~ It Never Rains, But It Pours ~
by Red Raven
Disclaimers: Please see Part 1.
Gabrielle continued to stare at the newly built whipping post.
"It had to go up sometime, my love." Xena sensed Gabrielle's discomfort and tightened an arm around her waist.
The two Amazons erecting the structure turned at the sound of voices and immediately bowed their heads to their Queen.
"Oenus." In the torchlight, Gabrielle recognised one of the Amazons as the blacksmith.
"Who ordered the whipping post to be built so soon?" Gabrielle maintained an even tone, despite her growing annoyance.
The blacksmith walked over. "Regent Ephiny and our Crone Tethys, my Queen." She acknowledged Xena with a nod. "Gabrielle, may I speak openly?"
Gabrielle relaxed slightly and found her smile for the Amazon. "Of course you can."
"I believe Ephiny and Solari tried to see you this afternoon, to let you know this was being prepared." Oenus gestured in the direction of the whipping post. "Unfortunately, you were in council with Xena and couldn't be disturbed."
"In council! Oh, I love that one..." Only Gabrielle heard Xena snicker.
"Stop it, Xena!" Gabrielle whispered, elbowing the warrior. She turned back to the blacksmith trying not to laugh. "Of course... please go on."
"Well, Ephiny and Tethys said that the post needed to be built for the day after tomorrow and, with the celebrations tonight, they thought it might as well be constructed this evening so no one has to listen to hammers tomorrow if they're, uh... hung-over."
Gabrielle couldn't help but chuckle as she turned to Xena. "Now, why does that sound like Solari had a hand in this?"
"I gather that the post is for..." Oenus faltered, evidently embarrassed as she looked from Xena to Gabrielle and back to the warrior again. "Xena, this isn't really meant for you is it?"
"Yeah, it's all mine, Oenus."
"But I don't understand, my friend."
Gabrielle answered. "It's to meet the requirements of our laws, Oenus. You know, the ones that teach us how we can't go around beating up Amazon Queens or their Regents."
Oenus smiled sincerely, appreciating Gabrielle's attempt to make light of the awkward situation. "Oh I realise that, your highness. I just thought... Well, I..." She glanced back at Xena. "Look, there doesn't have to be such a painful punishment! In all honesty, I'm surprised our Council chose this over a couple of days in the sweat hut or hunting for the village or thirty days imprisonment or... or... something else, anyway!"
"Don't be surprised, my friend." Xena was touched by the blacksmith's concern. "And please don't find fault with your Council. They wanted a sentence along just those lines you've mentioned. This was my decision and my request."
Oenus opened her mouth to say something, but could only shake her head in disbelief. She looked to her sister Amazon, who could only shrug and shake her own head in reply to the blacksmith's unasked question.
"You see, Oenus..." Gabrielle walked over to the wooden structure. "This is what happens when Amazon laws and ethics come up against warrior codes and morals." She tugged at the leather ties. "A warrior's honour is unfortunately a force of nature to be endured! We can't stop it, we can't get round it and we certainly can't go through it. All we can do is deal with it in the best way we can when it hits us with all its might!" She turned back and grinned at Xena.
"Are you calling me stubborn?" Xena stood with hands on hips while the two Amazons politely covered their grins.
"Could be... Yeah, that's the word!"
"Uh, if you'll excuse us..." Oenus spoke up. "We've finished here, so we'll head off to the celebrations."
"Oh, yes of course. Have a wonderful time." Gabrielle walked back to Xena's side. "Say hello to Timalcus and Iphitus for me."
The two Amazons bowed to Gabrielle and then walked off towards the west end of the village, from where the glow of a huge fire could be seen. Xena and Gabrielle wrapped an arm around each other and watched the women go before returning their attention to the whipping post.
Xena tilted her head and kissed Gabrielle's temple. "Do you really think I'm stubborn?"
"It's one of your finer points." Gabrielle lifted her gaze to Xena and smirked. "Seriously though... I think you're just determined to do what you believe is right and I know you well enough to realise we have to stand back on this one and let you go through with it." She felt Xena hug her closer in a gesture of thanks. "I'll never accept that you should be whipped, Xena. But I do accept that it's what you need for peace of mind and for the sake of honour between you and the Amazon Nation." She stepped away from the warrior and placed a hand on Xena's arm. "But I swear, once this is all over, I will alter our laws to allow a place for Queen's clemency. I want to be able to overrule whatever might be an unjust sentence in the future, whether it's the Council or some stubborn warrior who's responsible." She sensed Xena about to bring an objection and placed a finger lightly against the warrior's lips. "I don't mean every sentence or ruling, I'm subject to Amazon Law as much as anyone else, not above it. But in some things Xena, there should be a place for mitigation and forgiveness, not only punishment and retribution... and if the Queen can't step in and do good by overruling a harsh sentence from time to time, who can!"
Xena kissed the fingertip resting against her lips. She was struck by the passion with which Gabrielle spoke, recognising that her mind was set on doing exactly as she intended. "I think this tribe has inherited their very own force of nature in you." She stroked Gabrielle's face and smiled. "Just be careful what you take on, concerning traditions and laws that have remained unchanged for generations, okay?"
"I know I need to be sensitive Xena, and I know there's nothing wrong with the traditions and laws that give Amazon tribes their identity. But I will do this. I have to." Gabrielle smiled and began to walk away.
Xena moved to Gabrielle's side again and the two walked off towards the growing sounds of laughter and drumbeats from the celebrations now well under way. As they reached the crowds and headed for the table where Ephiny sat with Solari, cheers began to ripple through the entire gathering. By the time Xena and Gabrielle reached their seats, everyone appeared to be standing, applauding and cheering for their Queen and the simple joy of feasting together as a complete tribe again.
"Speak to them, Gabrielle!" Ephiny called over the exuberant crowds, grinning and clapping with them.
"What do I say?" Gabrielle laughed.
"C'mon, Gabrielle, you're a bard!" Solari shouted across Ephiny's shoulder.
"She's right. If you can't play this crowd, well..." Ephiny placed a hand on Gabrielle's arm and pointed to the empty chair next to her. "Jump up there and encourage your people!"
"Doesn't look like they need much encouragement." Xena commented dryly, taking Gabrielle's hand to steady her as she clambered onto the chair.
Gabrielle looked across the sea of faces and felt her heart swell with pride and affection. She gestured for quiet, and as the cheering died down, she noticed that Toris appeared to be missing. She could see Cyrene with Eponin and Coronis, sitting the other side of the table, and in the firelight she could make out the group consisting of Tethys and her nieces, along with Gelanor and Calus. Sitting near them was the scout Pasiphae, and her bond-mate Polymela. Gabrielle smiled when her eye caught Timalcus and Iphitus, both determined to be the last to finish applauding. Toris however, was nowhere in sight, either with his mother or any of the Amazons.
Gabrielle turned quickly to Xena. "Where's your brother?"
Xena craned her neck to scan the crowds. "I've no idea." She shrugged.
Gabrielle addressed everyone as the final cheers faded away. "Amazons, my friends and sisters, we all have so much to celebrate tonight..." She looked lovingly at Xena. "So much to be thankful for." Turning back to the crowds, she continued. "You bless me with your warmth and you honour me with your welcome. I feel privileged to celebrate with you our army's victory over the warlord Agradon and to share with you in thanking the gods for the return of all our warriors. We have had Prisca restored to us..." Gabrielle gestured to where the young Amazon sat and allowed for a renewed burst of cheering to rise and settle. "And for Xena, my beloved... my warrior..." She glanced down for a moment, allowing herself to collect her thoughts. "Solari, you brought her back so swiftly from the battlefield with the help of some of our sisters, for which I thank you. Pyras..." Gabrielle looked for and found the healer at one of the tables and addressed her. "You and your apprentice were kind and efficient, though you knew your efforts would not be rewarded by natural means. My heartfelt thanks will remain with you always, as they do for taking good care of Areope and our other fighters. As for Xena, the gods countered the Fates, so we didn't lose her to Charon's ferry after all! And with a little luck, we may have finally escaped the clutches of Ares!" Another spontaneous burst of cheering broke out and Gabrielle waited for it to fade. "So my friends, please rejoice with me tonight as I rejoice with you. Savour the fun and lift your cups to the gods and one another in good cheer. I think we all deserve it!" Gabrielle jumped down from her chair to thunderous applause and seated herself. Eventually, several voices lifted above the crowds with various toasts to Artemis and Athena, the Thessalian tribe, their army, Queen Gabrielle and Xena, Regent Ephiny, Solari, and all Amazons everywhere. One salute was even given for Pyras and her apprentice, causing the healer to fidget where she sat and to grumble about 'fuss and nonsense'.
Gabrielle leaned across the table to speak to Cyrene. "I can't see Toris. Where is he?"
Cyrene appeared uncomfortable. "I'm so sorry..." She looked up to find she had the full attention of both Gabrielle and Xena, along with their closest friends at the table. "I mentioned to Toris that you had some good news to share with him and suggested that he should see you both." She shook her head sadly.
"So what happened, mother?" Xena leaned closer.
"Well, perhaps I was too enthusiastic, but he guessed the news concerned your commitment to each other and..." Cyrene sighed heavily and seemed to border on tears. "Oh Xena, I thought your brother would be happy for you, but he was just upset and angry! He stormed off about two candle marks ago and I haven't seen him since."
Xena stood abruptly, causing her chair to fall over. "Why would he react so badly? Surely he's not being spiteful because we're bond-mates rather than husband and wife?"
"No Xena!" Cyrene looked up at her daughter. "I've never known Toris to act badly or say anything against any kind of committed relationship, be it married or bonded, Amazon, Outlander or even Centaur and human partners, which I know many people are intolerant towards!" She didn't see Ephiny smile sadly and nod at the comment.
Gabrielle reached out and clasped Xena's hand, afraid that the warrior might charge off to look for her brother. She turned back to Cyrene. "Do you have any idea where he might have gone?"
Cyrene shook her head. "I'm sorry, I don't know."
Coronis raised her voice. "My Queen... if I may speak?" Gabrielle smiled warmly and nodded to the Amazon. "I saw him head for the river, Gabrielle. I had no idea he was upset. If I'd known, I..."
"It's alright." Xena smiled briefly at Coronis. "It's no one's responsibility, but mine. I'll find him!" She spun round to leave the table but was held back by a sharp tug from Gabrielle.
"Wait, Xena!" Gabrielle looked up at the warrior.
"Wait for what? I need to speak to Toris!"
"Xena, let me speak to him." Gabrielle stood up. "Please, my love? If Toris is still angry and you're angry at him for being angry, how much talking do you think the two of you will get through together without arguing or fighting?"
Xena thought for a moment. "Alright you go, but take your royal guard with you."
"Like I have a choice?" Gabrielle smiled disarmingly.
"And I won't be that far behind you." Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand. "Okay?"
"Okay, fine." Gabrielle pointed a finger at the warrior. "Just promise me you won't run in like a pack of hounds after a deer!"
Xena grinned, despite herself. "I promise." She watched Gabrielle leave the table and head for the west gate, her royal guard picking up the pace and staying close behind their Queen. Bending, Xena retrieved her toppled chair and sat down again, leaning over to Ephiny. "I'll give her a quarter candle mark, then I'm following." She caught Solari's frown; the Amazon warrior didn't need to speak to convey her thoughts regarding their recent conversation about Gabrielle. Xena raised her eyes skyward. "Alright, half a candle mark! So you're my conscience now, Sol?"
"Have I missed something here?" Ephiny looked from Xena, who now sat like a cat on a rock too hot from the sun, to Solari, grinning like the Greek mask of comedy.
Solari feigned wide-eyed innocence. "Nothing, Ephiny. Nothing at all." She leaned forward to whisper against Ephiny's shoulder. "I'll tell you later."
"I can hear you, Solari!" Xena picked up a piece of pheasant from one of the platters now being laid on the table and refilled her port mug from a nearby flask. "I'm not sitting round here for longer than I have to while Gabrielle's dealing with the bad behaviour of my own brother!"
"No one's saying you should, Xena." Solari leaned forward to address the warrior. "Just give Gabrielle a chance to calm him down and find out what got him climbing outta his tree in the first place!"
"Perhaps I should have gone after him." Cyrene selected a piece of fish and some bread, nodding a thank you to the Amazon server who placed a fresh wineskin on the table. "I didn't realise he was going to walk away from the village."
"No mother, it's okay." Xena resisted the temptation to impale her pheasant with her dagger out of impatience. "I'll sort him out."
"Xena." Ephiny leaned forward on an elbow and reached for a piece of venison. "At the risk of getting your dagger embedded in my own plate..." She watched Xena grin and lay the knife down. "Gabrielle's more likely to settle your brother's anger than any of us round this table. She's not quite as firey as the rest of us ... no offence, Cyrene." The Amazon glanced apologetically across the table.
"None taken, my dear." Cyrene smiled as she separated the bones from the fish on her plate.
Ephiny turned back to Xena. "Give her a little time, okay? Nothing's gonna be said that Gabrielle won't have an answer for, and if there's a slim chance of Toris getting over-heated at her... well, the guards are there and they won't let anything happen to her."
Xena blew out a heavy breath. "Alright. I'll wait. I'll eat my meal and I'll drink my port... and I'll even engage in a little Amazon chit-chat." She leaned back in her chair. "But then I'm going to the river to find Gabrielle... and talk to my brother." The warrior looked at the faces around the table. "Anyone wanna argue me down?"
A few moments of silence passed, before Ephiny turned to Xena and smiled. "Guess not."
"Good! I'm glad that's settled." Xena hid her satisfied smirk behind her mug as she raised it to her lips.
Amazons and Outlander guests at the celebrations feasted and drank to one another's health. More than a handful of voices called for a story and were only quietened by promises from Ephiny and Xena that Gabrielle would tell them a story upon her return. Xena was relieved that Gabrielle was absent when Tethys stood to confirm the warrior's sentence before the entire tribe and hear her public acceptance of the impending punishment. Ephiny's presence was enough to ensure correct procedures and Xena was secretly glad Gabrielle didn't have to listen to it. She also suspected that the Crone herself had purposely picked that moment to spare Gabrielle further upset over the issue.
Unaware of what was happening at the village, Gabrielle had reached the river's edge and saw Toris standing by some large rocks, silhouetted by the moonlight. He was casually tossing pebbles one by one into the water and was too deep in thought to notice Gabrielle approach.
"Wait here for me." Gabrielle whispered to her Amazon protectors. "If I need you, I'll shout." She waited for them to nod their acceptance and then made her way slowly to Toris. Once close enough to be heard above the noise of the water, Gabrielle spoke quietly. "We're missing you at the celebrations."
Toris turned his head in the direction of the voice. "Oh, it's you." He turned back to the river and continued throwing pebbles into the lapping water.
Gabrielle watched Toris for a few moments before stepping nearer.
"I shouldn't come any closer, Gabrielle. How do you know that assaulting Amazon Queens doesn't run in the family?" He threw another pebble, harder than the last.
The words slapped Gabrielle, but she gave no indication of their effect. "I didn't realise Xena had told you about that."
"She didn't. Mother did." He flung the final pebble hard and fast into the night sky and turned round to face Gabrielle. "She told me what happened, just as she told me how lovey-dovey you've become with each other lately." He laughed, tonelessly. "Cyrene actually thought I'd be happy for you and my dear sister."
Gabrielle was taken aback by his evident disapproval. "Toris, I saw the way you and Xena greeted each other. You love each other very much and obviously missed one another. You were glad to be together again. As for you and I, we talked and joked all the way here from Amphipolis. We shared stories and made each other laugh. I thought we'd become friends! Why are you being like this, now that you know Xena and I are together?"
"Friends... right." Toris kicked the earth at his feet, ignoring Gabrielle's question. "Yeah, I thought we had become friends too. But I had hoped..." He sighed heavily. "Gabrielle, you were married once, weren't you? Oh, what was his...? Perdicus, wasn't it?"
Gabrielle was unsure where this conversation was going. "Perdicus, that's right." She whispered, biting back the urge to tell Toris that her past was none of his business.
"I'm sorry. I heard he died, but I..." He trailed off. "And Xena had boyfriends at the village! Then there was Borias. She was with him for a long time. I heard about someone else, too... Marcus, Xena even went to the underworld to see him!"
"What's your point, Toris?" Gabrielle felt a dull, cold sensation in the pit of her stomach.
"What's my point? Gabrielle, my point is that I don't get it!" He lifted his hands to the skies as if imploring the gods for an answer. "You've both had men in your lives. You should still have men in your lives! Xena should be with some great warrior who can match her in combat and give her the children she ought be a mother to! Someone to ride with and carry on protecting the innocent and seeing off warlords!" He stepped nearer. "And you should have some good man in your life that you can be proud of, maybe a writer or a poet, someone who'd make a good consort at your side here... or even take you away from the Amazon village altogether!"
Gabrielle was not sure whether to laugh out loud or ask her Amazon guards to throw Toris in the stockade. "You don't think Xena and I should be together?"
"No, I don't!"
"Because we're both women, or because I'm not a great warrior and Xena's not a poet?"
"Because... Because it's wrong, that's all! This isn't how it's supposed to happen!"
"All wrong, Toris?" Xena stepped out of the shadows where she had been catching her breath after running at speed all the way from the celebrations. "Not the way it's supposed to happen? What would you prefer then... that Gabrielle and I disappear to join one of Sappho's poetry retreats on an island, far away from the mainland?" The guards were pleased to see Xena, but annoyed at themselves for being unaware of her approach.
"No, that's not what I meant!" Even in the moonlight Toris was clearly reddening from frustration. "I'm happy for partners to find love and commitment with each other... whoever they may be and where ever they are! I just thought that... Well, I'd hoped I could be the one who..." He slumped to the ground. "Oh, what's the use! It hardly matters now, anyway."
Xena started to move closer to her brother, but Gabrielle raised a hand to stop her. "It does matter, Toris. Please tell us what's going on." She sat down beside him. "This doesn't make any sense."
Toris laughed and shook his head. "Well at least we both have good taste, Xena... and I."
He lifted his gaze to meet Gabrielle eye to eye. "I guess I thought your gestures of friendship were more than they actually were."
"Oh gods..." Gabrielle placed a hand over her mouth, suddenly understanding what Toris meant. "I didn't realise you felt like that." She looked up at Xena to find the warrior looking at the stars and slowly shaking her head.
"Well I do." Toris lowered his eyes and studied his boots for a moment. "Since your letters began to arrive from time to time and mother let me read them..." He looked back at Gabrielle and smiled briefly. "They were so vibrant, so full of life and love of that life! The stories you told about what you and Xena shared across the land were exciting. I always... I remembered you fondly from that first time we met on the road, and I felt I really got to know you from your letters." Toris cleared his throat and went on. "I realised you were very special, Gabrielle, and the other times we met at Amphipolis just confirmed to me that you'd make a wonderful wife. I promised myself that when I met you again I'd ask you to come back to Amphipolis with me. I knew mother already cared about you and I thought Xena would be glad if you became part of the family." He sighed and stood up, smacking the dust off his breeches. "Then again, I should have realised Xena might want you for herself. When we were children Xena often won what I wanted or could get what I set my heart on. Why should it be any different now we're adults?"
"I don't believe this!" Xena grabbed her brother's shoulder and spun him round to face her. "Toris, if you could just hear yourself, it's all 'I...' and 'me...' Don'tcha think Gabrielle has a say, concerning where her life goes, what she does or who she loves? On top of that, I can't believe you're equating this with the clashes we had as kids over a few toys! You're actually jealous Toris... You're coveting a person you know nothing about and assuming she'll walk down whatever path you decide to take!"
Gabrielle stood quietly, listening to the altercation, too surprised to say anything.
"I thought Gabrielle liked me! Okay, maybe I mistook friendship for something else, Xena. But if you weren't with Gabrielle all the damn time I might have had the opportunity to win her heart anyway!" Toris was becoming angry again. "You probably swayed her with your impressive ways as a warrior and didn't give her a chance see anyone but you on your travels! You never let me keep anything as a kid, Xena. You still don't!" He wildly swung a fist at Xena's jaw, but the blow was anticipated and she dodged it easily, backhanding her brother squarely across his back and causing him to fall, still off-balance from his attempt to strike her.
"We are not going to do this!" Xena stood over Toris and offered her hand but he smacked it away, casting a bitter look at her. "Fine. You can cool off or stay angry, but you're my brother and I love you." Xena pointed a finger at him. "I'm not gonna rise to your taunts or insults, because Gabrielle and I both know they're not true. And try to remember that you can't keep what was never yours in the first place. I can't imagine where, in Hades' name ya got the idea Gabrielle was yours to keep anyway; you've only met two or three times!" Xena drew in a deep breath and exhaled loudly. "Look Toris, if you can learn accept Gabrielle as your sister and friend, and be happy for what she and I share together, then that'll be wonderful. If not... well, it's your problem and you're just gonna have to do some serious growing up!" She stepped away.
Gabrielle leaned over and held her hand out to Toris. "Will you hit my hand away too?" She smiled warmly.
Toris was silent for a few moments before he begrudgingly accepted Gabrielle's hand and rose to his feet. "Please don't say anything to me, Gabrielle. I know I have no real claim on you... or on Xena for that matter. Perhaps she's right. Maybe I'm being selfish... maybe not. For what it's worth though, I still think I could give you a good life, and a happy life."
Gabrielle smiled. "I'm flattered Toris, I really am. But Xena will always own my heart. She always has, and just for the record, I gave it gladly. I wasn't swayed by her impressive ways as a warrior, as you put it." She glanced up at Xena to find her blushing at the open confession to her brother. "Will you stay for our joining? We'd like you to be there."
"I don't know." Toris dropped his gaze to the ground before addressing Gabrielle again. "I guess I can't see further than my own dreams just now. I even... I even imagined our children and Xena's children playing together." He turned to walk away and noticed Xena watching him. "I'm sorry I hit you Xena... or tried to. Just give me a little time, okay? Let me have a little time, both of you." Xena responded with a single nod and Toris began to trudge upstream.
Xena walked over to Gabrielle. "I'm sorry if he upset you. I'm amazed he's being so selfish."
"He didn't upset me, really." Gabrielle took Xena's hand. "Whether it's selfish or not, it must hurt to find the feelings you have for someone are unrequited, however misplaced those feelings might be."
"I think you're being too kind to him."
"Oh c'mon!" Gabrielle looked up to find Xena watching her intently. "Where would we be if one of us didn't feel as deeply? Or if one of us had never made the first move?"
"I'd rather not even think about that. Besides, it's irrelevant now." Xena leaned forward to kiss Gabrielle slowly and deeply, drawing her into an intense embrace. As they parted, Xena cupped Gabrielle's chin in her palm. "And what Toris said about my needing a great warrior to match me in combat...? He was absolutely right, but he missed the fact that you're exactly that. You're a great warrior of peace Gabrielle, and I'm happy to yield to that, my love."
Gabrielle laughed affectionately. "Did you hear all our conversation?"
"Pretty much, I think."
"You followed me too soon!"
"Naah, you just walk too slowly."
"Well, thanks for not jumping in straight away.
"Had to catch my breath first, I ran all the way ya know."
"Ah Xena, guess that's a sign of age huh? Need to stop and recover, these days?" Gabrielle grinned.
Xena's eyebrow lifted under her fringe. "Is that what you reckon? I'm getting past it?" In a lightening move, Xena swept Gabrielle off her feet and began pacing slowly towards the river's edge. "Would you care to recant on that last remark... my Queen?"
"Xena, this really isn't the time or place you know." She began to giggle. "Guards! Aren't you supposed to protect me from brutes like this?" She waved a hand frantically. "Help your Queen!"
Xena swung round to the guards with her burden dangling in her arms. "Do you really wanna intervene? I mean, you could end up getting your clothes and weapons sopping wet... and you know how long it can take to dry ya boots!"
The guards looked bemusedly at Xena, Gabrielle and each other, then shrugged and stood casually.
"Oh that's just great!" Gabrielle laughed. "Now I have to deal with a mutiny!"
Xena offered a wry grin. "Strictly speaking, you have to be onboard a ship to have a mutiny."
Gabrielle clapped both hands over her eyes. "Oh gods! Someone stole my ship too? I can't take anymore!" She clasped her hands together and thrust them out, imploring dramatically. "Cast me into the river and drown me! End my suffering, I beg you! I plead with you!"
Xena chuckled and dropped Gabrielle onto her feet. "Alright, I give in. Stick to writing Gabrielle, you'll never make it as an actor." She sniffed the air around them. "Yeah, definitely ham!"
They indulged in light-hearted horseplay a while longer, allowing the tension from the confrontation with Toris to drain away, but they soon realised they would be missed at the celebrations and started back to the village. On the way, Gabrielle confessed she wasn't looking forward to hearing Tethys or Lysidice publicly confirm Xena's fate for the day after next. She was grateful when Xena related that it had already taken place and further discussion about it was unnecessary that evening.
"Oh well, thank the gods for a small mercy." Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand and turned round to speak to the royal guard. "Have either of you eaten tonight?"
"Not yet, my Queen." One of them answered. "But we hand over our duty soon, so we'll join the celebrations then."
"Good, make sure you do." Gabrielle let go of the warrior's hand and slipped her arm round Xena's waist. "I haven't eaten either and I'm starving! I came to look for Toris before having anything. I hope there's still some left when we get back."
"I doubt there's anything to worry about, my love." Xana grinned. "The table was practically groaning from the fare after you left. Besides, you know you're the cook's favourite, there's bound to be one or two things put away just for you."
"I don't think it's me who's Dictynnas' favourite, Xena." Gabrielle cast the warrior a saucy grin.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Our wonderful cook has a huge crush on you Xena, and you know it!"
"I... You... You're seeing things!" Xena studied the path they were walking. "She's just being... friendly." She looked back at Gabrielle. "And she blushes a lot 'cos she's shy."
"Shy? Oh Xena! Shy, my..."
"Okay, okay... but Dictynnas only blushes when you speak to her!" Gabrielle began a slow run, with Xena and the royal guard picking up the pace. "D'ya think she made some nut-bread for me?"
"Don't ask me! You'll just have to wait and see."
"Right. Race ya!" Gabrielle shot off like a released arrow, with Xena in pursuit, though purposely not running at speed. Following Xena, the Amazon guards ran, keeping pace with the warrior.
Gabrielle slowed to a walk as she entered the village gate, allowing her breathing and heart rate to calm down. Xena and the guard joined her moments later and the four made their way back to the feasting area, returning to their seats. Platters were passed along the table to Gabrielle as she and Xena explained to their friends what had happened, Gabrielle happily helping herself to a small grouse, along with a ladle of sweet corn and peppers as she spoke. Xena was too engrossed in conversation with her mother and Eponin to notice the burly, kind-faced Amazon, about her own age, who came up to stand quietly at Gabrielle's side, hardly taking her eyes away from the warrior princess.
Ephiny and Gabrielle exchanged grins as the Regent coughed loudly to gain both Xena's and the cook's attention. "Gabrielle, Dictynnas is here to see you." Ephiny smiled at the Amazon cook, who bowed nervously to her and to Gabrielle.
"Hello, Dictynnas." Gabrielle looked up. "You and your team have surpassed yourselves tonight and completely spoilt us!" She glanced across at Xena. "Hasn't she, Xena!"
"Huh? Oh right, yeah." Xena managed to climb out from her port mug and find a weak smile. "Food's wonderful, Dictynnas. Thank you." She glared briefly at Solari, who was leaning on the table with a hand clamped over her mouth, stifling an enormous grin.
The cook was oblivious to all but the comments from Gabrielle and, more particularly, from Xena. "Do you really think so? Thank you so much." She beamed. "Oh, I musn't forget my manners." She politely bowed again to Gabrielle and then leaned over to place a small wooden platter between Gabrielle and Xena, briefly resting her hand against the warrior's bracer. "This is for you and Xena, my Queen." She bowed again and turned to go.
Gabrielle breathed in the aroma and smiled happily. "Oh, it's nut-bread!" She caught the cook's wrist. "Please don't go yet." She tore a piece from the small loaf and broke the piece in half, reaching up to put one half in Xena's mouth. "Be nice." She whispered to the warrior as she popped the other half in her own mouth.
Xena gazed sardonically at Gabrielle as she savoured the flavour, conceding to herself that the morsel was excellent. She took a deep breath, looked up at Dictynnas and smiled sincerely. "This really is good. You're very kind to make it just for us."
"Freshly made for this evening." The cook's face was bordering on scarlet as she thanked Xena for her appreciation, before excusing herself. "Well, I'd better go. I have a few pots on the fires, still. Have a happy evening, Queen Gabrielle."
"I hope you do too, once you stop working so hard."
"Xena." Dictynnas bowed to Xena and Gabrielle, then to Ephiny, as Xena lifted her mug in salute to the cook. Then the cook turned on her heel and returned to the area that held three large clay ovens and several fire pits.
Ephiny laughed. "Do you think she really noticed the rest of us were here?"
Eponin smiled as she joined in. "I doubt it very much... but it's hard to believe that's the same woman you can hear barking orders left, right and centre most days at meal times."
"What are you two going on about?" Xena leaned back in her chair and addressed her friends.
Gabrielle closed her eyes as she finished another mouthful of the sweet, lightly spiced bread and sighed contentedly. "It's fairly obvious Dictynnas is very... fond of you." She turned to Xena, picking up the conversation.
"Okay, supposing you're right. What am I meant to do about it?" Xena brought her port mug down to the table with a thud. "Tie her up and stockade her if she causes trouble?"
"I shouldn't if I were you, Xena. Dictynnas is the best cook we've had... at least, in my lifetime!" Ephiny reached across the table for some fruit and cheese. "One thing you can be sure of... She's not gonna cause anyone any trouble. So she's a little caught up in a dream over you. At the end of the day, there are others with just the same thoughts and feelings, they just don't show it all over their faces. Still, Dictynnas is as committed to Gabrielle and looking after the tribe as anyone else. She wouldn't seriously think about coming between you two. She'll get over it; wait and see."
"Part of it is that dark warrior in you." Gabrielle grinned affectionately. "The mystery and fascination that the 'good' warrior princess came out of someone... very different. Plenty of people know you by reputation and bard recitation only, Xena. It paints a pretty awesome picture at times!"
"Yeah, until we get to know ya." Solari lifted her mug towards Xena.
"Thanks a lot, Sol!" Xena offered a brief grimace in response to the comment. "I think you may have hit the nail on the head, though. If I took away that mystery and fascination for our cook, maybe she'd forget about me and I won't feel quite so embarrassed when she's around, trying to be so nice. She might even find a good bond-mate!"
Gabrielle chuckled. "I can't believe that's both of us tonight, trying to deal with other people's feelings for us."
"I think my brother's feelings for you are a bit more serious than our cook's crush on me, Gabrielle."
"Perhaps. So, what are you gonna do about Dictynnas?"
"Well, in actual fact... I have absolutely no idea!"
Two days later, as the afternoon lost its midday heat, Xena strolled into the stables to make a fuss of Argo. She fed and watered the mare and then sat nearby, cleaning and polishing her tack as the horse munched oats contentedly.
"So how'd you like it here, girl? Hope you're getting on with the other horses and not giving them any trouble?" Xena worked on her saddle.
Argo shook her mane and whinnied, raking at the straw with a hoof as if taking offence at the merest suggestion that she'd cause trouble.
Xena grinned to herself and then looked up at her horse. "Argo, I'm gonna apologise in advance, because you won't see me for a couple of days after today. I'll be flat out for a little while." Concentrating on what she was saying, for once Xena didn't hear Gabrielle step softly into the stable and lean against the stable door. "Ya see girl, I did something bad here a while back... something much worse than most of the stuff I used to get up to with my army." She sighed and stood up, walked over to Argo and stroked the mare's ears and mane. "I hurt Gabrielle and some of my friends here, you see..." Argo nickered in response. "But you were there! You know all this, don'tcha girl."
Gabrielle smiled gently as she listened to Xena converse with the war-horse, far more a confidant to the warrior princess than most on two legs.
Xena continued. "The stupid thing is, if I'd just had the sense to stay on you at the time, I probably never would've hurt Gabrielle so badly! I was only able to drag her outta the village because I grabbed that other horse." Xena dropped her gaze and shook her head. "Oh Argo, I hurt her, girl. How could I do that? I cut her and bruised her and broke her sweet body..." She trailed off and nuzzled against Argo's neck as she sniffed back the tears threatening to surface.
Gabrielle placed a hand over her mouth and controlled her breathing silently. She wanted to grab Xena and hug her tight, tell her it didn't matter anymore, but she quietly accepted this time was for the warrior and her beloved mount.
"You would've never me let do what I did, would you, Argo? Then again, I wasn't me at the time. I wasn't acting right..." Xena reached down to pick up a grooming brush and began to run it across the horse's back and down her withers. "You wouldn't have taken a single step forward if I'd tied Gabrielle to the back of you, would ya?" Argo blew a hot breath through her nostrils and jerked her head back, almost seeming to answer with an imperative 'no!' "See! I know you and Gabrielle have had your ups-and-downs, but I know you're crazy about each other really. Don't think I haven't seen Gabrielle giving you a sneaky apple when she thinks I'm not looking, or spending half a dinar on carrots just for you from time to time!" Gabrielle stifled a grin and Argo swung her head round to nudge Xena. "Huh! You're not so clever, either of you... Think I don't see you letting Gabrielle stroke you and talk to you? I know you're friends and I know you care about each other." She stopped brushing and stepped in front of the horse, laying a gentle hand on the mare's nose and running her palm up to greet Argo's forelock. "Anyway girl, I've accepted that I need to be punished for what happened, so in a little while I'm gonna be whipped." Argo stamped a hoof and nickered loudly. "No girl, I don't want you to worry. It'll be fine and I'll see ya in a few days like I said." Argo snorted and took a small step forward, lifting her head over the warrior's shoulder. Xena responded by embracing the strong neck and for a few moments warrior and war-horse shared the simple friendship forged between human and doting animal.
Gabrielle felt as if she were intruding and stepped out of the stable as silently as she had entered. She looked along the village pathway to see Ephiny, Solari, and three guards making their way towards the stables. Raising her hand in greeting, Gabrielle then turned back to the stables and put her head round the door. "Xena?"
The warrior looked round from where she stood, stroking the mare's ears and patting her neck. "It's time?"
"Yes my love... it's time."
Xena turned back to Argo. "Now, behave yourself and be nice to the young Amazons who brush you and take you out for exercise." She slapped the mare's flank as she stepped away. "See ya soon, girl." She strode outside the stable and stood by Gabrielle.
Ephiny approached, with Solari at her shoulder and the three guards following.
Gabrielle slipped her hand into Xena's and squeezed. "I love you, Xena."
"Aren't you supposed to be wearing your masks for this, Ephiny?" Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand in return.
"Under usual circumstances Xena, we probably would. But there's nothing very usual about this sentence is there, my friend?" Ephiny smiled warmly. "We might as well get this over and done with. Then we can concentrate on being a good tribe under a great Queen and an equally great, but stubborn, General and consort." She winked at Xena.
Gabrielle nodded to her Regent and reached up to Xena's shoulder, pulling her down to kiss her cheek. "We're ready." She stepped away from Xena and allowed two of the guards to move either side of the warrior. Gabrielle joined Ephiny and they began to walk at an easy pace towards the village centre. The guards, with Xena between them, followed, and Solari and the remaining guard brought up the rear.
At the well, and the area surrounding the whipping post, the atmosphere could be cut with a dagger. Despite being filled with Amazons , no sound could be heard except the breeze rustling through the trees and an occasional creak of leather. Even the birds appeared quiet, out of respect for the solemn event now taking place. Ephiny led her friends near to the whipping post and turned towards the place where Tethys was standing, representing the Council.
The Crone lifted her hand and voice towards the crowds. "Let it be known before the gods this day, that for crimes against Queen Gabrielle, Queen's Regent Ephiny and against the Amazon Nation, Xena of Amphipolis is to face the whip. Be it heard and known, that this action today cleanses the way between all Thessalian Amazons..." Tethys looked over to meet Xena eye to eye. "And the warrior princess, for all time. After this day, Xena will be clean from any past offence against this tribe and will be regarded as our true sister and friend." She gave a small smile, closed her eyes and bowed her head briefly to Xena. Then she nodded to the guards and one of them asked Xena to move to the whipping post, which she complied with, without hesitation.
Ephiny laid a gentle hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and guided her to stand next to Eponin, there as head of the Royal Guard, and near to where the entire Amazon Council gathered. Only when she began to move did Gabrielle realise she needed Ephiny to steer her; her feet felt like lead and a block of ice had settled in her stomach.
Solari came over to Xena and rested a hand on her back. "Do you need a hand, Xena?" She felt the slightest tremble from the warrior.
Xena laughed quietly. "Oh Solari, I'm glad it's you. Look at me! The battles I've come up against in my time... The impossible odds I've faced, without so much as missing my stride... A whip's nothing compared to some of those things and yet I'm shaking now!"
Solari knew that tactile gestures of friendship weren't generally permitted during punishment procedures. Ever content to break what she regarded as a stupid rule, Solari wrapped an arm around Xena's shoulders and hugged her close. "Well it's pretty obvious why. This is gonna strip away the past, Xena, not just your back! Where you go from here is up to you, based on your life with Gabrielle and us... And like Tethys said, you'll do it clean after this."
Xena nodded thoughtfully, took a couple of deep breaths and steadied herself. "Okay, let's get it done!" She reached up and undid her shoulder straps.
Solari stood behind the warrior and helped to lower her leathers down to her waist. Had the circumstances been different, Xena might have smiled at the soft gasps of admiration from various Amazons as her well-defined back and shoulders came into view, and her firm breasts were revealed. She stretched out her arms and leaned into the chest-high crosspiece, reaching her wrists to the leather ties. Solari tied loose knots, more to give Xena support to hold onto rather than to prevent the unlikely event of the warrior stepping away and leaving.
The Amazon clasped Xena's shoulder when she had finished. "D'ya need a piece of leather or wood to bite on, Xena?"
"Not for this, Sol."
"Okay, I'll drop by later tonight and sneak you in a good flask of port." Solari leaned closer to Xena's ear. "I'm damned sure Pyras will have my guts for bow strings if she finds out, but I couldn't give a whistle in Tartarus!" The Amazon turned to leave.
"Solari!" Xena called her back.
"Are you gonna take up the whip for me, my friend?"
Solari groaned. "That's what Ephiny asked me last night!"
"What did you tell her?" Xena couldn't help the small grin that broke across her lips.
"Same as I'm telling you now. That I'd rather have my throat slit than lift a whip against you!"
Before Xena could argue the point, Solari backed away and returned to Ephiny's side, grateful that the warrior could not follow her. "All set?"
"Just about." Ephiny turned to Solari. "But I've a feeling this is not going to plan." She nodded towards Tethys, where she and Lysidice, two other Council members and a handful of guards had their heads together, locked in conversation. "I don't think anyone's volunteered to carry out Xena's punishment."
Gabrielle had spotted Cyrene at the front of the crowds, standing with Oenus, and had been sharing unspoken support and brave smiles with her, but she looked up when she heard Ephiny's comment. "What's wrong, Ephiny?"
"I'm not sure." Ephiny turned to Gabrielle. "But I have a nagging feeling they haven't..." She was cut off in mid-sentence by Lysidice speaking to the crowds.
"Amazons! Sisters!" The Crone called. "We seem to have a difficult situation here. No one has volunteered to carry out the sentence as requested two nights ago." She turned to Gabrielle and Ephiny, bowing briefly. "We shall wait a further one quarter of a candle mark for an Amazon to step forward for this task. If by the end of that time there remains no volunteer, Queen Gabrielle will order someone to the whip, in accordance with our laws."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped and she spun round to face Ephiny. "Tell me I just misheard that! They can't make me do that, can they?"
"I'm sorry Gabrielle, that is the law." Ephiny rested a hand on Gabrielle's arm. "If no one comes forward to whip Xena, you have to choose an Amazon to do it."
"But I can't do that! Is this what normally happens with physical punishment? The Queen ends up forcing someone to do what they may not have the heart or stomach for?"
"Actually Gabrielle, normally there's no shortage of volunteers to punish someone for a crime, but this... gods Gabrielle, this is so different."
Gabrielle dropped her gaze and nodded. "Could you do it, Eph?"
Ephiny sighed. "If you order me to, Gabrielle... If you order me as my Queen, I will do it, yes." She waited for Gabrielle to look at her again and smiled sadly. "Frankly though, I'd rather you just ordered me to cut off my sword hand. That probably goes for Solari too."
Solari had been listening and mumbled under her breath. "Damned right!"
Gabrielle stood with Ephiny and Solari in silence, longing to hear a hesitant voice accept the task in hand. Eventually, time began running out and Gabrielle turned to her friends. "I can't just order someone to do something I'm not prepared to do!" Gabrielle bit her bottom lip, suddenly deep in thought as she recognised the quarter candle mark had all but ended. "But I can't let Xena down either." She watched Lysidice turn to Tethys and agree with her that the allowed time had indeed elapsed, but before either Crone could raise her voice again, Gabrielle walked purposefully over to them. "Wait!"
Tethys and Lysidice turned to Gabrielle and bowed respectfully. Ephiny and Solari exchanged glances and continued to watch with interest, each fearing that Gabrielle was about to name one of them as the candidate to whip Xena.
"My Queen?" Tethys spoke. "Do you have someone in mind to take up the whip?"
Gabrielle shook inside, but was determined to be strong and confident before her people. "Yes, I do." She spoke loudly enough for the crowds to hear. "Just give me a moment." She marched across to the whipping post, walking round to the back of it so she was face to face with Xena. Here, she could see the coiled whip hanging from the centre of the crosspiece.
Xena raised her head and looked quizzically at Gabrielle. "What's happening? Don't tell me there really isn't anyone to carry this out."
"Not exactly, Xena."
"So you're gonna order an Amazon to do it? I almost thought you wouldn't be able to."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No, I'm not, Xena. I can't! If no one's come forward, I'm not going to make them!"
"Then how in Hades...?" Xena trailed off as she met Gabrielle's intense stare. She regarded the woman she loved for a time and eventually smiled gently. "You sure about this?"
"I know it has to be done, Xena." Gabrielle snatched up the whip from where it hung. "If Amazon Law makes this my responsibility now... well then, it's my responsibility, right?"
Xena closed her eyes and took a deep breath before opening them again. "I love you, Gabrielle. And I'm very proud of you."
"I love you too." Gabrielle leaned in and kissed the warrior's lips tenderly. "I'll see you soon, yeah?"
"I'm not going anywhere." Xena grinned, then became serious once more. "Remember what I taught you... shoulder locked and wrist loose, okay?"
"Okay, I do remember, Xena." Gabrielle shook her head at the bizarre nature of the conversation. She walked away from the whipping post and rejoined the two Crones.
"Gabrielle... highness." Lysidice addressed her Queen. "It isn't the custom for an Amazon Queen to take up the whip herself."
"Is it against our laws?" Gabrielle asked, as she gauged the weight and grip of the weapon.
"No, it isn't against our laws." Lysidice conceded.
Gabrielle looked up at her and smiled briefly. "Good."
"But it is highly irregular." Tethys raised an eyebrow.
Gabrielle squared up to the Crone and lowered her voice. "As far as I am concerned Tethys, this whole situation is highly irregular! And I hope to the gods I never have to witness another soul whipped on my account!" She turned to the crowds. "My friends and my sisters! I am not your Queen to order you beyond your duties as Amazons. My heart is for this tribe and its laws, but I am torn because of my love for Xena. In truth, there can be no true laws where there is no love, but neither can there be love where it is not safeguarded by laws. What I do here today is because I believe in both." She turned back to Tethys, now standing with hands on hips, a sense of admiration growing for her young Queen. "Three crimes, Tethys?"
"Three crimes, your highness."
"How many strokes?"
"The full quota for each crime Gabrielle, is one hundred lashes."
Gabrielle swallowed painfully. "I didn't realise it would be so many... I..." She closed her eyes and shook her head. "I can't give Xena three hundred lashes! That many could kill her!"
"The minimum number of strokes required for each crime is thirty-nine, my Queen." Tethys smiled warmly.
"Oh, thank the gods!" Gabrielle looked up at the Crone again. "Thirty-nine lashes... It's still too many... but it's better. You didn't just make that up, did you Tethys?"
"No Gabrielle, I didn't just make that up."
"Alright then. I think I can deal with that..." Gabrielle stepped forward a few paces and lined herself up with Xena's outstretched frame. "...I just hope Xena can." She whispered to herself as she made sure her forward stroke would reach the warrior and her backward stroke would injure no one. She breathed in slowly and calmed her heart then lifted her head and her voice. "For the offence against the Amazon Nation, thirty-nine strokes!" Pulling her arm back, Gabrielle threw her weight forward in a fluid motion, following through with her shoulder, arm and the whip. The leather cord cracked against Xena's shoulders, but while the warrior's face registered the harsh kiss of the weapon, she made no sound. Gabrielle pulled back the whip and repeated her forward action, swinging the whip to lash Xena just below her shoulder blades. Again, the warrior made no sound. The two red welts were rapidly joined by a third, fourth and fifth as Gabrielle continued with the whipping, taking care to aim correctly and hit her target with each stroke. By the time she completed the first thirty-nine strokes Gabrielle could feel a thin sheen of perspiration breaking out on her chest, arms and shoulders, and her breathing had quickened from the exertion. Xena's back was striped from the lashes, yet little more than a grunt had been heard from her and Gabrielle was relieved to see that, so far, she was hardly bleeding.
Gabrielle shook the whip out behind her. "For the offence against Queen's Regent Ephiny, thirty-nine strokes!" She repeated the lashes, adding further stripes across Xena's back and shoulders. Ephiny watched, in awe of Gabrielle's control of the situation, but understanding acutely her young Queen's sense of being torn between loyalty for Amazon Law and love for Xena. The Amazon lowered her eyes and cursed her decision not to wear her mask, wishing she could at least hide her face.
The thirty-seventh, eighth and ninth strokes hit their mark and tears sprang to Gabrielle's eyes from the sight of Xena's right shoulder, middle and lower back now torn and bleeding freely where lacerations had criss-crossed. She took another deep breath to steady herself and called out a final time. "For the offence against Queen Gabrielle..." She hesitated, wanting so much to shout 'paid in full!' but knowing she couldn't. "Thirty-nine strokes!" She quickly ran her left hand across her eyes to wipe away her tears so that she could see clearly what she was doing, then unleashed the whip again for the third and final set of strokes.
By the tenth stroke, pain began to mingle with the sweat on Xena's face, observed by those standing behind the whipping post. Gabrielle didn't need to see her beloved's face to know she was starting to hurt. The warrior had begun to cry out and was white knuckled as she gripped the leather ties. Gabrielle ached from the whipping action and felt that each slice to Xena's back from the weapon was a gash to her own heart. She was grateful when the last crack from the whip sounded and the final cry of pain was pulled from Xena.
The sentence completed, Gabrielle stood still, breathing heavily. For a few moments she stared at the tethered, bleeding shape of Xena, the warrior's shoulders trembling involuntarily, partially from the pain and partially from the tension in her arms. Slowly, Gabrielle coiled the whip into three loose loops and gazed at Xena's blood now covering her hands, passed on from the whip. She looked over to Eponin. "Could I have your dagger, please?"
Eponin advanced quickly, pulling her dagger from her belt and offering the hilt to her Queen.
"Thank you." Gabrielle walked over to Xena and from here looked for Pyras in the crowds. She gestured for the healer to approach then quickly cut the ties at Xena's wrists and helped her slump to her knees. Once Pyras was kneeling behind Xena and tending to her, Gabrielle addressed the crowds. "Honoured Council! Amazons! My friends! The offences of the warrior princess are paid in full!" She looked at the whip, still in her hands, and slipped the dagger under the coils, cutting the weapon into pieces. Handing the whip to Eponin, she spoke quietly. "Burn the whip for me, Eponin. I never want to see it again, okay?" Eponin nodded as she silently took the pieces of whip from Gabrielle, along with her returned dagger, and Gabrielle turned back to Xena, kneeling down to be level with her.
Pyras didn't hesitate to unroll a length of cloth she had been holding. It was double-layered and stitched together with a central layer of salve made from healing leaves and plants. She placed this over Xena's back and shoulders, then called for her apprentice, who walked quickly over with a bucket of water from the well and a length of clean calico. Pyas soaked this second cloth and applied it over the first one. "Will sting this will, Xena." Pyras mumbled, matter-of-factly.
"Agh! No kidding!" Xena flinched as the water seeped through the cloths and salve and into her open wounds. She grabbed Gabrielle's hand and rested her forehead against Gabrielle's shoulder. The sound of Xena's voice seemed to draw the crowds out of their silent surprise from witnessing their Queen's remarkable actions and the warrior's forbearance under the whip.
Cyrene walked quietly over to kneel by Xena and Gabrielle, taking her daughter's free hand and clasping it tightly. "I promise I'm not going to interfere or fuss over you!" She smiled warmly. "But I'm glad that was something I don't have to see every day."
Xena squeezed her mother's hand. "I'm glad you're here."
Gabrielle stroked Xena's face with the back of her hand, not wanting to smear the warrior's face with the grime and blood on her hand. "Is it a stupid question to ask how you feel?"
Xena lifted her head and grinned. "Sore... ow!" She turned her head to glare over her shoulder at Pyras.
"Keep still while I do this, Xena!" Pyras barked.
The warrior looked back at Gabrielle and raised her eyes to the sky. "As I was saying... Sore, but happy."
"Happy?" Cyrene frowned.
"Happy, yeah. Released in a kinda strange way. My debt's paid and that feels good." Xena looked from Gabrielle to her mother and back again. "The real question is, how do you feel? She gently ran a hand down Gabrielle's face. "What you did today was brave Gabrielle, the actions of a good and wise Queen."
"I don't feel very brave, Xena." Gabrielle held her hands out and looked at her palms. "I certainly don't feel wise... and I never thought I'd ever have your blood on my hands like this." She watched her palms disappear as Xena's hands covered them.
"Gabrielle, listen to me. If my blood is on your hands it's because you've helped to heal my wounds from the past... Can you understand that?" Xena watched a frown form on Gabrielle's face. "Just like Pyras is... ugh! Son of a hydra!" She grimaced and closed her eyes for a moment. "Just like Pyras is helping - though I use that term loosely - with my wounds today, you've cleansed and healed the deeper wounds of four seasons ago."
Gabrielle looked up earnestly. "I do understand what you're saying Xena. I'm glad that's what you think and I'm glad I didn't order any Amazon to do this, I just... Xena, for now, I just don't feel very good about what I've done to you here." Xena responded with a simple, tender kiss to Gabrielle's forehead.
Pyras stood up, rinsed her hands in the bucket of water and emptied the remaining water onto the ground. "Xena can go to quarters now." She looked at Gabrielle and smiled before addressing her patient. "Can you walk, warrior?"
"I should think so. Wasn't my legs that got whipped!"
Pyras grunted at Xena's sarcasm. "Maybe tongue should have felt whip!" She retorted.
Xena and Gabrielle both burst out laughing from the healer's comment, though Xena immediately regretted it and cursed the pain that hammered through the muscles in her back. With help from Pyras on one side and Gabrielle on the other, Xena stood up and, after initial shakiness, she confirmed that she had her bearings and could manage. Gabrielle gently drew the top layer of cotton cloth round Xena, for modesty's sake as the crowds had yet to disperse, then the small group began to move off towards Gabrielle's quarters.
"Xena is an honourable warrior!" The shout leapt from one group of Amazons.
"She's a true Amazon!" Came another proclamation.
"Artemis strengthen you, Xena!"
"Be at peace with us, Xena!"
"The gods heal you quickly, Xena!" Cheers and shouts gathered momentum from the crowds before Xena had walked more than two or three paces, until spontaneous applause erupted and filled the area.
Xena turned back, astounded and overwhelmed at the tribe's response and smiled briefly before whispering to Gabrielle. "Let's get outta here before I die from embarrassment!"
Gabrielle grinned, hastening the pace away from the village centre and back to her quarters, where Xena was made comfortable, faced down on the bed. Pyras ensured the wounds were clean, the bleeding had stopped and then left Gabrielle, Xena and Xena's mother strict instructions that the warrior was not to move or get up from the bed for any reason other than nature's call. She was to rest and sleep faced down until Pyras came back to see her the next day; she could eat and drink what she liked, as long as she drank the tea left for her and avoided anything alcoholic.
"Ugh! Might as well put a crossbow to my head right now!" Xena complained as soon as Pyras had left. "No alcohol... that's ridiculous! And I don't need to stay on this bed and I'm not touching her damned tea, it'll be a sleeping potion! No wonder Eponin was so fed up! I wanna stay awake and talk to you and mother... and Ephiny and Solari... " As she spoke, Xena slowly pivoted on her stomach so that her head was at the end of the bed and she could face Gabrielle and her mother.
"You always were a terrible patient, Xena. I see some things never change!" Cyene grinned from where she sat by the table then rose to fetch some fruit from a platter in the corner of the hut.
"Tell me about it!" Gabrielle laughed, as she stoked the small fire in the hearth to boil a pot of water. "You should have seen her once, when she had a fever and we sheltered in a cave for a few days. I had to all but drag her into her bedroll and threaten her with all kinds of stuff to make her stay put!"
"Do you mind not talking about me like I'm not here!" Xena reached carefully behind her, straining to get a pillow, but was nowhere near it, whichever hand she used. Gabrielle had removed Xena's boots as Pyras worked on her back, so the warrior finally gathered the desired object between her ankles and flipped it forward and over head to land just in front of her, wincing only slightly from the discomfort caused by the sudden action.
"Xena! What are you doing?" Gabrielle stood up from the hearth just in time to see the pillow sail into the air and drop down again, her outburst causing Cyrene to spin round from the platter of fruit.
"Nothing!" Xena mumbled as she felt her ears and cheeks redden. She pulled the pillow beneath her and rested her head on folded arms, allowing herself a satisfied smirk for keeping something of her independence.
"Look, warrior!" Gabrielle pointed a small ladle at her from the hearth. "If you want something, ask for it!"
"Or what? You'll spoon me? That's really scary!" Xena cast a mischievous grin at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle gave in to Xena's smile and hung the ladle by the pot. She walked over to where Xena lay, as a knock sounded at the door, and called out for whoever was outside to enter.
A royal guard appeared and politely bowed. "My Queen, Xena's brother is here, requesting to see you both."
Gabrielle exchanged a glance with Xena and then asked her guard to let him in.
What entered appeared to be an overgrown garden on legs rather than a man. Toris walked in, carrying armfuls of wild flowers and made his way carefully across the hut until he bumped into the main table and laid his burden down. He didn't look up, but instead leaned on his arms and kept his eyes on the table. "If you can forgive the total idiot I've been... Queen Gabrielle... And if you can forgive your foolish brother, Xena... I'd really like to start again, if you'll let me?"
Xena and Gabrielle swapped grins and Gabrielle breathed a silent sigh of relief, but it was Xena who spoke to Toris. "You'll find a couple of clay water pots in the bathing chamber for those, Toris. Looks like they're in need of water the way you're in need of a shave! Where in Hades have ya been the last couple of days?"
Toris glanced up at his sister. "Synope... just up river and beyond the trees. Thinking, mostly. Growing up a little, I guess." He offered the cockeyed grin Gabrielle knew so well on Xena's face and she couldn't help but smile in response. "I was pretty stupid... and I... Well, you two have been through enough and don't really need me to add to your troubles. I'm sorry for the way I behaved. I really do care though!" He turned to Gabrielle. "I think I will always care, but I'll try to keep things in perspective, Gabrielle. One of your royal guards tracked me down in Synope and helped me see things differently... much more differently, actually." He grinned. "Please... I'm not half the warrior my sister is and I really have no idea about Amazon rules, but the sword at my side and the strength in my arms is yours to call on, if you ever want to. Especially as I may stay around for a while."
"You're staying?" Xena raised an eyebrow.
"Well, not here in the Amazon village, but around. Charis asked me to stay for a while and..."
"Charis?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yeah, she's one of your royal guards, Gabrielle... and the one who came looking for me. Do you know her?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "Yes, I do. She's a fine woman and a good Amazon."
"A fine woman..." Toris trailed off in a momentary reverie. "She's certainly that!"
Xena and Gabrielle caught each other's eye and tried hard not to grin.
"Anyway, I've been invited to stay with her sister Prisca, and Gelanor to help them set up a home in Synope." He smiled. "They've really been made welcome by the village and there's a carpenter who's taken on that young lad, Calus, as an apprentice. It seems a good place to stay, for a time at least."
"And when did you intend to tell me about staying, Toris? Or about your new... friendship with this young Amazon?" Cyrene stepped out of the corner of the hut where she had been listening interestedly.
"Mother! I didn't realise you were here too."
"So I see." Cyrene sat at the table and began to sort the flowers into colour and height.
"I was intending to come and see you after seeing Xena and Gabrielle."
"With some of these?" Cyrene held up a handful of flowers.
"Definitely." Toris grinned. "Since you're here though, I'm sorry for shouting at you the way I did and I'm sorry for storming out on you."
"Well..." Cyrene reached across the table and clasped her son's hand. "I can hardly refuse to forgive the behaviour of my son when I've forgiven the ex Destroyer of Nations over there."
"Oh mother..." Xena groaned. "You have the nicest way of putting things sometimes."
Toris patted his mother's hand, then walked round the table to kneel by the foot of the bed. He reached a tentative hand to the cotton cloth lying across Xena's back. "May I."
"Yes." Xena turned her head to look her brother in the eye. "If you really need to."
Toris lifted a corner of the cloth and winced. "Oh gods, Xena!" He didn't notice Gabrielle's shoulders sag as she turned to face the hearth again. "I hope this heals fast for you."
"You weren't there, were you?" Xena rested her chin on her folded arm. "Getting squeamish as you get older, Toris?"
"No." He smiled as he replaced the covering. "I just couldn't bear the idea of watching my sister get whipped by an Amazon, or seeing Gabrielle's face as she had to oversee every lash you took. Shouldn't this be bandaged?" He sat back on his haunches.
"No, these kinds of wounds are better off if they can heal without too much covering." Xena sighed. "Toris, Gabrielle carried out the whipping for me."
"Gabri..." Toris lifted a hand and pointed in Gabrielle's direction. "Our Gabrielle? Queen Gabrielle... our lover of peace and wisdom...? Our favourite bard... that Gabrielle?"
The object of Toris' surprise came over to sit gently on the bed and rested her hand on Xena's wrist. "Yes, she means me, Toris." She regarded the dark-haired man kneeling by the bed and was suddenly struck by his resemblance to Xena, despite his being unshaven and dishevelled. "Believe me, I'm not proud about what happened, but it was the only way to get round the law of ordering an Amazon to carry it out."
Toris' brow wrinkled. "I'm not sure I understand."
"It's very simple." Xena picked up the conversation again. "I was sentenced to the whip at my own request, as well you know, but no one volunteered for the job of seeing it through. Under Amazon Law that meant Gabrielle was supposed to order someone to whip me and she wouldn't make any Amazon pick up the whip if they didn't want to. So, outta respect for the laws here and outta respect for my wishes, Gabrielle did it herself."
Toris smiled slowly. "That's incredible." He raised his gaze to Gabrielle. "You're amazing, Gabrielle, and a good Queen to your people here. You've no need to feel shame for what you've done today."
Gabrielle looked down at her hands. "Yes, well I do. Though I'm grateful for your words."
"Well I think you should be ashamed." Xena propped her head on her hand to look up at Gabrielle. "I think you short-changed me on those strokes."
"Oh?" Gabrielle was unsure whether Xena was being serious or not. "Well Xena, next time you feel the need for some corporal punishment, remember to let me know the actual extent you'd like to be beaten to a pulp, okay?" She leaned down to whisper into the warrior's ear. "I'm an Amazon Queen and a bard... not a seer." She sat up again. "Besides, if I had given you the full quota of a hundred lashes for each offence, there'd be nothing left of your back and my arm would've probably fallen off!" She grinned suddenly. "And I value my arm!"
"Guess I'll just bow to the Queen's judgement on that one, then."
"I think that's best." Gabrielle ran her hand down Xena's hair.
Toris stood up. "I'll, um... I'll take my leave now, unless I can do anything or get you anything?"
"No, that's fine, Toris." Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you for what you said... and for the flowers."
"Oh, the water pots!" Toris turned to the bathing chamber.
"Don't be concerned about those." Cyrene rose from the table. "I'll deal with the flowers."
"Yeah, don't fret about those, Toris." Xena smirked. "You just go and get washed and shaved for your evening with Charis."
"We haven't... We've no plans. How did you know we'd probably see each other later?" Toris stood with his mouth open.
"Doesn't take much working out." Xena mumbled into her pillow, before looking up again. "Just enjoy yourselves. Oh, and Toris... be good to Charis. You don't want to go upsetting one of our best assassins now, do you?" She finished with a wink to disarm the worried look spreading across her brother's face.
"I'll be good to her, I promise." He turned and walked to the door, looking round as he opened it. "Oh and about your joining ceremony... I'm looking forward to it. I hope it's a wonderful day for you both." He smiled as he bowed politely. "Gabrielle. Xena. Mother."
"Oh I'm so glad he saw some sense." Cyrene sighed after the door closed. She headed for the bathing chamber, returning with two large clay pots, which she filled with water and then sat arranging the flowers as she talked casually with Xena and Gabrielle. Eventually, the sun began to sink low and Cyrene wished Xena and Gabrielle a comfortable night as she left them to go back to her own quarters.
"Did you know about Prisca settling in Synope?" Xena watched Gabrielle preparing the main table for a meal. "Becoming an Outlander?"
"Yes, and I hope she's happy there with Gelanor."
Xena tutted. "Seems a waste of a good warrior to me, if Charis is anything to go by. Bit of a shame no one's suggested she stay with the Amazons while Gelanor lives nearby."
Gabrielle smiled affectionately. "Prisca's still her own person and this is her shared decision with Gelanor. That's something you've taught me to respect over the years, Xena. Besides, I think Tethys did actually talk with her about it, but Prisca and Gelanor really do want to settle... maybe start a small farm together and raise children."
"For the farm?"
"Raise children for... oh, never mind!" Xena cocked her head on one side. "We expecting company?"
"Hopefully. Otherwise I'll have to go over to our dear cook and beg a food tray for our evening meal."
"I could go. I could get some fresh air."
Gabrielle placed her hands on her hips. "Xena, you are not going anywhere, okay? Now, please behave." She pointed a finger. "You haven't got a couple of scratches there. You've got some major wounds and I want you to do what Pyras told you to and just concentrate your energies on healing!"
"Well, since you put it like that..." Xena lay her head in the crook of her arm. "Dunno how I'm supposed to sleep like this, though."
"That's what Pyras' tea is for, Xena."
The warrior grimaced and began to remark on the finer points of making herbal teas as a knock was heard at the door. "Zeus' chest hair! It's like Athens when the bazaar's in full flow!"
"Don't exaggerate!" Gabrielle laughed as she headed for the door and opened it.
Ephiny and Solari came in, along with Eponin, each of them carrying food and water-skins or wineskins, with which they proceeded to fill the table. As conversation floated across the hut, no one noticed Solari surreptitiously hand Xena a small leather flask that the warrior managed to slip beneath her pillow. Solari left Xena with a wink and returned to the table to carry on setting out the platters of fish, bread, cheese and fruit. Once everything was prepared, Eponin and Ephiny lifted the table and moved it over to the end of the bed so Xena could join them from where she was.
"Thanks." Xena looked up at Eponin. "No Coronis?"
Eponin pulled a couple of chairs up to the table. "Uh huh. Not tonight, she's on duty."
Ephiny shared a smile with Eponin, then caught Xena's eye. "So, how are the wounds?"
"Clean." Xena grinned. "I'm not exactly comfortable, I'll admit, but I'll live. I've had worse."
"I'm glad you're okay." Ephiny turned to Gabrielle and waited for her young Queen to look up. "And what you did today, Gabrielle, was remarkable, both for the tribe and for Xena."
Gabrielle gave a small smile. "It didn't feel particularly remarkable, Ephiny. It felt... It felt hateful and wrong. I hurt the one I love for the sake of laws I trust and all I could sense was the conflict between both!"
Ephiny smiled warmly. "Being Queen here, our leader... in a real sense, Gabrielle, you're the heart of our tribe now and a lot of the time you're going to face tough decisions."
"I realise that."
"Do you?" Ephiny's expression held only loving concern. "Because it seems to me you're beating yourself up for a decision that was respectful where our laws were concerned, it was kind where our sister Amazons were concerned and it showed nothing but love for Xena and her wishes." She paused only to reach for a piece of bread and to give time for her words to sink in. "Gabrielle, it demonstrated the qualities that go to make up a true Queen and I for one want you to know how proud I was to be an Amazon of this tribe today."
Gabrielle was taken aback and swallowed whole the piece of cheese she had been savouring. "You were?" She sipped her mug of wine to prevent herself from choking.
"Yes, I was." Ephiny turned to Solari. "What do you reckon, Sol?"
"I think... I think you did good, Gabrielle." The Amazon warrior grinned. "Ephiny and I were convinced you were gonna order one of us to carry out the sentence. What you actually did showed us all that the Queen's mask is in the right hands."
Eponin joined in the conversation. "Gabrielle, in recent days you've revealed to us that you are capable in combat, you're considerate with the tribe and sharp-minded where Amazon Law stands." She smiled warmly. "All this and you weave a mean tale too! We must have done something right, before the gods, to deserve your rule."
Gabrielle turned to face Xena and found her beaming. "Xena?"
"You know exactly what I think, Gabrielle. How can I add anything to what's just been said?" The warrior chuckled. "Except to say that I agree with every word and remind you that I love you and I'm very proud of you for the way ya handled the whole thing today."
"Thank you, all of you." Gabrielle whispered, looking down at the table before she raised her head again and smiled. "I mean it. Thank you, very much."
Ephiny nodded, content that the sting of the day had been removed for Gabrielle. "So! Would you like the good news or the bad news about the chalice?"
Xena grunted and head-butted her pillow.
Gabrielle nodded enthusiastically. "Umm... bad first. But you're smiling Ephiny, so it can't be all that bad!"
"No, it's not that bad." Ephiny filled her wine cup from one of the skins. "Our priestess came to me less than a quarter candle-mark before we came here. She would have come straight to you Gabrielle, but she appreciated you were occupied with our number one patient over there." Xena snorted into her pillow in response.
"That's fine, Eph." Gabrielle smiled sincerely. "Go on."
"Well, apparently Artemis wants us to keep it here in our temple."
Xena's head shot up. "You've got to be joking!"
"Actually, in a way it is a joke." Ephiny laughed. "According to our priestess, Artemis had a bit of an argument with Zeus over the cup, because she doesn't want another temple or anymore of her priestesses lumbered with looking after it or being put in possible danger because of it. So anyway... Zeus, as Artemis put it, had a sudden fit of benevolence and told the goddess to do whatever she thought best."
"And Artemis decided her Amazons could have a turn at babysitting Zeus' cast-offs?" Xena shook her head. "I thought you said the news wasn't that bad?"
Ephiny laughed. "Yeah, well the good news is that the cup in our temple is as ordinary and earthly as you or I would make it... though it probably looks a damn sight better than we'd produce."
"How come?" Xena and Gabrielle chorused.
"Yeah." Eponin drained her cup. "How'd Artemis manage that?"
Ephiny snickered. "Artemis decided what was best was to get rid of it, so she asked Hephaestus to melt it down, but not wanting to hurt her father's feelings she also asked for a copy to be made out of earthly materials. So, no sooner has our priestess explained all this, then this hulking great blacksmith appears behind her and announces that he's come to get the real cup. He takes it, hands me the copy he's already made, then he actually grins and bows, puts his finger over his lips like he's swearing me to secrecy and then vanishes!"
"That was Hephaestus himself?" Gabrielle laughed.
"The very same!" Ephiny grabbed her wine cup and took a draft. "So it looks like our temple has an artefact of the gods... which isn't really an artefact of the gods!"
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances, unspoken understanding passing between them as Xena spoke up. "Ephiny, there is something from the gods that's very real and I've been given it to pass on to the temple here." She cocked her head one side. "Actually it's not so much a passing on to you as a returning to you."
Ephiny, Solari and Eponin watched in puzzlement as Gabrielle rose and went over to the shelf stack where her scrolls were now neatly held. After a few moments of searching, Gabrielle returned to the table with a scroll. She gently tipped it up and allowed the arrow of Artemis to slide out into the middle of the table.
"Ares testicles!" Solari almost choked on a mouthful of wine.
"Wrong artefact." Xena grinned.
"By the gods!" Ephiny stood up. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Well it's not Ares' testi..."
"Xena!" Gabrielle laughed. "Stop it. This is important."
"I'm sorry." Xena smiled and rested hear head on her arm again, while she sneaked out the port flask from beneath her pillow. "I know it's important, really." With everyone's attention drawn to the arrow, Xena took a long draft. There was a faint scent she couldn't quite place, but put it down to something in the leather of the bottle itself.
Ephiny finally let her curiosity triumph over her awe and tentatively picked up the arrow. "I can't believe Artemis has given this to us again. It's such a happy omen!" She looked up and smiled broadly. "Xena, I can't begin to tell you what this means to the tribe... and you're telling me Artemis actually gave you this for us?"
Xena had already re-corked the flask and slipped it beneath her pillow again. "Well, Artemis gave it to me yeah, but she didn't tell me what it was for. She just said I'd know what to do with it when the time was right. I only found out what it really was when your priestess showed me round the temple."
Ephiny nodded, deep in thought. "Then on behalf of our tribe, I suggest there's only one possible time for this to be presented." She glanced from Solari to Eponin.
"The joining, oh of course!" Solari exclaimed. "That would be the perfect time."
Eponin laughed. "I couldn't think of a better time than the royal joining." She looked at Gabrielle. "And from what we've seen and heard of our patron goddess lately, I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's what she has in mind too."
Gabrielle bit her bottom lip. "I wouldn't like our ceremony to be equated with a gift from the goddess. It might be taken the wrong way! It seems somehow disrespectful to her."
"No, it wouldn't be like that Gabrielle." Ephiny smiled affectionately. "I think Artemis wants this to be taken as her blessing on our tribe, on you as our Queen and on your joining with Xena... it'd be like her seal on us again as her people."
Gabrielle finally nodded. "Okay. We'll see it's kept safe until then... unless you think you should keep it somewhere, Ephiny?"
"I don't think so, Gabrielle. It's been safe enough in your keeping, so hold onto it until the wedding." Ephiny raised her cup to her lips again and took a sip. "Speaking of the royal joining, we should send out appropriate invites to your friends and family and to the leaders of other tribes. By the time the trial for Agradon's Generals has come and gone, we'll only have another moon before the ceremony."
"Time certainly passes quickly." Gabrielle smiled. "Perhaps we could spend tomorrow afternoon together, Ephiny, and start the list?"
"That'd be nice."
"I'll occupy Xena while you're doing that." Solari munched on an apple.
"I'm so glad someone's thinking of the boredom I'm gonna be suffering for the next couple of days!" Xena turned her head on her pillow and yawned. "God's, I didn't realise corporal punishment would make me so sleepy."
Gabrielle and Solari exchanged grins, the Amazon warrior winking from behind her mug of wine. A soft knock was heard at the door and Gabrielle called out, granting entrance.
A royal guard looked round the door. "My Queen. My Regent. Timalcus is here, requesting to speak to Xena briefly, if it is convenient?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena and at the smiles and nods of her friends. "It's convenient. Please let him in."
Timalcus strode in with a bounce in his step, stopping when he saw who else were present. "Oh... hello everyone! I didn't realise you had company, my Queen." He bowed politely.
"It's alright, Timalcus." Gabrielle greeted him warmly. "You're very welcome here."
"Yeah, c'mon over here and talk to me." Xena raised her head briefly and yawned. "It's been a while since I've seen you to talk with."
"It is you I've come to see, Xena." Timalcus nodded to Gabrielle and the Amazons round the table, then made his way to Xena's bedside, pulling up a chair.
"So, how's everything going, Timalcus?" Xena propped her head on her hand and made sure no one was watching her before silently mouthing her next question concerning the ring being made for Gabrielle, then took another swift draft from her port flask.
Timalcus winked in understanding. "Work's coming along just fine." He sat down and presented Xena with a linen parcel he had carried in. "Please don't be offended, my friend... and if you think it's a foolish notion I'll just take it away with me again."
"Take away what?" Xena raised an eyebrow.
"Well, being a blacksmith I'm fairly used to seeing warriors around and I'll bet you don't have clothing apart from other sets of leathers, right?"
"Yeah... you're pretty much right." Xena's tone bordered on suspicion.
"Xena, I can't imagine anything less comfortable across a whipped back." Timalcus continued. "And, if I can guess anything about you, I'm sure you're not gonna want to stay confined to your hut while you're healing, right?"
"I've got a silk robe Artemis gave me." Xena stifled another yawn. "I can cut it down into some kinda practical shirt or something."
"Xena, you will not!" Gabrielle had been listening. "I won't let you destroy that beautiful robe the goddess gave you."
"So you got a better idea?" Xena turned her head towards Gabrielle.
"I'm sure we can have something suitable made for you."
"Hopefully, this is suitable, Xena." Timalcus regained the warrior's attention. "It's nothing fancy, but it's new and it's very soft." Timalcus quickly untied the parcel and pulled out a large white cambric shirt. "I'd just like to help a bit and, shoulder to shoulder, I reckon we're just about a similar build... like I said though, if you think it's a bad idea..."
Xena smiled broadly and clasped the young man's arm. "Timalcus, you're a good friend and I appreciate your kindness. It's true... while my back's healing I can't wear my leathers and I guess I can't really cut up a robe given by Artemis. As much as I pride myself on having few inhibitions I don't think it would be appropriate to walk around the village, bare from the waist up."
"Oh I don't know..." Solari called over. "I think a lot of Amazons would find that highly entertaining!"
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged glances, before Ephiny grinned at Gabrielle. "I do apologise for our head of the guard, Gabrielle... sometimes I just have no control over her!" She threw a fake glare at Solari.
Solari laughed into her wine mug. "You're no fun sometimes, Eph!"
"That's okay." Gabrielle chuckled. "Actually, I was just thinking how nice it would be." She swapped grins with Xena. "But it might just bring out my jealousy a little too much!"
Xena picked up the shirt. "This is perfect, Timalcus." She noticed the parcel was not entirely empty. "What else ya got there? Another shirt?" Xena buried her head in her pillow and yawned again.
"No, actually it's a pair of leather breeches, in case you don't have anything practical... well, to go under the shirt, really." Timalcus shook out the dark brown leather breeches for Xena to look over.
Xena drew her hand across the leather. "These are new... and they're good, too! Timalcus, I'm not taking clothes from you that are meant for your wedding, am I?"
Timalcus laughed. "No Xena! The royal guard, Coronis, and I are from the same village of Lannis. Her father and brothers are tanners by trade, my mother, father and I are blacksmiths, as you know, and we trade work and goods from time to time, that's all." He smiled across the room at Gabrielle. "Actually, neither mother or Iphitus want me wearing leather for our wedding, but I don't know what else they have in mind... though I think I'd draw the line at Amazon garb, whether I'm an honorary Amazon or not!"
"Hmm, probably wouldn't suit you, anyway." Gabrielle grinned and shook her head. "Though it might match your eyes!"
Timalcus laughed. "Anyway, these are for you if you can use them, Xena. At least you won't have to be confined to your hut now."
Xena smiled. "Thanks. I really do appreciate it."
"Xena?" Timalcus leaned over to the warrior. "Just one other thing."
"As you're not going anywhere for a day or so, would you let me have the honour of polishing your sword... and other weapons?"
Xena regarded Timalcus long and hard before eventually smiling. "Sure, why not? That'd be great. Everything should be down there." Xena jerked her head in the direction of the wall by the bed.
Timalcus stepped over to where a small table supported Xena's various daggers and her chakram, with her sword resting against the ledge. The young blacksmith gently picked up the chakram and carefully turned the circular blade, scrutinising the patterning on both sides. "So beautiful... and perfect." He whispered to himself before straightening up with the collected weapons in his arms. "I'll take good care of them, Xena. You have my word."
"I'm sure you will." Xena smiled then mumbled into her pillow. "Ya damned well better!"
The young blacksmith walked to the door. Gabrielle caught his eye and gestured with the fourth finger on her left hand, silently questioning if the ring for Xena was finished.
"Almost, my Queen." Timalcus whispered, then raised his voice to normal volume. "Goodnight, my sisters. Hope you all have a pleasant evening." He bowed to the Amazons and again to Gabrielle, as they returned the good wishes, then Timalcus let himself out of the hut and headed for the smith-works, turning Xena's chakram over as he walked, closely studying each side of the weapon.
"So, do you think those will fit you, Xena?" Gabrielle neared the bed to find a gently snoring warrior. "Xena?" She leaned closer and softly shook Xena's wrist, before turning to Solari. "It worked! She's asleep, Sol. I knew she'd never touch Pyras' tea just as it is, thanks for the port idea."
"No problem, Gabrielle." The Amazon warrior smiled from the table.
Gabrielle stroked Xena's hair. "Do you think she'll sleep though the night, now?"
"She should do." Eponin spoke up. "If that's the same stuff Pyras gave me, she will."
"Good." Gabrielle leaned over and kissed the side of Xena's head. "Sleep well, my love." She walked almost reluctantly away from the bedside and joined her friends at the table. Conversation moved on to the topic of the trial of Agradon's men, changed to wedding plans, broached the subject of Artemis and the white arrow, then settled into the personal histories and anecdotes of Eponin, Solari and Ephiny.
Gabrielle addressed her Regent. "When do you think you two will join?" She sat back in her chair nursing a mug of fresh berry tea Solari had made.
Ephiny laughed. "Let's get one royal joining out the way first, okay?" She looked at Solari, who had reddened slightly. "We haven't really discussed it very much, though we certainly won't be stealing any of your or Xena's thunder! Maybe next autumn, perhaps... if the Fates are kind."
Solari ignored her embarrassment and nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, next autumn sounds wonderful... or some time like that"
Gabrielle's brow wrinkled slightly. "Ephiny, tell me to mind my own business if I'm prying too much, but how come you and Solari are only together now? I understand, through the village grapevine that Solari's loved you for a long time."
Solari was all but ready to crawl into her mug or under the table, anywhere in fact, but Ephiny firmly clamped a hand on her wrist, keeping the warrior by her side. "It's okay, Gabrielle. We've talked a lot about that. In truth, over the years I came to love Solari, but I never knew Solari loved me and I was too busy learning to be Regent to really think about it, to my shame. She was always there, the truest friend I've ever had by my side, supporting me, always believing in my abilities. Always protecting my back in battle..."
Solari snorted. "Always too damned shy or stupid to say or do anything!"
Ephiny smiled affectionately at her life-mate and squeezed her hand. "When we made peace with the Centaurs, Phantes became very dear to me and he made known his attraction for me. I cherished his friendship and in certain ways there was an honest love between us. Despite that, and without meaning to make it sound cold or calculating, our hearts were for our tribes first and it just seemed to us that our union would be the perfect seal on the new peace and the alliance." She picked up her mug and sipped it before continuing with a sigh. "If I'd had the sense to see Solari for who she really was to me, I'd have never let myself become so involved with Phantes."
"But then you wouldn't have Xenan." Gabrielle smiled affectionately.
"Oh, I don't regret the relationship, Gabrielle, I treasure the memories of Phantes and I wouldn't trade my son for the world... it's the way life unfolds sometimes." Ephiny glanced across at Solari, who was gazing into her mug, listening intensely. "But I do regret being so blind for so long towards the woman who is as remarkably wonderful as she is patient!"
Gabrielle regarded Solari. "Just how long had you held a torch for our Regent?"
"Oh, since my twentieth summer." Solari's gaze remained on the table. "A few years after I joined this tribe."
"Gods... so long?" Gabrielle was astounded.
The Amazon warrior raised her head. "Yeah well, ya know me Gabrielle. Stubborn to the last when I set my mind on something... and I'd never settle for second best!"
Gabrielle chuckled. "You know something... I must confess I've never understood... I mean, when it comes down to human - Centaur relationships, how can, uh... Oh, how can I ask this delicately?"
"Ya mean how do Centaurs and humans get down physically to the good stuff!" Solari grinned wickedly as she watched Gabrielle blush.
"Solari, one of these days..." Ephiny trailed off into a chuckle.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Well, I wouldn't have put it quite so... interestingly, but I suppose that is what I mean."
Ephiny leaned forward and rested her chin on her hand. "In all honesty Gabrielle, it is a little tricky to say the least! But, with patience and care it tends to work out okay. Physical agility is an advantage, I grant you." She laughed.
Gabrielle was intrigued. "But doesn't it hurt?"
"Why should it hurt?" Ephiny's brow wrinkled.
"Well, Centaurs are a lot bigger than humans!"
Ephiny, Solari and Eponin looked at each other and after a moment or two, burst into giggles as Gabrielle tried to fathom out what was so funny.
Eponin was the first to regain her composure. "Oh Gabrielle, forgive us, but that has got to be the best thing we've heard in a while! You really don't know the Centaur race too well, do you?"
Gabrielle folded her arms and sat back with a grin. "Not as intimately as Ephiny, that's for sure!"
The Regent responded with a salute, mug in hand. "Good one Gabrielle, spoken like a true Amazon smart arse!"
Eponin picked up her own mug and took a long draft. "Actually, in all fairness to Gabrielle, I guess it's an easy mistake when you're not used to living border to border with Centaurs." She turned to Gabrielle with a smile. "The simplest way of putting it is to say our Centaur friends are really more human, in certain ways anatomically speaking, than uh, horse-like. That's why, if you remember my combat training concerning the enemy-as-was, that particular male vulnerability in battle didn't enter into it." Eponin grinned.
"Centaur males aren't hung like horses, they're the same size as..."
"Yeah, thanks Solari." Eponin laughed. "I think Gabrielle's got the picture." She turned back to her Queen. "Sol's right though and, in battle, what they have is far better protected beneath a powerful Centaur body than in front on a man!"
"I see." Gabrielle was silent for a moment before chuckling to herself.
When the three Amazon friends finally left the Queen's hut and headed for their respective quarters, there were less than three candle marks until dawn. Gabrielle took hot tea out to her royal guards, then washed, snuffed out all but one of the oil lamps and slipped out of her clothes to snuggle down by Xena. She stretched out the same way, bringing her own pillow down to the foot of the bed from the head. She was careful to avoid touching the warrior's back, as much as she wanted to slip an arm and a leg across Xena, the now habitual position and comforting way they would enter sleep together. As her eyes grew used to the darker room, Gabrielle watched Xena's face, outlined and shadowed in the dimness, but peaceful in sleep and so beautiful. She trailed her fingers through the warrior's long raven hair and swept away the fringe that had fallen across her eyes, marvelling at the thought that she would soon be joined to this woman she loved from the depths of her being. Joined to Xena under a goddess who could be trusted and walked with in friendship, she would continue learning to serve and rule a noble people she loved as family and life would be good, the Fates willing. Family... Gabrielle's thoughts drifted to Poteidaia and she wondered if her father would ever accept Xena as more than an ex-warlord or, indeed, accept that his little girl was Queen to a nation. She knew her mother and Lila were less suspicious of Xena, though not fully at ease and they had some understanding of her position with the Amazons. Gabrielle couldn't imagine not having her parents and sister present for her joining, but she feared they might refuse to attend, prompted by her father; or if they attended, she was concerned for how her father might behave. As Morpheus called Gabrielle into peaceful dreams, she quietly asked Artemis to intervene in the matter, if she only would.
The following days passed swiftly, though not soon enough for the warrior princess, who longed to get back into the habit of sword-practise and combat drills. Gabrielle took the rare step of quietly but adamantly ordering Xena to remain still and allow her wounds to heal fully before beginning any physical exertion on the practise fields... or with her, she had added as a response to the smirk that emerged on Xena's face. Much to Gabrielle's surprise, the warrior had appeared momentarily thoughtful, then shrugged and agreed, but she made it abundantly clear that her acceptance of the order was only because Gabrielle would soon be her Queen.
After an initial argument concerning not putting sleeping tea in a port flask ever again, Xena had promised to remain in the hut for three days. By the fourth, only a mixture of meditation and sheer willpower had enabled the warrior to keep her patience and prevent her frustration from boiling over. Finally, Gabrielle had conceded, with Pyras' guidance, that Xena's back was healing well and she could at least enjoy a walk and some fresh air. Donning the cambric shirt and leather breeches for the first time had felt very strange to Xena, but she was more than grateful for the soft cotton against her back, which was still raw and tender, and the new leather felt good against her lower body. Standing to her full height and lifting her arms to the sides, she waited for Gabrielle's comments of approval or her laughter. The slow grin from Gabrielle and raised eyebrows that followed, were enough to confirm that that the new look met with the Queen's approval exceedingly well.
Days merged into weeks as the quarter moons were counted off. Xena healed remarkably fast, as expected, and began to enjoy her freedom of movement again. Her new 'image' became a common sight every few days or so and Xena was glad to have another set of clothes that was beginning to feel as familiar as her leathers. The village children had decided Xena looked like a pirate in her breeches and billowy shirt, though not one of them would have seen the sea or a ship, and they nicknamed her Captain Xena. The warrior princess was happy to indulge the children in their fantasy from time to time and even got into the swing of telling a story or two, with a little guidance from her favourite bard. She was quick, however, to pick Solari up and gently throw her in the river, making it quite clear that what the children called her was one thing, but 'Cap'n Xena' was not appreciated on the lips of an Amazon!
The trial of Agradon's Generals and senior soldiers went as planned, over the course of two days. Inevitably, the tried men were found guilty and executed though, as many of the witnesses commented, their deaths were far swifter and less painful than the torturous treatment their victims had no doubt suffered before losing their lives. Invited neighbouring authorities were impressed with the fair and lawful approach of the Thessalian Amazons and were taken, too, with Gabrielle's diplomacy. There was contentment regarding Agradon's death by the sword of Ephiny; only slight upset was voiced, concerning being unable to try the monster himself along with his men. Before leaving to return to their respective villages, with the rightfully reclaimed stolen goods, each village leader had indicated to Gabrielle that alliances and trading agreements with the Amazons would be welcomed, and they would meet with the Amazon Queen again in the near future to plan such matters.
Once the trial and execution was out of the way, the Amazon village buzzed with preparations for the royal joining ceremony. Many responses had already been received from friends and other Amazon tribes, the only disappointment being the message from Hercules' mother on behalf of the demigod and Iolaus. Unrest in Alexandria had prompted a request for Hercules' intervention and, hopefully, the prevention of war. Xena and Gabrielle were saddened that two of their dearest friends would be absent from the celebrations, but they fully understood the importance of the task faced in Alexandria.
The day before the joining, Gabrielle was quietly discussing ceremony details with the priestess during the stillness of early morning in her quarters. As she went through some of the vows she wanted to make before the tribe, she was drawn to the window by the singing of a bawdy song, accompanied by raucous laughter. Xena, Solari and Dictynnas staggered by, arms draped round each other's shoulders and evidently drunk from some or other beverage.
Gabrielle excused herself and stepped out of her hut just as a verse from the song reached her, regarding an Athenian chestnut seller roasting his nuts. "Xena! Solari! It's still early, so keep the noise down a bit, alright?"
Xena, Solari and the Amazon cook made a show of loudly hushing and shushing one another until their hissing turned into giggles.
Gabrielle raised her eyes and shook her head, walked down the wooden steps of the porch-way and came over to them. "Where on earth have you all been? You smell like a fishmonger stall where the fish brought flowers for one another's funerals!"
"Dawn fishing!" Xena raised both fists in the air, as did the cook, showing off an abundant catch of eels and salmon strung together. "Lossa fishes for supper, Gabss... brielle!" She finished with an enormous grin.
"Flowers too!" Solari presented an armful of ferns and orchids as she hiccuped. "For the temple of Artimost... Arterims..." She frowned in concentration. "They're for Arter... they're for our goddess, Gabby!"
Gabrielle closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She was well aware where all three had been since before dawn; from the note Xena had left on her pillow. She hadn't quite expected to see Xena or the others worse for wear so early in the morning, however. "You've been celebrating in advance haven't you? That's why you're all drunk!" Gabrielle tried hard to suppress the smile and laughter threatening to break through her stony expression.
"No, I... we... no, uh huh!" Xena stammered. "We am not drunk, no no no! Just a tiny 'lil bit merry, thashall! Just a 'lil cebre... cebre... a 'lil cebrelebrashun for what's hap'nin tomorrow, my love." She finished with another grin.
"Well go and deal with the stuff you've brought back, then wash and start sobering up, okay? We've got a lot to do, Xena!"
The three alternately saluted and bowed to Gabrielle several times before heading off again, beginning another verse of their song; this time concerning a fisherman who got his tackle in a tangle over a mermaid.
Gabrielle returned to sit with the priestess, who patiently explained that, for the next night and most of the next day, Gabrielle and Xena would be apart, until the ceremony began. Gabrielle understood that she would remain at the temple with the priestess, while Xena would stay with Ephiny and Solari. She breathed a sigh of relief, confident that at least Ephiny would keep Xena out of trouble before the ceremony commenced.
Midday brought the return of a more sober warrior to Gabrielle's door and the offer of a meadow walk for two before the traditional separation. Gabrielle happily accepted, realising she needed a break and couldn't keep going over the same preparations again and again. The two of them headed off at an easy pace out of the south gate, with Coronis and Charis following at a distance as the on-duty royal guard for that time of day.
Gabrielle slipped her hand into Xena's. "So did your little fishing trip work, where Dictynnas was concerned?"
"Like a soothsayer's charm." Xena grinned. "She sees me as a friend and a sister Amazon now, and I think we even bonded a bit over the art of fishing... gods, she's got a mean flick of the wrist with a net!" She laughed as she placed her arm round Gabrielle's shoulders. "Actually, I got the distinct impression she has some much more realistic feelings for one of our warriors, Dirce... Now that could be a good match."
"Ah Xena, not becoming a match-maker, are you?"
"No." Xena chuckled.
"Not thinking of turning bard and writing half-dinar romances for 'Quills And Moon', are you?"
"Ugh! Perish the thought!" The warrior grinned. "No, the only romantic match-making I'm interested in is between you and I, Gabrielle, at a certain meeting tomorrow evening, outside the temple at a candle-mark after moonrise. D'ya think you can make it?"
"I think I'm free." Gabrielle smiled warmly.
"I'm a little nervous about the ceremony, though." Xena halted in her tracks. "Are you?"
"Yes, I'm nervous." Gabrielle gazed into the blue eyes resting on her. "But only about getting the ceremony right. I'm not nervous about committing my life to you in front of the Amazons, or even before Artemis, because it's right and it's good. Besides, everything I am is already committed to you, Xena... and always will be."
Xena felt her heart skip a beat from the look on Gabrielle's face and the tender words spoken to her. She smiled gently and shook her head. "One day, maybe I'll really find out what I did to deserve you, because right now it's a total mystery to me, despite what Artemis says." She took a deep breath. "One thing's for sure though, everything that I am is pledged to you Gabrielle, for this life... and whatever corner of Elysia Persephone calls us to in the, I hope, very distant future."
Gabrielle raised a hand and trailed her fingers down the soft material of a new linen shirt Cyrene had made for Xena, allowing her fingers to snag the waistband of the leather breeches and remain there. "If it weren't for my guards, there's a little personal match-making I wouldn't mind enjoying with you for half a candle-mark or so."
"Gabrielle!" Xena laughed. "I'm surprised at you."
"Well, it's such a beautiful day... and I love you in this stuff... and after all, we're gonna be apart tonight and all day tomorrow."
Xena briefly frowned and raised a finger. "Just hold that thought for a moment." She strode quickly over to Coronis and Charis, engaging them in a whispered, but intense conversation. Soon after, she returned to Gabrielle's side as the royal guards sat down in the grass, evidently making themselves comfortable for a time.
"What did you say to them?" Gabrielle was intrigued.
"Oh, I just spoke to them warrior-to-warrior and appealed to their understanding."
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. "You're not going to tell me, are you?"
"No my love, I'm not." She grinned. "Just be grateful I have that air of command that strikes the right note when needed." She raised an eyebrow and gently reached out to tug Gabrielle's hand. "Now c'mon, before they change their minds! I know a soft meadow rise over there, beneath an oak, that's discreetly surrounded by other trees."
Two candle marks later, Xena and Gabrielle walked slowly hand-in-hand, back into the village to be met by Ephiny and the priestess of Artemis.
"Don't you two like to cut it fine!" Ephiny grinned, before dropping her voice. "You've both got leaves in your hair and there's an acorn stuck to your shoulder, Gabrielle." The Regent helped her Queen and Xena to brush away the offending items before addressing them again. "Now you look a little more presentable... your parents and sister have arrived, Gabrielle."
"They're here already?" Gabrielle slipped her arm around Xena's waist. "They're a day early, Ephiny!"
"Actually, your mother and Lila both knew about the separation that precedes the ceremony and said they wanted the chance to see you before the joining." Ephiny looked from Gabrielle to Xena. "Both of you."
"And my father?"
"He was kinda quiet. Didn't say much, Gabrielle, just stood there with your mother."
Gabrielle looked up at Xena. "I guess the moment of truth's arrived."
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand. "It'll be fine." She turned to Ephiny. "Where are they?"
"At your quarters for now, while the hut meant for them is prepared." Ephiny smiled. "Solari, Cyrene and Toris are with them and they seem to be getting on very well. When I left, Herodotus was discussing the price of ale with Cyrene and the problem of watered-down wine."
"Sounds like my father." Gabrielle sighed.
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle. "Come on. Let's go and say hello."
"My Queen, forgive me." The priestess caught Gabrielle's attention. "I appreciate this is your family and you have not seen them for quite some time, but please try not to tarry. The separation needs to begin at least one candle mark before sundown."
Gabrielle smiled affectionately. "We understand." She and Xena made their way to the Queen's quarters and walked straight in.
Cyrene, Toris and Solari had agreed with one another to greet Gabrielle formally when she arrived, to affirm the reality of her position with the Amazons in front of her family. Cyrene curtseyed, while Solari and Toris both dropped to one knee, all three bowing their heads and resting their right hands over their hearts as they acknowledged Gabrielle's presence.
"Please... rise, all of you." Gabrielle was touched by the gesture, which had not been lost on her kin. "Mother, I'm so happy to see you!" She met Hecuba's gaze and walked forward into her outstretched arms, to share a long and emotional embrace.
"Gabrielle, I've missed you so much!" Hecuba relaxed the hug to wipe her moist eyes and kiss her daughter's cheek. "It's been such a long time." She looked up to smile warmly at Cyrene and Toris. "It seems Xena's mother and I have both missed out on your company these past seasons... all too long seasons!"
Gabrielle stroked her mother's hair and returned the kiss. "I'm so glad you could come... all of you. It wouldn't be the same without you." She smiled as she took her mother's hands in her own and held them tight.
Hecuba stepped to one side, allowing Lila to greet her sister, as Xena and Herodotus acknowledged each other with a nod and expressionless faces.
"Lila! You've grown up!" Gabrielle swept her sister into her arms for a fierce hug, then held her at arm's length to look at her. "You're not a kid any more!"
"I knew you'd say that, Gabby!" Lila grinned as she clasped Gabrielle's upper arms. "And you've grown muscles, by the gods! Where on earth did you get those?" She laughed as she pulled her sister back in for another embrace. "Thank you for writing so often and keeping in touch. I've missed you... even though it's been great to have a room all to myself at home!"
"Yes, well... Gabrielle has a new home now." Herodotus stepped forward. "And she has responsibilities to the Amazons... and to their goddess, and..." He smiled slowly. "And to Xena, too." He looked at Gabrielle with a sigh and stretched out his arms. "Guess my princess really did grow up to be a Queen!"
"Oh Father, it's good to see you." Gabrielle didn't hesitate to dash into the bear hug offered by Herodotus and, for a few moments, enjoyed an embrace from the man she had felt almost estranged from, since she last visited Poteidaia with Xena. Over her father's shoulder, Gabrielle threw a puzzled look to her mother, who responded with an affectionate nod and silently mouthed an affirmation that everything really was fine.
While Gabrielle and her father shared an affectionate reunion, Lila slowly approached Xena. She thought the warrior looked far less intimidating in a cloth shirt and breeches, than she did in her usual leathers and armour. "Xena, it's really nice to see you again." She offered a tentative smile. "It really is."
Xena smiled broadly and slowly closed the gap between them, wrapping her arms around Gabrielle's sister before Lila could ponder whether or not to run. "It's nice to see you too, Lila!" She hugged her tight. "It's good to have you here, 'lil sis!" Xena felt Lila giggle against her chest as the young girl slipped her arms around Xena's waist.
Herodotus let go of Gabrielle, smiling at her. Turning to Xena, he cleared his throat. "Xena, I'm a man of few words and I'm not about to change now. I know when I'm right and when I'm wrong, and I'm not slow to point out either." He dropped his gaze momentarily. "Well, not usually slow... though I have been where you're concerned." He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. "Xena, I wasn't happy when you took my Gabrielle away from Poteidaia..."
Gabrielle bit her tongue at the comment, but Hecuba decided not to hold her own. "Gabrielle wasn't taken, Herodotus! She followed Xena out of the village!"
"That's as maybe. Still amounts to the same mutton, just different gravy! Anyway..." He looked up at Xena. "The short of it is this, Xena: I wronged you from that day on... saw you as a warlord and nothing but trouble. I was sure you'd get Gabrielle killed somewhere!" He cast a glance towards his eldest daughter. "Not that she'd ever listen to me, of course! Anyway, that's the past. I know now Gabrielle is healthy, well fed and happy; she's seen more of life than Poteidaia could've ever offered her. Though it amazes me, I accept she's now the Queen of... I have to admit, a good people, from what I've seen." He swapped a brief grin with Solari and then turned back to Xena, extending his right hand. "I wouldn't blame you if you refused my apology for so long a season of mistrust, Xena, but could you accept the hand of friendship from a stubborn man, who's taken a long time to learn a hard lesson?"
Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief at her father's open confession and his attempt to start again with Xena. As her mother leaned into Gabrielle's shoulder and whispered a few words, her look of disbelief turned to a soft smile and she mumbled under her breath. "Thank you, Artemis."
Xena had prepared herself for verbal combat with Gabrielle's father and was astounded that it was now unnecessary. She regarded Herodotus carefully, assessing his attitude to be genuine, then smiled slowly and took his arm in a warrior's greeting. A moment more and Xena pulled Gabrielle's father into a bear hug. "Hades flames, it's about time we did this, Herodotus!"
"I'm sorry Xena." Herodotus whispered against Xena's shoulder. As they parted, he rested a hand against the warrior's arm. "I hated you for ridiculous reasons, and when I ran out of reasons I hated you without cause! All the while I could have been... I should have been..."
Hecuba came forward, still holding Gabrielle's hand. "What he's trying to say, is that we should have been family to you Xena. You and Gabrielle should have had another home to come to, just as you have with Cyrene at Amphipolis." She caught Cyrene's eye and they exchanged sincere smiles and nods of agreement, before she turned back to Xena and Gabrielle. "Rather selfishly and perhaps stupidly, we had thought we would be blessed with grandchildren when Perdicus convinced Gabrielle to marry him, and we were shocked and saddened when he was killed. He is greatly missed, but even so, we knew he wasn't the right one for Gabrielle." She squeezed Gabrielle's hand. "We knew, deep down, only you ever truly owned her heart, Xena, and one way or another I think even Gabrielle and Perdicus would have realised that soon enough, had Perdicus lived."
"You knew?" Gabrielle caught her mother's eye.
"Oh Gabrielle, did you think Lila and I could not see your heart when we read your letters about your life and adventures with Xena? Did you really think that dear sweet man could be the partner of your soul and replace the warrior princess? That you could honestly settle in Poteidaia?"
"No, but I..." Gabrielle looked at the ground.
Hecuba placed her hand beneath Gabrielle's chin and gently raised her daughter's head. "You are a Queen, Gabrielle, there is no need to look at the ground." She smiled warmly. "It would not have worked with Perdicus because you were never in love with him. His death, by the sword of that evil woman, was a terrible thing to happen, but had he lived, sooner or later your union with him would have come to an end anyway. Your bond to Xena could defeat the gods, my daughter!" She leaned closer and kissed Gabrielle's forehead. "Now then! Your father and I, and Lila, are happy to be a part of this time with you and see you joined to the one you have always meant to be with... from the beginning."
Xena and Gabrielle were utterly speechless as Hecuba looked from one to the other and back again.
Herodotus spoke up, trying to find what he believed to be a sincere smile and a fatherly tone of voice. "Did you two honestly believe we might never be happy for you or be reconciled with you?"
"You could say the thought had crossed our minds." Xena commented dryly.
Herodotus was thoughtful for a few moments. "Xena. Gabrielle. I have no idea if we can make up the seasons lost to us as a family." He tentatively raised a gentle hand to Xena's face and was pleased that she smiled. "And I do mean all of us. But I'll try to be more of a... a father, than I have been to you in the past. You have my word... as you have my blessing."
Xena's eyebrow climbed beneath her fringe. "Does this mean I get to call you 'Father' now?" She managed to prevent the grin that longed to emerge on her lips.
Herodotus blinked at Xena and stared as a smile spread slowly across his face. Then he threw his head back and boomed with laughter. "Xena, as long you never call me late for dinner, you can call me whatever you please!"
Everyone in the hut was delighted to witness the family reunion that had not been expected to be so happy. As Cyrene and Hecuba quietly discussed wedding clothes, and Herodotus and Toris talked with Solari about what they should expect during the joining ceremony, Gabrielle and Xena spoke softly with Lila and each other. Gabrielle disclosed what her mother had whispered to her, about how Herodotus had experienced a vivid dream, persuading him to make amends at the Amazon village and accept the circumstances of Gabrielle's joining with Xena. Lila confirmed that Artemis herself had apparently approached their father in his dreams and they had shared a long discussion about Gabrielle and Xena. When he awoke, Herodotus was convinced that he was being needlessly stubborn on the matter of who his daughter lived and travelled with and to whom she'd given her heart.
Xena chuckled and shook her head as Gabrielle explained that she had asked Artemis some time ago to intervene with her father and wondered if this might have been the goddess' answer to her prayer. The warrior wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and Lila, happier than she dared to mention out loud. "Well, I guess we can ask Artemis tomorrow night... if we remember, but I think we may be just a little preoccupied with everything else!"
The village was peaceful as the sun set; the only disturbance being short bursts of hammering from the Queen's quarters as the village's carpenter, blacksmith and several guards removed the bed and replaced it with a new one, in accordance with tradition. Weeks previously, there had been considerable argument between the carpenter, who wanted the entire frame to be intricately carved with vines and birds, and the young Queen who wished for something 'decidedly less busy' as she put it. Now, the simple but solid oak bed was pieced together and the newly constructed straw mattress placed on it. The nods and smiles from Oenus and the guards, and the slaps on the back for the carpenter, indicated that Gabrielle's plea for simplicity evidently met with wide approval. The single design carved into the head of the bed, consisting of the warrior's chakram inter-linked with the quill of the bard, was beautiful in its uncomplicated declaration of whose heads would rest below the symbol.
For the Queen and her soon-to-be consort, the full day of separation had passed uneventfully, albeit nervously for each of them. Gabrielle had spent the time in quiet reflection with the priestess of Artemis, committing to heart what she wanted to say during the ceremony. Now she was trying to take her mind elsewhere by writing her memories of an adventure with Xena, recording the time they managed to prevent the wrongful execution of an old friend. Xena had spent time in meditation, after Ephiny and Solari advised her to stop pacing so much. She was eager to be joined with Gabrielle, but was concerned about declaring her emotions at so public a ceremony and cared deeply that everything she wanted to say was committed to memory. A shared flask of port and a game of knucklebones with her two friends finally calmed the warrior as sunset approached.
Chosen and trusted royal guards arrived to attend their respective charges, with sweet-scented herbs and flowers for the baths they prepared, along with wedding clothes carefully planned and lovingly made for Xena and Gabrielle. Ephiny and Solari, already bathed and dressed in wedding refinery, excused themselves and left the hut. Unmistakably Amazon in appearance, the greens and gold of the Regent and her newly feathered ceremonial mask, and the blues and whites of the head of the guard, also carrying a newly made mask, were striking as the pair made their way towards the temple. Numerous iron braziers stood in the temple area, ready to be lit for the ceremony, and a platform had been constructed next to the temple, providing the place where the joining itself would be conducted.
Ephiny and Solari split up and began to greet various friends and guests gathering to be part of the joyful evening, answering questions about the ceremony and generally making everyone feel welcome at the Amazon village. They eventually joined Eponin, dressed in the greens and gold of the head of the royal guard and carrying her own perfectly made ceremonial mask. She had been given the task of initially greeting and placing everyone attending, and for a time spoke with Ephiny and Solari concerning what had been done and what else needed to be checked. Everything progressed well as darkness fell and the area filled with people. Now, as the braziers were lit, all that was required was the one to perform the joining and the ones to be joined.
Drums and pipes, positioned to one side of the temple, sounded quietly and Amazon voices lifted in gentle song, chanting praises to Artemis and the Queen that ruled them in her name. As the music heralded the beginning of the ceremony, Ephiny walked to the front where Xenan protectively clutched an ebony box containing the joining gifts of Gabrielle and Xena. She placed her arm around the young Centaur's shoulders and hugged him, proud that her son was taking part in this special event. Solari stood by the corner of the stage, awaiting the arrival of Artemis. Apart from Gabrielle and Xena themselves, Ephiny and the priestess, Solari was the only other one who knew the goddess would not be there simply as an honoured guest but as the one performing the ceremony. She didn't have long to wait before lights appeared and glowed brightly, announcing the arrival of Artemis. The goddess materialised by the edge of the platform and a few paces behind her Athena and Apollo also emerged. Everyone gathered there was awe-struck at the sight of the divine beings; the Amazons present dropped to their knees with bowed heads, while those guests not too surprised to forget their manners bowed low or curtseyed.
Artemis stood tall and regal in dazzling white silks as she raised her hands to the crowds. "My children! Dear friends! Thank you for the warmth of your reception. We appreciate your worship this happy night, but please... save your homage for your Queen and consort. This is their time, so please rise, all of you." She smiled as everyone stood again. "Athena, Apollo and I greet you in peace and our blessing rests with each and every one of you." She nodded to Solari, who smiled and raised a hand, signalling a guard who made immediately for the Regent's hut, and another guard who entered the temple. Solari then stepped down from the platform to stand beside Ephiny and Xenan as all Amazon ceremonial masks were lifted into place. Moments later, Xena came into view, walking slowly to the temple area with Charis at her side carrying the warrior's highly polished sword, chakram and daggers. As Xena stepped onto the stage and approached Artemis, Gabrielle appeared at the doorway to the temple and came forward, accompanied by Coronis carrying the Queen's mask. The priestess followed, holding a golden cord, and moved across the stage to stand respectfully by her goddess' side for the ceremony.
When Xena and Gabrielle saw each other they halted in their tracks and stared. Neither had seen the other in her wedding attire before now, and the sight was enough to momentarily chase all other thoughts from their minds, including being in the presence of three gods. Gone were Gabrielle's Amazon Queen garments and Xena's leathers, replaced by simple, flowing white silks, faintly coloured in places with a leaf motif and trimmed with a matching colour. For Gabrielle this was traditional royal Amazon greens, while soft blues adorned Xena's robes. Gabrielle's hair had been lifted up and interwoven with a gold strand while a matching length of gold was around her waist. Similarly, Xena's hair was worn up, interwoven with a single length of small-leafed ivy, a second strand of ivy encircling her waist. Neither wore jewellery and both had bare arms and low necklines, revealing soft, flawless skin. The over all effect was breathtakingly beautiful.
Athena leaned into Apollo. "Well, I definitely think that's six golden apples you owe me, brother. I said they'd look at home on Olympus and I think I'm right. Don't you?"
Apollo smiled endearingly. "Normally, I hate losing a bet to you Athena, but for once... I'm glad to concede to you. They are perfect, aren't they? We'd better not mention just how perfect to Hera, though. We don't want her getting jealous and throwing Zeus' thunderbolts at the village now, do we!"
Artemis smiled warmly as Gabrielle and Xena walked forward and knelt before her, smiling a little more broadly at the comments of her siblings. "Gabrielle. Xena. My dear children, welcome, and be at peace. This is an auspicious night for you, for this tribe... and for me also." She looked across the crowds and raised her voice. "Mortals! My Amazons, and friends. Hear me now and bear witness to the joining of Gabrielle, Queen of the Thessalian Amazons, to Xena, true warrior." She looked back to Xena and Gabrielle, addressing the young Queen as she spoke the traditional words of ritual. "Gabrielle, is this joining of your own free will?"
Gabrielle smiled at the goddess. "It is."
"Do you enter this sacred bond with your eyes and heart open, ready to serve and rule this woman as your consort in complete love, in faithfulness and loyalty, allowing no other to stand between you?"
Artemis turned to Xena. "Xena, is this joining of your own free will?"
"Do you enter this sacred bond with your eyes and heart open, ready to serve and protect this woman as your Queen in complete love, in faithfulness and loyalty, allowing no other to stand between you?"
Xena smiled at the goddess and turned to Gabrielle. "I do."
Artemis reached out her right hand to her priestess and the golden cord was placed in her up-turned palm. As Xena raised her right hand to the immortal and Gabrielle raised her left, Artemis looped the cord around their wrists several times and gently tied a knot. "As I bind you, so be bound together. As I entwine this cord around you, so let your hearts, minds and bodies entwine in love. As I tie this knot, so let your souls be tied eternally." She smiled to each of them in turn. "You may now make your vows to each other... Gabrielle, you first."
Some distance from the temple, but still within the perimeters of the Amazon village, Ares appeared and watched the proceedings from where he skulked behind a tree. Frustrated and angry that his father and the entire Pantheon had ultimately ruled in favour of Xena and Gabrielle, he could think of no action to change the situation. Now, at least, he felt there might be some promise made by Xena or something vowed by Gabrielle that he could use to trip them in the future and force them apart. As he leaned forward, ready to hear and capture every word, he suddenly felt his ear clamped in a mighty fist.
"I had a nasty suspicion you'd be here, Ares!" Zeus materialised behind his son and looked towards the temple. "My word... don't they look simply wonderful, as mortals go!"
"Look, Father... I can explain why I'm here. I just wanted to..."
"Oh I'm quite aware of what you hope to achieve, my son, but be assured it will come to nothing! And as for your explanation... I'm sure that'll be highly entertaining, so you can explain all you want... back on Olympus!" With that, Zeus and Ares faded from sight, as Zeus raised his free hand in salute. "Good journeys, my young humans..."
Artemis had sensed the arrival and departure of her belligerent sibling, as had Athena and Apollo, but each was confident that Ares would not escape the commands of Zeus this time. She smiled as her Chosen One prepared to make her vows.
Gabrielle turned so that she could face Xena and everyone could hear her. "Xena, to your heart I pledge my heart, to your mind and soul I commit my own and to your body I give myself wholly." She smiled affectionately as she lifted her right hand to the warrior's cheek. "There is no other I can love. There is no other I need. You walk with me in my dreams and you stir the depths of who I am with the deepest joy. I vow to serve you and to cherish you always, and to rule you as your Queen with all the love and wisdom the gods may grant me. Everything that I am and all that I have belongs to you, for all time." She glanced at Artemis, to find the goddess watching her patiently and lovingly as she ended her vows with ritual words once more. "As we are now joined by this cord, so is my life joined to you Xena, unto eternity."
Xena felt unable to speak, wanting only to sink into the forest green eyes so filled with love for her.
Artemis gently called the warrior from her reverie. "Xena... it's your turn now."
The warrior princess cleared her throat softly before speaking. "Gabrielle, in all the world there is no one so important or so precious in my life as you. I am your Amazon to command, and as your consort I pledge my weapons, my breath and my lifeblood to protecting you and honouring your rule as my Queen. As lover and friend I give you my heart, soul and body, though in truth you have owned them since the day we met." She smiled tenderly and raised her left hand to cup Gabrielle's cheek. "This night, I pledge to you my life before the Amazons and before the gods. All that I am and everything I have is yours; I ask only that the gods guide me in serving you with wisdom... and in obedience." The significance of Xena's choice of words was not lost on Gabrielle and, as the warrior made her vows, the young Queen prayed briefly that she would truly deserve the obedience of one so strong-willed and free-spirited. "As we are joined by this cord, so is my life joined to you Gabrielle, unto eternity." Xena finished and she and Gabrielle turned back to Artemis.
The goddess lifted one hand towards Gabrielle and the other towards Xena, touching their foreheads, covering their hearts, and then allowing both hands to rest on the cord that tied their wrists. With each touch, Artemis spoke to them. "Seek always to please and protect each other's minds. Always soothe and bring joy to each other's hearts. Be faithful and true to your physical and spiritual union." She raised a hand palm upwards and the golden cord dutifully untied itself, ending up neatly coiled in the immortal's hand. "Now, you may rise and give each other your tokens of this joining." As Gabrielle and Xena rose to their feet, Artemis turned towards Ephiny and smiled, gesturing for Xenan to come forward. Ephiny softly tapped her son's shoulder and the young Centaur walked forward, remembering to bow to the goddess.
"Thank you, Xenan." Artemis smiled as Xenan grinned through his mass of blonde curls, so like his mother's. The goddess addressed Gabrielle and Xena again as Xenan returned to stand in between Ephiny and Solari, leaving the ebony box in Artemis' hands. "Normally, these gifts would be given one at a time, like your vows. However, I think you will find it appropriate to give them simultaneously." As Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a wry smile, Artemis leaned forward and opened the box for them to look inside.
"Oh Xena!" Gabrielle suddenly grinned excitedly as Artemis lifted from the box a small black pillow exhibiting two beautiful rings and not the one ring as Gabrielle had expected.
"Well I'll be..." Xena reached out and carefully touched the rings, noticeably different sizes, but both perfectly resembling her chakram. The thick bands of gold were inlaid with silver and inset with tiny lapis lazuli, rather than the slivers of blue seashell that adorned the actual chakram. The larger ring carried the staggered arrow pattern, while the smaller ring showed the square design. The warrior picked up the rings, one between each thumb and forefinger, and grinned at Gabrielle. "Timalcus, huh?"
Gabrielle smiled in return. "We have a very sneaky, but wonderful blacksmith!"
"Wait a moment!" Xena frowned. "He's managed to engrave something inside these."
"What does it say?" Gabrielle craned her neck, trying to see.
"Can't quite tell in this light, but it looks like the same words in both rings."
"Here..." Artemis decided to lend a hand, snapping her fingers and producing a small ball of fire at head-height.
Xena smiled as she silently read the inscriptions. Then she lowered the rings for Gabrielle to read what had been engraved.
"They both say...'The strength of my heart. The truth of my soul.' Oh Xena, that's beautiful." She put a hand over her mouth. "It's perfect! Timalcus knew... He really knew."
"Yeah... guess he did, at that." Xena looked across the crowds and soon found the young blacksmith, as did Gabrielle. Timalcus reddened slightly, but beamed happily. He was thrilled to discover his labour was truly liked and meant something to the friends he had come to hold so dear. He kissed the palm of his right hand, laid it across his heart and then raised it in affectionate salute.
"So..." Artemis blew out the ball of flame. "Would you care to stand here, waving to Timalcus, or are you going to place those on each other's fingers?" Xena and Gabrielle grinned in response, then held up the rings meant for each other.
"I'll go first... if that's alright, my Queen?" Xena smiled disarmingly.
"Right now, you could do anything and I'd be happy, Xena!"
Xena slipped the ring onto the fourth finger of Gabrielle's left hand, leaning down to kiss the knuckles. "I give you this as a token of my love, Gabrielle, to be a part of you always, just as I am a part of you."
Gabrielle took the warrior's left hand and placed the ring on her finger, stroking her cheek across the back of Xena's hand. "And I give you this as a symbol of my love, Xena, a token of all that I am to you as you are everything to me."
Artemis took Gabrielle's and Xena's hands in her own and formally addressed the crowds for the final time. "I have joined these two souls and they are now bonded! Receive them as your Amazon sisters, love them well, honour and cherish them, obey them. I give to you your Queen, Gabrielle, and Queen's consort, Xena!"
A peaceful silence reigned as Amazons and guests alike paid respectful homage to the newly joined Queen and consort before them. Eventually the silence was broken by voices raised cheerfully in celebration, during which Artemis gestured to Xena that the time was right to restore her temple to how it should be. Xena nodded and reached beneath her wedding silks to bring out the white arrow from where she had it tied to her thigh.
Artemis smiled and raised an eyebrow. "How novel, warrior child! And it's still warm."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Anything else in there, Xena? Breast-dagger... hand axe?"
Xena laughed. "No! It just seemed the safest place while we were occupied with all this."
"And I'm sure it is the safest place, Xena... unless of course, you're Gabrielle!" Before either Gabrielle or Xena could retort, Artemis called over her shoulder. "Sister, dear, would you be so kind? I didn't wish to be armed tonight."
"Pleasure's all mine." Athena walked forward, her silver armour causing white light to dance across the stage as she brought her bow down from her shoulder. She took the arrow, strung her bow and raised it, loosing the shaft to send it swiftly towards the temple wall. Arrow and temple wall merged suddenly as if both were illusion, and those who knew what was happening were left in no doubt that the gift of Artemis had been restored, resting once more on the alter in the tall white room. Their longings were confirmed when the first beams of moonlight could be seen changing into glowing colours through the high window. Gasps of amazement and whispers of excitement rippled through the crowds, to be quickly replaced by applause and cheers for the double blessing of a royal joining and the restoration of the temple.
The last piece of the ceremony, the recording of the historical event for the tribe, was carried out dutifully by Historias. The scroll of witness was completed and signed by Gabrielle and Xena, Ephiny, as both Regent and first witness to the joining, and Solari as second witness to the joining. Unheard of before, Artemis happily took the quill and penned her name as the presiding priestess. Historias remained solemn, as the procedure demanded, ensuring the joining record was correct in every way, but at the signature of her goddess, her eyes shone with a joy that certainly would not be contained for long.
With everything completed, Xena and Gabrielle happily greeted Artemis and Athena as the friends they had come to trust and the gods they respected. Apollo was pleased to meet his sister's favoured mortals properly for the first time, making it clear that Xena's and Gabrielle's abilities in healing and nursing had captured his attention and his heart over the seasons, so he was joyful to witness their joining and be present for the celebrations.
Artemis drew her siblings together and spoke openly to Xena and Gabrielle. "Before we enter into the festivities, there is a final gift we wish to grant the two of you. You may accept it or refuse it, as you choose."
Gabrielle was taken by surprise. "But you've given us so much, already! You guided us to a place where we could defeat Ares... and what you've given to this tribe..." She gestured towards the temple, where colours now sparkled in the high window. "There's no more to give, surely?"
Artemis looked from Gabrielle to Xena and back again, smiling warmly. "I don't think you truly grasp what you and Xena have helped to achieve for my temples or my Amazons... though possibly Xena has some idea."
Xena smiled slowly. "Perhaps your priestesses no longer face having to take charge of anything outside your control, goddess... Perhaps you know, as I am confident, that this tribe's strength and place of honour will grow under the rule of Gabrielle, consequently honouring you and encouraging other tribes... And perhaps Ares has truly been bound this time and can no longer influence us or this tribe anymore..."
Athena grinned. "Don't you ever get tired of being right, Xena?"
"You tell me!" The warrior chuckled.
"Nevertheless, these things are as you say, my warrior." Artemis smiled at Xena, before continuing. "Gabrielle, you will come to see the truth of this and indeed, you do have... let's just say, a good reign ahead of you, as do my Amazons under your rule." She reached out and stroked Gabrielle's face. "Now hear me well and understand the love with which this gift is given. As everything meant to happen reaches its fulfilment here, and now begins a new chapter of your journey together, there remains a sadness we share with you. On the path that brought you to this place, you Xena lost your son and you Gabrielle lost a daughter who was never what she might have been to you. We understand what faces you in the future, should you seek a daughter and heir for the Queen's mask, unless you invoke the Rite of Cast and train a young Amazon to be your adopted Princess." Artemis acknowledged the looks on Xena's and Gabrielle's faces as they realised what was being granted to them. "Yes my friends, our gift to you is for either of you or both of you bear a child without the problem of seeking a bond-father. Do not rush your decision, because the gift will not be taken away, other than by natural means as you age. If you choose not to accept this gift, nothing will occur. If you choose to receive what we three have agreed upon, you need only seek us in your prayers together, in my temple here, at a time of your choosing. No conditions are attached, other than you be certain of what you ask and that you promise to raise any child with the same love and commitment you have for this tribe and each other."
Xena slipped her hand into Gabrielle's, took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. "This is quite a gift!"
"Not one that is undeserved." Apollo smiled as he rested a hand on Xena's shoulder.
"Nor one that is not given willingly." Athena gently took Gabrielle's hand and squeezed.
Gabrielle felt overwhelmed and smiled through moist eyes. "Thank you." She whispered, then cleared her throat softly, enabling her to speak louder. "Thank you, all of you!" Letting go of Xena's and Athena's hands, she stepped forward and embraced Artemis.
Initially surprised, the goddess was happy to return the hug, smiling into Gabrielle's hair, before kissing her cheek and gently breaking the embrace. "Now... as hard as it may be, we want you to put aside all thought about this for the time being and simply enjoy the celebrations with your friends and families... and everyone!"
"You'll stay for a time?" Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders as she addressed the gods.
"Oh, we've no intention of going back to Olympus just yet." Athena laughed.
"Just so." Apollo chuckled. "And I'd actually like to meet your village healer. From what I've observed, she might even be able to teach me a thing or two!"
"Well, good luck with that one, Apollo." Xena raised an eyebrow and grinned. "Pyras doesn't take well to fuss or compliments!"
The group made their way down the steps as several young Amazons threw handfuls of flower petals over the newly joined couple. Ephiny, Solari and Eponin were the first to greet them, offering warm congratulations as Cyrene and Toris, Hecuba, Herodotus and Lila each stepped forward in turn to embrace Xena and Gabrielle.
As individuals, in couples and as groups, friends approached to greet and congratulate the pair. Gabrielle shrieked in delight as Meleager stepped forward from the crowds to wrap her in strong arms and spin her round. More than a few Amazons reached for their swords before Xena raised a reassuring hand to them. Bringing Gabrielle gently to a halt, Meleager released her and embraced Xena affectionately. Gabrielle and Xena were pleased to see their invite had reached the ageing warrior through his continued contact with Poteidaia. They were also pleased to hear that he had remained sober for longer than four seasons and was even thinking of settling with a respectable widow who 'had plans for him', as he put it.
Until Solari came to his rescue, Autolycus had been desperately waving his scroll of invite and pleading with three Amazon guards that he most certainly was there for the celebrations and not to rob the village. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief when the head of the guard slapped him on the back and assured her sister Amazons that all was well. When an opportune moment arrived, Solari pushed Autolycus forward.
"Queen Gabrielle. Xena." Autolycus bowed courteously and then looked up with a grin. "My, but don't you two clean up well!"
"I almost thought the King of Thieves wouldn't be here." Gabrielle reached out both hands.
Autolycus took Gabrielle's hands, bringing them to his lips and kissing them softly. "Well, if your guards had their way, I'd be skewered on a dozen swords by now!"
"It was three." Solari laughed. "And they just naturally thought he was up to no good again."
"What do you mean by 'again', Solari?" Autolycus was indignant.
"Well, last time you were here..." Xena smiled broadly. "Ya helped me steal my body back from an Amazon funeral pyre, remember?"
"My dear Xena." Autolycus turned to the warrior and took her hands, bringing them to his lips as he had with Gabrielle's. "I can thankfully say that helping you out didn't damage my reputation, as I'd feared." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "And I'll always be there, should either of you need me."
"We know, Autolycus." Xena grinned. "That's because beneath that cool, calculating, suave exterior of yours, beats a heart of pure gold!"
"That, dear lady, is no more than a vicious rumour! If I had a golden heart I would have sold it to the highest bidder years ago." He laughed. "Still, I am truly happy to be with you tonight. The ceremony was quite something to behold and you two look absolutely wonderful." He tilted his head and regarded Gabrielle and Xena, one after the other. "It has to be said, however, it's about time... even though I always knew you would eventually get yourselves and your plans together!"
Gabrielle smiled. "How could you possibly know that? The only time you spent any real length of time with the two of us was when Xena's spirit was inside you and... oh, by the gods! You had her feelings and everything, didn't you!" She blushed slightly and turned to Xena, chuckling. "We never really did discuss those events much, did we?"
Xena reddened. "No, we didn't. I guess I thought you might suspect how I really felt when my spirit got shocked outta Autolycus and into you at the end, when you fought Valesca. Maybe we should've talked about it more."
"I'll say you should! Could've saved yourselves a lot of time." Autolycus joined in with a grin. "I mean... there I was that time... one moment you're talking to Gabrielle through me and the next, you're kissing her with a tenderness and a passion that left me quite giddy!"
Gabrielle smiled affectionately at Xena, before replying to Autolycus. "Yeah, well it was still your hand on my behind, not Xena's!"
Autolycus blushed. "Ah well, you have to appreciate that any working dog at the master's table may be tempted - rightly or wrongly - to steal a little of the master's food!"
"Uh huh?" Xena raised an eyebrow. "Okay, but just bear in mind there's no more commission for the working dog on that particular job, Autolycus."
"I wouldn't even dream of it, Xena." Autolycus smiled. "And just for the record, I do wish you both every happiness and, for you dear Gabrielle, may your reign be a long and peaceful one."
"Thank you, Autolycus." Gabrielle smiled.
"Yeah, thanks." Xena rested a hand on the King of Thieves' shoulder. "Stay with us a few days, won't you? You'd be welcome."
Autolycus nodded happily as Solari pulled him away to introduce him to various Amazons and offer him a mug of wine.
Continuing to clasp hands with guests and receive hugs and kisses from friends, Xena turned to find her double smiling back at her, though temperately dressed and with her hair cut short, Meg seemed a far cry from the trouble-finder Xena and Gabrielle had been used to rescuing. It also took several moments before the bearded and smartly dressed man standing by Meg's side was recognised as Joxer.
"Oh, by the gods!" Gabrielle's embrace for Meg and then Joxer was warm and her smile sincere. "So you did stay at the castle of King Lias to look after Princess Diana after all. I'd wondered where you'd got to, Joxer!"
Xena stepped forward to hug Meg, then a surprised Joxer, just as warmly. "I only hope you're learning to cook properly, Joxer... don't wanna hear ya poisoned King Lias' entire court!"
"No..." Joxer grinned. " Actually, I'm a real apprentice there to a Gaul who's a great cook, Xena." He looked up sheepishly. "It beats being a half-witted fool pretending to be a warrior."
Xena grabbed his shoulder and leaned close to him. "Joxer, maybe as a warrior your sword and your... dress sense lack co-ordination and any real fight, and you're pretty accident prone, but as far as I'm concerned you've always had the heart of a warrior. Ya always stand up when it really matters and you'll always be a friend to us... and Argo!" She grinned. "Don't ever forget that."
"Thanks, Xena." Joxer reddened at the comment and was quiet for a moment. "Oh, one thing we do need to let you both know... Diana's Queen now."
"She's crowned...?" Gabrielle looked at Xena, then back to Joxer and Meg. "Diana's Queen, now?"
"Yeah... an' I got somethin' here for ya." Meg began to dig down deep into a pocket in her skirt and, for a moment, Gabrielle thought she was sure to produce some kind of stolen trinket. She breathed a sigh of relief and mentally chastised herself when Meg held up a small scroll. "I s'pose you should have it, Gabrielle, bein' a Queen an' all yerself." Meg smiled. "It's from Queen Diana."
Gabrielle took the scroll tentatively. "Then this means King Lias is dead?"
"Yeah." Joxer smiled sadly. "About three seasons ago now, but it was peaceful and in his sleep. He'd been ill for a while with a weak heart."
"It was a real shame." Meg hung her head slightly. "He was a good King, but he was a really nice old man too... ya know what I mean?"
"Yes, we do." Xena smiled warmly at Meg.
"You, Gabrielle and Joxer, and King Lias, were the first ones who ever give me a second chance, Xena. Kind... an' good, all of yer." Meg took a deep breath and shrugged her shoulders. "But Diana's just like that too... she's a lovely Queen."
"I guess that's why she couldn't make it, if she's been crowned so recently." Xena commented.
Joxer nodded. "She has her hands full with a couple of treaties she'd been trying to agree with neighbouring towns. Still, she told Meg and I just before we left that she was very disappointed not to be here with you."
Gabrielle looked up from the scroll. "Diana's well and she sends her congratulations and heartfelt wishes. You and I have been invited to spend some time at the castle and she says, to honour us, she's declared that any Amazon entering her lands will be made welcome and will find hospitality amongst her people and protection in her castle, if it's ever needed."
Xena smiled. "She's learned a lot about the world outside those castle walls."
Gabrielle invited Joxer and Meg to stay for a few days, if they were able to. She wanted to find the time to send word back with them for Queen Diana, to pass on her respects and sympathy for the loss of her father and to thank her for her kind wishes and the extended friendship to the Amazon Nation.
The night wore on and Xena and Gabrielle had met almost all their guests. Among them were Tildus and several other Centaurs who were close friends to the happy couple. Various Queens or Regents from more than a dozen other Amazon tribes in the known world, had attended the royal joining, accompanied by small groups of their people. Xena and Gabrielle spoke softly together, concerning the handful of invited friends such as Hercules, Iolaus and the ever-seasonal Salmoneus, who couldn't be there, along with one or two Amazon tribes that couldn't make it, either.
Ephiny approached Xena and handed her a scroll sent by the tribe in Asia Minor where, for the warrior princess, only memories of heartache and death remained.
Xena took the scroll cautiously from Ephiny, ready to chide her for even sending an invite to a place that was so much a part of her dark past, when she noticed the seal was broken and her Regent was smiling broadly. "You've opened this one, Eph."
Ephiny leaned forward and gently kissed the warrior's cheek. "Xena, you're my friend and tonight you became my sister. Do you honestly think I would hand you the slightest bad news on the night of your joining to my Queen?" She finished with a grin and a wink in Gabrielle's direction.
The warrior calmed the sudden churning in her stomach and unrolled the message. Gabrielle longed for Xena to read it out loud, but understood she wanted the privacy of her own thoughts. She was about to discover what was now thought of her, by the tribe who remembered Xena as the one who deceived their Queen, all but wrecked their Princess' relationship with her partner, and killed their head of the royal guard. Gabrielle watched Xena's face change from being expressionless, to a having a look of disbelief and eventually ending in a broad grin as the warrior took a deep breath and smiled, first at Gabrielle and then Ephiny.
"Happy news?" Gabrielle smiled in return.
"Amazing news!" Xena took another deep breath and sighed. "I've been forgiven by the new Queen, who took up the mask a few seasons ago and, consequently, forgiven by the whole tribe too."
Gabrielle reached out and took Xena's hand. "Presumably this new Amazon Queen would be the Amazon Princess you originally... hurt, so long ago?"
"Yeah. She says it's all in the past and her tribe's paid close attention to news of my life since I got involved with the tribe here, under Melosa's rule." She grinned at Ephiny. "They acknowledge that I'm not the warlord I once was and they send Gabrielle and I their blessing on our joining." Ephiny grinned, nodding in response.
"That's wonderful, Xena." Gabrielle was relieved to hear the news. "Do they say why they can't be here, or do they just feel their presence might not be appropriate for now?"
"Oh right..." Xena handed Gabrielle the scroll. "No, they're having a few problems with a would-be-warlord in the area and need every sword-hand available, just in case he attacks."
Gabrielle frowned. "Maybe we could send them some of our warriors, to boost their show of strength? And we could pass on this news to our sister tribes here. If we all send warriors, this trouble-maker should just turn tail and run!"
"That's a great idea Gabrielle, and one we should definitely act on." Ephiny reached out and took the scroll. "But that's Amazon tribe business and, for now, you and Xena have no other business except each other and the celebrations for your joining. So get on with it!" The Regent rested her hand on Xena's shoulder for a moment. "Seems like you've come full circle Xena. I pray your seasons are now long and happy ones." She turned to Gabrielle. "And I know the rest of us can look forward to exactly that with you as our Queen." She bowed and then stepped back with a grin. "Take care of each other... and have fun tonight!"
Gabrielle and Xena watched Ephiny move off towards Solari and a group of Amazon guests from Mesopotamia. As they turned to each other, they smiled and leaned in for a brief, gentle kiss.
"Welcome home, Xena." Gabrielle stroked the warrior's cheek. "My warrior!"
Xena smiled tenderly. "Welcome home... my Queen!"
"That doesn't make sense when you say it, Xena."
"Oh? But it makes sense when you say it to me?"
"And why's that?"
"'Cos I'm Queen and you're not!"
"Uh huh..." Xena's eyebrow ascended. "But I'm bigger and stronger and can pin you down whenever I want."
Gabrielle threw her a wicked grin. "Well, not in front of the guests, okay? But hang on to that thought for later!"
Xena chuckled as she placed a protective arm around Gabrielle. "I might well do that."
They walked back into the midst of the celebrations, just as wine cups were being provided to everyone. Surrounded by friends and loved ones, they contentedly raised salutes to their gods, friends and family, the Amazons, and to each other. They both believed they had never been happier before this night and wondered if they could ever be so happy again.
End Of Part Six.
(10 Years Later)
The quarter moon break was halfway through and the four Amazon friends agreed over breakfast that it was just the quiet time they needed, away from the village and Amazon business. Queen Gabrielle and Xena rode side-by-side, Gabrielle's piebald mare ever content to be shoulder-to-shoulder with Xena's palomino, Argo III. Behind the Queen and consort rode three young children, fulfilment of the promise made by Artemis, Athena and Apollo. Achelois, Gabrielle's daughter and heir to the Queen's mask, rode beside Xena's twin boys, Ephinus and Solarin, named after the friends bringing up the rear. Ephiny and Solari listened with amusement to the twins' whispered argument as the boys bickered over which of them had the larger horse, until their mother pointed out that their horses were the same age and height, so they should stop arguing or walk. Off to one side, Ephiny's son cantered, happily galloping ahead occasionally to check the path ahead was clear and safe, before racing back again. Xenan had grown into a fast and powerful young Centaur and his prowess with the bow and spear was virtually unmatched. His first love however, was poetry, closely followed by diplomacy, skills learned, he proudly pointed out, from his favourite adopted Aunt Gabrielle, Queen to the Thessalian Amazons.
Gabrielle's reign had proved fruitful and peaceful, not only for the Amazons at Thessaly but for the entire region as treaty after treaty and various trading routes had been agreed and established. Many had initially thought this young peace-loving bard who now led the Amazons was paying too much attention to the politics of trade and not enough to Thessaly's defence. It did not take too many moons to reveal her wisdom however, as war or the threat of war raised its ugly head and the alliances established by Gabrielle brought neighbour and nation together against whatever danger lurked at one or other of their borders. The strength of the Amazon army under Xena and the strength of the Centaur army under Tildus himself were unsurpassed in Amazonia and, combined, their reputation and news of their approach were often sufficient to drive off a potential attack. Where an enemy was determined in its advance, battle was usually short-lived and the enemy quickly routed. Life was good, though no one took the peace for granted. Encouraged by Gabrielle's reign, her diplomacy and the discipline of her army, the Amazon Nation as a whole had re-established itself across the known world as the proud, successful people of Artemis.
The friends and their children turned from a small stream and progressed up a rocky incline as rain clouds gathered and thunder rolled in from the distance. The stony valley ahead, leading to a cave known to both Xena and Gabrielle, was a welcome sight and they were able to reach the cave mouth before torrential rain fell. Ephinus and Solarin both jumped as a clap of thunder sounded overhead and Achelois commented about silly little boys scared of thunder.
"Achelois! Be a little kinder to your brothers." Gabrielle turned from her saddle as she dismounted. "They're smaller than you, remember." She helped Xena light a couple of torches as she watched her daughter apologise to the boys without any prompting.
Once the apology was accepted, Achelois proceeded to explain how there was no real need to be afraid as the noise came from Hephaestus, hammering and shaping new thunderbolts for Zeus. All the while, she helped Ephinus and Solarin dismount from their young horses and gather the reins as they walked down the passageway of the cave.
"She's so like you, Gabrielle." Xena chuckled, before whispering under her breath. "Since Achelois found her voice in her early years, she's never stopped talking! And I swear she's growing up to be a bard."
"She's just as much yours as mine, don't forget." Gabrielle smiled affectionately at the warrior, still tall and strong as she ever was, and hardly changed over the seasons apart from a few white flecks at her temples. "I'm still waiting for her to perfect your war cry! You know she's been practising it, don't you?"
Xena stifled a grin at the light-hearted comment, before looking ahead to the main cave and sighing. "It's been a long time since we came back here."
"Yeah... funny how an old cave can hold such sweet memories though." Gabrielle cast a side-ways glance at Xena. "Maybe one day we could sneak away from the village, just the two of us, and stay here for a couple of days? The children would be fine with Ephiny and Solari or Iphitus and Timalcus, or any number of couples at the village..."
Xena chuckled. "That would be nice, but you and I both know we'd never be able to 'sneak' away... your Amazons are far too well trained."
"Yeah! And whose fault is that?" Gabrielle playfully dug the warrior in the ribs.
The group moved into the central cave and quickly had a cheerful fire burning in the fire pit. They filled the braziers with kindling and charcoal and then lit them, driving the shadows further away. Solari and Xenan, with 'help' from the twins, fed and watered the horses, while Xena, Gabrielle and Ephiny began to prepare a meal for the late afternoon. All the while they were entertained by Achelois, making up a story about a dragon who once lived in this very cave and who was no bigger than a mouse.
As afternoon progressed into evening, Ephiny suggested they might as well stay in the cave for the night as they were comfortable, well fed and no one really wanted to brave the rain, even if it had almost stopped. Everyone accepted the idea and laid out bedrolls around the fire, settling down to talk and to play with the children.
Achelois overheard her parents whisper something about how long they had been together and yet how short a space of time it really seemed. "Mother?"
Gabrielle and Xena both looked up and chorused. "Yes, Achelois?" They grinned at each other.
"Tell me again how you met Xena."
The warrior groaned quietly as Gabrielle laughed and shook her head, taking her daughter's hand. "I have told you that story so many times, my heart. Aren't you tired of it?"
"No! It's my favourite."
As if on cue, Ephinus and Solarin both turned round from where they had been climbing all over a very patient Xenan and called for the story too.
Ephiny smiled. "I guess you're out-voted, Gabrielle."
"Yeah, go on." Solari grinned. "I love hearing about how you saved Xena's life and then how she beat the... uh, I mean how she overcame Draco and saved Amphipolis!"
Gabrielle laughed. "Okay, but let's get really comfortable."
Around the fire pit, Xenan relaxed as Ephiny and Solari both rested against the Centaur's side. The twins happily clambered onto the Amazons' laps and Gabrielle leaned against Xena, whose lap had been claimed by Achelois.
Xena wrapped her arm protectively across Gabrielle's shoulders and, in the firelight, Gabrielle regarded her friends and children with a contented heart as she sighed and began her story. "A long time ago, in a small village called Poteidaia, there was a young girl called Gabrielle. One day, something amazing happened, that changed everything... forever."
Achelois : She who takes away pain.
Daughter to Gabrielle. The name denotes Gabrielle's recognition of healing from the past, in particular the events surrounding the demon-child, Hope.
Aerope : Sky face.
Agradon : Wild.
Insane, hateful and violent warlord.
Briseis : She who prevails.
Priestess to Apollo. Rescued from Agradon's camp.
Calus : Fair.
Young boy rescued from Agradon's camp.
Charis : Grace.
Amazon royal guard. Sister to Prisca, and niece to Tethys.
Coronis : Crow. Raven.
Amazon royal guard. Betrothed to Eponin (eventually). Named for her black hair. Coronis is also one of the titles of Athena.
Dirce : Cleft. Double.
Amazon warrior. Named after the double-edged sword favoured by Amazon warriors.
Dictynnas : Of the net.
Amazon cook, with a great fishing technique.
Geilissa : Smiler.
Amazon royal guard. Sister to Prax.
Gelanor : Laughter.
Young man rescued from Agradon's camp. Betrothed to Prisca.
Herecleon : (Siderian)
Thin stem, red flowers, leaves like coriander. Grows near lakes and rivers.
Slows bleeding. This is a plant ancient herbalists may well have used to help heal wounds received in battle, hence Xena's use of it. Apparently, it's an excellent remedy for treating wounds inflicted by iron!
Herecleon : (Nymphaean)
Club-like root. Makes a man impotent for up to twelve days.
Historias : Well informed.
Amazon record keeper and village historian.
Causes vertigo and insanity. Not used in this story. Just thought the 'purists' amongst you would like to know a little more about what spiked Gabrielle's nut-bread (re: the episode Altered States).
Iphitus : Shield strength.
Amazon warrior. Betrothed to Timalcus.
Lysidice : Dispensing with justice.
Amazon Crone. One of the leaders of the Amazon Council.
Machaerus : Butcher.
One of Agradon's Generals.
Marpesius : Snatcher.
One of Agradon's Generals.
Oenus : Solitary bird of omen.
Amazon blacksmith. Mother to Timalcus.
Pasiphae : She who shines.
Amazon scout. Bond-mate to Polymela.
Polymela : Of many songs.
Young Outlander man and bard. Works for the Amazons as a shepherd. Bond-mate to Pasiphae.
Prax : Doer.
Amazon royal guard. Sister to Geilissa.
Prisca : One who rends (also from Priscilla or Scylla).
Amazon warrior and scout. Rescued from Agradon's camp. Niece to Tethys and betrothed to Gelanor.
Pyras : Of the flames.
Amazon healer. Cantankerous old woman, but a remarkable herbalist.
Tethys : Disposer.
Amazon Crone. One of the leaders of the Amazon Council. Legendary warrior in her time. Aunt to Charis and Prisca.
Thebe : Admirable.
Priestess to Apollo. Rescued from Agradon's camp.
Timalcus : Honoured strength.
Blacksmith and honorary Amazon. Betrothed to Iphitus.
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