Most of the characters herein belong to Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal, Studios USA, Flat Earth Productions, and any other individuals or entities who have an ownership interest in the television program Xena: Warrior Princess. This story was written strictly for the pleasure of the writer and anyone who might honor the writer by reading it, and not for profit. No copyright infringements intended.
This story contains, among other things, recounts by various observers of and participants in the crucifixion scene from the XWP episode, "The Ides of March," so yeah, heavy on angst and violence.
PG-13, okay maybe R. Nothing too graphic here but come on yall, we just saw the two women die, and their last words to each other were "you were the best thing in my life," and "I love you." If you dont want to see them as lovers, move on to some other story.
Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation:
Thank the gods for spell check! Ive tried, so if its not perfect, bite me!
This is my first attempt at XWP fan fiction. Any questions, comments, or suggestions are most welcome. You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
This story begins on March 16th, the day after the 4th season cliffhanger "The Ides of March." I can hardly wait to see how they resolve it, and it is definitely one of my favorites. So, until season five begins, Ive used my imagination a little and this is how Id like to see it go . . .
MARCH THE 16TH
I hear you voice, I know you
In your arms I sleep
My love wherever I go
I take you with me.
Even though Ive fed my hunger
Even though Ive named my fear
Ill never understand it
How the journey led me here.
But I have made a promise
That I intend to keep
My love wherever I go
I take you with me.
- from "I Take You With Me" by Melissa Etheridge, published by New Regency Music, adm. by WB Music Corp., Almo Music Corp., M.L.E. Music (ASCAP). As performed on the soundtrack from the motion picture, Boys on the Side, 1995, Arista Records, Inc. Copyright 1995, Warner Brothers.
A week had passed since Gabrielles attack, and she was rapidly re-gaining her strength. The spring rains had begun, soaking the thirsty land in an almost continual slow steady downpour, causing the new blades of grass to weep and making a giant mud puddle out of the inns courtyard and the barnyard behind it.
Xena was in the barn birthing two lambs at the same time, two pregnant ewes having gone into labor simultaneously. She lay on her side in the hay, her arm deep inside one ewe, turning a breach lamb so that it could be delivered. Her arm muscles were tired from straining against the ewes contractions, and large salty drops of sweat ran down the warriors nose and face, pooling between her cheek and shoulder. She was working alone, as Toris had left that morning for the market to sell the wool from the shorn sheep. Xena wouldnt let Gabrielle help for fear the bards still-stitched arm might get infected from the dirty work.
The younger girl sat nearby, however, offering what moral support she could and fetching water and clean rags as needed. She was perched atop a large bale of hay, her legs crossed, working on a scroll and capturing her thoughts and feelings about the crucifixion and aftermath. It was an emotional task, but she hoped someday she might be able to tell the story to others. She wanted to get as much written down as she could before the little details began to escape her.
"Gabrielle, can you come wipe my face off? Theres sweat in my eyes and I cant see. It burns."
"Sure." The bard jumped down and grabbed a towel she had been using for just that purpose for the last candle mark. She knelt down next to the warrior and gently blotted Xenas face. She dipped a corner of the towel into a basin of clean water and dabbed at the warriors eyes.
"There, is that better?" She resisted the urge to touch or make physical contact, fearing yet another lecture on cleanliness and her wounded arm.
"Yeah. Thanks, love."
"Hows she doing?"
"Well," Xena grimaced as she twisted her arm slightly inside the ewe. "Ive about got the lamb turned, and after that hopefully itll go pretty quick for her. Shes exhausted. I dont know how much more she can take. Poor thing, this is her first lamb. She was born last year herself."
"Oh. Will she be okay?"
"I think so. Ugghhhh . . ." The warrior withdrew her arm quickly and sat up. Suddenly the small head of a lamb appeared. With one mighty push, the ewe forced the wet wooly creature out and into Xenas arms, covering the warrior in blood and muck.
"Ewww. Xena. Want me to pour a bucket of water over you? Oh . . ." The bard looked at the new baby. "Its so cute. Look, its eyes are starting to open."
The little lamb shuddered and blew out its first breath with a loud baaaa. The mother answered with a worried response. Large liquid black eyes peered out at the brand new world. Xena grabbed a towel and rubbed the small creature clean before laying it down, gently guiding its mouth to one of the mothers teats. Gabrielle laughed with delight, as the baby began suckling vigorously, drawing in the nourishing milk.
The warrior turned her attention to the stall across from the one she was in, as a seasoned ewe strained to deliver her annual offspring. The older animal groaned and pushed, and she too deposited a new little one into the clean straw. Xena began to towel it clean when the ewe began to strain again.
"Hey. I thought she was awfully big. I think theres another one in there." As the warrior spoke, yet another lamb was born, this one totally black.
"Wow." Gabrielles eyes grew wide. "Xena. Howd that one come out all black? I didnt see any black ewes or rams in your flock."
"Old Ebony." The warrior spoke with some affection. "Ebony was a solid black ewe that was part of the flock when I was a little girl. This ewe is one of her descendants. Every now and then we get a black sheep because of her. I remember one fall Mother made me a long black cloak from Ebonys wool. We were pretty poor. It wasnt often that we got anything new or special. I felt like I was a queen when I wore that cloak." Xenas eyes twinkled for a moment at the memory. She toweled down the black lamb and deposited it next to its twin.
"Well," the warrior stood up. "I think my work is done here. Gabrielle, could you go in and start drawing me a hot bath? Im going over to the pump and wash off as much of this muck as I can, but Im going to need soap and hot water to get all of it."
"Yeah. Ill see you in a bit." The bard donned her cloak against the rain, scooped up her scrolls and pulled them against her under the cloak, and ducked out the barn door.
Xena followed, not bothering to put on her cloak. She ambled over to the pump by the water trough and knelt down, bracing herself as she worked the handle and a cold stream of water washed over her. She scrubbed at her arms, legs, and face with a clean towel until she was satisfied that she had gotten enough of the gore and dirt off to be able to walk through the inn to the bathing room.
She got up and walked across the courtyard and up onto the porch of the inn, shaking herself to try to remove any excess water. She opened the front door and stepped inside, moving along the wall to the hallway door.
"Xena! I swear, some things never change."
Uh-oh. A sheepish warrior lowered her head.
Cyrene came out of the kitchen, shaking a spatula at her tall wet daughter. "You know better. We have a back door for a reason. Now get on through here before you drip all over my clean floors."
"Sorry, Mother. Ill come mop after I bathe."
"Dont worry about it. Go on. Now." The innkeeper shooed her daughter toward the hallway.
Xena crept down to the end where the bathing room was. The scent of lavender bathe oil hit her nostrils as she opened the door. A pleasant steam filled the room and her naked lover was sitting in the tub, her arms resting along the edges and her head leaning back with her eyes closed. The warrior grinned at the sight before her. She snuck up silently and leaned over, kissing the bard thoroughly on the side of her neck.
Gabrielle yelped. "Gods, Xena, you surprised me. But its a nice surprise."
"Oh, yeah." The bard kissed her again, this time on the lips. "Join me?"
The warrior tugged off her filthy wet tunic and climbed up and over the edge of the tub, landing softly next to the bard. She sighed as the steamy hot water enveloped her tired muscles. Gabrielle grabbed a bar of soap and a wash rag, and began scrubbing Xenas neck and behind her ears. The warrior sighed again and turned, giving her partner access to her muscular back. The small hands worked steadily until Xenas skin was pink and glowing from head to foot.
"Here, love. Let me return the favor." The warrior washed her partner completely and finally let the rag fall down into the tub, drawing the bard into her arms for a long slow kiss. She worked her way across Gabrielles jawline, planting kisses down her neck to her collar bone, feeling the younger girls pulse start to quicken. Xena growled low in her throat, but as she moved lower, the bard began to giggle uncontrollably.
Xena raised up from her administrations. "What?" She looked slightly annoyed at her young lover. "I . . . um . . . I thought you liked it when I did that. Am I doing something wrong?"
Gabrielle drew in a breath and smiled, nipping at the warriors nose. "No, I do like it. Very much. Its just that I suddenly had a vision of that new born lamb when you put its mouth next to the mothers . . . well . . . you know."
The warrior smiled a wicked smile. "Baaaaa." She quirked an eyebrow at her lover before lowering her lips to continue her attentions to the bard.
A short while later Xena and Gabrielle had moved from the bathing room and were curled up snugly in bed. The warrior slowly kissed her across her lovers stomach, moving upward until their lips met, and lingered there for a long moment. She finally raised up, resting her weight on one forearm, and looked down into the sparkling green eyes. Xena raised a hand and traced the bards jawline, and her hand shook slightly as one tear escaped and trickled down the warriors cheek, quickly followed by a second one. She sniffed and smiled a crooked smile.
"Xena, why are you crying?" Gabrielle reached up and brushed the tears away.
"I was so afraid that something bad was going to come of that head injury. That you might not wake up. Or that you might wake up and not be yourself. Might not remember anything. Or us."
"It would take more than a knock on the head to make me forget that Im in love with you, Xena. A lot more. I dont just know I love you with my head. I feel it down to the deepest part of my soul. My body knows you." The bard pressed up against the warrior to emphasize her point. She took the hand that was resting against the side of her face and lowered it to lay across her upper chest. "Feel that Xena?"
The warrior nodded, feeling the bards strong heartbeat against her hand.
"My heart knows you, Xena. Nothing can take that away. Not ever."
Xena swallowed and smiled, her lips trembling a little. She bent over and kissed the fair head. "I still have a hard time believing things have turned out this good. I dont know if Ill ever believe it. After all Ive done, how can anything good happen for me?"
"Oh, Xena, I guess this is just another thing Im going to have to believe for both of us. Besides, has it ever occurred to you that this is a good thing for me? Are you saying I dont deserve something good?"
"You? You, love, deserve everything in this world that is beautiful and wonderful and good. You deserve all the happiness you can get."
"Well then, you listen to me. Being with you makes me happy. And I see you as the most wonderful and good thing that has ever happened to me. If you get good stuff in return for making me happy, then I guess youre just going to have to live with it, now arent you?"
"Guess so. Glad Im the one that makes you happy."
"Happier than Ive ever been in my whole entire life."
"I love you so much. You are so very beautiful to me." The warrior leaned in for a heart-felt kiss. She raised up and rolled to her side, and lifted up the bards arm. "This is healing nicely, love. I think we can take the stitches out tomorrow. Then you need to start exercising the arm to build the muscle strength back up. In fact . . ." Xena sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed and stood up. She padded over to the dresser and opened a drawer, rummaging around in it until she retrieved a small leather ball. She moved back to the bed and sat down, handing the well-worn object to her partner.
"Whats this for?"
"You hold it in your hand, palm up, and squeeze it over and over again. It exercises the muscles in your forearm. Its just a leather ball stuffed with sheeps wool."
"This how you built up your arms?" The bard reached over and traced the corded muscles of the warriors forearm.
"Um . . . yeah, partly. I spent a lot of time squeezing this ball when I was a teenager. Since then, I think it mostly kept built up by all the sword and staff work I do, and doing hand-springs and constantly getting in situations where I have to pull my own body weight up. Or yours." Xena grinned and tickled Gabrielles midsection.
"Hey!" The bard slapped at the warriors hand. "No fair tickling. I cant use both hands to get back at you."
"True. Gives me the advantage."
"Like you dont always have the advantage, my big strong warrior."
"I may have an advantage in physical strength, love, but you have some more intangible things you can hold over my head. Youve got me. I hope you know that."
"Come over here." The bards voice was smokey with desire, and she pulled the warrior over on top of her.
The inn was quiet, as the constant rain kept some of the usual customers from venturing outdoors. Cyrene sat at a table with her daughters, enjoying the rare opportunity to sit down and enjoy a hot meal instead of running about feeding her normally-full inn.
"So, when are you two going to move on to the Amazon village?"
"Soon," Xena replied, dropping a dollop of butter onto a baked potato and mashing it in with the back of her fork.
"We got a message by carrier pigeon this morning," Gabrielle added. "Chilapa wants us to get there soon, as she is still holding the four soldiers who attacked us on the road near the Roman compound. Theyve begun the trial of the two thugs that attacked me, and got my affidavit a few days ago. They expect to wrap it up quickly, since it is the word of me as queen against those two. Its basically no contest."
"Yeah, they should have them sentenced by the time we get there." The warrior rested one hand on her partners leg, giving her a comforting squeeze.
"Xena, Gabrielle," the innkeeper searched the two younger womens eyes. "I know the Amazons need you, but I sure am going to miss having you around."
"Dont worry, Mother, the village isnt that far away. Well be back to visit often. And you can come visit us. Youre a woman, and women are allowed to stay in the village, if approved. Get Toris to watch the inn for you and come visit us any time you want to." Xena patted her mother on the hand.
"Yeah, and since you are practically a second mother to me, approval for your stay will not be a problem." Gabrielle smiled.
"Well, wouldnt that be something. Ive never really been around any Amazons. Are they as liberal as I hear?"
"Probably more so." The warrior chuckled. "Dont worry, Mother, well make sure everyone is on their best behavior if you come to see us."
"Oh now, it might be an educational experience for me, honey. You never know. Dont think I dont know about these things. How do you think I got you?"
Xenas face fell. You got me when the god of war decided to deceive and violate you. Im the product of what could be classified as a rape, it you want to get technical. Gods, how on earth am I going to keep this hidden from her?
"Xena, why the long face?" The innkeepers forehead wrinkled with worry as she studied her tall daughter.
"Oh, nothing. Sorry." The warrior felt small bardic fingers moving in a soothing pattern across her lower back. "I guess Im going to miss being around you too, Mother." Xena managed a smile as her mother squeezed her hand.
The front door flew open as a gust of wind and rain blew in the door, followed by a very cold and soggy Toris. "Hello ladies, boy, its getting cold out there. Guess old man winters not quite done with us yet."
"Toris, honey, hang up that wet cloak and come sit by the fire before you get sick." The innkeeper fussed about her oldest child.
The tall man complied, and soon found a mug of warm venison stew tucked into his hands. "Mother, I sold all of the wool."
"All of it? Honey, thats great."
"Guess how much I got?"
"A thousand dinars."
"A thousand?" Cyrene was incredulous. She had taken the wool to market herself the year before and had only come home with six hundred dinars.
"Yeah. Apparently when the Roman army dispersed, they started pillaging and a lot of unshorn sheep were stolen. Drove up the price of wool."
"Well, I guess thats one small positive thing that has come of all this unrest." The innkeeper pursed her lips thoughtfully.
"Oh, sis." Toris turned to the warrior, taking a sip of the hot stew. "You wont believe the rumors circulating about you. I had to pretty much keep my head covered so no one would recognize me."
"What sort of rumors?" Xena leaned back and crossed her arms in an unconscious defensive gesture.
"Well, lets see. First of all, it seems almost everyone knows you were crucified, but Gabrielles Amazons have definitely kept your return to life a secret. No one knows what happened to your body. Some seem to believe that you have returned to life and are in the hills raising another army, taking advantage of the chaos to try to take over Greece again."
"What else?" The warriors words were slow and measured.
"Oh, and others think your soul has joined forces with Caesars soul, and the two of you have become allies in the underworld, bent on destruction."
"Go on." An amused tone.
"The best. The best was that you have become an immortal and are once again a protÈgÈ of Ares, learning how to become the first goddess of war. I thought that one was pretty funny. No offense, sis, but imagine you, a goddess. What an imagination someone had to come up with that one."
"Yeah. Thats a real riot." There was no humor in the warriors tone this time.
"Um, Xena . . ." The bard could sense her partners mood. "Why dont we go check on those new lambs? You know . . . make sure everythings alright."
Gabrielle rested her hand on the warriors shoulder, and Xena relaxed and looked down at her lap for a moment and then looked up and smiled at her partner. "Good idea, love. Come on, lets go. Thanks for dinner Mother, it was really good."
"My pleasure, honey." Cyrene once again had the odd sense that something was amiss with her daughter.
The warrior stood up, dragging the bard with her, and made her way to the pegs where their cloaks were hanging. She took the younger girls cloak and helped her put it on, tying the ties snuggly under the bards chin. She then donned her own long heavy cloak and opened the door and stepped out into the night.
Gabrielle followed close behind, closing the door. They trudged across the muddy courtyard to the barn in silence. The bard looked up at the dark sky. There was no light anywhere, save a pale glow coming from the inns windows, the sky completely blanketed by thick rain-filled clouds. She stopped for a moment and leaned her head back, feeling the cold rain pelt her face.
"Hey, whatcha doing?" The warrior stopped and turned around.
"Remembering that Im alive."
"And that no matter what happens or what I have to face, that I have been given the profound gift of a second chance at life."
"Guess I forget that at times." Xena hung her head.
The bard moved close to her lover and reached under the warriors chin, forcing her partners head up until she, too, could feel the plentiful raindrops trickle against her skin.
"Feel that, Xena? Its part of the force of life. We dont always welcome the rain, but wed be dead without it. Everything cant always be warm sunshine, right?"
"Come on love, lets get on into the barn." Gabrielle tugged at the warriors arm, leading her through the large door and out of the wind. The bard quickly lit a lantern that hung on the wall, casting a warm glow on the golden straw that covered the barn floor.
Xena shuffled over to the stall where the ewe and twins were nestled, and sat down in the soft nest, plucking up the black lamb and cradling it in her arms, rubbing her cheek against the nubby wool. Gabrielle moved in behind her lover, leaning against the stall wall and pulling the warrior back to rest against her chest. The bard draped her arms around the warriors, which were wrapped around the lamb.
"Gabrielle . . . I know Im lucky. I know that life is a gift not to be taken lightly. Its just that I dont know how much longer I can keep this secret from Mother. And Im not prepared yet to tell her that the god of war is my father. Its too much."
"Well, love . . ." The bards thumb ran idly up and down the soft skin of a forearm, tracing a small knife scar. "Youre gonna have to mask your emotions a little better. Youre usually pretty good at it, but for some reason youre not hiding this one very well."
"I know. Its just that when it comes to people I care about, its a lot harder to do. Gabrielle, do you realize Im a demi-god? I mean, come on, me? Its too strange."
"Ive thought about that, Xena. Hercules is a demi-god, and hes one of the most noble people we know. So many of the gods weve met, Ares, Aphrodite, Strife, Hades, at the risk of them hearing me and suffering their wrath, theyre all flakes of one sort or another. Theyre selfish and petty, and they dont seem to do much to help out mankind, other than maybe Aphrodite. Maybe its the human element, the mortal element mixed with the godhood, that makes for a truly powerful force."
"Maybe." The warriors eyes were thoughtful.
"Anyway, we already knew you had some pretty amazing skills, right?"
"Well . . ."
"Come on Xena, not many people can do the things you can do. At times I swear you practically fly. Its awesome to watch. It just makes sense somehow that you would be part god. It makes it all more understandable. Dont you think?"
"Gabrielle, I never told anyone this before. When I was very little I used to dream that a dark bearded man would climb through my window at night and take me onto his back, and we would go sailing over the countryside, mingling with the stars and playing in the clouds. We would fly until almost dawn, and at times he would only hold onto my hand, and I could fly too."
"Wow, what a great dream."
"Now Im not so sure it was a dream. It felt very real. I never quite knew how I got back to the inn, only that eventually I would wake up in my bed and smell breakfast cooking. I was usually very tired but very happy after those nights."
"Do you think Ares came to visit you on those nights?"
"Maybe. I cant quite remember what the man looked like. He quit coming to visit me when I was about eleven summers old. It was about that time that I first started noticing how strong and fast I was. And I had gotten old enough that I probably would have known if it were real and not a dream."
"Maybe theres a fatherly side to Ares. Do you think he has any other children?"
The warrior grew quite pensive and Gabrielle pulled her closer into a warm comforting hug that Xena hoped she would never escape from.
"Xena, lets sleep out here tonight. Its warm with all the body heat from the animals. Weve dried off. No sense in getting wet again just to get back to the inn."
"Good point, love. I kinda like the idea of snuggling with you in the hay for a while."
The warrior laid the lamb carefully down next to its mother and stood up. She retrieved a couple of clean horse blankets from a shelf and laid them out in an empty stall full of fresh sweet hay. After kneeling down and arranging everything just right, she made her way back to the silently watching bard and leaned over, scooping Gabrielle up and carrying her over to the comfy bed. She laid her lover gently down on top of the blankets and then curled up next to her.
"Gabrielle, I need you. I never thought I would let myself need anyone, much less admit it to them. Sometimes it scares me. You know me so well. Most of the time I dont even have to say anything and you seem to just know what Im thinking and feeling. Yet I dont always feel like I reciprocate that with you. Seems like you have to tell me your thoughts and feelings. Im sorry I cant always be there for you like you are for me." Xena lightly stroked the short blonde hair and wrapped herself around the bard, sighing at the warm contact.
"Xena. You are there for me. People need different things. You make me feel safe. And loved. And like I belong somewhere. Like I have a purpose. You inspire me to be my best. And you do know me. So what if you cant read my thoughts and feelings. Why should you have to? Im a bard, remember? How many times have you had to wait more than a few minutes to know exactly what I am thinking and feeling?" The bard turned in the embrace, tangling her legs with the warriors, nuzzling the strong collar bone and nipping at the salty skin.
"Point well taken, my bard." Xena chuckled and then her breathe caught as the bards lips captured the sensitive skin, teasing her and sending little shivers all up and down her spine.
They shared some sweet kisses and hands explored a little before both admitted they were really tired. Gabrielle rolled over onto her stomach, and Xena crawled over into her favorite position, her cheek resting against the bards back while one long arm draped across the smaller girl, resting along the length of the bards far arm. The warrior pulled the extra blanket up over them, and soon both were fast asleep, surrounded by the sounds of softly snoring animals.
The god of war stepped out from the shadows and stood over the slumbering lovers. He leaned down and softly laid a hand on the warriors head. No, Xena, I dont have any other children. Youre the only one. You were so cute when we used to fly together, all full of wonder. You didnt hate me then. You used to call me the night man. Ares spared a long wistful glance at his daughter before he disappeared with a silent wave of his arm.
One blue eye slowly opened and peered around the barn before closing again. Thought I felt his presence. And she fell back asleep.
"Come on Gabrielle, focus and come at me again."
The bard took a firm grasp on her staff and circled the warrior, an intense expression causing the skin between the green eyes to furrow with concentration. She lunged forward, balancing her weight on her front leg and swung the staff in an arc around to the side, almost getting inside Xenas defenses.
"Very good, you almost got me." The warrior smiled and brushed a long lock out of her face.
They had decided that as soon as Gabrielle was able to use her arm well enough to defend herself, that they would begin the journey to the Amazon village. The bard had faithfully done the exercises Xena showed her, and other than a long scar along the inside of her forearm, she could hardly tell any difference between the two arms, at least when it came to activities that required use of both arms.
It had been almost two moons since the crucifixion, and spring was in full force. Both women were anxious to get on with the next phase of their lives. This staff practice marked two weeks worth of daily staff and sword drills, and a handful of villagers had gathered to watch. Word had spread that warrior and bard could be seen sparring together every afternoon after lunch, and the curious neighbors came to watch them for many reasons. Some were simply amazed at the skills the two women possessed, as it was rare to see women fighting. Others remembered the dark Xena and wanted to see her in action. A few young men came just to view two scantily-clad women getting hot and sweaty.
The loud click of parrying staffs rang out through the courtyard in front of the inn. Xena and Gabrielle fell into a rhythm, one that was guided by instinct almost as much as by conscious thought. Gabrielle once again lunged forward, appearing to make the same move that had almost worked earlier, but at the last minute she dropped to one knee and reversed her swing, catching the warrior off guard, forcing the tall woman to jump over the staff as it came at her at shin level. Xena stumbled backward but quickly shifted her weight, turning the near-fall into a backward roll. She landed neatly on her feet and grinned.
"Hey, if that had been almost anyone else, you would have had me."
"Thought I already did have you." The bard smiled a knowing smile.
"Oh yeah, you do." The warrior moved toward her lover and ruffled the sweaty hair. "I think we can pack our things this evening and leave for the Amazon village tomorrow morning. If the nice weather holds out we should be there in a couple of days."
"Great. Im ready to get settled in."
They gathered up the various weapons that lay scattered about and walked toward the inn. Several disappointed villagers left to go back to their chores, the entertainment apparently ending for the last time.
"Hey, Gabrielle." A teen-aged boy approached before the women could make it through the front door.
"Yeah." The bard turned and smiled. "Hi Naman, how are you?"
"Fine. Will you be telling any stories tonight?"
Gabrielle pursed her lips and looked up at her partner. "Will we have time, what with packing and all?" Xena nodded and smiled.
"Yes." The bard knew that Naman had a crush on her. It was sweet and innocent, so she tolerated the attention.
"Oh. Good. Ill spread the word. Lots of folks will want to come hear you one last time before you leave. See you tonight, then."
"See you, Naman."
The young man grinned from ear to ear and blushed before he turned and loped away toward the other departing villagers.
The two women spent the rest of the afternoon packing up saddle bags and deciding which things to leave at the inn and which things to take with them. Xena had managed to read nearly all of the scrolls that had been stored at the inn, so Gabrielle decided to leave them there. Plenty of others awaited the warrior at the Amazon village, as they seemed to have visited the Amazons more than they had Amphipolis in the last four years. Every time they visited either place, the bard had left yet more scrolls for safe-keeping.
"Oh look, Xena. Remember this?" The bard held up a long brown very tattered skirt and a well-worn blue blouse.
"Yep. How could I forget it? No offense Gabrielle, but I was real glad when you traded that outfit in for the shorter skirt and the green top."
"Ill just bet you were." The bard gave a mischievous look to her partner.
"Hey, thats not what I meant." Xena mock-scowled. "Well, not entirely." A grin. "Actually, I just didnt think that outfit was very conducive to traveling. The long skirt was always getting caught on things and the blue blouse just looked too hot. The whole thing seemed to slow you down. Didnt let you move freely. And yes, I certainly did enjoy the view more with the smaller outfit."
The bard turned back toward the dresser drawer. "Hey, howd this get in here?" She turned and held up a pink nighty. "And its all clean. The last time I saw it it was covered with dirt and Joxer had been wearing it. I thought I threw it away."
"Um . . . I . . . well . . ."
"Spit it out, warrior princess."
"I didnt even know you had that thing until you gave it to Joxer to wear. I kept it. I dont know why. Guess I kind of wondered what you might look like in it."
"Oh you did, huh?"
"Sorry honey, but I just cant bring myself to put this on after Joxer wore it. Im really sorry he died, Xena, but I still have no desire to snuggle into something he wore. Know what I mean?"
"Good point, my bard. I didnt think about that. Might create some pretty disturbing visual images for me too, now that you mention it."
"Er, yeah. Might really spoil the mood right in the middle of zug-zug."
Both women burst out laughing before they turned back to their respective dressers, selecting articles of clothing and other small items to take with them.
"Xena, did you think about it that night after you and I were both back to normal?"
"You mean, being with you?"
"Yes. Remember when I reached over and took your hand?"
"That was one of the first times we held hands while we slept, Gabrielle. Ill never forget that night."
"But did you think about anything else?"
"Yeah. I already knew I was having feelings for you, very strong ones. Stronger than just that mild curiosity I had when we first traveled together. These were very concrete very specific feelings. You took my hand and part of me wanted to just roll over and kiss you. I almost did, but I wasnt sure how you would have reacted. I was afraid to ruin what we already had."
"I would have kissed you back."
"I thought about it too that night, Xena. I even woke up during the night and just watched you sleep for a while. You looked so happy and contented. Did you know that I tried to pry loose from your hand and you wouldnt let go?"
"No. Um . . . why did you want to let go of my hand?"
"I wanted to reach over and touch your lips, but it would have been awkward without that arm to lean on."
"Oops. Sorry. Guess my subconscious slowed us down for another year, huh?"
"You could say that. Im not sure what would have happened that night if my hands had been free to roam. A whole lot of things might have been different."
"Guess well never know, will we?"
"Im glad we finally figured it out."
Cyrene had prepared a virtual feast to see her daughters off, making sure to include all of both Xena and Gabrielles favorite foods. She cracked open a small keg of premium port for the warrior, and made several loaves of fresh nutbread for the bard. The two women had eaten heartily at first, slowed down for the second helpings, and only Gabrielle managed a third helping of venison steak and a third slice of nutbread. Finally the bard patted here belly with satisfaction and sighed with contentment.
"Hope I dont fall asleep in the middle of story-telling. I cant remember the last time I felt this full."
The warrior looked wistfully at her partner, glad to see the young girl getting such a good meal and enjoying it. Gabrielle had lost weight during the first few weeks after the thugs had attacked her, and Xena had fretted, trying to get the bard to eat more. She neednt have worried. In no time Gabrielle had been eating with her usual gusto and gained back the lost pounds, along with the rosy color in her cheeks.
The bard stood and briefly squeezed Xenas shoulder. "Show time." She made her way to the front of the room and stood on the low crate that Cyrene had provided so that everyone could see the short girl. She told three of her usual adventure stories, one about Hercules and two about Xena.
Gabrielle paused, took a sip of ale offered to her, smoothed her red skirt, and cleared her throat. Her eyes took on a faintly luminous glow. She glanced over at her lover and began to speak. "This is the story of a very brave warlord. This warlord was once very evil, but one day decided to give up hurting people and committed instead to helping people everywhere. This warlord also won the heart of a young village girl. They fell in love and together they traveled the countryside . . ."
The bard preceded to tell the people of Amphipolis many many accounts of good deeds that Xena had done. Nothing heroic. Nothing extraordinary. All the little things the warrior had done. Caring for the wounded and the sick. Helping farmers with crops and livestock. Finding homes for orphans. Clearing rock slides.
Xena could only stare at her partner, her heart so full of love she thought it would burst. She knew exactly what the bard was trying to do. Paint her in a favorable light in front of the people who had been most hurt by her dark side. Make them see that she had changed. By the time Gabrielle finished, the room was completely silent. As it became apparent the story was over, many of the villagers stood up and prepared to go home, but not before shaking hands with the warrior and the bard, and gruffly wishing them both well in their travels.
Several well-wishers surrounded Xena, and Gabrielle took advantage of the opportunity to slip away to their room. There was something she needed to do. She looked back over her shoulder and satisfied that the warrior didnt see her leave, she quietly closed the door and made her way down the hall.
The main room of the inn began to clear and Xena drained the last sips from her mug of port, as she listened to the final stragglers say good-bye. She stood and looked around for a minute. A puzzled look crossed her face.
"Mother, did you see where Gabrielle went?"
"I think she went to your room, honey. At least I saw her go into the hall a little while ago. Is she feeling okay?"
"Far as I know. Um, Mother, is it alright if I go on to bed? Im really tired. Ill help with the rest of the clean-up tomorrow morning before we leave."
"Go to her, Xena. Dont worry about clean-up."
"I cant believe she did that. Said all those things."
"Shes in love with you, Xena. Im so glad shes in your life."
"Me too. Night Mother. Thanks."
The warrior quickly walked to their room. She opened the door and stopped, as her jaw fell open. The room was painted in soft candlelight, but her eyes were transfixed on the bed. Where the bard lay curled on her side, her head propped on her elbow.
"I know I said I wouldnt wear that pink thing. Will this do?"
The bard was wearing an emerald green silk negligee. It was long but one side slit fell open, revealing most of the length of a well-toned leg. It was held up by very thin straps at the shoulders and the neckline plunged halfway to her navel.
"Xena. Sweetheart? Xena, breathe."
The warrior took a deep breath. "Buuu . .. Wh . . . Where did you get that?" Xena found her voice and managed to drag her chin off the ground and avoid drooling.
"Back in India. Ive been saving it for a special occasion. I decided our last night in Amphipolis was special enough."
"Are you my going-away gift?" Xena eyes were all shiny and she looked like a child getting her first pony.
Gabrielle smiled and crooked one finger, beckoning the warrior to come to her.
In one motion, Xena shed the tunic she was wearing and landed fluidly next to the bard. She ran one hand along the smooth silk that covered the bards side, reveling in the texture of the rich material against her calloused hand. She leaned in and kissed her lover, as she slowly slid one thin green strap aside. Xena sighed deeply and nuzzled the bards neck, inhaling the scent of some of the exotic oil the bard had also bought in India.
"Gods you smell good." The warrior began to nip and nibble her way down her lovers throat, pleased as she felt the bards breathing began to go ragged. "Best present I ever got," Xena purred. "I think Ill keep you."
A little before dawn Xena woke up. She blinked a few times and looked down and smiled. The warrior was laying on her back and all she could see of her sleeping lover was her head, which was resting on Xenas stomach, her cheek softly planted on top of the warriors navel. The rest of the bard was covered by blankets, but Xena could feel Gabrielles arms, which were wrapped around Xenas hips, and her lithe body, which was stomach-down, nestled snugly between the warriors long legs. Xena grinned for a minute at a very pleasant memory of the night before, and just how the bard had ended up in her current position.
"Hey sleepyhead, wake up." The warrior ran her fingers through the short blonde hair and the bard slowly came to life. She raised her head and the green eyes opened and looked up. Gabrielle gave her lover a shy smile and turned her face down, kissing Xena on the stomach, slowly working her way downward.
"Mmmmm . . . one more for the road, Gabrielle?" The warriors stomach muscles rippled underneath the taut skin, reacting to the light kisses.
"One. Or two. Well see." The bard paused for a moment, looking up with a wicked smile on her face.
Xena rested her hands on her lovers shoulders and closed her eyes, reveling in the sensation.
A candle mark later, warrior and bard made their way into the main room of the inn, carrying their packed bags, both wearing armor. Xena had made her lover a set of lightweight leathers in a dark mahogany color and a thicker leather top piece that fit over it to protect the bards chest and back. It was not nearly as heavy as the warriors more intricate armor, but it fit perfectly. The only metal on Gabrielles armor was chain mail of the finest grade, which draped her shoulders and upper arms. Another layer of soft buttery leather was between the chain mail and the bards skin, to protect her from the metal digging in.
The warrior had also made Gabrielle a sheath for Ephinys sword which was lighter and more stream-lined than the one the former regent had used. The bard was more comfortable drawing the sword from her side than from her back, like Xena did, so the new scabbard rested lightly against her left hip for easy access.
During her recovery from the arm wound Gabrielle had explored in the barn loft, and had found a cache of Xenas old weapons, most in good shape, only needing a little cleaning up. Among the odd assortment of swords, maces, daggers, and crossbows, the bard had discovered a pair of sais. After much coercion, she had convinced the warrior to teach her how to use them. Surprisingly, Gabrielle had shown a real aptitude with the ancient weapons and had become quite proficient with them. Those now rested in straps on the outside of each of her boots.
Xena actually liked the idea of the bard using the sais once she got used to it. The weapons were much more maneuverable for a shorter person than a sword, and could actually be used for defense without killing. Yet if need be, they could be flipped and turned to be used similar to a dagger. Besides, the warrior hadnt used them herself in several years, and had enjoyed refreshing her skills with them.
They elected to eat breakfast on the trail, and Cyrene had made up some rolls stuffed with fruits and nuts for the journey, along with several other packets of various treats the two women could eat from for at least two days. The innkeeper now stood on the porch watching as Xena fussed about the two horses, straightening the saddles and tightening straps here and there. Finally she turned and faced her mother.
"I . . . this is the longest Ive stayed here since Cortese . . . um . . . I . . . thank you, Mother. For making us welcome. Ill miss you."
"Xena, you will always have a home and a room here." The innkeeper moved forward and reached up, hugging her daughter around the neck. She then turned to the bard, resting a hand on the fair cheek. "And you, Gabrielle. I meant it. You are my daughter now, too. The same goes for you."
"Thank you, Mom. For taking care of me, us." The bard hugged her lovers mother fiercely.
"You ready?" Xena cocked her head slightly, peering at the bard.
"Yes. Its time to go."
The warrior gave her partner a leg up onto Star and then swung lightly up onto Argo, sliding her booted feet into the stirrups and enjoying the familiar feel of the war horse under her. She kneed the palomino and they moved across the courtyard toward the main road, Star falling in behind. As they neared the first sentry station, Toris jumped down and leaned against a tree.
"Bye, Sis. Gabrielle. You two take care of each other. Dont stay away too long."
"We wont, Bro. And you take care of Mother."
They turned at a bend in the road and suddenly Amphipolis disappeared from view. Xena gave one long glance back and then turned, appraising her lover. "I swear Gabrielle, youre carrying more weapons than I am. Gabrielle, warrior bard."
"Yeah. I guess I havent quite decided which ones I like best. I think Ill always carry my staff. But I really like the sais. I may eventually store away the dagger and the sword."
"Might be a good idea. You dont want to be weighed down with too much stuff."
"Oh, and look whos talking. At last count Xena, you were carrying your chakram, sword, whip, breast dagger, and a dagger in each boot. And dont you have a bow and arrows tucked somewhere in those saddle bags? And then theres your staff folded up in there too."
"Yeah, yeah. Okay. Ya got me. I guess I win the weapons count."
"Well, I would hope no one would mess with us, as well-armed as we are between the two of us."
"Yes, but dont forget. You pick up a weapon, you automatically become a target. And since were carrying a small arsenal we might be considered a threat to some people."
"I suppose youre right, Xena. Still, after everything thats happened I sure do feel a lot safer with this small arsenal."
They rode on in companionable silence until the sun was well overhead. It was a perfect day for traveling. Fluffy cumulus clouds chased each other across the sky and a light breeze blew, keeping it from getting too hot. Every now and then small woodland creatures could be spotted, most of them mothers with young in tow. Another moon would mark the summer solstice.
"You want to stop and stretch our legs?" The warrior eyed the bard.
As if in answer, Gabrielles stomach growled loudly. "Yeah. And eat lunch."
They pulled the horses off the trail and into the shade of a clump of willow trees. The two lovers looked at each other with a wistful memory of the Elysian Fields, and then smiled. Without a word Xena jumped off Argo and grabbed one of her mothers packets from a saddle bag. She helped the bard down and led her by the hand to one of the trees. The warrior sank down with her back against the tree and pulled Gabrielle down against her, the bards back resting against her chest. Xena sighed and drew her knees up, wrapping her arms around her partners waist and resting her cheek against the soft blonde head.
"Gods I love you." The warrior pulled the younger girl more tightly against her. "I wish we could just sit here like this forever."
"Xena, are you ready for this? Living in the Amazon village?"
"I think so. Ive been on the move for over fifteen years, Gabrielle. Thats a long time to go, not ever knowing where youre going to sleep each night. Where your next meal is going to come from. What town you might wake up in next. I never thought Id have a home again. Or want to settle down. Until now."
"But the Amazons. Xena, I know they sometimes drive you crazy."
"True. But if I am going to settle down I cant think of a better place. Think about it, Gabrielle. In the Amazon village no one is going to give a second glance at a woman walking around wearing leather and armor, and carrying weapons. In many ways I fit in better there than anywhere else."
"Oh, they might give you a second glance, Xena. I can think of more than a few Amazons that would love to become . . . um . . . more familiar with your assets."
"Oh you can, huh?"
"Come on Xena. You must have noticed the way some of them look at you. Youre gorgeous. And strong. And dangerous. Youre a walking living breathing Amazon fantasy."
"Gabrielle. You are the only Amazon fantasy I have any intention of letting anywhere near my assets."
"Good." The bard turned and found hungry warrior lips inches from her own.
"Besides." Xenas lips brushed the bards tentatively several times. "Theres one huge advantage to living in the Amazon village."
"And whats that?"
"I dont ever have to hide the way I feel about you. Our relationship will be accepted there without question."
The kisses grew more lengthy, and the warrior was in the middle of exploring a bardic neck when she suddenly stopped and stiffened.
"Xena, whats wrong?"
"Shhh." The warrior whispered. "In the trees behind me. Do you see anything?"
Gabrielle peered over a strong shoulder, squinting her eyes. "No . . . wait. Maybe just the slightest glint of sunlight. Like it might be off something metal. Im not sure."
The warrior cocked her head, listening intently, while her hand slowly lowered to her chakram. "Theres four of them. With swords drawn. Reach down and get your sais. Im going to stand up and I want you to stand behind me."
Xena stood and spun around, placing her body between the bard and the treeline. "I know youre there. Come on out." Her voice firm. Commanding.
A Roman soldier strode forward, flanked by three guards. But not just any soldier.
"Hello, Brutus. I was wondering when you would show up." The warrior could sense the small body behind her tense, and she reached behind her back with one hand, giving the bard a hand signal not to worry.
"Xena. I dont know how or why youre alive, but I figured you must be. I sent a guard unit to retrieve your bodies and they never came back. Another unit went in search of the first one and discovered that your armor and leathers had been taken from where they were left in the compound. A few other signs lead me to believe that you were back. Then I sent an undercover soldier to Amphipolis and he confirmed that you and Gabrielle were there."
"Thought you might do something like that. I knew he was there. I wanted him to tell you I was alive, so I let him be."
"Howd you know?"
"He forgot to change out of the Roman army sandals."
"Xena . . .?" The bard started to speak.
"Sorry, Gabrielle. I didnt tell you because I didnt want you to worry. Besides, we have nothing to fear from Brutus, right?"
"Right." The Roman lowered his sword back into its scabbard and signaled for the other soldiers to do the same. Xena lifted her hand from the chakram and crossed her arms over her chest. The bard followed suit and tucked the sais back into her boots, and assumed a stance similar to her partners.
"Youre not here to kill me again. So talk."
"Xena, first of all, I want to apologize."
"Brutus, I cant even begin to describe to you just how inadequate the word apologize is for what you did to us."
"Xena. That was Caesar. I was just following orders."
"You were a blind coward, Brutus."
"Okay. I deserve that. But thanks to you, I realized what was going on in time to stop Caesar before he made himself emperor."
"Yes. But not in time to save me from watching while they beat and tortured and crucified my partner. Do you have any idea what it is like to watch the person you love most in the whole world be treated the way she was, and not be able to do anything about it? There is absolutely nothing you can say or do that will ever make me forgive you for that."
"Xena. I dont expect you to forgive me. I dont deserve it."
"Then what do you expect?" A brave bard strode forward, her green eyes piercing into the Romans, and he lowered his gaze, unable to meet them.
"Gabrielle. Im sorry. If I had known what he planned to do, I would have let you go. Im so very sorry."
"What do you want, Brutus?" The bards voice almost as low and steady as her partners.
"Actually I came to see you."
"Me? Why me?"
Before everything happened, you had proposed a treaty between the Amazons and the Roman empire. Ive come to re-negotiate that treaty. I want to stand by my word to you."
Gabrielle eyed him in silence for several moments. "Okay. Thats actually halfway decent of you. But there will be some additional stipulations this time."
"But . . ."
"And theyre not negotiable."
"Its not going to be a treaty with just the Amazons this time, Brutus. It will be a treaty with Amphipolis and Potadeia as well."
"But . . ."
"You heard her, Brutus." The warrior joined in. "Not negotiable."
"Right." The bard laid a hand on her partners shoulder. "You deal with all three entities, or there will be no deal at all."
"But you dont have authority to represent Potadeia and Amphipolis."
"Maybe not. But I am well-acquainted with the people who do. And I can contact them and get them to join in with us in a heartbeat."
"Okay." Brutus nodded.
"Ill draw up the details and at the solstice, you come back. Ill get representatives from Potadeia and Amphipolis too. Well meet in the council room of the Amazon village to finalize everything." Gabrielle thrust her chin forward slightly.
"Very well then."
"And Brutus, no tricks. You bring any more soldiers with you than you have right now, and all bets will be off. I saved your sorry hide once and you returned the favor by allowing me to be killed. I may not be so inclined to spare you again. Once you enter Amazon territory, you will have a full Amazon escort until you reach my quarters, you got me?" An unwavering Bard felt a large warrior hand close over her own that rested on Xenas shoulder.
"Got it. Ill see you at the solstice, Gabrielle." Brutus turned on his heels and disappeared back into the trees, followed by the guard unit.
The bard suddenly felt light-headed and her knees gave way, and she found herself caught up in a strong embrace.
"Hey. You okay?"
"Yes." Gabrielles voice was shaky.
"Yeah. Wow. Its so strange to see him. And what just happened."
"I am so proud of you, my bard. I forget just what a strong and poised woman you are. That was some amazing negotiation, love. Very gutsy."
"Thank you, Xena."
"Can we eat lunch now? Im starved."
The warrior chuckled loudly. "Come on love, Ill feed you your lunch by hand."
The sun was sinking low and the breeze had died down. The first sounds of night birds and crickets could be heard in the trees. Xena and Gabrielle had made good time and would reach Amazon territory by nightfall the next day if things continued the way they had. After Brutus had left, they had shared a quick lunch and had been riding ever since. The bard sighed and shifted a bit, raising a little off her seat.
"Saddle sore, love?"
"Yeah. Its been a while since weve ridden all day. Ill be paying for this tomorrow."
"Maybe not. If youre real good, I might be convinced to give you a massage."
"A real massage Xena, or a warrior princess prelude to other activities?"
The warrior pouted, poking her lower lip out slightly. "Dont you like the other activities?"
"Well, of course." Gabrielle gave her lover a coy look. "But I really need the massage."
"Okay, I promise. A real massage."
"Then, what constitutes me being real good?"
"Hmmm . . . Lets see. Could you make up some of those little apple dumpling things? I think Mother packed some dried apples."
"Xena, for you sweetheart, Id make those without the promise of a massage."
The warrior smiled and moved Argo in next to Star, capturing her partners hand. "Youre gonna spoil me."
"Like you dont spoil me."
"Lets find a place to camp."
Xena scanned the treeline. "I think I remember a spot with good shelter and a little stream nearby about a quarter candle mark from here." The warrior lightly kicked Argo, dropping her lovers hand and moving forward toward the trees. Gabrielle and Star followed closely behind, and they made a path deep into the trees and well off the road. The bard ducked beneath the low branches and was relieved when they finally reached a small clearing. Xena was right. The trees were so thick around the clearing that it couldnt even be seen until they were actually in it.
"Perfect." The warrior looked around nodding her approval. "Gabrielle, why dont you set up camp and Ill go collect some firewood and re-fill the water skins."
"Okay." The bard dismounted and walked around working out some of the pain in her legs and backside. She watched as her partner disappeared through the trees. Gabrielle hummed low under her breath as she set about the familiar routine of making camp. She spread out the bedrolls near a fire ring that was already there. Then she pulled out some dried venison and rolls, as well as the ingredients for the apple dumplings. In no time she had made four of the juicy pastries and only needed some boiling water to cook them in. She looked up and smiled as Xena returned, carrying three full water skins over her shoulders and a large armful of wood.
"You took a bath, didnt you?" Gabrielle noted the remainder of water droplets on the warriors broad shoulders and neckline.
"Yeah. Just a quick dunk under the water. It was pretty cold, but it felt good." Xena dumped the wood on the ground and knelt down to build a fire. "Oh boy, two dumplings each, huh?" The warriors eyes lighted up at the sight of the treats that awaited her.
"Yeah. Maybe theres three for me and only one for you."
"With your appetite, I wouldnt doubt it my bard." Xena grinned.
The warrior finished with the fire and stood, moving over behind her lover. She wrapped her arms around her waist, leaning in and nipping at the bards ear. "You know Im just teasing you."
"Uh. Yeah." Gabrielles breath caught. "In more ways than one. Makes it kind of hard to concentrate on cooking."
"Oh. Sorry." The warrior kissed her partner on the cheek and backed off. She went to take care of the horses while the bard finished making dinner.
Two candle marks later, Xena was making good on her promise of a real massage. Gabrielle was resting face down on their sleeping furs and the warrior was performing deep tissue massage on the bards legs and backside, digging in with her thumbs and the palms of her hands. Xena found each and every knot and worked patiently until all of them were at least loosened, if not totally gone. She moved up and started tugging her partners sleep shirt over her head
"Thought you said this wouldnt be a prelude to other activities." A lethargic bard murmured, not bothering to open her eyes.
"Its not, love. I know youre tired." The warrior finished pulling the shirt off and straddled Gabrielle, and began kneading the muscles in the bards neck, back, and shoulders.
"Oh, Xena. That is heavenly. You have magic fingers."
The warrior raised an unseen eyebrow at the last comment, chuckling to herself at the double implication. Perhaps tomorrow night she could demonstrate the full extent of that magic. Gabrielle continued to whimper little murmurs of pleasure until they gradually tapered off into deeper breathing. By the time Xena had finished working at the road-weary muscles, the bard was fast asleep.
The warrior leaned over and smiled, as she watched her partner sleeping, her face a picture of peace. She felt her own pulse slow in response, as the cares of the day and the encounter with Brutus rolled off her. Xena wasnt quite sleepy enough to go to bed so she rose up and pulled the top fur over her lovers partially unclothed body. She walked over and banked the fire and then went to check the horses one last time.
"Hey girl." The warrior ran her fingers through Argos mane, working at a few tangles. "You ready to go live in the Amazon village?"
The palomino nudged Xenas midsection.
"Yeah. Me too. Tell you what. I know how you hate being confined to a stable all the time, so during the day Ill let you out as long as you promise to come back at night. Id feel better if you were safe under cover nights. Deal?"
Argo nickered softly.
"Im a little nervous about living with the Amazons. I havent been part of a community in a long time, other than my army. And I was in charge of them. Hope I can adjust to that. But Gabrielle really wants this. And she deserves it. She was awesome in that battle against Pompeii. Shes been queen for so long. Bout time she actually lead them. They dont know how lucky they are. Id lay odds she will be the best queen theyve ever had. Gabs a thinker. She wont make any rash decisions. And she will only fight as a last resort. Probably be good for me, too. Ill be able to concentrate on something besides just fighting and keeping us fed."
The mare nuzzled Xenas arm.
"Gabrielle -- shes been a challenge to keep fed. There have been times when I know I didnt find enough to really fill her up. That hurt. She never said anything, but Id hear her stomach growl when we were falling asleep. I hated knowing she was going to bed hungry. It was usually in winter when that happened. Now shell always be able to get food from the Amazon dining hall. Shes the queen. Theyll get her anything she wants."
The warrior sighed and went back to the sleeping furs. She removed her armor and placed her sword on the ground next to the bedroll. Slowly, so as not to wake her partner, she pulled back the top fur and slid underneath, sighing at the warm contact of the fur and the bard against her body. Gabrielle was on her stomach and Xena assumed her favorite position, laying her face down between the younger girls shoulder blades and tossing her arm down and across the bards back. She turned her face and lightly kissed the soft skin of her lovers back, and then joined Gabrielle in slumber.
Warrior and bard had traveled hard all day and had been in Amazon territory for a few candle marks. Xenas sensitive ears had picked up the sounds of the outer sentries, but as yet, no verbal signals had been made and no Amazons had actually appeared. She smiled and slowed Argo down, waiting for Gabrielle and Star, who were several paces behind, to catch up.
The bard approached, fussing with the Amazon leathers she had donned that morning. She and Xena had discussed it, and since Gabrielle was returning to rule the nation, they decided she should wear the full ceremonial outfit of the queen, complete with gauntlets, bracers, hair braids, feathers in her hair, earrings, choker, and the queens signet ring. Ephinys sword was sheathed close to her left hip and the staff was strapped against Stars side in plain sight. The only thing missing was the queens mask, which was kept safely in her hut in the Amazon village. Gabrielle had decided to send a clear message that she meant business and that this was not a social call. She was coming home to stay.
"Think an escort will show up anytime soon?"
"Dont know. Theyve been watching us for two candle marks."
"Yep. Weve passed four of their outposts. Its about another candle mark to the village gates, so if I have my guess, the word has already made it that you are on your way. Id expect that escort to arrive . . ." Xena paused, cocking her head to one side. "Right about now, as a matter of fact."
Both women dismounted, drew their swords, and drove the tips of the weapons into the soft dirt in front of them. In one fluid motion, they both raised their hands over their heads with fists clasped in the Amazon peace sign. Suddenly four Amazons swiftly lowered themselves on ropes from the trees to the ground, all wearing feathered masks. Three of them remained standing, drawing their swords and crossing them over their chests and over their shoulders. One stepped forward and kneeled before Gabrielle, also crossing her chest with her sword in salute.
"My queen. Welcome home."
"You may stand." Gabrielle stepped forward.
The woman rose and slowly pushed her mask back on top of her head, and grinned.
"Chilapa!" The bard and regent embraced for a moment.
The other three Amazons also pushed their masks back, revealing a smiling Amarice, Kallerine, and Eponin.
"Hello, Xena." Pony, as Eponin was affectionately called by her friends, moved in next to the warrior and playfully slugged her on the arm. It was a testament to their friendship, Xena realized in surprise, that she let Pony get away with the movement. Gabrielle, Toris, and her mother were about the only other people who could invade her personal space in that manner, and they were family. Yeah. Gabrielles part of my family. A faint almost undetectable grin played across the warriors face.
"Hey, Pony. Long time no see."
"Yeah. Weve got a lot of catching up to do. Plus I have to see if you can still kick my butt with just about every weapon I have."
The warrior sighed. Always having to prove myself to them. "Well see." She withdrew her sword from the ground and returned it to the scabbard at her back. "Will you at least let me get a meal and a hot bath before we go to the weapons yard?"
"Sure. Besides, Chilapa and the council have planned a little homecoming ceremony for tomorrow night. And I expect you and Gabrielle may need to spend some time settling into your quarters between now and then."
The whole group was walking down the road, Xena and Gabrielle leading Star and Argo. Chilapa was on the outside next to the bard while Eponin was on the other outside next to the warrior. Amarice lead the group while Kallerine brought up the rear. Chilapa quietly caught Gabrielle up on the affairs of the village, while Pony and Xena traded battle stories, and the weapons master heard the story of the crucifixion from the warrior.
"Chilapa, Ive already started on one item of business before we got here."
"Oh. And whats that?"
"Brutus caught up with us yesterday."
The regents eyebrows shot up and she sucked in a surprised breath. "Really?"
"Yes. It was pretty awkward, but the end result was a tentative peace agreement between the Amazons, Rome, Potadeia, and Amphipolis. Ill need to meet with the council tomorrow morning briefly to discuss it. If you could make sure the meeting is called, Id appreciate it."
"But of course. Thats good news. I think most of the council will be pleased."
"Most of the council?"
"Gabrielle. I wont lie to you. There are always factions. And as usual, some of the older Amazons have their doubts about your leadership ability. Some of them still see you as the person who laid down her staff and wont fight. Ive tried to explain the changes Ive seen, but theyre a tough group to convince. And unfortunately some of them are on the council."
"Well, Ill keep the council intact as it is for now. But they should make no mistake. Im no coward. And I do fight now if I need to. I will always listen to reasonable input and suggestions from anyone who wants to talk to me. And I do mean anyone, from the oldest of elders to children. But I will not tolerate defiance. If I have to I will replace any council members who make it too difficult for me to rule the nation."
"I see." Chilapa appraised the mature woman walking next to her, taking in the self-assured posture, the sword, and the sais tucked neatly into the boots. Indeed, this was no farm girl from Potadeia anymore. This was the queen. The queen who tamed the Destroyer of Nations. A feat no one else on earth could lay claim to. A warrior no one else on earth could get close to. But Gabrielle could and did. If she could do that, what couldnt she do?
As they neared the village gates, Gabrielle stopped. "Im riding in." A look of understanding passed between warrior and bard. Gabrielle mounted Star and Xena climbed up into Argos saddle. In a rare show of submission, the warrior fell in several paces behind her partner. Chilapa and Amarice walked in front of Star, and Kallerine and Eponin followed behind Argo, forming a ceremonial protective escort. As they entered the gates, the bards shoulders involuntarily straightened and she held her head high. Most of the village had turned out for her arrival, and lined the path on both sides, watching her in awed silence.
They reached the center of the village and Chilapa mounted a small podium. She swept out her arm in an arc toward Gabrielle. "The Queen has returned to rule the nation!" Her proclamation rang out loudly and was followed by an even louder thunderous applause mingled with cheers, as the Amazons welcomed their queen.
Gabrielle dismounted and joined the regent on the podium. She cleared her throat and looked around. "Thank you. Ill address everyone tomorrow night at the ceremony, but for now, my . . ." She paused, collecting her thoughts. "My consort and I will get settled into our hut." She smiled at Xena, whose mouth almost, almost, fell open at her lovers bold admission of their relationship. Not that it wouldnt have been figured out pretty quickly, but the warrior knew what Gabrielle was attempting to do. Establish without question that they were together, and that no one was to challenge that. Least of all any council members who might seek to deny the warrior residence in the Amazon village. Xenas expression remained stoic, but Gabrielle caught just the faintest twinkle in the pale blue eyes.
As the villagers dispersed and the bard stepped down from the podium, Eponin moved in next to Argo and looked up at a very innocent-looking warriors face. "You sly dog. Walked all that way, and you didnt think to mention to me that you two have finally gotten together."
"You didnt ask."
"Well thats true. You two have been just friends for so long, I had about given up on you. So when did this happen?"
"Its been a gradual thing, Pony. Weve been in love for a long time. But we didnt admit it to each other until after the crucifixion."
"Well Ill be a one-winged pegasus. Congratulations. Its good to be the queen."
Xena leaned over in the saddle until her face hovered just above Ponys head. "Dont know that I can speak for the queen, but I can tell you its very very good to be me." She waggled an eyebrow and shot a quick look at her lover, who was slowly making her way toward them, surrounded by a small crowd of Amazons. "Course I havent heard any complaints, either."
"You dog." Pony slapped the warrior on the leg.
Gabrielle walked up just as the slap in question took place. She glanced back and forth between the two women. Xenas face was smug and Ponys was slightly crimson. She remembered just how much trouble her partner and the weapons master were capable of getting into together, in a constant friendly battle of ego, skill, and strength. She sighed. "I dont even want to know." The bard rested a small hand on the same leg that had been slapped, unconsciously tracing the strong thigh muscles. "Xena. Lets go get moved in. I need a bath. And dinner is in another candle mark."
Continued in Part 8
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