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
The only problem with not castrating
A gigantic ego is
That it will surely become amorous
A hundred screaming ideas and kids
Who will then all quickly grow up
And skillfully proceed
To run up every imaginable debt
And complication of which your brain
- from "Castrating an Ego," The Subject Tonight is Love - 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz, versions by Daniel Ladinsky, copyright 1996, Pumpkin House Press, PumpkinH@aol.com.
The weary group reached the edge of Amazon territory just as the sun rose, painting the edges of high cumulus clouds in pink, red, and gold, and taking the edge off the early morning chill, with promises of a warm first day of summer mere candle marks away. The bard had been dozing on and off since leaving the cave, and Xena had kept a constant eye on her lest she topple out of the saddle. Only fear of ribbing from Eponin that she would never live down had kept the warrior from simply pulling Gabrielle onto Argo with her so that she could hold her soulmate and just let her sleep. Xena edged Argo closer to Star and reached out to gently pat her partners leg.
"Gabrielle." The warriors voice was low and gentle.
"Huh?" The bards head jerked up and she looked around in confusion before turning to face Xena. "Wha . . .?"
"Enjoying your nap?" Xena smiled and rubbed her thumb across the soft downy skin that covered Gabrielles upper thigh. So soft.
"Gods." Gabrielle slowly rolled her neck from side to side, grimacing at the muscles that had tightened up from riding with her head bobbing against her chest. "I think I must have knocked something out of whack." She reached up with one hand and ruefully rubbed the base of her neck.
"Maybe I need to give you a neck rub before you give me that full body massage you promised." The warrior laughed lightly, wishing she could just move in behind her partner and take care of the sore muscles right away. She considered that for a moment. To Hades with Pony. She stood up in her stirrups and swung one leg over Argos back, flipping lazily and landing behind Gabrielle on Stars back. "Hi there." A low voice tickled the bards ear.
"Hi yourself." Gabrielle wiggled her backside up against Xena, who reflexively tightened her thighs against the bards hips. "What about your Im the baddest warrior around reputation?" The bard teased her partner.
"My reputation?" The warrior purred seductively. "Im thinking snuggling up with the queen of the Amazons can only do my reputation good." Xena reached up and began a slow scalp massage and gradually worked her way down to the muscles at the base of the bards skull. Gabrielle sighed, dropping her head forward as long fingers began to methodically work out the knots in her neck and shoulders.
"Just another of the many skills of the magic fingers to add to the list." The bards eyes were closed, concentrating on the pleasurable sensations those particular fingers were causing at the moment.
"Youre keeping a list?" The warrior chuckled.
"In my head." Gabrielle smiled and turned her head to give Xena better access as she began to work on the side of her neck.
"And whats on the list?" The warrior used her middle knuckle on a particularly tight spot, causing Gabrielle to yelp and then bite her lip at the pain. "Sorry. It may hurt now but itll feel better later."
"I know." The bard made a conscious effort to relax her shoulders. "Lets see . . . my list . . . massages, catching arrows, fishing, healing, building fires, hunting, sewing, fixing things, and . . . um . . ." A small hand dropped down and slowly came to rest on the warriors knee, as the bard caressed the muscles just above Xenas kneecap. "Some very nice skills that Ill tell you about later."
"Or maybe Ill show them to you . . ." The warrior leaned forward and placed a soft kiss at the base of Gabrielles neck, watching with satisfaction as small goose bumps rose on the bare skin of her partners upper back. ". . . refresh you memory a little." She nipped the spot quickly before sitting back up. The loud noise of a throat clearing made her turn her head to find Eponin smirking at her from her right side. Xena scowled at the weapons master. "You got a problem?"
"Oh no, Xena. Not me. No problems at all. Not a one." The smirk remained as the weapons master continued to eye the warrior with a knowing look.
"I am a healer, Pony. And the queen was in pain." The scowl deepened.
"Uh huh. And exactly what kind of aches do kisses and bites heal? I dont believe Ive ever seen Cheridah use that particular treatment on anyone before." The queen blushed and Eponin stared Xena down, daring her to come up with an answer.
The warrior rose to the challenge, grinning evilly and raising a coy eyebrow. "For someone whos so feather-plucking proud of her reputation, Id think you would be fully aware of exactly what types of aches are cured with kisses and bites. And if not, maybe I need to have a talk with Raella, give her a few pointers she can show you."
The smirk disappeared, as the weapons master turned three shades of crimson. "Uh . . . I need to go check the prisoners." She turned her black stallion and moved toward the back of the line.
The warrior laughed as she watched her friend urge the large horse on, its hooves kicking up small clouds of dust in her haste to get away.
"Xena . . ." The bard hissed as she slapped the firm thigh against her hip. "Quiet. My fathers back there, remember?"
Oops. "Sorry." The warrior continued in the massage. "Forgot about him for a minute. Although Im sure its nothing he hasnt heard before."
"Yeah. But hes never heard it from anyone Im with. And Id like to keep it that way."
"Oh. And how many people have you been with?" The massage turned to a light tickle, half teasing and half sensual, causing a small whimper to escape from Gabrielles throat.
"Um . . ." The bard took a deep breath, trying to concentrate. "Two. You and Perdicus."
"Thats what I thought." The tickle turned back into a massage.
"Well. There was also Ephredes."
The fingers stilled. "Whos Ephredes?"
"He was a boy in Potadeia."
"Oh." Xena tentatively resumed her attentions to her partners shoulders. Get over it. The warrior chided herself. Its not like you have a right to be jealous of her past lovers. Not after everyone youve bedded. "Was he someone special to you? I always thought that besides me, Perdicus was the only one youd . . ."
"Oh. No. We didnt . . . I mean youre right. All we did was kiss. Remember the Titans, Xena?"
"Well how did you think I could have freed them if I wasnt a . . . remember, the chant had to be read by a . . ."
"Virgin?" Xena offered helpfully to her flustered partner. "I shoulda remembered that."
"Yeah. When I met you I hadnt been with anyone." The bard blushed, a trait that never failed to endear her even more to the warrior every time it happened. "But at the time, yes, Ephredes was special to me." Gabrielle closed her eyes and smiled. "My fifteenth summer, during the Dionysian festival, Ephredes and I were stomping grapes in the community wine vats. The moon was full and the air was fragrant with the smell of the grapes. We were the only two in our vat, and the walls of the vat were so tall that they came over my head. Anyway, one thing lead to another, and Ephredes kissed me."
"First kiss?" Xena smiled, remembering her own first curious fumblings with a few village boys.
"Yes. I was surprised, but after that we went for a walk to the spring every afternoon, and spent the time talking. And kissing some more. He was really sweet. But he was already betrothed to Eva, another girl in our village."
"Why Gabrielle, you little home-wrecker. How did you two explain leaving the village together every day?" The warrior laughed and gently tickled her partners ribs.
"Hey! Cut it out." Gabrielle squirmed until Xena stilled her fingers. "We didnt leave together. Hed say he was going to check his fathers flock of sheep, and Id say I was going to pick berries. Or flowers. Wed meet up outside of town and go together to check the sheep and pick a few berries before we walked to the spring."
"Ooo. The plot thickens." The warriors voice was light, hiding her suddenly somber mood. "Not only were you seeing another womans man, you were sneaking around to boot. And here all this time I thought that before we met you were this sweet innocent girl."
"Xena. Its not funny. During the time that Ephredes and I were seeing each other, my father was already talking to Perdicus father about betrothing me to him." The bards voice trailed off.
"But you wanted to be betrothed to Ephredes." The warrior guessed, feeling a small lump rise in her throat as her hand came back to rest on her partners shoulders. Stop it warrior. That was a long time ago. Shes over him by now. Isnt she?
"I thought I did. I thought I was in love with him. But it wasnt to be. So I resigned myself to an eternal sentence of boredom with Perdicus, knowing my dreams of being a bard and seeing the world were never going to come true."
"Why would it have been different with Ephredes?" Xena swallowed as the lump grew larger.
"In the fall, after the weather grew cooler and we quit going on our walks, Ephredes and I talked a few more times. Plans were already under way for he and Evas wedding. His family and Evas family had an agreement since they were born that they would be married someday. He told me he didnt love her but he was obligated to marry her. He told me he loved me, that he loved hearing my stories. He tried to get me to run away to Athens with him, but I couldnt. I couldnt do that to his family. The night before his wedding, while Eva was having her ceremonial bathing, Ephredes and I were in my fathers barn necking like desperate crazed ferrets. He cried that night, and so did I. And the next day I sat with my family and watched while he married Eva. And nine moons later they had twin boys. And right after that was when Perdicus and I were betrothed."
"And what did you do after that night?" The warriors hands dropped from Gabrielles shoulders to settle lightly around her waist.
"Spent the next several seasons kicking myself for not running away with him."
"Be . . ." Xenas voice cracked. "Because you were in love with him?"
Oh Gods. She thinks . . . "No, because I was in love with the idea of going on an adventure. I figured Id never get to see anything outside Potadeia, and I really wanted to see Athens." Small hands came to rest on top of Xenas. "Xena, I said I thought I was in love with him. Not that I was in love with him."
"You mean you dont wish . . . ?" The warrior couldnt bring herself to ask. Maybe Im second choice.
"No! Youre the one I want to be with. Always. You want to know when I quit kicking myself over not running away with him?"
"When?" Xenas voice was a pained whisper.
"When a certain warrior princess showed up outside Potadeia and rescued me from a bunch of slavers. When I saw you, Ephredes paled in comparison. Didnt I tell you that you are where my dreams begin and end? After Perdicus was killed, I never looked back again. I realized that what I wanted, what I needed, what I had always wished for had been right there by my side. You made them all come true Xena. All of my dreams. Being a bard, seeing the world, having great adventures and . . ." Gabrielle turned her head, placing a light kiss against the corded muscles of Xenas neck. ". . . falling in love. You have given me more than I could ever have hoped for. You know how I knew I wasnt in love with him? That I had never been in love with him?"
"H. . . how?" Xena held her breath.
"When we went to the Elysian Fields, Xena. And I realized that I had never felt about anyone the way I feel about you. Now I know."
"That the only person Ive ever been in love with is you. You are the keeper of my heart."
"And you are my heart." Xena released the breath and drew another one in, feeling light-headed as the fresh oxygen raced through her bloodstream. She wrapped her arms all the way around the bard and pulled her tightly against her and placed her lips against the bards ear. "Can I admit something to you?" She kissed the spot just behind the ear.
"Anything." Gabrielle turned her head and briefly brushed her lips against the warriors.
"Im glad beyond all reason you said that, because Ive never been in love with anyone besides you." She returned the kiss.
"I know." The bard half-turned in the saddle and deepened the kiss, and tongues began to explore, sending small currents of electricity through both women.
Xena reluctantly pulled back. "What about your father?" She teased her lovers lips one more time and then glanced behind her toward the end of their little caravan, to catch the glaring eye of a very disapproving Herodotus. She raised one menacing eyebrow and he immediately found other things to look at. Heh. Probably a good thing she didnt see that.
"Oh. Right." Gabrielle grudgingly broke off the contact and rested her hands on top of Xenas, which were still wrapped against her stomach, basking in the warmth of their shared body heat.
"Later." They said in unison and then burst out laughing.
"Xena?" Small fingers wandered aimlessly over the large hands they covered.
"Yes?" The warrior settled her chin on top of the bards head.
"All that stuff back in the cave. That was very strange, dont you think? I mean the things that Ares said about Kallerine." Gabrielle shivered.
"Yeah. Id really like to catch up with Eli at some point and talk to him about this whole one god and Satan concept that Ares keeps talking about. I never put much faith in the gods, but the more we travel, the more we keep hearing about others that arent worshiped in Greece. There was Icas one god and there was Dahak, who was supposed to be one god, now this one. Id like to learn more about him if hes going to be meddling in the lives of Greek Amazons."
"Me too." Gabrielle squinted into the trees, as they passed one of their outposts, and waited for the whistled signal before she returned it and waited again, until she heard the call that indicated the queen was returning to the village. "If Kama turns out to be okay, Id like to induct her into the nation. Kallerines the only family she has left, and I think we should take care of her."
"Good idea. I was thinking the same thing." Xena smiled as Eponin rode off the path toward the tree where the outpost was stationed. The weapons master dismounted and lithely grabbed the lowest branch of the tree and began to climb up into the leafy canopy out of sight.
"Whats she doing?" The bard turned her head slightly to look at Xena.
"Raellas on guard post duty." The warrior chuckled.
"How do you know that? Dont you tell me you can tell by hearing or smell or something. Xena, thats impossible."
"Actually, I can."
"No. Really. Although in this case, I know whos there because I had to re-do the guard duty roster yesterday. But I can sometimes tell by smell, if the wind is just right."
"Yeah. Raella has kind of an exotic scent. Ponys more of a leather and soap kind of scent. And you . . ." Xena nuzzled her nose into the short blonde hair and growled. "You have this sweet musky smell that drives me crazy. Makes me just want to . . ."
"Xena . . ." The bard felt her defenses rapidly crumbling as the warrior took an earlobe into her mouth and flicked it with her tongue. "My father . . ." She managed to gasp out.
"Sorry." Xena kissed the bard on the shoulder and sat back, her chest heaving for a few moments. Gods I want her.
"My queen. Were almost to the village. Wh . . ." Amarice and Kallerine rode up on the tall redheads horse and Amarice paused in mid-sentence, noting Xenas flushed face and the deep uneven breaths she was taking. "Are you alright?"
"Fine." The warrior practically squeaked while the bard giggled under her breath.
"O . . . kay." Two red eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "Queen Gabrielle, what are we going to do with your father? Were almost to the village."
"Put him in a guest hut."
"But the law . . ."
"The law says no man can stay overnight in the Amazon village. Its daytime and Im sure hes tired. And so am I, for that matter. I want him nearby where we can keep an eye on him. Tonight well either put him up with the Centaurs or get him to make camp right outside the main entrance to our village."
"As you wish."
"Howre you feeling?" The warrior looked speculatively at Kallerine, who was still pale from blood loss.
"A little weak. And hungry." The slayer smiled thinly and played with a long lock of her light brown hair, twisting it around her fingers.
"Here." Xena rummaged around in a saddlebag and pulled out a trail bar. "This should tide you over until we can get you some breakfast. And keep guzzling the water, you need fluid replacement."
"Yes. Thank you." Kallerine reached out and took the offering, biting off the corner and chewing eagerly. "Whmp we gunk do wfm all thss Amuzkns?"
"Good question." The warrior considered for a moment, realizing that they only had two holding cells in the village, and if she put Kama and Kallerine together in one, that meant putting the four new prisoners in the same cell as the one already occupied by the three they had placed there yesterday. And if the one in the healers hut recovered sufficiently, that would make eight Amazons in one small cell together.
"Xena." Gabrielle read her partners thoughts. "Why dont we put Kama and Kallerine together in the private room in the healers hut? Cheridah can keep watch over them while shes watching Chilapa and the girl with the broken knee. If anything did happen and Kama were to turn back into a bacchae, Kallerine knows how to handle it. That way we can put these four in the empty holding cell."
"Thats a great idea. Our friend with the broken knee isnt going to present much of a threat anyway." The warriors eyes squinted for a moment. "Hows the stomach? You feel like being queen again?" Long fingers made a studied probe of the bards midsection. "Muscles arent all clenched up anymore."
"No nausea since I was fighting the tall blonde back there." Gabrielle relaxed into Xenas examination. "I think Im ready to take my mask back. If thats alright with you." She smiled knowingly up at the warrior.
"I think you know the answer to that." Xena bowed slightly in the saddle and twisted one arm out with a flourish. "My queen, your subjects." She gestured toward the rag-tag crew following them.
Gabrielle groaned and placed one hand over her eyes.
"Oh, yeah." Xena mumbled with pleasure.
They had gotten everyone settled and eaten breakfast. After breakfast they had shared a warm bath and now the warrior was naked, sprawled face down on the bed with Gabrielle straddled across her hips, making good on her promise of a full body massage. She dug into Xenas low back muscles with the heals of her hands, moving in slow deep circles and feeling the tension melt beneath her touch. She paused for a moment and tipped a small vile of scented oil into one hand, and then moved further down, working on the warriors firm gluts and hamstrings. In the process, one hand grazed an inner thigh and Xena jerked in response as her eyes flew open and her breath caught.
"Oops. Sorry." The bard continued massaging the hamstrings, working the fragrant oil into the tight muscles and enjoying the occasional blissful groans that escaped from Xenas lips.
"Dont be sorry." The warrior suddenly rolled over. "I love the way you touch me, sweetheart." She captured the bards hands and kissed her knuckles. "And I love the way you let me touch you." She smiled as she pulled Gabrielle down on top of her, exploring her lips with a heartfelt kiss.
The bard pulled back to take a breath and pushed a long black lock of hair back, peering at Xenas head. "This hurting you any?" She traced the stitches lightly with one small trembling finger.
"Stings a little if I think about it." The blue eyes blinked and closed as Gabrielle began to lovingly stroke the other side of her head.
"I was so scared when I saw you go down." She continued her administrations and leaned in, kissing the warriors forehead and then placing another light kiss on the purplish bruise along her jawline. "I couldnt get to you because I was fighting that other Amazon. When I saw the blood, I . . . I thought about that time that log hit you and I had to carry you up the mountain in the snow. And then you died. So scared . . ." The bards voice broke.
"Hey." Xena pulled her partner back down and rolled to her side, drawing Gabrielle to her in a tight hug. "Im okay. Gabrielle, that other time it took a very large log to take me out. This was just a measly little Amazon quarterstaff. The old skulls pretty thick." She tapped one side of her head. "Hardly felt a thing. Not much more than a mosquito bite."
"A mosquito bite, huh?" The bard laughed through her tears and continued stroking the long hair, while planting small nips and kisses on a handy warrior collarbone.
The warrior felt one part of her body responding to the kisses while another part, the part that was totally exhausted, responded to the soothing motions of Gabrielles hand against her head. She struggled with that for a few moments, and ducked her head, brushing her lips against the bards as she felt Gabrielles other hand lightly touching the flat muscles of her stomach in ever-widening circles. She broke off and curled herself into her partner, as warm sleepy waves assaulted her body. "Gabrielle. I . . ."
"I know. Sleep, Xena. You need it."
"I need this, too." The warrior wrapped her legs around Gabrielles waist and rolled onto her back, once again pillowing the bard against her body. She began a gentle exploration of her lovers muscled back, as she gazed into sparkling green eyes that captured her heart all over again. So beautiful. "Every time I think I cant possibly love you more, it just keeps getting stronger."
"For me too, love." The bard looked down at her soulmate, running her fingertips across Xenas face and through her hair. She leaned in and softly kissed the warriors lips and then pulled back, just enough to peer into half-closed blue eyes darkened just a bit with love and a touch of lust. Shes so tired, and shes fighting it tooth and nail. "What do you need right now, Xena? Tell me. Ill do anything you want."
The warriors face softened and she smiled. "Ive got everything I could ever need right here in my arms." She continued to softly caress Gabrielles back. "And I really want to make love to you, but I . . ."
"Shhh." The bard traced her lovers lips with two fingers. "There are many ways of showing me love Xena. It doesnt matter whether we are actually making love, or whether you are holding me while we sleep, I never feel more safe, more peaceful, or more loved than when Im in your arms and I feel your body against mine. Theres no place Id rather be."
Gabrielle resumed the light strokes against the warriors head, as her words soaked in. And that was familiar and comfortable to Xena in a way that she had never experienced before, knowing she had the freedom to go with what her body was feeling at the moment, which was extreme fatigue. And knowing that whatever they did or didnt do right now, that Gabrielle loved her without strings or conditions. There was no pressure, and she didnt have to prove anything to the bard. Gradually, the blue eyes fluttered closed and Xenas hands slowly stilled. "Need . . . you . . ." The warriors sleepy voice muttered.
"Thats it." The bard whispered. "Sleep, love." She felt the warriors legs relax their grip from around her waist and suddenly she slid down to find herself laying between them. She looked up and saw Xenas chest rising and falling in a calm even rhythm. She chuckled inwardly and planted one kiss against the firm stomach before she turned her head and rested her cheek softly against it, feeling her own eyes close as the deep gentle sound of the warriors breathing enticed her to join her soulmate in slumber.
A few candle marks later Gabrielle awoke much refreshed. With eyes still closed, she just lay there, enjoying the smell of the massage oil that drifted up from the warriors warm skin, and reveling in being surrounded by Xenas legs and the two large hands that rested on her shoulders. She kept her eyes closed, resting her face against Xenas stomach and remaining still, so as not to wake her sleeping partner. She let out a small sigh of contentment and shivered, surprised by the sudden sensation of fingers running through her short blonde hair. She lifted her head and smiled, as she was greeted by warm blue eyes that smiled back at her. "How long you been up?" The bards voice was thick with sleep.
"About a half candle mark." Xena continued to riffle Gabrielles hair with one hand while the other moved down to cup the bards cheek. Gabrielles eyes half-closed as she leaned into the touch. "Just watching you sleep. Youre so beautiful when you sleep. In fact, youre pretty darned cute all the time." Dusky lashes blinked dreamily over eyes that shone with what the bard read as fierce love and protectiveness.
The bard giggled and blushed at her partners compliments. "You could have woken me up. You didnt have to just lay there trapped by me." Gabrielle brought a hand up to rest against Xenas, intertwining their fingers.
"Mmmm." A sultry grin played at the warriors lips. "Trapped? Not hardly. Im rather enjoying having you in this particular position." She tightened her legs against her lovers sides and ran one bare foot up and down the curve of the bards calf.
Gabrielles breath caught. "Oh." She blushed again as she looked around and made a cursory examination of their meshed bodies.
"Sorry I fell asleep on you earlier." The warriors voice held a note of chagrin. So much for my reputation. Id never live that down. "Dont think Ive ever done that before. I musta been wiped out. Hope you didnt take it the wrong way, cause I am sooo attracted to you." Xenas eyes roamed appreciatively down her lovers compact form and she allowed her hands to follow, lightly touching various familiar places on Gabrielles body.
"Xena. I meant what I said, and I was really tired too." The bard scrambled up the warriors long frame until they were eye to eye. "And I took it as you got maybe forty-five minutes of sleep last night, then you rode for several candle marks, fought off some Amazon warriors, helped rescue a bacchae, had an encounter with Ares, and took a severe blow to the head. You were tired, love. No offense taken at all."
"Your stomach still feeling okay?" Xena slipped one hand between them, palm up, and pressed lightly against her lovers lower abdomen.
"Uh . . ." Gabrielle felt a warmth building and spreading out from the place where the warrior was touching her. "Doing flip-flops right now."
"Oh." The warrior quickly withdrew her hand. "Do you need some more ginger water?" Damn.
The bard laughed, sensing Xenas frustration. "Not the bad kind of flip-flops. The very good kind of flip-flops." Gabrielle pressed her stomach against her partners for emphasis.
Oooh. Xena reflexively pressed back. "Good, cause Im not tired anymore. And . . ." The warrior nipped at the hollow of the bards throat. " . . . I intend to make it up to you." Here hands roamed for a moment before coming to rest on the bards hips, pulling her partner close against her as her lips began a purposeful assault on Gabrielles neck and shoulders, gradually working their way down to her chest. "Right about now, I think."
Xena licked a particularly sensitive spot and was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath by the bard, who arched against her. The warrior laughed with sensual delight as Gabrielles breathing grew quite uneven and she whimpered, feeling Xenas legs wrap tightly around her waist. "Now where were we?" The warrior threw her head back, inhaling deeply and drawing in her lovers scent. "Did I mention you drive me crazy?" She growled low in her throat and re-attached her lips to her partners skin, while sliding one knee up between Gabrielles legs and beginning a steady rhythmic rocking of her body against the bards.
Much later, Gabrielle found herself cradled against the warriors side, as Xena traced slow lazy patterns against her back with her fingertips and with the other hand, ended up the way theyd started out, running her long fingers through the bards soft hair. "Gabrielle, I love you."
The bard sighed with sated contentment and kissed the bare shoulder she was resting against. "Love you too." She raised part-way up, laying one hand on Xenas chest for support. "Guess I better get up and try to take care of some loose ends."
"Yeah. Me too." The warriors head knew she should get up, but her body wanted to just stay right where she was. She waged another internal battle, which was lost completely as she felt the hand on her chest begin to wander, and Gabrielle started kissing her way across the warriors shoulder, down her center line, and across her stomach, which fluttered in reaction to the contact. On the other hand . . .
One thing that had surprised Gabrielle about Xena was how completely undemanding she was when it came to their physical relationship. In that area, the warrior was a giver, not a taker. While it was true that Xena had an aggressive wild side, she would never ever force the bard into doing anything she didnt want to do. Xena gave of herself totally, and seemed to take her pleasure in making Gabrielle feel good, never asking for anything in return, always waiting for Gabrielle to make any moves toward reciprocating her attentions. Which of course, the bard more than willingly did. She found it quite charming that the warrior seemed almost surprised whenever Gabrielle initiated physical contact, as if Xena somehow felt she didnt deserve it, and couldnt believe the bard was actually there with her, loving her.
"So much to do . . ." The bard circled Xenas navel with her tongue. "Amazons to interrogate." She shifted, resting her body against the length of the warriors. "Messages to send out." A small bardic hand ran down Xenas hip and across her upper leg. "Treaty summits to re-schedule." The hand pressed teasingly against a sensitive inner thigh.
"Duty calls?" The warriors chest heaved as she reacted to the gentle pressure and made room for the bard, who shifted positions, sliding into a very familiar place.
"Oh, no. Not duty." Gabrielles lips left Xenas navel and began to move lower, as the bard curled one arm around the back of the warriors firm thigh. Muscles like a rock. She gave an appreciative lick to the thigh in question.
"Return favor?" Xena sighed blissfully at the more intimate contact. Gods I love this woman.
"No." The bards attentions became more intense. "My pleasure."
"Well . . ." The warrior felt small jolts coursing through her body and gasped. "Whatever pleases you, my queen."
Gabrielle laughed gently and threw herself whole-heartedly into the task at hand, which had suddenly moved to the top of her to-do list.
Kama awoke and blinked a few times, and realized she was bathed in a large chunk of sunlight coming through the healing hut window. She gasped and scrambled toward the furthest corner from the window, upsetting the cot she had been resting on in her haste to get away from the fearsome heat. She slid down the wall and sat on the floor, drawing both knees up against her chest and wrapping her arms around them. She listened to her own pounding heartbeat as she carefully examined her skin and found no burns from the sunlight. Confused, she slowly scanned the room until her eyes came to rest on her sister. "Kallerine?"
The extremely drained slayers eyelids fluttered open and she spied the cot laying on its side. "Hey. What happened?" She sat up and quickly moved to her sisters side, almost losing her balance at the sudden rush of blood to her head.
"The sunshine scared me. Thought I might get burned." She held out her arms for Kallerines inspection.
"No. Youre not a bacchae anymore. You dont have to be afraid of the sun." The slayer gently stroked light brown hair much the same shade as her own.
"Guess not. Ive almost forgotten what its like to feel the sun on my face." Kama shifted and gazed timidly at her sister. "Sorry. This is all a little strange to me."
"Me too." The slayer bit her lip and tentatively moved around and sat down in front of Kama, crossing her legs and leaning her forearms on her knees. "Kama, how much do you remember about the last few summers?"
"You mean its been more than one?" Kamas eyes grew wide.
"Yeah." Kallerine reached out and awkwardly laid one hand on her sisters arm.
"How old am I?" Kama sat back and closed her eyes, bracing herself for the answer.
"Um . . . eighteen summers."
"Eighteen?! That means youre sixteen. So its been . . . three summers since we last saw each other?" A small tear escaped from Kamas eye, slowly rolling down her cheek and falling onto her arm.
"Almost four." The slayer reached over and brushed the tear away. "Hey. Its okay. I never gave up on finding you. I just knew I would someday."
"Youve spent all that time looking for me?" Kama smiled for the first time in almost four summers.
"In every cave I could find." Kallerine returned the smile and moved around closer, draping one arm across her sisters shoulders.
Kama peered over at her sister and frowned, lightly fingering a rough linen bandage that was wrapped against her lower neck and out of sight under her tunic. "What happened to you? Whats the bandage for?"
The slayer reached up and placed her hand over the bandage, which covered up two deep puncture wounds along with some rather nasty bruises from Kamas earlier feeding frenzy. Dont think shes ready to hear about that just yet. "Oh. Nothing much. Just a little scratch from a fight earlier. They get a little over-zealous with their bandages around here sometimes. So . . ." Kallerine tacitly changed the subject. "What can you remember?"
"Oh gods. That party. Mother and father sent you down the street and let me stay. I think I had my first goblet of wine that night. We were dancing. Everyone was happy because the harvest had been so good. All of a sudden these women . . . creatures . . . broke in. They came in through all the windows and started attacking everyone. One of them grabbed me and bit me. Everything after that is pretty fuzzy. Seems like I could only see in shadows and strange lights. I remember being able to fly. And that sunlight was very bad. Except . . ." Kama furrowed her brows and rested her head against one hand, which was propped against her leg. "There were a few moons when I was myself again for a little while."
"Really?" Kallerine absorbed that for a moment. "That must have been when Xena killed Bacchus and broke the spell that held all the bacchae at the time."
"Xena? You mean the warrior princess?"
"Yes. Shes a friend of mine. Helped me rescue you, actually." The slayer preened a bit at having such a famous friend.
"Friend?" Kama recoiled back from her sister. "How can you be friends with her? I thought she just roamed around pillaging villages and killing people. You mean she killed Bacchus? And what do you mean she helped rescue me?"
"Long story. For now, just know that shes no longer evil, and yes, she called in a favor from Ares, the god of war, who told us how to save you."
"Really?" Kama still appeared incredulous.
"Yes." Kallerine patted her sisters shoulder. "So, you were yourself again for a while. What happened?"
"Uh-huh. I woke up in a cave with a couple of other girls and we were all human again. I didnt know where I was or even what summer it was. I think I was in a foreign country, because we wandered around and never met anyone who spoke Greek. I was trying to get home, but thats kind of hard to do when you have no dinars and you dont know where you are. Then after a couple of moons, we had been hunting and camping in the woods at the edge of a field, when all of a sudden some bacchae came through the trees and started chasing us. We ran through the field and I guess one of them caught me and bit me again. And thats about all I remember, other than vague images."
"Hmmmm. That must have been when Satan let Bacchus come back to earth for a while. Of all the rotten luck for them to get you twice."
"Yeah." Kama could feel a headache coming on. "Whos Satan?"
"Some new god that Ares mentioned back in the cave where we found you."
"You met the god of war?" Kamas eyes grew round again.
"Wow. What was he like?"
"He said a lot of really confusing things." Kallerines gut clenched. "He scared me. Id rather not go into it right now."
"Okay." Kama eyed her sister and then looked around the room. "By the way, where are we?"
"Were in an Amazon village."
"Amazons! Gods, Kallerine, first you tell me youre friends with the warrior princess, then you tell me you met the god of war, and now youre telling me were staying with Amazons? I guess a lot of things have changed since we last saw each other."
"Yes. Um . . . actually, I am an Amazon." The slayer smiled. "And I am the Amazon queens personal assistant."
"My gods, Kallerine. How in Hades did you get mother and father to let you become an Amazon? Did you run away from home or something?" Kama laughed and poked her sister affectionately.
Oh gods. She doesnt know. Kallerines face fell and she reflexively tightened her grip around her sisters shoulders. She reached around with her other hand and placed it on her sisterss arm, squeezing it. "Kama. That night when the bacchae attacked . . . they . . . um . . . that is . . . father, I think he really tried to fight them. But . . ."
"Theyre dead, arent they?" Kamas deep brown eyes filled with tears and she choked back a sob.
"Yes." The slayers chest tightened up.
"So youve been alone all this time?" Kama sniffled and wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. "My poor baby sister."
"I was alone for the first couple of summers. But then I met the Amazons and they took me in and made me one of them. So Im not alone anymore. And neither are you." Kallerine said softly, as she wrapped both arms around her sister, feeling her own tears beginning to fall, and for the first time since her parents had died, shared the grief with someone who felt it as deeply as she did.
The two sisters sat and held each other, rocking gently for a long while, talking and catching up, two lost souls who had finally found their way back home.
"Let me get this straight." The queen paced back and forth on the straw-covered floor in front of the cell full of Amazons, most of whom were wide-eyed, having never seen their queen before. Gabrielle stopped and placed her hands on her hips against the mahogany belt of her red leather skirt. "Not a single one of you has actually seen these messages you received and none of you knows if there was even a signature or official seal on them?"
"No my queen." Chaulzies head was bowed in deference to her ruler.
The bard let out a heavy frustrated breath. "Who, exactly, told you to attack Xena?" She pinned the olive-skinned Amazon with a deadly stare.
"Our regent, my queen." Chaulzie looked up. "She organized my party to go capture Xena, and Shivonnes party to find your father and take him into protective custody."
Gabrielle moved directly in front of Chaulzie, placing both hands on the bars of the cell and peering into her eyes. "And yesterday, when you were captured, why didnt you tell Xena about Shivonnes party?"
"My queen. Forgive me. We didnt know if we could trust Xena. We had orders to follow." Chaulzies chin quivered, and despite her tough Amazon exterior, appeared to be about to cry.
"Gods! Amazons!" The bard turned on her heels and made her way back up the stairs and into the council room, where the council was assembled to assist in deciding what to do with their captives. Gabrielle stalked purposefully to the front of the room and leaned against a small podium gripping the rough wood surface with both hands. "Okay." She gazed at the somber faces in the crowd before her. "It appears they were only following orders that came directly from their regent. And despite all the havoc theyve raised, I dont see fit to punish them. If theres one thing we try to instill in young Amazons, its that direct orders must be obeyed. I think it would send the wrong message if we were to punish them for doing what they were told to do."
"But my queen." Maniah rose to her feet. "Its my understanding that they hurt Xena, tried to kill her. While not an Amazon, she is a resident of our village. It seems that an attack on one of our residents that close to our own territory should warrant some sort of punishment."
"And since when do you give a flying pegasus butt about Xena?" Gabrielle snapped, as she moved directly in front of the older Amazon. "Sit down, Maniah, and shut up."
The older Amazons mouth dropped open in surprise, but she mutely took her seat. The entire council room had grown silent at the bards uncharacteristic outburst. This was a side of their mild queen they hadnt seen much of. Gabrielle took a sip from a water skin that lay on a shelf under the podium, allowing the liquid to slide slowly down her throat to hit her somewhat uneasy stomach. She set the skin down and looked back around the room at the council members. "Im going to continue to hold them until tomorrow, and let them start back for their village at first light. Meanwhile, Ive re-slated the treaty summit for tomorrow afternoon. And . . ." The bard finally smiled half-heartedly. "Our solstice celebration will be held two nights from tonight. I know it will be a few days late, but under the circumstances, I think we need to hold off until weve seen the Romans safely back on their way home."
A resounding groan made its way through the ranks of some of the younger council members, who had been looking forward to the revelry surrounding solstice for several moons.
"Sorry. But unless you want a bunch of Romans and centaurs at the celebration, we will just have to wait." Gabrielle was silent as the message sunk in, and the disgruntled Amazons realized it probably really was a good idea to postpone, given some of the more risque activities that accompanied the annual celebration. It was second only to the Dionysian festival in number of barrels of ale consumed, and the dancing usually went until the wee hours of the morning.
The bard dismissed the council meeting and made her way to the barn where the carrier pigeon cages were kept. She hastily tucked a note into a tiny cylinder and attached it to one of the pigeons legs. The docile creature blinked beady black eyes at Gabrielle, and cooed softly as she reached in and cupped her hands around his warm feathered body, drawing him carefully from his perch. She made her way back outside and looked around the courtyard. Confident that no one was watching, she lifted her arms and released the bird into the air, who promptly flapped its wings and began a swift course west.
Maniah left the council chambers and went to her hut. She added a couple of extra daggers to her leathers and armor, and then left the hut, ducking out the back window of the low thatch building and following a dim trail through the woods, occasionally looking behind her until she was satisfied she wasnt being followed. Thank the gods I finally lost my little tail.
Ever-loyal to Xena and the queen, Loisha had practically made herself the older Amazons shadow, and had not let Maniah out of her sight. Loisha was still sitting in the courtyard across from the elders hut, oblivious to the fact that her prey had disappeared. Maniah snorted with satisfaction and then lengthened her stride. She never saw the taller darker shadow that slipped through the trees several meters behind her.
A candle mark later, she finally reached an area on the outskirts of Amazon territory, and made a series of low bird calls, looking around with apprehension. After a few moments, a stocky Amazon with short spiked brown hair appeared from behind a large tree. The warriors hackles rose as she peered around another tree. Pheriny. Xena stalked closer, never breaking a twig or rustling a single leaf, her cat-like movements undetectable to her quarry.
"Our little queen has made a full recovery." Maniah crossed her arms over her chest. "And the summit is supposed to go forward tomorrow."
"What about Chilapa?" Pheriny moved closer to the older woman, lifting her hand over her eyes, shading them from a shaft of sunlight that broke through the leafy canopy overhead.
"Still sleeping like a baby. But some complications have developed."
"Like what?" The stocky Amazon idly played with a dagger at her hip.
"For starters, the party that was supposed to take out Xena got captured by her instead, and then the party that was to capture the queens father also got captured, once again by the warrior princess." Maniah spat out the last words, with mocking emphasis on the word princess. "And the little queen isnt going to punish them. She plans to release them tomorrow and send them back to their village, where they could be a factor in blowing our cover and ruining everything."
"So that means were back to square one. Damn." Pheriny shook her head with disgust.
"So, you got the stuff with you?" The elder eyed the younger Amazon.
"Yeah." Pheriny held out a small suede bag and handed it to Maniah.
The elder accepted it and opened it up, pulling out a small vile and several feathered darts. "Good. Lets get it right this time. You go after Xena and Ill take out the queen. Ill be damned to Tartarus before Ill see that little bitch sell us out to Rome."
"That can be arranged." The warrior stepped out from behind the tree, letting her chakram fly and ripping the bag from Maniahs hand with deadly precision. She caught the sharp weapon on the rebound and let out her war cry before she drew her sword and ran forward, tucking into a flip and sailing through the air to land between Maniah and Pheriny.
It only took one swift blow of her elbow to Maniahs jaw to knock the older woman out cold. She turned with her sword just in time to meet Pherinys and the loud clatter of the two weapons rang out through the trees. "I thought you might be in on this." The warrior grinned evilly, meeting several parlays with negligent ease.
"And howd you figure that?" Pheriny grimaced at the power of Xenas blows, the impact against her sword causing her bones to rattle.
"I remembered you had been sent to the northern Amazon village. I knew Maniah was the leader of your little plot, but I didnt have any proof until just now." Xena continued to make relentless strikes with her sword, gradually working her way toward a series of offensive maneuvers that left the stocky younger Amazon winded and sweating.
Suddenly, in a desperate move, Pheriny lunged froward, ignoring a sharp slice of Xenas sword against her upper thigh, and using the full force of her weight, she pushed the warrior to the ground, landing solidly on top of her and whipping out a dagger which she held against Xenas jugular vein. The warrior realized that while she was much taller than Pheriny, the stocky Amazon almost equaled her in weight, and she dropped her sword, using both hands against Pherinys wrist to keep the dagger from slicing her throat.
The stocky Amazon growled and continued to struggle, until she felt the warm blood trickling down her leg from Xenas earlier impact. She looked down at her wound for a moment, and Xena took advantage of her split-second loss of concentration, raising her feet and kicking out forcefully against Pherinys chest, sending the woman flying against a nearby tree. The stocky womans body hit with a loud thud and slid down the tree and landed in a crumpled heap on the ground.
Xena rolled to her feet and dusted off her leathers. She bent over and retrieved her sword, returning it to the scabbard on her back as she moved over to bind the unconscious Amazons. She made quick work of tying heavy leather lacings around Maniahs wrists and ankles. She then walked over to Pheriny, who was laying stomach down in a pool of blood that was slowly soaking into the rich dark soil beneath the tree. The warrior sucked in a breath and gently rolled the stocky Amazon onto her back. Pherinys dagger was embedded into her chest up to the hilt. Damn. Xena felt for a pulse and found none. Didnt mean to kill her.
The warrior respectfully pushed the young Amazons eyelids closed and removed the dagger, wiping it off on Pherinys leathers. She sat back and crossed her legs, looking up through the leaves at the sky, and sighing with remorse. There was a time when something like this wouldnt have bothered me at all. But now . . . what a waste. Xena studied the dagger and tucked it into her boot. She mentally reviewed her actions and decided that she had been acting defensively, and that Pherinys death was a freak accident. She was trying to kill me. Theres nothing I could have done, Gabrielle. Nothing.
With a heavy sigh, the warrior rose to her feet and removed her waterskin from its hook at her waste. She uncorked the container and took a long swig, swishing the cool liquid around her mouth before she walked over and stood directly over Maniahs limp form. Xena cocked her head for a moment, thinking, and then grinned and forcefully expelled the water from her lips, spewing it liberally across the elder womans face.
"What the . . ." Maniahs eyes opened and she stared up at her tormentor.
"Wake up!" The warrior knelt down and untied the elders ankles, stuffing the leather twine into her belt pouch. "On your feet. Walk directly in front of me back to the village. One false move, and this . . ." Xena lifted her chakram and twirled it around one finger. ". . . will go into your spine. You got me?"
Maniah groaned and slowly struggled to her knees and then to her feet. She looked over and saw Pherinys body. "You killed her?"
"Fell on her own knife."
"Look." Xena snarled and stood directly in front of the elder, towering over her and letting the full force of her dark personality seep through. "If anyone killed her, you did. Just like I said you might several weeks ago when you and she orchestrated that bogus challenge of Gabrielle. Now its happened. You sacrificed your friend."
"I told you Id do what I have to do." Maniah recovered some of her pride and lifted her chin defiantly.
"Yeah? Well so will I." Xena walked over and retrieved the suede bag from the ground where it had landed and brought it back over to where Maniah stood. She opened it and pulled out the small vial, uncapping it and sniffing the contents. The warriors face twisted with rage. Same stuff the Persians used. She tilted the small container, spilling the contents onto the dirt, and then she dropped the vial, grinding it into dust with the heel of her boot. "You were going to kill Gabrielle." A statement, not a question. Xena shuddered, remembering several heart-to-heart discussions with a brave dying bard in a barn near Athens. That was our turning point, I think. Thats when I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life protecting her.
"I told Pheriny to bring something stronger than what we used before. It was her choice as to what to bring."
The warrior was starting to have less regret over the stocky Amazons demise. "Im real tempted to just handle this my own way, but I know your queen would have it otherwise." Xena snarled. "So get moving before I change my mind and arrange for you to fall on a knife too." The warrior gave the elder a forceful shove to the small of her back, and Maniah shot one murderous glance over her shoulder before she grudgingly began the long trek back to the village.
Xena strode through the center of the village with Maniah trudging slowly in front of her. Several onlookers gawked and turned to whisper among themselves as they passed. "Pony!" The warrior shouted, spying the weapons master across the courtyard and ignoring her audience. "I know its getting crowded down in the holding unit, but Ive got one more prisoner for you."
Eponin came running. "Finally had a reason to take her into custody, I take it." The weapons master smirked and Maniah scowled back at her.
"Yes." The warrior stopped and looked down at the ground. "You remember Pheriny?"
"Yeah?" Eponin quirked an eyebrow at her tall friend.
"Her bodys laying under a tree about a candle marks travel southwest through the woods behind Maniahs hut. Send a liter out to retrieve her. I guess we can hold her here until we send the rest of the prisoners home. Theyre all from the same village, so might as well let them take care of it. Um . . . keep an eye on Maniah for a few minutes, okay? I need to go talk to Gabrielle and then well be back to have a chat with our prisoner."
"Sure, Xena no problem. I think the queens in the stable."
"Thanks." The warrior moved toward the stables and heard familiar hoofbeats in the practice ring behind it. She walked around the corner and stopped for a moment, watching as her partner worked Star through several maneuvers around a set of barrels they had set up in the middle of the ring. "Hey." Xenas voice was hesitant. "Youre getting pretty good at that."
"Xena!" The bard reined Star around and trotted over to the fence where the warrior had deposited herself, sitting on the top rail. "Thank the gods. Whered you go? I was really worried about you. Thought you were going to meet me right after the council meeting this afternoon."
The warrior managed a half-smile and lifted one hand to gently stroke Gabrielles muscular calf. "Sorry. I was on my way to meet you when I saw Maniah climbing out the back window of her hut. I had to follow her and I didnt have time to come find you first. But . . ." Xena reached out with her other hand and traced the tooled leather etchings on Stars saddle. "I think our mystery is solved. Maniah and Pheriny were both behind all of this. The only thing I dont know yet is why. At least not completely."
"Pheriny?" Gabrielles face clouded, remembering the challenge.
"Yeah. She lives . . ." Or should I say lived? ". . . in the same village as all our other prisoners. My guess is that Maniah was channeling all her messages through her. When I followed Maniah, she was going to meet Pheriny at the southwestern edge of our territory. I intercepted them and heard enough to know they were behind it all."
"Xena, thats great! Now we can get on with the summit and not have to worry anymore." The bard studied her partners face, noting the shadows in the pale blue eyes. "Honey, whats wrong?"
"Gabrielle." The warrior stood and leaned against Star, still stoking her partners leg. "They were planning to kill you."
"Oh." The bard reached out and ruffled her fingertips through Xenas bangs. "Xena, its okay. You stopped them. Im fine. Now well just bring them to trial and see that theyre appropriately punished."
"Pherinys already been punished." The warrior studied the tops of her boots.
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle reached under Xenas chin and tilted her face up.
"Shes dead. Im sorry." The blue eyes begged forgiveness.
"You killed her?" The bard ran her thumb across the warriors lips.
Xena closed her eyes at the irony of the gentle contact. "No. Not exactly. We got in a fight and she pinned me down. She had a dagger at my throat and I managed to push her away. But she ended up falling on her own knife."
"Xena, sweetheart. You were being attacked. Its not your fault."
The warrior sighed and turned, pressing up against the bards leg and resting her face against her partners knee. "I know. But after she died I found out about the poison. They were going to use the same stuff on you that the Persians did."
"Oh gods." Gabrielle rested her hand against a chiseled cheek bone. "Glad you stopped them."
"Me too. Thing is Gabrielle, Maniah told me that Pheriny is the one who decided on that particular poison. If I had know that before she died, I probably would have killed her anyway."
"Oh, Xena." The bard swung her foot over Stars back and slid out of the saddle and into Xenas arms, wrapping her hands around the back of the warriors neck. "Youll never know for sure. And theres no use kicking yourself over something you might have done."
"I havent killed anyone since we came back from the dead. Its just kind of weird. I wonder how Im going to feel the first time it happens."
Not if. When. Shes knows its inevitable and so do I. Gabrielle digested that internally. "Xena. Well cross that bridge when we come to it. Together. And even if you had killed Pheriny, I would have forgiven you. Just like I hope youll forgive me if I ever find myself in the same situation."
"Huh?" The warrior looked down with a startled expression on her face.
The bard pulled Xena forward until their foreheads were touching. "Xena, in that Roman compound, I learned that I am more than capable of killing someone. Especially if your life is at stake. Youre not the only one who worries about killing. Not anymore."
"But you . . . youd never . . . not unless you had really good reason." The warrior pulled her lover tightly against her, kissing the top of the bards head.
"And neither would you." Gabrielle mumbled into Xenas leathers. "I really believe that, Xena." She pulled back so she could look into the warriors eyes. "Youre not the same person you were four summers ago, and neither am I. Weve brought each other more toward the center."
"I never wanted you to kill." The warriors eyes brimmed with unshed tears.
"Xena, we live in a really hard world. There arent a whole lot of old people around, especially old warriors or old Amazons. This life that weve chosen to live together, sometimes it means kill or be killed. I understand that now."
The warrior pulled her soulmate against her in a fierce hug, as the tears fell, dropping into the pale hair. "And that, my bard, is something I never wanted you to understand."
"I know." Gabrielle ran her hands soothingly up and down Xenas back. "But you couldnt shelter me forever, Xena. I had to grow up sometime. And I think its a whole lot better for both of us now that you know I can protect myself."
The warrior grudgingly acknowledged the truth of the statement. "Youre right. Its just that I still see you as all that is good and right in this world. At least for me. Whenever I feel like the darkness is going to win, or I have blood on my hands, all I have to do is come to you and I feel that there must be a little bit of something good left inside of me. Otherwise you wouldnt be with me."
"I love you, Xena. All the good parts and all the imperfect parts. Even the dark parts. That is who you are. And I see a lot more than just a little bit of good inside of you. I think Ive told you that a million times. The light inside of you far outshines the dark side." The bard cupped her hands around Xenas face and leaned forward, brushing her lips against her partners.
"You are the light inside of me." The warrior nibbled softly at her lovers lips, and allowed a little more of that light inside herself. "You complete me."
Gabrielles heart lurched inside her chest, remembering a certain conversation with Artemis, and the implications of Xenas declaration. "And you complete me, love."
They stood in a comfortable hug for several moments before the warrior reluctantly pulled back. "We have a prisoner to interrogate."
"Yeah. And after that I have a treaty summit to prepare for. I sent the message out a little while ago to the Centaurs and the Romans to meet us here tomorrow after lunch."
"Lets stable Star and then go see what Maniah has to say about all of this." Xena took the appaloosas reins and gently steered her partner toward the barn.
Warrior and bard sat in the council room, waiting for Eponin to bring Maniah up from the holding cell. The sound of a struggle could be heard, along with several muttered curses. "Ouch! Son of a bacchae!" The weapons master yelled. "Maniah, elders be damned, you kick me again and Ill tie your fuzzy butt behind the fastest horse in the stable and drag your sorry self all the way to the southern border."
Xena chuckled as a frazzled Eponin appeared at the top of the stairs with her quarry, a self-satisfied Maniah. "Im not sure Argos up to a fast gallop to the southern border right now. I think shes still resting up from our trek last night. "But . . ." The warrior pinned a lethal stare on Maniah. ". . . once shes rested, Id be happy to loan her out for just such a task."
Several rounds of races between Argo and a few of the most fit Amazon horses had proven conclusively that Argo was indeed the fastest horse in the village. Pony continued to challenge on occasion, as her black stallion, Apollo, had come the closest to besting the palomino.
Gabrielle stood and walked quietly to a spot a few feet in front of Maniah. "We know you were behind the attacks on me and Chilapa, as well as the one on Xena. We also know you tried to capture my father."
"You dont have any proof . . ."
"Maniah!" The queens voice was low in her chest. "Dont even go there. I have Xenas word as to what she heard in the woods earlier."
"Oh. It figures the queen would hang on anything Xena has to say. Shes got you blinded, Gabrielle. Why should you believe the word of the former Destroyer of Nations? At one time she was known for her deceit and lies."
"Not anymore." Gabrielle moved closer, the green eyes unwavering as they studied the elders face. "Not that its any of your business Maniah, but Xena and I learned the hard way what the consequences are of lying to each other." The bard heard a soft breath escape from her partners lips and she briefly held her hand behind her, extending her thumb, index finger and pinky, and folding the middle and ring fingers in, making a sign that meant I love you between her and the warrior. "We made a promise to each other that no matter how painful it might be, there will never be any lies between us again. I have no reason to believe shed break that promise."
"You two and your little circle of love make me want to puke." The elder frowned fiercely at the queen. "Shes not capable of loving anyone, Gabrielle. Shell eventually turn on you and then youll see what its like to be the target of someone you thought loved you."
"Been there. Done that. Dont plan on doing it again. You couldnt even begin to understand how strong what Xena and I have is, and what weve been through to get there. Not that thats any of your business either." The bard watched the surprised expression her words elicited from Maniah. "If Xena tells me something happened, then I believe her, without question. So, dont try to argue with me about what you did. Instead I want to hear why."
"Thats none of your business, my queen." The elder smirked.
Gabrielle ignored the smirk. "Maniah, your life is on the line here. Do you understand that?"
"You dont have the guts to carry out your threats."
The bard briefly looked down at her hands and flexed them. She looked back up and allowed a good portion of her soul to shine through sad eyes. "Yes. I do. And it is my business. You basically initiated plans to take over the village, throw my plans to make a peace treaty, and planned to kill me and my partner in the process, so it is very much my business. And my prerogative to decide what will be done with you. So you better start talking, or I am going to assume the worst and your punishment will be dealt out accordingly."
Maniahs eyes grew wide as she finally understood that the queen wasnt bluffing. "I . . . you are so young. You arent a part of our history. Amazons dont back down. We fight for what is ours, even if it means a fight to the death. A true Amazon would not give in to Rome. We should fight them with no compromise."
"What you are suggesting would mean annihilation of the Amazon nation." The bard turned to her silently watching partner. "Xena, could you go over and get a map of the world, please?"
"Sure." The warrior rose and strode over to a set of shelves against the far wall, rummaging around until she found what she was looking for. She made her way over to a table, and with a nod from Gabrielle, spread the map out on the table. "Maniah come over here."
The elder hesitantly moved forward, never taking her eyes off the young queen for whom she had suddenly developed much greater respect. With great trepidation, she stopped next to the warrior and looked down at the map. "So what do you want?"
"I want you to understand what you are asking your queen to do." Xena traced a line across the map from Gaul, around the Mediterranean Sea, through the Judean territory and stopped at Egypt. She traced another line from Estonia at the border of the Baltic sea all the way to the Greek island of Crete. "Do you see the area Ive just outlined?"
"Yeah. Whats your point?" The elder scowled.
"That is the area Julius Caesar managed to conquer before he was assassinated. It is the area Octavian now rules. And they dont plan to stop until they reach the eastern edge of Chin." Xenas finger moved all the way to the far side of the map, stopping at the Yellow Sea. "Every new place they conquer, the people become slaves to Rome. Their goods are taxed for Romes benefit and their young men are conscripted into servitude as soldiers. Young girls are randomly taken from their homes to act as servants in the halls and palaces of Rome. Their lives no longer belong to them. Greece is already a part of that territory."
"You lie. No one could conquer that much territory." Maniahs eyebrows furrowed as she studied the map more closely.
"You dont think so?"
"I ruled half of Greece when my army turned on me, Maniah, and I was barely twenty-six summers old at the time. I had my sights on the world, too. It took the strength of Hercules and the love of Gabrielle to turn me away from that." It was Xenas turn to make the I love you sign behind her back, as she heard a muffled cry coming from the bards direction.
"Greece is a lot smaller than the world, warrior."
"True. But in my eyes it was just the first step. You see, the more I had, the more I wanted. And Caesar was the same way. And Octavian, though more of a humanitarian than Caesar, has that fire in his belly too. I dont like it and your queen doesnt like it. But Gabrielle rules six hundred Amazons. Octavian has hundreds of thousands of potential soldiers at his disposal. Opposing Rome means certain death. No one in this village knows that on a more personal level than your queen and I do. That is something else your queen and I learned the hard way."
"But giving in means slavery to Rome." Maniah began to feel defeat, but stubbornly held on. "Isnt it more honorable to die fighting for your freedom than to live as slaves?"
"What Octavian is offering is the closest thing to normal life that we are going to get. And the alternative is death of the Amazon nation. And Gabrielle and I promised Ephinys spirit that we wouldnt let that happen. All empires eventually fall, Maniah, and Rome will too. It may not happen in our lifetime, or even in the lifetime of the next generation, but if we react wisely, the Amazon nation will outlive Caesars legacy."
Gabrielle stepped forward, slipping in next to her partner. "Maniah, we are very lucky. Octavian doesnt care about the Amazons or the small farming villages of Greece. He wants the larger cities. As long as we dont cause trouble for him, he has promised to leave us alone. No conscripted slaves. No taxes. No servitude. All in exchange for us keeping to ourselves. The peace treaty we have proposed gives us the right to live our lives free from the strong arm of Rome, and to have free trade with the territories around us without taxation on our profits. We can prosper despite the presence of Rome. Rome will basically be invisible to us, and our lives will go on pretty much as they have." Serious green eyes regarded the elder. "Now doesnt that sound a whole lot better than dying?"
"So you arent selling us out?"
"No. We believe Octavian to be honorable. And if the day comes that he breaks the treaty, Xena and I will be the first to mount a defense against him, even if it does mean dying."
"Im sorry." Maniah hung her head. "I guess all I saw was the Destroyer of Nations and a love-blinded queen. I had no idea of the magnitude of what we were facing." The elder looked up into glacier blue eyes. "I still dont forgive you, Xena. Not for what you did to the northern Amazons in the past."
"I already told you I dont expect forgiveness." The warrior looked sadly down at her hands, which rested on the table on top of the map.
"But I dont have to like you to have respect for your tactical mind. My queen . . ." Maniah dropped to her knees. "Im prepared to accept my punishment."
Gabrielle never ceased to be amazed at the code of honor that most of the Amazons held to, even if their motives became misdirected. "Maniah. What you did goes far beyond a personal attack on me and Xena. Amazons dont sacrifice the lives of their sisters over petty grudges. You put this nation . . . my nation . . . my responsibility . . . in grave danger. Angering Octavian or going back on our promise of a treaty could have had dire consequences. Do you understand that I could have you executed for your actions?"
"Yes my queen." The elder continued to look down at the floor.
"If I didnt think you could change, I would have you executed, because I cant continue to allow you to defy every word and action I take. You may not like it, sometimes I dont like it . . ." The bard allowed a brief smile to play at her lips. ". . . but I am the queen. I wont allow the division you keep trying to stir up. So, you leave me with the problem of what to do with you if I let you live." The bard nudged her partner, who lifted her arm and allowed Gabrielle to move in next to her. She looked up at Xena and the warrior nodded her head briefly, a small mischievous grin crinkling the corners of her eyes.
Uh oh. Im in big trouble, I think. Maniah eyed the pair with true fear on her face.
"Maniah, I cant let you continue to live in this village. It would set a very bad precedent for anyone who has inclinations similar to yours. And its not fair to push you off on one of the other Amazon villages, because you have a real problem with authority."
"My queen, I dont . . . I can change."
"Unfortunately, I cant take you at your word on that. Youre going to have to prove it to me." The bard left Xenas side and began to pace slowly back and forth in front of the elder. "I knew you were going to be a problem from my first day in the village. And I thought very carefully about what I would do if this day ever came. I was pretty sure it would, eventually. It was just a matter of when. Xena and I talked for a long time about our alternatives, and I think we came up with something that will give you a chance to sit back and take a long hard look at what you have here in this village. Maybe make you appreciate your status here and not take it for granted."
"What . . . my queen? The tough elder was on the verge of tears. What in the name of Artemis is she planning for me?
Gabrielle stopped pacing and spun around, facing Maniah and pinning her in place with the force of her gaze. "Maniah, I sentence you to one year of serving in the kitchen of the inn at Amphipolis."
"What?!" Maniahs expression changed from fear to utter confusion. "My queen, I dont understand what that has to do with my crime."
The warrior laughed, an evil grin spreading across her face. She bent down until her face was mere inches from the elder Amazons. "My mother runs the inn at Amphipolis. And she already agreed to this arrangement several weeks back, if we ever needed it. Seems we do."
Oh Hades. Maniah chewed her lower lip. " What makes you think your mother can control me?"
"Dont expect her to have to." Xenas grin vanished, replaced by a hard cold glare. "I expect you to control yourself. But you better think long and hard about what youre up against. My mother managed to raise me, and Im still convinced she could kick my butt if she really wanted to. Shes one tough lady. Plus, my brother Toris lives at the inn. Hell be keeping an eye on you. And hes just like me. Only bigger."
"You will spend one year assisting Xenas mother with preparing three meals a day for the patrons of her inn. And helping her out with other chores as she sees fit. Shes run the inn pretty much by herself for a long time, and she could certainly use the help." The bard smiled up at her partner. "In the evenings, Aaron, the reeve of Amphipolis, will see to it that you are locked up in a holding cell in the inns basement. During your tenure there, you will dress as a simple villager. We dont want you scaring our friends half to death with Amazon attire. If after one year you have completed your sentence without incident, you will be allowed to return to this village and all your rights and privileges as an Amazon will be re-instated. If you dont want to return to this village, you may choose another village, or you may choose to leave the nation completely and strike out on your own. It will be your decision."
Maniahs shoulder slumped and she dropped her gaze back to the floor. "My queen, I accept my punishment. I wont give you any trouble."
"See to it that you dont." The warrior growled. "If you so much as attempt to harm a hair of my mothers head, I will hunt you down and I wont stop until you are dead. Do you understand?"
"Good." Gabrielle motioned to Eponin, who had stood by silently taking in the entire exchange. "Pony, lock her up. After the treaty summit well arrange for her escort to Amphipolis."
"Yes my queen." The weapons master forcefully hauled the defeated Amazon to her feet. "Come on. And no kicking or you wont live to see Amphipolis."
The bard returned to Xenas side, sliding into a warm side-hug as she watched the pair disappear down the stairs. "Think this will all work out?"
"Only time will tell, love." The warrior squeezed her partner. "Its definitely out of the ordinary, but stranger things have happened."
The scent of roasting chicken wafted into the room from the dining hall, which was immediately on the other side of the council room doors. Gabrielles stomach growled loudly and she stifled a giggle.
"Hungry, my bard?" Xena playfully tickled her partners mid-section.
"Good. Lets go get some dinner and then maybe we can sit out on the back terrace for a while. Maybe do a little star-gazing."
"Sounds like a plan to me." Gabrielle dragged her partner by the hand into the dining hall.
Continued in Part 7
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