Remember, Never to Forget

by Cindy Hart aka Sinful


Disclaimers: I would like to thank MCA/Universal for the use of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin and Argo. I only borrowed them and when I do finally return them, I hope we are all better off.

I have also borrowed the character of Jadax from Jamie Boughen (from his stories Anger is My Shield and Valley of Hidden Fears) with his permission. I believe your stories should come from within yourself, but when you fall in love with someone else's character, you want to bring them back to life. Thanks Jamie, for all your stories and characters. Without your help this story would never have happened.

To my beta reader and patient editors: Thanks Laura & Jamie ... I have learned more than I thought I had ever forgotten.

The characters of Nazalon and Plaiertei are all my own, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did creating them. I ask that you not use them without my permission. Thank You.

Disclaimer: This story has graphic scenes of sex and violence. If you are under the age of 18 or it is illegal where you live, or the thought of sex between two women bothers you, get help, and don't read any further. There are plenty of other stories out there in the Xenaverse.

Time Line: Beginning of Season IV; following A Family Affair.

Feedback: Sinful@telus.net


Conclusion

To live your life a second time,

Without the knowledge in your mind.

Would you arrive where you left off?

With who you loved and who you lost.

Cause a heart holds no memory,

Just the love you had for me.

But once I know just who I am.

I will find you ... the past be damned!

Chapter 37

Ephiny was still sitting on the steps, the afternoon sun warming her relaxed features. She was thankful she didn't hear anymore sounds of furniture breaking.

"Between her and Eponin the chair population is definitely dwindling." The regent smiled at her own thoughts.

The serenity of the afternoon was suddenly broken by the sound of Xena's scream. Ephiny was up and through the doors, her heart was pounding loudly against her chest. A cold chill went through her heart when she realized what was being screamed. Before she could reach the door to their bedroom, she heard Xena angrily snarl.

"GET OUT!"

Ephiny opened the door as Gabrielle ran inadvertently into her arms. Ephiny held onto the shaking, sobbing bard, as she looked over the blonde hair at Xena.

The dark warrior was sitting on the floor, her hands were clinched in fists of rage. Her reddened face was frighteningly emotionless, but her eyes held the pure hatred that was surging through her body. A low growl came from deep within the warrior's throat.

"You too, Ephiny. I know you were there as well. Get out of my sight, both of you." Her eyelids lowered over her ice blue eyes as Xena sent out a deadly glare.

Ephiny felt the tremble of fear go through her own body. She had seen Xena like this once before. Unfortunately, that is what they were doomed to live through again.

The regent held firmly as she felt Gabrielle trying to pull away from her. All the bard wanted to do was to leave, but Ephiny refused to let her go. She wanted to stop this nightmare here and now.

The Queen glared back into Xena's eyes of rage.

"Xena. Get a hold of yourself. All of that was in the past. It's been dealt with already and it's over."

"Not for me it isn't. The little bitch lied to me ... Now and then. Because of her my son is dead. Her bastard child killed my son!"

Ephiny could see the loathing in Xena's eyes, and could hear the venom in her words. And the regent could see them both growing. She knew she had to get Gabrielle out of here, once again her life was in danger from the blinding anger of the warrior princess. The only difference this time was they were aware of what Xena's fury could do. But this time, Xena wasn't physically capable of taking on all of the Amazons. The usually formidable force of the mighty Xena wasn't what it once had been.

As Xena started to rise, Ephiny fired off her own command.

"Xena stay down. You are not going to hurt Gabrielle this time."

A waiting warrior stepped through the door. Ephiny was relived to see the powerful body of Nazalon as she stood between the Queens and the dark warrior seething on the floor.

"I won't let you." Nazalon said in a firm voice. She hadn't wanted to, but the Amazon warrior unsheathed her sword. A quiet reluctant Eponin joined Nazalon's side.

Xena glared, hatred and loathing oozed from her body. The ice blue eyes shot daggers from beneath half closed eyelids. The dark warrior knew she couldn't beat them both. In a low evil growl she stated slowly.

"Then Get Out! ... Get that lying, betraying bitch out of my sight!"

Ephiny collected the shattered body of Gabrielle into her arms. She turned to her warriors and simple stated. "Let it go," and she left the room.

Nazalon backed out of the room as Eponin just stood there, looking down at the trembling form of Xena. The warrior princess' emotions were totally out of control.

"Eponin let's go. You heard Ephiny."

"Just give me a minute. I'll be all right." The quiet warrior closed the door on the departing Nazalon.

The two warriors just stared at each other. The dark force on the floor had yet to speak, so Eponin spoke first.

"Xena ... search your true feelings. This is all in the past. You got over it before and you will again. It was a horrible thing that happened between you two. There is nothing you can do to change what happened."

"Are you finished?" Xena spat.

Eponin realized her words were having no effect. "Yes."

"Then get out!"

The warrior stood for a moment longer, then silently turned and left the room.

Eponin noticed the Amazon guards now standing outside the door. She spoke quietly and sadly, but they all heard the words clearly.

"Remember the woman in there is our friend and she's in a lot of pain. You are to interfere if, and only if, she is going to harm someone, or herself. Be watchful, be leery, and be very careful." Eponin turned in search of her Queens.

Ephiny was just coming out of her bedroom, she turned and closed the door quietly. Eponin was certain that was where Gabrielle must have been.

"She all right?" The regent shook her head no.

"So what do we do now, Ephiny?"

The Queen took a big breath and sat down on one of the chairs. She dropped her head into her hands.

Nazalon was standing in the corner, her arms were crossed as she leaned against the wall. Eponin glanced from one to the other. No one said a word.

After awhile Ephiny stood slowly and started for the front doors. "Stay here," she said as she left the palace.

Ephiny stood on the front steps of the palace looking down at her village. Slowly she descended the stairs and turned and headed up the hill, heading to the only place she could think of. The only person who might be able to help the situation.

The priestess lifted her head as the door to the temple opened. She was pleased to see her Queen standing there, this was not a place she frequented often.

"My Queen?" the priestess questioned.

"I would like to be alone."

The priestess nodded and quickly left the temple.

Ephiny stood for a moment looking around the inner sanctum. Her eyes came to rest on the marble alter. Taking a few hesitant steps she brought herself directly in front of it, and she looked up at the statue of Artemis. She closed her eyes and dropped her head back. Pausing for a breath, she opened her eyes and spoke.

"Artemis, Goddess of the Moon and of the Hunt, hear me please. I need your help ... Your chosen one needs your help." She closed her eyes and waited. She heard nothing and she felt nothing.

"Artemis, I need your wisdom ... I need to speak to you, please." The regent begged, she knew this was a long shot, but she hoped because it was Gabrielle, the Goddess may appear. The temple remained silent and still.

"Artemis, I'm pleading ... Please. I don't know what else to do. I can't watch them tear each other apart again. Aphrodite said without one the other would die. I saw what happened last time, they almost killed each other. We can't let that happen again. Please." Ephiny stood with her arms out wide, but still there was only silence.

The Queen sat down on the bench, she felt lost and dejected. She dropped her head into her hands, she had lost, and so had they. There was nothing she could do to help her friends.

"That's not true." The peaceful voice of Artemis filled the temple.

The startled Queen lifted her head to see the Goddess sitting beside her.

"You have helped. You have been there for both of them when they have needed you, Ephiny."

"But they're tearing each other apart again. You have to do something."

"There's nothing I can do. Xena has to remember on her own. Until she remembers everything of whom she is and of whom Gabrielle is ... or remember who we are. There is nothing I, or any of us, can do." The soft voice of the Goddess held its own helplessness.

"But Gabrielle is your chosen one. How can you just sit by and watch this happen to her?"

Artemis didn't speak at first. It was well-known feelings were a mortal problem, not something a Goddess normally went through. But shame and disappointment at Her inability to find Xena for Gabrielle had affected Her greatly. She could still feel the sting of the bard's words of rejection.

"Gabrielle is no longer my chosen one." Ephiny's mouth dropped at the admission of rejection. Before the regent could ask, Artemis answered.

"Her choice ... not mine."

"I don't understand. Her choice?"

"The first night Xena was back. Well ... lets just say, I had a very unhappy, and very angry, visitor. She let me know very clearly ... I had failed her." Her soft voice dropped even quieter at the words She had spoken. It was like the Goddess was speaking to herself.

"It was the only time Gabrielle had ever asked for My help, and there was nothing I could do to help her."

"So then help her now." Pleaded Ephiny.

"I can't. Don't you understand? There's nothing I can do now, unless she asks for it. I cannot go to her, she has to come to Me. It was her decision. I'm sorry Ephiny ... believe Me. I am sorry." With a flash of light Artemis was gone and once again Ephiny sat alone.

Chapter 38

The regent had been gone for over a candlemark. The palace was as quiet as a tomb. Eponin and Nazalon sat deep in thought in the common room. Neither had said a word since the Queen had left. It was like they were waiting ... and they both knew they were. It was too quiet, too still. Their Amazon instincts were peaking, so it was no surprise when Xena's bedroom door opened, both women were on their feet, armed and at the ready.

There was no emotion on Xena's face, but the blue eyes darted around the hall at the guards who nervously stood by.

"Wait outside," was all Eponin needed to say. The guards happily left their posts and the dark warrior standing in front of them. Xena's head had turned when Eponin had spoken, but she made no move until the guards had left the palace.

The two Amazons separated as Xena entered the common room. They continued to move keeping themselves between the dark warrior and their broken Queen. They knew they couldn't allow the angry warrior princess passed.

"What do you want Xena?" Nazalon asked never taking her eyes off the circling woman.

Xena stopped directly in front of the two Amazons. Eponin knew the door to the royal chambers was right behind them.

"I want the one who betrayed me. I want Gabrielle." The scar running the length of her face, only added to the sinister look in her eyes. Xena squared her feet and drew her sword out with her left hand.

Nazalon had never seen the dark side of Xena, the evil side that had once been a warlord, the destroyer of Nations. But she knew that's who was standing before them. The half-closed glare of her icy blue eyes was enough to make your blood run cold. Nazalon steadied herself. She had no intensions of backing down.

"You'll have to go through us to get her."

"I don't see that as a problem." Xena twirled her sword in her hand.

"Xena ... You don't want to do this." Eponin said quietly. She could feel the sweat gathering on her palms. It wasn't fear of the pending fight, it was dread of fighting her friend.

The three stood staring, gauging, looking for a weakness, any opening in the enemy now before them. It was Eponin who decided to make the first move. She took one firm step and stood in front of Nazalon. The quiet warrior looked deep into the raging blue eyes. She was looking for any sign of her friend, but all she saw was anger and resentment. The two old friends locked in a battle of wills, neither had wanted to draw on the other.

Eponin hoped she wasn't making a fatal mistake.

She took another step forward ... and dropped her sword. The outstretched sword of the warrior princess pressed against her throat. No words were spoken when Xena's lip lifted in an evil grin. The two continued their battles of wills, warrior against warrior, stare against glare. Eponin thought, or maybe just hoped, that she saw a flicker in the icy blue eyes. But her heart skipped a beat as she felt the pressure of the sword increase. She had hoped Xena wouldn't be able to kill her, but the woman who stood before her was out of control. Eponin took one last chance at saving her friend's soul, and her own life

"Xena, you don't want to do this. Feel your heart. It's all in the past, you're just reliving it. It's been over for a long time." The dark warrior said nothing. Eponin could feel the sword moving, as Xena's body was slightly swaying. The weeks of torture and convalescence had drained the strength and stamina from the warrior princess. Eponin could see the pulse in Xena's throat beating rapidly. She swallowed against the force of Xena's blade.

"Think my friend. Think of Illusia. It was Solan himself who brought you two back together."

At the mention of her son's name Eponin felt Xena's blade cut into her skin. She closed her eyes, and prayed her death would be fast.

"XENA! NO!" Ephiny stood in the doorway of the palace. She was horrified at what she saw.

Eponin opened her eyes at the sound of Ephiny's demand. The warrior looked at Xena and saw the ice blue eyes still on her. Eponin felt the sword digging deeper into her throat.

"XENA. Put your sword down. NOW! Do you hear me? NOW!" The sound of Ephiny's voice came clearly through the fog clouding the mind of the warrior princess. Her eyes left Eponin's throat and drifted over to Ephiny's face. The Queen was now standing next to Eponin. Ephiny reached over and slowly pushed the sword away from Eponin's throat. Xena withdrew her blade and dropped it to her side. Blood oozed from the ugly red line on Eponin's neck.

"Xena, I think you better go."

"Yes ... I think I should."

No one said a word as the once mighty warrior walked out of the palace. When the front doors closed Ephiny placed a hand on Eponin's shoulder. Both were still looking at the front door.

"What were you trying to do?"

"Trying to save my friend," her eyes drifted to the floor, "both of them." Eponin turned and walked out the back door.

Ephiny looked at a speechless Nazalon. The whole scene had taken her to a place she had never been before. The tension in the room could have been cut with a knife. She could feel her insides beginning to shake. She couldn't believe the risk Eponin had just taken. Nazalon was certain, if Ephiny hadn't entered the room, Eponin would be dead, and she alone would be left to defend the Queen against Xena, the warlord.

"Nazalon, go keep an eye on her ... but keep your distance." The warrior nodded and left. Ephiny walked the distance to her bedroom, and opened the door quietly.

"What's going on out there?" Ephiny glanced at Jadax, and then at Gabrielle, who was looking at her from the bed. Ephiny spoke more to the ashen bard then to Jadax.

"Xena has left the palace ... She won't be welcome back in."

Gabrielle slowly laid back down on the bed. She curled herself up into a ball and softly cried herself to sleep.

The Queen and her consort were sitting in front of the firepit when Nazalon returned to the palace. Ephiny looked up as the warrior entered the common room.

"Did she settle down somewhere?"

Nazalon wasn't sure how her Queen was going to take the news.

"No ... she left."

"What do you mean she left?" Ephiny was slowly rising to her feet.

"I mean, she left. She went straight to the barn, got Argo and left."

"She left the village?" Ephiny was stunned. She hadn't meant for the warrior princess to leave the village, just the palace. She honestly didn't think Xena would leave.

"Why didn't you follow her?"

"And do what? Hit her over the head and drag her back here. It might have shaken lose something, but it might have only caused more of a problem. Besides, she rode out on the north - west trail. She won't be hard to track, she wasn't moving fast."

Ephiny sat back down, she couldn't believe all that had happened in just a short period of time. She closed her eyes as Jadax began to rub her back. Suddenly Ephiny opened her eyes, her decision had been made. She looked over at Jadax and the little scout didn't like what she saw in Ephiny's eyes. With a firmly set jaw the regent stood up and walked to her room. She opened the door and quietly closed it behind her, not wanting to disturb Gabrielle.

When the regent exited the bedroom shortly after, fear and apprehension shot through Nazalon and Jadax. Ephiny was dressed for traveling. Her Amazon robe had been replaced by her warrior wear ... a leather bra and skirt. She wore nothing showing she was the ruler and Queen of the Amazons. But it wasn't her clothing causing the anxiety in Jadax, it was the sword and bow across her back.

"Where do you think you're going?" Jadax asked knowing all too well what the answer was.

"I'm going to find her before this turns into more of a catastrophe than it already is."

"You're the Queen. You have to stay here. I'll go find her," Nazalon offered.

"No," Ephiny stated firmly.

"Ephiny please, don't go." Jadax whispered quietly to her lover.

"I have to. I was her friend long before I was Queen. Besides, the real Queen is in there. I have to do this for her. You don't know Xena like I do Nazalon. If she turns on you, you wouldn't stand a chance. Injuries or not, she is still a very accomplished warrior."

"But you think you'll be able to handle her." Jadax's heart was pounding with fear.

"Yes. I believe Xena is in there. She may not know it yet, but I do. If she wasn't, Eponin would be dead now and so would you." The regent looked at Nazalon. "Something inside her told her not to kill. I just have to convince her of that."

"I'll go get your horse ready." Nazalon said as she realized nothing was going to change her Queen's mind.

"That's not necessary, Nazalon. You said she wasn't moving fast, and with her injuries she won't be going far. Besides it will be easier to track her in the dark, on foot. A horse she can hear, an Amazon she can't." Ephiny waited for Nazalon to leave the palace, then she turned to Jadax.

"Take care of Gabrielle. I promise I will not be gone long." She leaned down and kissed Jadax good bye.

"Ephiny please be careful. She's not of sound mind and she's not herself ... remember that."

"I know. I won't take any chances. I love you, Jadax."

"I know that Eph. and I love you."

The Queen departed the room and met Nazalon on the front steps. In a hushed voice she stopped the warrior.

"Put four guards on each door and yourself and another warrior inside. If she comes back here ... like she left, I do not want her in the palace. Understood." Nazalon reluctantly nodded that she did.

Ephiny turned to leave, then stopped. Nazalon came up beside her.

"If I'm not back by sun up ... send Eponin to find me. Just Eponin, by herself. I don't want this village without all it's available warriors." The Queen departed after ordering her last command.

Chapter 39

Being on the back of a horse again felt good to the anger warrior. She enjoyed the familiar sway of the golden mare beneath her thighs. The horse knew her and she knew the horse. When she had left the barn, she had no idea where she was going. She just rode out, her mind in a cloud of anger and grief.

Some of her anger she had felt had dissipated as the distance from the village grew. But not the pain she felt for her lost son, it felt like it had happened only yesterday. Her heart ached for her lost child.

Argo picked her way through the forest, her hooves silent on the mossy-covered ground. With no real trail for her to follow, and no direction from her owner to guide her, the golden mare wound around the tall trees and large boulders. It was late, but she could still see where she was going, and where she wasn't. The terrain was flat, and the pace was slow, but that didn't seem to lessen the moans coming from her back.

Within a candlemark Xena wondered if she had made a grievous error. Her body was screaming in pain. Every step Argo now took went through her like a slash of a sword. Dropping the reins, she let the horse go where she wanted. Xena needed her left arm just to stay on the mare's back. She cursed herself now for not taking one of the saddles in the barn.

It was another candlemark before she finally stopped, or rather Argo stopped. The warrior opened her eyes when the movement of the horse ceased. Xena looked around, she had just realized she had either fallen asleep or had slipped into unconsciousness. Now she had no idea where she was.

Most of the local region looked the same. She didn't know how far they had traveled but she knew she couldn't go any farther. Xena noticed with a slight smile that her horse had stopped in a small clearing, a perfect spot to spend the night.

She slowly slid and fell off of Argo's back. Taking the blanket off the mare, she threw it to the ground, next to a fallen log. She was thankful someone had already cleaned the ground to sleep on. Her body was racked with pain, but she knew she had to gather some supplies to light a fire.

When the flames leapt high into the night, the warrior couldn't help but release a low groan as she finally sat down. It was only then she realized she had built, and lit, a fire, without even knowing she knew how. Her mind was filled with frustration and confusion, two emotions she now knew all too well. Closing her eyes, the warrior leaned back against the log and tried to sort out everything that had happened.

She loved Gabrielle, she knew that, but she could also feel the absolute want and desire to destroy her. To take her sword and run in it through her body.

"Then why don't you?"

Xena's eyes snapped open at the words. The voice had been clear and close, but Xena's eyes saw nothing. But she could feel someone very near. Her eyes shifted to the right, and then to the left, the hairs on her neck told her to be leery.

Suddenly a bright light flashed in front of her, and there stood a man. He was dressed in black leather from head to toe, with a large sword strapped to his waist. She looked at his dark bearded face as she exhaled a snarl.

"Ares ..." Xena didn't even realize she knew his name until she spoke it.

"Oh, so you do remember me. I'm flattered." Ares smiled with a cocky tilt to his head. Arrogance was not one of his weaknesses. He looked down at his warrior princess. The God of War didn't like what he saw. Oh he delighted in the fire he now saw in her blue eyes. But the woman he so admired, his beautiful warrior princess, was now a scarred shell of her former self. He didn't like that one bit.

"What do you want Ares?" He loved the way she snarled out his name.

"First let me say, welcome back. I've missed that fire in your eyes. Second, I want to know why you haven't done in that irritating little blonde?"

Xena turned away from him and began to poke at the fire. He could see the pain and frustration on her face.

"What do you have to do with all of this Ares?"

"Nothing. I just wanted to know why you haven't murdered the woman who is responsible for the death of your son? Once she is gone, and out of the way, then you and I can pick up where we left off."

"And where exactly is that?" Xena's mind was racing. She remembered having a similar conversation with him, but where? Her mind flashed to a snow-covered mountain top. She felt the instant pain as it tore at her heart. She was mourning her son, and Ares was there. He was telling her the same thing.

"With you back at the head of my army, causing death and destruction throughout Greece." Ares smiled and played with his beard. "You will lead them to victory as the ultimate conqueror. So let's head back to the Amazon village and annihilate these pesky women, kill your little Gabrielle, and then we'll be off." Ares waited for a response from his warrior princess. He could see the wheels spinning in her mind. Should he say more? Was it enough to push her over the fence she was on? No matter which way she went he knew he would come out the winner. He rubbed his hands together and stared at her. The light of the flames was reflecting off her face, and Ares couldn't help but stare at her scar.

Xena still said nothing, her only interest seemed to be deep inside the flames.

"When you decide it's time to destroy the Amazons and your friend Gabrielle, call me. I'd like to help." With a wave of his hand and a flash of bright light, he was gone.

Xena continued to stare into the fire. She watched the flames leaping and climbing, grasping up at the night sky.

Suddenly the flames were lifting Gabrielle's body higher and higher. She was screaming for Xena to help her, but I couldn't. I couldn't get to her as Gabrielle's body twisted and turned in the flames. The vision changed and she saw the bard's blonde hair rush past her. Tackling someone into the fires of Tartarus. Xena could only watch as two forms fell into the molten lava. She could see the look on Gabrielle's face. A look of pain and regret. A plea for forgiveness as she called out to Xena one last time.

Xena now remembered her own feeling of forgiveness and the pain of separation from her soul. The warrior princess recalled the agony of being alone ... A part of her fell into the flames as she too said goodbye.

Ephiny noticed the flash of light far off in the distance. Her first instincts had been lightening, but there were no clouds in the sky. She looked upwards again at the stars that filled the night. She was moving slowly. Tracking Xena wasn't something you did in a hurry, not unless you wanted to walk into a trap. Ephiny suddenly stopped and stood up straight. She remembered where she had seen a flash like that before ... she picked up her pace.

She smelt the fire long before she saw the light of the flames. The Amazon Queen quickly climbed to the cover of the trees. Moving with the swiftness of squirrel along the thick branches, it didn't take her long to find her friend. For whatever reason Xena had decided to make camp just inside the Amazon's land.

She watched the still form under the blanket as the fingers of fire made the blanket dance with movement. It appeared to Ephiny that Xena was asleep. But on closer observation she could see Xena was not asleep, but awake staring into the flames. Even from this distance the regent could see the pain on her scarred face. Silently the Amazon moved in closer and called out to what she hoped was a friend.

Xena immediately sat up, too quickly. The pain in her body forced her to close her eyes. She struggled against the wave of darkness threatening to take her away. Xena fought to gain control and she opened her eyes. She scanned the forest but she saw nothing, her mind search for an explanation.

'Was this another God?' Her instincts told her no. It was then she realized her mistake. The flames had blinded her and she couldn't see into the shadows of the night. She struggled painfully to stand and then slowly drew her sword.

Ephiny had watched the whole thing from the safety of the trees. She felt her heart ache as she watched her friend suffer. She knew in the condition Xena was in, she was no longer the threat that she had been.

"Put the sword down Xena. It's me, Ephiny." Xena looked up as the Queen descended from the trees. She relaxed slightly, knowing if the Amazon had wanted her dead, she would've been. Xena took a step back but she still held her sword high.

"I never meant for you to leave the village Xena, I only wanted you to leave the palace. It's not safe for you out here." Ephiny looked from Xena to the unwavering sword, she wondered if it was safe for her out here. "Put it down Xena. I'm not here to hurt you. I only want to talk."

The sword didn't move.

"Xena ... Please!"

"I'm not going back." Xena said slowly.

Ephiny looked at her friend. "Why not?"

"Because."

"Because why? ... Why not Xena? Ask yourself. Why not?"

"Because if I go back, I'll kill her ... and maybe the rest of you ... just for fun."

"I don't believe that. I don't believe that's why you won't go back. You won't kill her and you wouldn't kill us."

"Yes I would."

Ephiny could hear the rage still burning inside her, but she could also hear the pain coming from her confused and broken heart.

"So you knew if you stayed that you would kill her?"

"Yes."

"So instead of doing that ... you left."

"Yes, I said!" Xena only saw the futility of the questions, Ephiny did not.

"So instead of harming your friend and lover, you left her?" Ephiny stared into Xena's blue eyes. She saw the question hit home as Xena started to blink.

Ephiny continued. "You left her Xena because you love her and you knew deep down you didn't want to hurt her. You felt the anger and the rage, you wanted to lash out. Somewhere inside of you, something told you not to hurt her ... or Eponin."

Ephiny saw her sword begin to wavier and she knew the real Xena was coming to the surface. Slowly the sword started to fall, she had gotten through. The warrior's head wasn't that thick after all. The Queen continued with her questions.

"So what you really mean is you didn't want to hurt her. So you did the only thing you could think of to do ... protect her ... from yourself. All of this has been done before Xena. The two of you got past it before. It was hard, but you got over it together. Deep down in your heart and in your soul, you know that. Now you just have to remember it."

The sword was now down at her side, but was still held tightly in her hand. Ephiny knew there was still some danger, but the mighty warrior princess was starting to crumble.

"Xena ... You love her. I don't think you realize or remember just how much. Somewhere in there you do. It's time to let go, and leave the past where it belongs, in the past. You can't change it no matter how much you would like to, you can't. And neither can she."

The fingers on her left hand began to loosen and the sword fell to the ground. Xena closed her eyes and Ephiny saw her shoulders slump. It was over. Now she wondered if the warrior princess could live with what she had done ... again.

Xena brought her head up and looked into Ephiny's eyes. The regent could see this was no longer the anger warrior princess, nor was it even Xena. It was a friend ... a broken, shame filled woman, who now realized what she had done. Ephiny watched as Xena's strong fašade began to break. Her bottom lip began to quiver and then the quiver became a tremble. Ephiny had her in her arms before the sob finally broke through.

Xena cried for all she had done, in the past, and in the present, all the pain and torment she had gone through, the pain and destruction she had caused. Ephiny held her until there were no more tears, just more questions. Xena's voice was hoarse from crying and from fatigue. Her hands were shaking from the release of all the emotions now flooding her heart. The two women sat in front of the fire talking. Xena had questions and Ephiny had only some of the answers. She had not been to Illusia, but she told her what she had been told.

Xena looked down at her scarred right hand, she now remembered the burn the water had made as she had tried to leave Illusia. She wished these scars would disappear as easily as those ones had.

"How do I apologize again?"

"I don't know Xena. All you can do is ask for her forgiveness, and go from there. Gabrielle is a strong, forgiving woman, but I don't know how much more of this she can take."

Xena sat in silence for a while. Ephiny could tell there was a lot on her mind. She waited for her to speak.

"Ephiny? ... Can you forgive me?"

She looked at the despondent woman beside her.

"For everything ... for your arm? I am sorry I broke it."

Ephiny let go a small laugh, "I forgave you already a long time ago. I'm just glad you didn't break it again." She leaned over and gave her friend a hug.

Xena tried to smile, but it wasn't in her. She looked back at the fire. Ephiny was not happy at the look on her face. The warrior made no attempt at hiding her depression.

"Xena ... What have you remembered, about what happened to you?"

She could see the intake of breath, and she knew the warrior had recalled more. The question was, was she ready to talk about it. Xena put a hand to her face, but then quickly dropped it to her side. The scar was only too real as it was a reminder of what she now knew. As she finally spoke, Ephiny could hear all the torment and suffering that had laid hidden in her soul.

"I remember a lot now. My arm was broken before they ever found me. They tied me to a horse most of the way, then dragged me behind it, the rest. They didn't do much at first, at least not that I recall. They had me tied up in a barn, it was the leader who broke my leg ... and whipped me."

Xena had to stop and collect herself. The crack of the whip still sounded clearly in her mind. She felt Ephiny's arm come around her shoulders and hold her tight. "I remember them breaking my arm, again. I knew then it would never be the same. The thing I remember the most was asking why. Why me? What had I done? ... I didn't know who they were. I didn't know and I still don't really, why they wanted to hurt me. Was it just because of who I was? Did I do something to them in the past? I ask that know, but I didn't know who I was then ..."

Xena fell silent for a moment. Ephiny said nothing, as she waited patiently for her friend to continue.

"I remember I had to get out of there ... before they killed me. I wasn't going to give them that satisfaction. So I started to work out a plan ... when I was conscious enough to do so. I had to wait for just the right time. Then one day it all fell into place. They had been drinking, a lot. I waited for them to pass out, they forgot they hadn't chained me. I remember killing the bastard that had broken my arm. Then it gets a little foggy again, I remember crawling and crawling through the trees and underbrush. I hid in the forest until they stopped searching for me. I don't know how long that was, I kept blacking out. I knew I couldn't walk, so I just kept on crawling ... and crawling. Then some guy found me. I was so weak and in so much pain. He picked me up and took me to the next village, I thought I was saved. I was wrong, very wrong. All he wanted to do was make money ..." The faint, hoarse voice drifted away.

She turned to Ephiny and the comfort of a friend. The Queen could see the shimmer in her eyes, and the pain in her heart. She wrapped her arms around her, and told her she was safe again. She could feel the tears on her shoulder. Ephiny wondered if the old Xena was ever going to recover from the adversity she had been through.

Ephiny waited until Xena had quieted down again. There was one question nagging her.

"Xena, where were you crawling to if you couldn't remember anything?"

Xena straightened up slowly, wiping away her own tears. Ephiny could see her mind turning.

"Where were you crawling to ...?"

Xena was silent as she searched for the answer to the question.

The words came out slowly and quietly, but they finally came. "Here ... I was crawling here, to Amazon territory."

Carefully Ephiny asked, "And to whom were you crawling to?"

Xena closed her eyes, but it didn't stop Ephiny from seeing the suffering on her face.

"To whom Xena ... think." Heart beats passed until she finally spoke.

"To her ... to Gabrielle." The realization hit her, "I wouldn't let myself die until I saw her again"

Xena's head fell into her hands. She realized her love for Gabrielle had probably saved her life, again. That something deep, deep inside her refused to forget. Something it knew would keep her going, when all she had wanted to do was die. To give up and end the pain and torture, to make it all stop and go away. Her mind had done that, it had forgotten, but her soul, her connected soul never did. Without even knowing who she was, she knew who loved her. She spoke so quietly, Ephiny wasn't sure at first if she had even meant to speak aloud.

"I didn't even know who I was, but I knew someone here did. And that they loved me, and I loved them."

"Then why don't we head back, because I know someone who would like to hear you say that."

Xena nodded and started to stand but the pain and exhaustion in her body wouldn't listen to the want and desire in her soul. The tall warrior almost collapsed, but Ephiny was there for her when she saw Xena's knees begin to buckle.

"Or we could wait a bit. I think you need to rest."

Xena had started to protest, but the Queen would hear none of it.

"What do I say to Gabrielle, if you die on the return trip? Besides it'll be dawn in a candlemark or so."

"Why does that make a difference?"

"I told Nazalon to send out Eponin at dawn if I hadn't returned. Knowing how those two listen to my commands, I suspect Eponin has probably already left."

"Didn't really trust me, huh?"

Smiling down at her friend, Ephiny added, "Let's just say, I knew if I wasn't back by dawn, they would need to locate my body, or give me a hand getting your ass back on Argo. That ride alone could have killed you."

"Believe me it almost did."

Ephiny left Xena and began to stoke the fire, again. When the flames leapt back to life, she returned to her friend's side.

"A little while before I got here, Did you have company?"

"Yes, Ares ... He tried to egg me into going back and killing all of you, then joining up with him again."

"Oh ... well, that was nice of him." Ephiny said sarcastically.

"No, thinking about it now, ... I think he was trying to get me to realize the same thing you did. Why didn't I go back and ... well, his tactics weren't as good as yours, ... I mean, He IS the God of War.? I think he's was trying to make up for the whole Dahak thing."

The warrior turned her eyes back to the fire. Ephiny kept her hand on Xena's shoulder, she hoped the contact would ease her troubled mind.

It didn't take long for the exhausted Xena to fall asleep. Ephiny watched as the tortured soul released its grip on the warrior princess. The regent continued to stroke her long raven hair as she waited for Eponin.

Ephiny didn't have a long wait before her ears picked up a bird call off in the distance. She knew it was Eponin. The regent smiled when she realized the sun hadn't even begun to lighten the sky. She waited patiently, not wanting to wake Xena. Besides, she knew her warrior would have already smelt the fire. Ephiny's eyes just needed to search. She saw nothing until Eponin was lowering herself from the canopy of the trees.

Upon reaching the ground, the warrior's eyes went from Ephiny to Xena, and then back to Ephiny.

"She remembers everything." The regent whispered.

"Everything?" Eponin said quietly.

"Almost," whispered the warrior princess. The blue eyes opened and met those of the Amazon warrior's. Xena's eyes traveled down Eponin's neck, stopping on the fresh cut on her throat. Xena closed her eyes on the remorse she was feeling, and then struggled to rise. She was only successful because of Ephiny's helping hand.

She stood in front of the quiet warrior. Eponin didn't say a word as Xena's slightly trembling fingers traced the cut that easily could have taken her friends life.

"Nothing I could say would tell you how sorry I am, Eponin."

The quiet warrior gazed at her remorseful friend.

"The same goes for me, Xena." Eponin said as her finger traced the scar on Xena's face.

They smiled to one another, and finally embraced. "Welcome back, Xena"

"I'm not there yet." The warrior princess replied.

Ephiny and Eponin decided the best, and only way, to get Xena back to the village, was on Argo's back, much to Xena's unhappiness. Calling the golden mare back had been the easy part. Xena threw her arms around the horse's neck, first to apologize for not remembering who she was, and second, for not letting her leave Amazon land. Ephiny couldn't believe it had been Argo who had stopped before the border. When they finally had the tall woman settled on Argo's back, they set off for the village, at a much slower pace than any of them had left.

Chapter 40

It had been a long night for the three women in the palace. Gabrielle never left the royal chambers. She never even left the bed. Jadax had been in several times to check on her, but the bard had no words to say. Nazalon had paced the floor non stop, causing a few tense moments between her and Jadax.

"Would you just sit down? I can't stand watching you pace anymore."

"I can't sit. I'm too fired up to sit."

"Well then go stand by the window or something."

"How can you be so calm? It's your lover that's out there."

"I know that Naz. You don't have to remind me. But I know Ephiny, and I know Xena." Her words sounded a lot stronger than she really felt. Every movement and every sound grated on the warrior's nerves. Jadax was certain time had stopped as she looked out into the stillness of the dark.

Candlemarks later Nazalon was leaning against the wall looking out the window. The darkness was turning to grey and the distant hills bloomed to orange and pink.

Eponin had left way before sunrise, it had actually been Jadax who told the warrior to go. Eponin didn't wait to be asked a second time. As Nazalon watched the sun come over the horizon, she didn't have to look to see Jadax was watching it too. They waited, neither spoke a word, they just watched and waited.

Suddenly Nazalon turned from the window, before she could say anything, the little forest scout was already on her way to the door. A wave of relief went through Jadax as she spotted all three coming toward the palace. Clearing the steps, she reached Ephiny's arms almost before the regent had seen her coming.

Ephiny embraced her little consort and whispered in her ear. "She's back ... Where's Gabrielle?"

"Still in our bedroom," she whispered in return.

Walking with the three women, Jadax looked up at the dark warrior. She was pale and in pain, but the eyes were blue again, a very calm blue. The warrior looked down at the scout and offered a small smile. Jadax couldn't help but offer a smile in return. Xena responded with a wink, which the scout immediately returned.

They came to a stop in front of the palace steps. Xena refused any help to get off of Argo, but helping hands were there as her legs wobbled when they touched the ground. Xena steadied herself against Argo and then headed up the stairs.

The Amazon warrior and the warrior princess locked eyes. Nazalon didn't know what made her do it, but she refused to move out of Xena's way. Eponin saw the impending confrontation and took a step toward the stairs. Ephiny placed a hand on her arm, and with a shake of her head said.

"Let them be." The Queen commanded

Xena looked deep into Nazalon's eyes. Her lips pursed with determination as her eyes lowered on the formidable warrior in front of her.

"Nazalon, let me first say thank you. For stopping me and protecting her ... But ... she is mine, if she will have me." Xena saw no movement from Nazalon to step aside.

Xena moved in closer to the Amazon, now only a hand's length separated them.

"Second, death herself couldn't stop me from returning to her, so what in Tartarus makes you think you can?" The warrior princess paused for a moment.

"Move it ... or lose it!" The smoldering stare of the warrior princess reached the common sense of Nazalon's brain. She slowly took a step to the side, then made her way down the steps.

Ephiny, Jadax and Eponin watched as Xena paused for a moment before opening the door to the palace.

"Go get her Xena." Jadax whispered all their thoughts.

Xena closed the doors to the palace behind her. She stood on the steps looking down into the common room. She had never been so scared, or so nervous. Finding herself alone for the first time since recalling all of her darkened past, she was uncertain of what she could say to Gabrielle. Her body was alive with all its senses as she crossed the room to the door to the royal chambers.

As she reached for the door handle, Xena looked down at her trembling hand. She couldn't be sure if it was the pain in her body or the fear in her heart. Xena closed her eyes at the door that separated her from the woman of her heart, the woman she loved more than life itself, the woman she had crushed with the venomous words she had spoken to her.

She had no idea what she could say that could make up for what had already been said. For the first time in her life Xena prayed to the Gods for strength and forgiveness. Xena bent her head and reached for the door handle.

Slowly opening the door she saw the outline of her bard, she looked so small in the large bed. Xena felt her breath quicken as she gently closed the door and walked to the foot of the bed. The warrior gazed down at the bard, she looked so peaceful. All Xena could do was stare as she recalled all the pain she had caused the woman she loved.

Somewhere in the care of Morpheus, Gabrielle felt a presence, she could feel someone's eyes on her. Slowly pulling herself from the warmth and comfort of sleep, the green eyes fluttered open, and reality came crashing down. Fear gripped her when she saw Xena standing over her.

Gabrielle shot back in the bed, forcing her small body against the headboard. She looked at the distance to the door and realized there was no escape from the woman who wanted to kill her.

"Please Xena, NO! Not again." She pleaded through her fears and tears.

Xena collapsed to her knees, her legs no longer able to hold her shaking body. She ignored the shooting pain in her leg.

"Gabrielle ... I am not going to hurt you. I will never hurt you again. I am sorry."

Gabrielle said nothing. Part of her wanted to crawl into the warrior's arms, but part of her wanted to runaway, screaming in fear.

Xena could see the battle going on inside of her little bard. She searched her heart for something that would tell her she was back, this was over and she would never harm her again. The answer came to her. This time she spoke the words of forgiveness she had sung before.

"I'm sorry ... Please help me, forgive me ... Don't hate me, don't leave ... Forgive me. But this time Gabrielle, I won't sing it. I just want to say it. Can you forgive me?" Xena reached out her hand. A sob escaped from Gabrielle's lips as she realized what Xena had spoken to her. She reached forward and took the hand extended to her. Gabrielle crawled to Xena and they held each other tightly. The warmth of their embrace engulfed them in their own recovery. The worst was over, and for once Gabrielle knew she had her Xena back.

When they pulled away and looked into each others eyes.

"And this time Gabrielle, we'll talk about it. We'll talk about them, Solan and Hope. About Chin. About Britannia. I promise to remember and never to forget."

"Oh, Xena. I'm sorry too. I should have told you something, anything. But I couldn't. I was too afraid of what would happen. I'm glad you remember everything."

"No, not everything. Just the important things. Like you." Xena took Gabrielle's tear stained face into her hands.

"I'll never want to forget the first time I made love to you on the river bank." Gabrielle drew in a breath. Xena smiled and tilted her head to claim the lips she had so wanted to kiss for what seemed like forever. As she drew back, and Gabrielle's eyes opened, Xena hoarsely whispered. "And every day from now until forever." The warrior and her bard were at one with each other. "Forever, Gabrielle ... forever."

Chapter 41

It was early afternoon before the door to the chambers was finally opened. Ephiny and Jadax had been asleep on the bench in the common room. Ephiny's head turned at the sound as the reunited lovers slowly emerged. Gabrielle's arm was around Xena's waist and the warrior's arm was draped over the blonde's shoulders. Ephiny wasn't sure who was helping who.

"Do you two need a hand?" The regent asked quietly, not wanting to intrude on their privacy.

The two women looked over at the Queen and smiled. Turning to each other still smiling, Xena finally said. "No. We have each other, thank you." They continued in the direction of their own room. Gabrielle looked back over Xena's shoulder at Ephiny.

"Thank you." She mouthed.

The smile on her bright face said it all. Ephiny smiled back, the light had finally returned in all it's brightness to the young bard's face.

Chapter 42

It was another full day before the Amazon Queen and her warrior princess left the comfort of their room, and of each other. A slight chuckle could have been heard from Ephiny when she realized they were heading for the kitchen. It had obviously been Gabrielle's hunger that had drawn them out. Everyone left them alone for the first couple of days, not that either of them would have paid any attention to any unwanted intrusion. They only had eyes for each other. They could be seen hand in hand, strolling to either the kitchen or the hot pools, then always back to their room.

After almost a week of this, Ephiny decided they had enough time together and knocked on their bedroom door. She had wanted to speak to Gabrielle alone, but hadn't gotten the chance.

It was the low voice of Xena that answered the knock. Ephiny opened the door. The two were snuggled on the bed. Gabrielle's head was leaned back against Xena's stomach. She had been reading from one of her scrolls.

"I'm glad to see one of those back in your hand." Ephiny stated.

"Yeah, I thought it was time to hear the rest of my life according to the bard of Poteidaia." Xena said as she ruffled the blonde's hair.

Gabrielle answered the quizzical look on Ephiny's face.

"She's only heard one of my stories," then looking up at her lovers face, Xena continued for her, "we could never seem to find the time after that."

It may have almost been a week, but Ephiny still felt like an intruder.

"Well, I only stopped in to tell you both, we are having a party tonight in your honor."

"A party, for us? Great!" Beamed Gabrielle.

Xena, on the other hand, rolled her blue eyes to the ceiling. "OH, yahoo ... Why?" She wasn't fond of parties, never mind ones in their honor.

"Well, lets just say we were planning one more than two moon cycles ago, for your arrival and everything. For some reason, we decided to postpone it ... It just didn't seem right when one of you wasn't here, in one form or other."

"Thank you, Ephiny. We'll be delighted to attended." Gabrielle said with a playful bow of her head to the Queen. Behind the blonde's head Xena scowled at Ephiny, who only smiled in return.

Later that afternoon, one of the Amazon's showed up with new robes for them both. Gabrielle had taken to the Amazon's wear, but Xena had returned to wearing her leathers. She stated they felt more comfortable. Gabrielle had begged and pleaded for Xena to wear the robe that had been brought for her. The warrior couldn't resist her bard and relented. The two had finally dressed, which in itself was an accomplishment, since every time Gabrielle had her robe on, Xena was trying to get it off.

Gabrielle now stood in front of a mirror she had borrowed from Ephiny's room. She admired what she saw. Her hair looked good, and the robe did wonders for her, at least according to Xena.

"You're gorgeous." The warrior said while putting her arms around the little blond. Gabrielle felt so at home in her arms. She no longer noticed the different in strength between the two, only the security they offered. She could feel every muscle beneath the cotton robe, and the softness of the warrior's breast.

Suddenly Gabrielle felt Xena's muscles stiffen and the warrior pulled away. The bard watched in confusion as Xena walked solemnly to the window. Gabrielle was about to ask what was wrong, but the look on the warrior's face made her remain silent. She didn't know what had happened, all she could see was her own reflection in the full length mirror.

Gabrielle looked over at her lover, Xena's somber eyes had transfixed themselves at the view out of their window. As she started walking toward the somber warrior, she suddenly grasped what it was.

It was the first time Gabrielle had seen Xena look at her own reflection.

"Hey," The bard's voice was filled with concern and compassion. It was all she needed to say. The raven haired woman turned with misty eyes, and Gabrielle quickly closed the distance between them. She wrapped her arms around Xena's waist. She could still feel the stiffness in the warrior's body

Gabrielle rested her head against Xena's chest and spoke with all the love she felt in her own heart.

"I love you. What's inside, not the outside. You're a beautiful woman, Xena." She held the warrior tight, but Xena said nothing. She listened to the beating heart of the woman she loved. Moments of silence passed before Gabrielle pulled back and looked up into the blue eyes. She reached up with a gentle touch and held Xena's scarred cheek with her warm hand.

"They are not who you are, and they will fade more with time."

Xena looked down at the smiling face of her bard. She could see the love in her green eyes and a smile finally broke on the bronze face.

"It's not my vanity, Gabrielle. I mean ... I've always counted myself lucky. Most warlords and warriors have many scars, I only carried a few." Her left hand traveled up to the side of her face and she laid it on top of Gabrielle's. "No, it's not the scar itself that bothers me, other than you having to look at it all the time. It's just a constant reminder of everything that's happened, and of who put it there. Every time I see this, or look down at my hand, or everywhere on my body. I'll always be reminded of the pain we went through ... again."

"But Xena, all of it will fade with time."

"No Gabrielle, it won't." She was silent for a moment, giving herself time to get control of her fury she held for the man who had cause her so much pain. Her emotions in check, she swallowed and licked her lips. Looking down, she lifted the bard's chin and looked deep into her green eyes.

"I know how much it ... they bother you ... No, don't say anything. I know you try not to let it, but I see it in your eyes sometimes. I know you love me and you try to see passed them, ... but I know it's hard." She leaned down and kissed her.

Gabrielle didn't know what else to say as she felt Xena's arms close around her body. They held tightly to each other. The bard knew Xena was right, as much as she tried to tell herself the scars didn't bother her, she was only too aware they were there. Twisted, angry, reminders of the hatred that possessed man to attack man. The absolute destructive viciousness mankind was capable of. Gabrielle felt Xena's lips nuzzle her hair.

"We should get going, Gabrielle."

"Yeah I know, but I just want to stay like this. I love the feeling of being held in your arms."

The warrior gave her bard a loving squeeze and then collected her hand into her own.

"Your subjects await you, my Queen." Xena dipped low into an over exaggerated bow.

"They await you too, my warrior princess." Gabrielle smiled as the two turned to leave. Xena snuck a quick kiss on Gabrielle as she opened the door and whispered into her ear. "Don't ask me to dance, you know I hate to." The bard only smiled and the two headed for the party.

Things were in full swing by the time they arrived. Every Amazon in the village was there. A large bonfire was roaring in the center of the compound of what was to be a dancing area. Tables of food and drink, were laid out around the edge.

Everyone greeted the two lovers, some with smiles and some with waves. Much to Gabrielle's chagrin, the first person to approach them had been Eponin, already carrying a mug of port for Xena. The blue eyes looked to Gabrielle, who smiled and shook her head with a laugh. The two warriors departed, leaving Gabrielle to fend for herself.

"Eponin will look after her." Ephiny said as she came up beside her.

"Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of." Gabrielle said with a laugh.

"Besides, a candlemark apart and the two of you will be running back to your room together."

Ephiny laughed as the little blond blushed a deep crimson. Putting her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder, the two Queens went looking for food and some drink of their own. Ephiny decided now was not the time to have their little chat, but it had to be soon.

It didn't take long for the music to start and soon the air was filled with a fine dust off the dance area as the beat of the drums echoed through the valley. Gabrielle had not spent much time talking when it was discovered Xena didn't have a problem with others asking her lover to dance. The little blond had a steady stream of dance partners. She may not have minded Gabrielle dancing with others, it did release her of the responsibility, but the icy blue eyes were never off the dancing blonde for long.

Xena watched, at times mesmerized, by the gyrating movements of her lover. She recalled many a time having spent an evening watching those hips sway, as her breasts bounced to the beat of whatever music Gabrielle could find. Xena also recalled the feeling of going to bed alone afterwards. Every time the thought crossed her mind this evening, the warrior princess had to look away, fighting back the emotion that nearly drove her onto the blasted dance floor. Xena felt a sudden urge to sweep her lover up, and carry her back to their room. Xena mind's filled with lust and desire, 'all I wanted is to make mad passionate love ...'

"Xena, did you even hear what I just said, or should I go and dance with Gabrielle. At least that way I'll know you're looking at me." Xena turned back to Eponin. Smiling shyly, she buried her flushed face into her mug of port.

"Seriously, it's good to have you back Xena." The usually quiet warrior said.

"It's good to be back, my friend." The two touched mugs, then tilted their heads back and drained the last of their port. Pulling the mug from her lips, Eponin wiped the remaining liquid off her chin, then turned back to Xena.

"So, when are we going after the bastard who did this to you?"

Just the mere mention of the man crushed the lust in her mind and replaced it with savage demand for revenge, but that subject had already been brought up, and shot down, by Gabrielle. Xena had mentioned she wanted to start looking, now. With the return of the real Xena, had also come her taste for vengeance. She could feel her rage for the man simmering just beneath the surface. But she had more than herself to think of now, she had Gabrielle, and Gabrielle had quashed the idea immediately. Xena knew her bard was afraid, very afraid. So she had decided just to leave it alone, for now. Yet, here she was faced with the question she knew a lot of Amazon's had on their minds. There was nothing these women wanted more than to get their hands on the man who had hurt her and their Queen.

"I promised Gabrielle I wouldn't." Xena said flatly not trusting herself to say more.

"You what?!" Eponin's mouth hung open in shock. Before she could recover, Xena had left in search of some more port.

Eponin looked back at the dance floor in the direction of Gabrielle. She wondered if Ephiny knew of Xena's promise.

As Eponin turned back to follow Xena, her eyes spotted someone in the shadows, a lone figure standing in the dark. On closer inspection, Eponin realized it was Nazalon, watching all the festivities quietly in the corner.

'Oh, shit!' Eponin thought when she realized exactly who the warrior was watching. She quickly left to find Xena, someone had to keep the warrior princess occupied.

Gabrielle put up a hand, she had had enough for now. She thanked her current dance partner and left the dance floor in search of something cool to drink. Finding refreshments and carrying a plate of food, the little blonde sat down with a group and joined in on the conversation.

She had looked around a couple of times, but she had lost sight of her warrior princess. 'If she gets too drunk tonight, Eponin.' Her thoughts suddenly went elsewhere. She could feel someone watching her and the hair on her neck stood straight up. Her eyes darted around searching for Xena but it wasn't her tall, dark warrior that had caused her senses to peak. The green eyes spotted the outline in the shadows. She knew instantly who it was. Gabrielle paused, wiping her face off with a cloth and she rose and started toward the lone figure.

As Gabrielle approached the dark warrior, she recalled what Jadax had told her about what Nazalon had done the morning on the palace stairs. The bard knew the warrior had been absent from the village lately, and she hadn't had a chance to talk to her troubled friend.

"Nazalon?" She said uncertainly. Gabrielle knew who it was, but she wasn't certain of what the reaction was going to be.

"Hello Gabrielle." The voice was anything but hostile, so she took a seat.

"How are you?" She was sincere in her question and the warrior knew it.

"Fine," Nazalon answered.

"That's not what I've been hearing?"

"OK, I'm not fine. I'm still in love with you." She tried very hard, to keep the statement emotionless, but she hadn't succeeded.

Gabrielle looked at her and reached across the table. Nazalon just looked down at the hand touching her own.

"I don't know what to say," Gabrielle spoke quietly.

"You don't have to say anything. I know you love Xena, and I know Xena loves you. I am truly happy for you, for both of you. But it doesn't change how I feel. I don't know what to do about that." The Amazon warrior became silent.

"You can start by calling me a friend again, and stop avoiding me."

"I haven't meant to avoid you, my Queen. I just thought it might be better if I stayed away for a while."

"Stop calling me your Queen, Nazalon. Ephiny is your Queen. I am your friend."

Nazalon looked up and finally smiled, a smile Gabrielle happily returned.

"Thank you, Gabrielle, though I'm not sure if I can handle being just your friend."

"Nazalon, you were there for me when I needed someone. You held me when I needed to be held. You let me cry when I just needed to cry. You gave me your home when I needed somewhere to stay."

"I know that Gabrielle. But I see you now and my arms still aches to hold you. My heart beats when it sees you walk by."

"If you want that heart to continue beating, I would suggest you remove your hand from hers!"

Nazalon and Gabrielle turned at the low growl of the warrior princess. Neither of them had heard her silent approach. Gabrielle quickly wondered how much she had heard, but by the sound of her growl, too much, but not enough.

"Xena, we were just talking ... Nazalon was there for me when you were so near death."

"Well I'm not dead now, but she will be if she doesn't back off." Xena said to Gabrielle, then turned and directed her comments to Nazalon.

"Every time I leave her for one moment, I turn around and you're by her side. Well that's my place. I thought I had made myself pretty clear that morning on the steps, but obviously you need a lesson." The warrior princess started to take a step toward the Amazon, but Gabrielle stood up and blocked her way.

She placed a firm hand on Xena's chest and looked deep into Xena's icy blue eyes.

"Enough Xena, we were just talking. Nazalon is having a rough time right now and I want to be there for her, like she was for me."

Neither Xena nor Nazalon heard her. They stood a stride apart, eyes glared into eyes, their bodies ready for battle. Something Gabrielle wanted so badly not to happen.

"Enough already. Xena you've been drinking and your judgement is impaired." Gabrielle turned her entire attention to her warrior. Suddenly it dawned on her that these were two stubborn and thick headed warriors. There really wasn't much she was going to do if they decided now was the time to prove who was the best.

"Nazalon ... Xena, enough!" Ephiny's command was loud and clear. Gabrielle looked over and she saw Jadax and Eponin standing behind her.

Both Xena and Nazalon relaxed their stances ... slightly.

"Nazalon, nice of you to join us for the party, but it is a party, not the time or the place for this. Xena, may I remind you that you're one of the guests of honor, so act like one. We are all friends here. So would you two kindly shake hands ... and separate ... for the remainder of the evening."

There was a slight hesitation but the two did finally produce unarmed hands, reluctantly shook and then parted and left. Once out of sight a relieved Gabrielle turned to her friends.

"Thanks Ephiny. That was getting a little tense. I didn't know what I was going to do."

"Thank Eponin, she spotted the trouble way before it started. We just waited for Xena to show up."

"Am I missing something here?"

"Yes, my naive little friend, I think you are. Xena is back, the old Xena. The one who didn't like to share you and that was before she was sleeping with you. Then throw in the problems you too are just getting over and mix in an unrequested love. You, my dear, have a problem: one very, very jealous warrior princess." Gabrielle blinked at her friend, her mouth open, as she absorbed what Ephiny had said. She hadn't thought of it that way.

"So please do me the favor of not sitting in the dark with people who are telling you how much they love you and miss you." They sat in silence for a few heart beats until Gabrielle finally spoke.

"Do you really think she is jealous?"

"Oh new lovers. Ignorance is so bliss," Ephiny rolled her eyes to the skies.

It wasn't until much later that Xena and Gabrielle even saw each other, much less had a chance to speak. Eponin and Ephiny had pretty much decided absences does make the heart grow fonder. Ephiny had dance partners lined up for Gabrielle and Eponin had mugs of port lined up on their table.

Finally, Xena decided she had had enough. She pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. The warrior princess squared her shoulders, and walked with utmost determination straight onto the dance floor. Tapping Gabrielle's current partner on the shoulder, the warrior princess cut in. Xena reached for her bards hand and pulled her close. She gazed down into the green eyes that held her soul, and the face that held her heart. Gabrielle melted in her embrace. A smile crossed the bard's lips as the music changed tempo to a slow, swaying beat.

Gabrielle looked up at her bronze beauty.

"Xena, I ... "

"Shhh, I just want to hold you." The warrior's arms surrounded her and the two began to sway. Gabrielle could feel herself floating away. She closed her eyes and followed the movements of her partner.

Xena turned her head slightly and whispered into her ear.

"I'm sorry, again. I didn't mean to make a scene. I know how much Nazalon was there for you when I wasn't. But I'm here now, and I ... I don't know I'm ..."

"Jealous." Gabrielle finished for her.

The warrior went to open her mouth, but immediately closed it again.

"It's ok Xena. It's not a bad word. It actually feels nice."

"OK, Jealous. I felt jealous ... " Xena's words were hushed by Gabrielle's fingertips.

"It may feel nice, but it was not my intention Xena. So I'm sorry too for not thinking what I was doing." They went back to dancing, holding each other close.

"Was this a fight?" The warrior purred into Gabrielle's hair. Then added in a husky low tone, "can we go and make up, now?"

Gabrielle giggled softly, burying her head deeper into Xena's shoulder, enjoying the euphoric feeling of each other's touch.

The tempo of the music had formed couples on and off the dance floor. As the evening grew late, lovers and partners began to search for more private accommodations.

Eponin walked up to the grinning Queen.

"You look like a proud parent, Eph." The warrior followed her eyes to the swaying outline of Xena and Gabrielle.

"I feel like one ... They sure look good together, don't they."

"Yes, they do ... I'm just surprised they're still out there."

Almost on cue, Xena whispered in Gabrielle's ear. The two lovers' eyes were only for each other as they left the dance floor, parting the Amazon's still watching the festivities. Hand in hand the Queen and her warrior princess headed back to the privacy of their bedroom.

Chapter 43

The next afternoon Xena was in the common room when Eponin walked in. She was carrying a large sack.

"Where's your other half?" Eponin asked joining her friend on the bench.

"Oh she and Jadax left this morning. I'm not sure where they went. What's in the sack?"

Eponin looked down at her filled hands obviously searching for the right words to say.

"Before I show you, I just want to say a few things, from one friend to another." Eponin brought her head up and looked Xena in the eye.

"It's from Nazalon ... wait hear me out. I don't think you realize how she is really feeling. She and Gabrielle became quite close, but Nazalon never stepped over any boundaries. She was a friend, someone who was there for Gabrielle ... I mean there was a time Xena, when we didn't think you were alive. Even after we found you there was a chance you might not make it." The warrior paused. She wasn't used to making long speeches.

"For some reason, she found a friend in Nazalon. At first, we thought it was because you two look so much alike and have a tendency to act similar. Whatever the reason, she pulled Gabrielle through some really tough times. She didn't mean to fall in love with her, but she did. She also swore to Ephiny nothing would ever happen as long as you were still in the picture. She knew Gabrielle still loved you and wanted you. So put yourself in her position when you decided Gabrielle was the enemy." Eponin stopped as she saw the eyelids close on Xena's blue eyes.

Xena lifted her head in a nod and opened her eyes to look at her friend. Eponin continued, "Now you're back, and she is the one who can't forget Gabrielle." The words echoed in the warrior princess's mind. She knew her feelings for Gabrielle had probably saved her life.

Xena brought her left hand up and began to rub her lips. It was something she did when her mind was at work.

"She is easy to fall in love with ... and impossible to forget, isn't she?"

Eponin answered in a quiet, "Yup."

"Nazalon wanted to show you she has no hard feelings for you. She only wanted the best for both of you. After last night, she was afraid you would rather run your sword threw her than give her a chance to talk to you. So I said I would deliver this. Besides, I was the one who took it in the first place." Eponin opened the sack and removed the fully restored armor of the warrior princess.

The blue eyes stared as they traveled around the leather and bronze breast plate. Nazalon had done a lot of hard work to bring the armor back to its former glory. Xena was speechless as Eponin handed over one of her most prized possessions. Eponin reached back into the sack and also removed the arm and wrist bracers. They too had been fully restored.

"When did you," Was all the warrior princess could mutter.

"A while ago. I knew where they had been stored, but it was Nazalon who did all the work. At first, she wasn't sure if the bronze could be brought back, it was badly stained and tarnished. I know she had to replace some of the pieces, but the rest was just elbow grease." Eponin sat back and watched Xena's fingers trace the design of the bronze swirls.

"I tried to tell you, she cares about both of you."

Xena nodded with a small smile on her face. Standing, she put the breast plate in position as Eponin stood to give her a hand. It fit like the second skin it was. Xena ignored the looseness of the bracer on her right arm and wrist. Finally, she stood hands on her hips. The warrior princess felt complete. Lifting a hand to Eponin's shoulder, she turned and left the palace.

Approaching Nazalon's hut, Xena could see the warrior sitting on her bed, working on her bow. Nazalon's head lifted sensing someone's presence. Her eyes widened at the sight of the warrior princess. As Xena entered the doorway, the Amazon's eyes glanced to the bronze breast plate. Nazalon never realized how much the outfit made the warrior.

The two said nothing at first, Nazalon wasn't really sure what Xena was thinking.

As she spoke, the Amazon relaxed.

"I am only here to talk. I wanted to say how much I appreciate what you did. I can't thank you enough. I don't mean my armor, I mean Gabrielle." Xena took another step into the small hut. "I can't imagine what it was like for her when I wasn't here, or even when I was. Nothing I can say or do will show you how much I appreciated the friendship you showed her. Instead, I've drawn a sword on you and challenged you on more than one occasion. For that, I am truly sorry and I hope you can accept my apologies." Xena looked straight into the eyes of Nazalon. The warrior said nothing, only nodded her head. Xena smiled on the inside, 'Boy, we really are alike' she thought. Pausing for a moment longer she continued,

"I realize now how much you care for her. I know you would never do anything to hurt her. I know where you were coming from, you only wanted to protect her. But I'm back now, and that's my job. I will never hurt her again, you have my word on it. I love her and she loves me ... I know if you can handle it, she ... and I would still like to be your friend." Xena walked over and put her hand out. Nazalon sat for a moment looking at the outstretched hand. She closed her eyes and then she stood. She opened them to see the warm smile of a friend. Nazalon firmly gripped Xena's forearm, noting not to press too tightly.

"Now, about my armor. You did a fantastic job. I looked for it not too long ago. When we couldn't find it, I thought someone had thrown it out, I do remember the condition it was in." The atmosphere had lightened considerably.

"Thank you. I'm just glad you're happy with it. I love to work with leather. I have something else that belongs to you." Nazalon said. She walked over to the corner of her hut and removed the blanket which was covering Xena's saddle.

"I wondered where that had gone. Wow. It hasn't looked that good in seasons." Xena's hands ran over the fine craftsmanship of leather. As Xena picked up the saddle, Nazalon's thoughts went immediately to what she had found under the saddle. The Amazon quickly closed her mouth. She wondered if she should mention it. Watching Xena closely, she saw no flicker of any remembrance.

"Do you remember the last time you saw your saddle, Xena?" Nazalon asked, watching the warrior's expression. Xena closed her eyes.

Something was there and Nazalon saw it, but Xena shook her head.

"No, not really. I remember the men and some of when they found me. But I don't remember separating from Argo."

"Well, I did the best I could with the saddle, but your blankets ... I had to throw them away. Sorry." Nazalon decided if Xena didn't ask about the ring, it was probably not a good idea for her to bring it up.

"Please, don't apologize. You did a great job of cleaning away all of the blood." Nazalon's eyes widen, she had not mentioned the blood, only Xena had. 'She remembers more than what she thinks.' Thought the Amazon.

Xena lifted the saddle onto her left shoulder and flashed a smile to Nazalon.

"Thanks again, for everything."

"You're welcome, Xena." The Amazon hollered back at the warrior princess.

"Don't be a stranger, come over for a visit." Nazalon yelled back that she would. As Xena turned out of sight, Nazalon left in search of her Queen.

Nazalon found Ephiny talking to a group of women. The Queen had spotted Nazalon coming toward her. She didn't like the expression on the warrior's face. Excusing herself, she met Nazalon half way across the compound.

"What is it?" Ephiny said with concern.

"We need to talk, in private." Nazalon requested in a hushed voice.

"Come on, let's go to the palace."

"No. I mean private, Ephiny." The Queen looked over at her.

"How about a stroll up the hill?" The warrior nodded and the two left in silence. Neither spoke until they had reached the quiet of the forest.

"All right, what's going on?" Ephiny stopped and looked squarely into the eyes of her warrior.

"I had a visitor today ... Xena in full armor."

"You dragged me up here to tell me she didn't kill you for last night's situation. Or just to tell me how she liked the return of her armor?" Ephiny was exasperated.

"No, she ... we had a chat, yes. Some things were worked out. But it wasn't her gratitude for her armor, it was the thanks for her saddle." Nazalon stated, and waited for the word to sink in.

"She said nothing ... she didn't even look for it."

"Nothing?"

"No, she said nothing, but I could tell there was something there. I asked her when was the last time she remembered seeing her saddle. She said she didn't know, but I don't believe her."

"Why not?"

"Because she said, I did a great job removing all the blood." The regent and the warrior looked at each another.

"Gabrielle would never have mentioned it, Ephiny."

"I doubt anyone would!" The regent fell silent, thinking.

"So what do we do now?"

"I think we don't do anything, I think I need to have a chat with Xena. Eponin mentioned something else last night I also need to talk to her about." Ephiny started walking back in the direction of the village.

Nazalon's curiosity about the last comment was killing her. But it was plainly obvious, the Queen was not going to be forth coming with any information. 'I need to have a word with Eponin,' she thought, and hurried to catch up with her departing Queen.

Jadax and Gabrielle emerged from the forest, they were still chatting as they walked up the hill toward the barn. Gabrielle had enjoyed herself, it had been a nice afternoon with Jadax, but she had missed her warrior princess. The green eyes searched the outlying village for any sign of her lover. Gabrielle stopped in her tracks, her mouth hung open, her heart beating loudly in her ears. Jadax looked back to see why her friend had stopped. The look on Gabrielle's face made the forest scout turn to see what had caused the reaction. It didn't take a genius to see what it was.

Xena had just left the barn. Her long, limping strides covering the courtyard quickly. Her raven hair was damp and her bronze body glistened from some obvious exertion. But that wasn't what had caused the reaction from the bard. It was the armor strapped to the warrior's body. Gabrielle hadn't seen that vision in a long time. Her body was reacting to the sight of her warrior princess in full form.

Xena sensed something. She stopped and turned, looking directly at her lover a hundred paces away. Jadax could see the instant smile cover Xena's face. The forest scout excused herself as she saw Xena head in their direction, but looking back at Gabrielle she doubted it had been heard.

"Hi Xena," Jadax said as the two passed by.

"Hiya Jadax. Did you have a good afternoon?" Xena said. Jadax noticed with a smile, she didn't even slow down to hear a reply. She watched as the warrior scooped up her bard. Jadax wondered if it was always going to be like this.

"Probably," she said aloud as she turned and headed to the palace in search of her own lover to hug.

"Your armor Xena. Where did you find your armor?" Gabrielle ran her fingers over the bronze breast plate, instantly causing Xena to lower her eyelids.

"Nazalon had it. Didn't she do a great job?" The warrior watched as her bard continued to play with the bronze swirls. "If you don't remove that hand, I'll remove this armor right here." Xena loved to make her blush, it wasn't hard to do.

"Nazalon had it?" Gabrielle looked into the oceans of blue as Xena smiled.

"We had a talk ... a good talk. No punches, no swords, just two women talking ... about the woman they both love."

"Xena, I love ..."

"I know Gabrielle. But she loves you too. We sorted it out. She gets the days to talk to you, and I get the nights to sleep with you." Xena ducked just in time, as the open hand of the irate blonde went flying past.

"Relax ... I was only joking. We had a nice talk. She wants to be your friend ... and mine. I thanked her for looking after you, and for my armor. She also had my saddle. It hasn't looked that good in a long time."

Xena saw the look pass threw the green eyes. Gabrielle remembered the last time she saw Xena's saddle.

"I'm sorry, I forgot you must have seen it. Come here. I've missed you. I don't like it when I haven't seen you all day." The warrior searched for the lips she had missed. The lovers forgot their surroundings for the moment, until Gabrielle opened her eyes and pulled away from the passion they were sharing.

"Ah Xena, I don't think this is the place for this."

The warrior opened her eyes and smiled as she took her lover's hand, and returned to the forest in search of a more private spot.

Chapter 44

It was a full day before Ephiny had a chance to even see Xena, she never got the opportunity to talk with her though. So on the second day, she waited for their bedroom door to open and called to the warrior. As Xena approached the Queen, Ephiny asked, "Do you feel up to a ride? I want to get away for a while today. Thought you might like to join me."

"Sure, as long as it's not too far." Xena remembered what the last long ride felt like.

"I thought we might ride up to the lake." Xena affirmed her reply and the two agreed to meet in the barn.

Xena had obviously been at the barn awhile when Ephiny finally got there.

"Sorry I'm late." She said grabbing her own saddle and throwing it onto her horse.

"It's ok. It gave me a chance to spend some time with Argo." Xena leaned over and patted the golden horse.

"Saddle looks good, Xena. Nazalon did a good job," Ephiny commented, looking over at the saddle and its owner.

"Yes, she did." Xena pulled herself onto Argo's back. Moments later, the two were seen riding past the palace and over the hill toward the lake.

Not much was discussed as the two rode mainly in silence, enjoying the sights and sounds of the forest. The trail they rode was heavily used, but was still very narrow, so they took turns taking the lead. They arrived at the mountain lake way before noon. Leaving their horses tethered, they walked to the water's edge.

"This is nice Ephiny." Xena's eyes scanned the water and the scenery, then turned back to look at the regent. "Now, what did you want to talk about?"

Ephiny smiled, not much ever got past her warrior friend. The regent motioned to a log just behind them. Nothing was said until they both were seated.

"Something was brought to my attention ..."

"For someone who doesn't like to talk, Eponin should learn to keep her mouth shut. I made a promise to Gabrielle, and I intend on keeping it."

Ephiny had no idea what Xena was talking about. She decided it might be to her advantage to keep HER mouth shut.

"Yes, there is a part of me that would like to go and hunt those bastards down and slice them into small pieces. But there is another part of me, and that other part is Gabrielle. She has asked me to let it be. I know she's afraid and I really don't blame her. She saw things I've long since forgotten, and I know she can't forget. So until she decides justice needs to be served, they are to be left alone. Sooner or later I will deal with them." Xena stared across the water.

Ephiny didn't know what to say. All of this was news to her. She made a mental note to have a chat with that quiet warrior friend of hers.

"If that is your decision, we will all abide by it. But when the time comes and I'm sure it will, please let us accompany you. For our sake and yours."

Xena looked over at her friend. She smiled and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Would I deprive you of that?"

Ephiny shook her head and Xena looked back at the water. The Queen searched for a way to bring up the topics she wanted to discuss.

"Xena, did you know that Gabrielle told off Artemis and she hasn't been back to the temple since?"

"She what?" Xena's expression of surprise told Ephiny all she needed to know.

"Artemis herself told me. The night you were brought in. Gabrielle blames all of them for not finding or helping you. Or better yet, not helping us in finding you."

"Did she really tell her off? Wow! I mean I do it all the time. But I'm not Gabrielle, I'm not the Chosen one of the Goddess of Hunt."

"Believe me when I tell you. Artemis was upset when she told me."

"I bet She was," snickered Xena. She didn't like it when the Gods meddled with the mortals lives.

"No Xena, I mean she was sad, very sad. I've been trying to talk to Gabrielle about it. But I think she knows, and has been avoiding the subject and me."

"And you'd like me to talk to her..." Ephiny nodded. "Artemis was sad, really?"

Xena thought about it for a moment. It wasn't right and she knew it. She held no respect for the Gods, but Gabrielle did. Xena didn't think her problems had anything to do with the Gods. Oh, Ares stuck his nose in now and then. But Xena knew to be leery of him. Gabrielle was different, even Xena knew how much they all liked her little bard, especially Artemis. The Goddess herself had chosen Gabrielle, and for her to disown her Goddess ... Xena was again reminded how much her little friend had gone through while she hovered between life and death, ignorance and remembering.

"I'll talk to her Eph., I promise."

Neither said anything but Xena knew Ephiny still had something on her mind. It wasn't long before the Queen spoke again.

"Xena, what do you remember about the time before the men found you?"

Xena's eyebrows knitted.

"I've told you, not much. I know now it was raining."

"No Xena, before ... Do you remember Jadax finding you at the river bank?"

"A little, I know we were a little busy."

"And after that?" Ephiny searched her icy blue eyes for a sign of ... anything.

The blue eyes squinted as Xena searched her memory.

"Not much. I remember watching Gabrielle and Jadax leaving."

"Where were they going Xena?"

"They were ... coming ... back to the village." Xena looked up and saw Ephiny staring at her.

"And where were you heading?" Xena answered without really thinking,

"I was going to get Argo and then ... and then." She looked away shaking her head as she ran her fingers through her raven hair.

Ephiny knew Xena didn't remember, so she tried a different way.

"Do you remember what happened in Tripolis?"

Xena turned at the mere mention of the place where she had almost lost her love.

"I'll never forget Tripolis, Ephiny. I almost lost Gabrielle there." Xena began to rub her lips with her index finger. Ephiny could see the wheels beginning to turn.

"Do you remember what happened after Tripolis?"

"Do you mean Tara? What does she have to do with this?"

"No Xena, I mean ... Who's Tara? ... It doesn't matte ... Do you remember going somewhere, sometime after Tripolis?"

"No, not really." Xena was getting confused and Ephiny was getting frustrated. She knew she had to get Xena to remember, it wouldn't do them any good if she just told her. She decided on another approach, only this time the questions came without pause.

"You don't remember where you were going when you parted from Gabrielle and Jadax?"

"No."

"Do you remember who you saw on the road on your way to the Amazon village?"

"You mean Ollious and his son?"

"Ok, when was the last time you saw him?"

Xena blew out a breath, "Phhh ... a long time ago." Ephiny saw nothing. Maybe she didn't remember, or maybe ...

"Xena, do you remember the first time you met Gabrielle?"

"Yes, it was in Poteidaia ..."

"Do you remember the first time you really kissed her?"

"Believe it or not, her wedding da ..." Something flashed in the blue eyes and Ephiny saw it.

"Do you remember when she first kissed you?"

"Yeah. I was basically dead, but I do remember. I don't think Autolycus will ever ..."

"Do you remember when you first realized you really loved her?"

"Yes. It was with you in the Thessalian temple, when she ..."

"Do you remember when you decided to marry her?"

"Yes, right after Tripolis. I went to see Ollious ..." Xena stopped when she realized what she had just said. Her mouth dropped slightly and she turned to look at Ephiny. The Queen took hold of her hand and placed in it, the small, elegant ring Xena had made for Gabrielle. The warrior looked down at her hand. Ephiny smiled at the dazed look on Xena's face.

"Do you think you might want to tell her now?"

Xena had yet to say a word. Ephiny was beaming as she placed a hand onto Xena scarred cheek. "Nazalon found the ring under your saddle. We figured you put it there after you picked it up from Ollious. When Eponin and Jadax found you, it had been Ollious they had gone to talk to. From there, they went to Visala and found you in the street." Xena still hadn't said a word.

Ephiny put her arms around the quiet woman and softly said, "That's where you went when you left Jadax and Gabrielle. To get her ring and it was the ring that lead us to you." Ephiny kissed the top of Xena's head. A moment or two later, Xena finally spoke in a quiet, almost distant voice.

"I remember drawing it out. We had stopped to let Gabrielle rest after Tripolis. She was so weak from the poison. Design after design, I drew. Until I realized, simple was better. I put a quill to parchment and came up immediately with this." Xena pulled out of the embrace and stared down at the small ring. Turning it around in her fingers, she continued. "I left her in the innkeepers care and went to find Ollious. He was tickled when I told him what I wanted. He couldn't wait to meet her." Xena fell silent again. The ring was now clutched tightly in her hand.

Ephiny finally asked softly, "Don't you think she's waited long enough?" Xena smiled and wiped away a lonely tear.

"Yeah ... too long." The two friends stood, Ephiny stopped Xena with a hand on her arm. Wrapping her arms around the warrior, she said happily,

"May I be the first to say congratulations? But I won't be the last to say 'Took ya long enough'!" The two parted laughing as they started for their horses.

Xena had collected Argo's reins when Ephiny called out to her. The warrior turned and walked her horse to the Queen's side. Ephiny was looking for something in her saddle bag.

"I have something else that belongs to you." Ephiny handed Xena her distinctive and unique weapon. Her chakram. Xena's left fingers wrapped tightly around its sharp edges. There was no injury to the warrior princess this time.

"Please. Don't throw it until you're by yourself. I would hate to see the damage you could cause being just a bite rusty." The regent begged.

"Oh, you don't have to worry. I remember how to use this now. But I will have to practice up with my left hand." Xena laughed, but promised she would try it alone for the first little while.

Climbing onto their horses, they headed back in the direction they had come.

Chapter 45

Gabrielle had just come out of the palace heading for the kitchen, when she spotted the two returning from their ride. She was slightly concerned for Xena. The warrior looked quite flushed. But the smile on her face made Gabrielle realize she obviously had a good time. It was then she noticed Xena's chakram hanging from her hip. It really did look like the old Xena. Her armor and chakram only enhanced her persona. The two rode on past, smiling and waving and continued onto the barn. Gabrielle headed in their direction.

As Ephiny dismounted, she turned to Xena, "any idea of how you're going to ask her?"

"None, but give me some time. I'll come up with something."

"You better not wait too long. Amazon women love to talk."

"Hey, is that a crack at me?" Gabrielle said as she came around the barn door.

Ephiny's eyes darted to Xena, but the blue eyes were already on her bard.

"No, it was a crack at Ephiny." Xena said as she pecked a kiss onto Gabrielle's cheek.

"Well, on that note, I think I'll leave you too alone." The two lovers barely heard her. But Xena did lift her head and wink as the Queen smiled and departed.

"Xena, you look a little flushed. Are you all right?" Gabrielle had her arms wrapped tightly around Xena's waist.

"I couldn't be better. It must have been all the fresh air, or some of the stories Ephiny told me today," Xena almost giggled out loud. 'Stories indeed.' she thought. Smiling down at her lover, Xena placed a kiss on her forehead.

"I have to unsaddle Argo and brush her down. Would you mind doing Ephiny's horse? I told her I would."

"No, of course not." They parted and began their individual tasks, but Gabrielle kept an eye on Xena the whole time. She knew her warrior well enough to know when something was on her mind. Gabrielle didn't want to pry, so if Xena didn't want to talk about it, she wasn't going to ask. But this was Gabrielle.

"Xena, what's on your mind? I can see you're thinking about something."

Xena flashed a smile and lightly said, "No, nothing."

Gabrielle pondered. She wondered if she knew, "You're not thinking about us leaving already are you?"

"No Gabrielle. I'm just enjoying the moment. I had a good time today." Xena turned her attentions back to Argo.

"I see you have your chakram back."

"Yes, but I had to promise not to throw it with anyone else around. Which is alright, I'll have to sharpen my left-handed throw anyhow?"

Gabrielle tried not to think about why. It didn't do any good, she knew she would never be able to forget.

They finished with the horses and came out of the barn together. Xena could smell the kitchen and obviously so could Gabrielle's stomach.

"Do you think we should feed that monster, or just let it get louder?" Xena said poking her finger into Gabrielle's stomach.

"Ok, so I'm hungry. Is that a crime?" She hated being bugged about her loud stomach by anyone other than Xena. The two headed off to the kitchen. All the way through the meal Gabrielle knew something was definitely on Xena's mind. She knew Xena would tell her in due time, or sooner she hoped.

The warrior princess's mind was very preoccupied. Since leaving the lake all she could think of was how she was going to ask her bard the big question. She knew it had to be special but she didn't know how ... yet. She also remembered her promise to Ephiny, and she wondered how to approach the subject. Yes, Xena's mind was definitely preoccupied.

Xena was up candlemarks before dawn. She had crept out of bed and had left the room silently. Gabrielle was still fast asleep. Xena smiled to herself as she left the palace. Gabrielle could sleep through anything, and she was counting on it. Returning awhile later with Argo, saddled and ready, Xena stopped and had a few words with the royal guards. Nodding in understanding, one of the guards followed Xena and Argo to the back door.

Xena slipped into the bedroom again and smiled at the sound of Gabrielle still snoring. Climbing onto the bed with Gabrielle's robe in her hand, she gently nudged the little blond. At first there was no response, so Xena shook her a little harder.

"Uhmmm ... umbdffff." Was all that came out between her sleepy lips.

"Gabrielle ... Hey, you need to get dressed. Come on." Xena assisted Gabrielle into a sitting position. Her green eyes remained closed.

"Here we go." Xena lifted Gabrielle's arms and covered the nude, warm body, with the robe. Xena tried to ignore the sexual urge she got as her hands lightly passed over her breasts.

"Where ummm rrr weee going," the bard mumbled. Xena smiled down at her and gently placed a kiss on her sleeping face. She really could sleep through anything.

"We're going for a ride. Let's put this blanket around you." Xena wrapped her up and then lifted her small bundle into her arms. Silently the warrior and her sleeping bard left the room.

The royal guard looked up as Xena and her Queen came out the back door. The guard held the sleeping bundle while Xena climbed onto Argo's back. Situated in the saddle, Xena leaned down and claimed her lover. Winking at the guard, she turned Argo and began to climb the hill behind the palace.

Gabrielle was asleep in her arms, mumbling and muttering every now and then, but still unaware of her changing surroundings. Xena wondered how she could do it. Just a feeling or a sense would awaken her from the deepest sleep. She nuzzled through the blanket and kissed Gabrielle's cheek. Xena knew she had never felt so good.

On the return ride with Ephiny yesterday, she had spotted a small clearing. She had recalled it while lying in bed, just a few candlemarks ago. The clearing would have an unbelievable view of the valley at sunrise. This was where she had decided to give her heart away.

The golden mare was guided off the trail as the tall grass danced against Xena's boots. The stillness just before dawn blanketed the mountainside in peaceful serenity. The warrior appeared to be a statue of stone as they made their way to the edge of the mountain. Nothing showed of the nervousness swirling inside her.

As Argo came to the clearing, Xena reined her in. Lowering her head, she whispered into the sleeping Queen's ear.

"Gabrielle ... " The warrior murmured louder, "Gabrielle ... Hey, sleepy head." The bard only muttered and snuggled deeper into Xena's arms. The warrior called again, but this time placing a firm kiss on her lips.

Gabrielle responded and started to awaken. The eyes fluttered and then looked up into the warm sea of blue so near to her face. A smile started to form, but then her eyes started to dart around at their surroundings. Pulling her head from the blanket, Gabrielle was stunned at what she saw.

The arena of trees surrounded them. A mountain mixture of evergreens and poplars lined the edge of the moss covered, rocky clearing as the sky and valley below fell away from the edge they were standing on.

"Xena. Where are we? What I am I doing on Argo's back? Xena, what are we doing?" Gabrielle had shot out the questions while not really looking for an answer. Looking back at her warrior, she waited for some kind of explanation. Xena only smiled and nodded her head in the direction of the growing light of the sun's reflection. Gabrielle said nothing as her green eyes absorbed the event unfolding in front of her.

The dark of the night sky had changed to shades of grey. The morning sun was transforming the skies to a palette of glowing, ripples of light. The shadows began to unveil the beauty that had been hidden by the cloak of darkness. The green valley below began to sparkle as the sun caught the shimmer of the morning dew, sending rainbows of prisms dancing around them. As the wavering, orange orb broke the crest of the horizon, it shot rays of golden, pink fingers across the vast sky. The songs of the early morning birds floated on a gentle breeze, scented with the smells of a mountain morning. Gabrielle wondered if Xena had found ... paradise.

In her low husky voice, Xena started to speak.

"When I met you, I was like the night. Every thing about me was dark and hidden ... But you could see through the darkness. You saw into my soul. You became my light Gabrielle, and you exposed my darkest shadows. You showed me how to love again." Gabrielle could feel her insides tingling as she watched the woman she loved confess her heart.

"Like the sun, you brighten everything around me. You have shown me what love is." The ever growing light of the sun reflected off of the tears on Gabrielle's cheeks. She watched as Xena's own eyes began to sparkle with moisture.

"Love is what brought me back to you. Ephiny showed me that. I wouldn't give up until I was back in your arms. Something deep inside me still knew who you were and knew you were here waiting for me. We have come so close to losing each other so many times. I never want it to happen again." Gabrielle sat up straight in Xena's arms. She pulled a hand out of the blanket and placed it on Xena's wet cheek.

"You are the best thing to ever happen to me, Gabrielle. You are my light, you are my soul ... you are my life. I love you, Gabrielle." The little blond smiled through her tears. Xena finally spoke the words Gabrielle had been waiting to hear. The warrior bent over and laid a passionate kiss on the waiting lips of her love.

Xena gazed into Gabrielle's eyes.

"I love you ... I want to spend the rest of my life loving you, and holding you." Xena reached into the cleavage of her leathers and pulled out a small pouch. Juggling the bard easily with her left arm, she handed it to Gabrielle. The bard swallowed as her shaking fingers undid the ties. The gold ring fell into her shaking hand as an emotional Xena asked ...

"Gabrielle ...Will you marry me?" The green eyes sprang forth a new river of tears as Gabrielle looked up from the ring into Xena's loving blue eyes.

"Yes Xena ... I was afraid you'd never ask." Gabrielle steadied herself, freeing Xena's left arm. She took the ring from Gabrielle's hand and slowly slid it onto her finger. It was a perfect fit.

Gabrielle looked up and said.

"It's beautiful Xena. I don't have to guess who designed it. I just never knew what the drawings were for."

"What?"

"I recall awhile back, every time I saw you, you were drawing X's, all of different shapes and sizes. I never could figure out what they were for. Now I know. You've known for a long time, haven't you?"

"Yes ... But I was never certain of how you felt. Oh I knew you loved me, but I wasn't sure if you could love me."

"I would have waited forever, for you Xena. I love you."

"I love you too." 'It finally feels right, ' thought Xena. She had finally said the words she swore many years ago she would never say. But many years ago, she didn't know Gabrielle.

Ephiny and Jadax were having breakfast in the kitchen when they began to hear tidbits of gossip.

"... I heard she was sound asleep ..."

"... but why in the dark ..."

"... maybe she flipped out again ... I'm sure Gabrielle is ..."

That statement had been enough. Ephiny left her table and leaned over a table of adjoining messengers,

"What's going on? ... Jadafar? Shureep? ... Someone fill me in?"

They looked up and immediately responded.

"Did you not know Xena left the village?"

"This morning?"

"Before the sun was up?"

"On horse back?"

"With Gabrielle in her arms ... Asleep?"

Ephiny blinked as she looked from one Amazon to another.

"No, I wasn't aware of that, thank you."

The regent quickly returned to Jadax and whispered in her ear as she went past, heading for the door.

"Let's go. Something's up!"

Jadax was on her feet following right behind Ephiny as the regent opened the door.

"What ... what's going on?" Jadax asked as she looked at the frown on Ephiny's brow.

"Apparently Xena is up to something. She left with Gabrielle this morning ... before sun up."

Ephiny bee-lined it to the palace. One of the guards had to have known what was going on, and she wanted to know why, she the Queen, had to find out via gossip central. Ephiny's long steps were rapidly eating up ground and Jadax was doing everything she could to keep up.

"You mean they're not in their room?"

"No. Apparently Xena left this morning with Gabrielle in her arms. Asleep!"

"Asleep?"

"That doesn't surprise me, that girl can sleep through anything. What surprises, and annoys me, is NO ONE told me."

They reached the palace steps and much to Ephiny's unhappiness, neither guard had been on last night nor this morning. They both thought Xena and Gabrielle were still in their room.

A perturbed Queen and her consort entered the palace. Eponin looked up at their arrival.

"Have you heard?" Eponin said with a grin.

"Yes ... We were the last to know!" Eponin's smile faded as she sensed the problem.

"Actually Eph., I was hoping Gabrielle was going to be the last to know."

The simple statement stopped Ephiny in her tracks. She had been so upset about not hearing it first, she had almost forgotten what it was they were all talking about.

"Where do you think Xena took her, Ep.?"

"If I know our Xena. Somewhere quiet, private and very special."

The room fell silent, just in time to hear horses' hooves at the back door. The three turned and headed down the hallway as the back door opened.

Everyone noticed the red eyes first. Then searching, they spotted the shining gold on Gabrielle's left hand. Smiles and screams of delight erupted loudly. Hugs and kisses were exchanged between words of congratulation, and lots of 'it took you long enoughs.' Laughter and sounds of celebration echoed through the palace.

Within a half candlemark the whole village knew. Xena and Gabrielle were officially to be married. Amazons began to converge on the palace. When the common room filled, they began to spill out onto the palace steps and beyond. In the middle of it all were Xena and Gabrielle, both beaming, hand in hand, excepting all the well wishes.

It was Xena who sensed the change first. Gabrielle felt it come from Xena. The icy blue eyes searched the room until they fell on what had caused her senses to peak. Everyone felt it then. The crowd became hushed and the Amazons parted for Nazalon. The tall, dark warrior stood looking at the couple for a moment. She took the last few strides to stand before them. Eyes searched eyes as the three regarded each other. A slow, bright smile crawled onto Nazalon's face.

"I know I can't be the first, but I want you to know it's from the heart. Congratulations. You're both very lucky and special people. I hope you both will be very happy." Xena smiled, and Gabrielle reached out and gave Nazalon a big hug. She held on for an extra minute as she whispered something into Nazalon's ear. As the two parted, Nazalon looked straight at Gabrielle, winked and smiled. The tall Amazon turned to Xena.

"I know she'll be happy ... but I'll be watching if she's not." The two warriors smiled and gripped forearms. Xena whispered as they parted, "I'll be counting on it." The noise of the gathering picked up again as everyone realized the warriors had finally made peace.

"OK ... OK ... Quiet everyone ... please. Quiet. Our Queen would like to speak." Jadax put a hand down for Ephiny as she climbed onto the table.

"Well, the first thing I'd like to say is, the official congratulations." A cheer went up all around. Ephiny looked over at the two and winked. Glowing smiles were returned.

"The second is, Are we losing our Amazon Queen or are we gaining a warrior princess?" The crowd of women erupted with laughter.

"The third, and most important, when's the date?" Choruses of yeah's went up around the two. Xena looked down into Gabrielle's eyes. Speaking directly to her betrothed, but loudly enough for all to hear she said.

"I did the hard part ... the rest is all up to her." Xena leaned down for a kiss. When they parted Gabrielle whispered to Xena, the warrior nodded and then replied. "Whenever you want? I will be there."

Gabrielle turned back to the waiting crowd. Searching out Ephiny's eyes, she said with a smile. "A fortnight ... a fortnight from tonight." Everyone cheered.

Ephiny winked and raised her hand, the loud crowd quieted.

"September 15 it is. To Xena and Gabrielle."

The gathering and celebrating continued long after the engaged couple had parted. Amazons loved a good party, now they had been given two weeks to do just that.

A couple of days later things had finally quieted ... slightly. Looking for a little peace and privacy Xena and Gabrielle were down on the training grounds alone. There had been a few women when they had shown up, but they had quickly departed. Not out of respect for their privacy, out of respect for Xena's chakram. The simple sight of the unique weapon and Xena had the grounds all to herself.

"But you've thrown it left handed before?" Gabrielle tilted her head in question.

"I know, but it's been so long. And I was always more accurate with my right hand." The two were sitting on a log. Xena was spinning the chakram with her left hand, getting the feel for her weapon again. Gabrielle had more confidence in her ability then she did. Xena changed movements and began to toss the weapon up in front of her. Without taking her eyes off the rotating ring she asked.

"Don't you think it's time to forgive Artemis?" Grabbing the chakram in the air, Xena turned to the surprised look on Gabrielle's face.

"Who told you?"

"Does it matter? It wasn't her fault Gabrielle. I'm here now, aren't I?"

"It does matter to me. I was supposed to be her chosen one. I never asked for that. I've never asked for anything. But when I asked for help to find you, they did nothing?" Xena was surprised by the resentment in Gabrielle's voice and the mention of they.

"What do you mean they?"

"Artemis, Aphrodite and Ares. They said they couldn't help. They're Gods Xena, they could have if they wanted too. But they didn't. By the time we did find you, well it was almost too late." Gabrielle looked away. She had cried enough lately to last a life time, and she didn't want to cry anymore.

"How do you know they didn't help, Gabrielle?"

"Because they tried, but they couldn't find you. At least that's what they said."

"But they did try. Maybe not directly, but they did help. Was it not my love for you that kept me alive? That made me crawl half way to Visala, trying to get to you?"

"Yes ... but Xena."

"Well is love not a gift from Aphrodite?"

Xena waited for a reply. Finally a reluctant yes was whispered.

"Ares came to see me in the forest the night Ephiny found me. In His own demented way, He tried to get me to remember how much I loved you. And what you meant to me."

"I didn't know that."

"Gabrielle, you know better than anyone how I feel about the Gods especially when they play with mortals lives. But I know how they feel about you, Artemis especially. If She said there was nothing She could do, I believe Her. I've heard from a very reliable source, Artemis is ... well, believe it or not, She is sorry. I know what that's like Gabrielle. To be sorry for not being able to do anything ... " Xena waited, hoping Gabrielle would make the connection.

"You mean like me, Xena."

"Yes, Gabrielle. I know there is a part of you that still feels guilty for not being there. But I am here to tell you not to feel guilty. There was nothing you could have done except get hurt, or maybe worst. You've never given Artemis the same chance. There was nothing she could have done, even for you. Give her a chance, Gabrielle." Xena leaned over and rubbed her back. Gabrielle looked up and tried to smile.

"Everyone deserves a chance. Isn't that what you always tell me?"

Gabrielle squinted and gave Xena her best glare.

"Don't you ever get tired of always being right?"

"Only when I'm wrong, Gabrielle, only when I'm wrong." Xena leaned back and let her chakram fly. Their eyes followed the ricochetting ring as they enjoyed the sound of Xena's flying chakram. Quicker than her green eyes could follow, the ring was back in Xena's hand. The warrior grinned as her eyebrows danced with excitement. Xena flung it again and tilted her head back, letting loose on a warrior princess war cry.

Gabrielle reveled at the sound, her Xena was back, and ready for battle. A small shiver went up Gabrielle's spine.

Chapter 46

Ephiny had her hands on both her hips as she looked at Xena questioningly.

"Well, what were you thinking of wearing?"

The blue eyes looked down at her leathers and armor.

"I don't think so Xena!"

"What ... Why not? I'll have them cleaned again. Nazalon already offered."

"Oh just what I need. You getting clothing advice from another warrior. Xena, this is your wedding day. Not a battle ground. Your leathers and armor are not appropriate attire."

Xena looked away in disgust.

"Should've eloped," she muttered. Ephiny's hand caught her right across the head.

"I heard that."

"What ... All right ... What did you have in mind?" Xena decided this was a battle she was not going to win.

"This!" Ephiny held up a leather outfit. Xena couldn't take her eyes off of it. She closed her mouth the moment she realized it was hanging open.

"That is beautiful, where?"

"Nazalon also has many skills. Apparently she had more faith in you than even she knew. She began to work on it after she had found the ring. She said you would wear this one day ... One way or another."

As Xena's fingers followed the leather and bead work, she knew what Nazalon had meant. Xena was to have worn this work of art to be married in ... or buried in.

Gabrielle was killing time. She had been told she wasn't allowed in the palace until Xena and Ephiny had finished. Her gown was being made by one of the Amazon dressers. Aliyia couldn't believe her luck at having the honor of making the Queen's wedding gown. It was something she would be able to tell her grandchildren. Gabrielle had just come from seeing the gown in progress. It was going to be stunning. As she approached the palace steps, the royal guards had shaken their heads no. Xena and Ephiny were still not finished. The bard turned to the kitchen, but realized for once, she wasn't really hungry. Her scrolls and parchment were in their bedroom. What else could she do.

Standing in the middle of the courtyard, she looked to see what her options were. When her eyes fell on the temple, she immediately looked away. It was too late. She could hear Xena's voice inside her head. 'Don't you think it's time to forgive Her.' Gabrielle turned back and looked at the temple? She waited a moment longer, then headed in that direction. Pausing for a moment with her hand on the door, Gabrielle took a breath and entered the temple.

At first she thought she was alone, but as her eyes grew accustomed to the dim light she saw the priestess, with two other Amazons.

"Could I have some privacy, please?" She asked quietly. The three nodded and bowed to their Queen as they left.

"I wish they wouldn't do that," she muttered to herself.

"Why, you are their Queen, Gabrielle." Artemis had been waiting, always hoping her chosen would return. She knew who She had to thank for this. She shimmered to life next to her alter.

"I hoped you would return, Gabrielle." Artemis couldn't believe the amount of relief in her own voice.

"I was angry, my Goddess. I realize now it wasn't you who I was really angry at ... I was angry at the men who did this to her."

"I know that Gabrielle, and I know Xena still is. But there is, and was nothing, I could do about it. If I could have found her, I would have. It pained me to see you like that, and Xena too."

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry for what I did, and for what I said. Can you forgive me?"

"I will Gabrielle, when you forgive yourself."

"I don't know if I can ever do that."

"Then you and Xena will never stand a chance. You have to forgive, and ... you have to let her be who she really is."

"What do you mean, who she really is? I love her for who she is."

"Then you need to let her go. Her anger is growing inside her and without vengeance, her rage will tear her apart, and your relationship with it. You need to forgive and she needs to release her anger and to be vindicated. When this is all over, when you have forgiven yourself, and Xena has got her justice, only then will your power of love heal the wounds of your past."

"But how do I start, my Goddess?"

"By realizing there was nothing you, or I, could have done." Artemis reached out to touch her chosen one, Gabrielle felt the power of the Goddess surge through her.

"Welcome back, my chosen Queen." With a flash of light Artemis was gone.

Gabrielle sat for a while thinking about everything she had said. As she stood to leave, a streak of light produced two Goddess. Artemis and Aphrodite. Gabrielle blinked from one to the other.

"I almost forgot Gabrielle, my congratulations and best wishes for your up coming nuptials."

"Yeah, me too. Maybe my brother, will like stop hanging around and panting, every time the warrior princess swings her sword. Probably not ... later" And with that, the two were gone.

As Gabrielle walked back to the palace, the royal guard smiled and opened the door for her Queen.

"Thank you. They finally finished, did they? I mean how long can it take for Xena to decide she's wearing her leathers to her own wedding." Gabrielle muttered as she entered the quiet common room. There was no one there. Looking in their room, it was empty too. She returned back to the front door again.

"There's no one here?"

"Oh, I knew that my Queen."

Gabrielle waited, then raised her hands, palms upward.

"Well ... where did they go?"

"Oh, the Queen is asleep in her room."

"And Xena?"

"She was heading toward the barn."

"Thank you," Gabrielle said as she shook her head and off to the barn she went.

She stood silently in the doorway watching Xena brush Argo. 'She is a beautiful woman, I am so lucky.' Gabrielle thought. Her eyes left Xena and fell to the ground.

"Are you going to stand there all day and watch me? Or do you want to come in and tell me what's on your mind?"

Gabrielle looked up. "How do you do that?"

"I don't know ... I just do. Come here you," Xena pulled her in for a loving embrace.

"What's going on in that head of yours? Cold feet? I thought that was my department?" Xena said smiling down into the face in her hands. Gabrielle's eyes were miles away.

"What's wrong?" Xena suddenly got serious.

"Xena, you and I will always have our differences."

"Yeah." Xena wasn't sure if she liked the way this was going.

"I don't believe in revenge, but I do believe in justice."

"What are you saying, Gabrielle?"

"If I let you go, to find the man that did this ... Would it be revenge, or justice?" Gabrielle looked intently into Xena's darkening, blue eyes as her hand laid against the warrior's scarred cheek.

"It would be vengeance. Pure and simple." Gabrielle now knew Artemis had been right. Xena's eyes were alive with rage. There was no way she could keep all that anger inside her, Gabrielle knew it would eventually destroy them.

"Then do me one favor, let me go with you."

"NO!" Xena's answer was very plain and very simple, and she had left no room for discussion.

"I won't let you go alone." Gabrielle stood firmly up to her warrior.

"Fine ... then I'll take Eponin, if Ephiny oks' it."

"And Nazalon too. Please." Xena nodded, her warrior blood was pumping strongly.

"Then Xena ... I think I know who it was."

Xena's head spun at Gabrielle's admission.

"What!?" Xena couldn't believe her ears.

"I went to Artemis's temple today. We had a chance to talk. It got me to thinking of what you had said, about the leader. It all fits. Whenever you mentioned Ollious, you never mention the men we fought on the road that day. I wondered why. Then I realized it was because you hadn't put the two of them together. We called him Ugly."

The name was all she needed, and she remembered one of the final pieces of the puzzle.

The fight on the road. The bastard who had cracked the whip against her back. The Ugly man who had said her beautiful face needed a scar. She saw the blade coming down on her face. In her horror and pain, she thought she had lost her eye. But she could clearly see the river of red as it ran down her body. Her hand, it had been his sword hilt that had split it open in the first place. He had reveled in the pain it had caused her everytime he split them open from there on after.

Gabrielle saw Xena flexing her deformed right hand. It was then Gabrielle knew she was right. It had been Ugly.

Without saying a word, Xena reached for Argo's saddle. Gabrielle stepped in front of her.

"Xena, you promised to take Eponin and Nazalon."

The warrior princess paused and looked down into Gabrielle's eyes.

Gabrielle could see the color of rage in Xena's blue eyes as they held their icy stare on her.

"Ok." Xena said firmly as she put the saddle down. She collected Gabrielle's hand in her own and they headed for the palace.

"You're leaving now?" Ephiny wasn't sure if she was totally awake. Part of her hoped this was just a dream, a nightmare actually.

"Yes, Ephiny. But Gabrielle is staying here. I would like to take Eponin and Nazalon, but I won't without your blessing." A part of Xena was hoping she wouldn't give it.

"You know where you're going, don't you? And who you're after?"

"Yes. His name is Felcon. I killed his brothers that day on the road when we met Ollious. He said he followed me. When he saw me, fall from Argo's back, he knew I had hit my head and possibly broken my arm. So he left to find some of his buddies, and when he returned he thought I was gone at first. The rain had covered most of my tracks, but he spotted me under some bushes. I didn't know who he was then, but I knew enough to know I couldn't be caught. When I crawled out from under the bushes, the ground gave away because of the rain. I vaguely remember falling and hitting the rocks on the way down. But I recall the impact of hitting the ground." Gabrielle and Ephiny grimaced as they visualized the impact. Gabrielle instinctively put her arm around Xena's waist.

"When will you be back? Your wedding is in five days, Xena!"

The warrior turned to her betrothed. "Three days, four at the max. I will be here. I promise."

"I will get Eponin and Nazalon, we'll meet at the barn."

"Thank you, Ephiny." Said Gabrielle as the Queen departed.

They were alone and Gabrielle turned to Xena.

"Why didn't you tell me all this in the barn?"

"I didn't recall it until Ephiny asked." Xena had turned, placing her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders.

"What made you fall off Argo's back? I've never seen that happen to you."

"I was tired, and very sore. I should have stopped, but I wanted to get here. I guess I fell asleep, I don't really know. I remember waking suddenly, something had spooked Argo. It wasn't her fault, she jumped one way and I went the other way. But I didn't clear the saddle properly. I don't know, maybe it was my hand. When I woke up, my arm was definitely broken. I remember this horse kept nudging me. I didn't know who she was or where I was. It was all I could do to remove the blankets and the water skins. I went through the one saddlebag I could reach and I found some food and my medicine bag. I removed what I needed and then used the bag for my bleeding hand. I didn't know at the time there were weapons on the saddle. Well, Argo finally left on her own. I guess she went looking for help. I didn't see her again until I was at the bottom of the cliff. By then it was too late, even she knew it. I guess that's when she came here." Xena brought her eyes back to Gabrielle.

"Are you still ok with this?"

"No, but it's something you have to do. I know that now. But we are getting married in five days, right."

"Yes, my love. I wouldn't miss my own wedding to the woman I love." The two met half way, their kiss was passionate and all consuming. Neither wanted it to end, for when it did, they knew their separation was too follow. It was Xena who pulled back first.

"I love you, remember that." Xena said.

"Just don't you forget it." Gabrielle smiled and the two headed for the door.

Eponin was at the barn saddling her horse when the two arrived. Nothing was said, Xena and Eponin only exchanged nods. Nazalon arrived moments later. Seeing everyone else was busy with their horses, she grabbed her saddle and started with hers. Eponin was finished when Jadax and Ephiny entered the barn. Jadax was carrying a sack of food that she handed to Eponin, but everyone else was looking at the Queen. Her sword and bow were on her back.

"Where do you think you are going?" It was Gabrielle who said it first.

"I'm going too. I wouldn't have my warriors leaving without me."

Gabrielle looked to Jadax for help. The forest scout nodded. "This time, I agree with her."

"You're in charge Gabrielle. Jadax will help with anything you need. Xena, let's get going, were burnin' daylight."

Nazalon handed Ephiny the reins to her regal mount. Once outside, they all mounted, except for Xena. She held her bard once more and then kissed her forehead.

"Don't worry. I'll bring them all back." After a final embrace she mounted Argo and they left in a thunder of hooves, four women in search of vengeance.

Jadax came up beside the bard. Gabrielle slipped an arm around the scout's shoulders.

"I still can't believe you agreed to let her go, Jadax."

"I said I agreed, I didn't say I wanted her to go." The two turned and slowly headed for the palace.

Chapter 47

The four rode hard, almost too hard. Ephiny could see the pain at times on Xena's face. But the warrior princess had the lead and she was setting the pace. They rode into the one street of Visala just after dark. The small town may have had a population of about 300, but the road through town was vacant, as all the shops and working folks were home with their families. They rode in silence, all eyes opened wide, and alert for trouble. Xena spotted what she had been looking for and turned Argo to the railing in front of the tavern.

"I didn't think we really need that right now." Ephiny commented as she watched Xena tie Argo to the rail.

"Why not stable the horses and get some sleep?" She added.

Eponin was off her black mare as she turned to her Queen.

"I don't think she's looking for a drink, Eph." The regent hadn't thought about the fact of where exactly they were. It was then Ephiny realized what Xena was looking for. The three Amazons tied their horses and quickly joined Xena as she entered the tavern.

All sounds stopped as the tall warrior princess glanced around the room. Only about ten people were in the tavern, not including the large, bearded bartender. All heads turned as the warrior princess came through the swinging doors. Most of the people there knew who she was. But most had thought she had died that day in the road.

Two cowardly men in the back wished now she had. They slowly pushed back their chairs, looking at the distance between them and the back door. Neither saw the chakram coming, but they felt the wind of it go past their noses.

"Where are you two going? I believe you paid good money, for a chance at me ... Well I'm here for my refund."

They dove for the door landing short of it by two feet ... Xena's feet. She picked one off the floor and threw him onto a nearby table. She shook a finger at Nazalon when the Amazon had come to join in on the fun.

"Ah ah, these are mine." Xena growled. The rest of the tavern patrons exited quickly. Nazalon reluctantly returned to Eponin and Ephiny as they stood at the bar.

"Never join the party until you're sure you're invited, Naz. This is Xena's party, she's waited, and she deserves it. Come on, I'll buy you a drink, then we can watch a true warrior in action." Eponin threw an arm around the warrior.

The three leaned against the bar, drinks in hand, and watched Xena. They oohed the punches, and ahhed the kicks, and clapped when she threw one out the door. Ephiny even called 'bad form' when the warrior went to draw her sword. Xena had turned with a sneering smile and sheathed her weapon. Two more blows to the chest and one to the head with a turning kick, and he was down and out. Xena bowed at the applause from the bar.

"On the house Xena. Welcome back." The bar keep said, splashing a mug of cold ale in front of her.

"OHH ... It's good to be back" She grinned at her friends and downed the ale.

The four left the tavern and headed to their horses. They had decided to continue on and camp outside of town.

Ephiny rode up beside Xena, as Eponin slowed slightly to ride next to Nazalon.

"All the stories I've heard about her and Gabrielle really are true. She is the warrior princess, isn't she Eponin?" Nazalon staring in ah at the back of Xena.

"She is the best. You should have seen her before her injuries." Eponin looked away, she didn't want Nazalon to see the regret on her face, but it didn't matter, Nazalon heard it in her voice. Xena was good, but never again would she be what she once was, and Eponin knew that now. Looking at Xena's slumping shoulders, the warrior princess knew it too.

"You ok, Xena?" Ephiny asked looking at her friend.

"Yeah. "

"Felt pretty good didn't it?"

"Yeah." Xena said solemnly, but the Queen knew by her voice the warrior knew better. Ephiny saw the pain and remorse deep in her eyes.

"You knew it was going to end sooner or later. Maybe it's time for a change, you're getting married in, well, in four days now. Why don't you think about sticking around? We would love for you two to stay and make the village your home."

"Maybe." Ephiny heard the conversation die in Xena's single word. The regent held the silence and just rode beside her friend.

The light of the moon was all they had to guide them down the well-traveled road. The silvery shadows in the forest, just off to the side, kept their secrets in the trees. Just small whispers of cedar boughs mixing with the hooves of the horses as they rode in silence. Far off in the distance a sensitive ear could pick up the sounds of the river as it tumbles down its own lonely path on the way to the sea.

Xena's mind was spinning. Her eyes and ears were picking up things she now remembered, things she had tried so hard to forget. But it was the fight in the tavern her mind wouldn't let go of. Xena knew her punches weren't as fast, her kicks weren't as high. Her timing was still off, but she expected that. Her strength still wasn't what is was. But it was more than that. It was her, she knew she wasn't what she was. I little piece of her had just died by Falcon's hand and she now could hear its haunting screams. The warrior princess would never be what she once was. She could still hear the echos as her past died away.

Ephiny pointed off the road to a trail she had spotted. She lead her chestnut stallion through the trees as the others followed. The lack of underbrush in the forest made it easy to make camp for the night. Nazalon and Eponin hauled two logs over to the firepit Xena had made. No one spoke as a fire was made and their dinner cooked. As comfortable as the Amazon's were in the forest, was as uncomfortable as they felt with the brooding warrior princess. No said a word to her, which was a good thing, cause she really didn't feel like talking. The three Amazons tried not to notice after dinner as she slowly crawled into her blankets with a moan, and went to sleep.

They sat around the campfire and talked in whispers.

"What do you think, Eponin?" The warrior glanced over at Xena's outline.

"I think she's hurting in more ways than one."

"Do you think she's up to this?" It was Nazalon speaking, the concern she felt echoed in her words.

Ephiny and Eponin exchanged questioning glances.

"She still is Xena ... I don't think we're going to change her mind one way or the other." Ephiny said as she poked at the fire.

"She needs to do this ... for herself. But we better keep an eye on her, but don't let her know we're keeping an eye on her." Nazalon and Ephiny nodded in agreement with Eponin.

"Let's hit the blankets, it's going to be along day tomorrow."

Eponin was up first, or thought she was. As she rose from her bed and looked over at the empty blanket beside her, she knew she wasn't. Scanning her eyes around the camp, she saw no sign of the warrior princess, but her ears did. She arose and headed in the direction of the sounds. Silently moving through the trees, Eponin spotted Xena a few 100 paces away from the camp. She watched as the warrior princess worked out with her sword. Making her way closer, Eponin stopped and leaned against a tree. She observed with admiration as Xena's sword flashed and twirled in her left hand. From here it was hard to see, what, if anything, the warrior princess had lost. Eponin knew she was watching elegance in motion, the natural movement of a woman born to fight. Eponin knew even with her injuries, the warrior princess was still one of the best. She smiled to herself, just before the chakram sank into the tree ... inches from her head.

Looking first at the weapon, then turning her sights onto the smirking face of her friend, Eponin was surprised to see Xena's sword was still in her left hand. It was then the Amazon warrior realized she had thrown her chakram ... with her right hand.

Xena sheathed her sword and walked over to her. Eponin raised her eyebrows.

"You threw that with your right hand?"

Xena only smiled and winked. "Where there is a will, there is a way, my friend." She reached up and pulled the chakram from the tree and returned it to her side.

"When did you realize you could throw it right handed, again?"

"About a minute ago."

Eponin's mouth dropped open as Xena strolled past on her way back to the camp. Eponin closed her mouth, and slightly smiled. She looked back at the mark on the tree, squinted her eyes, and shook her head. She wasn't sure if Xena had been joking, or not.

"She was joking ... I hope." The warrior said aloud, then turned to follow Xena back to camp.

They ate breakfast and discussed the best way to find Felcon.

"I don't think we can rely too much on what I remember. I wasn't exactly marking a path, nor taking measurements of the distance I traveled. But I do know, it can't be that much farther. The question is, in what direction."

Ephiny pulled a map from her saddlebags. Eponin unrolled it as she spoke.

"Process of elimination. We know you didn't cross any rivers, not in your condition. But how about streams?"

All eyes turned to look at Xena. She shook her head, negative.

"We can pretty much ignore the mountains, you're strong, but not that strong." Ephiny said as she followed the map with her finger. "Do you remember any trails or roads?"

Xena said nothing as she closed her eyes and searched her mind.

"Did you cross them, or follow them ... or avoid them all together?"

Xena shook her head in self disgust. She opened her eyes. "I don't remember."

"Go with your instinct's Xena. That's how you would have survived, instincts. Ask yourself now, what would you do?"

"I'd follow them. I wouldn't want to be seen, but I ... but I didn't let the road out of my sight. I recall horses, but I was never certain it wasn't Felcon, or one of his men. So I stayed hidden."

"Was it this main road?" Nazalon asked, pointing back to the road they had left last night.

"I don't know. How many roads are there into Visala, Eponin?"

"Three. One from the west, one from the north and one from the east. We can eliminate the one from the west, which road leads to Bosswanna. So that leaves north and east. Not to mention, all the little roads, and larger paths. Think Xena, anything else?"

Xena hung her head and rubbed her temples, searching her mind for anything, something that would give them even the smallest clue. Her mind whispered to her, in the darkness and the shadows.

"What Xena ... we couldn't hear you." Ephiny said as she looked at Xena's pain filled face. The regent was getting concerned. Maybe Xena wasn't up to this after all.

"The darkness and the shadows that's what I followed, before I would sleep. I was going west, toward the setting sun. This is the right road. I'm sure of it now." Xena stood.

"Then lets get going, I feel the need to kick some ass." Everyone turned and smiled at Nazalon exuberance.

Before they broke from the trees, a plan began to formulate.

They knew Xena had not crossed the road, so Felcon's hideout was on the south side. It was decided by Ephiny, Eponin and Nazalon would take to the trees, following along the south side of the road. Xena and Ephiny would take all four horses and travel on the road. Everyone understood and as they began to part, Ephiny added.

"Let's all be careful, and keep our eyes and ears open. At the first sign of anything, or any trouble, pull back and let us know." The Amazon warriors nodded and took to the trees. Ephiny watched with a mixture of pride and fear as her two Amazons disappeared into the canopy of the giant cedars.

It was well past noon before Ephiny heard the Amazon bird call. Xena had heard it to. They turned all the horses off of the road. They didn't have to wait long for the two Amazons to descend from the trees.

"I think we found it!" Eponin said.

Chapter 48

It had been lonely in the palace. Jadax and Gabrielle had tried to keep each other company, but it hadn't really helped. Their minds were with the others, their hearts were with their lovers. This afternoon wasn't any better.

Gabrielle was seated at the table in the common room, quill in hand. She had been working on one of her many lists, regarding their up coming wedding. She knew she was just trying to fill her time. There was no need for a guest list everyone knew they were invited. The food preparations had started days ago. Her gown was almost finished, and she knew she couldn't keep bothering Aliyia or it would never get done. Sighing, she leaned back over the parchment. She had been working on what she wanted to say to Xena when they took their vows.

Jadax had looked up at Gabrielle when she had sighed, the little scout knew how she felt. She looked out the window and then back at the hunched over blonde woman.

"Let's get out of here." Jadax said.

"And do what?" Gabrielle muttered, not lifting her head from the parchment.

"I don't know, but I know I can't just sit here, waiting."

The bard's head lifted and the two looked at each other, neither had any idea what to do.

"Come on." Jadax jumped up and took Gabrielle by the hand.

Exiting the palace, the bard turned to the forest scout.

"Where are we going?"

"To the banquet hut." Jadax said as she continued to pull the bard down the hill.

"I just left there this morning, everything that can be done there, has already been done."

"That's what I'm counting on." Gabrielle was confused, but relented and went willingly.

The two small figures entered the door to the large hut. Jadax released her hold on Gabrielle and immediately began searching.

"Now where would they put it all?" Jadax said as she began lifting blankets and searching through boxes. Gabrielle looked around the dark hut again. Tables had been set up in uniformed rows. The walls had been decorated with feathers of turquoise and red, the colors she and Ephiny had chosen. She felt her butterflies as her eyes automatically went to the table where she and Xena would be sitting. A large center piece made of more feathers, carved wood and colorful stones was situated in the center of the long, head table. Two elegant candle holders were placed at either end, both holding a multitude of candles.

"AH-ha," yelled Jadax triumphantly. Gabrielle turned to see what she had been looking for. Jadax held up a bottle in each hand.

"That's what you were looking for ... bottles of port. Jadax, I don't drink!"

"That's ok, neither do I. But Xena and Ephiny do, especially when they don't have anything else to do."

"I don't think we should, Jadax. That's the port for our wedding, and I don't want to get into trouble."

Jadax looked stupefied at Gabrielle.

"Excuse me, but it's your wedding, and ah ... how can you get into trouble, you're the Queen."

"Believe me Jadax. I can find trouble, without even looking." Gabrielle kept looking at the grinning little scout. Jadax waved the bottles of port, as she wiggled her eyebrows.

"All right." Gabrielle pulled out a chair as Jadax began to tug at the cork.

Nazalon quickly added, "there's a big building, and two smaller huts. There's lots of movement, at best guess there's about 20 of them. It was hard to tell."

"Was he there?" Xena asked directly to Eponin.

"I'm not sure, from your description, it could have been half of them."

"They're all big and ugly." Nazalon looked from Xena to Ephiny.

"How far away? And what's the coverage like?" Asked Ephiny.

"Not far, and very good. The trees come right up to the edge of their camp."

"I remember that. That's how I was able to get away. The growth is quite thick."

They sat and drew out a plan, discussing ever possibility, trying to cover every angle.

Xena and Eponin would go in first, Nazalon and Ephiny would be in the trees as back up, That way the men wouldn't know how many of them there were ... or how few. But no matter what happened, the leader was to be Xena's. The warrior princess had made that very clear.

They made their way to the encampment silently along the tops of the trees. It didn't take long before they could smell the fires and soon could smell the camp it's self.

Xena felt her stomach churn as the familiar odor invaded her memories again.

Within a candlemark the four sat in the trees, watching the comings and goings of the men below. As Nazalon had stated, there was one large, barn like, building and two smaller huts. There were several fires going, one was obviously for cooking as a large cauldron was steaming above the open flame. The regent could see Xena's eyes staring at the large wooden building, then Ephiny saw them dart back and forth, she turned to see what Xena was looking at.

Three large posts were buried deep in the ground just paces away from one of the fires. All of the posts had chains and shackles attached to them. Ephiny felt her mouth go dry as she could see by the stains in the silver wood, they had been used often.

Xena knew Ephiny was watching her, but she refused to look at her friend. It was taking every ounce of her inner strength to keep her mind in the present.

Using hand signals and bird calls, the four women communicated without a problem. Ephiny's eyes were on the camp, but most of her attention was on her friend. They all saw the tension and anxiety on Xena's face, but only Ephiny saw the tremors in the warrior princess' hands. The regent couldn't, and didn't, want to think what images were going through Xena's tortured mind. Turning back to the camp, and then back to Xena, the warrior princess signaled 18 men, so did Nazalon. Ephiny and Eponin concurred.

'Four to eighteen, not good odds,' thought Xena. 'Nope, not good odds for them.'

Xena descended from the trees ... "YIYIYIYIYIYIY," Eponin was right behind her.

All movement in the camp froze. Men's eyes widened and many mouths dropped in fear.

"Hi boys, did ya miss me?" Xena drew her sword, her eyes were alive, her smile was deadly.

Someone in the back identified her. "Xena," at the mention of her name, two men took to the forest, they didn't stop running 'til it was dark. A few of the more foolish, drew their own swords.

"I want FELCON, " she snarled out the name. Eponin's eyes watched everyone, she knew already which ones would strike first, and which ones would die quick. The quiet Amazon spotted the first one as the wave of swords descended on them. Before she could strike the first blow, Xena's sword stopped him in his tracks, the battle was on.

Nazalon looked at Ephiny as she let go of her tree limb. "I'm not missing out on this."

The regent beat her to the ground. "Behind me junior," the two Amazons joined in on the action.

Ephiny quickly split the battle Xena had with eight, each taking four men.

Nazalon went back to back with Eponin. The remaining men didn't stand a chance.

Xena's heart was pumping madly, her sword flashing right and left. She felt good, and let go a few more war cries. Bodies were flying in every direction. Fists and feet were dropping the men left and right. Xena brought an elbow into one of the men's face, she felt his nose crush, and he crumbled where he had once stood. Watching her remaining enemies, Xena smiled with confidence, as she watched the Amazon's pulverize the rest of the group.

"Where is Felcon?" She demanded again.

"I'm right here, Xena." The blue eyes darted to the man who had spoken the words. Xena saw a flash from the blade, of the man in front of her. Not taking her eyes from Felcon, she ran her blade through him as his sword fell from his dying hand.

Xena took a step toward the large man who had almost killed her, the man who had filled her body with scars and her mind with visions she couldn't forget. It was his hand holding the whip, his hand holding the sword as it tore open her face ... and it was his laugh she heard in her nightmares.

"Felcon." She snarled out the name as Ugly slowly drew his sword, a wicked smile was on his dirty face. As Xena stepped closer, she knew her friends were right behind her.

"This one is mine, all mine." The Amazon's stood their ground, they knew this was Xena's battle.

"Well, I guess you were a little tougher to kill than I thought." Felcon sneered a smile as he circled the smoldering warrior.

"I'm a little tougher, when I'm not tied down ... beaten and whipped, you bastard." Xena's sword twirled slowly in her left hand.

"I think the scar becomes you Xena. It adds to your beauty ... I knew it would ... Too bad about your hand, how are you with your left?" He lashed out with his sword, but Xena swiped it away, then followed through with her own sword. Felcon was quick to glance the blow away. Xena snapped a foot into his side and she felt the air escape from his lungs.

"Not bad, warrior princess. This could be fun, beating you up a second time." Swords clashed again, neither hitting their intended targets.

"I never stood a chance the first time, you bastard, and you knew it. You knew I had lost my memory, and my right arm, before you even came along." Xena struck in anger, her sword was deflected, but her right elbow was not. The pain shot through her arm, as her elbow connected with Felcon's chin. His eyes wavered as blood ran down from the split in his chin.

"Oh ... good one." He looked at the blood on his hand, his blood. He brought his fingers to his mouth and licked at the salty warm fluid. He smiled at the warrior princess and tossed his sword from hand to hand. He continued his vile words.

"No Xena, actually the first time was on the road with Ollious and his boy ... and with your little blond friend ... when you killed my brothers." Whether it was his anger at his brothers deaths, or the mere mention of her Gabrielle from his lips, either way, it didn't matter. Xena saw the sword, she never saw the fist. Pain clouded her mind for a scant moment as his knuckles had split the corner of her still tender scar. Xena stepped back to clear her head as the Amazons stepped forward.

"Back off," Xena growled through clenched teeth.

She took a step forward and Felcon did the same. Raising his sword, he brought it down into emptiness. He had heard the war cry, but he hadn't seen her flipping through the air over his head. Xena landed as best as she could, but her body wasn't ready for a long, drawn out battle. Fatigue and pain had taken its toll. She knew she had to end this soon. His back to her, she drove the hilt of her sword into his kidneys. Felcon turned to face her, his sword lashing out. Xena barely had time to duck. As she stood up, she drove her head into his already injured chin. This time it rocked the big man good. Xena let another kick go, this time She heard His ribs break.

Taking a quick step back Xena pulled the remaining energy and strength from her reserves. She brought her sword around again, knowing this was the final volley, winner take all. The warrior lashes left and right, up and down, at times lunging, other times defending. She had him and she knew it. His face was swollen and bleeding, as well as several cuts to both of his arms. Xena was ruthless as she beat him to the ground. Strike after strike she pounded away with her sword, she was driving him down. Finally, Felcon dropped his weapon and began to beg for mercy. Xena stood over him, her sword high above his head. With one motion she could have beheaded him. Part of her wanted to ... but she knew she was no longer that person. Xena's sword slid slowly back into its sheath.

"I won't kill you Felcon. I won't sink to your level. I'll let the magistrate deal with you." Xena looked down at the pitiful, broken man. "He'll show you mercy ... more than you ever showed me." Her insides were shaking with relief and exhaustion. She knew she had to get away from him before she either changed her mind or fell to the ground. Xena turned and began to walk toward her companions.

"But Xena, I did show you mercy." Felcon said as he rose to his knees behind Xena's back. "I didn't kill you. I couldn't even break you." Xena stopped, her little voice in her head was screaming again, and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck begin to rise.

"But I will kill you now ... and then I'm going after your little blond friend." Everything seemed to happen then in slow motion. Xena saw Ephiny's eyes flash in sudden alarm. The warrior princess turned back to Felcon, but her weakened legs began to collapse. She saw the knife coming out of his hand, aimed squarely at her. Xena felt the rush of adrenaline as she saw Felcon's smile freeze on his ugly face, and he toppled over. His heartless body lay dead with Xena's chakram was deeply embedded into his skull. She looked at the still form and then down at her outstretched right hand, she hadn't even been aware that she had thrown it.

The warrior princess let go of all she had been holding onto, everything that had once kept her going. The pain spread through her body as Xena felt her world darken, her limp, bloody body fell to the ground.

Chapter 49

"But why did yous let Ephany go."

"The same reasons you let Xeena go. They had too, its part of ... whos they are."

The two were still seated at the table, sort of. Their butts were in their chairs but their chins were resting on the table. They had discovered through trial and error, this was the best position for them in order to keep somewhat of a visual contact. A single, half empty bottle of port remained on the table between them. The other bottle had been pushed to the side, it was still full and corked.

"Do yous know howww much I love my Xeennaa." Jadax's eyes transfixed on the bottle, as her swaying hand hunted it down.

"Gabby, everyone knows howww you twos loves each utters. Wees tried to tell yous, long ago ... Gotacha." The little scout's fingers encircled the bottle she had been hunting.

"Oh, my face is hot." Gabrielle lifted her head and slapped her hand onto her flushed face. Jadax pulled the bottle away from her lips and passed it to her Queen. Gabrielle swallowed a couple more mouthfuls, placing the bottle onto the moving table. Her body and face shuddered from the alcohol. Jadax starred at her and burst out laughing.

"Do thats again," Gabrielle immediately complied, both began to shake with laughter. The stress of waiting for their lovers began to unload its burden, with the assistance of the port. Jadax reached for the bottle, taking a swig, then mimicked Gabrielle as she shook her body. The alcohol entering her stomach added to the convulsion. Laughter erupted from both of them again.

"How do they drinks this tuff? It's brutal." Asked Gabrielle as she looked at the bottle of port.

"Cause their our ... Warrior women ... and we love them." Reaching for the bottle, then holding it high.

"To Ephanny and Xeena." Jadax toasted the two warriors.

"To Ephany and Xena." Gabrielle tipped the bottle back.

They fell silent, each lost in their own thoughts of the women they loved.

"Do you think ... you and Ephiny will ever get married?"

"I'd like to, but she is our Queen and I'm not of royal decent. I can't ask her, she has to ask me."

"Oh ... that's crap." Gabrielle said blatantly.

"Personally, I always thought it was bullshit." Jadax stated, her eyes wide as her head swayed.

Jadax reached for the bottle again.

"To us," she toasted.

"And the women who love us ... no, I mean ... to the women we ... To us, and the shit they put us through." Jadax cheered as Gabrielle lifted the bottle to her lips.

Alcohol was now rushing through their bodies, quickly replacing their emptiness and worry that had strung them so tightly. They drank to forget and they drank to occupy the minds. They hoped to wash away the knowledge of where their companions had gone.

"To the Amazon nation ..." toasted Gabrielle.

"... and the alcohol it makes."

"... and the women who love it."

"The nation or the alcohol?" Jadax paused, the bottle half way to her lips.

"Both," laughed Gabrielle.

"Oh, that not fair ... that's two drinks."

This made Gabrielle laugh even harder, causing her to fall from her chair. Jadax put the bottle on the table, and stared at her with a knitted brow. Gabrielle was laughing uncontrollably.

As the little scout reached out to help her Queen, she too landed very unceremoniously on the floor. For unknown reasons that only in their alcoholic haze did they know, the two rolled on the ground, tears of laughter streaming from their faces.

It was Jadafar that heard the laughter first as she past in front of the banquet hut. It didn't take her long to recognize the voices who owned the laughter. Before too long Amazon's had begun to gather, eyebrows raised, and grins on their faces. Not one of them was surprised that Gabrielle and Jadax had finally broken from the strain. But the smell of port lofting from the hut told most of the story. It was no secret the two didn't drink.

Jadafar and Plaiertei turned their backs to the hut, guarding the two in privacy. Though still listening as the two released the pressure they had built up inside.

Jadafar had turned twice at the sound of breaking furniture, but when laughter followed close behind, she turned back to her self-imposed post.

Jadax picked up another chair and threw it, gales of laughter followed as the chair hit the ground.

"Whoo ... who duooo you think you are, Xena." Asked Gabrielle from the floor.

"No, Eponin." Jadax fell over with laughter.

The bottle of port had long since be emptied, but neither of them wanted to reach for the other bottle still on the table.

Jadax crawled over to Gabrielle's side, both women looked up at the ceiling.

"By the Gods, I love her." Gabrielle said with a permanent grin of her face, her thoughts a million miles away.

"Who, Eponin? Do you think Xena knows?"

"No, Xena! " that simple statement was the last words uttered by either of the two, as they floated off into their port induced, sleep.

Her head was thumping with pain. The only real sound she could hear was a roaring in her ears. In her mind she was back, back at Ugly's camp. Felcon's camp, she could feel the aches all over her body. 'No, not again. He was dead. I killed him. I didn't want to, it hadn't been my plan. But ... he was going to go after ... Gabrielle!'

Ephiny tighten her grip on her friend as Xena sat up calling out for Gabrielle.

"Xena ... Xena it's me, it's over. It's all over." Xena's blue eyes looked around her. She was back, but Felcon was dead.

She tried to stand, but her legs were too weak to pull her upright. Nazalon came to Xena's other side, and between her and Ephiny, they got the warrior princess standing.

"I'm all right." Xena said as she pushed away the help.

"Fine, you may be all right, but I'm not. You gave me a heart attack, Xena." Ephiny said refusing to loosen her grip on Xena's arm.

Eponin arrived at Xena's side, after having placed the last body on the pile.

"You all right?"

"A little shaky and sore."

"I think you may have misplaced this." Eponin handed Xena her cleaned chakram.

"Thank you, but I didn't misplace it ... I hit what I was aiming at." She returned her chakram to her side.

Xena walked slowly toward a water barrel, she looked down at her reflection.

One eye was starting to swell, there were some new and bloody scratches on her right cheek, but her fingers went to her bleeding scar. Gingerly touching it, Xena closed her eyes.

"Not exactly the perfect image of a bride." Ephiny placed a soothing hand on Xena's back.

"I don't think Gabrielle will mind, just as long as you show up and say I do."

Xena dipped both hands into the cool water and began to wash away the blood, dirt and battle grim.

"Xena?" The warrior turned to Nazalon. The Amazon held out a burning torch and turned to look at the pile of dead bodies.

"I thought you might ..." Xena took the torch into her hand, gently she pulled Ephiny's assisting hand off her arm. She walked slowly toward the pile. Staring down into familiar faces of the men who had almost killed her. She laid the flame to kerosene soaked bodies and they immediately ignited.

Xena turned as the flames grew rapidly behind her. A column of dark smoke rose to the sky, as the air filled with the pungent odor of burning flesh.

With a torch still in her hand, Xena limped over to the two wooden shacks. Though she had never been in them, they were still apart of her nightmares. Little to no emotions showed on her face as she ignited them. The three Amazons watched as she made her way to the barn. Her blue eyes glanced at one of the whipping posts she had been chained to. She knew the dark stains had been her own blood.

She continued on and stopped in front of the barn. It was her prison ... her own personal torture chamber. Constructed many seasons ago, the dilapidated wooden structure looked almost sad with abandonment. The elements had not been kind to the building. It was in desperate need of some help and kindness, just as its prisoner had once been. Xena stood in front of the large, flimsy double doors. Her mind was exploding with horrific images. The mighty warrior swallowed down the panic that threatened to make her flee.

'Not this time.' Xena set her jaw as she threw open one of the doors and entered her worst nightmare.

With fear and concern clearly showing on her face, Ephiny waited a moment and followed her.

The regent looked around in horror. The walls were splattered and stained with blood, the foul stench of torture hung in the warm, stale air. The regent tried not to stare at the full collection of tools hanging on the wall, not tools for farming but instruments for torture. Ephiny's eyes went from the long length of chain, to the thick leather straps and Ephiny recalled Xena's broken and beaten body. She turned to look at her shaking friend.

Xena was standing, her eyes glued to the shackles still hanging from a beam. Ephiny couldn't image what was going through her mind. She moved slowly and stood beside her. Ephiny said nothing as she placed a gentle hand on the warrior's back. Xena turned and looked at her.

"I wanted to die here ... but my love for Gabrielle wouldn't let me." Xena turned and looked back at where she had spent almost all of her time. She looked down at the stained hay covering the dirt floor. The warrior's body twitched with memories.

The regent rubbed Xena's back as she spoke with compassion.

"But you didn't. It's time to let it go. It's over ... and Gabrielle is still waiting."

Ephiny put her arm around Xena's shoulder and turned the warrior toward the doors. Nothing more was said as they left the barn. Xena stopped at the doors and turned back around. Her face twisted in anguish and anger as she flung the torch, still in her hand, back inside. She stood and watched for a moment as the flames ignited the old wooden frame. In a matter of heartbeats the heat of the inferno pushed the warrior princess back.

The four stood and watched as the old barn collapsed in on itself, releasing the last moan ever to come out of its four walls. The camp burned in a roaring inferno, it didn't take long for everything to be leveled. They all hoped the memories of what happened here, would soon vanish like the rising, thick smoke. No one hoped more than Xena.

When everything had burned out, they started back for their horses. Eponin had suggested maybe her and Nazalon retrieve them, but Xena wouldn't hear of it.

"I don't have time to sit and wait for someone else to get my horse."

"Xena, you're tired and you're in pain." Ephiny said, but she knew better than to argue.

"Yes, Ephiny I am." The admission surprised the Queen.

"But I'm getting married in three days, and I'd like to get back." Everyone joined in with Xena's smile.

The four warriors left in search of the horses, Xena's mind and heart ached for Gabrielle's touch. All she wanted was to feel the soft caress of her fingers and the comfort of her embrace.

The warrior princess limped away from camp along side her friends and companions. This time she was leaving and she knew where she was going, and she knew why. This time, she was walking and her head was held high.

The four rode into the village and straight into the barn. Donya and other stable hand were there to attend their horses. They had ridden all night and they all felt it, Xena more than any of them. She had never said a word, but Ephiny and Nazalon were by her side when she dismounted Argo. The four soundlessly left the barn.

The village was coming to life, but much to the Queen's relief, no one approached them. 'They must know how tired we are,' she thought. Her eyes were on her palace, her mind on the little scout that laid inside. Turning to look at Xena, she knew her mind was also on her lover. Turning away from Xena, Ephiny noticed Jadafar and Plaiertei standing in front of the banquet hut. 'That's odd' she thought. Plaiertei motioned them to come over.

"Why are you two guarding the banquet hut?" Jadafar and Plaiertei exchanged looks at the regent's request.

"It needed guarding." Plaiertei smiled at Jadafar, ignoring the look of confusion on the four returning warriors.

"Guarding from what?" Xena was getting a little annoyed. All she wanted was her bed, Gabrielle and some sleep. Though not necessarily in that order.

Jadafar reached for the door and motioned for Xena and Ephiny to enter. She held up a hand to Nazalon and Eponin, and they waited outside. Once the door closed, Plaiertei filled them in on what was inside. Both returning warriors smiled in disbelief.

Xena and Ephiny stood side by side in the dark hut waiting for their eyes to adjust. Their noses reacted to the heavy smell of port that hung in the stale air. They looked around the room and stopped suddenly at the sight of their two consorts, snoring in a heap on the floor.

"Oh, this is good." Ephiny said stifling a laugh as she looked at Xena, then back at the two.

Xena limped slowly over to pick up the empty port bottle laying on the wood floor. She raised her eyebrows at Ephiny. A smirk was forming on her tired face.

"They're going to be hurtin'," she said. Xena sat down at the table and reached for the other bottle of port. She raised a questioning eyebrow at Ephiny.

"Why not." The regent stepped over the heap of snoring women, righted one of the chairs and sat down with Xena. Taking the bottle from her lips, she passed it over to the Queen.

"So, what do we do with them now?" Ephiny didn't answer as she took a long drink. Pulling the bottle from her lips, she looked back over her shoulder.

"Love them," she answered softly with a smile. She passed the port back to Xena. The warrior princess took another long pull of the port, hoping to dull her aches and pains. She placed the cork back on the bottle and turned back to Ephiny.

"We better ... cause there not going to love themselves when they wake up." She couldn't help but grin as she looked at them again.

"I think they needed this, Eph."

"I think we all needed this. Let's get them home." They stood and went to collect their loved ones.

Ephiny gathered Jadax in her arms, as the movement caused the little scout to open her eyes.

"Hi ya fanny." She giggled slightly, then fell back asleep, her head on Ephiny's shoulder.

"Fanny?" Xena smiled.

Ephiny just closed her eyes and shook her head.

Xena scooped Gabrielle into her arms and struggled slightly to stand.

"You want Eponin to carry her."

"No, I've got her." Xena held her bard close and kissed her cheek. Gabrielle's eyes fluttered, but she only managed to open one.

"Your home ... my big warrior is home ... Hey, wanna get married?" Gabrielle started to giggle.

"Yeah, I wanna get married." Xena whispered as the green eyes floated closed. Xena kissed her sleeping bard again. "To you."

Ephiny pushed open the door with her back as Nazalon quickly grabbed it for her. Smiles passed between everyone as Xena and Ephiny packed their little bundles to the palace. Nazalon made her departure before they reached the palace steps. Xena wasn't surprised when Eponin followed them inside.

They parted themselves, each heading for their own bedroom.

Xena gently laid Gabrielle on the bed. As much as she missed her and wanted her, she didn't have the heart to waken her. 'Besides, ' thought Xena, 'I'm way too tired. ' The warrior princess had Gabrielle undressed and under the covers when she heard the knock. She opened the door to see Ephiny standing there.

"What?" Ephiny tilted her head toward the common room.

Xena followed her.

"What?"

Ephiny turned to face Xena. She knew what she had to do, and she knew Xena wasn't going to like it.

"You're sleeping in Eponin's hut."

"I'M WHAT! ... I don't think so," she started to turn back to her bedroom, to the warmth of her bard and the comfort of her own bed.

Ephiny placed a hand on her arm to stop her.

"Yes, Xena. I know we just got back, but tradition is tradition, and there are certain formalities that have to be followed."

"Bullshit ... I'm going to my own bed ... with Gabrielle."

"Xena ..." Ephiny looked into Xena's tired blue eyes.

Xena looked desperately at Eponin for help, but the warrior only shook her head slowly. Looking back at Ephiny, Xena sighed.

"I'll remember this," she muttered as she followed Eponin out of the palace.

When Gabrielle finally woke up many candlemarks later, she was very unhappy. She thought Xena was home, but she was alone in her bed. Then she tried to sit up. She slowly laid back down with a groan. She closed her eyes and hoped the spinning and nausea would pass. She laid very still in her bed. With her eyes closed and her ears open, she could hear sounds out in the common room. She wished she didn't, but she knew she had to get up. Pulling the blankets off of her, she looked down at her nude body. Eyes widening, she searched her mind trying to remember who had undressed her. She recalled the warmth of the lips kissing her. Xena was home, she knew that now. But where was she, and why wasn't she here next to her? Gabrielle slowly dressed and went looking for answers.

Ephiny and Jadax were sitting in the common room and Jadax didn't look any better than Gabrielle felt.

"Good morning, or should I say afternoon." Ephiny said too brightly, and way too loudly. Jadax and Gabrielle both grimaced.

"Where's Xena? Is she ok?" Gabrielle asked as she gingerly made her way to one of the chairs.

"She's fine, Gabrielle. Sore, tired, but very fine. She's sleeping in Eponin's hut."

"Excuse me!" Her eyes widening in surprise.

"You two are to be married in two days, Gabrielle. Traditionally, you're supposed to be apart for at least a week."

"We have been Ephiny, and more. Too much more." Gabrielle forgot about her hangover for a moment, and started for the door.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"To be with Xena."

"Not by yourself you're not. I'll come and chaperon." Gabrielle looked at her in disbelief. Then turned to leave. "Fine ... whatever." She was in no mood to argue.

'By the Gods I feel crappy,' she thought as she crossed the compound. Grimacing as she tried to swallow away the taste that was in her mouth.

"A little too much fun, uh?" Gabrielle glared at her.

"You just need a little hair of the dog that bit ya." Ephiny said with a grin. She had been up most of the morning with a very ill Jadax.

"Keep that foul stuff away from me. I don't know how you guys manage to drink so much of it."

"Well, you two didn't seem to have a problem with it, last night?" smirked the Queen. "I guess we won't be leaving you two alone for a while."

"Never again Ephiny, never again." The Queen didn't want to know if she meant them or the port.

The door to Eponin's hut was closed. Ephiny reached and opened it for Gabrielle. Her green eyes softened at the sight of her sleeping warrior. Walking softly toward the bed, she knelt at Xena's side. Her eyes went to the fresh blood on Xena's scar. Slowly and gently she brought her hand to Xena's face.

"I've missed you," Xena said softly as she opened her eyes and turned to look at her beloved.

A smile spread across Gabrielle's face.

"I missed you, too." She started to lean forward and Ephiny loudly cleared her throat.

Both women turned to glare at the intrusion.

"No kissing ... sorry." Gabrielle turned back to Xena and rolled her eyes.

The bard became serious as she looked into the tired face of the woman she loved.

"Is it over?"

Xena looked deeply into Gabrielle's green eyes.

"For the most part ... yes. I didn't murder him. He died by his own accord."

"And how are you?" Xena managed a smile, but Gabrielle could see the desire growing in Xena's eyes. The warrior looked over at Ephiny and lowered her eye lids.

"How are you feeling?" She asked noticing the pallor of Gabrielle's skin.

"Like an idiot."

"Don't, Ephiny and I probably would have joined you if we hadn't of been so tired." The Queen smiled at Xena's glance.

"Ok, that's enough you two. Come on Gabrielle, time to go." Xena longingly looked at Gabrielle as the bard quickly leaned over and snatched a kiss. Ephiny hollered but it was too late. Grabbing Gabrielle by the arm, the chaperon almost had to drag her from the hut.

So it went for the next two days. No kissing, no hugging, no personal contact at all. They were never left alone, matter of fact, they rarely even got to see each another.

Jadax and Gabrielle took much ribbing for their little adventure with alcohol. They now had sworn they wouldn't even touch a drink on Gabrielle's wedding day.

Xena and Gabrielle never had a chance to speak about what had happen. So out of frustration, Gabrielle finally spoke to Ephiny. The Queen had been reluctant at first, she didn't think it was her place, but she knew Xena would probably omit some of what had happened.

Gabrielle sat silently and listened. It tore her up inside when Ephiny described the loss of some of who Xena was. She remembered the very words Xena herself had said, "What am I if not a warrior." Gabrielle shuddered at the thought. She said nothing, and Ephiny continued describing the battle at the camp. When she told Gabrielle what Felcon's last words were, she felt her chest tighten and her stomach do a flip. What if he had killed Xena? She knew a man like that could break her easily. She couldn't have lived through what Xena had. She began to ache, all she wanted was to be by Xena's side. Ephiny continued in detail, only leaving out some of what she saw in the barn. She knew that was up to Xena. She told the bard the words Xena had said while they stood in the barn, and the fire that had leveled everything.

"It's over now, Gabrielle." Ephiny said, placing a concerned hand onto the bard's back.

"But will it ever really be over for her, Eph.? I know she lives it every time she looks at her hand, or sees her face, or when I touch her back. It will never be over. She will always carry those scars. If I could make them go away, I would. But I can't. All I can do is love her and let her know I love her."

"I think she knows Gabrielle."

"I have to go to her Ephiny, to Tartarus with tradition. She needs me and I need her." Gabrielle pleaded.

"I can't allow that, and you know it. It's not just the tradition or I would. If you two are alone before your wedding day, the Gods won't grant you a happy marriage. It's just one more day, Gabrielle. Then no one will separate you two again. You have my word as Queen. But for now, separated is what you two will be."

Ephiny hated to do it. They were her family and they were her friends. But she would never go against the Gods.

By the morning of their wedding day, both had had enough. It took everything the Amazon's had to keep them from seeing one another. Ephiny and Jadax had their hands full with Gabrielle, but it was up to Nazalon and Eponin to look after the love starved Xena.

"We're listening Xena, so let's hear some more water splashing." Eponin said over her shoulder as she looked at Nazalon. Xena was supposed to be washing in the royal hot pool. It was the first time she was out of their sight, and they weren't sure if they could trust her.

"Fine. How's, this?" Xena yelled as a wet cloth flew over the bushes, landing squarely on Nazalon's head.

"I'll be glad when this day is over," she said, pulling off the cloth and throwing it back over the bushes.

Satisfied at the sounds of Xena bathing, the two warriors relaxed a little. Looking at the sun, Eponin knew they had to leave soon. Gabrielle and her chaperons were due to arrive soon. Eponin hollered for the warrior princess to hurry up.

"Yeah, yeah ... yeah," she said, emerging from the bushes. "It's my wedding, relax." Her hair was wrapped in a towel, her body in an Amazon robe. "We've got candlemarks to go."

Xena slid her arms through the arms of the two Amazons.

"So, who wants to buy me the last drink as a single woman." The three headed down the path toward Eponin's hut, and a bottle of port.

They sat together on Eponin's cot. Each holding onto a mug of port.

"Happiness and love to you both," Eponin said as they all raised their mugs and drained them.

Xena sat back, "I can't believe this is really going to happen. I've loved her for so long."

"And she has loved you, my friend." Eponin held up the bottle, but Xena declined with a shake of her head.

"No thanks, Ep. I want to be clear headed for this." Eponin looked at Nazalon, who held out her mug as Eponin poured another shot. Placing the corked bottle back onto the table, she turned back to the bride.

"Nervous?" Eponin asked.

Xena smiled and shook her head no, "Yeah ... a little." Eponin smiled and splashed a mouthful of port into Xena's mug.

"She loves you ... you love her. The rest is easy."

"Yeah, like you've been married before Nazalon."

Nazalon chuckled, but shook her head.

"Which reminds me? I've been meaning to ask you. When you were giving us your best wishes, when we announced our wedding?" Nazalon nodded.

"Gabrielle whispered something to you, and you laughed. What did she whisper?"

Nazalon was quiet as she looked into her empty mug. She brought up her head and smiled at Xena, who had her mug to her lips.

"She said she was sorry, but if I was interested, she had a sister." Xena's port sprayed out of her mouth as everyone broke out in laughter.

Chapter 50

A glowing Gabrielle emerged from her bedroom, Ephiny smiling proudly right behind her. Jadax turned and let out a low whistle.

"Xena is one lucky woman."

Gabrielle blushed like the true bride she was. She turned around so Jadax could see her whole outfit.

It was a beautiful Amazon gown of white. Low cut, and sleeveless. The material was gathered at the waist then covered by a white leather strip, accented with turquoise beads that hung to her knees. Her shoulders were covered with the green and blue feathers which appeared to float down her back and onto her chest. Simple sandals adorned her feet. Ephiny had offered her some of the regal bracelets, but Gabrielle wore no jewelry. All she wanted was to wear the gold ring that was back in Xena's possession.

Her blond hair was pulled up and gathered on her head, making her look more regal than the small crown on her head.

"Are you ready?" Ephiny asked.

Gabrielle smiled and nodded. She didn't want Ephiny to hear the nervousness in her voice. It didn't matter. She and Jadax could see the shaking of her hands and the knocking of her knees.

Jadax hurried to the door to let the royal guards know their Queens were coming out.

As they climbed the stairs for the door, Ephiny saw the slight concern on Gabrielle's face.

"She'll be there. Don't worry, you know she loves you." Gabrielle turned and smiled as Ephiny winked.

'Had it been that obvious,' the bride thought? The doors opened and the Queens emerged. Four royal guards, in full formal Amazon wear, drew their swords to a point. Gabrielle looked down at the row of brightly feathered guards. Jadax was no where in sight, Gabrielle guessed she had gone over to wait for them. The two women strolled down the stairs and stopped under the peaked swords. Nodding they were ready. The four royal guards walked the two Queens to the ceremonial sight.

The murmur of excited voices filled the small amphitheater. It was only used for weddings, funerals and royal coronations. Rows and rows of Amazons sat on carved wooden benches leading down to a raised stone platform. Thirty slate steps marked the walkway down the aisle, before climbing up six wide rises to the level of the guests, giving everyone a clear view of the wedding. Lining the back of the platform where the ceremony was to be held, were tall carved columns, top by magnificent floral archways, connecting the columns together. A pulpit for the priestess was crafted out of wood with swirling designs that flowed inwards to a carving of Artemis.

Ephiny gave one last reassuring hug to the shaking bard, then she made her way down the steps, following her royal procession. Everyone rose as the Queen took her seat next to her consort.

"How's she doing?" Jadax leaned over and whispered in Ephiny's ear.

"Ok. But if this doesn't start soon she's probably going to pass out. Have you seen Xena?"

Jadax only shook her head as she watched the priestess take her position.

Gabrielle waited for the signal for her to start. She hadn't seen Xena, but she smiled at all the smiling Amazon faces in front of her. She saw the priestess standing on the raised stone platform. All of a sudden she realized, it looked so far away. Before she could acknowledge the presence of the new group of butterflies in her stomach, Gabrielle saw movement next to the platform. Her mouth went instantly dry as she spotted the raven black hair. Her heart almost stopped as Xena came fully into view beside the priestess. Gabrielle gasped, her heart jumped and began to beat madly against her aching chest.

Xena turned and looked up at her. 'By the Gods you are beautiful. ' Was all that went through Gabrielle's mind.

The tall, dark warrior was dressed in all white leather. Full length white leather pants fit snugly over her long legs, and a long, white, tapered leather jacket that came down to her knees. The buttons of the jacket were made of turquoise, matching the color on Gabrielle's belt, and were unbuttoned to Xena's bronze chest, revealing ample cleavage. The jacket was trimmed with snow white, rabbit fur, the soft pelt covered both shoulders as it came down the front and back. The warrior princess' raven hair flowed over the rabbit fur, a striking contrast in black and white. She was breathtaking, a bronze beauty glowing in a sea of radiant white.

Xena felt Gabrielle's eyes on her and she looked up and smiled. Her perfect white teeth matching the reflection off her outfit. With a simple wink, Xena chased away all the butterflies Gabrielle had. Almost on cue, the music began. Gabrielle took a deep breath and started to walk down toward her.

She climbed the stairs to the platform on shaking legs, she was thankful when Xena offered her hand to her. Gabrielle felt the self assuring energy as they finally touched for the first time in days. Joining her warrior princess on the platform, Gabrielle looked up into Xena's face. She was sure she had never seen her eyes look any bluer than they did today.

The priestess began to speak, but neither of them really heard her. The just looked into each other's eyes and communicated the love they had for one another.

Xena pulled her eyes away when the priestess said her name. The warrior turned back and in words meant only for her Gabrielle, she spoke.

"I offer to you my love, a love you have helped to grow and nurture. I would offer you my heart, but you already have it. It beats inside of me for you every day, and will until the day I die. And last, but what is most important, I give to you my soul. So you will know from this day forward, we will always be connected. Forever in time and eternity, we will always be together. I will always remember that you were a friend first, a lover second and my soulmate forever. I love you Gabrielle, and I will until time runs out of sand." Xena leaned down and kissed Gabrielle's hand. With her own shaking fingers the warrior princess slipped the elegant gold ring back onto the finger of the bard's left hand.

"Forever Gabrielle." Xena said into the bard's weeping green eyes.

"Gabrielle?" The priestess motioned.

"Xena, My warrior princess ... You have fought for me, and struggled for me to become the person you are now. I was by your side then, I am by your side now. You have let me grow as a person, as a lover, and as a friend. But now I'm to be your wife, and partner. By your side, forever. There is no place I would rather be. I promise to love you, as long as there is life inside me. When I breath no longer, our souls will journey through the times forever. Always united to be as one. I love you, Xena. I always have and always will."

The priestess began to speak again, but the only words they heard were, "... and you may kiss your bride."

Xena leaned down and placed a long, passionate kiss on her wife. The basin erupted loudly as the Amazon's cheered wildly for their Queen and her princess.

They parted and turned, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, and heart to heart. Together they faced the throngs of Amazon women converging on them. In a moving mass, everyone began to head to the banquet hut.

It seemed to take forever to get everyone seated, but finally they did. Ephiny as Queen held the first of many toasts.

"As Queen, may I wish all the happiness onto you both, and may your love for one another continue to overflow." Cheers of happiness went up from the crowd.

Jadax jumped up with her glass of milk, she winked at Gabrielle who looked down at her own fruit juice.

"You both deserve the love you have for one another. I know the road you travel down will be rough and rocky, but you no longer travel it alone. Your life is now a true partnership, united forever, as one."

"So when is it going to be your turn?" asked Gabrielle loudly, looking straight at Ephiny. The Queen's eyes opened wide as she briefly choked on her wine. She looked from Gabrielle and Xena to the blushing scout beside her. The Amazons cheered loudly as the regent stole a quick kiss from her consort. Gabrielle could see by the look on Ephiny's face it wouldn't be long. The regent turned from her consort and pointed a finger at the newlyweds.

Xena smiled and nodded at Ephiny, then turned to Gabrielle. Xena thought she never looked happier. Gabrielle turned and smiled, then leaned up for a kiss. Another cheer erupted.

Next was Eponin, as she stood on her chair, a raised glass in her hand.

"To my Queen and her princess. I am honored to call you both friends. I have laughed and cried with you both, and I have seen your love blossom and grow. Having been with you both through these tough times of late, my wish is that you never be separated again. To Xena and Gabrielle." The room had grown silent as Eponin spoke, now everyone toasted with a murmuring of 'to Xena and Gabrielle.'

The room held its silence when Nazalon stood. She looked from Gabrielle to Xena. A smile of happiness was on her face. "I wish you both all the happiness in the world. May you always be there for one another, and may you always remain the best of friends?" She raised her glass to the newlyweds. Xena nodded with a smile and a wink.

The toasting and well wishes went on for almost a candlemark. When Xena heard Gabrielle's stomach start to growl, she rose slowly.

"First, thank you for all being here. I know the last little while has been tough on some of you. Thank you for your patience and understanding. Our love has only grown with the help of you all. To Ephiny, your Queen ... your friendship and hospitality have been without a doubt, overwhelming." Xena held her glass a little higher. "To the Amazon's and their Queens." After a toast and another cheer, "Now, can we eat?"

Laughter rippled throughout the hut.

The evening continued in celebrations, well wishes, toasts and cheers. Finally everything was over and they all moved outside for the final tradition. A large bonfire lay ready to be lit. Then the dancing, and real Amazon celebrating could begin.

Ephiny approached Xena and Gabrielle with two torches. Handing one to each, they turned to light the fire as the Queen spoke.

"May your single torches unite to light the fire of union ... may it last as long as the stars. May it rise higher than the mountains, and wider than the seas. Let your love grow like the flame, and may your spirits rise above, like the smoke of that flame." They held hands and watched their bonfire grow, the heat of the flames sending them backwards. Ephiny continued,

"And may the Gods grant you a happy union."

As if waiting for an invitation, Artemis appeared in front of the newlywed. Her feet standing in the flame of the flickering fire.

The Amazon's bowed, they couldn't believe their eyes.

"Gabrielle ... Xena" Artemis said, the two only nodded.

"My happiness for you both, and I mean that Xena. Gabrielle, I told you your love would heal you both. Was I right?"

"Yes my Goddess. You were." Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand tighter.

"Then kiss her with all the love that is in your heart my child, and your wish for happiness will be granted." With a flash the Goddess was gone.

The blond bard turned to her dark warrior.

"Her wish is my command." Gabrielle said as she looked into Xena's eyes. The warrior smiled and bent to obliged.

"Yes, my Queen." Their lips held the electricity they had for one another as their love flowed between them. They felt the surge of passion begin to take control as days of separation had left them wanting each other.

Gabrielle pulled away, her eyes opening wide. Her hand went immediately to the side of Xena's face. The disfiguring scar was disappearing. Xena looked down on Gabrielle as she felt her body tingling. They both looked down at her right hand, all that remained now was two faint scars between her thumb and forefinger.

Gabrielle could see Xena standing up straighter and stronger, as the warrior princess felt her back and leg instantly mend. She was whole again. Gabrielle's one wish for Xena had come true.

"She said our love would heal our wounds." Gabrielle said as she searched Xena's eyes, all she could see was love.

"No, Gabrielle. She said your love would heal our wounds." Xena picked her up with two strong arms and twirled her around on two strong legs. Her bright smile illuminating her dark features.

"Your love is bigger than both of us." She brought her feet to the ground and crushed her lips onto her wife's.

No one said a word. Ephiny, Jadax, Nazalon and Eponin couldn't believe their eyes. All the Amazon's stood back in amazement. What had just happened would be told over and over again, until there was not an Amazon left to tell.

The two newlyweds finally parted as Xena lifted Gabrielle easily into her strong arms.

"May I take my wife to bed, My Queen?" Xena whispered.

"I thought you would never ask." Xena smiled as she brought her forehead down to touch Gabrielle's. The bard felt her heart melt into the calm seas of blue and she knew her warrior had returned to her.

The Amazons watched as they left the light of the fire, and were absorbed into the shadows of darkness. Together they had beat the odds, they had fought the battle and had won the war ... all in the name of love. Reunited ... the warrior and her bard.

Their past was not perfect but it had made them who they were. Their future was held in reserved silence in the warrior's hands, for now they had the present ... and for them, that was enough.

Their hearts had brought them back together, and their love had healed all their wounds. What they shared would last longer than both of their lives. Their souls would be together through all of eternity.

~ The End ~

I told you once we were forever,

And now we know that it is true.

You brought me back from nowhere,

And our love returned me to you.

My mind may not remember,

But my heart would not let go.

To the woman who stands before me,

Who fought the darkness for my soul.

Eternity ... Is time without beginning,

Or an ending to our life,

I only wish it could be longer,

As I turn to face my wife.

To you I offered friendship,

In return you taught me love.

We've fought the Fates to stay together,

Now we know we'll meet above.

Sinful

As a writer I have one more person to thank. Hunter ... without a little push, Naz would still be standing in the shadows. Thank You my friend ... M&Ms all around! :o)

12/15/99


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