Legal Disclaimers:<>Characters and backstory from Xena: Warrior Princess are the property of Renaissance/MCA/Studios USA. No copyright infringement is intended. <>This is an original work of alternative fan fiction. No profit will be gained from its production. It was written for entertainment purposes only. This piece of fiction is copyright of the author.
Content Disclaimers:<>If you are not of legal age to read the following or it is illegal where you live, then please exit this page.
Romantic love between consenting adult women
Author's Notes:<>Continued from The Way of Treachery.
When Wolf awoke, she quickly sat up and looked around. The Healer's hut was gone. She was assaulted by the scents and sounds of a forest. Wolf cocked her head to listen to the woodland alive in the bright of day. The memory of a dream was replaced by the more recent ones of earlier that day. Looking down, she saw that the arrows had been removed from her chest and a dressing was bound tightly over the wounds. With a wince of pain, she stood unsteadily to her feet.
"Have I crossed over?" she questioned softly.
"No, not yet."
Wolf turned to see Artemis stepping from the forest. "Goddess," Wolf greeted as she bowed slowly to a knee.
"Rise, Little One. Walk with me."
Nodding, the demi-god stood and fell into step with the goddess. She was grateful that Artemis was showing deference for her slow gait.
"My Chosen did well today," Artemis said after a few minutes of silence. "She would have died, though, if you had not taken that arrow meant for her."
"I took an oath to her," Wolf replied. "I didn't even think before I did that. Although I had been planning on catching it."
"Your mortal blood flaws you, Wolf, which is why you are lying in Nagla's hut while your life-force drains from you."
"So I am dying," the demi-god whispered.
"You will be dead within the hour."
"How am I here with you, then?"
"Your spirit is between realms right now. This place is one of my Sacred Forests. It is neither on the plane of mortals, nor within the reach of Death."
"If just my spirit is here, then why does my chest feel like someone's gouging hot pokers into it?"
Artemis looked sideways to Wolf and smiled. "Because in your mind, you know that you have been injured and you carried your wounds with you to this place."
"Silly me," Wolf muttered with another wince.
"Actually, I brought you here for a reason, Wolf," Artemis explained as she stopped to watch a doe and two fawns cross the path in front of them. "I have a proposition to make to you." When the demi-god's brows rose in question, the goddess continued. "It is, of course, totally up to you whether you accept."
Unsure whether she should be wary, Wolf pinched at her bottom lip in thought. "What's the proposition?"
Pointing to a small boulder, Artemis indicated for Wolf to sit. "I am going to be honest with you, since either way, it does not matter. You will either end up on the Other Side or you will accept my offer and the details will be a necessary knowledge." The Goddess sat down next to Wolf and frowned. "There is great turbulence on Olympus right now. Ares and Athena made a foolish bet and now the mortals have this war ravaging their lives. Most of the gods have taken sides. They argue among themselves about who the victor will be. What they do not understand is that mortals have no need of us in the Afterlife. The longer this war rages and the more mortals that die, the less we gods will be necessary. We will quietly fade into myth."
"I would think that the gods would enjoy a rest after eons of mortal voices calling out to them."
Artemis' wry grin was visible for only an instant. "Some gods thrive on the attention. I myself only need my Amazons. I never was one to interrupt much."
"Now," Artemis sighed, "I can see the end of the gods of Olympus. Not that we are going pass into oblivion, but we will be replaced by the gods of those that conquer whomever is left after this war." The goddess turned to study the demi-god. "While I may be displaced, I will not abandon my Daughters, especially my Chosen and her Consort."
"So where do I fit in?" Wolf asked with a frown of confusion.
"I saw Gabrielle as my Chosen before she was born. It is not easy to manipulate the Fates, I should say."
"You led Xena to her?"
"In a roundabout way, yes," Artemis admitted. "She needed Xena to help shape her into the queen that she is today. The two of them have been linked since time's beginning, and will be so until time's end. She and her daughter will be strong queens that the Nation will need in this trying time. And even after that, Gabrielle and Xena's destinies will always be to better the world." The goddess looked at Wolf expectantly. "That is where you come in."
"I'm sorry, Artemis," Wolf interrupted with a sigh. "I'm still not following you. I think I hit my head before I passed out."
"I once asked you what your destiny was."
Wolf nodded as fragments of the dream came back to her. "I remember. Before we fought Dahok, you came to me on the beach."
"And do you know what your destiny is now?"
"I guard Gabrielle," Wolf answered simply. "I try to keep her safe. That's the path I have chosen in life."
Artemis nodded. "Aside from your flight to Amphipolis," she began with displeasure that changed to satisfaction, "you have placed the well-being of my Chosen above your own."
"I thought I had good reasons for that, Artemis," the demi-god replied defensively, referring to her running away from the Nation. "But now, she is my duty and it is my honor to serve her. I can't see myself doing anything else."
"Your honor," the goddess repeated quietly. "I have waited a long time for someone like you to come along, Wolf."
Forgetting all sense of propriety, Wolf asked, "Are we getting to the point now? I don't know how much longer I can stay upright here."
Flashing the demi-god an amused smirk, Artemis chuckled. "Yes, I have waited a long time." The goddess stood once more and clearly laid out the proposition. "I have a stake in the bloodlines of the Chosen and her Consort, as well as their souls, which will travel the strands of the Fates for a long time to come. They are mine now and I will not tolerate any other gods or mortals tampering with their destinies. Sometimes, their meetings will be simple and the path easily traveled. Other times, it will be full of hardship. I cannot take the risk that they might fail to connect with each other for whatever reason."
"But I thought you said that their lives are intertwined," Wolf pointed out. "If that is so, how can they fail to connect?"
Artemis shook her head. "I am not the only one that has interests in them."
"You mean Ares?"
"He would love nothing more than to see Gabrielle out of Xena's life. Without a balance from my Chosen, Xena would walk a fine line between the warrior and the warlord. And a permanent slip towards warlord could have devastating results on the world. But Ares is not the only one that will try to come between them. There are others that would take great pleasure in keeping them apart."
"So your motivation is the preservation of yourself and the good of mankind?" Wolf tried to stifle a snort and failed. She winced, as a bolt of fire seemed to pierce through her wounds.
"I suppose it is somewhat hypocritical, charity and vanity," the goddess conceded. "But my question to you is, if given the chance, by your honor would you rather die or live to continue serving my Chosen?"
Wolf narrowed her eyes with suspicion. She had heard enough from Gabrielle to know that one never took anything at face value when the gods presented it. "I'm sure there are strings attached. There always are," she commented.
Artemis spread her arms out from her sides with her palms up. "It is simple, really. You would become my Guardian of the Blood. You would watch out for the Chosen and her bloodline."
Still not ready to consider the offer without doubts, Wolf raised an eyebrow. "And?"
"As you would be mine, you would have to forsake the god's blood that already runs through your veins. You will be mine and not Dahok's."
"What? You can remove his my evil?"
"You are not evil, Wolf. We have already covered that. I mean the gift he has given to you."
"Yes," Artemis replied, crossing her arms. "If you are going to be mine, you will carry my gift, not his."
Curiosity piqued, Wolf asked, "What would be your gift?"
"Immortality, of course. I had been saving some ambrosia for a time like this. But unfortunately, that was destroyed. However, since you are already half god, it would not take much." Reaching into a pouch at her belt, the goddess pulled out a small bottle and showed it to Wolf. "Straight from the table of Zeus. He will not miss just a pinch."
"Don't let him hear that," Wolf advised as her voice began to tremble.
"I told you, we are between realities. He could not find me even if he did know."
"That's a bit arrogant, don't you think?" Wolf asked in a shallow voice as she felt a cold sweat break out over her body. She doubled over when the pain in her chest became too much to bear. She exhaled slowly as the wave of agony passed. "So if I accepted your gift of immortality, what exactly do I have to do?"
"Keep them safe as much as you can. Make sure that they find each other in their times. Once their threads have joined, you can move on to the next couple."
"I think I'm on the path to insanity already," Wolf mumbled. "And how long will I have to do that? If they're supposed to meet until the end of time, that's a long tour of duty."
"Is my Chosen not your destiny?"
Wolf gritted her teeth against another wave of pain. They were getting worse the longer she stayed with Artemis. "I've already told you that she is," Wolf groaned.
Artemis laid a hand upon the demi-god's shoulder. "You are dying, Wolf," she explained. "Death is already on her way to guide you over to the Other Side. You don't have much time." The goddess then kneeled before Wolf and gripped her arms urgently. "Think about it now. Would your honor let you walk out on her again if you had the chance to remain?"
"No," the demi-god gasped, as she remained upright only by the strength of Artemis' hold on her.
"Will you be my Guardian of the Blood?"
Darkness began to slowly close in on Wolf. She blinked her eyes to keep it at bay, but it was relentless. She thought of Gabrielle and Xena. She thought of her own children. She thought of the specter of her father's blood, which she had always resented.
"Answer me, Wolf!"
"Yes," the demi-god finally answered brokenly as her head limply rolled back onto her shoulders. She felt Artemis pull her into an embrace. Her body felt like liquid fire, as if she were melting into a puddle; she was being consumed by pain. As insistent fingers forced her mouth open, she took a deep breath. Then, the wounds on her chest exploded in a blinding white light.
She screamed when the pain far surpassed her endurance.
Her own scream was still echoing in her ears when Wolf jumped up off the cot. Frantically, she tore at the dressing over her wounds. Once she had them off, she studied her chest, expecting the arrow wounds to have consumed her. A memory of the intense pain flashed through her mind and she laid her hand over the healed wounds; all that remained was a scar.
Finally realizing what had happened, she looked around the Healer's hut to find everyone staring at her with mouths agape. It was then that she heard the commotion in the square. A scuffle had broken out, from the sounds of it, and she rushed to see what was going on.
She moved quickly through the throng until she stood inside the Queen's circle. Again, she found herself the center of attention. Even Phelisya, who had taken advantage of the confusion to struggle with her guards, had stilled.
Gabrielle pushed her mask up on top of her head. Her eyes grew wide in disbelief. "It can't be," she whispered.
Instinctively, Xena moved in front of Gabrielle to shield her from any harm, but the Queen pushed her aside to approach Wolf.
"You were dying," she said as she reached out to touch the scar on the immortal's chest. The scar was a perfect circle encompassing a crescent.
"Long story," Wolf explained before noticing the renegade Amazon, who had regained her feet. "Excuse me," she said as she charged Phelisya.
The guards keeping hold of the renegade's arms let go. Phelisya had the air knocked out of her when Wolf tackled her to the ground.
Splitting the renegade's lip open with a right hook, the immortal growled. "That is for trying to kill the Queen." Another punch broke the cartilage in Phelisya's nose. "That was for killing me."
Wolf looked up at Gabrielle from where she was straddling a dazed Phelisya. "What?"
"Did you die? How can you be here? What in Tartarus is going on?"
Wolf glanced at the dagger that Gabrielle still held before regaining her feet; she understood its purpose. "Did I interrupt something?"
"Understatement," Xena muttered, as Wolf proved to be an effective anti-climax to Phelisya's punishment.
"Answer my questions," Gabrielle demanded, still not believing her eyes.
"I didn't quite die not all the way, at least." Wolf remembered Artemis' deal and was about to explain to Gabrielle, but a calm voice interjected.
Aratha stepped out of the crowd of Amazons and approached the Queen. Bowing her head respectfully, she pointed to the scar on Wolf's chest. "She carries the mark of Artemis, my Queen. She has been blessed and favored by the goddess. Artemis has stolen her from the arms of Death and returned her to us."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked, still not ready to accept the lack of information.
"My Queen," Wolf began as she held her hands out to show Xena that she was no threat. She approached Gabrielle and dropped to her knees, tilting her head to look up at Gabrielle. "She sent me back because of you. I am to be your Guardian, just as I have always been." Wolf's eyes remained on Gabrielle's, even as she sensed the bard raising the dagger. With a soft exhalation, she was relieved when the Queen merely sheathed the weapon.
"Rise, Wolf," Gabrielle ordered.
When the immortal regained her feet, she was pulled into a crushing embrace.
"When are you going to realize that I don't like it when you leave me?" Gabrielle asked as her eyes swelled with tears. "That was a stupid thing you did."
Wolf shook her head solemnly. "No, it was the right thing to do. You are the Amazon Queen. You are the Nation. My life is yours. And yours is invaluable to our people."
"No, Wolf," Gabrielle argued. "I'm just like everyone else."
Smiling at the Queen, Wolf again shook her head. "No, you aren't, Gabrielle," she whispered for the Queen's ears only. "You are our survival." When no more contention was forthcoming, Wolf stepped back and faced the crowd. "Now that I'm feeling up to it," she shouted to be heard, "I challenge Phelisya. It is my right since I'm the one that was hit with that arrow she ordered to be shot."
"Wolf," Gabrielle began impatiently as she grabbed the immortal's arm, "This is my duty, recant your challenge."
"You don't need to do this, Gabrielle. I can take this out of your hands."
The Queen's eyes bore into Wolf's. "I've already passed judgment and it is time to deliver the sentence." For a moment, Gabrielle's features softened with understanding. "I have to do this myself."
Recognizing the determination in Gabrielle's eyes, Wolf conceded to the Queen. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I hadn't realized." She took a step back and crossed her arms over her chest, realizing belatedly that she was topless. She watched Phelisya carefully as Gabrielle approached the renegade once more. Her keen hearing heard the Queen's soft words.
"I wish things could have ended differently, Phelisya," Gabrielle stated quietly. Nodding to the guards to tighten their hold on the traitor, Gabrielle refused to flinch under the hateful glare of the warrior who had not spoken at all during the judgment. "Do you have any last words?" Gabrielle asked.
Again, Phelisya spit upon the Queen and swore. "Go to Tartarus."
Gabrielle closed her eyes as she lowered her mask back into place. "I hope Hades shows mercy on your soul."
Collective murmurs ran through the crowd when Gabrielle unsheathed her dagger and concluded her judgment. When it was over, the guards released their grasp on the renegade and let her fall to the dirt.
"Take her from the Nation. She will have no Amazon pyre," the Queen ordered as she handed the dagger to Xena and walked stiffly back to her hut.
Xena and Wolf turned to watch Gabrielle duck back into the Queen's hut. The Consort turned to Wolf and studied her intently. "So do you plan on giving me the rest of the story?" she asked. "The gods do nothing from the good of their hearts."
"Later," Wolf replied as her fingers absently traced the scar on her chest. "After you see to Gabrielle and things settle down a little, I'll tell you both. Right now, I need to get my things from Nagla's. I'm beginning to feel like a roasted boar at a feast with all the battlelust running rampant around here."
Xena looked over Wolf's head at the warriors that were slowly walking off in couples and small groups. "Come back to our hut when you're finished. Gabrielle will appreciate you being there."
"Don't you two want to be alone?"
"Nah," Xena answered with a sad look. "Today has been a day of too many big firsts for Gabrielle. She's going to need time to get back to herself."
"What about the children?"
"They're at the Caretakers' Hut. Theli and the others are going to keep them all for the night. No one is fit to watch after their children right now." With a small shove, Xena started Wolf in the direction of the Healer's Hut. "Hurry up and get what you need to get. I'm going to Gabrielle."
With a smart salute, Wolf followed her former commander's orders. She was about to jog to Nagla's, but refrained. There were still too many warriors milling about in the square and it would not do her any good to entice them down a path that had a dead end. Instead, she walked slowly with her arms crossed over her chest.
When she stepped back into the Healer's Hut, she located her armor and weapons. Clutching the armor to her chest, she slung her swords over her shoulder. A blushing Rhena, who held a basket out to her, brought her up short.
"Here's the rest of them," she said with awe for the woman who had practically bounced away from Death's embrace.
Wolf smiled crookedly and thanked the apprentice. She spared a glance to the cot that was covered with her blood. Suppressing a shudder, she left the hut and made her way to the Queen's.
Knocking discretely on the doorframe, she entered to find Xena aiding Gabrielle, who was hunched over the chamberpot. Dropping her gear just inside the door, she rushed over to them. "Is she all right?"
"She's just sick," Xena replied as Gabrielle retched again. "It'll be better," the Consort said softly as she rubbed Gabrielle's back.
Wolf went to retrieve the washbasin so that Gabrielle could splash some water on her face. When she saw the bloodied water, she frowned. Without a word, she left the hut to dump it outside. She returned a few minutes later with clean water. Taking a scrap of linen from the shelf above the basin's stand, she returned to Gabrielle. "Here, my Queen," she offered, "for your face." Dipping the cloth into the water and squeezing the excess out, she handed it to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle looked at the linen then up into Wolf's eyes. Slowly, she took it from the immortal's hand and wiped it across her face.
"Rinse, Gabrielle," Xena prompted as she handed Gabrielle a waterskin.
Obediently, the Queen did as she was told; her eyes never left Wolf's.
Unprepared for the Queen's springing launch, Wolf fell back when Gabrielle grabbed her in another fervent embrace. On the way down, she cracked the back of her head on the bed frame and she cried out.
Gabrielle pulled back to see Wolf rubbing the back of her head; her smile was tremulous as she finally felt free enough to give her emotions free rein. Silent tears began to fall from her golden lashes and she sobbed just before smacking Wolf's arm. "I feel like I'm on a wild ride in Apollo's chariot with you sometimes," she cried as she wiped at her tears.
"What was I supposed to do, Gabrielle? Let Estra shoot you?"
"You weren't supposed to die on me."
"I didn't die," Wolf exclaimed as she sat up and took Gabrielle's hand. "See?"
Gabrielle let Wolf lead her fingers to the steady pulse in the immortal's neck. "I still don't understand why."
"Well, if it's all right with you, I'd like to get up off the floor and get something strong to drink. I've had a really long day," Wolf said as she pushed herself up. "Get comfortable and strap yourself in," she said as she retrieved a wineskin and grabbed a chair by the table. "The ride is going to get even wilder."
"I understand that the ambrosia made you immortal and not a god because she just gave you a little bit. But why didn't Xena become immortal when I gave the ambrosia to her?"
Wolf narrowed her eyes at the Queen. It took a while for her brain to process Gabrielle's sluggish words.
"Because I was dead at the time, Gabrielle, and Wolf had a bit of a head start on me. One, she was already half goddess, and beta, she wasn't quite dead yet," Xena answered. She was a little more sober than the Queen and Guardian and had to repeatedly explain things to the both of them as the conversation grew longer into the small hours of the evening. They had already consumed two wineskins and were working on the sweet ale that Gabrielle kept in her Queen's Chambers at the Meeting Hut.
Gabrielle upended the skin of ale to only have the last drop fall upon her tongue. "I think we are going to need to send some Amazons to Corinth for more wine," she said as she dropped the skin forlornly into her lap. "Who would have thought that Amazons could go through so much wine after a battle."
"I think we've all had enough for tonight, Gabrielle," Xena admonished as she took the wineskin from Gabrielle and tossed it on the floor with the other two.
"We're going to have to wash all the bedding tomorrow," the Queen mumbled as she rolled over to snuggle against Xena. "You and Wolf forgot to change before you got into bed."
"We'll take care of it, love," Xena promised as she wrapped an arm around her wife. Closing her eyes, she tenderly kissed her bard's forehead. Looking over she found Wolf watching them with an unguarded wistfulness. Xena smiled softly. "Good night, Wolf."
The Guardian blinked drunkenly when she realized that she had been caught staring. She blushed as she rolled onto her back and gazed at the ceiling instead. "Night, Xena," she whispered.
Shortly afterwards, Xena was still awake. She was listening to the sounds of the other two women sleeping as she contemplated Wolf's story. As the hours crawled by, her suspicions grew deeper.
The next morning, Gabrielle woke with a dry mouth and the hammer of Hephaestus pounding in her skull. Opening her eyes a fraction, she slowly rolled her head to the side. She saw Wolf curled on her side, still asleep. Gabrielle studied the Guardian's face relaxed in slumber. Her experiences of the day before were not evident save for the vivid scar on her chest. As hard as Gabrielle tried to consider Wolf's new relationship to Artemis, she could not think past the throbbing of her head.
Gabrielle sighed when she heard Xena's voice outside of the hut. Assuming that she was talking to M'Eru and Darlea, Gabrielle closed her eyes once more. She waited patiently for her Consort, regretting the wine she had consumed the previous night. She squeezed her eyes shut against the sudden brightness in the room that penetrated her eyelids.
Xena shook her head as she entered the hut. Seeing the pained look on Gabrielle's face, she approached the Queen. She deposited a mug on the table before sitting gently on the side of the bed. Tenderly, she brushed a stray lock of hair from her wife's forehead. She smiled when the Queen looked up at her. "I stopped at Nagla's and got this for you," Xena said as she gave Gabrielle the other mug she had brought into the hut. "Drink it all down as quick as you can."
Gabrielle frowned and struggled to slowly sit. Once upright, she accepted the mug from Xena. With a deep breath, she raised the mug to her lips. Following directions, she drained it. She grimaced as she handed the empty mug back to Xena. "Gods, that is the most vile concoction. It tastes like goat poo."
"You'll be glad for it when your hangover goes away." Xena reached out and took Gabrielle's hand to offer comfort.
Doubting the Consort's prediction, Gabrielle merely gave Xena a suffering look. She did have to admit to herself, however, that the hammer was pounding a little less insistently. "How long have you been up?" she asked as she leaned against the ornate headboard.
Xena shrugged as she saw that Wolf continued to sleep. "I went to feed Eponin at dawn."
"What time is it now?"
"Three marks past," Xena replied.
Managing a sardonic lift to her brow, Gabrielle asked, "What else have you been up to?"
"I checked the northern perimeter, made sure all the snares had already been tripped. Then I stopped over at Nagla's to see how things were going and to pick up your goat poo."
Gabrielle made a face for being reminded, but she smiled her gratitude for the relief. "Are the sentries up?"
"They're on duty."
"And how are things at Nagla's?"
"She lost two overnight, but she wasn't counting on any more miracles, so it was expected."
Gabrielle closed her eyes in sadness. "How many did we lose overall?"
"Eighteen," Xena softly replied as she stroked Gabrielle's hand, which she was still holding. "We did better than expected, considering the Greek losses."
"Are there any Greeks left on the field?"
"Just one," Xena said. She was grateful that Gabrielle did not see the feral gleam of her smile. "Melaethenes wasn't claimed by any of his conscripts."
Gabrielle opened her eyes in surprise. "The conscripts took all the other Athenians with them?"
"There weren't any Athenians besides Melaethenes. Ephiny's already sent out another squad to check again."
"Where is Ephiny?"
"She's with Xenan, getting a late breakfast."
Gabrielle held up a hand for mercy. "I am not ready to hear about food just yet." She closed her eyes again and frowned. "I can't believe I got drunk last night. That was not me."
"You've been under a lot of stress lately, Gabrielle," Xena slowly answered after a moment's thought. "After the dust cleared yesterday, you just needed to let go for a while."
"Still," Gabrielle continued with a shake of her head. "It is my responsibility to lead this Nation, not hide in a wineskin when I start to fall apart."
"Gabrielle, I'm not going to say that you did or didn't do anything wrong, and neither is anyone else. Ephiny made sure that things were taken care of."
"Remind me to give Eph another vacation." Gabrielle opened her eyes to look at Xena silently. She was reminded of Wolf when the Guardian rolled onto her back. "What do you think about what happened to her?" she asked with a nod in Wolf's direction.
A flicker of distrust crossed Xena's features before she replied. "You know I don't trust any of the gods and their motivations, Gabrielle. I just don't know what to think about Wolf right now."
The Queen and Consort fell still as they thought about their friend who was now immortal.
A thick mumble cracked the silence between Xena and Gabrielle. "I am awake now, so feel free to share your feelings." Wolf raised a hand to cover her closed eyes. "And one of you had better feel as miserable as I do now."
Releasing Gabrielle's hand, Xena rose to retrieve the mug on the table. She returned to sit on the bed. Holding the mug out towards Wolf, she stated, "I got this from Nagla's. Drink it."
Wolf peeked through her fingers and scowled. "I thought that was the smell that woke me." She covered her nose and swallowed hard. "I think I'd rather suffer my stupidity."
"Oh, no," Gabrielle exclaimed, "if I drink it, you drink it."
"I don't suppose that I can pout my way out of this."
"No," Xena responded. "I want you to ride with me today."
Wolf gingerly raised herself to a sitting position. Taking the mug from Xena, she stopped breathing long enough to gulp down the mixture. She gagged and shuddered, praying that it would stay down. When she was successful, she handed the mug back to Xena. Carefully, she leaned her head against the headboard and closed her eyes. "Where are we riding to?"
"Back to the river," Xena answered with a look to Gabrielle. When the Queen gave a slight nod of approval, Xena continued. "I just want to make sure that no one stayed behind yesterday." Turning to Gabrielle, Xena's eyes conveyed her concern. "Will you be alright while I'm gone?"
Gabrielle reflected thoughtfully before answering. "I think so," she replied with a smile that lacked confidence.
Xena once more took Gabrielle's hand. She gazed deeply into the Queen's eyes to find the flicker of doubt. "If you'd rather, we can send someone else."
Forcing a more decisive smile, Gabrielle shook her head. "No, Xena. I know it will only drive you crazy unless you do it yourself."
"It'll drive me even crazier knowing that you need me when I'm gone."
"I'll be fine," Gabrielle assured her, patting her Consort's hand. "Really. Just don't be gone all day," she added softly.
"I promise that I'll be back before you know it."
Xena and Wolf rode silently to the Vidari. They followed the riverbank to the shallow where the conscripts had crossed to return north to Thrace.
"Do you think that the Greeks meant to attack us all along?" Wolf asked, finally breaking the silence.
Xena shrugged as she dismounted. "Don't know, but I'm sure that Phelisya played a part in swaying them."
Noticing Xena's distraction, Wolf dismounted as well. She left Beast to his own devices and walked over to Xena. "What's on your mind?" She looked up at Xena with concern.
The Consort stared at the ribbons of sun that reflected off the gently tumbling water. When she turned her gaze to Wolf, her eyes were emotionless. "This whole thing with you and Artemis," she answered honestly. "I have trust issues when it comes to the gods." Returning her contemplation to the water, Xena frowned. "Why bother creating a Guardian if Gabrielle and my spirits are going to meet each other without help in all our incarnations? It doesn't make sense."
Wolf shrugged as she replied. "Insurance?" she hazarded a guess. Mentally, she replayed the conversation with Artemis. "I got the impression that the two of you together are destined forever to be a balance against evil."
"Forever fighting for the greater good," Xena mumbled. "And here I hoped that we could retire some day." Turning to look fully at Wolf, Xena studied the Guardian. Wolf had forgone her armor; the mark of Artemis was visible above the low lines of her leather halter. It was a reminder of the suspicions that had been nagging Xena since her old friend had returned from near death. "So how does it feel to be immortal?" she asked.
"I don't know," Wolf answered hesitantly. "I don't feel any different than I did yesterday."
"You don't miss the dragon?"
Unsure of where Xena was going with the conversation, Wolf took a moment to think about her answer. "I'm sure that one day, I will miss it. But it hasn't been a part of my every-day life. So until that day comes, I'll accept that sacrifice." Wolf sighed as she closed her eyes. "Besides, it's one less reminder to you and Gabrielle about who my father is."
"That was never an issue," Xena stated adamantly.
"Somehow I doubt that," the Guardian argued skeptically.
"Okay, maybe for the first five minutes after you told us. But I've known and trusted you since long before you found out. It didn't change who you were."
"And now that my life has been changed completely by another god? What's the difference?"
Xena became thoughtful. She withdrew her sword and looked at Wolf. Her expression was unreadable. "Do you trust me?"
Wolf eyed the sword warily, but there was no hesitation in her response. "You know I trust you," she replied steadily. She licked her suddenly dry lips as Xena approached her. The Consort was like a panther stalking its prey. Wolf understood her intentions, but made no move to stop her. She stood with no weapon in her hands; her heart pounded furiously as Xena's stopped a sword's length from her. Wolf's field of vision narrowed to the thin blade that Xena raised between them. She squinted against the sparks of sunlight that danced along the edge of the weapon.
Without warning, Xena lunged forward. Her blade found soft flesh as it sank into Wolf's bare abdomen. She ignored the mask of agony that fell over the Guardian's face.
When Xena withdrew the weapon, Wolf fell to her knees. Nauseating waves of pain lapped at the wound. She fought to hold the Consort's intense eyes. The burning from within, however, forced her to look down at the wound, which was bleeding profusely. Then, as if time was speeding upon Hermes' winged sandals, the wound stopped bleeding. She watched in amazement as the clean edges of the wound began to join and seal. There was no sign of the injury once the burning passed.
"Now you know," Xena said with a grunt. She bent to clean her sword on the grass and sheathed it. Extending her hand to help the immortal to her feet.
"Know what?" Wolf asked when she found her voice.
"What's it like to be immortal?"
Wolf rubbed the spot where Xena had skewered her. "It hurts like Tartarus."
"Did you think it wouldn't be painful?" Xena crossed her arms and turned back to the river.
"Point for Xena," Wolf muttered. "Why did you do that in the first place?"
"To see what would happen," Xena answered.
"Satisfy your curiosity?"
"For now." Xena glanced down at the tracks that crossed the river. "Let's head back the other way and make sure there's no surprises that way. Then we'll head back."
After remounting their warhorses, Wolf saw the slight tilt of a smirk on Xena's lips. "What now?" she asked suspiciously.
"I was just thinking," Xena replied without inflection, "that I don't have to take it so easy on you when we spar now. If I accidentally kill you, you'll survive."
Wolf's response was unspoken, as Xena suddenly urged Argo to a full gallop. The Guardian watched for a moment before giving chase.
At the other end of the plain, when the horses became winded, Xena and Wolf slowed them to a halt and dismounted. They continued on foot, walking the horses to cool them down. They followed the ridge that led to the valley below.
"So," Wolf said as she fell into step with Xena, "have I passed your test?"
Xena answered bluntly. "No. But time will prove this out one way or another." Xena reached out and clasped Wolf's arm, pulling her to a stop. She bowed her head, as she loomed over the smaller woman; her tense body language stressed her warning. "I don't know if this change is good or not and I don't trust the reasons behind it. But if something happens to Gabrielle or my girls, and you're the cause of it, I will find a way to kill you."
Wolf swallowed uneasily under the hard glare and threat. "Xena, I'm still the person I was yesterday before the battle. I took an arrow for Gabrielle. You know that I would never let anything happen to her or the princesses. If I'm the cause for something happening to them, I'd find a way to end my own life."
Releasing Wolf, Xena continued walking. She slowed her steps until the shorter woman caught up to her. "This really isn't about you, Wolf." Xena searched for the words to convey her complicated reservations. "I still trust you. But Gabrielle and I have been through so much when it comes to the gods, that I'm not going to give them the benefit of a doubt."
"I understand, Xena," the Guardian murmured; her heart was till thumping hard. Never once during the painful time when she accepted Artemis' offer, did Wolf consider the implications to her relationship with Xena. "I won't fail you or Gabrielle," she whispered in promise, almost as much to herself as to Xena.
"I hope not," the Consort replied just as quietly.
Wolf hesitated for a moment as a question sprung to her mind. "How does Gabrielle feel?"
"I haven't had a chance to talk with her about it, but I know that she's glad to have you back. She trusts Artemis and she trusts you. She doesn't let doubt change the way she cares for someone." Xena looked away to hide her regret of her own past with Gabrielle. "Come on, we'd better start back."
As they had left the village in silence, so the Consort and the Guardian returned. Not another word was spoken between them about the changes that had altered their lives.
After rubbing down their warhorses, Xena and Wolf stood at the entrance of the stable. The sun was halfway through its descent for the day and a soft breeze ruffled the warriors' hair.
"I'm going to stop down at the springs and clean up a bit," Wolf said, indicating the dark stain of blood that covered the front of her leathers.
Xena nodded as she turned away. Looking over her shoulder, she called out to Wolf, who began walking towards the springs. "Meet me in the dining hall after you're done. We can grab something to eat."
Wolf raised a hand in understanding. Though still hurt by Xena's wary attitude, she accepted the invitation. "I'll see you in a bit." Wolf walked backwards, watching as Xena turned back to the village. Her mind still turning over earlier events, the immortal turned around and slowly made her way to the springs.
Xena found Gabrielle in her room at the meeting hut. The Queen was going over her notes from her earlier meetings with her advisors and the Council. Knocking softly on the door, Xena leaned against the frame. "Things are clear out there, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle looked up from her scroll; her immediate smile dimmed when she saw Xena's eyes. "What's wrong, Xena?"
The Consort sighed as she pushed away from the doorframe. Closing the door behind her, she entered Gabrielle's private sanctum. Xena could not meet her wife's eyes as she leaned against the edge of the Queen's table. "I tried, Gabrielle. I tried to just let it go again, but I can't."
Pushing her scroll to the side, Gabrielle sat back and studied Xena. "What are you talking about, Xena?" She ducked her head to look into Xena's face. "You're having a problem with what Artemis did." It was an observation borne of familiarity. There was no judgment in her tone.
"We've put up with a lot from the gods, Gabrielle. Why should this be any different than all the other schemes?"
"This isn't Ares, Xena. This is Artemis. She's never gotten involved with us in all the time we've traveled together, aside from Larin."
Xena nodded reluctantly, agreeing with Gabrielle. "I guess we do owe her for that."
"Has she ever done anything to hurt us?"
"Are you just being my overprotective warrior?"
Xena's eyes rose to find Gabrielle's. She could not resist answering the Queen's warm smile. "Maybe."
Gabrielle rose to stand in front of Xena. When the Consort uncrossed her legs, the Queen eased them apart to get as close to Xena as she could. Stepping to press her body firmly against Xena's, Gabrielle raised her lips to press them softly against her wife's. "Please don't doubt this, Xena. We need to have faith in Artemis and Wolf. I don't think that either of them wants to cause trouble."
"You know I can't do that, Gabrielle. Questioning motives is second nature to me. It's not something I can just turn off. It's something that's kept me alive many times."
"I know, honey," Gabrielle sighed. "But I just don't have any bad feelings about this."
"To be honest, Gabrielle, I don't have any feelings either way. But experience has taught me that the other gauntlet could fall at any time."
"You know that I've learned to trust your instincts," Gabrielle began, assuring the woman with whom she had spent the last nine years of her life. "Just this once, though, if you aren't having any bad feelings, could we just take this as a blessing that our friend was returned to us?"
"You ask a lot."
"Is it so hard to just let go and get by on faith?"
"For me, yes."
"What about for me?"
"You mean go on faith for you?" Xena's brow arced high. "You are a ruthless negotiator, Gabrielle, but I'm a warrior that lives by action, not wishes."
"Okay, how about you just resist the urge to go searching for a conspiracy? If there is one, I'm sure it will find us in no time at all. We seem to attract that kind of thing."
"I might be able to manage that."
"I'd consider it a favor worth rewarding." Gabrielle nuzzled Xena's neck in an attempt to distract the warrior.
"Have I mentioned that you are a ruthless negotiator?"
"I have many skills," the Queen replied as she pulled back; her eyes sparkled with affectionate mirth.
Kissing the tip of Gabrielle's nose, Xena relented for the moment. "Did you eat lunch yet?"
"I managed to grab a little something during the Council meeting, but I could always eat something more."
"I bet you could," Xena replied with a soft smile. "Wolf is supposed to meet me at the dining hall. Can you join us?"
"Let's go." As they were leaving the meeting hut, Gabrielle took Xena's hand. She raised it to get a better look at the warrior's nails. "Do I want to know whose blood this is on your hands?"
Xena's eyes narrowed imperceptibly. "No, you don't."
"Gabrielle, you know me by now. I just had to get a few things off my chest."
The Queen looked into Xena's face and sighed. "You will wash your hands before we eat, right?"
"And how are things with Wolf?"
Xena shrugged as she urged Gabrielle towards the dining hut. "We came to an understanding."
"I can't have my Consort and the Captain of my Guard making a mess every time they need to discuss something important, Xena." Gabrielle stopped in front of the small hand trough outside of the dining hut. She looked pointed at her wife then crossed her arms and waited as Xena washed her hands.
"It wasn't what you think, Gabrielle. We didn't fight or anything." Xena turned away from Gabrielle to shake the water from her hands. "I just wanted to see how this new thing worked."
The Queen's eyes widened in disbelief. "Oh, please don't tell me that you tried to kill her, Xena. How could you?" When Xena did not answer, Gabrielle threw her hands up into the air. "I can't believe this. You tried to kill my Guard? Why?" She struggled to keep her tone even and hushed.
"I was curious," Xena replied with an innocent raise of her brows. She began to fidget under Gabrielle's stern gaze. "She trusted me to do what I did," the Consort continued, defending herself. "And now we both know that a sword wound won't kill her."
"It's a wonder I keep my sanity with you two," Gabrielle grumbled. "I hope that you both got it all out of your systems now."
Xena clasped her hands behind her back and bowed her head to lose herself in Gabrielle's eyes. "I promise to not try and kill her again unless I have to."
Opening her mouth to berate Xena, Gabrielle then closed it. She understood the futility of telling a warrior not to kill. "Why you would think that you have to is beyond me. But I won't argue with you about it any more. I'm going in there to make sure that Wolf is still in one piece."
"Oh, she is," Xena quickly replied. "Damndest thing, watching her heal the way she did."
"No details, please," the Queen commented as they entered the hut.
Inside, they found Wolf sitting on the floor with her twins. Aresha sat at a nearby table, preparing two plates for the children. Upon seeing the Queen, Wolf quickly got to her feet and bowed respectfully. "My Queen," she greeted with a nod. "Xena." She met the Consort's eyes and held them for a moment. "I hope you don't mind that I asked Aresha to bring the girls over to me. I wanted to spend some time with them before I take my shift duty."
"Of course not," Gabrielle answered immediately. "Although I wish you wouldn't start back to work so soon. You've just gotten over nearly dying."
"I'm fine, Gabrielle." Wolf looked at Xena again; they shared a silent moment before the immortal looked back to the Queen. "It's my duty and I'm able to do it. Nothing is going to stop me."
Noticing the look between Xena and Wolf, Gabrielle made a mental note to talk to Xena about what actually happened out on the plain earlier that day. The usual jocularity between the two warriors was missing. There was an air of uneasy truce between them and Gabrielle wanted to know what issue had brought them to that point. "If you say so, Wolf. But I know that you and Xena haven't eaten yet today, so let's sit down and enjoy a friendly meal." The Queen was appeased for the moment that both Xena and Wolf caught the undertone of her order.
Before the Queen even took her seat, the cook had already placed a platter of food on her table. Xena quietly apprised Gabrielle of what was left on the plain; the Queen questioned her carefully, not wanting to miss a single detail.
Wolf listened as she alternately fed herself and Peran. She watched to make sure that Aresha was not having a hard time with Zasha. Every so often, she glanced over Gabrielle's shoulder towards Xena. More than once, the Consort met her gaze. There was very little warmth conveyed, as Xena's distrust was clear. She felt as if she was constantly being watched. She was afraid to make a move that might be construed as threatening. Her usual friendly ease was replaced by awkward uncertainty.
As soon as she finished eating and the twins had their fill, she gained Gabrielle's attention. Excusing herself, she left to spend some time with her children. From the expression on the Consort's face, it seemed to Wolf that Xena questioned the motive behind the quick departure. She found herself growing even more uncomfortable under Xena's intense regard. Gathering the twins in her arms, she bowed her head to the Queen. So occupied with her discomfort, she did not notice Aresha following her out of the hut.
Later that evening, Gabrielle was sitting on the bed with Larin as Xena changed Eponin into her sleeping gown. "She let you do it?" she asked as she ran a soft brush through Larin's fine blond hair.
"She could have stopped me, Gabrielle. She's fast enough. But she trusted me. While that said a lot in itself, I still have a problem with the gods interfering with us. I've seen too much of it. And you heard what Artemis told her. This whole damn war is because of them. Just like Troy, only a wooden horse is not going to win this war. Nobody will." Taking a deep breath to calm her rising anger, Xena looked down at her daughter. "I wanted our children to grow up knowing something of peace, Gabrielle. I thought that when we settled down, it'd be easier."
Gabrielle looked over at her wife and shook her head. "Xena, this is peace considering what our life was like on the road. This is our home."
"I'm not arguing that, honey," the Consort explained as she cradled Eponin. Carrying the child to the bed, Xena reclined against the mound of pillows that the Queen had piled up for her. "Maybe our lives were just never meant to be uneventful."
"As if you would be content with the day in and day out of the same thing."
"I could get used to it."
"And I could learn to throw your chakram some day." Gabrielle handed the babies' brush to Xena and smiled. "Extraordinary people lead extraordinary lives. And you, my warrior, definitely fall into that category."
Gabrielle fell silent as she lulled Larin to sleep by rubbing the child's back.
"What are you thinking?" Xena asked quietly.
"I can't believe she moved back into her own hut already. Aresha helped her move things out while I was trying to talk her out of it."
"Maybe she thought it was time to move past Triva."
"Maybe it had something to do with the fact that you promised to kill her."
Xena winced slightly at the tone of Gabrielle's voice. "I meant what I said to her, Gabrielle. If anything happened to you or the babies, you know that I would do something about it."
"Yeah, action, not words."
Sitting up in the bed, Xena reached across to gently grasp Gabrielle's chin. Turning her wife's face to her, the Consort allowed her emotions free reign in her expression. She was fierce with a devoted passion. "When it comes down to it, I don't give a damn about Amazons, your Mask, or anything else. My family is everything to me, and I'll do what I need to do to keep it safe." The Consort swallowed the rising fear that always lurked deep in her soul. "I am a warrior, Gabrielle. I always will be one. Don't ask me to change."
"I'm not asking you to change, Xena. I'm just asking you to accept Wolf as she is now. Accept Artemis' blessing for her."
"I accept nothing but what I can see and feel."
Gabrielle saw the truth in Xena's declaration. She capitulated only because neither of them was going to sway the other. "Is there a compromise here?"
"I won't kill Wolf unless I have a reason to." Xena repeated her condition once more. "I know she's still the same woman I've known for over fifteen years. I hope to know her for many more. She's a strong fighter and a valuable ally. But I won't go along with this blindly."
Nodding in acceptance, Gabrielle was thoughtful as she put a sleeping Larin into the crib. She returned to the bed and sat cross-legged next to her Consort. "And I suppose that I can stop telling you what you should believe. For as long as I've known you, you've never been one to let people tell you what to do. You've always followed your own conscience. That was always something I admired about you." A sudden smile brightened the Queen's countenance. "Well, I wasn't so admiring all those times you fell into self-pity and let yourself be jailed, tried, and nearly executed."
Xena's answering grin was a bit lopsided. "I guess I have better things to do now than to wallow in guilt."
"Making love to your wife would be a start," the Queen suggested.
"After all those mean looks you gave me since I got back today?"
"Just for effect, Xena. Underneath it all, I'll never be able to stop loving you."
"You're still upset about it."
"Not so much since I dragged the whole story out of you." Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. "I still don't understand you two sometimes."
"Wolf and I understand each other, Gabrielle. She knows why I said what I said and why I did what I did. She probably would have done the same in my place." Xena chuckled softly as she rose to carry Eponin to bed.
"Now you laugh?" Gabrielle watched with open fondness as Xena leaned into the crib to kiss both their daughters good night.
Xena crawled into bed and rearranged the pillows. After getting comfortable and accepting Gabrielle into their familiar embrace, she replied. "You saw what happened when she came out of Nagla's hut. She decked Phelisya for trying to kill you."
"I'd rather not discuss that right now," Gabrielle responded quietly. "I hope I never have to perform that rite again."
Pulling Gabrielle tighter to her side, Xena offered what comfort she could. "You did what had to be done, Gabrielle. Every one of your Amazons wishes it were her hand wielding the dagger. You merely spoke for them." Tilting the bard's eyes up to meet hers, she asked, "You never thought that being Queen meant making the easy decisions, did you?"
"I didn't know what to think about anything when I accepted the Mask. I had other things on my mind."
"I know, honey. I know." Kissing the Queen's brow, Xena sighed. "I think that's when I truly fell in love with you. Your thoughts were what made the decision for me to live again. I became lost in you."
"You're sweet talking me again." Gabrielle pushed herself up to lean over Xena's chest. She looked deep into her wife's eyes and lowered her head for a slow, healing kiss. "That will get you everywhere."
As the two lovers fell into the sweet, languorous embrace of passion, across the square, a lone warrior stood in the shadows.
"Do you always just creep around?"
Wolf backed up to look at the Amazon who had addressed her. Craning her head, she saw the familiar face of Arna. "Thought you were bunking in the field."
Arna crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against the support post of Wolf's hut. "It's a beautiful night. After the past two days, a little solitude is appreciated."
"Well, I'll leave you to it, then." Wolf turned to enter her hut. She was brought up short by a strong hand clasping her arm. Slowly, she turned to face Arna. Her brows rose in question.
"I never said that solitude couldn't be shared." The tall warrior released Wolf's arm and smiled.
"That's a bit of a contradiction, isn't it?"
"Why don't we find out?"
Wolf was about to decline when a soft moan danced upon the wind to her ears. Loneliness chilled her to the bone. She nodded slightly towards her covered door. "Why don't we go inside?" When Arna followed her closely, she warned, "Just keep it down, I just got my girls to sleep."
That evening, as Xena and Gabrielle promised to never forsake their love, Wolf realized that destiny might be a two-sided blade. As Arna held her long into the night, she lay awake. Her mind replayed Xena's deadly promise in a relentless cycle until eyes of ice blue and the whisper of death haunted her. She fell into a troubled sleep when she realized that only time would prove her loyalty. She would have to start all over again.