Disclaimers See Chapter 1


Beyond Destiny

 Chapter 3

Leave Takings

The gathering of women searched the familiar faces of their sister Amazons after the ceremony had been completed. Forming dozens of small groups, the women speculated on their new queen. Each Amazon held her own opinion. Some held great hope, others preferred to let time take its course and prove whether or not she was worthy of the mask, while still others considered Gabrielle an outsider and unworthy of her new station.

“I tell you, I saw something in her eyes when she held the mask up for all to see. She is Artemis’ Chosen, I just know it. She’s been blessed by the gods,” spoke Arame.

“Touched by the gods, more-the-like. She’s mad. Did you see the way she taunted Velasca? The girl is nuts if she thinks Velasca will just let herself be made a joke of in front of the entire tribe,” Pirinea argued.

“She must have had a reason to do what she did. Besides, Velasca was ridiculing one of our finest warriors as though the woman was lower than dirt. Perhaps, she was only giving Velasca a taste of her own medicine,” Rawmia thought aloud. “It’s not like Gabrielle’s some power hungry woman taking her chance and pushing it down the throats of those who would oppose her. No, I can see Velasca doing much worse than taunting any one of us if she had been made queen today.”

“I say, give her time. Gabrielle will prove herself one way or another. We have already had a taste of what Velasca’s rule would have been like. The girl just needs time,” Elithae suggested.

“I still say we were better off with Velasca. We know her and what she might do. What do we really know about Gabrielle?” Pirinea questioned.

A new voice broke in on the conversation the four women had been having. “She will prove herself to be a queen unlike any we have ever seen. Elithae speaks wisdom. Even if you doubt her ability, give Gabrielle time to prove herself to you. I have no doubt that she shall,” Ephiny said, her voice strong in its belief before she nodded to the group and moved toward another such clique.

The women watched the golden haired warrior go as she worked her way through the women gathered, smoothening any negative feelings that might arise by speaking of her own belief in the woman and nodding to the wisdom of allowing the new queen time. And considering that the only alternative would be to challenge the young woman after her grieving period had been completed, there really was nothing anyone could legally do to remove their young queen.

Silence followed for a brief moment before the women began to talk once more. The women choosing to follow some unspoken agreement and turning their speculation on to more familiar topics.

“So, what is this I hear about a centaur entering the village just a bit ago?” Elithae asked.

A truculent Pirinea spoke in response, “I don’t know. But I don’t like it. Not one bit.”

The inside of the hut was dark and seemed to embody shadow. Her sarcophagus had been brought here after Ephiny and I had excused ourselves from the body of women warriors. The shelter was used purposefully to house the bodies of those awaiting the flame.

I smiled sadly as I looked upon the dark container and spoke as I approached. “They made me queen. Who would have ever thought it. The little girl you found in Potodeia became queen of the Amazons?”

I reached out to run my hand over the smooth, hard, cold stone surface of the container. “I need to let you go now Xena. You’ve traveled your path. I now I have to find my own way in life. You need to fly free and I have to go on.” I blinked away the tears that threatened to overcome my best efforts at saying my final farewells to my most beloved friend.

I walked alongside the coffin as I talked to the spirit of the woman inside. I saw the array of her weapons and picked up the chakram. It was as unique as the woman who had wielded it and the two would forever be interconnected in my mind. I brought the disc-like weapon to my lips and kissed it gently.

Clearing my throat of emotion, I continued, "I won't say goodbye to you, Xena. I'll always carry a part of you in my heart. Instead," I spoke as I laid the weapon upon the lid of her casket, "till we meet again, my friend."

My sad smile took on a hint of mischief as I announced a surprise. "I promised you never to tell Solan who his mother was; but, I never said a word about asking Kaleipus whether he felt the boy should know or not."

I moved to the doorway before turning to address her once more. "He's grown so much since we last saw him. I hardly recognized him,” I confided to her. “Your son reminds me so much of you. But just wait here for a bit and see for yourself,” I told her before I left the hut returning within a matter of moments with Solon in tow.

“I’ll leave now and give you some privacy,” I said as I looked at Solan, his hand resting upon the lid of her coffin. “I’ll be just outside,” I assured the young man who had yet to give word to the loss of a new friend he was only coming to know and the mother he never did, then slipped from the darkened room and waited.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I once again stood upon the raised platform. One of my arms lay upon Solan’s shoulder as he stood beside me and joined me in watching as Xena’s sarcophagus was carried to the funeral pyre. I knew that some would be upset by the fact that I had included a young man, a young centaur to be more precise, to stand with me where no man - as far as I knew - had ever stood before to look upon a ceremony no man had ever seen before; but, it was the right thing to do.

I lowered my mask as the stone container came to its final resting place. Four warriors lowered their arrows to the ceremonial flame and presented the burning arrows to me. I nodded and signaled them to light the fire.

Firing from the four directions, the burning arrows were launched and each one struck the pyre. Flames rose as we silently watched on, the only sound the slow and steady beat of a drum. I slackened the reins with which I held in my grief and cried in silence as I watched the second volley of arrows join their sisters in making certain that the flame would hold and burn until nothing remained but ashes.

The shoulders under my hand shook. I gripped them to let him know that he was not alone. Unseen tears flowed down my cheeks as my gaze never wavered from dancing flames of the growing fire.

At first, it was only seen by one who had been standing near Gabrielle and who had looked away from the funeral pyre to the queen. Her eyes widened when she realized what she was seeing. Shaking the shoulder of a woman standing beside her, Arame, nodded to the queen. After a moment the other woman also noticed what her friend had seen and both alerted others. The queen continued to look upon the fire, her arm upon the young man’s shoulder in comfort and compassion, oblivious to the stir among the Amazons she had begun, as more and more of the women turned to look her way.

Mesmerized, one of the warriors spoke her thoughts aloud, her voice in awe, “The mask. It weeps.”

Tears ran unchecked down the its wooden surface as the young queen’s shoulders shook in heart-felt grief.

Gradually, the stone container holding Xena’s body began to heat. As time passed, its contents were affected as the air within the coffin became excited and expanded - pushing more and more against the walls of its prison as the pressure built. Then finally, with a thunderclap of sound, the lid cracked and a portion of it flew upward only to crash upon the remainder of the sarcophagus pushing it downward - deeper into the blaze.

“Yes,” Queen Gabrielle was heard to say, “fly free now Xena.”

 Solan and I stood together as we watched the flames envelop the sarcophagus and all it held within. I had been shocked by the explosion of sound as well as the antics of the container’s lid. Xena, you always were one for big entries and exits. I should have expected that even death would not have been able to change that.

Her son and I stood united as we bid her a final farewell. Looking away from the funeral pyre for the first time since I signaled it to be lit, I saw that a great many of the women I was now to lead looked on me in awe. Feeling uncomfortable by the scrutiny, I spoke to Solan in a voice loud enough that all might hear it above the roaring of the blaze, “I told her to fly free. She just had to take me literally.”

I heard a few shaky chuckles just as Solan joined me in celebrating her freedom with laughter. The laughter came more easily after a moment.

I will not rule through fear and superstition, I silently promised both myself and the women who stood with me today.

 Until we meet again Xena, I will be Gabrielle - Queen of the Amazons.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I was allowed a brief period of respite from the hub of the day’s happenings some time after Xena’s pyre had collapsed in upon itself in order to bequeath proper hospitality to my two guests. I looked at the pair of them and noted how the horse paid special loving attention to the young man in mourning. I hoped that the psychic bond between them would help Solan recover from the shock that must even now be reverberating through his mind and soul.

I believe I was actually jealous of the boy then. I had no one and had squandered the chance I’d had with his mother. The tomorrows and somedays would never be. She was dead and I had let countless possibilities drift through my fingers like so much sand.

I shook myself and approached the centaur pairing. “So, who is this handsome creature? I don’t believe we have been properly introduced,” I queried. They simultaneously turned to face me, each independent of the other, yet connected.

Solan was nudged by the golden stallion and the boy smiled at the horse’s impatient gesture. “Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons, this is Sunlight, Terror of the Centaur Herd and my other,” he said as if sharing some private joke between the two of them. I sensed there was more to come and so kept silent as I smiled upon them. After a softer nudge, the golden-haired young man seemed to collect himself with a deep calming breath. “We wish to thank you for inviting us. I only wish I could have learned about Xena in some other way. I wish...” he said, his voice drifting into that land of might-have-been that I knew so well.

“I know that leaving you with the centaurs was the hardest thing she ever did. She feared that you’d become a living target, that you might follow in her footsteps and pick up the sword. She loved you so much that she gave you up for the promise that you might live a normal childhood. If you ever want to talk, know that I am here. I’ll never be the mother you never knew; but, something tells me that you might become the brother I never had.”

Sunlight neighed as though to remind us of his presence. “You too Sunlight, O Terror of the Centaur Herds,” I spoke in inclusion.

The golden stallion’s sharp nod and loud whinny soon had us laughing and he seemed quite pleased with himself for this accomplishment. 

With a soft smile and a brief hug, we said our fare-wells.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ephiny found me as I returned to the village and quickly brought me to one of the larger structures that was the queen’s place of residence. It was slightly taller than those in its close vicinity and took up half again as much room but had an over-all welcoming effect.

Entering, I looked about as Ephiny presented me my new home and spoke on the history behind a number of the possessions that had been passed down from each queen to the next. I removed the mask and set it on a stand made to hold it. Fanning my sweat-soaked face, I listened with interest that perhaps only a storyteller might exhibit in such circumstances. When at last she came to the weapons hanging about the main-room, her voice became a soft comforting sound as my attention became fixated on a bow that had captured my eyes.

Curious, I reached out to the queen’s bow only to have my hand slapped. “Haven’t you heard a single word I said? The bow is cursed.”

“But, you said it was handed from Artemis to the first queen of the Amazons. Why would it be cursed?” I asked.

“It’s a long story,” she said to shake my interest.

She should have known better. Being a bard and having a fondness for long stories, it only increased my curiosity. “So? I’m not exactly going anywhere, and last I heard Xenan was still visiting with his grandparents so you don’t necessarily have anywhere to be at the moment, do you?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know the whole story,” she confessed. “ I only know that it was supposedly blessed by the Huntress herself and, it was claimed, never missed its mark. It was also rumored to fit itself to the queen who held it. Not long before the first of the Centaur Wars the story becomes foggy and it became cursed. You’d do better to ask Sharria, our shaman, about it.”

“Well, it looks too big for me anyway and I don’t care what the stories say; I couldn’t hit the broad side of my father’s barn at my best. Sometimes, my friend, stories are just stories.” I smiled encouragingly for her to continue on. My mind returned to it now and then throughout her recitation until I mentally dismissed the weapon.

The day had been long and even now the ceremonial drums continued to beat, merging with a growing throbbing at my temples. Beginning at the day’s break they had only stopped momentarily when the flame had been set to Melosa’s mask and began once again after I had drawn the mask of the new queen down over my own face. They had yet to show any signs of letting up and my head pounded in time with the percussion instrument’s steady beat.

“When will that infernal noise stop?” I complained to my companion.

“What noise?” She paused and looked at me, “The drums? I told you yesterday that they will continue until Artemis has fully arisen.”

I sat myself in the closest chair and rubbed at my throbbing temples. I heard Ephiny walk behind my chair and her fingers replaced mine as she soothingly rubbed most of the pain away. “My queen?” she asked, her voice weighted with worry.

“Gabrielle,” I moaned softly. “You’re a good friend. I’m sure there will be times when you will have to acknowledge me as your queen; but otherwise, please call me Gabrielle.”

“Gabrielle? I have two questions. First, why did you offer Velasca the mask and then take it away?” her soft voice held more than a hint of curiosity.

“I didn’t exactly offer her the mask,” I answered.

“No, I remember quite well. You held it out to her and whispered for her to take it,” Ephiny quietly argued.

“No, I offered her a choice - the knife or the mask. She chose the knife - chose herself before the tribe,” I explained. Her fingers stopped for a moment as she absorbed what I had told her. I sighed when her fingers continued their mission of mercy. “What’s the other question?”

“Hmmm? What?” she absently queried.

“You said you had two questions,” I reminded her.

“Oh. How did you do it?” she vaguely questioned.

“Do what?” I asked in hopes for clarification.

“How did you make the mask weep?” my friend mysteriously queried.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, feeling that there was something I wasn’t hearing - something I was missing.

“Soon after the arrows lit the pyre, the queen’s mask - your mask - wept.”

I looked up and over my shoulder to her and saw that she was serious. “I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. I did cry as Solan and I watched the fire catch and grow in its intensity. It struck home then that she was indeed beyond my mortal reach and that I will never hold her again. More than that, I cannot say.” A thought suddenly struck me then. ‘Was that why everyone was looking at me so funny earlier when Xena’s spirit took flight?’ “For all I know, the tears could have escaped through a hole in the mask made by Velasca’s throwing knife.”

A soft chuckle was my reward. “Perhaps her knife was guided by the gods, after all,” she responded, her voice carrying more than a touch of humor at the thought.

“I tell you, it’s a sign from the gods,” Velasca spoke to any who might listen. “The queen’s mask wept because it was worn by an outsider. She is no more Amazon than the boy who stood beside her today. Tell me, when has a centaur ever taken part in any of our ceremonies?”

An occasional Amazon nodded, some with the resignedness that came from hearing something carped upon. Most of the women simply dismissed her, likening her to a child crying out for a toy that had been given to another. She marked those who nodded as potential allies as she joined the rest of the female population of the settlement as they collected in the vicinity of the night’s ceremonial fire to watch those warriors who now danced in tribute to Artemis.

“Why won’t they listen?” the dark-haired warrior asked the empty air.

“Don’t worry, you’re time is fast approaching,” Pirinea counseled as she walked with Velasca. “I heard from Ephiny earlier that Gabrielle plans to go on to Amphipolis with Xena’s ashes. Then will be the time to strike. She will have abandoned her people and left them without a queen. Don’t worry, you will once again be queen, Velasca.” And I will be by your side, the red-headed warrior thought to herself.

“We must return soon, my ...” the blond-haired warrior quickly corrected herself, “Gabrielle. You will need to dance for Artemis’ blessing as our new queen.”

“Your Gabrielle ...?” I teased, my voice dripping with mischief. I laughed outright at the look on Ephiny’s face. “Don’t worry. I remember you mentioning that you’re in love with one of the women of the tribe. I won’t tell if you don’t.” Grinning, I then proceeded to give her the once-over, my eyes traveling up and down her body to give my teasing that little extra something. I couldn’t help but admire her physical form, in a purely aesthetic manner of course.

I had never really looked at Ephiny this way before. I had been all too preoccupied with Xena - a princess among warriors - to really even look at another woman. My smile faded at the sudden guilt I felt for cheating Xena’s memory when her ashes hadn’t even been collected yet. As I noticed my friend’s beet red face, I allowed myself some leeway and my spirit lightened mildly.

“Just kidding, Eph. She’s a lucky woman, whoever she is. I’ll ask the goddess to enlighten her,” I said half jokingly as I gave her a friendly punch to the shoulder.

Back to the business at hand, I looked at the ceremonial garb I had worn for most of the day and asked, “Shouldn’t I be wearing more? I mean, it is night and it’s only the middle of spring...”

Her laughter interrupted me. “Actually, Gabrielle, you’re wearing too much.” I can only imagine what my face looked like to send her into hysterical laughter. She made a heroic effort to recover from her incapacitation. After a good deal of eye-rolling and foot-tapping on my part, she gave me the news. “The dance is done in the queen’s mask.”

Well that’s not so bad, I thought to myself. “So, what’s the big deal? I kinda hoped I wasn’t going to have to wear that thing, but it’s no big thing.” She began to smile in anticipation of, while savoring, the affect she knew her next few words would have on me was just too much. “Well?”

 “Only the queen’s mask,” she informed me. And then proceeded to give ME the once-over. She couldn’t mean what I thought she meant. I looked into her eyes to delve for the truth that they held. O gods, she did.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I never thought I would be as thankful for the mask as I was then. I looked down upon myself through its eye-holes and saw the spirals, done in an ochre paste, beginning at my nipples and working outward - one side mirroring the other - until they joined at the center of my chest and traveled downward. The single path went on to encircle my bellybutton until it reached my lower patch of hair.

I didn’t dare look further, but I knew what I would find should I choose to do so. The path once again diverged to surround my pubic hair and my nether lips had been colored a deep red. Gods, did they have no sense of modesty?

My legs were decorated with caricatures of the animals the tribe hunted, while my arms were painted with women and children of the tribe standing strong and victorious against the unseen foe.

As for my back and my face - yes, even my mask covered face had received a few decorations from the shaman - I didn’t truly care to know what was depicted upon them. I was too busy fighting to keep some semblance of calm reasonableness in my voice.

“You can’t seriously expect me to go out like this and dance in front of everyone.” I pleaded to Ephiny.

Her look held a certain amount of compassion as she gently but firmly assured me that I was indeed expected to do just that. I was reminded of my duty to the tribe and the traditions they followed.

“Well, at least it’s only for this once,” I joked weakly. Something in her face hinted that my assumption might be incorrect, “It is only once, right?”

The curly-haired blonde opened her mouth as though to speak - a sudden look of relief washing over her face as she heard a flute begin to play. “It’s time,” she said. Walking behind me while guiding me to the entrance, she draped a robe over my body. Thank the gods for small favors.

The velvety softness of the fabric gently rubbing, and thankfully covering, my naked body. I took a few deep calming breaths. Come on, girl. You can do this. What’s a little nudity among Amazons? Yeah, right! Slowly releasing my third breath, I nodded to signal that I was ready - or as ready as I’d ever be. Ephiny opened the way by pulling the door flap to the side and I walked out into the night and towards my destiny.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The women made way, separating before me as I walked into their midst. I stopped when I realized that the women had formed a circle around me. For what felt like an eternity, I stood there looking around and trying to find some hint as to what came next. Each face I looked upon held some degree of expectance as it, in turn, looked to me. Some of the looks I saw were supportive while others held a certain semblance of doubt as to my ability to perform this simple dance. I have many skills, a voice from the past echoed in my mind and I found myself smiling as I applied those words to myself.

With the words came memories of the many times I had watched Xena as she practiced her forms - of the times I had mimicked her dance of life and death. I focused upon my inner self as I stepped into the first position. Gradually, I let myself relax and allowed my memories to guide my body.

I closed my eyes and gave myself up to the dance - one form melting into the next. An imperceptible tug changed the focus of my inner eye and the dance. From its martial beginning, it metamorphosized itself into a celebration of life.

I opened my eyes as it came to me that the drums had stopped. I stood with my head thrown back as I looked up into the night sky, my arms reaching upward as though to capture the orb which hung so seemingly low in the inky blackness of night.

It was only then, as I felt the slightest of breezes caress my naked body, that I realized that the fur had fallen from me sometime during the dance. Oddly enough, it didn’t bother me in the least. I felt free and thought out to Xena, ‘Fly free to the Elysian Fields, my friend. One day, we will be together again, I promise.’

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

After my dance as queen, I was thankfully free to dress in the ceremonial attire I had previously thought too scant and joined in the celebration. I must admit, though, that I mostly stood by the sidelines and watched the miracle of movement they expressed and felt shamed to minimize it with the use of a simple word like dance. It was a marvel to look upon and I smiled as I thought to myself that these women were my sisters, my people.

I admit I was surprised as one woman after another asked me to join her in the dance. Even Velasca, of all people, asked for me to partner her in the night’s dancing. Smiling my refusal, I claimed fatigue and simply basked in the obvious joy expressed by the paired women moving about the fire. Even so, as the celebration continued, the women continued to approach me.

I was not alone in watching the dancers, although I doubt any of the other women received the kind of attention that I appeared to draw from women who were without a dancing partner.

I questioned Naria, an attractive brunette only a few inches taller than myself who had aided in the ceremonial preparations, on the many invitations I was being given to which she said that it was most likely because I was queen and to pay them no mind.

“When you have found your partner, you will join the dance,” she said. Her words were simple enough, yet I caught the impression that they held some meaning that was presently beyond me.

“Why aren’t you dancing?” I asked.

She smiled and told me she never took part in the first dance. “My partner is not allowed to join this dance,” she explained.

I probably should have listened closer to what she said or questioned her as to why this was so. Instead, my eyes fell upon Ephiny who looked to me and then wistfully at the women gathered around the fire as they moved and called out to Artemis for her blessing.

I acted on instinct, wishing to thank my friend for all that she had done for me thus far. Perhaps, I went to her in commiseration of another on the outside looking in. Perhaps, it was the sudden itch I felt in my feet and their wish to move with the music of the flute as the rest of me - fully clothed now, thank the gods - enjoyed the festive air of those around me. I cannot truly say what drove me to ask her to dance, I only know that I will forever be grateful that I did.

Her brilliant smile was followed by a look of consternation. “I don’t know if you understand what you’re asking me, Gabrielle ... my queen.”

Her smile heartened me, but I confess that I was puzzled by what could only be her refusal. I had been so certain that she would wish to accept.

“You ... don’t want to?” I asked her uncertainly.

“I didn’t say that. I just don’t think you know what you’re asking me,” was her reply. The expression on her face told me that though she may not have wished to speak the words, she had felt that they needed to be voiced.

“You’re too serious, Eph. Sometimes, you just have to let go and see where life takes you,” I said smiling.

Knowing that she did, in fact, wish to dance and not bothering to consider what had her so worried, I grabbed one of her hands and led her to join those who were already thanking the goddess through motion bound by music. She walked with me, a smile on her face, a look of conflict in her eyes.

Finally, facing one another, she guided me through the steps and movements. Mirroring each other, we moved together - slowly at first as I followed her actions with my own, then faster as familiarity set in. I do love to dance and enjoyed myself as I saw Ephiny relax and take delight in sharing this moment with me. I knew in my heart of hearts that Artemis smiled down upon us and smiled at Ephiny. I soon saw an answering smile on Ephiny’s face and my spirit was lifted by her expression of joy.

Time seemed to lose meaning as we moved together under that full moon. It seemed then that I rebelled against myself as a small part of me that had been contemplating on finding the ultimate peace was held at bay as the rest of me fought such a solution. The majority of my spirit concentrated on life and the joys of simply being alive. I used the dance to remind myself that though Xena had died, I continued on. Though I deeply mourned her passing, I knew that she would have had it no other way.

The Amazons deserved the best that I could give them, and that could only be accomplished if I continued to hold life dear.

Eventually, the music stopped and Ephiny led me away. I was parched and only hoped that wherever we were headed, it held some source of water.

“By all the gods, I am thirsty,” I cried out thankfully as she brought me to a bubbling brook and knelt beside it. I quickly cupped my hands and drank. I’ll freely admit that I was surprised when Ephiny began to undress. I shrugged and figured that she most likely wished to rinse the sweat from her body. The gods know I was drenched. And after all, what was a little nudity among Amazons. I smiled at the remembered words then reflected that the queen’s dance hadn’t been as difficult as I had supposed it would be.

“I was worried that you hadn’t heard all that I said about tonight’s ceremony,” she said as she folded her buckskin shirt.

I turned a questioning look upon Ephiny as she folded the last of her clothing and set it all neatly in a single pile on the ground. What was she talking about? Should I tell her that she was correct in her first assessment or should I play along and pretend that I knew what she was speaking of?

“Really?” I asked, stalling for time and understanding.

“Yes. I confess I was totally in the dark to any feelings you might have had about me,” she said, confusing me in a most alarming way. “While I know that you likely did it for completely political reasons, I also know you didn’t have to. You are queen now and you can gift anyone with position and title for the time of your absence.”

“Well, I like to think of us as the best of friends and I trust you,” I said, hoping that this statement might draw further information from her before I had to confess myself completely in the dark as to what we were talking about. I sensed that it had to do with my promise to return Xena’s ashes to Amphipolis, but could not say more.

Her smile was amazing. It made her whole face glow and her eyes shown with an inner radiance. “Yes, the absolute best of friends,” she agreed.

I felt I was missing something or maybe it was just my over-active imagination.

“Do you need any help undressing?” she asked.

“No, I’m okay. I think I’d like to be able to dress or undress myself once more. I suppose I could also do with a rinse,” I spoke hesitantly as I took in the state of my new ceremonial dress.

She laughed, “We both could.”

I began to undress, my clothing was soaked through with sweat and I found myself practically peeling it off my body. Ephiny watched me as she reached into a pouch that was a part of her ceremonial garb and pulled out a small circle of deerskin.

“Don’t forget to bring yours,” she told me as she rose and walked to the stream. She stood beside it as though waiting for me to join her before entering the water. Her naked body touched by moonlight was something to behold. There is nothing wrong with a little aesthetic appreciation, I told myself even as guilt robbed me of the lightness of spirit I had been blessed with until then.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t as neat as Ephiny had been. I let the clothing fall in a heap, figuring I’d have little trouble finding it after a quick wash. Finding the piece of deerskin, I rose and walked to the stream.

I walked with Ephiny into the flowing water. Sweet goddess but the water was cold! I felt the chill rush up my entire body and hold me frozen in place as I fought to keep my teeth from chattering.

I turned to see my companion. She didn’t appear to feel the frigid water running around our feet and lower legs. Instead she looked to me expectantly.

Puzzled as to what message her eyes tried to convey, I asked, “Do you want me to wash your back?” The uncertainty in my voice seemed to answer whatever question she had and she laughed with joy.

“You first, my queen,” she spoke with a combination of delight and tenderness. The four words held unspoken promises and I swallowed as I became quite conscious of our lack of clothing.

She sat in the streambed and guided me to sit before her. I was surprised by how smooth the streambed was even as the temperature of the water around me sent chills through my body. The cold and the awkwardness of the situation had me wondering if a rinse was necessary. It was only an ochre paste - a mixture of red earth and rendered animal fat, after all. I could wash it off tomorrow when the sun was up and the water was warmer.

With each of her legs on either side of me, Ephiny wet the soft doeskin then ran it over my back. I shivered as she rubbed my back, whether its cause was the water’s temperature or something I preferred not to acknowledge just now, I couldn’t say. The time passed by quickly as I focused on the coldness of the water and kept my mind from the wet doeskin as it traveled over my body.

She felt my body shiver and assured me, “I am almost done, then we can warm ourselves up,” she whispered. She pressed herself against my back and ran the deerskin over and around my breasts, the fingers of her other hand mimicking its partner. She kissed one shoulder as she whispered to me, “Gabrielle.” A kiss on the side of my neck had me shivering uncontrollably, “My Queen.” Her hands gently pinched my nipples as she whispered into my ear, “My Wife.”

My eyes widened at the overall reaction from the combination of her words as well as the kisses and caresses until they threatened to pop from their sockets. I was unable to ask what she meant as my mind went blank and I heard her final endearment echo through my mind. I looked up to the star-laden night sky and I could almost swear I heard a delighted feminine laughter.

* * * * * * * * * * *

My wife. My body shook with cold and a fair amount of shock. My wife. Though the streambed was shallow, I knew I was in deep water. My wife. Her body pressed to mine from behind as her hands washed away what remained of the ochre paste and sweat. My wife. Her lips and her hands explored my body, which had until moments ago been unknown territory to them. My wife. She turned me around, a brilliant smile on her lips and a look of undying love in her eyes. My wife. Her smile faded as she looked worriedly into my eyes and reached for my hand which held its own circle of deerskin.

“Gabrielle, are you okay?” each word carrying its own weight in worry.

I didn’t know what to say in response to her querry. “Cold,” was all I said. Perhaps all I was able to say.

She closed her eyes in relief and promised, “It won’t be for much longer, dear.” She held me close before drawing back to look into my eyes once more, the corners of her mouth twitching as she said, “It’s your turn, now. You get to have your revenge and turn me into an amazon icicle.”

I hesitantly wet the cloth as she and I switched positions. I looked at her bare back as I lifted the dripping doeskin to press against it. Water poured from the circle of hide and down her back, drawing gooseflesh as it meandered its way back toward the water’s surface. She reached behind her neck and attempted to pull her wild curly hair out of the way with little success. I laughed as she grew more and more frustrated with her recalcitrant hair.

“Leave it Eph, or we’ll never get out of here,” I said, grinning at the woman’s antics.

It came to me then as my hands pressed the wet deerhide against her back. After the queen’s dance, there will be two mating dances. The first one will be for those Amazons wishing to bond as wives until the next spring solstace. The second dance is reserved for those among us who wish to bond with a man for that time. The second dance tends to be smaller than the first, but all are encouraged to partake in it at least once so that the tribe may live on. Some sisters prefer the company of a man in the furs. A portion of each have been known to wed the same companion each year.

,i>Ephiny was my wife. My hands once again pressed the wet deerskin to her back, squeezing the water from it, my eyes watching in fascination as the water as it made its way down. My wife. I washed her, just as she had washed me, my hands roaming and exploring the contours of her body as I washed it clean. My wife. She shivered and moaned. Had I moaned when she had washed me? I asked myself, but was unable to remember anything beyond Ephiny whispering those two words in my ear. My wife.

I loved Ephiny - as a friend; but, I wasn’t in love with her. She deserved someone who could return her love. Sweet Artemis, why are you doing this to me? Why are you doing this to her?

No answer was forthcoming and so I returned my mind to the task at hand.

I tried to be quick about it, but I had to admit to indulging in satisfying some small portion of my curiosity. Though I had often thought about being with Xena, I had never been with another woman before and so had never held a woman in this manner. Finishing her back, I scooted closer to her and ran my hands and the wet cloth over her front by touch alone.

I found myself taking note of her gasps and moans as well as what I had done to elicit the sounds of pleasure.

“O Sweet Artemis,” she moaned theatrically, “you’re making me wet, Gabrielle.”

“That was baaaaaaad,” I complained as I squeezed water from the skin over her right breast.

“Hey, that’s cold!” she cried out.

With trembling lips, I kissed her shoulder. My mind remembered a tall dark-haired woman with deep blue eyes before I returned to the present and the woman seated before me. I blinked away the tears forming in my eyes as I choked out, “My warrior.” I caressed her more sensitive spots. I kissed her neck as tears escaped from my blinking eyes, “My friend,” I gasped. My mouth opened and closed a number of times before I was finally able to utter, “My wife,” as the barest of whispers.

As she leaned back against me, I questioned myself as to whether or not I was only putting off the inevitable. Certainly, Ephiny had no feelings for me beyond friendship. I had just cost her a year apart from the unnamed woman she had claimed to love. How could I possibly make up for that loss? I did not know but made certain that I would try to do so.

I supposed to myself that it might have been worse for me - I could have accepted Velasca’s offer to dance as a kind of peace offering. But I had been too tired and had doubted any such action would be viewed by the former queen as anything other than a sign of weakness.

Finally, the stresses of the day combined with those of my loss for Xena battered down what dams I had built to hold back my emotions and tears poured down my face and were absorbed by the curly golden locks of the woman seated in front of me. My wife, Ephiny.

Ephiny sensed a change in me and quickly turned gathering me into her arms. She then proceeded to carry me onto the bank. Settling into the grass, she rocked me as her fingers ran through my hair. “Shhhh ... it’ll be okay,” she promised me over and again. She held me as I cried myself out. The comforting sound of her voice meshed with the warmth of her body as it moved side to side and I fell asleep in her arms.

* * * * * * * * * * *

I smiled as I awoke to the feel of strong arms wrapped around me. My legs intertwined with another’s. I smiled to myself and opened my eyes. Then it all came back. Xena was dead and I was Queen of the Amazons. The woman laying beside me was ... my wife.

I turned within her arms and looked into two warm but worried brown orbs.

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I should have known that you didn’t recall the mention of the dances - the first for Amazons only and the second for Amazons who have chosen a man as partner. I was selfish and ...”

I placed two fingers over her lips. “You tried to tell me, I just wasn’t listening. My only excuse is that it was a long day and I was tired. I’m better now. Thank you for ... last night.”

She wiggled her brows and made as if to look me once-over. “It was my pleasure.”

The simple fact that nothing of a sexual nature had occurred allowed me to share in her joke and I laughed as I shook my head, “You’re incorrigible.”

“I try,” she smiled at me with a familiarity that hadn’t been there yesterday. I guess the fact that we were now joined had given her the ability to relax and to show me another side of her I hadn’t known existed.

After a few moments, I finally asked, “Okay, so we’re married,” my finger oscillating between the two of us. “Is there something more I should know?” I queried.

“Other than the fact that you snore?” she asked.

“I do not snore,” I emphatically denied. We had already gone through this line of questioning once before. She only looked at me as though she knew something I didn’t. “Well, I don’t ... do I?”

Her only answer was a smile that I was certain was trying to keep her from outright laughter. After a time, she sobered up and looked to me seriously. “The joining is done every year after the queen’s dance. Those who do not wish to continue their match move on, while those who do simply choose the same partner. If there are children, it becomes a bit more complicated.”

“Oh gods,” my eyes widened as I suddenly realized that I had a stepson. Then a second thought crossed my mind, “What do you mean, ‘every year after the queen’s dance?’ I thought it was just a one time deal.”

“Ummm, well ...” She didn’t need to say more. The sinking, hollow feeling in my stomach told me all I needed to know.

I arose as my stomach groaned reminding me that it was time to break my fast.

“Time to get up,” I announced, shortly followed by the grumbling agreement of my empty stomach. “Now, if I can only find my clothes,” I muttered to myself as Ephiny once more fought admirably to keep from laughing.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“You can’t take her with you to Amphipolis. She’d just as soon knife you in the back as smile at you,” Ephiny protested.

“That is exactly why I need to take her with me. If I left her behind, she’d most definitely cause trouble. If I have her with me, I can at least keep an eye on her. I’ll trust you to choose the other women in my party - women you know to be trustworthy; but, Velasca will travel with me to Amphipolis. I’d also like for you to act as regent while I’m away,” I responded authoritatively.

She sighed after weighing my resolve on the matter. “Yes, my queen,” she humbly replied - perhaps a little too humbly.

Looking more closely, I saw that she was upset. “I’m sorry, Eph. This is something I have to do. I promise, I’ll return to reign as Queen of the Amazons. I need you on my side, someone I know I can trust to do the right thing,” I explained. I also needed time to myself to take in the entirety of my situation. The fact that I was now queen of the Amazons and that - for this next year, at least - Ephiny and I were sister-wives. The title sounded a trifle too incestuous for my taste, but there it was.

Her stony expression melted, “I know. I’m just worried, is all.” She turned away to the doorway, “I’ll go tell them to prepare for travel - even Velasca.”

“Thank you.”

She turned as I offered her my gratitude and walked to me. I opened my mouth to ask what might be the matter when I saw a fire in her eyes. She leaned into me and took me. Her mouth pressed against mine and her lips parted, soon breaking through what little resistance her surprise attack had not undone. My heart pounded in my ears and everything surrounding us faded away as I felt the earth quiver beneath my feet.

I gasped for breath as she moved away. I heard her tell me with a smile in her voice, “Just remember, I’ll be right here when you get back.”

How long I stared open-mouthed at the doorway, I cannot say. Oh yes, I definitely needed time to come to terms with my change of circumstance.

To be continued...


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