song to comfort a child or a nurse with kindness and determination to help, Gabrielle was always there." She looked up. "Always, Sol. Not to mention how often she would watch my back in a skirmish. I loved her for all those things and I was so proud to see what she was capable of... She's often talked of the good things I've been able to accomplish and has told me that she wanted to be just like me." Xena chuckled. "The truth is Solari, I've wished many a time that I could be just like her. Most of the things I've been able to do have been because of the strength and encouragement she's been to me... when I thought she was dying in Tripolis I told her she was my source. I meant it."
"And now the time's come for Gabrielle to rely on what she is and what she has, you don't like the idea that she might get it wrong from time to time and fall off the pedestal you've put her on." Solari studied the warrior's face, looking for anger, but found none. "Xena, don't you trust Gabrielle?"
"Of course I trust her, Solari! I trust her with my life! What kinda question is that?"
"An honest one, Xena." Solari grinned. "I know you trust her with your life. I also know you trust her with your heart and your dreams and everything good and wonderful, but you also need to trust her to deal with her mistakes, if and when she makes them, she's no more infallible than you or I. Rather than make all the decisions now, you have to face the fact that you'll be there to advise and support Gabrielle in her judgements. And you'll need to deal with your own disappointment if Gabrielle does make a mistake, not just as the bard at your side but as our Queen!"
Xena was silent for several moments before answering. "I hate to admit it but yeah, it is something I don't want to face... guess I'll have to work on it. Damn! This consort thing is gonna be trouble Sol, I can tell."
Solari laughed and clapped Xena on the back. "That's why you're gonna be an Amazon, Xena! At least you'll be in good company to help you along!"
"Oh I can't wait!" Xena groaned.
The two left Gabrielle's hut and headed towards Eponin's quarters, hoping the guards would confirm when Gabrielle had left for Amphipolis. They went via Solari's quarters where the Amazon had stowed Xena's weapons safely, intending to pass them to Gabrielle. Once they reached Eponin's hut, royal guards informed them that Gabrielle, Eponin, Coronis and three other warriors had ridden for Amphipolis less than half a candle mark earlier. Xena wanted to run to the stables and ride out after them, but Solari's words echoed in her mind and she appreciated the importance of letting Gabrielle take action without interfering with her decision. She still told herself however, that the main reason for not going was the necessary rest Argo needed and no other horse could substitute for her mare.
Xena and Solari decided to share a meal and a wineskin together in the Amazon's quarters, where they talked until dawn about the raid on Agradon's camp. They also mulled over how Ephiny might be dealing with the soldiers captured, the prisoners of Agradon they had managed to release and the stolen treasures Agradon had acquired. The two finally slept, Solari curled up on her bed and Xena stretched out on a blanket by the hearth; it was late morning before dreams subsided and sleep gave way to consciousness again.
The remainder of the day passed peacefully as the village awaited word that Ephiny and the army were nearing the village or that Gabrielle and her party had been sighted returning.
Xena spent the late afternoon with Tethys, Lysidice and four other Council members, discussing plans for the trial of Agradon's two remaining Generals that Ephiny would no doubt bring back to the village. After agreeing on which neighbouring authorities to invite to the trial, Council thoughts turned to Xena and her own imminent trial and punishment under Amazon Law.
Tethys smiled sadly. "I cannot say that I or any Amazon of the Council feels joyful over this situation, Xena. You skilfully led our army with Ephiny and Solari against Agradon and, for me personally, the rescue of my niece means more than I have words to thank you. Our hearts are heavy, knowing that a punishment is still required for you."
"Tethys. Council members..." Xena nodded to all the women present. "What occurred in Dardania has no bearing on this matter. Thessaly... this village, is to be my home with Gabrielle and I shall be part of this tribe, but neither I nor you can accept my presence here without cleansing what happened between us." Her words were met with nods and mumbles of agreement. "I willingly accept what the laws here intend for me. All I ask is that you treat me fairly and grant a just punishment."
After a short silence, Lysidice addressed Xena. "When you first abducted Gabrielle from us, insulting the Nation and injuring Ephiny, we were ready to treat you as the murderer we believed you had... reverted to being. We wanted as severe and painful a punishment as we could inflict within our law because Ephiny stilled our hand from pronouncing a death sentence. Now however, we would much rather the sentence be a spiritual one, or one that would provide practical aid to the village." The Crone smiled slowly as she watched Xena frown in thought. "Since you have so readily committed yourself to the Council's ruling, the trial of course, is a mere formality."
"Of course." Xena tried to hide her frown and kept her tone even.
"However, from what I understand of your own code Xena, and from what Tethys has explained to me, you would prefer the punishment to be swift, physical and observed by those who witnessed the crimes in the first place. You want a punishment to equate your own actions which were physical and caused injury."
Xena glanced up and met the older Amazon eye to eye. "Thank you Lysidice, I think you do understand my code." She turned her head and nodded a thank you to Tethys.
Tethys drew in a deep breath. "There are the three charges to be met appropriately Xena, regarding the Queen, the Regent and the Amazon Nation as a whole. So what do we do with you? Beat you? Whip you? It would be a waste of your time and energies to have you wracked you to a tree for thirty days or so."
Lysidice took up the theme. "You will appreciate that we have no intention of dragging you behind a horse to equal what happened with Queen Gabrielle. Not that any Amazon would volunteer for such an act." Lysidice was moved to see Xena wince as the memory slapped her. "Similarly, if we had you run the gauntlet, the chances are that no Amazon would now raise a hand to strike you anyway!" Lysidice and Xena exchanged a nod of understanding.
"If it doesn't seem too strange for me to choose my own punishment..." Xena waited for the Council members to encourage her to continue. "I propose a public whipping. It'd be completed quickly and it could be before the whole village, just as the original offences were. Besides, I'm sure someone would carry it out knowing that it was out of compliance with Amazon Law and with my total acceptance."
Tethys nodded slowly and the rest of the Council gestured its acceptance. "We agree Xena, though I'm not so sure we'll find any Amazon willing to take up the whip against you."
"Well, I'll just have to take the chance that there's an Amazon with your wisdom and understanding, Tethys." Xena offered a lopsided grin from across the table.
Tethys tilted her head to one side. "Just in case you're wondering, neither my sister Crone Lysidice, nor myself or any Council member can carry out this punishment."
"Oh, that's a shame." The warrior's smile fell. "I'd thought that one of you might..."
Tethys shook her head. "I'm sorry, Xena. Lysidice and I brought the charges and our laws forbid us to inflict the punishment. Similarly with any Council member, sentence may be decided but not carried out by them."
"Guess I forgot." Xena shrugged. "It safeguards against taking too much pleasure in revenge or something, right?"
"That's it my young friend."
"It's a good law."
"I've always thought so." Tethys grinned.
"So when do you think it'll be carried out?" Xena stood and looked out the window to check the sun and guess the time of day.
Tethys slowly stood and gathered a handful of loose scrolls on the table. "The trial need be no more than a simple public confirmation between you and this Council. I suggest that could take place during the celebration feast, when Queen Gabrielle and Regent Ephiny are both present again, unless you feel that would spoil the levity of the evening?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Not as long as the confirmation's a brief one."
"It will be." Tethys smiled. "Then the punishment itself could take place two or three days later. That should give your wounds from the whip plenty of time to heal before your royal joining with Gabrielle takes place."
"Thank you." Xena turned back to Tethys with a satisfied smile. "That sounds fine. Well if you'll excuse me, there's something I need to do before retiring for the evening."
"There's nothing more to discuss here, Xena." Lysidice confirmed.
The two Crones and other Council members made their goodbyes with Xena and the warrior left the hut, making her way across the village to the small but elegantly constructed temple of Artemis. The priestess greeted Xena at the door and gave her permission to enter.
After burning a piece of incense as a mark of respect to the goddess, Xena spoke to the priestess about her joining with Gabrielle and clarified some of the details concerning the ritual. When she had finished explaining the ceremony, the priestess asked Xena if she would like to see the rest of the temple, given that she had never set foot in there before. Unsure whether this was a chastisement or not, Xena agreed and was shown the scrolls, wall paintings and a few other treasures unique to the house of Artemis.
"What's in there?" Xena tilted her head towards a chamber, off to one side of the temple.
"A beautiful story with a sad ending, Xena." The priestess paused and regarded the warrior warmly. "When our goddess first encouraged this village to construct a temple, our history scrolls teach us that she built that room herself, blessed it and proclaimed it a place for prayer and visions. In daylight it seemed a simple white room with a high window, but by Artemis' moonlight it took on all the colours of the rainbow and was dazzlingly beautiful. It lifted the spirit just to be there and enabled mind and soul to truly seek the will of Artemis."
"I take it that doesn't happen much now." Xena was gazing at a wall painting that portrayed Artemis instructing a group of Amazons in the art of archery.
The priestess sighed. "Artemis left us a token of her love in that room and it was that gift by which her moonlight transformed the place. It went missing, allegedly stolen by a Centaur. It's what led us into years of needless, terrible war with them."
"Allegedly?" Xena was suddenly very interested in both the artefact and the story. "You don't think that's what happened?"
"No, I don't." The priestess shook her head. "I've read all our history scrolls Xena, and they show quite clearly that squabbles over trading rights and merchant routes began to break out almost regularly between Amazons and Centaurs. I believe it got out of hand and developed into all out war and, though it breaks my heart to admit it, I think Artemis took away the gift herself, out of disgust for what we'd allowed to happen; there was no theft. Centaurs may have some strange ways, but they are a noble race who do not stoop to theft."
"I agree with you on that." Xena grinned. "Besides, if the theft actually took place and caused the war, peace with the Centaurs would have probably returned the object."
"Absolutely! That's what I think." The priestess lowered her eyes. "But if Artemis took it away because of what happened with the Centaurs, I don't understand why our goddess has not restored it to us. I can only suppose she is waiting for the right opportunity... either that or she is still displeased with us somehow."
"The ways of the gods, my friend... since when have we ever been able to really fathom them out? Still, from what I've learned of Artemis, she is certainly not displeased with the Amazons. She must have something else in mind." She smiled. "So, what was this token of Artemis' love... a cup of some sort?" Xena groaned inwardly at the idea of yet another cup causing trouble.
"Oh no, not a cup." The priestess walked towards the door of the chamber. "It's not quite dark yet, so let me show you in the remaining daylight."
They walked through the doorway and Xena looked to where the priestess indicated. A small, beautifully carved stone altar stood beneath a high window. The altar depicted scenes of Artemis either hunting in her sacred forests or holding council with Amazon worshippers. On top of the altar sat two simple candles either side of a silver plate. Xena looked closer and noticed the plate contained a raised silver holder of some kind, but it was empty. No wider than her thumb, but easily two spans long, Xena grinned slowly as she realised what the impractical shape was intended to hold. She said nothing, wanting to share the discovery with Gabrielle first, but her heart leapt as she recognised that what Artemis had given her, and what was now rolled up in one of Gabrielle's scrolls, was intended to restore a true sense of the goddess' blessing to the tribe.
The following morning, Xena and Solari were on the practise fields training warriors in aspects of hand to hand combat when news was brought to them that Ephiny and the army had passed the northern borders into Amazonia. As they raced back to the village, eager to greet the returning Regent, further news came that Gabrielle and her party were returning from the east. Both warriors sprinted to their respective quarters to wash and freshen up, happy at the prospect of being with their partners again. By the end of the morning it was clear that Ephiny would reach the village more than a candle mark before Gabrielle, so Amazons gathered at the main gate to greet the returning army. Those not present were either attending to duty or busy preparing for the celebrations now planned for that evening.
Ephiny rode at the head of the army as they entered the gate, wearing the well-practised smile of a trained Regent. Solari could tell Ephiny's expression was not real, despite the thunderous cheers and victorious Amazon calls filling the air. Only when her eyes fell on Xena with her hand raised in greeting did Ephiny's face light up. She halted her horse, dismounted and walked over with a beaming smile, instinctively reaching for Solari's hand to bring it to her lips as she approached Xena.
"Well, either Pyras worked quite a miracle or you have a story to tell me!" Ephiny rested her free hand on Xena's shoulder.
"Welcome home!" Xena stepped forward to embrace her friend, smiling into Ephiny's mass of blond curls. "And yes my friend, we have a story to tell you." She grinned and stepped back.
Ephiny turned to Solari, lifting both hands to cup the Amazon's face. "Apart from the moments I wondered whether Xena was dead or not, I've thought of nothing else but being home with you, Solari." She leaned forward and kissed her life-mate soundly. "Gods, I've missed you!"
"Yeah, me too!" Solari grinned as she ran a hand down Ehiny's face. "I just hope we don't have too many days like that ahead of us."
Ephiny smiled, pleased to be home. She raised a hand to the other Amazons who had come to the gate and thanked them for their welcome. Calling for the army to dismount, she gave orders that Areope, still with the arrowhead buried in her hip, along with any other wounded Amazons should be taken immediately to the healer for treatment. The Regent finally dismissed the army, granting them ten days freedom from active duty.
The fighters dismounted to be welcomed by sister Amazons while prisoners consisting of Agradon's senior soldiers, were handed over to the awaiting guard and marched to the stockade. Prisca and Charis, gently shadowed by Gelanor, found Tethys amidst the crowd. In spite of the Crone's years, her strong arms wrapped around Prisca to lift her off the ground in a joyful embrace as they revelled in their reunion. Gelanor was then introduced as Prisca's betrothed and new friend to the Amazons; he received a warm warrior's greeting from Tethys. Nearby, the young boy Calum, was being made a fuss of by some of the older Amazons.
Ephiny finally nodded in satisfaction as she watched her people, happy to be back amongst her tribe. She grinned indulgently, then frowned. "Hey, where's Gabrielle? I'd have thought she'd be here!"
"That's a bit more of a story, Eph." Solari slipped her arm around the Regent's waist as a young Amazon approached to take Ephiny's horse to the stables.
"Gabrielle should be getting back to the village in about another candle mark." Xena met Ephiny's puzzled expression. "Come on, I'll tell ya everything that's happened while you freshen up, then we can go over to the east gate and meet Gabrielle. Unless of course, you're too tired, Ephiny?"
"Not too tired to hear why you're so full of life Xena." Ephiny playfully jabbed a finger into the warrior's ribs. "And never too tired to say hello to my Queen."
The three made their way to Solari's quarters where the Regent and head of the guard had made their home together. As they walked, Xena asked Ephiny where Thebe and Briseis were, having realised the two rescued priestesses were absent.
"They stayed in Dardania with the people of the hospice." Ephiny explained.
"They didn't wanna go home or come here?" Xena asked.
"No, as priestesses to Apollo they felt a responsibility towards the hospice and the people who'd established it in the first place in the god's name." Ephiny unbuckled her sword strap and casually carried the weapon across her shoulder. "They promised to remain there and help until another physician and some nurses could be found to run the place again. In return, the local villagers promised to help Thebe and Briseis get back to the coast and find safe passage home to Rhodes."
"It's a shame we didn't get another chance to talk." Solari sighed. "I liked those two."
"So did I." Xena smiled. "Oh well, now there's an excuse for an adventure in Rhodes. How did you get on with all the stolen goods Agradon had tucked away?"
"Gods, what a headache!" Ephiny slapped a hand across her eyes. "There was a lot that gave no clue where it came from, so the practical items we left with authorities in Dardania. The locals and the hospice can auction it off or just have the gold and silver melted down. Some of it was traceable, so we brought those items back with us while we send word to the towns and villages where Agradon stole it. The other bits and pieces left over I let our army have as spoils and souvenirs, stuff like weapons, shields and the like."
"Winter Solstice comes early to Amazonia!" Solari grinned. "Ephiny, did we lose anyone in battle? I was so wrapped up in getting this one home I didn't really notice." She waved a thumb in Xena's direction and shared an affectionate glance with her.
"Not one fighter, Sol!" Ephiny didn't hide her pride in the army. "A few cuts needing stitches, a lot of scratches and bruises and some pulled muscles. Areope took that arrow... just our warrior princess here almost caught an early boat to see Hades... almost." She slipped a hand into Xena's to find it was squeezed in return. "So come on Xena, are you gonna let me in on why you're not laid out ready for a funeral?"
Xena chuckled as they reached Solari's hut. "Ares healed me."
"Ares did what?" Ephiny let go of Xena's hand as her jaw dropped. "That egotistical bastard? He doesn't heal, he wrecks and destroys!"
Xena laughed at Ephiny's shock. "Nevertheless, that egotistical bastard saved my life!"
"Yeah, but for what price, Xena?"
"For once Ephiny, whatever 'price' there may be is only in Ares' head. He's not getting so much as my spit for what he's done and the rest of the Pantheon generally agrees!"
"The rest of the Pantheon...? Xena, can we back track a bit to where Solari left Dardania with you on a litter, half way to Hades' door? And don't spare any details, please."
While Ephiny stripped to the waist to wash and Solari built a small fire to produce some hot herb and berry tea, Xena sat at the main table and related what had happened over the past three days. Ephiny interjected occasionally with questions or gasps of surprise, intrigued by the unfolding account.
When Xena had brought Ephiny up to date the Regent shook her head and laughed. "By the gods Xena! When Gabrielle finally writes all this down, you do realise no one will believe it!" She laughed as she finished dressing and walked over to Xena. "And Ares actually healing someone... that has to be a first!"
"Probably." Xena raised an eyebrow.
Ephiny sat down next to Xena. "You do realise though, Gabrielle's not gonna be too happy with you being whipped in a couple of days."
"Probably not." Xena studied the table in front of her. "But it's right, Ephiny."
Solari brought hot mugs to the table and the three sat together enjoying the flavour and aroma of the tea as they continued to talk. Eventually, a royal guard knocked and entered, bringing news that Queen Gabrielle was less than a league from the village.
The Amazons waiting at the east gate made way as Ephiny, Solari and Xena passed through to the front. Gabrielle came into view, seated in a wagon and engrossed in conversation with Cyrene and Toris.
"This'll surprise my family." Xena whispered to Ephiny, who was waving happily to Gabrielle.
"We're about to greet Gabrielle in the formal way as our Queen, right? So who do you think Cyrene and Toris have ever seen me kneel to before?"
Ephiny chuckled. "Good point. This should be interesting."
As the wagon drew level with the gate, Gabrielle jumped down and came towards Xena and her friends. Each Amazon at the gate dropped to one knee, placed a fist over her heart and bowed her head.
Cyrene climbed down from the wagon to stand beside Gabrielle. "Well my dear, I've always believed what you told me about the Amazons, but I suppose it's actually only hit me now." Cyrene took Gabrielle's hand and bowed her head in a respectful gesture. "You really are their Queen."
Gabrielle squeezed Cyrene's hand. "And you are the mother of my... best friend. You've always been kind to me, Cyrene. I hope you will feel welcome here and always know that I am a friend to you, whatever my relationship with the Amazons may be. And I'm sure that's what Xena would want as well."
"Thank you, Gaberielle." Cyrene smiled warmly. "Speaking of my daughter, is she around?"
"Right here, mother." Xena's eyes had initially caught and held Gabrielle's gaze as she listened to her speaking to Cyrene, but now she looked towards her mother with a welcoming grin.
Cyrene glanced at the kneeling warrior princess and shook her head, leaning towards Gabrielle to whisper. "Now there's a skill I never knew Xena possessed! And I must say Gabrielle, you have her very well trained." Gabrielle burst out laughing and stepped forward to take Xena's hand, requesting all the Amazons to rise before pulling the warrior into an intense embrace.
The length and warmth of their greeting was not lost on Cyrene as she patiently waited for Xena and Gabrielle to part from each others arms. Then she took Xena's hands in her own, stood on tiptoe and kissed her cheek. "It's been such a long time, Xena. I've missed you at Amphipolis!"
Xena leaned over, pulling her mother into a hug. "I'm sorry I've not been back for quite some time." She held Cyrene at arms' length. "And I'm so sorry for the shock you got in the past day or two."
"Xena, you are my only daughter. I love you very much and I worry about you; probably more so these past few years since you stopped... Well anyway... that's in the past." Cyrene pressed a hand against Xena's cheek. "I've lived daily with the knowledge that I could receive news of your death in some battle or other, or by a warlord's assassin. You're a warrior Xena and an all too well known one. That's not the most placid of occupations."
"I know. But it's what I do." Xena smiled warmly. "At least it's for better causes these days."
Cyrene nodded. "Yes, thanks to you coming to your senses... and to Gabrielle for her persistent love and encouragement." She looked knowingly at her daughter and smiled gently before going on. "Gabrielle and her Amazon friends were hot on the trail of that young Amazon scout, so I wasn't left devastated and in mourning for too long." Cyrene and Xena continued to speak quietly while Gabrielle embraced Ephiny and shared words of welcome, promising to catch up on all the news very soon.
The warrior turned to gaze at eyes as blue as her own and hair just as black. "Toris, it really is good to see you again." Xena walked towards her brother and they enveloped each other in a fierce bear hug.
"I'm sorry we've been outta touch for such a long time, sis." The young man smiled apologetically.
"No one's to blame for that. Besides, we can catch up now, right?"
"I hope so."
"You can stay, Toris... can't you?"
He grinned sheepishly. "Try and stop me, Xena. It's just that..." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I feel kinda strange staying in a village of women, most of whom could probably outfight me!"
"Oh is that all?" Xena laughed out loud. "Consider it payback for all the times you bullied me as a child."
"Xena!" Toris was open-mouthed. "By the time you were ten, you bullied Lyceus and me!"
The two broke into giggles as they reminisced together about their childhood and shared memories of more innocent days in Amphipolis before Cortese and his army changed everything. They were pulled from their reverie by the voice of Solari announcing that, with the permission of their Queen, there would be feasting that night. They would thank the gods for the safe return of the army and their sister Prisca, along with celebrating Xena's healing and triumph over Ares, and anything else they damn well pleased.
"Anything else we damn well please?" Gabrielle tutted as Ephiny laughed. "As eloquent as ever, Solari."
"Well you know what I mean, Gabrielle." Solari shrugged her shoulders.
Gabrielle grinned and grabbed Solari's arm. "Of course I do and it sounds wonderful, but can we eat now? I'm starving!"
Xena and Ephiny exchanged a familiar smirk regarding the bottomless pit that was Gabrielle's appetite, as they watched everyone disburse from the east gate to return to duties or join one another for a midday meal.
The day progressed into afternoon and quarters were provided for Cyrene near the Queen's hut. After initial objections were overruled by Gabrielle, Toris was also granted quarters nearby. Soon after, Gabrielle took the opportunity to spend some time with Ephiny and Solari while Xena helped her mother settle into her accommodation.
"So, my little one..." Cyrene offered the same cockeyed grin so familiar on Xena's face. "Tell me what you and Gabrielle have been getting up to these past four seasons or so."
"Oh, you know mother... this and that. Surely Gabrielle told you plenty of news." Xena began to unpack a small chest of neatly folded clothes as she wondered just how much had been shared, despite Gabrielle's confirmation of saying nothing about their commitment as bond-mates; something Gabrielle thought should come from both of them. "We've helped a just cause here... had a battle there... a few adventures across the way..."
"Xena I am not stupid! Neither am I deaf to the news that reaches me at the tavern, nor blind to what I observe in front of me!" Cyrene cast a withering look at Xena, though a smile tugged at her lips. She watched her daughter drop the bodice she held and offer her full attention. "For these past seasons Xena, I have heard stories and rumours of battles, mortal injuries miraculously healed, villages saved from warlords, encounters with that awful Callisto woman, even your reported death and how you were brought back by Gabrielle, with a little help from that rogue Autolycus... and several valiant rescues that almost always involved Gabrielle..." Cyrene and Xena exchanged glances at the mention of Gabrielle's name. "Then in the middle of all this I hear the strangest report of a grandchild I didn't even know I had, a daughter of Gabrielle who turns out to be a demon and how it all ties in with you trying to murder Gabrielle!"
Xena dropped her gaze and whispered. "Did you ask Gabrielle about these things?"
"No Xena." Cyrene walked over to a chair by the hearth and sat down. "I'd like you to tell me what's been happening. To separate all the truth from the rumours and then explain to me how there could ever be so much as a hint of your hurting the one person in this world who owns your heart?"
Xena's stomach somersaulted. "And by this one person in the world, you mean...?"
"Gods! You make me old before my time!" Cyrene pointed to nearby chair. "Now then, sit down and tell me everything, including how settled you are in your mind about being the partner of an Amazon Queen!" Her voice softened and she smiled radiantly. "Xena, it's written all over your faces how much you mean to each other. I can see you're in love with Gabrielle... I've sensed as much from seeing you both at Amphipolis from time to time and from Gabrielle's letters now and then."
"She wrote to you?" Xena sat down, pulling her chair close to where her mother sat.
"Occasionally. Usually after some awful event, to reassure me you were both alive, before some stupid oaf made false claims over his ale mug about killing you."
"I didn't know Gabrielle wrote to you."
"Oh, I expect she didn't want you to feel obligated to visit. But don't mind that now Xena, tell me everything and then... let me give my blessing to my two daughters."
Xena reached out to embrace her mother and was tearful when she sat back in her chair. "I hoped you'd be pleased but I wasn't entirely certain you'd accept the circumstances mother, or be... content for us."
"Content? Content, Xena?" Cyrene's voice almost raised to a shout. "I am so happy to find that you have walked out of such darkness of the past and into the light of Gabrielle's reason and her wonderful love. And I realise she's devoted to you." She beamed at Xena. "My dear child, there is so much hurt and hatred in this world, how could I not be content that you have finally found in Gabrielle someone to love and to cherish, and be so loved and cherished in return?"
Xena and Cyrene sat in silence for a short time, soaking up the simple love and goodwill between them. Eventually Xena began to slowly relate all that had happened, sometimes with laughter, often with tears, but always with an honesty she felt her mother deserved. In return, Cyrene listened intently, hanging on every word, sharing Xena's laughter, holding her through the tears, but always encouraging her to continue. By the time Gabrielle knocked and entered with a tray of honey cake and some cider, Cyrene was trying to understand why her daughter was due to be whipped in a day or two.
"But the tribe appears so accepting of you, Xena. Not to mention the fact that you'll soon be an Amazon yourself and Gabrielle's consort!" The crash of Gabrielle's tray hitting the floor made everyone jump.
"Oh gods, I'm so sorry!" Gabrielle quickly picked it up again, everything remained in one piece and the cider was in a corked flask. She turned to Cyrene. "I didn't mean to make such a noisy entrance." Fumbling the tray to the table, she cast a dark glance towards Xena and mouthed 'you told her!' silently at the warrior.
Xena strode over to the table to help Gabrielle, whispering as she got there. "Gabrielle, I didn't tell mother... she just knew. Like everyone else around here!"
Cyrene stood up, guessing what Xena and Gabrielle were now hissing about. "Let's all share some of this wonderful-looking cake together, shall we?" She took Gabrielle's hand and led her over to the two chairs she and Xena had just vacated. "Xena, why don't you pour us all a mug of whatever Gabrielle's brought? Then we can properly toast your good news."
Too surprised to object, Gabrielle found herself led to a chair, seated and gazing into a gentle expression, while she listened to Cyrene speak of her joy for both of them. It took little time for Cyrene to convince Gabrielle all was well, that their imminent joining was indeed wonderful news and her only hope was that they'd both allow her to help choose appropriate wedding garments. After assuring Xena and Gabrielle of her blessing and her love, Cyrene sat with them at the table to share the refreshment Gabrielle had brought.
While they contentedly munched pieces of honey cake and savoured the cool cider, Cyrene raised the subject of Xena's punishment again. Gabrielle sympathised with her concern and began to explain why it was important under the law and for the sake of everything they held dear.
"So you approve of this punishment, Gabrielle?" Cyrene fixed the young woman with a steely gaze.
"I don't like it, Cyrene. I don't want to see Xena whipped. I don't want her to be harmed in any way on my behalf." Gabrielle sighed heavily. "However, I do accept the laws here and I believe in them... it would be inappropriate not to, in my position. Still, what matters to me most is what Xena wants." She looked for and held the warrior's eyes as she continued to address Cyrene. "Through our years of travelling together I've grown to accept Xena's code as a warrior. I haven't always understood it, the gods know I haven't always agreed with it! But I've come to accept it as something good and right... for Xena." She smiled affectionately at Xena, who readily returned the expression, then turned back to Cyrene. "Xena wants this punishment for what happened just as much as Amazon Law requires it."
"Mother, whatever love and friendship there may be between the Amazons here and myself..." Xena reached out and took Cyrene's hand. "However much acceptance there is for me because of my commitment to Gabrielle, as far as Amazon code and my code are concerned, I broke the law here and that's gotta be cleansed before I can make a life here. You can see that, can't you?" She searched her mother's eyes for the understanding she longed to find there.
Cyrene squeezed Xena's hand and sighed. "Yes, I can see that. However, don't expect me to agree with it."
The warrior smiled gently. "Do you remember when I first came back to Amphipolis so long ago and I tried to convince everyone in the tavern that I'd changed?"
"Don't remind me child! To my shame I didn't believe you and had no hesitation in letting our kinsman do whatever they wanted with you." Cyrene met Gabrielle's warm smile. "If that young, innocent Poteidaian there hadn't stepped in front of you and so cleverly talked them out of taking revenge and stoning you... I would have lost you to them."
"Well let's face it..." Xena sat back in her chair and picked up her cider mug. "Their sentiment wasn't exactly unjustified back then. They saw a warlord in front of them. More than that, they saw an Amphipolitan who'd made them stand and battle for the village years before, lose sons and fathers, then run out on them to... to grow bad! They all had cause to hate me."
"No, Xena!" Cyrene sat forward and leaned on the table. "No one had the right to blame you for their losses because our people chose to fight, rather than hide in the caves. You didn't make us do anything, you just encouraged us to do what was right."
"I convinced everyone not to run."
"We could have all ignored you and run anyway. Look... it wasn't you who killed our men when they stood and fought, anymore than it was you who killed Lyceus." Cyrene watched Xena's face cloud with sorrow for her brother and felt again the stabbing pain of her own loss. "Oh Xena... I have never, never blamed you for the death of Lyceus. It should be no different for our kinsman who lost loved ones to the swords of Cortese. Perhaps our village was justified to call for the blood of the Destroyer of Nations, but not for that, not for standing up for the village."
Xena nodded slowly. "Then maybe you can understand this situation in those terms, mother. Amazon Law doesn't have a problem with me, it has a problem with what's left of the warlord in me... just as I still do, sometimes. My actions that day, when I hurt Gabrielle and Ephiny, were under the shadow of Ares and I am happy for that to be purged and seen by the village to be punished."
"Alright Xena." Cyrene sat back in her chair and observed her daughter. "I can understand it... it still doesn't mean I agree with it." She turned to Gabrielle. "Are you prepared to watch Xena undergo this punishment?"
Gabrielle lowered her eyes. "I don't have a choice, Cyrene. I must oversee the sentence as Amazon Queen." She looked up again. "But there's no need for you to witness it."
"Actually mother, Gabrielle's right and I'd be happier knowing you'd gone for a walk by the river or something." Xena drained her cider mug. "It'd be easier..."
"Easier for who?" Cyrene cut Xena off in mid-sentence. "Xena I am not trudging along some riverbank while my daughter's being whipped!" She turned back to Gabrielle. "I want to be there... for both of you. Unless of course, you think me an interfering hen?"
Gabrielle clasped Cyrene's hand. "Never! Nor will you ever be. If you're sure you want to be there, no one will prevent you." She watched Xena's eyebrow ascend into her hairline, heralding a verbal objection. "I don't doubt where Xena gets her stubbornness, though." She threw Xena a look of such devotion, the warrior's words died on her lips before she could form them. Content that the mood was lightening, Gabrielle stood. "I'd love to stay here longer, but unfortunately I'm supposed to meet with the Council to set trial dates for Agradon's men and send appropriate invites out to certain towns and villages."
"I'll see you back at our quarters to prepare for the feast tonight, won't I?" Xena rose from her chair as her mother picked up the tray from the table and took it over to the doorway to be taken away later. "There's one or two things I need to share with you."
"Oh,...? Yes, Xena. I don't really want to get too bogged down in the politics of all this. I think Lysidice has it all in order anyway and Ephiny will know exactly what to do." Gabrielle grinned at the warrior and made sure Cyrene was not looking in their direction. "There's one or two things I really need to share with you too!" She didn't wait for the warrior's response before wishing a brief farewell to Cyrene and exiting the hut. It was left to Cyrene to question the broad grin all over her daughter's face when she turned round, only to be waved away by a steadily blushing warrior.
"So how'd it go this afternoon?" Xena undid one of her boots and dropped it by the table where she sat.
"Oh, really well." Gabrielle came out of her bathing chamber carrying drying sheets for the two of them. "The water's hot and ready for us, by the way."
"Great." Xena smiled in reply.
"The whole thing was much more interesting than I expected it to be." Gabrielle knelt by Xena and removed her other boot as the warrior trailed her fingers through Gabrielle's hair. "Ephiny explained how the Dardainian authorities took charge of those soldiers who'd committed atrocities at the hospice, after survivors were able to identify faces or distinctive clothing of the attackers."
Xena closed her eyes. "When's the trial set for Agradon's Generals?" She was enjoying the gentle touch from Gabrielle as she removed the warrior's grieves, bracers and armbands.
"Two moons from now. Scrolls were sent out today, to various neighbouring authorities, inviting them to attend the trial here for the Generals and a couple of other senior soldiers Ephiny brought back. The rest of the soldiers were allowed to go home, as long as there was no evidence they'd done anything worse than fight for Agradon."
"What about Agradon's body?"
Gabrielle was now standing behind Xena, resting her chin on the warrior's shoulder. "Ephiny said they burned all the bodies, though she's brought back Agradon's ring and sword as proof of his death. She's got them stored safe and sound, along with the chalice of Zeus too."
Xena groaned loudly. "I for one will be glad to see the back of that cup, as soon as Artemis lets us know where to take it." She gently pulled Gabrielle round to the front of her and began to untie her top, reminding herself to tell Gabrielle soon about discovering what Artemis' white arrow was for... but not just yet. "How long d'ya think that water'll stay hot for us?"
Gabrielle smiled and drew in a slow breath as Xena dropped the unlaced top and cupped her breasts. "I'd be more than happy to take a lukewarm bath a little later."
"Oh, I'm very glad to hear that." Xena craned her neck to kiss one of Gabrielle's breasts and take the hardening nipple into her mouth, gently sucking and nuzzling.
"Gods, I've missed your touch, Xena." Gabrielle sat back against the table and cradled Xena's head against her.
"That makes two of us then. I've missed touching you." Xena smiled as she raised her head to find Gabrielle's lips and claim them tenderly. Standing up, she eased Gabrielle down onto the table, sweeping a couple of scrolls out of the way and onto the floor.
"Hey, my scrolls!" Gabrielle broke the kiss to complain about Xena's treatment of her property.
"Want me to stop and pick them up for you?" Xena dropped her voice a tone.
Gabrielle laughed. "I guess not..." She brushed Xena's hair back from where it had tumbled forward. "They can wait. This is far more important!"
Xena brought a hand to Gabrielle's face, stroking her cheek softly. "I love you so much, Gabrielle..."
Gabrielle heard the tremor in Xena's voice and was tempted to ask if anything was wrong, but for now her growing desire had the upper hand and she decided to ask later. "I love you too, Xena... with all my heart. And for the time we have here, I want you to take me... right now!"
Xena swallowed hard, excited by Gabrielle's blatant request and didn't need to be asked twice. She lifted Gabrielle further up the table, but a knock at the door halted the hand she had begun to move beneath Gabrielle's skirt. "Hera's tits!" She cursed under her breath.
"Not now!" Gabrielle unleashed her irritation at the door. "Go away! We're... I'm very busy!" Moments later, she bit her lip and stifled a giggle as the muffled but easily recognisable voice of Solari could be heard outside the door.
"I said this was a bad idea, Eph! This is the first chance they've had to be alone!" A moment of silence was followed by an outburst from the Amazon. "No I'm not! If you wanna interrupt them be my guest, but I'm not getting a chakram down my throat for anyone!"
Peace settled as Xena and Gabrielle pulled faces at each other and strained to hear what was going on outside. Finally, Ephiny's voice was heard addressing a royal guard. "See that no one disturbs the Queen for... make it at least two candle marks."
They listened to the sound of footsteps moving away and then brought their lips together in a searing kiss, grateful to their friends for ensuring a short time free from disturbance. Xena reached beneath Gabrielle's skirt once more and gently ran her knuckles across her britches, stroking her mound and teasing her inner thighs.
Gabrielle sighed at the touch, but soon decided that the barrier of material between her increasing arousal and Xena's fingers had to go. "Off... Xena take them off!" Her heel found purchase against Xena's chair and she raised her hips off the table.
Xena's heartbeat quickened from the look of longing on Gabrielle's face and the growing wetness beneath her fingers. While she continued to caress Gabrielle's face and shoulders with one hand, the other deftly removed the small britches and dropped them by the table to join her boots. Bringing her hand back to trail through Gabrielle's soft wet heat, Xena thrilled at the shiver running through her lover as she parted her coral lips with her fingers and moved her thumb across her swollen clitoris.
Gabrielle gasped in pleasure from the contact and the sensation of cool air against her sex as Xena began rhythmically stroking her. She fixed her hungry gaze on equally hungry blue eyes and reached up to place her hands either side of the warrior's head. "I love you." Without waiting for a reply, she pulled Xena down towards her, tenderly kissing her eyes and cheeks then capturing her lips more urgently. "But I meant what I said." Her breathing was becoming rapid. "I want you badly, please... just take me!"
The lust in Gabrielle's expression took Xena's breath away, and she knew she could only give into her demand. She leaned quickly forward to kiss Gabrielle then slid down to her beloved's hips, agile fingers removing her belt and skirt easily. Slipping her left hand under Gabrielle's thigh and beneath her buttock for support, her right hand slowly entered Gabrielle with two then three fingers. Once her steady thrusts matched Gabrielle's rocking and deep moans, Xena bent her head to take Gabrielle's clitoris gently between her teeth, toying and flicking with her tongue.
It wasn't long before Gabrielle frantically clutched either side of the table and soared into an explosive climax. "Oh Gods. Xena... yes, yeeesss!" She screamed her release before slowing her rocking and easing down into warm satisfaction and a serene smile. "My love... That was... perfect."
Xena brought her attentions to a gradual halt and slid softly up Gabrielle's slender belly, wiping her honeyed chin against Gabrielle's midriff on the way before resting her head against Gabrielle's shoulder and smiling into her hair. "Now I really feel like I'm home... and alive."
Gabrielle breathed in, long and deep, turning to face Xena. "Bet I can make you feel more alive!"
Xena lifted her head and grinned. "I'd say that's a pretty certain bet!" She slipped off her own britches and left them where she stood, thankful she decided not to bother with her armour that day. Climbing onto the table, she straddled Gabrielle's hips and leaned over with her hands either side of Gabrielle's shoulders.
Gabrielle combed her fingers through Xena's raven locks. "This won't do, you know."
"Huh?" Xena looked puzzled.
Gabrielle grinned mischievously. "Your leathers..."
"What about my leathers?" Xena lowered her voice and raised an eyebrow.
Xena made no movement.
"Now!" Gabrielle tried to sound authoritative but failed miserably as she broke into giggles. "That's an order, warrior!"
"Is it now?" Xena rested a hand against Gabrielle's ribs, threatening to tickle but having no intention beyond wanting her own satisfaction and longing to pleasure Gabrielle again.
"Xena, if you don't get naked this instant, I'll..."
"You'll what?" Xena lowered herself just enough to kiss the tip of Gabrielle's nose.
"I'll... I'll..." Gabrielle breathed in sharply and looked up triumphantly. "I'll teach you all the words to that nursery song and make you sing it publicly!"
"You mean that lamby thing of Poteidaia song?" Xena wrinkled her nose.
Xena stifled a grin. "Gabrielle, that's worse than being whipped!"
"These are Queen's orders, I suppose?" Xena sighed.
"Absolutely, Xena. Couldn't be any other way."
Xena tutted and raised herself up on her knees. "This is cruel and entirely unnecessary!" She scowled, before smiling broadly and lifting her leathers up and over her head in one graceful movement. "Guess you get your way, though. Better now...?"
Gabrielle traced her fingers from Xena's hips, over her stomach and across her breasts to her shoulders. "Lots better!"
Xena leaned forward again to capture Gabrielle's lips and ran her tongue against her love's teeth, demanding entry. She was not denied and the kiss deepened as Xena pressed her upper body into Gabrielle, all the while supporting her weight rather than make her lover uncomfortable.
Gabrielle felt her way down Xena's ribs and stomach, raking her fingers through rich dark curls. Without breaking her passionate exploration of Xena's mouth, she began to kneed the firm inner thighs straddling her and enjoyed the sound of Xena's quickening breath as she briefly stroked the length of her opening and sensitive nub. Rather than remain with the treasure now unfolding to her touch, Gabrielle continued to circle from thigh to mound and back again, teasing and causing Xena to circle her hips as she tried to maintain contact with Gabrielle's hand where she most needed it.
"Gabrielle, are you trying to drive me to Hades and back?" Xena grunted into Gabrielle's shoulder. "Because you're doing a great job if you are!"
"Ask me, Xena." Gabrielle whispered into the warrior's ear.
"Ask you?" Xena began to wonder if she'd ever experienced a worse or more delicious torture. "What? You want me to beg?"
"No, my warrior princess." With her free hand, Gabrielle cupped Xena's chin so they were eye to eye. "But I want to hear you ask me." Her soft voice and gentle touch continuing to draw out Xena's desire, which was her intention.
Xena gritted her teeth and turned her head away. "You're driving me crazy!"
"Ask me." Gabrielle's lips were close enough to tickle Xena's ear.
"Oh, gods!" Xena dropped her forehead onto Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Ask me, Xena." Gabrielle ran her tongue along the edge of Xena's ear.
Xena gasped and raised her head. "Take me, Gabrielle! Please... make love to me!"
Gabrielle smiled to herself before drawing Xena's face closer and kissing her deeply. She finally pressed fingers into the warrior's centre to circle its welcoming walls, while the heel of her hand ground against her clitoris. It was Gabrielle's turn to gasp as she felt her hand and wrist become drenched in Xena's essence, while she found and matched the rhythm of Xena's rocking. She slipped her left arm around the warrior's back to steady her as she bucked against Gabrielle's hand, climaxing hard and fast.
"Gabrielle! Gods... don't stop!" Xena's eyes closed as she rode out the exquisite spasms coursing through her, slowing only as Gabrielle slowed her thrusts against Xena's contracting muscles.
Gabrielle gently but quickly switched hands and renewed her caresses along Xena's sensitised clitoris and deeper.
Xena grunted quietly into Gabrielle's neck and hair. "Gabrielle... that... oh, that feels good." She raised herself up on her knees and rested one hand against Gabrielle's stomach, as she moved against the rekindled heat once more. Sensing herself beginning to climax more powerfully than before, Xena brought her other hand up to her mouth to stifle her cries.
Gabrielle knocked Xena's hand away and clasped it. "No you don't! I don't care who else can hear you... but I certainly want to!"
With no way to muffle the energy crashing through her, Xena threw her head back and yelled to the rafters. "Gabrielle! Uhh my gods, Gab... Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle was gripped with excitement to hear her name cried so loudly as Xena again rode though the waves of sensation and emotion that Gabrielle had conjured from deep within her. After several more moments that felt like eternities, Xena fell forward, exhausted.
Gabrielle realised she was now pinned to the table and unable to move, but it seemed a small sacrifice for the wonder of holding Xena in such a relaxed and contented state. She closed her eyes and wallowed in the peace of it for a time.
Eventually, Gabrielle tapped Xena's shoulder. "Xena...?" You've not fallen asleep there, have you?" She traced lazy patterns across the warrior's back.
"No my love." Xena turned her head to breathe in the aroma of Gabrielle's hair. "I'm just contemplating what's gonna happen when I stand up to find my legs don't work anymore. I think you've completely sapped their strength!"
Gabrielle chuckled and dug Xena in the ribs. "I never thought I'd ever come close to sapping anything of your strength."
"Ah, well there you go... Gabrielle, you're an amazing woman and an incredible lover." Xena smiled into Gabrielle's neck.
"I have a skilful teacher, remember? Then again it's also the wonder of a good bard, Xena." Gabrielle grinned.
"Then my love, you are an excellent bard!"
Gabrielle rubbed Xena's shoulder. "C'mon, let's get washed and dressed, ready for the feast tonight. I think I've worked up a real appetite!"
Xena refrained from commenting on Gabrielle's eating abilities. "Let's not." She mumbled. "Let's stay here instead and just eat, sleep and make love for the next couple of days." She opened one eye and grinned at Gabrielle.
"That's more tempting than you know." Gabrielle ran her hands through Xena's hair. "But I think the Queen and her future consort would be missed from this particular feast."
"I know, I'm kidding really." Xena got up reluctantly and vaulted off the table.
Gabrielle rolled onto her side and propped her head on her hand. "They seem to work okay, then?" She pointed at Xena's legs.
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Praises be and all hail Apollo!" Xena laughed and reached under Gabrielle to gather her up into her arms and head for the bathing chamber.
The two had every intention to wash quickly and dress to visit Toris before going on to the feast. Conceding that the way to Hades was probably paved with good intentions, Gabrielle gave in to Xena's replenished energies and attentions, making love with her until the bath water had grown tepid. The sun was setting rapidly by the time they sat with mugs of tea and combed each other's hair while they talked. Xena revealed to Gabrielle what she'd learned about the white arrow and together they happily discussed when they should share the wonderful discovery with Ephiny and the Amazon priestess. Finally, they decided to speak with Ephiny first and work out with her when would be the right time to reveal this returned blessing to the priestess and the rest of the tribe.
"Gabrielle, there's something else I want to tell you."
Gabrielle quietly studied Xena's face and recognised the expression that usually preceded emotional and serious topics. A combination of themes the warrior did not enjoy discussing. "What is it, Xena."
"Before the battle... before we reached the Calydonis forest, I talked with Ephiny about a few things."
"Things?" Gabrielle leaned on the table.
"Unresolved things, Gabrielle. At least..." Xena drew her chair closer to where Gabrielle sat. "Things I couldn't forgive myself for, for a long time... concerning you."
Gabrielle nodded slowly and took Xena's hand. "You mean what happened in Britannia, don't you?"
Xena nodded, taking a deep breath and sighing heavily. "I've always believed that if I'd just reached you sooner, or if I hadn't left you with Krafster in the first place, I could've prevented what happened to you." Xena brought Gabrielle's hand to her lips, kissing the knuckles and resting her forehead there. "I should have been there for you Gabrielle, I wasn't and you were... hurt. Violated." She closed her eyes briefly. "Until now, I blamed myself for the whole thing and couldn't forgive myself for letting you down so badly." She looked up to see only a familiar loving concern on Gabrielle's face and whispered to her. "I'm so sorry I couldn't stop it, Gabrielle."
"I know." Gabrielle stoked the side of Xena's face tenderly. "But I stopped blaming you a long time ago for what happened at Dahok's temple. You know that, Xena."
"Yeah, I know. I just couldn't convince myself that it wasn't my fault."
"But Ephiny did?"
"Sort of." Xena looked up. "Ephiny kept on reminding me that I'm not immortal." She smiled at Gabrielle's puzzled look. "I can't be in two places at once and I'm not capable of using my sword to run through some evil entity when it's not solid."
"Oh, right." Gabrielle smiled briefly. "So... can you forgive yourself now and accept that you weren't to blame? Accept that maybe, even if I hadn't stayed with Krafster, Dahok might have singled me out somewhere else anyway?"
Xena took both of Gabrielle's hands into her own. "I can accept your forgiveness, which means I have to forgive myself, I know that now. I realise that to refuse, is to deny a part of your love in my life and I can't do that anymore, Gabrielle. I won't do it anymore."
Gabrielle moved closer and kissed Xena's cheek. "Apart from learning how we feel about each other... or you not dying, again!" She chuckled. "Or hearing about your mother's happiness for us, that's the best news I've heard in a long time, Xena." She smiled softly. "Just one thing, though..."
"Would you explain to me how you can reach this decision about Britannia and let it go... granted, after a year of beating yourself up about it all the time. But you can't do the same for the time you made me ride through the countryside minus the horse and saddle?"
"Oh, that." Xena looked down.
"Yes that, Xena. I don't see a great deal of difference, where you torturing yourself is concerned."
Xena sat upright. "There are plenty of differences, Gabrielle!"
"Okay, you were there both times and I happened to get hurt both times... you tell me how they're different... apart from the fact you can accept forgiveness for one, but you're determined to be flogged for the other! "
"Well, for one thing, Dahok's temple doesn't fall under Amazon jurisdiction." Xena allowed herself the tiniest of smiles. "And I'm getting whipped, not flogged."
Gabrielle sat back and folded her arms. "Are you being serious?"
"Actually, thinking about it... yeah. Yes, I am being serious." Xena reached out and drew Gabrielle back again. "At Dahok's temple I was too late to stop what happened. Here at the village, I was right on time to wreak havoc! There, I fought and killed a minion of Dahok. Here, I attacked and injured Ephiny. I tried so hard to fight the darkness and evil in that horrible place and to get you out of there, Gabrielle. But here... here, the only darkness and evil was what was in my heart and on my mind. There, I battled with a demon. Here, I hurt a good and noble people and I hurt you... you, my Queen and my heart, the most precious thing on this earth to me."
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hands and whispered. "Oh... those differences." She leaned over and hugged the warrior tenderly. "I still... I still see him from time to time, Xena."
Xena frowned. "See who?"
Xena closed her eyes and held Gabrielle tighter. "In your dreams?" She felt her heartbeat increase as her concern grew.
"Sometimes in my dreams, yes. Other times I see a vision of him in a fire if I watch the flames."
Xena kissed Gabrielle's temple and slowly held her out at arm's length. "We'll fight those visions together now. Okay? Promise me you'll tell me when it happens again."
Gabrielle looked long and hard at the wide-eyed honesty in Xena's face. "I promise." She moved back into Xena's arms to hug her ferociously. "You are a remarkable woman, Xena. And I will never regret the day you walked into Poteidaia." She sat back. "And it's you who gives me the strength to be the Queen here, you do realise that, don't you?"
"Gabrielle, you have your own strength. But maybe I add to it just a little bit." She raised her hand, bringing thumb and forefinger close together for emphasis, as she grinned affectionately. "Come on, it's dark out there now and everyone'll start wondering where we are."
"I doubt Ephiny and Solari will be wondering." Gabrielle laughed as she headed for the door. "I reckon they'll have a very good idea what's kept us."
Xena reached Gabrielle's side and wrapped a reassuring arm around her waist. They stepped out of the hut and into the warm night air, greeting the royal guard and slowly made their way through the village. Nearing the well in the village centre, they were met by the sound of hammers against wood, followed by the sight of two Amazons evidently completing some kind of structure. A vertical beam had been sunk into the earth and secured, with a second beam running horizontally across the top. Leather ties had been attached at either end of the crosspiece.
Gabrielle breathed in sharply and suddenly felt cold as she recognised the newly built whipping-post for what it was and gripped Xena's hand tightly. "Someone's been a bit quick off the mark with this!" She nodded towards the construction. "Why wasn't I informed?"
Concluded in Part 6.
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