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 not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended. In my world, the Xenaverse intersects with the Buffyverse in a character Ive created named Kallerine, who bears a striking resemblance to Sarah Michelle Gellar. No copyright infringements intended toward the owners of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, either.
Violence: This is Xena were talking about here. She doesnt use that chakram to file her nails. Nuff said.
Subtext/Maintext: PG-13, nothing too graphic here, but if two women being in love rocks your world, too bad for you. Move on to something you can handle.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: email@example.com
Setting: Gabrielle and Xena are living together in the Amazon village. Gabrielle is queen and Xena is her champion/consort. This story falls sequentially after my first story, "March the 16th." Ive taken some liberties with history here, but then so does the show.
A SOLSTICE TREATY
By Texbard a/k/a Texbard
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
-from "All the Hemispheres," The Subject Tonight is Love - 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz, versions by Daniel Ladinsky, copyright 1996, Pumpkin House Press, PumpkinH@aol.com.
Gabrielle awoke and opened her eyes slowly, looking around the room. It was still dark. Completely dark. She sighed inwardly and carefully rolled away from the warrior, whose arm was resting lightly across her back. Xena stirred and mumbled in her sleep, reaching out and grasping ahold of the bards pillow, pulling it against herself. Gabrielle remained completely still and held her breath, waiting for her partner to settle back down. She watched and listened until Xenas breathing resumed a deep even pattern the bard had become very familiar with.
Satisfied the warrior was once again peacefully asleep, the bard quietly sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up. She looked back at Xena and then tip-toed over to the open window and rested her forearms on the window sill. A light cool breeze brushed softly against her hair, bringing with it the scent of dew-covered grass and honeysuckle. The night sky was clear, with hundreds of twinkling stars. The moon was not in sight and the bard looked up, wishing she had her partners ability to determine how many candle marks it was until dawn, just by studying the moon and star patterns. All she knew was that the sun was nowhere to be seen and she was wide awake.
There was a time when the sight of these stars would have inspired poetry for me, Gabrielle pondered. Now . . . the bard couldnt remember the last time she had done any creative writing. And all I do anymore is write. She sighed again. Treaties and meeting notes just didnt cut it. Even writing in her journal wasnt the same, as her journal was strictly a recount of her and Xenas activities, along with her own thoughts and feelings. She just couldnt remember the last time she had made up a story or written a poem.
Even her bardic performances consisted mostly of tales from her first few years traveling with Xena, along with traditional Greek tales, a few of Hercules adventures, and some of the stories she had learned at the academy. Since living in the village, her story-telling had been limited to impromptu tales told around the central fire ring in the evenings, or occasionally sharing stories with some of the Amazon children. She hadnt performed in front of a large adult audience since their last night in Amphipolis.
The bard continued to gaze up at the stars, spotting some of the patterns she and the warrior had playfully named over time. She committed the vision of the sky to memory and closed her eyes and concentrated. And felt nothing. Why isnt this inspiring me? Its a beautiful night out and all I feel is empty inside, as if there isnt a single poem left. What if thats gone? And all I wanted for so long was to be a bard. Gabrielle felt her chest tighten up and her eyes sting, never noticing the pale blue eyes that gazed at her from across the room.
Xenas nocturnal senses had soon recognized that the pillow she was holding onto so tightly wasnt her partner, and she had gradually moved from sleep to wakefulness, and spotted her lovers naked silhouette as the bard leaned against the window sill. It was a beautiful sight, really, spoiled only by the fact that the warrior knew that Gabrielle was obviously spending yet another night in some sort of inner turmoil that wouldnt allow her the deep sleep so normally characteristic of the bard.
There had been times on the road when the warrior could get up, bathe, start a fire, pack up most of the camp, and cook breakfast while the bard slumbered less than a body-length away, oblivious to all the activity going on around her. Hades, Xena had even fought off some raiders once, all alone because Gabrielle had been sleeping so soundly that she didnt even hear the commotion as swords clanked against each other and the warrior threw her chakram about the campsite. Only after it was all over, had the bard finally stirred, sat up, yawned, looked around at the disarray, and asked, "I missed something here, didnt?"
And now . . . damn. Shes been doing this way too much lately. And it was showing. Gabrielle was beginning to have permanent dark circles under her eyes, along with some pretty incredible mood swings that Xena would normally have associated with the bards time of the moon. And she wont talk to me about it. The warrior really wanted to get up and try to offer some sort of help or comfort, but after several rounds of rejection over the past few weeks, she was reluctant to keep trying.
So here they were once again, the bard up brooding and Xena laying down in helpless observation, doing some brooding of her own. The warrior continued to watch until she saw her partner raise her hand up, wiping the back of it across her eyes. Aw Hades, is she crying? Xena heard a sniffle of confirmation and couldnt take it anymore. She sat up swiftly and grabbed the top blanket off the bed, tugging it behind her as she made her way over to the window. The warrior gently wrapped the blanket around Gabrielle and then followed the blanket with her own arms, enfolding the bard from behind and resting her chin on her partners shoulder.
"Hey. Whats wrong? Can you talk to me? Please Gabrielle. At least try."
The bard leaned back slightly, and brought one hand out from beneath the blanket, resting it against Xenas arm against her middle. "Xena." Gabrielles voice caught and she cleared her throat. "I feel like Ive lost part of myself somewhere along the way. And I dont know if I can get it back."
"Um." Great. Now what do I say? I wanted her to open up, but geez . . . I should have known it was going to be something pretty deep. This is Gabrielle, after all. The warrior thought for a second and decided on humor. She spun her partner around and grasped the blanket by the two top corners, opening it up and holding it behind the bard as she carefully appraised the compact muscular body in front of her.
"Lets see . . . two arms, two legs, a midsection, ten fingers, ten toes, two ears . . . two . . . um . . ." The warrior grinned and peered at her lovers chest, and then moved closer, looking over the bards shoulder and down her back. "That really cute butt is still there."
"Xena!" Gabrielle smiled, crinkling her eyes and causing one final tear that had been balancing on an eyelash to trickle down her cheek.
The warrior straightened back up. "Wait a minute, Im not finished." She ducked her head and kissed away the errant tear, and then stood back one step, continuing her slow cataloguing of her partners physical assets. "The pretty blonde hairs all in place along with two beautiful green eyes." She reached around with one hand, careful not to let go of the blanket, and brushed her thumb across Gabrielles mouth. "Two most delicious lips are still in place along with one very cute nose." Xena leaned in and nipped the part in question, and then wrapped the blanket back around both herself and her lover, drawing her close. "I still see the most beautiful face in the world and I can feel the biggest heart in all the known universe is still beating in your chest . . . so . . . what, exactly, did you lose, my bard?"
Gabrielle laughed softly and leaned into the warrior, resting her head against a strong shoulder and inhaling the musky sweet scent of Xenas skin. "Its hard to explain. I dont have any stories left inside of me, or poetry. I . . . I cant look at something beautiful anymore and be inspired by it. I can appreciate it, but Im not inspired. Do you see the difference?"
"You mean, kinda like, you can look out there and smell the honeysuckle and think oh, that smells good, but you cant put that feeling into writing?"
"Exactly. Just now, I was looking out at all those twinkling little stars, and I thought, you know, how pretty, but there was a time Xena, when those stars would have been magical to me, and would have made beautiful words spin through my head and I would have felt compelled to run and write them down before I forget them."
"Yeah, I remember some of those times. Wed be sitting by a fire somewhere all peaceful, and youd have your scrolls out and youd be staring out into space and youd get . . . this look . . . on your face. Next thing Id know, youd be scribbling away really fast, and Id wait, knowing that in a while, if I was very patient, youd read something really pretty or really funny or really moving to me. I loved those nights. Always took my mind off all the bad stuff that is usually rolling around in my head whenever I have too much quiet time on my hands."
Gabrielle looked up. "Oh. I never knew. I wish I had. For a long time I thought I might be bothering you but I was so desperate for an audience, I took the risk anyway. After a while I figured out you were enjoying my stories, though, because I realized you were actually paying attention and youd get just the faintest tiny smile at the corners of your mouth. I knew you were really listening when I realized you even laughed in all the right places, and that made me feel really good. But I didnt know I was helping you forget some of the bad stuff."
"I wish Id told you. I didnt know how. Im sorry."
"Dont be sorry, love. You told me just now, and it helps. It does."
The warrior pecked the fair head. "So what do you think happened to all of that? Your stories, I mean."
"Im not sure, Xena. I lost all of that once before, right after Dahak, and gradually started getting it back after we came back from Illusia. I remember I finally started telling some of those campfire stories the first time we met up with Tara. Gods, she was such a brat."
Both warrior and bard spared a brief memory of a very tough-talking young girl who was determined to take Gabrielles place in Xenas life. After a series of mishaps, Tara had slowly begun to come around, and by the time they parted ways was hardly the same person she had been when they met, showing promise of becoming someone capable of caring about other people and not just herself. All it had taken was a little quiet faith and expectant belief in her from a certain warrior princess.
"You know Xena, I was really jealous of the connection you had with her. At one point I actually thought you were going to keep her around. Was even afraid you might let her take my place."
"Oh Gabrielle, that wasnt going to happen. Not in a million summers. I was already in love with you then."
"You . . . you were?" The bards incredulous eyes grew wide.
"Yes. I know that now, based upon the feelings I was having. I just didnt choose to apply the term in love to those feelings at the time. I knew I loved you. I had loved you for a long time. But making the jump from love to in love, that was just way too scary for me. I remember when you had that little tiff with Tara about who was going to sleep next to me. I was just on the other side of the trees, taking care of Argo. I must have gotten the biggest grin on my face when I heard that. When I came back to the fire, I wanted so badly to snatch up my blanket and move it next to yours, but I was afraid to. Was afraid I might push things too far. I didnt want to be too obvious."
"You know Xena, I dont think we ever let anyone sleep between us after that."
"Oh. I forgot about her. Boy did she play me for a sucker."
"She was in love with you too. That, my bard, was my turn to be jealous. I kept kicking myself, thinking that you might just go and fall in love with her too, and I'd never said anything to you about my own feelings. Lucky for me we figured out pretty quick what she was all about. I . . . I was going to leave you there with her to start that hospice she kept talking about. And then after that, things got complicated and I lost my nerve to tell you how I felt. All of last year before Caesar killed us, I think I almost left you behind several times. I was going to leave you that time you fell down that hole on our way to India, and we ended up in that weird paradise with Aiden. And when we met Eli and you two bonded, that was probably the closest I came to believing that we were going to part ways. I would have let you go then if you hadnt insisted that we belonged together."
Xena felt her partners body stiffen. The bard looked up. "Xena, I knew you thought about leaving me with Eli, but I never knew about those other times. Why?" Gabrielle reached up with one trembling hand and cupped it against her partners chiseled face. "Why would you leave me with Najara or Aiden? Was my search for meaning that hard on you?"
The warrior drew in a long shaky breath. "No. At least not directly. It was my own resulting search for meaning that kept me second-guessing myself all the time. I think Aiden and Najara both knew how to push all the right buttons with me. They saw how much I cared about you but they also saw my insecurities . . . my own fear that I was going to hurt you, and those crucifixion visions sure didnt help that any. Gabrielle, after we came back from Illusia, I never shook the fear that someday I might snap again for gods know what reason. Or that you and I were so completely different, that my own life philosophy might pull you too far from where you were supposed to be."
The bard managed a small smile. "Xena. What, exactly, is your life philosophy? Before you answer, let me tell you that I think I know, but I would love to hear you put it into words."
"That, my bard, has changed over time. Between the time I met Hercules and Caesar crucified us, it was to use my strength and skills to fight evil and to help people who couldnt help themselves. And when we came back from Illusia, I decided to add to it a more important responsibility, to take care of you. I had been taking care of you for a long time before everything fell apart, but it was something that just happened, nothing I ever really thought about. After Illusia it was a conscious decision on my part, a deliberate choice. Now . . . my purpose is fundamentally the same as before, but it goes a step further."
"And hows that, love?" The bard brushed her thumb lightly back and forth against her partners downy cheek.
"My life, Gabrielle, is intertwined with yours. Not only do I want to take care of you, I want to build a life with you, so my purpose has broadened in that I want to help you to live a fulfilling life. No more thoughts of leaving you behind when things get tough. Thats not an option anymore. I hope that from now on we can work through the hard times and talk about whats going on, just like we are right now."
"I hope so too, and I also want to build a life together, Xena." Gabrielle leaned up and softly kissed the warriors lips and then wrapped her arms tightly around the tall lean body, burying her face against the side of the dark head and pondering her current problem.
"Xena, I think somewhere in all of that search for meaning is where I began to lose my stories. After Hope was born, I was forced to grow up way too fast and suddenly life became a very serious affair. Until then I had been this naive young girl, and everything was fresh and wonderful for me. The world held endless possibility. After that, everything changed and for a long time I felt like I was floundering around, just trying to reconcile the Gabrielle who killed Meridian with the idealistic Gabrielle who left Potadeia to follow you. I didnt know who I was anymore, and desperately wanted to find myself again. I tried on a lot of different hats, didnt I Xena?"
"Yes . . . you . . . did." The warrior drew the words out, followed by a long sigh. "But I think you had to do that, Gabrielle. You couldnt stay a little girl forever. Difference is, most girls do their growing up in a village somewhere, and the change is more gradual and predictable. They get older, they start to be courted by village boys, and eventually their fathers arrange for them to marry one of the boys. Next thing they know, theyre keeping house and having babies. Boom. Theyre grown up."
Xena realized she was bone-tired, and drew back and took one of the bards hands, pulling her toward the bed. "Mind if we lay back down while we talk?"
"Of course not."
They stretched out on the bed on their sides, facing each other, and the warrior reached out and wrapped one arm around Gabrielles waist. "Now . . . where was I?"
"You were talking about village girls growing up." The bard also reached out, once again brushing her fingers against Xenas face.
"Oh. Yeah. You . . . you, my bard, did your growing up on the road with me. You were exposed to a whole lot more ideas and given a whole lot more choices than most girls are. You are a very intelligent and very observant young woman. Its only natural that you would explore a lot of those ideas and choices. Looking back, I think I would have been more surprised if you didnt."
The bard listened, realizing that maybe, just maybe, she was starting to get sleepy again. It was enough for now that she had determined where things had changed, even if she hadnt figured out what to do about it. That knowledge alone was enough to ease some of the inner turmoil and allow the clenching feeling in her middle to relax. Xenas low melodic voice began to soothe the ragged edges, and Gabrielle found herself stifling a yawn. "Sorry. Guess Im getting tired after all."
The warrior smiled. "Roll over."
Gabrielle complied and felt Xena scoot up against her, spooning their bodies together as the warrior wrapped long arms around her young lover. "Gabrielle. You have been through a lot. Especially in the last few moons. I have no doubt that youre going to work through all of this inside that sharp brain of yours and come out even stronger."
"You think so?"
"I know so. I also know that the stories are still in there. And the poems. Only this time, when they finally come tumbling out, theyre going to be even better and funnier and deeper and more beautiful than ever before."
"How can you know that Xena?"
"Because I know you. And thats just how you are. You just keep getting better and better." The warrior reached up and began a gentle stroking of the bards hair, as she continued to re-assure her partner.
Gabrielle sighed blissfully and let Xenas warm body and the soothing words, along with the comforting movement against her head, lull her back toward sleep. Her eyelids became much too heavy to hold open, and she gave in, closing them and settling back snugly against Xenas long torso, tucking one hand under her head and interlacing the fingers of her other hand with her partners, which rested against her stomach.
The warrior felt the transition and smiled, kissing the bards bare shoulder before she pulled the covers up about them, and joined her partner in Morpheus realm.
A faint knock at the front door awakened Xena from a very deep sleep. The warrior bolted straight up and grabbed her sword. "What the . . . ?" She blinked and looked around. Brrrr. It was just barely dawn and the chilled air in the room against her naked skin caused her to shiver. Damn. Someday Im going to get used to waking up in a bed and not on the ground. She quickly retrieved her tunic from the foot of the bed and pulled it over her head.
"What is it?" The bard mumbled sleepily, tugging at the hem of her lovers shirt as Xena crawled over her to get out of bed.
"Someones at the front door. Ill go see who it is."
"Thanks. Youre a goddess." Gabrielle fell back against the pillow and immediately resumed the light snoring that the warrior found quite endearing.
Xena padded grumpily to the front door and tugged it open, the annoyance clearly visible on her face. "This better be good . . . oh. Hello Kallerine. Herodotus." As she looked into the appraising eyes of her lovers father, Xena was grateful that she had chosen to put on her tunic instead of just wrapping a sheet around herself.
"Xena. Im sorry. The queens father arrived just as the sun rose, and insisted that he wanted to see Gabrielle." Kallerine looked up at the glowering irritated woman with obvious apprehension.
The warrior plastered on a smile. "Herodotus, excuse us for just one moment." She tugged the young Amazon into the hut and through the front room into the kitchen. "Why didnt the advance guard send word when he entered our territory?" Xena hissed. "It would have given Gab . . . the queen . . . time to prepare for his arrival."
"He was first spotted after you . . . um . . . the queen was presumed to be asleep. We didnt want to wake her. He made really good time. Then when he got here we tried to get him to wait in the dining hall and have a cup of tea, but he wouldnt have any part of it. Said if he wasnt allowed to see his daughter right away, he was going to start raising all kinds of ruckus. I decided if he did that, it would wake the queen up anyway, so better to just do it myself instead of disturbing the whole village. What was I supposed to do, hog-tie and gag the queen's father?"
The warrior sighed in exasperation. "Good point. Okay. Go on back to the gate and let us know when Brutus arrives." She steered the slayer back toward the front door. "Thank you Kallerine." She turned to the bards father and unconsciously straightened her shoulders. Um . .. Herodotus, would you like to come in and sit down?" She gestured toward a padded high-backed chair. "Ill go get Gabrielle. Shes still asleep."
Herodotus gave a gruff nod and followed the tall warrior into the queens hut. He sat down, looking around the well-furnished room, and finally looked up to study the compelling figure gazing down at him. At her full height, in nothing but a light tunic and bare feet, the warrior still carried herself with a presence that frightened him. He cleared his throat and nervously fidgeted in his seat. "Xena. Its been a long time. Id heard you were living in the Amazon village. I didnt realize you were living with my daughter. Didnt you rate a hut of your own?"
Charming as always. The warrior gritted her teeth. "Didnt want a hut of my own. Look Herodotus, you obviously dont have anything to say to me, so let me go get Gabrielle."
"Wait. Shes asleep?"
"Yes." Xena made a conscious effort to temper the annoyance she felt.
"How do you know?"
"Cant you hear her snoring?"
"No. Cant say as I do." The older man gave her a puzzled look.
Whoops. Forgot about my hearing. "Oh. Well I can."
"Lets let her sleep a while longer." Herodotus looked down at his hands and twiddled his thumbs before raising his head with a tentative gesture. "Xena, can we talk?"
Oh boy. "Sure." The normally solid voice was quite hesitant, as the warrior made her way into the small kitchen. "Let me make us some tea." Xena puttered around in the kitchen for several minutes, stalling for as long as she could before she had to go back in and make conversation with a man that probably hated her, who just happened to be her lovers father . She eventually emerged with two steaming mugs of peppermint tea and sat down in a chair across from Herodotus, handing him a mug. He sniffed at the fragrant brew and finally raised his head all the way up, looking into eyes that were a lot bluer than he remembered.
"I heard about the crucifixion. I thought we had lost her for good." There was a hard edge to his voice. "Never thought when Gabrielle was growing up that Id ever have to hear something like that had happened to my little girl."
"You mean you thought I had finally gotten her killed." Xena bit off the words.
The older man winced. "I guess you could phrase it like that, yes. Anyway, I started to go find her body and take it to Potadeia and then I remembered that she once told me if anything ever happened she wanted to be buried in Amphipolis in your family tomb. Seems that even in death you were bound to take her away from us."
"Her choice, Herodotus. She asked if she could be buried there and I told her she could. I wasnt going to say no to her about something like that. Seems pretty moot to me at this point. I plan to make it my business for her to not need burying anytime soon." The warriors voice was low with a slightly menacing edge.
"Whatever you say, Xena. Isnt it easy for you? All you have to do is stand by and let a naive girl make bad decision after bad decision. As long as it benefits you, thats all you care about, isnt it?"
Xenas hackles rose and she all but came out of the chair. She gripped the chair arms and pinned a lethal stare on the older man. "Look. Ive had about enough of your bitterness and insults. Gabrielle is a grown woman. I am not going to tell her what to do. And as for putting her needs before mine, you have no idea how many times I tried to convince her that she should go somewhere safer, away from me. But she wouldnt leave and I wasnt going to force her to do something she didnt want to do."
"I wish I could believe that."
"Doesnt matter to me if you believe it or not. Its true. But it probably does matter to her."
Herodotus shifted and looked uneasy as he spoke. "Anyway I got her message that she was okay and that she was moving here. I havent heard anything from her since."
"She says she hasnt heard from you either. Balls in your court, Herodotus. She was the last one to make an attempt at communication."
"I . . . I didnt know what to say to her. I dont even know her anymore. Shes a stranger to me. Her life is nothing like I thought it would be. I dont understand the choices shes made. How . . . how is she?"
"You know, that would be a start. You could ask her that question yourself." The warriors patience was starting to wear thin, and she was losing her ability to be civil.
"Please, Xena. I just want to know that my daughter is alright. Can you please indulge me just this little bit?"
The warrior let out a heavy sigh. "Herodotus. Shes fine, but shes been through a lot. Weve been through a lot. Things you dont get past quickly. Shes going to need some time to sort through it all. I think she still sometimes has nightmares about the crucifixion. But shes a very courageous young woman. And shes strong. Shes quite focused and very determined to be a good leader of the Amazons. I think being here has given her a much-needed sense of stability. I think she needed a place to call home." Oops. Probably shouldnt have said that last bit. Xena watched the corded muscles in the older mans neck as they stood out in stark relief against anger-reddened skin.
"She already had a home. Was this your idea? Her moving here and living among all these wild women?"
The warrior flinched. "No." How many ways can I say her decision before he gets it through that pig-stubborn head of his? Give him an inch of indulgence . . . Xena mused silently. "She made that decision all by herself."
"Oh. Did you try to stop her?"
"No. Herodotus. Same song, second verse." Or is it the third? "Shes a grown woman. I dont try to tell her what to do. She wanted to move here so we did. I think it was a good decision and I think she will be a good queen. But no. I didnt influence her one way or the other, nor try to stop her. Shes queen and she certainly has every right to live here among her subjects if she chooses to. In fact, it was the other way around. She was afraid I wouldnt want to live here, and was prepared to try to convince me if I wasnt willing."
"Why are you here? Cant she rule the Amazons without you?"
Geez. Is he going to give the inquisition a rest? Xena mentally scrambled for an answer that would satisfy her lovers father without giving away too much information. "Herodotus. Gabrielle followed me across two continents over the past four years and we were always doing what I wanted to do. Going where I wanted to go. She was always there for me, ready to support me and ultimately to defend me. When we died, and then when we were brought back, things changed for me. My priorities have changed and I feel like it is Gabrielles turn to do some things that she needs to do. And I want to support her in that, just like she has supported me all this time. Where she goes, I go. She wanted to come here, so here we are."
"I see." The older man sipped at his tea and pondered the warriors words.
"Xena. Are you coming back to bed?" The bards voice carried through from the bedroom.
Alarm bells went off in the warriors head. Oh Hades. I was so focused on him I didnt hear her get up. The warrior jumped up and tried to intercept her partner before she entered the room. "Gabrielle your fath . . ."
Too late. The bard rounded the corner into the sitting room and stopped, her mouth half open. Oh damnitalltotartarus. She looked down at herself. Unlike her partner, Gabrielle had merely wrapped herself in a sheet, having not been able to find her sleep shirt. In fact, she wasnt sure she ever had one on before they had gone to bed last night. Oh gods. Did he hear me calling her back to our bed? Well . . . I did say I didnt want to hide our relationship. "Hello father." The bard forced a smile and walked over, leaning down to peck Herodotus on the cheek.
Herodotus looked extremely uncomfortable, his eyes looking everywhere except at the other two people in the room. What is going on here? The older man tried to wrap his mind around something he didnt really want to see, hoping he was missing something, but realizing the truth. Ive lost her.
He summoned up his courage and looked from his daughter to the warrior. "So. This is how it is?" His face reddened even deeper, as comprehension set in, and he felt the anger rise. He stood and glared at Xena. "It isnt enough that you took her away from us. Isnt enough that you were the reason her husband was killed. Not enough that you dragged her across the sea to Britannia, to be raped and impregnated by an evil god. And not enough that she had to kill her own demon child and then watch while her childs child tried to kill her family."
The warrior gasped in shock. Didnt realize he understood all of that. She hung her head, unable to deny any of his accusations. The older man continued to rant, warming to the task as he went along, but Xena found herself unable to focus, feeling all the insecurity she had felt with Aiden and Najara all over again. She knew that she had done some terrible things to her partner in the past and knew that other horrible things had happened to the bard because of being with her. It was one thing to know those things and think about them, and quite another to have Gabrielles father speak of them out loud to her. She shook her head slowly, chastising herself, and then looked back up.
Herodotus hadnt missed a beat. "And it isnt even enough that you got her killed. Now youve decided to seduce my daughter too? Why cant you just leave her be? Let her live a normal life? What kind of person are you, Xena? Youve destroyed an innocent girl."
"I . . ." Xena started to speak and was silenced, as her lover swiftly moved to her side and rested a hand on the back of her shoulder, rubbing light circles against the tense muscles she felt there.
" Now hold on just a gods be damned minute! Father, just stop it. Stop it right now!" The hand on the warriors shoulder tightened considerably as the bards voice rose several decibel levels. "Xena Im sorry you had to hear that, because thats not how I feel. Father. Xena and I have both made some terrible mistakes, but weve worked through them. I dont regret any of my time with her. Not one single minute. Its made me who I am today. And as for us being together . . . like . . . this . . ." She gestured down at her sheet-encased body. "The seduction was mutual. Xena hasnt forced me into anything. We are in love with each other. And whats normal? Forcing me to marry some man I dont even love and stuffing me away in some little hut in Potadeia to never fulfill my dreams? Forcing me to be unhappy just so your pride wont be hurt?"
Herodotus snapped. "No daughter of mine would be living the life youre living!" His voice bellowed, echoing off the walls of the hut. "Running around all over the countryside half naked. Writing a bunch of fanciful stories. Living in a village full of Amazons. Playing the part of a harlot for a bloodthirsty warlord!"
Quicker than he could take a breath, the man found himself pressed against the wall with strong hands wrapped around his windpipe. "Dont . . . you . . . ever . . . call . . . her . . . that . . . again." Xena growled, barely restraining herself from doing her lovers father any real damage. She slowly released her grip, allowing the startled man to slide back down to the chair. He rubbed his throat and looked up at her, visibly cowering.
"Xena. Please. He may be wrong, but hes still my father." The bards voice was a bare whisper. Gabrielle had started to intervene, but stopped in mid-stride as she saw her partner back away from her very frightened father.
The warriors eyes were round as she turned to face her young lover. "I . . . Im sorry. I forgot for a moment who he is. I just . . . I . . . sorry." Xena sat down and clasped her hands together in her lap, looking down at them.
The bard walked over and tilted Xenas chin up with her finger, gazing into the face she loved more than life itself. "Its okay." Gabrielles voice soft and gentle. "You were only looking out for me. Just like you always do." She stroked the chin she held. "I love you," she whispered.
Herodotus watched the exchange with thinly-veiled fascination, seeing a side of his daughter he had never seen before. She is in love and theres nothing I can do about it. And Xena . . .He studied the warriors face, reading the redemption clearly visible as Xena looked up at the bard. Shes in love, too. He sighed.
Gabrielle quietly walked over and stood in front of her father with an unreadable expression. She swallowed a few times and then cleared her throat. "Well then. I guess I havent been your daughter in a long time." The bards voice trembled. "Just out of curiosity, if you hate Amazons and their lifestyle so much, then why are you here about to enter into a treaty with us?"
"Because its in Potadeias best interest to be at peace with Rome. If you werent doing this already, I would have been trying to work out something similar myself. Since it was already in process, it just made sense to go ahead and work with the Amazons and Amphipolis, instead of starting from scratch on my own. Although I cant say as I was pleased when the Centaurs were allowed to join us. Ive never had much use for their kind."
The bard sensed her partners hackles starting to rise again, and remembered who had raised Solan for twelve years. She quietly moved a hand behind her back, signaling the warrior to hold her ground. "Father." The word sounded strange to Gabrielle, even as she said it. "When have you ever even seen a Centaur, or been around Amazons? How can you judge people you know nothing of?"
"Ive heard enough to know whats what. You have to stick by your own kind, Gabrielle. Let everyone else take care of themselves."
"I see. Im sorry you feel that way. About me and about other people. Because Im not going to change my lifestyle for you. Its not always been an easy life with Xena, but it has been a most fulfilling life. Ive seen things that before I could only dream about. Met people I heard about only in stories. And somewhere along the way I got lucky and found the love of my life. And because of being with the one I love, Ive become more than I could ever have hoped to be on my own. Im not giving that up. Ive waited too long and been through too much."
"Very well then, Gabrielle. Ive made camp in the unincorporated area between Amazon territory and the Centaur village. Ill go back there and return for the summit. Well take care of business and then Ill go on home and leave you alone."
"Okay." The bard carefully measured her words. "You are welcome in the village during the day if you so choose. The guards have orders to let you come and go as you please. If youll excuse me, I need to go get dressed and take care of some paperwork. Brutus will be here later today and I need to have everything ready before he arrives." Gabrielle could feel her voice starting to break, and she quickly left the room and went to the bathing room to fill up the tub.
An awkward silence fell over the sitting room. Herodotus drained his tea mug and leaned over to set it on the table, accidentally knocking it on its side as he sat back. He quickly righted it and stood up, smoothing his tunic before he looked at the warrior. He was surprised when he saw sadness in the glacier blue eyes.
"She loves you, Herodotus." The warrior also stood up, unwilling to have the man look down at her any longer.
"I . . . I dont understand."
"Neither does she. She wants you to love her in return. Shes chosen the life shes living and she wants you to accept that and be her father."
"Chosen?" Herodotus spat out the word. "And you just happen to be a part of that choice. Arent you the lucky one?"
"Yes I am." Xenas voice was a bare whisper.
"Well. Ill get this summit over with and go back to Potadeia. At least one of my daughters had the good sense to stay at home until shes married. I havent found a match for Lila yet, but I will." The older man placed his hand on the front door knob, preparing to leave.
"Ill see you at the summit, Herodotus."
"You will?" The older man gave her a questioning look.
"Meet the representative from Amphipolis." Xena said with a wicked smile.
Herodotus groaned aloud and yanked the door open, slamming it as he stepped outside. As soon as he was gone, the warrior hastily moved through their bedroom and into the bathing room. Gabrielle sat in the tub with her back to the door, her shoulders obviously slumped. Xena walked over and knelt down behind her, tentatively stroking the top of the bards head.
"Hey. You okay?"
Gabrielle sniffed and turned a tear-stained face up toward the warrior. In one swift move, Xena yanked the tunic over her head and landed in the tub, pulling her partner against her and wrapping her in a tight hug. She felt the small body begin to convulse with sobs, and she softly kissed the pale head, making little shushing noises in comfort.
"Gabrielle, love. Im sorry. I should have warned you he was here. I thought you were asleep."
"No. Xena. Its okay. I knew he was eventually going to find out about us while he was here. Its just hard. I guess part of me hoped he would be able to accept our relationship. That he could be happy for me. And I wanted him to be proud of me, of the things Ive done. I should have known better. How could he accept my life now when he cant even accept that Ive left Potadeia and Im not going back? After all Ive done, he still wants me to be a simple village girl in a long frilly skirt."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Xena stroked her lovers cheek with her fingertips.
"Just keep reminding me that Potadeias not my home anymore. Right here in your arms. Thats my home now." Gabrielle managed a small smile before she tucked her head back under the warriors chin.
Xena continued to hold the bard, lost in thought. Finally, she picked up a cake of soap and a bathing rag, and began to gently wash her partner while she mentally tried to work out a solution to ease Gabrielles melancholy mood. The warrior ran through several options in her head, quickly discarding each until one stood out. Hmmmm. "Tell you what. Why dont I go get us something for breakfast and bring it back here. After that, we still have a few candle marks before Brutus arrives. We might not be able to take to the road, but maybe we can go for a short ride on Argo and Star. Its going to be a beautiful day. What do you say, huh?"
Gabrielle sat up a little straighter and managed to smile. "That sounds good, Xena. I think it might help to get out of the village for a little while. Ive been so focused on the treaty that Ive done little else for several days. Its no wonder Im about on my last nerve. And Id love some time alone with you away from everyone else."
The warrior nipped Gabrielles earlobe, watching with satisfaction as resulting goose bumps appeared on the bard's back and shoulders. "Well Id like to be alone with you for a while too love."
The path they chose was one of their favorites, a short ride with a warm southern exposure that led to a small tree-enclosed glade well-hidden from the main trail. Xena had discovered the spot on one of her first explorations outside the village on a day when she had had just about enough of the Amazons incessant chatter and bickering among themselves. The warrior just wasnt used to being around so many people on a regular basis, and for purposes of self-preservation, soon learned to slip away by herself when it became too much. She usually returned from her brief solitary sojourns refreshed and ready to resume being a part of village life.
Xena looked over, studying the play of sunlight and shadows on Gabrielles hair and shoulders. The bard had chosen to wear her red cropped top and red leather skirt, the outfit Xena had bought for her in Manolies village. Gabrielle had been pretty quiet since they had started riding, and the warrior couldnt decide if she should try to get her partner to talk some more or let the bard work through her thoughts without interference. She pondered that for a moment, and decided that given Gabrielles talkative nature, shed more than likely be forthcoming with her thoughts of her own accord sooner or later.
"Hey." Xenas low voice rasped. "You got any more of those little apple thingys in your pouch?" They had eaten most of their breakfast in the hut, but had wrapped up some of Dariahs apple tarts to take on the trail with them. The bard had already eaten two to Xenas one, a sure sign to Xena that at least her partner wasnt so troubled that it had affected her robust appetite.
"One more, just for you." Gabrielle reached into the small bag attached to Stars saddle and pulled out the sweet pastry, unwrapping the towel it was encased in and breaking it in half. "Here." She reached across and offered it to the warrior, tucking the towel back into her bag.
"Wait a minute!" Xena frowned. "If I count correctly, the whole tart is mine. You already ate all of yours."
The bard grinned and nibbled the edge of the half that remained in her hand. "But Xena, you know these are my favorites."
"Nutbread is your favorite Gabrielle, and you and I both know that."
"Welllll . . . that would be true, if there was any nutbread here, but there isnt. So, of what we have right now, this is my favorite." She smiled coyly at her tall partner and batted her pale eyelashes.
The warrior laughed. "Oh gods. Not that look. Plleeease. Go ahead love, its all yours. Ive been lazing around so much since we moved to the village, Id better start watching what I eat anyway. Its not like were out walking and fighting all day long like we used to."
"Xena, you spend all morning working with the horses and all afternoon teaching tracking classes. And in between that you seem to always be sparring with one or another of the Amazons, especially Pony. If anything, Id think youre getting more exercise than you used to."
"Maybe. But Id hate to lose my girlish figure." The warrior waggled an eyebrow and bit down on the tart.
Gabrielles eyes slowly drifted from the tips of Xenas boots all the way to the top of the ebony-haired head, taking in the dips and curves of the muscular body with great appreciation. "Xena, now dont take this the wrong way . . . because I think youre absolutely gorgeous."
The warrior stopped in mid-chew and turned to face her partner, grinning.
"But . . ." The bard continued. "I dont think Id ever describe your body as girlish."
Xena looked down, holding her arms straight out and flexing her hands. She glanced further down at the tops of her own powerful legs, the thigh muscles rippling under her tanned skin. "Hmmm. Guess youre right about that."
"I would describe you as womanly."
"Womanly." The warrior rolled the word around in her mouth and couldnt decide if she liked that or not. "Is that a good thing?"
"Oh, yeah." Gabrielle smiled and nudged Star closer to Argo. "Powerful. Beautiful. Strong.
"Well." Xena reached out and rested a hand on her partners leg. "I have a lot of inspiration to help me feel like all of those things."
"Glad to be of service." The bard rested a hand on top of the one on her leg.
"Oh, no. The pleasure is all mine, love." The warrior lifted Gabrielles hand and kissed the inside of her wrist. The bard felt a shiver run down her spine at the contact and her heart skipped a beat before resuming its normal rhythm.
"Um . . ." Gabrielle tried to order her thoughts. "Isnt this our cutoff here?" She motioned to a faint trail through the grass that led toward the trees and away from the path.
"Sure is." The warrior gently released her partners hand and stuffed the remaining pastry in her mouth before taking Argos reigns into both hands and turning the mare off the trail. Gabrielle pulled Star up and fell in behind, finishing off her own half of the tangy sweet tart.
They entered the trees and Xena ducked down low against Argos neck to avoid bumping her head on the lower branches. The bard didnt have to duck as much as her tall partner, needing only to turn her head to the side slightly to avoid hitting anything. In a very short time, they broke into the clearing and once again felt the sun shining warmly on their skin, much brighter in the more open space than it had been on the narrow trail.
"Lets let the horses graze for a while." Xena stopped and slid off the palomino, unbuckling the girth from around the mares belly. She swung the heavy leather saddle to the ground with a thud and removed the blanket and saddle bags as well, along with the bridle, leaving only a soft hemp halter on Argos head. She turned as the bard finished removing Stars tack, and helped Gabrielle with the last stubborn buckle on the appaloosas bridle. "I gotta work on that piece sometime this afternoon when we get back. It was giving you some trouble the last time we went out."
"Yeah. It doesnt want to come undone." The bard handed the buff-colored leather bridle over to Xena.
The warrior studied the metal buckle for a moment. "Oh. I see. This little bit here that goes through the hole in the leather is bent. That wont be any trouble to straighten out." She laid the piece down with the other equipment and gave Argo a light swat on the rump. "Go on. Show Star around."
They watched as both mares began to frolic, running in small circles around the outskirts of the clearing, playfully nipping at each other and kicking up their hooves.
Gabrielle breathed in the warm summer air and laughed. "I think I know how they feel."
"Oh you do, do you?" Xena had an evil grin on her face and she reached out with both hands to tickle the bards bare midsection. "Why dont we join them?"
"Now Xena." Gabrielle backed up a few steps. "Xena!" The bard shrieked as the long fingers made contact with her skin, and she took off running, dodging low bushes and big rocks as the warrior chased her. Gabrielle laughed again and tucked her head down and balled her fists, running as fast as she could, looking back over her shoulder every now and then.
The warrior was also laughing, feeling her long hair whipping back from her face and the tall wispy grass brushing against her legs. She allowed her partner to get ahead, just enjoying the game. "You can run my bard, but you cant get away." They continued running and Xena looked ahead and gaged her distance to one of the larger rocks that were scattered about the clearing. She took off, launching her weight off her right foot and bouncing onto the rock, leaping up into the air and turning two back flips over Gabrielles head, landing in front of the bard, who ran right into her arms.
"I gotcha!" Xena tackled her partner, pushing her softly to the ground and landing on top of her.
Sparkling green eyes twinkled up at blue ones, as Gabrielle caught her breath and then shrieked again, when the warrior started an all-out tickle war. "Xena! . . . Oh! . . . Eeeee! . . . Stop it! . . . I mean it now . . . Oommmph!"
The warrior ducked her head and kissed her partner, as her fingers moved from a tickling motion to a more sensual one, and she felt the bards stomach muscles contracting differently under her touch than they had been just a few moments before. She slipped her fingers underneath the edge of the bard's cropped red top, and allowed herself several minutes of gentle exploration before she lifted up and rested one hand against her lovers soft face. "I love you, Gabrielle."
The bard took a ragged breath and smiled, reaching up to push a dark lock of hair out of Xenas eyes. "Gods, that felt good. I cant remember the last time I laughed like that. Thank you."
"Hey. I enjoyed it too. I like playing with you."
"Best friend. Protector. Champion. Soulmate. Lover. Playmate." Gabrielle pecked her lovers lips. "I like it. Who could ask for more?" The bard suddenly frowned and sat up, pushing the warrior up with her and resting her hands on Xenas legs, which were pretty much straddled across her own. "Xena."
The warrior caught Gabrielles expression and mimicked the frown with gross exaggeration, causing the bard to giggle. "Thats my name." Xena rested her forehead against her partners and nestled down, sitting between the bards legs with her own legs draped over Gabrielles and around the bards backside, holding her young lover in a lose embrace.
"Could you ask for more?" Gabrielle chewed her lower lip and looked anxiously into the pale blue eyes inches from her own.
"No. Why would you ask a question like that?" The warrior tightened her hold a little to re-assure her partner.
"Its just that . . . well . . . when we were back on the trail a little while ago you made that remark about not being out walking and fighting all day anymore. It almost sounded like you missed that. Do you?"
"Honestly? Sometimes. It hasnt been that long, though. Only a few moons. I kind of miss being out in the open, but I dont miss the fighting. Besides, I get to fight all the Amazons I can handle, and in a much more controlled environment than the constant ambushes and marauders we had to put up with out on the road."
"I just dont want you to be unhappy. I know this has been a big adjustment for you, living with the Amazons."
"Yes. Im soooo abused. I get to live in the nicest hut in the village. With the prettiest girl in the village, who just happens to be the queen. And I get to eat three square meals a day and bathe in a nice round sunken tub . . . with the aforementioned pretty queen. And at the end of the day, after Ive been tortured by being forced to work with horses, which I hate so much, and after Ive been made to spar with a bunch of people . . . after all of that . . . I am tortured even more by being forced to sleep in a large comfy bed, wrapped around the pretty queen. Gods, what a horrid life I lead!"
Gabrielle laughed and pulled the warrior into a closer hug, belly to belly, and felt Xenas strong hands making lazy circles on her back.
"Trust me Gabrielle. Parts of it have been an adjustment, but believe me when I tell you that I am very, very happy."
"Hey, did you bring any of your scrolls?"
"I think I might have packed one or two." The bard grinned and pushed back, sliding out from under the warrior and standing up. She offered Xena a hand up, tugging hard against the warriors greater weight. She led her partner over to the saddle bags and knelt down, pulling out one of her scroll cases. "I think this is the one we left off with."
During the time they were in Amphipolis prior to moving to the Amazon village, Xena had begun reading all of the bards scrolls, starting with the very first one. She was making good on a silent promise she intended to keep, that after having been given a second chance at life, she would read all of Gabrielles scrolls, something she had never done prior to their crucifixion. It was, she reflected, one of many things she had taken for granted before they had died together. She had taken their relationship for granted as well, always thinking there would be tomorrow to read scrolls and express her love to the bard who had become her best friend. And who, after a while, had become much more than just a friend. Dying and coming back made Xena realize that chances had to be taken when they were offered, because you just never knew when maybe there would be no more tomorrows.
The warrior took the scroll and unrolled it, scanning down and across the page. "Yeah. This is the one." She walked over to a tall oak tree and sat down, leaning against the sturdy trunk and stretching out her long legs. She patted the space in between her legs as she looked up at the bard, who had followed. Gabrielle smiled and plopped down, resting against Xenas chest and stomach as the warrior brought the scroll and both arms around the bard. They had decided to read the scrolls together so that if Xena had any questions or comments, Gabrielle would be right there to hear them and explain, as necessary. Sometimes the bard read aloud to her partner and sometimes Xena read silently while the bard looked on.
Parts of it had been really hard. Xena had made it through the time she almost died and Gabrielle had to fight an army alone without her. And she had read about the time the bard did die briefly at Thessaly and her first foray into the Elysian Fields, alone. They had cried together all over again when the warrior read about her gentle partners thoughts and feelings after Callisto killed Perdicus. And the bards confusion during the time that Xena was trapped for a while in Callistos body.
Had cried and talked some more just recently after Xena finished one of the most difficult sections she had read so far, the time when Xena died and Gabrielle had to deal with Velasca alone. She had smiled at the bards quiet wonder about the kiss Xena had bestowed on her while Xena was living in Autolycus body. The warrior explained to Gabrielle that she had wanted to kiss her for a long time, and had decided to take advantage of poor Autolycus, using him to do what she had been afraid to do outright herself.
The last section Xena had read described the time they had to call upon Callisto to help them defeat Velasca once and for all. The warrior hadnt realized how much the bard was hurting during that time from emotional wounds that were still way too raw, and how much pain it had caused the young girl to have to work alongside Callisto. Xena had chastised her own self for having not seen what that had done to her partner, and had spent a long while apologizing and talking things out with Gabrielle. So, with some trepidation at what she might encounter today, the warrior ran her finger down the page until she reached the placed she had left off. She laughed quietly.
"What is it?"
"Hower. And Minya. Gods, that was a great day."
"It was fun, wasnt it?" The bard smiled, remembering a day full of playtime, even though the whole time was spent trying to defeat an evil giant and an army at the same time. Somehow, Xena had managed to make something that could have been very serious and very difficult into almost a lark. And at the end of the day, both the giant and the army had been defeated with seemingly no effort.
"Xena, do you think we can make one of those flying parchments again sometime? That was pretty amazing."
"Sure. And its a good time of year for it, more wind than usual, good for getting up under the parchment and . . ."
The warrior suddenly tensed and pushed Gabrielle down to the ground, covering the bard with her own body while reaching up and catching an arrow that had been aimed right at the younger girls chest. Gabrielle, who couldnt see anything but grass and Xenas legs, heard not one, but two swooshes, and heard the thunk as the second arrow made contact with the tree trunk behind them. Xena threw the arrow down and jumped up and pulled her chakram from her hip and looked around. She scanned the treeline, determining which way the arrows came from.
"Gabrielle, if I hurry, I think I can catch whoever did this. I can hear them running away. Get your sais out and . . ." The warrior turned when she realized the bard was still seated on the ground. "Gab. Get up. I want you to stay inside the edge of the trees until I get back. As soon as I catch them . . . Gabrielle?" The warrior eyes grew wide and she took in a sharp breath and dropped to one knee next to the bard.
Gabrielle slowly pulled the dart out of the side of her calf and held it up to her partner. "Xena. I think youre gonna need to stay here. No running after the bad guys this time." The bards hand shook as she held out the small feathered instrument.
The warrior gingerly grasped the dart by the feathered end and drew it up to her face and under her nose, sniffing the sharp metal tip, inhaling a bitter herbal scent. Damn. "Gabrielle, sit back against the tree. Now. No matter how you start to feel, dont you dare lay down. We need to keep your head up and that leg wound low."
The bard read the fear in her partners eyes. "Xena. Is it . . . is it the same stuff the Persians used?"
"No. Not nearly as bad." The warrior was already rummaging through their saddle bags, pulling out a flint and striker along with her healers kit. The bard numbly shifted back against the tree, feeling the rough bark against her skin through the thin material that covered her shoulder blades. She watched in silence as Xena quickly cleared a small patch on the ground and made a little pile of dried bark, lighting it to make a tiny fire. She drew out her breast dagger and ran the tip back and forth through the flames in a gesture all too familiar to the bard.
"Wha . . ." Gabrielles voice trembled. "What are you going to do with that dagger?"
The warrior stood up and quickly stamped out the fire, making her way back to the bards side with knife in one hand and healers kit in the other. She pulled a small piece of twine out of the healers kit and knelt down to tie it around Gabrielles injured leg above her knee. "Gabrielle, hang on love, this is gonna hurt."
A small hand rested against Xenas thigh and blunt fingernails dug in, as she flicked her wrist and made two tiny incisions across the puncture wound made by the dart. The warrior tossed the daggar down and lowered her head, placing her mouth around the wound and sucking hard. She turned her head and spat out a mouthful of blood, repeating the process several times as a silent bard flinched at each contact. Finally she sat back with a long shaky breath, and looked up to see a tear-streaked face.
She reached up and brushed away some of the moisture from the bards cheeks. "Im so sorry I had to hurt you to do that. Its something I learned about in Chin. They think it helps to get some of the poison out if you act quickly enough."
"Sokay." Gabrielle sniffled and managed a small smile. "Not nearly as bad as having an arrow pushed through my shoulder."
With a grim expression, the warrior dug through her healers kit and pulled out a swath of bandage and a small tin of herbal salve. She put a liberal dollop of salve on the puncture wound and then wrapped the bandage around the bards leg, tying it off and then releasing the tourniquet. "There. We need to get you back to the village and into bed, sweetheart."
Xena stood and whistled for Argo. The palomino came ambling over from across the clearing with Star close behind. The warrior made quick work of re-saddling both animals and settling the saddlebags in place. She tied Stars reigns to a loop on the back of Argos saddle and turned back to Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, sweetheart. Im gonna put you up front on Argo. Im afraid to let you ride by yourself."
"Okay." The bards voice was almost inaudible, except to the warriors sharp ears.
"Hey. Are you starting to feel bad?" Xena anxiously searched the green eyes as she knelt down and scooped Gabrielle up into her arms.
"Maybe a little. Cant tell if its the poison or just my own stupid fear." The bards chin quivered and her breathing was uneven.
"Im sure its just fear." The warrior lifted her partner into the saddle and then swung up behind her, taking the reins with one hand and supporting the younger girl with the other. She clucked to Argo and they started back toward the village.
"Xena. Am . . . am I going to die?"
"No. Oh no, sweetheart. You didnt die last time, did you?"
"Well, that stuff was worse than this. Whoever did this, I think they just wanted to knock you out for a while. Maybe a long while. It would take a lot more of it to kill someone than would fit on a dart tip. This stuff has different effects on different people. Some it just puts them to sleep. Others it makes them dizzy. Some feel sick to their stomach. Effects can last for several days. Its purpose is to incapacitate someone for a little while. So, no. Youre not gonna die, Gabrielle. Not on my watch."
"Then Im never going to die, Xena, cause Ive hired you for permanent guard duty." The bard leaned back against the warm smooth leather that encased her lovers body and closed her eyes. She felt a brief wave of nausea and clamped her jaw shut tight, willing the feeling to pass. Gabrielle stared straight ahead and tried to focus. "Xena, did you keep those two arrows and the dart?"
"Of course I did. Theyre in one of the bags back there attached to Stars saddle."
"Oh. Were they Amazon arrows?"
"Yes. Im sorry love."
"I thought so. Weve got too many extra outposts on duty right now, because of the summit, for anyone on the outside to have made it this far into our territory undetected."
"I figured the same thing. But theres no doubt the arrows are of Amazon craftsmanship."
"You sound pretty sure that those arrows and the dart were intended for me. Are you sure it wasnt intended for you and they just missed?"
"I cant entirely rule out that they were for me, no. But going on the theory that the attackers were Amazons, and given that your Amazons know I can catch arrows, I think the arrows were to distract me while the dart was shot. Besides, that second arrow was way off. It would have missed even if we hadnt moved. Your Amazons are all better archers than that. Those were just decoy arrows."
"Xena, attackers, as in more than one person?"
"Yes. That dart came from an entirely different direction. In fact, I think there were three attackers, because the second arrow was too close behind the first to have come from the same bow."
"Um . . . Xena. I need to stop for a minute. I think . . ." The bard leaned over, just as the warrior pulled Argo to a halt, and wretched as Xena held onto her to keep her from falling off. After a few agonizing moments Gabrielle sat back up. "Ugh. I hate throwing up."
The warrior handed over a water skin which the bard gratefully sipped from. She washed the first mouthful of water around in her mouth and then spit it out, before taking several swallows. "Thanks. Better. Do you think that was the poison?"
"Is there an antidote for it?"
"Rest. Water. Thats about all. Since its not designed to kill, I guess no one ever took the time to figure out something to counter-act it. It just gradually works its way out of your system."
"Gods. I think Im one of the ones that . . . oh gods. Stop . . . aagghhh . . ." Gabrielle leaned over again, offering back up the water she had just drank. She sat up again and leaned wearily back. Xena held the waterskin up in front of her.
"You appear to be one of the ones that the poison makes you sick to your stomach. Here. Keep drinking when youre not puking. You gotta keep something in your stomach. You dont want to get too dehydrated and you dont want to get the dry heaves. Im sorry. I know it feels bad."
"Ive had worse." Gabrielle chuckled wryly at her imitation of her partners much-used phrase. "Xena, what are dry heaves?"
"I forget what a sheltered life youve led, my bard." The warrior lightly stroked the short blonde hair. "Dry heaves are what happen when youve thrown up so much that theres nothing left in your stomach, but your body keeps trying to throw up anyway. If you think what youve just gone through is bad . . . well . . . thats a whole lot worse. It usually happens after someones had too much ale. When theyre drunk. Ive only had them once, during the first year I led my army. It was so awful I vowed Id never go through that again."
"Is that why you never get very drunk?"
"Partly. And partly because while I like the way I feel afer a few drinks, I really hate how I feel after a few more. That whole room spinning thing, gods, I dont like feeling that out of control. And when youve made as many enemies as I have, it would be really stupid to get myself in a situation where I dont have enough control and coordination to defend myself. Besides, I'm one mean nasty drunk. You don't want to go there. Ever."
"Good point. Um. Xena. Stop again."
It was a long ride home.
Eponin and Rebina had taken up the after-lunch guard post to wait for Brutus, as instructed by the queen. Kallerine sat on a log nearby, quietly sharpening her sword and all the various daggers, wooden stakes, and arrows she carried on her person. She had heard a rumor that several bacchae might be living in a cave just past the northern edge of Amazon territory. Once the treaty summit was up, she intended to get the queens permission to take leave for several days to go check it out.
As soon as Kallerine and Pony saw Xena, they both ran out to meet her. "Xena. Gabrielle. Someone shot Chilapa with a dart and shes . . . Hey." The weapons master looked up to see a very pasty-faced queen cradled in the warriors arms, noting the stark white bandage wrapped around Gabrielles lower leg. The bard had her eyes closed and was buried sideways against Xena, clutching at the shoulder straps of the warriors leathers. "What happened to Gabrielle?"
"Same thing I think youre about to tell me is wrong with Chilapa." The warrior carefully swung one leg over Argo and steadied herself before dropping to the ground, all the while keeping one hand on the bard. As soon as she touched the ground, she reached up and pulled her partner off the horses back, gently holding her with one arm under her shoulders and the other under her knees.
"How far away is Brutus?" Xena eyed Pony.
"About two candle marks."
"Okay. Pony, you follow me and tell me what happened to Chilapa. Kallerine, can you go stable Argo and Star? When you get through, go get Amarice and come on over to the queens hut."
"Sure Xena. Ill hurry." The slayer took both horses reins and made her way to the common stable.
The warrior turned toward the gate. "Rebina. You stay here. Ill send someone to take Ponys place."
"Okay." Rebina stood up a little straighter and pulled her shoulders back.
Xena turned toward the queens hut and started walking, with Pony at her elbow. "Now. What happened to Chilapa?"
"Not sure. We were doing a little sparring in the practice yard. All of a sudden she dropped to the ground holding onto her leg. Bout scared me out of my leathers. We were working with our queens new favorite weapon."
"Yeah. Thought Id gone and somehow managed to slice Chilapas leg open or something. I think she was confused too, because she said her leg was stinging, but I couldnt see any blood anywhere. When she turned around I saw this little dart poking out of the back of her leg, just below the edge of her skirt. In all the confusion, whoever shot the dart had plenty of time to get away. I tried to track em, but theyre pretty good. I couldnt find much in the way of a trail."
"Yeah, whoever got Gabrielle was good too. Used a couple of arrows first so that I didnt see the dart coming. So wheres Chilapa now?"
"Healers hut. Cheridah took a look at the dart and said something was on it, but its not fatal. She cleaned up the puncture, but by the time she was finished with bandaging and everything, Chilapa was out cold."
"Same thing that happened to Gabrielle, the dart, I mean." The warriors eyes narrowed, as she realized the unseen enemy quite possibly was living right there among them.
"Really? Cheridah said Chilapa might be asleep for a while, maybe even a couple of days."
"Lucky her." One green bardic eye opened. "Ugh. Xena. Hurry." The eye closed again as Gabrielle fought back another round of nausea.
"Hey. How come Gabrielles not out like Chilapa?" Pony peered down at the queen.
"The stuff that was on the dart does different things to different people. Knocked Chilapa out.
Unfortunately for my bard here, its making her stomach feel like a bunch of harpies are flying around inside."
"Harpies with long claws." Gabrielle muttered without bothering to open her eyes.
"Ooo. Yuck." Eponin clutched her own stomach in sympathy.
"Yeah." The bard flinched as her stomach twisted.
They reached the hut and Pony held the door open and then sat down in the sitting room while the warrior carried her partner inside and back to the bedroom. Xena pulled off the bards red cropped top and leather skirt, replacing them with a soft comfortable sleep shirt. She tugged off her partners boots and then padded into the kitchen to get a full waterskin and a large empty bowl. She made her way back to the bedroom.
"Gabrielle. I need you to try to drink at least half of this water. Very slowly, one sip at a time. And . . . heres a bowl on the floor by the bed in case you need it."
"Xena." The bard mumbled weakly. "What about Brutus?"
"Dont worry, love. Ill take care of him. Hopefully youll feel well enough to talk with him tomorrow. We can postpone the summit for a few days if we have to. Here . . ." The warrior rearranged a few pillows so that her partner was propped up at an angle. "I still want you to keep your head well elevated above that puncture wound. Sweetheart. I need to go take care of some things. Im going to have Amarice stay here with you for a little while, okay?"
"Okay." Gabrielle laid back and closed her eyes, clutching the waterskin in both hands and tipping it against her lips.
The warrior reluctantly left the bedroom to return to the sitting room. She sat down in the chair across from Eponin with a weary sigh. "Pony, correct me if Im wrong. When Gabrielles here, she acts as queen, and if shes not here or shes incapacitated, the regent, namely Chilapa, rules in her absence, correct?"
"Youre on the council. What happens when theyre both out for the count?" Xena warily eyed her friend.
"Um . . . the leader of the elders takes over."
"I dunno. Amazon law. It was written before I was born. I think they figured if the queen and regent were both unable to rule, they wanted someone with a lot of experience to be able to step in. Theres only been a few times when we ever had to invoke that particular law. In fact, the last time was when Ephiny was killed and we needed someone to rule until Gabrielle could get here. Before that, I cant even remember the last time something like that happened."
Xena thought for a moment. She remembered a time less than two summers before.
It had been a quiet evening spent sitting around the campfire in a nondescript clearing on a dusty road that led between backwoods burgs that were too small to even have names. They had just left Potadeia after they had found each other, after Gabrielle had gone into the lava pit with Hope to keep Xena from killing her and thus having the Fates cut off Xenas lifeline as a penalty.
"Yes." The warrior had been sitting nestled up against the bard, idly stroking the then long blonde hair, both of them lost in some rather somber thoughts. It was before they had become lovers, but even then Xena had kind of known things might eventually turn in that direction for them. Once she had found Gabrielle again, she had given up all pretense of even looking for excuses to be physically close to her best friend. And the bard didnt seem to be protesting any. And so they had found themselves after dinner, inexplicably holding on to each other as if letting go might mean losing one another again.
"Ive been thinking." Gabrielle fidgeted, playing with the shoulder clasps of the warriors armor.
"Well thats stating the obvious. Youve hardly spoken all night, and for you my bard, that means some pretty serious wheels are turning inside of there." Xena tapped her fingers lightly against the bards head. "Whats up?"
"Xena, if I had died in that lava pit, no one would have been given my rite of caste. I dont even know what that means for the Amazons and I never really thought about it until I got to Potadeia after it was all over. But I think I ought to make sure that never happens again. And I was wondering . . . if you . . . well what Im trying to say is . . . if anything were to happen to me, I want you to have my rite of caste."
The warrior had drawn in a very long breath. "Gabrielle, I dont know if I deserve that. In fact, given what I told you about what I did to the northern Amazon leaders so long ago, I can say that I dont deserve it. Why dont you give your rite of caste to Ephiny?"
"I dont want to give it to Ephiny, I want to give it to you. Ephinys a good regent. And knowing you, you arent going to go in and rule the Amazons anyway. You could just let Ephiny keep being regent. Its just . . ." The bard had shifted, turning in Xenas light embrace so she could get a better look at the warriors stoic face. "I trust you. Youre the best friend Ive ever had. You arent the same Xena who killed those northern Amazons. If the Amazons ever did need a strong leader, youd be the one Id most trust to get them out of a bad situation."
"I appreciate that Gabrielle. And you know Id be willing to help the Amazons if they ever needed me. But queen? Eeew. I dont know." The warrior had reached over and picked up one of the bards boots, that was sitting on a log next to them, studying the mud-caked leather bottom sole. They had slogged through several rather boggy streams and creeks that day, taking shortcuts to reach the place where Xena had last seen Argo before shed gone to try to find Gabrielle in the Amazon land of the dead. She set the boot back down, wincing as it made an audible squishing noise when it made contact with the log. "Gabrielle, you have got to take better care of your boots. Its not good for your feet to go around in wet shoes."
"I will, I will. In the morning. Besides, didn't you say we have to ford some more swamps tomorrow?"
"Well then what's the point? They're just going to get wet and muddy again."
"It's best to start out dry and clean."
"Whatever. Seems like a waste of time to me. Now dont try to change the subject. Will you take my rite of caste if anything ever happens to me?"
"Gabrielle, I dont even like to think about that." The warrior had just found her friend after fearing she was dead, and the thought of going through that much pain again was too much. Altis vision of crucifixion was very fresh in Xenas mind, and she had been doing her best to try to put that behind her, hoping it was merely some mind-game the evil shamaness was trying to play with her.
"I know, Xena. I dont either. And as soon as I get this settled I plan to quit thinking about it. So will you take my rite of caste or not?"
The warrior had wrapped her arms a little more tightly around her young traveling companion, and lightly kissed the top of the bards head. "Okay. If it ever comes to that Ill take your rite of caste. But it better not ever come to that. And just how do you think Im going to get the Amazons to believe that you gave it to me? They know my past and my reputation. If, and this is merely hypothetical, if I were to go storming into the Amazon village claiming that you were dead and had made me queen, Im not so sure theyd believe me. Some of them do still think of me as just another power-hungry warlord."
"Well . . . I thought about that too. And I knew youd say yes."
"You were that sure?"
"Yes. So while I was in Potadeia, I wrote up a document stating that if I were to die I wanted you to have my rite of caste. I sealed it with wax and used my queens signet ring to mark it. Lilas keeping it for me. If anything ever happens to me, she knows to give it to you."
"Good. Enough of this. Can we talk about something else now? Why dont you tell me a story? Maybe something funny."
"Sure. Now thats out of the way, I think I can come up with something thatll make you laugh." And so the bard had launched into a really funny story about Autolycus and Salmoneus disguising themselves as women in an all-girls dance troop to hide from people who wanted to prosecute them for murder. The story had the warrior rolling on the ground, her sides aching from much-needed laughter, especially when the bard had described the leader of the dance troop as looking like a female version of Iolaus.
Neither warrior nor bard had even considered the possibility that they might die together, and
that the passing of the rite of caste to Xena would be a moot point. And neither one of them had ever told any of the Amazons about their discussion, deciding it would only cause trouble, hopefully needlessly.
The warrior shook her head and returned to the present. "What happens if say, like when Gabrielle and I were crucified and no one had been given her rite of caste -- how do they determine who is queen then?"
"Oh sweet Artemis. Its a bloody mess. Literally. The council meets and appoints a new queen, but anyone who wants to be queen can challenge the new appointment. Melosa became queen in a situation like that. The queen before her, Hippolyta, was killed in an ambush without a successor. The council appointed Melosa, but she had to fight five or six challengers before everyone decided to back off. When she was done, there were dead Amazon bodies all over the central courtyard. I was just a child when that happened, barely ten summers old. My older sister Lysia was one of the challengers killed."
"Sorry to hear about that, Pony."
"Thanks. She had been Hippolytas regent and felt like she deserved to be queen. I really miss her sometimes. In fact, you remind me of her a little."
"Yes. Same tough attitude. You even look kinda like her. She was very beautiful." Pony reddened a bit at her backhanded compliment to the warrior, and continued. "Its been rumored that she was favored by Zeus, that she was one of his concubines."
"Hmmm. Thats interesting." Geez Grandpa, you sure do get around. You'd think Hera would be handful enough for you. Xena crossed her arms and drummed her fingers against her forearm, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand, and not her recently-discovered lineage. "So whats the difference between the council and the elders?"
"Um, council members serve by appointment. Elders are just elders. Anyone over the age of fifty summers is automatically an elder."
"Who appoints the council members?"
"The queen, or regent if there is a regent ruling. Its a lifetime appointment, even if you outlast the queen who appointed you. Ephiny appointed me right after Gabrielle made her regent. And only the queen or regent in charge has the power to remove a council member. Its kind of the same way when we make laws or treaties or other kinds of decisions. The council votes on it, but the queen has the ultimate power to veto a decision, even if the council approves it."
"And what about if the queen and the regent are out of commission and the leader of the elders has to take over? Does she have the same power as if she were queen?"
"Well. Yeah. Until the council can appoint a new queen and all the resulting challenges are settled."
"How does the leader of the elders get to be their leader?"
"I think the elders vote on her."
"What about right now? Whos the leader of the elders as we speak?" Xena held her breath, guessing.
Thought so. "Is she still in the running, or has she been found with a dart sticking out of her sorry feathered butt too?" The elder Amazons staged challenge of Gabrielles leadership when they had first moved to the village was never far from the edge Xenas conscious thought, and the warriors skin prickled every time she saw the surly woman.
"Um . . . no. Not last time I checked."
"Okay." The warrior stood and unconsciously rubbed her thumb across her chakram, gazing thoughtfully out the window. She turned back toward the weapons master. "Pony, go call an emergency meeting of the council. I want all of them in the council room in half a candle mark."
Eponin stood as well, and peered into blue eyes that had gone glacier-cold. "Xena. What are you planning on doing?"
"Changing Amazon law."
Pony smiled and left the hut.
Continued in Part 3
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