Characters and backstory from Xena: Warrior Princess are property of MCA/Universal/Renaissance. No copyright infringement is intended. This is an original (I hope)work of alternative fan fiction. No profit will be gained from its production. This piece of fiction is copyright of the author.
There are depictions of love/sex between consenting adult persons of the same gender. If this is illegal where you live, you are underage, or the idea ties your intestines in a knot (eww...that's a thought), then stop reading here and find something more appropriate to your tastes and/or laws. There is violence depicted in this story. There is implied rape depicted in this story.
Some good ole cussin'.
This is a sequel and takes place approximately five years after The Way of the Bard in The Way of Life series. Oh...I've switched to modern English measurements...if TPTB have no problem doing it on the show...then neither do I.
Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
by TZ Copyright May 10th, 1998
"Gabrielle, we have discussed this theory of yours a thousand times."
"Yeah, I know, Xena, but I've figured it out."
"Yeah, you see, splinters make up trees, and are smaller than huts," the bard proclaimed in victory.
Xena looked down at her wife from her seat atop Argo. "All right. Whatever you say."
Gabrielle stop walking and planted her staff. "Aww, come on, Xena. You know I got you on that one," she called to the warrior who had continued ahead without her. "You know I'm right," she yelled, throwing her arms wide. With an exasperated sigh, the small woman gave up her tirade and trotted to catch up to her wife.
When the bard was once again at her left side, Xena smiled. "Okay, Gabrielle. I see your point, and I agree with you...about the rocks and the trees. But you'll have to show me how it works with everything else if you want me to believe it without question."
Squinting at the sun high in the sky, Gabrielle looked up to the warrior. "Fine. I can deal with that."
"Good. Now let's get moving. We'll never make it to Amazonia if we spend all our time discussing your theory about matter."
Gabrielle nodded and picked up her pace, eager to reach their destination by nightfall.
Ephiny watched as preparations were being made for the festival. A dozen young Amazons were draping the Queen's dais with garlands of fresh flowers, while others were readying the firepit.
"Pony tells me that this is a pretty serious festival."
The Regent Queen turned and glanced down at the royal guard who had come up behind her. "Yeah, it is. Every ten years, the Amazons celebrate life with a festival to Artemis."
"And then they let loose on all the local villages and get knocked up."
"You can be so vulgar sometimes, Wolf."
The small warrior grinned and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. "l gotta keep things interesting around here, you know."
"Aren't you off guard duty?"
"Are you saying that you don't enjoy my vivacious company?"
*Vivacious?* Ephiny's brow rose. "You've received another scroll from Gabrielle?"
"When you got yours," the guard replied, her eyes constantly scanning for anything out of place. "So, does Gabrielle know?"
The Regent stifled a growl. "I didn't say anything, but surely Xena knows. She would have told her."
"Wonder how they're going to take the news?"
Rubbing her eyes to relieve the tension that was building, the blond Amazon turned to her most trusted guard. "Why don't you go see if Eponin needs you for anything."
"Trying to get rid of me already, Eph," the demi-god asked with a mischievous grin.
"Yes," Ephiny replied emphatically. "Knowing your bondmate, she probably wants you to go hunting some strange animal or something for that appetite of hers. What was it that she wanted yesterday...sea urchin?"
The small woman laughed under her breath. "Yeah, you're right. Guess I better find her."
Ephiny nodded in relief. Wolf reminding her of the potential problems she might have regarding the Queen and her consort, was not what she needed today. As it was, the two of them would be arriving soon, and she wanted time alone to compose the persuasive speech she would use to convince them that Amazon traditions had to be upheld. The blond woman shuddered at the opposition she knew she was going to get from the possessive warrior.
Xena had dismounted once they passed the first set of territory markers to walk beside Gabrielle, who had been mostly silent since her revelation about splinters. The warrior chuckled to herself. The bard was as imaginative, as always. She hoped that the woman would never lose her creative spark. "Gabrielle."
The bard pulled herself out of her mental ramblings to hear the urgent tone in her wife's voice. "What is it," she whispered.
Raising an arm to block the small woman's progress, the warrior held a finger to her lips for silence. Cocking her head, she heard it again. "Something's in the brush ahead," she warned. Before she could take a cautious step forward, however, she was brought up short by a familiar body crawling into the open.
"Eponin," the bard asked, incredulous to find the Amazon Weaponsmaster crawling around on the forest floor.
The Amazon's head snapped up at the call of her name. "My Queen, Xena," she gasped, blushing at her discovery. "I didn't hear you," she admitted sheepishly.
"Obviously," the warrior drawled. "Just what are you doing?"
"No doubt foraging for roots," a voice called from above.
Xena hung her head to hide her amusement. "Haven't lost your touch, Wolf."
The demi-god smiled at her friends and dropped from her perch, lighting silently to the ground. Shaking her head in disapproval, she strode over to her bondmate and gave her a hand to her feet.
Xena and Gabrielle gasped in surprise. As Eponin's long frame straightened, her bulging midsection was revealed.
"You're pregnant," the bard exclaimed, blushing at her own lack of tact. Unconsciously, her free hand covered her own flat stomach.
Eponin looked at the wide-eyed expressions of the Queen and Consort and then narrowed her gaze to Wolf. "I thought you told them," she accused.
The demi-god shrugged her shoulders and grinned with dry humor. "I wanted to surprise them?"
"Oh, I'd say we're surprised," Xena admitted as she stepped forward to congratulate the couple.
Wolf raised a brow at the Queen's question. "Please, Xena, please tell me that you told her where babies come from."
"Very funny," the warrior replied. "But I'm curious, too. Don't tell me that you have skills beyond mine," she demanded with mock indignation.
"Actually, it's a very interesting story," the demi-god revealed as she wrapped an arm around Eponin's waist. She waited a long moment before continuing. When it seemed like her listeners were about to explode with impatience, she turned and led them through the forest. "Pony and I had gone to Corinth as part of an escort to a party of dignitaries we were supposed to meet there."
"We met this guy," Eponin said as she picked up the thread. "A general in the Athenian army," she explained.
"And you seduced him," Xena finished, shaking her head.
"Xena," Gabrielle warned. "Let THEM tell the story."
The warrior threw up her hands in apology. "Sorry."
Wolf cleared her throat as she signaled the Amazons hidden in the trees to hold their positions. "Actually, we both seduced him."
Eponin chuckled at the memory. "You should have seen the guy's face when we suggested a threesome."
"Yeah," Wolf remembered. "I thought he was going to ruin the evening before it even started."
"But I thought you didn't...."
Wolf pinned Xena with a suggestive look. "I'll try anything once," she purred. "It was an interesting night," she allowed.
"Yeah, interesting," Eponin sighed.
"So how far along are you, Ep?"
The Weaponsmaster smiled at her Queen and laid a hand over her swollen belly. "Five months."
"We're having twins," Wolf revealed, fairly gushing with maternal pride.
"Artemis preserve us," Gabrielle prayed aloud, drawing muffled laughter from the other women.
The four friends spoke of trivial matters before they reached the main compound of the village. They updated each other on news and events. Caught up in the happiness of their impending family, Wolf and Eponin missed the significant looks that were passed between the warrior and the bard.
Gabrielle collapsed back onto the bed and sighed. A formal Amazon greeting was not something she enjoyed after being on a hard road all day.
The Queen opened her eyes a fraction to watch as Xena removed her armor and leathers. "Beat, bushed, exhausted," she mumbled, curling up on her side.
"I'll go get you something to eat," the warrior replied as she reached for the leathers she had dropped on a chest.
"No, Xena, don't. I'm not really that hungry."
The warrior frowned. "Gabrielle, you have to eat."
The bard flopped onto her back and covered her abdomen with her hands. "Yeah, I know, but I'm tired of the sickness. Doesn't matter what I eat. It all comes back up anyway," she moaned.
Xena sat on the edge of the bed and covered her wife's hands with her own. "I know, honey, but you've still got to try, and the sickness will pass with time."
Sitting up into the embrace of the warrior she trusted above all others, the Queen sighed. "I know, Xena. But do you have any idea how long it's been since I actually enjoyed a meal?"
Chuckling at the small woman's complaint, Xena held her tighter. "It's only been a fortnight, Gabrielle. In another month, your appetite should be back to normal."
"You mean like Ep's? No thank you...I will not go foraging like some little animal."
"Nah, wouldn't think of it," the warrior assured her. "I'll do all the hunting for anything you'd want."
Gabrielle's mind began to contemplate some of the foods she had craved when she had been pregnant so briefly with Hope. A shudder ran through her body as her stomach caught the thoughts. "Ooh, Xena, I don't feel so good," she moaned.
Upon hearing the warning noises the bard's insides were giving off, the warrior laid her wife across the bed and went to the washbasin to wet a cloth. "Here, this will help," she advised, folding a compress over her forehead. "Take deep breaths and think nice thoughts," she added out loud, and then to herself, *just nothing about food.* When Gabrielle's pallor shifted to a more normal shade, Xena laid down beside her. "Feeling better?"
"Good. Why don't you go to sleep now," she advised as she stripped the bard of her traveling clothes. "The Amazons can wait for their Queen until tomorrow."
Feeling the nod against her shoulder, Xena pulled the bard into an embrace.
"I suppose we'll have to tell everyone," Gabrielle mumbled.
"Okay," the Queen mumbled as her breathing evened and changed to soft snores.
Xena sighed and let her mind consider the implications of Gabrielle's pregnancy. According to Amazon custom, she was already fulfilling her obligation in regards to the Festival of Life, she had conceived, no matter how it was done, and she would provide a new child for the Nation, setting the symbolic example for others so inclined to follow. The warrior knew that explaining the situation would be difficult at best, but she knew that this particular village of Amazons had seen far more stranger things.
The next morning dawned bright and clear. Wolf was trotting along the forest paths in search of the pheasant that Eponin had requested when she ran into Xena, who was searching for roots that would ease Gabrielle's morning sickness. "Hey," she called, making sure that she was a few arm lengths from the warrior.
"Hey, yourself," the warrior returned, hiding her surprise successfully.
"Who's sick," the former healer asked as she noted the leaves and bark in the warrior's grasp.
"Is she all right," Wolf asked with subdued alarm.
"Nothing a month's time won't cure," the tall warrior revealed.
The demi-god's face, which had drawn into one of question, fell in shock. "Her too?"
"How? I mean...I never thought that you would allow anyone...any man...to...you know...." Wolf could not stop the blush that contrasted nicely with her blue top.
Xena looked up, finished with her chore, and laughed at the incredulous look on her friend's face. "Really, Wolf...I never thought you were the shy type."
"What's the story, Xena," the small warrior demanded as her gaze narrowed.
"Are you out here for a reason," the tall woman asked, hoping to avoid the conversation.
Wolf's eyes widened in memory. "Oh, yeah." She cocked her head and listened intently to the morning sounds of the forest. With a blurred movement, she whipped a dagger from her boot and flung it into the light brush several paces up the path. Without a word, she followed the weapon and retrieved the pheasant carcass. "So, what gives," she asked again as she sat on a fallen log and began to pluck the bird clean.
Xena finished tucking her herbs into the pouch at her waist and took a deep breath. "Well, you know how long Gabrielle and I have been joined...."
"Of course...almost five years now."
"Yeah, well...we thought maybe it was time that we tried to start a family. Ever since Solon died, it always seemed like something was missing."
Xena nodded her head. "Well, we figured that we would try to find someone to father the baby...."
"And one night...while we were camping out, we were making love...."
"Anyone would be," Wolf agreed, a mischievous grin growing on her face.
"Well, after...you know...well, we were visited."
"What did he look like," the demi-god asked, eager for the details.
Wolf's fingers stilled at her task as she lifted curious eyes to her long-time friend. "They? What did THEY look like."
Knowing what the small woman was thinking, Xena carefully continued. "They weren't men."
"But how can...ooohhh...who?"
Nodding at Wolf's comprehension, the tall warrior finished. "Aphrodite and Artemis. They gifted us."
"Makes sense," Wolf allowed as she ran a long feather across her cheek casually. "So, does Eph know?"
"Not yet," Xena replied a she stood. "We figure we'd tell her this morning."
"Heh, heh, can't wait...I'm not about to miss out on this one," Wolf grinned, joining Xena as they walked back to the village.
The tall warrior glared down at her friend and then reached out a hand to finger the small woman's top. "Finally made you a Royal Guard, huh?"
"Captain, actually. Eph offered me the position a couple of years ago, but I was happy enough as a scout."
"So what made you accept now?"
"Had to find a respectable occupation," Wolf explained. "I'm gonna be a mommy, you know."
Pictures of the demi-god raising children to be like herself caused a shudder to pass through the tall warrior's body. "Please, Wolf. The village won't survive if they turn out like you."
"Hey," the demi-god cried as she punched Xena in the arm. "You aren't exactly parent material either."
Xena's gaze was sober until she saw the humor flashing in her friend's eyes. "I can see it now," she chuckled. "Your kids would be terrorizing everyone with practical jokes and bad humor...."
"And yours would be chasing mine trying to whip their asses. I can just picture a couple of little warrior princesses running around in little black leather dresses, their faces all sour...."
"I am not sour, Wolf. I'm stoic."
"There's a difference," the small warrior asked before she ducked to avoid a smack to her head.
"Will you ever grow up," Xena asked, laughing as the demi-god stuck her tongue out and danced away from her.
"Perhaps someday," the small warrior replied solemnly, "but not while you're here. It's too much fun teasing you."
Xena's lips curled up in challenge. "Keeping up with your weapon skills?"
"Ooh, Xena...looking for a little action...I'm getting all warm and fuzzy inside," Wolf drawled suggestively.
"Yeah...we'll see how warm you are when I leave you laying on your backside on the practice field."
"Promises, promises," the guard mumbled as the trail opened to the village square.
The tall warrior sighed. "See you after breakfast?"
"Wouldn't miss it."
"Good. I think I'll need all the backup I can get."
Xena snorted. "Who, me? Nah. Just trying to figure out how I'm going to explain that I'm going to be a birth mother to Gabrielle's child."
"You are blessed by the gods, friend."
A small shudder ran through the dark warrior's frame. "It's what I've always wanted, Wolf," she replied with barely suppressed sarcasm.
"What did she say?"
Xena looked up from her cup of tea. "Who, Wolf?"
"Of course...when you told her...what did she say?"
The warrior shrugged and replied, "She said we were blessed."
"That's it?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I bet the two of you could have a whole conversation with a handful of words."
Sitting back in her chair to stretch out her long legs, Xena grinned. "Are you ready to tell Eph?"
"You'll be there?"
Xena reached across the table to still her wife's hands which had begun to tremble with nervous energy. "Every step of the way."
The bard nodded her head curtly and stood. Taking a deep breath to ease her stomach's discomfort, she straightened her back and left the hut. It was no coincidence that she nearly ran into Wolf outside of the door. The demi-god had arranged it so that she would have the morning shift. Together the three of them made their way to the meeting hut where Ephiny was waiting for them. As they entered the spacious hut, it was obvious to them that the Regent was just as nervous as Gabrielle was.
Dark blond curls swayed as the Amazon turned her head to see her Queen and the Consort followed by the Captain of the Royal Guard. She strengthened her resolve and raised a hand so that she could speak first. "I wanted to thank you for coming back. This festival is one of the most important within the Nation," she began. "Wait," she asked when Gabrielle took a breath to speak. "This festival is important because, as you know, the few women who join us on their own are not enough to keep up with our losses. Therefore, many Amazons do a service for the Nation by conceiving and giving birth." The Regent took a deep breath and continued. "The male children from these necessary unions are returned to their fathers, who generally need heirs or another set of hands to work their land. The girls are adopted into the Nation."
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle and Xena and willed herself not to reveal her momentary lapse of courage. "It is the job of the Amazon Queen to set the example by being the first to mate."
"That won't be necessary," Xena announced.
"I'm sorry, Xena, but tradition must be upheld. Without it, the Nation would surely crumble."
"Relax, Eph. You can save your doom and gloom for someone else," the tall warrior advised. "It isn't necessary because Gabrielle is already pregnant."
Wolf coughed to hide the choked laugh that had nearly escaped. The stunned look on the Regent's face was priceless, and the demi-god knew that it was only going to get better.
"What did you say," the Regent asked as she collapsed into a chair.
Gabrielle went immediately to her side and took hold of her hand. "Easy, Ephiny...breath."
"Why didn't you tell me sooner," the blond Amazon asked, her voice found once more. "It would have saved me one big headache."
"We wanted to surprise you," the Queen offered lamely, remembering Wolf's words from yesterday.
"Eph," Xena began as she, too, stepped forward. "She was too tired last night to go into this."
The Regent looked up at the Consort and nodded. "When...who?"
"About a month and a half ago, and Artemis and Aphrodite."
"The gods," Ephiny whispered, her eyes rounded in astonishment.
Gabrielle accepted the chair that her wife had pulled out for her and settled in to tell the story about how the two goddesses had visited them. Artemis, who had wanted to grant her Chosen's greatest wish, had called upon Aphrodite to help her find a way. The Goddess of Love, always eager to help out the two women who shared such a deep love, had agreed. Setting petty differences aside, the two Olympians had gotten together and combined their powers to join a little of the warrior with a little of the bard, and had implanted it into the womb of the Queen. "And that's the how," Gabrielle stated as she finished.
The Regent glared at the guard who had begun to chuckle under her breath and then turned her attention to the two women who were so favored by the gods. "Are you going to be staying here," she asked, allowing her hope to influence her tone.
Gabrielle glanced to her wife and then shrugged. "We've decided that we would travel a little longer after the festival. A few more months, at least."
"Is that safe," the Regent asked, fearful for the Queen and her unborn child.
Ignoring the warning look her wife was giving Ephiny, the bard reassured her friend. "Don't worry, Eph. Xena won't let anything happen to me, and when it gets to the point that the baby's life might be endangered, then I'll come back." Gabrielle hoped that the promise was enough to forestall any more arguments. It was a decision that she and Xena had made even before the goddesses had visited them.
"Are you sure?"
Gabrielle squeezed the blond Amazon's arm with confidence. "I'm positive."
Ephiny nodded her head then smiled. "Well, that went a lot easier than I thought it would," she admitted. "Here, I thought that I would have to battle the demons of Tartarus to get you to agree," she said as she grinned sheepishly.
Xena stilled her hands so that they would not fidget. "Even if Gabrielle wasn't already with child, we would have agreed."
Grasping her wife's hand, Gabrielle smiled softly. "Xena explained the meaning and importance of the Festival of Life, Eph. There was no debate whether or not I would do my duty," she said. "Now, the matter of the father would have been something of a sticking point, but I'm sure we would have come up with an acceptable man."
Recalling the night that they had that conversation, the tall warrior's face changed with a crooked smile. After discussing the desire for children, the bard had listed on one of her precious scrolls, the names of all the paternal candidates. The warrior's high standards and possessive nature had whittled the list down to one man - Iolaus. He and her wife would have produced beautiful, if somewhat short, children. But that was all irrelevant now with the gift from the gods. The only drawback was the fact that the warrior was now indebted to them. It was a thought that she tended to ignore if she wanted to remain in a passably good mood.
Ephiny jumped from her seat and smiled broadly. "Well, now that that's settled, I believe we have a festival to finish planning. My Queen...," the Amazon said as she extended a hand to allow Gabrielle to precede her from the hut.
With a nod, Gabrielle exited into the early afternoon sun to find Eponin reclining against a torch post, waiting for her bondmate. "Ep, how are you?"
"I'm doing good," the Weaponsmaster replied, her hands busily making circle motions on her belly.
"Hungry," Wolf asked. When Eponin nodded, the demi-god chuckled. "Let me assign someone to duty, and then I'll get you whatever your heart desires."
The gathered women rolled their eyes at the guard's gallant words.
"Has it been like this the whole time," Gabrielle asked Ephiny.
Nodding, the Amazon hid her smirk from her pregnant friend. "Pretty much. Wolf even flew to Chin for some kind of noodle stuff she thought that Eponin would like."
"Did she...like it, I mean?"
"Nah, not really," the Regent answered. "Good thing, too, else Wolf would have ended up putting more miles on her wings than her feet have traveled in her lifetime."
Gabrielle chuckled in agreement and Xena nodded absently as she watched the respect that the demi-god received as she spoke with a could of Royal Guards. The women obviously followed her loyally, assured that their captain's main priority was the safety of the Queen and Regent.
When arrangements had been made for a guard, and Wolf took her bondmate's lunch order, Xena excused herself, with her wife's understanding, from the group to join her friend. "So, what's on the menu for this afternoon," she asked as her long legs caught her up to the diminutive woman.
"Eel," the demi-god replied with a face of displeasure.
"You mind if I ride with you?"
As they rode their respective warhorses in the direction of the sea, Xena was assaulted by the memory of the most unforgivable moment of her life. With every beat of Argo's hooves, she was reminded of another time that she had taken the same direction, intent on ending Gabrielle's life. Reminding herself that it was all in the past, and that she had made her apologies to the bard, Ephiny, and the Amazon Nation, she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply of the salt-kissed air.
She and Gabrielle had used words and love to heal those old wounds, but like any other evil deed from her past, the warrior could not let it go totally from her conscious. She refused to allow its absence just so that she could truly appreciate the woman who had forgiven her, who have given her every reason to thank Solon for giving them an opportunity to begin healing their aching souls.
By the time that the demi-god led her to the switch-backs that accessed the beach, she only felt a shadow of that old pain dull her heart. The gleeful whoops of her companion drew her almost fully out of her gloomy mood, as the demi-god spurred her horse into the oncoming waves. Nudging Argo with a firm heal, the warrior gave chase, and soon, the two women were lost to playful exuberance.
"That felt good," Xena admitted as she watched Wolf from an outcropping of rocks. The small woman was battling waves that were slapping her in the chest. She had stripped of all her clothes and was waiting patiently in a bed of sea grass for the fish that her bondmate had requested.
"Glad to hear that," the demi-god replied earnestly.
Xena leaned back on her hands and contemplated the clouds that were chasing each other across the bright blue sky. "I never got the chance to thank you for that stunt you pulled after the joining," she said.
Without raising her eyes from the rhythmic dancing of the grass, Wolf chuckled. "No problem, Xena. I just did it to save some Amazon butt," she replied with a knowing smirk. "If you had gotten any more impatient with that endless celebration, I know for a fact that blood would have been spilled."
"That's for sure," the tall warrior deadpanned.
The demi-god suddenly went under the water and bounced back up with a resounding, "yes!"
Xena got to her feet to accept the wriggling eel so that her friend could pull herself up onto the rocks. "Not bad," she allowed, critiquing the small woman's technique. "Keep at it, and you might be as good as I am some day."
"So sure of our skills, are we," Wolf drawled, eliciting an arrogant stance from Xena, who stood to her full height, a head taller than the smaller woman.
"You bet your Amazon leathers," she replied.
"Pony would love that, too," the guard replied as she tugged her blue top down over her wet breasts.
Xena studied the woman as she finished dressing. "Wolf, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
Looking up in surprise that the warrior had actually asked permission, the small woman nodded as she removed a dagger from her boot and took the fish from Xena's hand. "Go ahead."
"I know that you said that you would try anything once," the warrior began as she watched the guard kneel and with efficient movements, clean and gut Eponin's fish. "But why would you and Ep...I mean...I thought that the two of you were...."
Wolf squinted up to her friend and then rose to jump to the sand below. She carefully considered her words as she stuffed the eel into a pouch tied to Beast's wither-strap. "Like you and Gabrielle, Pony and I discussed children," she began as she mounted her horse in a fluid, graceful motion. "Naturally, we decided that Eponin would carry the child," she sighed, alluding to the god's blood that ran in her own veins. "When we ran across that general in Corinth, it was a matter of rightness. He has a reputation for being smart, strong, and trustworthy. We wouldn't want anything less from the man who would father our child."
When Xena mounted Argo, they began their journey back, and Wolf continued. "Originally, Pony was going to do it alone, but I couldn't let her. I don't know if at the moment I was just jealous that a man could give her something I couldn't. But I know now, that I just wanted to be there from beginning to end. It was as close as I could come to fathering the child for her," the demi-god admitted. "Can you understand that?"
Xena nodded in understanding, even though she knew that she would not have been able to watch someone else make love to the woman who held her heart. "Why did you join them...why not just watch?"
A blush spread across the worldly woman's features. "Uh...well...I guess I wanted in on the action, too," she replied. "There were times during that night that it was like the Athenian wasn't even there, that it was just Pony and me."
"Did you enjoy it?"
Wolf shrugged. "I guess so. I like penetration as much as the next woman...live flesh or otherwise," she answered without candor. "But with him it was sex. With Pony...it's...."
"Sharing your soul," Xena sighed.
"So, do you plan on doing it again," Xena asked, a devilish grin on her expressive lips.
"How many kids Pony wants," Wolf replied, chuckling.
By the time that the two warriors returned, Eponin was waiting with Gabrielle, watching as the final touches were applied for the ceremony that would begin at moonrise. They discussed things that pregnant women naturally discussed among themselves...hopes, dreams, plans for those who would carry on their blood legacy. Both women were grateful to see their mates return with no sign of injury. They knew that with both of the powerful warriors, trouble tended to follow in the form of heavy metal and ruthless villains.
Wolf led Eponin to the dining hall where the demi-god jumped over the long bar that served as the serving line, and commandeered one of the cooking fires to prepare her bondmate's meal. Xena and Gabrielle joined them, and the tall warrior accepted a plate of the venison stew with bread and cheese that had been served earlier.
All listened as Eponin explained between mouthfuls, what they could expect at the ceremony that evening. The priestesses of Artemis would address the village on the highest purpose of the Nation, of its allegiance to the goddess and the glorification of her through the continued prosperity of the Amazons as a people. Then they would remind the women that a nation needed members to survive, that they needed the next generation to be born so that there would be warriors, artisans, and leaders for the years to come. The festival would last a fortnight, during which the Amazon women who wished to mother children, would venture out into the neighboring villages and find a man worthy of the job.
"Of course, there are a few women who already have men that they prefer...some even go back to the same one that fathered their child last festival," Eponin revealed as she finished her meal.
"So this only happens every ten years," Gabrielle asked for confirmation.
"Yep," the Weaponsmaster answered after she belched behind her hand. Smiling her thanks to her mate for the delicious meal, the Amazon added, "Which explains why, when our girls are ready to begin their warrior training, a new group of babies are born."
"Surely not many women participate," the Queen asked. "That would leave too many incapacitated for defense," she commented.
Xena smiled with pride at her wife's practical thinking.
"Exactly," the Amazon agreed as she nibbled on a piece of sharp cheese. "Which is why it is limited to two dozen craftswomen and a dozen warriors."
Gabrielle nodded at the wisdom that her adopted people so frequently showed. Glancing to Xena, she asked, "Do warriors often chose this?"
Eponin arched a brow as she shifted on the bench. "Gee, Gabrielle, I don't know...what do you think, Xena?"
The tall warrior chuckled for a moment at the Amazon's smart reply, but then quieted when her wife's eyes fell upon her. "Well, sure, Ep. An Amazon warrior is, after all, a woman...and some women do enjoy being mothers...and mothers do...uh...give birth to children," she offered in the most serious tone she could muster, as she teased with their ongoing argument.
"Even as Queen I get no respect...," Gabrielle mumbled, until Xena's playful expression caused her to break into deep giggles. "Okay...I get the idea." Taking a steadying breath, the bard assumed her most regal posture and raised a brow as she glanced at each woman in turn. When their laughter erupted even louder, her face lost its rigidity and she cried, "Come on, guys...can't you at least humor me?"
Xena struggled with herself but then gave in to the rare moment free of any dark thoughts. "I promise to do more than humor you, my bard," she whispered into the suddenly receptive woman's ear.
"Oh, really," the bard drawled, her brow rising in challenge. "Is that a promise...or an idle threat, Warrior Princess?"
"I'll let you be the Gladiator this time," the tall warrior promised on a husky breath.
Gabrielle's heart stilled for a moment as she lost herself in the piercing blue gaze of her lover.
She was pulled out of the spell by Wolf clearing her throat. "Uh...if you don't mind...Pony and I are going to take a nap." The guard stood and assisted her bondmate to her feet. "With your leave," she asked the Queen as she bowed her head.
"Of course, go right ahead," Gabrielle mumbled, her attention stolen by the thoughts that Xena had inspired with her suggestion.
Neither the bard nor warrior heard the low chuckles as the other two women left the dining hall, as they were focused on each other. "That's a good idea, you know," the warrior stated as she moved closer to Gabrielle.
"I totally agree...absolutely," the Queen replied as she accepted her consort's hand.
In their haste to reach the Queen's hut, they passed Wolf and Eponin who were making their way more leisurely across the compound. As the speedy couple entered their quarters, the demi-god looked up into her mate's face and lifted a brow. "They must be even more worn out than we are," she commented wryly.
"Must be," the Amazon agreed, kissing Wolf's head. "But I bet that I can still make you scream louder."
"Not now, Pony...you really do need to rest."
"No I don't," the Amazon replied as she let her hand drift down to grab a handful of the demi-god's muscular behind.
Wolf reached behind and moved her mate's hand higher. "Yes, you do," she repeated with emphasis.
"You'll love me for it."
"I already do," Eponin sighed as they entered their hut.
The first night of the festival began with solemn words from the head priestess who was attended by two acolytes. She consecrated a cask of wine from which every Amazon would have a cup. Once she had asked for Artemis' blessings upon the village women, she called out names from a list of prospective mothers. When she finished, great cheers of encouragement rose to those who were lucky enough to be selected for the sacred duty to the Nation.
The evening progressed with dancing, music, and stories which got more ribald as time passed. Xena, instead of standing off to the side watching, joined her wife who was sharing a table with Ephiny, Solari, Eponin, and Wolf. The Regent, relieved that there were no protests raised over the choosing of candidates, proceeded to get drunk off her ass.
When she actually fell backwards off the bench, Solari stumbled over to her and fell to her knees. "I always knew you'd fall for me eventually," she chortled with just a slight slur.
Ephiny's eyes widened when her sluggish mind caught up to her body's reaction to the proximity of the other Amazon. With a flirtatious grin, she raised her arms so that Solari could pull her to her feet. "Guess I've been too busy...standing and all," she mumbled.
"Just take her to bed, Sol," Wolf shouted over the rising noise of the drums.
Both Amazons looked sharply to the demi-god and then regarded each other. With a questioning tilt of her head, Solari's gaze burned into the Regent.
Feeling suddenly sober, Ephiny offered her hand once again. Without further encouragement, the Regent's most trusted advisor escorted her to her hut. If Solari heard the suggestive whistles and hoots behind their backs, she made no indication. When they finally reached the hut, Ephiny pulled aside the hide covering and waited for her friend to enter. With one last look over her shoulder, she followed.
She wanted to ask the Ephiny if she was sure, if she was aware of what was going to happen between them. But her questions were silenced by the blond Amazon's smoldering gaze. Solari was left breathless.
"Do you know what I want?"
The dark-haired Amazon shook her head, praying that it was the same as she did.
"I want everything, Solari. Can you give me that? Can you give me your heart?"
"I already have, Ephiny. You just didn't see it," she answered.
The Regent's brow furrowed in disbelief. "You love me?"
Solari took a hesitant step forward. "I always have," she confirmed. "You were the first woman I ever dreamt of," she revealed with another step. "You have held my heart from the day that I realized that it was mine to give."
Ephiny closed the gap between them until their bodies were just a hand's span apart. She studied Solari's face for any deception, but found only love and the promise of loyalty. She saw the woman who had stood with her in support of Gabrielle against Velaska, even with the threat of death. She saw a proud, strong Amazon that was a great friend and warrior. She saw her own heart. She leaned forward until she thought that she would burn from the slight contact. "I believe you were told to take me to bed," she whispered.
Solari raised a trembling hand to trace the Regent's jawline. "Can you give me everything, Ephiny?"
"Without a thought," she vowed before she claimed her friend's lips in a searing kiss.
They took their time undressing each other. When their bodies were revealed to each other, their hands and lips explored with a leisurely pleasure. When they began to lose their ability to remain standing, Solari finally led the Regent to her pallet.
"My heart, my body, and my soul," she vowed.
"Yesss," Ephiny exclaimed on a ragged sigh as Solari's lips fastened over a tight nipple.
The fortnight of the Festival of Life passed quickly, and as the three dozen women returned to the village, the waiting began to see who among them had conceived. Each night of the festival was consumed by drinking and general merriment that made up the most important festival of the Amazon Nation.
Xena crossed the square, skillfully avoiding the Amazons who were already showing the effects of their strong wine, to Wolf, who was keeping her post atop the Queen's dais where she could see all that transpired. "Ep go to bed?"
Sparing a glance to her friend, the guard nodded. "The healer said that she might have to take full bedrest soon, with the twins and all," she replied.
The tall warrior hopped onto the raised platform and found Gabrielle sitting at a table deep in conversation with Ephiny and Solari whose firm arms clasped the Regent in a loving embrace. "Guess they're talking babies," she assumed.
Wolf narrowed her eyes and concentrated on the Queens. "Looks like it," she confirmed. "I know how she feels about the baby, but what about you?"
Xena smiled wistfully and hung her head. "I missed so much with Solon, and then...it was too late. I want to be there for this one."
"To make up for past mistakes?"
"You know, Xena, you've been doing that for the past eight years. When will it end," the small woman asked gently. "With this baby on the way, you will have to settle down."
The Consort snorted and stared down at her friend. "Since when were you domesticated?"
Unable to read the dark warrior, Wolf merely shrugged, however her eyes betrayed her hurt. "It's not a matter of wanting to stay in one place. Home is wherever Pony is. But children, they need a stable place to grow up, to play, to learn. The road just isn't safe."
"And this village is? Do you have any idea how many times Amazonia has been invaded? Do you know how many people have died in this very square," Xena asked, her voice rising.
"Well, it's a lot safer than the open road," the demi-god argued, her color deepening. When she realized that their discussion was receiving unneeded notice, she calmed herself and lowered her voice. "Xena, how many times have you almost died...and Gabrielle? The two of you have dedicated your lives to the greater good, but now you have committed to becoming a parent. And with that decision, your child must become the greater good, not those warlords that ravage lands halfway across the known world."
"What do you know about it," Xena muttered, knowing that Wolf was right, but unwilling to face the prospect of being in one place for any extended period of time.
"I know how important family is. I know that others will take your place on the battlefield...righting wrongs. Will the Warrior Princess ride to make things right? Will she abandon her family?"
"Damnit, Wolf. It's not as black and white as you think. Since I was eighteen, I've had no home...no place...I don't know how to settle down. It's been so long. I've roamed nearly half my life."
The guard closed her eyes for a brief moment. "Xena, think about it. Why did you wander? At first, it was to protect your family and village. And then it was with your dark army. And now, with Gabrielle, it's to make up for all your past cruelties. When will it end, Xena?"
"I don't know," she whispered in reply.
Wolf finally turned the both of them around so that they faced away from the celebration. Laying a gentle hand upon the tall warrior's arm, Wolf leaned close. "Look, I do understand...really. But I want you to know that there is nothing more pure, more precious than life. You want to battle darkness and death. Do so by embracing life. You were gifted, Xena. That child Gabrielle, your wife, for Gaia's sake, is carrying, is yours in truth, not some outsider's. Yours. I know that you feel that you betrayed Solon, that you made a mistake. But you didn't. At the time, you made the right decision. And now...now...it's the right decision to stop and take the time to enjoy what you were blessed with."
Sure that the demi-god had run out of words, Xena turned to face her. "Are you finished," she asked without inflection, bowing her head down so that her forehead nearly touched the smaller woman's.
Wolf fought the urge to step back, to distance herself from the force she had aroused. She steeled her nerve and tilted her head back. "Yeah."
"Good...I swear...you've been spending too much time with Gabrielle. Never know when to quit, even when you've won."
Turning to watch the revelry once again, Wolf's shoulders sagged with a relieved breath. "I really didn't mean to go off on you. I just...."
"I understand, all right? Don't assume that Gabrielle haven't gone over this exact same argument a hundred times."
"But she said that...."
Xena waved away the guards words with a wave of her hand. "Gabrielle did that for my benefit. She's always compromised and settled for me. I guess...it's time for me to compromise for her."
"For her, I'd do anything," the Consort swore as watched her wife relate a story to a small group of women. Her heart lifted at the thought of a permanent place they could call home...a place where little ones could run around and learn to live, not worrying about what was up the road or around the bend. She had planned on settling down for the sake of her family. She just hadn't welcomed the idea with overwhelming enthusiasm. But if she was going to have a persistent demi-god on her back, then she would just have to get used to the fact if she wanted any peace at all.
Gabrielle traced absent patterns through the film of sweat that covered Xena's body, her head propped on her open palm. "Xena, is something wrong? Are you getting restless? We can leave in the morning, you know."
The warrior opened her eyes and studied the serious green gaze of her lover. "Gabrielle, would you mind if we stayed here...instead of going out on the road?"
"Why? I thought we discussed this...."
"Do YOU want to go back out, or were you just letting me have my way for a little while?"
Grinning impishly, Gabrielle joked, "I always let you have your way."
Capturing the bard's hand, which had begun to wander lower, Xena sighed. "I'm serious, Gabrielle."
The bard wrinkled her brow in thought, searching frantically for the words that would cause the least amount of argument. "It was what you wanted, and it was such a small thing...to give you time to adjust to settling down."
Xena closed her eyes and willed the ache in her chest to go away. "Sometimes, Gabrielle, you are too precious." She drew her wife down for a loving kiss. "Wolf and I talked last night...."
"Is that what the shouting was about?"
Chuckling at the strange looks the two of them had gotten the rest of the evening, Xena nodded. "She pointed out a few hard truths that I was reluctant to face," the warrior admitted. "I knew all along what having a family would mean...and I avoided it...in my mind."
"And now," Gabrielle asked solemnly.
"She cleared a few things up for me."
Gabrielle laid her head on Xena's breast and smiled. "I'm glad, then. Unless...."
"It's settled, love. So just don't say another word."
"Hmm...good. I can get back to what I was planning earlier," she hinted.
"And that was," the warrior asked, intrigued.
Crawling atop the warrior's firm body, Gabrielle lowered her head and nibbled on an erect nipple. "To make love to you until the sun rises," she revealed in a seductive purr.
"I am humbled to do my Queen's bidding," Xena gasped as the bard slipped a hand between her thighs.
"Good warrior...smart warrior," the bard mumbled as her tongue found the rigid nub hidden between her lover's folds.
Ephiny was not surprised to see Wolf standing guard outside of the Queen's hut. The demi-god had made it a point to personally see to Gabrielle's safety, even though the Consort was more than enough warrior for the job. But the Regent figured with a mental shrug, that even the Warrior Princess needed a day off every once in a while.
Lately, however, the Captain was anxious, her gaze often drifted to her own hut where her bondmate had been confined to their bed for the past three months. Eponin, if the healer's words were to be believed, was due to deliver any day, and Wolf was near out of her mind with worry.
Signally one of the younger guards, the Regent crossed to the demi-god. "Wolf, go home," she ordered in a soft, but stern, voice.
The small woman, who would have argued under normal circumstances, simply nodded and trotted across the compound, the hilts of her twin swords rising and falling with her steps.
"Thanks, she wouldn't listen to me."
Raising a hand to her heart which had jumped at the sudden appearance of Xena, Ephiny cursed softly. "Hades, Xena. Don't do that so early in the morning," she chided. She raised a brow in answer to the tall warrior's. "How's Gabrielle?"
"Ahh...what exotic fare is tempting her palate this morning?"
A wry grin heralded the warrior's response. "Porridge."
Ephiny grimaced in distaste. "I thought she hated it."
Xena shrugged and began to reply, but a cry from across the compound stole everyone's attention. "It's Eponin," she stated as she took off.
Ephiny glanced at the guard and ordered her to stay put, as she too followed the origins of the anguished cry.
A moment later, Gabrielle emerged from the Queen's hut, her hair disheveled. "Darlea, what is it?"
The lanky guard bowed to her Queen and pointed to the small crowd that had begun to gather outside of her superior's hut. "Eponin...."
Before the blond guard could finish her sentence, the Queen crossed the square quickly, one hand supporting her back and one resting gently on the slight swell of her womb. Remembering her orders, the young Amazon quickly chased and then caught up to Gabrielle. With curt words and well-placed elbows, Darlea cleared a path through the throng for the Queen to pass.
Smiling in gratitude, Gabrielle pulled aside the door covering and entered the hut that had become an organized pandemonium. Standing off to the side, she watched as the healer Nagla and Xena traded crisp words regarding the preparations for the birth. Wolf, she noted, had lost her usual humor and calm. The demi-god was caught in the clutches of her bondmate. In the throes of another contraction, the pregnant Amazon had caught hold of Wolf's top and was in the process of wrenching it around her fist.
Wolf was left to two choices...pull her body out of the leather, or let herself be strangled. She opted for the first and wiggled her way out. When Eponin went to grab another convenient...object, Wolf jumped back with a low screech. Glaring furiously at the tall warrior who began to chuckle as she was filling a deep basin with hot water, the demi-god wedged herself between her bondmate and the headboard, effectively trapping the Amazon in her embrace.
When the contraction passed, Wolf ducked her head to whisper soothing words into Eponin's ear, oblivious to anyone else in the room. She gently pushed hair soaked with sweat off the Amazon's forehead and accepted a wet cloth wipe down her bondmate's face. When the next contraction came, Eponin was not as frantic. Instead of strangling the demi-god, she merely ground the bones of Wolf's hands together as she grasped them in a vice-like grip.
The bard was drawn from her observation by the low tones of her wife. "Huh?"
"This is probably going to take a while. Why don't you go on ahead and get something to eat." As if sensing the pause and argument about to come forth, the warrior broke rank and ordered, "Now."
With a slight pout, the Queen complied and left the hut to trail her guard to the dining hall where, since the cooks had left to wait outside of Eponin's hut, Darlea procured for her a bowl of porridge and a large tankard of fresh goat's milk.
After five bowls of cereal and three tankards of milk, the Queen's appetite was satisfied. With a nod to the guard who had watched with disbelieving eyes, Gabrielle left the dining hall to force her way back into Eponin's hut. Pulling a chair from the table to sit in a corner out of the way, she watched as Xena and the healer took turns both comforting the laboring woman and checking for signs of the twins' impending arrival.
Having been lulled to sleep by Wolf crooning a soothing lullaby to her bondmate, Gabrielle awoke with a start. Blinking her eyes in confusion, she realized what had pulled her from her dreams. Another wrenching cry broke the air.
"It's crowning," the healer cried with enthusiasm as she looked to the couple on the bed and the warrior who was holding a receiving blanket.
Gabrielle's widened as she watched transfixed, the tiny head that appeared. It's crown was covered with dark hair and amniotic fluid. She squeezed her thighs unconsciously as she watched the rest of the newborn enter into the world.
"It's a girl," Xena announced for the couple who were catching their breath, knowing that the painful process was about to be repeated. She watched as the healer cut the umbilical cord with efficient movements. Before the tall warrior could begin to clean the baby, another exhausted moan passed Eponin's lips.
"Come on, honey," Wolf urged as she supported her bondmate's weight. "Just a little more."
Strengthened by the demi-gods murmured words, Eponin bore down and grunted with her push.
"That's it, Ep," the healer praised. "Give me another."
Wolf panted with the Amazon, trying to take her focus off the pain between her legs. "That's it Pony, love. That's it."
Nodding her head, the Amazon's breath hissed, nonetheless. When the healer demanded that she push once more, Eponin gathered all her waning strength and pushed as hard as she could. Her efforts were rewarded by a toothy grin from the aging healer.
"Artemis be praised, it's another girl," she announced.
Eponin collapsed back onto Wolf who wiped her brow clean of sweat for the thousandth time. "We did it, Wolf."
"Yes, we did," the demi-god agreed, awed by the sight of the twin babies who were being cleaned by the gentle hands of the Warrior Princess. They were brought out of their study by the healer's command.
"Just one more push...come on, Eponin."
Supported by Wolf, the Amazon complied and the afterbirth was expelled. "Is it over now," she asked.
Xena smiled as she handed the women their little girls. "Just have to clean you up," she explained as she punched the demi-god gently on the shoulder.
Wolf's eyes conveyed her gratitude before they drifted down to the sight of her family. Silent tears began to fall when she realized the tiny miracles her bondmate held. Her questing finger was grasped instinctively and she counted five miniature fingers on each of four hands, while Eponin counted toes.
After the healer cleaned between the new mother's legs and disposed of the bloody sheets that had been layered under her hips, she ushered the Queen and her Consort out of the hut. "They need time to themselves, now," she explained.
The sight that greeted the three of them was one of typical Amazon revelry. Even at the early evening's hour, wineskins had been broken open at the sound of the second child's cry. Xena raised her hands and gave a shrill whistle to gain the celebrants' attention. When she was sure that all ears were trained for her words, she waited for a heartbeat and announced, "Both girls, healthy and all together."
The cries of joy that erupted drowned out the last of her words, but Xena was not offended. She almost allowed herself to be swept up into the waves of Amazons who were rejoicing the newest members of the tribe. The presence at her side, however, brought her to her senses. Wrapping an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, she ducked her head to reach a delicate ear. "I bet you're hungry, huh?"
Gabrielle looked up into her wife's eyes and allowed herself to float in that place she always found herself when she saw their deep color. Nodding mutely, she consented to the warrior's escort to the food hut, where the cooks were busy preparing a late dinner.
Xena knocked tentatively on the door frame, not expecting an answer at the early hour. She was surprised when Wolf poked her head around the covering. "I just wanted to see how everyone was," she explained.
Wolf nodded and ushered the other woman into the hut. "Just getting breakfast ready," she explained as she crawled onto the pallet and helped Eponin open her tunic. When the Amazon's heavy breasts were bared, Wolf gathered a fitful baby and guided her to the nourishment.
The tranquil vision of mother and child softened Xena's heart. She imagined another woman, one with honey-gold hair and a brilliant smile. She was already feeling the first twinges of nervousness, and her wife still had two months to go before her birthing time. Things had not been as bad as she had thought they would be...settling down. She had left only twice so far to help neighbors.
She had gone to the Centaurs to help them rebuild a dozen huts that had been ravaged by fire. It had been an exercise in purging her soul. Everywhere she turned, she was reminded of Solon. She could still hear his laughter, his plea to accompany them on their journeys. By the time that she had returned to the Amazon village, the memories were no longer so painful as to cut her to her soul.
The second time she left was to travel to Garalis. She had noted with awe the progress that the women had made in rebuilding their village. In the five years that had passed since Gael's army had ravaged it to ruins, the village had expanded past its former boundaries. Amazons from otherwise crowded villages had migrated to Garalis, breathing new life into the northern territory. Arna had been a solicitous host, but Xena had kept her business short so that she could return to the Queen.
With each day, the wanderlust had grown more faint. She found herself falling into the routines of the Amazon village. At first light, she would rise and leave for the practice field for some private exercise. By the time she was warmed up, other warriors would arrive, followed by Eponin and a nurse who cared for the Weaponsmaster's twins while she instructed the younger women.
When practice was over, Xena would return to her hut, where, without exception, Gabrielle would just be rising from their pallet. With rapt attention, she would help her wife dress (and she knew that the bard found it irritating occasionally), and would escort her to the dining hall where they would break their fast on the porridge that Gabrielle still craved.
After breakfast, she would accompany the Queen to council chambers and listen as Gabrielle fulfilled her duties. At times, it was a simple matter of hearing a dispute. At others, the Queen was occupied for hours, working through the details of some treaty with Ephiny and few members of the elder council.
A break would be called at noon, and the two of them would usually slip out of the village to enjoy their lunch in private. They would talk quietly and share the baby's active play within Gabrielle's womb. Unless important matters urged otherwise, they would then return to spend time with Wolf and Ep and the twins.
A gentle nudge brought the warrior to her present. Focusing her gaze, she looked down at the demi-god who offered her a precious bundle. "Which one is this?"
"Zasha," Wolf replied with a gentle smile that took years off her face, reminding Xena of the first time she had seen the small woman.
The tall warrior seated herself on a chair to study the child entrusted to her arms. The cherubic face seemed wizened beyond its time as the baby studied the play of light that danced off the warrior's breastplate. She had only a moment to enjoy the tranquil exchange before the other twin was given to her care. "Hey there, Peran," she cooed to the more active of the identical pair. The infant replied with a series of arm waves that almost resembled Wolf's training routine. Xena chuckled deep in her throat at the antics.
"Bet you can't wait for your own," Wolf observed astutely.
"Two more months," Xena returned as she traced the delicate skin of Peran's arm. Blushing slightly at the gentleness she rarely displayed, Xena handed Wolf her daughter and stood, clearing her throat. "Well, I better get down to the training field," she announced gruffly. "I'll see you there shortly, Ep."
The Amazon nodded as she finished preparing Zasha for the morning, binding the infant snuggly in her carrier. When she was finished, she accepted Peran from her mate and repeated the process. With a mind for promptness, their nanny arrived on time and walked with the two warriors to the field where Xena was just warming up to her more difficult routines.
With one eye on her children in the shade of a nearby tree, and one on her bondmate who was instructing a first-year class on the finer points of staff work, Wolf appeared to relax her vigilance, although those who knew her well, knew that the demi-god's senses were always alert. The only outward sign she showed of danger was the sudden tensing of her arms which were crossed over her chest. Lifting her head to taste the wind that carried scents from the south, her eyes widened. Checking the field and the village beyond for any sign of trouble, she sprinted over to the tall warrior who had just begun to spar.
"Xena," she called before she reached the woman.
"Wha...," Xena recognized the look in her friend's eyes and surveyed the area with dead calm. When she saw the demi-god's nostrils flare, she inhaled deeply and tasted the acrid odor of smoke on the back of her tongue. "How far?"
"Thirty, maybe thirty-five miles."
Xena nodded and sheathed her sword. "You go tell Eph. I'll get the horses ready."
Wolf had won the argument with the Regent, and she and Xena arrived at the burned-out village without an Amazon escort. Small fires were still burning among the charred husks of homes that had obviously been looted. The demi-god squinted her eyes in an effort to clear the stinging smoke from them. She rubbed them as they began to tear. "How long do you figure," she asked Xena, as she wiped her wet palms across her leather skirt, sure that the warrior's history gave her the experience to judge.
"Four hours, maybe less." The ex-warlord studied the ruined dwellings. "The wood was aged, pretty dry. It must have gone up quick."
The demi-god settled Beast with a firm squeeze of her thighs. "Doesn't look like anyone's left," she observed, watching the bodies that were strewn about for any signs of life.
Xena circled around the signs of a struggle. "They took the survivors for slaves," she growled.
Wolf urged her mare closer and let her eyes follow the cart trail into the light forest. "Should we follow?"
"I will," Xena replied. "I want you to get back to the village once Beast is cooled down. Tell Ephiny that Terlava was taken. I'll be back as soon as I find out where they are taking them."
Wanting to argue, but knowing that the Warrior Princess had a stronger will when she set her mind to it, Wolf nodded with compliance. "Be careful," she warned.
Xena watched as her friend dismounted and led Beast to a water trough and began to brush her down with a clump of sweet grass. "You too," she ordered as she urged Argo onto the trail that was marked with heavy wheel prints.
When Wolf returned to the Amazon village, she found Gabrielle pacing slowly as Ephiny tried to convince her to sit and rest.
Ephiny saw the demi-god first as the small woman dismounted. "Wolf, thank the gods."
"Wolf," Gabrielle cried, "where's Xena?"
The Amazon guard took the Queen gently by the shoulders and guided her to a bench. "Xena's fine, Gabrielle. We found Terlava raided. She believes that the survivors were captured as slaves. Last I saw her, she was following their trail."
"Is she going to engage them," Ephiny asked, keeping a sharp eye on the Queen who had begun to show signs of an explosion.
Wolf shook her head as she accepted a waterskin with a grateful smile, from her bondmate, who had seen her arrival from their hut. "No. She's just going to find out what's going on. She'll be back after she learns where they are going."
"Are you sure," Gabrielle asked, her words forced through clenched teeth. The bard was quickly losing the battle to fear.
"Oh, yeah," the demi-god assured her. "Xena won't take any stupid chances."
Three pairs of eyebrows quirked at the small guard's words. She answered with a similar look. "Not anymore, she won't. Trust me on this one."
Following the cart tracks was easy enough for Xena. The bandits had made no attempt to hide them, not that it would have been easy, the warrior figured as she dismounted two hours later. It had not taken long for her to catch up to her quarry who had been impeded by the forest trail they had been following. After an hour of traveling the well-traveled path, the tracks had veered off onto the main road. Xena, however, had kept to the woods to better conceal her pursuit. When she had finally caught sight of the raiders, they were stopping for a mid-day meal.
The warrior snorted softly in disbelief. The bandits were either stupid or inexperienced. Not only had they moved onto the main road, but they had stopped where anyone could chance upon them. Xena settled onto a branch above and not far from their campsite. She noticed that a few of the women and children that had been captured were injured, although none seemed fatal. With keen ears, she listened as their captors bragged to each other the easy prey that Terlava had been.
The forty men, Xena observed, were fairly well-outfitted with weapons and armor, and all were young, none seemed to be over the age of thirty. A few had mounts, all of which seemed to be solid, healthy horseflesh. And as many warlords and petty tyrants that she knew, Xena could not place their insignia. She assumed that a new group had sprung up quickly, and that bothered her more than not recognizing their affiliation. Her attention was drawn when two men entered the forest below her to relieve themselves.
"I'm tellin' ya, Caspa, Atronos won't keep the kids. He'll sell them, I'm sure of it."
The taller of the two grunted as he undid his trousers. "You don't know shit, Larud. He'll keep them around. They do grow up. Besides," he continued after a sigh, "I hear rumors of Atronos' likes."
"You mean, the young ones?"
Caspa's mouth curled up into a cruel smile. "The younger the better. Don't matter what theys got between the legs, either."
Larud thought of the small boy he had left at home when he left to find his fortune. "Are you sure, Caspa," he asked, barely hiding his disgust.
The tall one merely shrugged as he refastened his trousers. "Does it matter, Larud? We get paid. Money is all that matters to me."
Larud nodded, although his worry began to etch itself upon his face. "How long until we reach the castle?"
"Near another day's travel."
Seeing the taller man's look of suspicion, Larud thought quickly so as to hide his feelings. He grabbed his crotch and grinned lewdly. "Damn shame that the prince won't let us have them pretty ones. I can't wait to find me some action," he replied.
His relief was evident to Xena as she observed their conversation. It had taken a great deal of self-control and many thoughts of Gabrielle and their child to stop her from putting the pinch on the two men. When she had heard Caspa hint that their employer would abuse the village children, she had seen red. She was tempered by the fact that none of the women and children were being assaulted before they reached their destination.
As soon as the men rounded up their captives and fell into formation around the carts into which they had been chained, Xena took to the trees, following her earlier steps to where she had left Argo. With a second look behind to see if anyone had backtracked to check for any trailers, the warrior spurred her warhorse and soon afterwards found the road where she was able to make up some time traveling back to Amazonia.
The sound of a horse galloping up the main trail pulled Wolf from her meal. Filtering out the cacophony of conversation going around inside the dining hall where a few small groups were enjoying a late lunch, the demi-god recognized the rhythm. "Gabrielle," she urged as she stood from her place at the right of the Queen.
Gabrielle accepted the guard's assistance and followed the small woman out of the hut to the square where Xena was just entering.
Wolf ran to the Consort and took Argo's reins as the tall warrior dismounted. "Go to Gabrielle, first, Xena. She's been anxious."
Nodding her agreement, the warrior crossed the space separating her from her wife in a few long strides. She had to bow slightly at the waist to accommodate the bard's swollen abdomen, but she relished the feel of their growing baby against the warmth of her leathers. "I'm fine," she assured the bard before Gabrielle could speak. "Come on," she urged as she pulled the Queen to the Council hut. "We need to talk. You'll have to call the elders."
Gabrielle turned to Ephiny who was following at her side. "Would you, Eph?"
"Sure, Gabrielle. Xena, I'll have someone bring you something to eat."
The warrior nodded her gratitude to both the Regent and Wolf who was in the process of leading Argo to the stables. "Make sure that they walk her a bit before brushing her down," she ordered.
"Atronos? Are you sure?"
Xena cocked a loaded brow to Ephiny.
"Okay...you're sure," the Regent responded.
"Do you know him, Xena?"
"No, Gabrielle. I've never heard of him, but something tells me that Ephiny has."
All eyes were on the blond Amazon as she squirmed in her seat. "When Phantes and I were traveling to Athens," she began, her voice breaking at the memory of her husband, "we ran across Atronos. He had been thrown from his horse, and Phantes helped to calm the animal down. When Phantes asked him about some bleeding on the horse's flanks, Atronos told us to mind our own business. After that, we never saw him again."
"And that's it," Xena asked, not surprised to hear the Amazon's story.
The Consort stood and began to pace the Council hut. "I don't understand why no one has heard anything about this *prince* until now. He's obviously wealthy and has quite a few men under his command."
"Maybe he's just kept a low profile until now," Gabrielle offered as her eyes followed her lover.
"Or perhaps he really did appear overnight," Wolf supplied, shrugging when Xena fixed her with an unreadable expression. "You know, like maybe he came into some money and just bought himself an army."
"Doesn't matter," Xena mumbled aloud. "I have to help those people," she said.
The tall warrior's icy gaze snapped to her wife. "No, Gabrielle. I can't just let that bastard have them."
"Then the Amazons will go with you."
Shaking her head in fierce denial, Xena tried to kill the suggestion. "It's not their fight, Gabrielle."
"Yes it is, Xena."
All eyes focused on Ephiny once again. "Terlava is under Amazon protection. It is our fault for not knowing of Atronos' threat, and for the village being destroyed. Now it's up to us to make it up to those women and children."
Xena glanced from Ephiny to Gabrielle. "Fine," she replied, throwing her arms up in surrender. "I'll need forty warriors and five archers."
"I'm going," Wolf announced as she stepped forward.
Turning to face the demi-god, Xena grabbed the guard by the arm and pulled the smaller woman away from the others. "No, Wolf. I want you to stay here with Gabrielle."
Seeing the defeated look on the guard's face, Ephiny stood. "If she isn't going, then I am."
"So am I."
It was Wolf's turn to quell the woman's words. "Eponin," she nearly growled. "May I speak with you?"
The Weaponsmaster followed her bondmate into a corner where curious eyes watched them whispering fiercely. "Don't try to stop me, woman," the Amazon warned.
"Pony, come on," the guard beseeched. "It's only been four months since the babies were born."
"And I'm back in shape," the Amazon argued. "I used to have a life, you know."
Wolf's eyes widened in surprise and then she lowered her head to hide her pain.
Eponin cursed herself softly and lowered her mouth to her bondmate's ear. "I'm sorry, honey. I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I'm just restless. I need to fight," she pointed out as she ran a comforting hand up Wolf's muscular arm. "Please?"
Taking a deep breath, Wolf conceded with a brief nod.
"I love you, Wolfdragon," Eponin vowed as she captured her bondmate in a quick hug.
Wolf caught the Amazon's eyes with her own. She let their color burn itself into her memory. "And I will always love you, my noble Amazon."
"Well, if that's settled, I want to get moving as soon as possible," Xena announced as she unrolled a map onto the table. "When I left them, they had broken camp here," she said as she pointed to the parchment.
"This looks like the most probable sight for a stronghold," Eponin suggested as she rejoined the group.
As the gathered women debated their course of action, only Wolf hung back. Gabrielle watched as the demi-god's face lost its usual cheerfulness. The queen's brow puckered in thought when the guard's eyes began to mist, when Wolf turned and walked out of the hut.
"You'll watch out for her, won't you?"
Wolf craned her neck to find Xena standing over her. She plucked at another blade of grass and stood. "Yeah," she answered, her gaze falling to the warrior's boots. "Do the same for Pony, will you?"
Xena's eyes narrowed. "Wolf?"
"Just look out for her, Xena. And you be careful, too."
The warrior nodded and shook off the feeling that something wasn't right. "I will."
"You're leaving now?"
"Yeah. We should be fine. Darkness and Amazons seem to mix well," Xena replied, trying to lighten the mood.
"I'll go say good-bye then."
Xena watched as the demi-god made her way down the slight hill that overlooked the village. The small woman almost carried herself with a defeated gait. *Well, she didn't get to go along, and her wife did,* Xena thought, assuming that Wolf was upset at not being included.
"You'll be careful, right?"
Xena turned and gathered Gabrielle into her arms. Kissing the top of the bard's head, the warrior inhaled deeply of her wife personal essence. "For you and the little one."
"Come back to me, Xena."
"In one piece," the warrior promised, repeating the words that they had begun to share recently before battle.
Eponin stood from her weapon's locker and set aside a couple of daggers. "What?"
"Please be careful with Atronos, huh? I don't like the idea of fighting an unknown enemy."
The Amazon stood and embraced her bondmate. "You worry too much."
Wolf buried her face into Eponin's neck and opened her senses. She allowed her lover's being to overwhelm her. She wanted to remember the smallest thing, from the rhythm of her heart and breathing, to the slightly floral scent of her skin. "Zasha and Peran will miss you."
Chuckling, Eponin turned Wolf's face up to hers. "And you won't?"
"With all my heart," the demi-god answered with conviction, determined not to lose control. She cupped Eponin's face gently in her callused hands and pulled the taller woman down for a long, sweet kiss. "I love you, Eponin."
"I love you, too."
Wolf walked over to the twin's crib and gathered each of them into an arm. She sat on the edge of the bed and watched as the Weaponsmaster readied herself for battle. When the Amazon was finished, she presented a breathtaking spectacle of power and strength.
"I expect you to be waiting in that bed when I get back," Eponin hinted with a lewd wink.
"You bet," Wolf whispered as she nuzzled Zasha's fine dark head.
"Good, now give me another kiss and see me off to battle properly," the Amazon ordered.
With a sad smile, Wolf complied. When Eponin bowed her head to kiss the twins, the demi-god took a deep breath. "Good luck."
"He'll never know what hit him."
"Are the babies all right?"
Wolf tore her gaze from surveying the square to answer the queen. "Triva has them."
"She'll spoil them, you know," Gabrielle said with a sparkle in her eye.
"Rotten," Wolf agreed.
When the guard's face remained strained, Gabrielle began to worry. "They'll be all right, Wolf. You'll see. Xena's the greatest leader I've ever known."
"I know, Gabrielle. I've been under her command."
"But you're still worried."
Wolf shrugged. It was as much for the Queen's benefit as it was her own. She had seen. She knew what the outcome would be. She reminded herself of the lesson of the greater good that Xena and Gabrielle taught her. She heard it every time the bard told a story. The world was a cruel place, populated by some ruthless people. And sacrifices had to be given for the greater good. "There's no law against that, now is there?"
Gabrielle grinned despite her own misgivings about the battle that had taken her wife. "I'll have to check on that one. Knowing the Amazons, it just might be possible." The Queen was satisfied by the wry grin on the guard's face. "Tell you what, if we have to wait for them to get back, why don't we do it in the dining hall. I'm really craving some porridge about now."
Wolf's face wrinkled in distaste. "Porridge? And I thought that pressure point messed up your sense of taste."
"Not even close to pregnancy," Gabrielle finished as she looped her arm through Wolf's.
The demi-god allowed the Queen to lead her across the compound. She said a silent prayer, asking Artemis to guide the Amazons in battle.
Xena peered over the top of the hill behind which she and Eponin had hidden. Things did not look good. What they had thought to be a stronghold was actually a fortified castle. And the forty men that she had seen in the forest were only part of Atronos' forces. There were at least eighty of them camped along the outer walls, and there was no way of guessing how many were inside.
"Not good," Eponin mumbled as she voiced the tall warrior's fears. "Any ideas?"
Contemplating their limited options, Xena steeled her reserve with a firm nod of her head. "I'm going in to see what the castle's defenses are. If I'm not back in two hours, I want you to wait until the soldiers go to sleep, and then I want you to lead an attack against them."
"Isn't that just a bit underhanded?"
"And sacking Terlava wasn't," the tall warrior responded with a growl.
Eponin raised her hands in appeasement. "Okay."
"Okay, what," Ephiny asked as she joined them. "Tartarus," she whispered in awe at the scene below them.
Xena took a brief moment to outline her plan before she slipped into the shadows of night to do her part. She jogged silently on dew-kissed ground, crouching low to hide herself in the tall grasses along the treeline. Within a quarter hour, she found herself at the far southern corner of the wall. "Well, there's no daggers to help me scale this one," she muttered to herself as she found purchase along the rough-hewn stone. After a few laboring minutes, she found herself at the top of the wall.
She stepped back into the shadows of a tower as a pair of sentries walked past, talking between themselves of the early morning's capture. With experienced eyes, she found all of the positions of the permanent sentries and the routes of those who walked the wall. Figuring her best chances of going undetected, she set about disabling them one by one. A few quiet scuffles and disabling blows later, she came upon the last man. With lightning-fast motions, she jabbed at his neck. "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain," she said automatically. "You'll be dead in thirty seconds unless you tell me what I want to know."
When the sentry nodded vehemently, she bent lower to fix him with a withering glare. "Where are the women and children being held?"
Through gasps of pain, the sentry forced the word's out of his mouth. "They're in the pit," he answered.
Nodding once more, the sentry pointed to a large hole in the ground that Xena had missed upon earlier inspection. "In there."
Xena snarled as she released the pinch. With a satisfied grunt, she knocked him unconscious with punch to the side of his head. She crouched down and studied the layout below. There was only one guard watching over the captives, but she saw several others milling about in conversation and two engaged in a game of dice. "I'm getting too old for this," she mumbled as she made her way along the wall to the side closest to the pit.
She threw a dagger that she had taken from the last sentry to land with a clutter into the darkest shadows far enough from the pit to warrant the guard's attention. When the man moved to investigate, she dropped silently to the ground and then dropped herself into the pit. At first, the frightened prisoners shied away from her sudden appearance, but her calming sounds soothed them. "I'm here to help," she whispered.
The women gathered the children to them and crowded around the warrior, effectively hiding her from the guard's view as he returned, flipping a dagger in his hand. "There is an Amazon army waiting outside. But they won't move until I'm missing for another...," she glanced up to the stars, "hour or so. When they attack, the castle guard will discover that their sentries are incapacitated. Hopefully, that will draw them out enough so that I can take care of them. When everything in here is taken care of, we'll get you out of here, all right?"
Many doubtful glances were flashed to the warrior princess, but she heeded them no attention. She accepted a cloak from one of them, as it concealed her armor which was glowing dully with the torchlight that flickered above them. And, one by one, she saw to the injured as the women continued to huddle around her, hiding her among their numbers.
As she had predicted, the castle guards were roused by the sound of clashing swords outside of the walls. When they realized that the sentries had not shouted warning, they climbed to the walls themselves. Xena watched as they discovered the unconscious men, as they called to one guarding the main entrance to the castle itself. After hearing of their circumstances, the man at the door slipped inside immediately. Seeing her chance, Xena threw off the cloak and bounded out of the pit.
Grabbing the nearest man, she disabled him quickly. With a feral grin, she realized her fortune. Borrowing the guard's crossbow and quiver, she loaded the weapon and began to eliminate the guards along the walls, one by one. When her supply of bolts ran out, she threw the weapon aside and unsheathed her sword.
She felt her battlelust surge as she faced the guards one at a time and in groups. It didn't matter to her. She licked the beads of sweat that had begun to form on her upper lip. A good fight was a good fight. It didn't matter to her how many were involved. With studied movements, she began to lead her adversaries away from the pit and towards the main gate. When all were temporarily incapacitated, she took a moment to raise the beam that locked the massive wooden doors. With a vicious laugh, she opened the gates to allow the Amazons a way in, and her a way out.
Knocking a few more men unconscious and running one particularly stubborn one through with her sword, she made her way back to the pit. Seeing a ladder at the bottom of the near wall, she shouted a warning and kicked it into the hole. She watched the soldiers who were beginning to rise as she heard the first woman ascend the ladder. "Get them all out and head for the main gate. Once you're free of the castle, find cover among the trees and travel east. You should be safe in the woods. With this moonless dark, even the soldiers will be reluctant to follow. Now...GO," she ordered.
As one woman, who was braver than the rest, helped the injured up the ladder, Xena continued to battle the guards, drawing attention to herself and away from the villagers. She looked up in satisfaction as she caught a glimpse of the first Amazons come through the main gate. When several warriors joined the villagers and melted into the darkness, the tall warrior was partially relieved. She knew that the women and children were safe, but she wasn't so sure about the rest of them. It seemed as if there was a never-ending stream of men rushing from inside the castle.
Wolf heard the Queen gasp and turned her attention away from the fire that she had been studying. Her quick eyes found the group of weary women and a handful of Amazons entering the village.
"Chalia, Darlea," Gabrielle called, "help those women. Genna, go fetch the Nagla."
The Amazons moved to obey their Queen, whose eyes were scanning the trickle of bodies for any sight of her wife. When she found Ephiny instead, she tried to stand.
"Wait, Gabrielle, she's coming this way," Wolf advised, her voice flat.
"My Queen," Ephiny gasped as she accepted a waterskin from Wolf. "We succeeded."
"Ephiny, where's Xena?"
Ephiny spared a pained glance to Wolf and then looked into the Queen's eyes. "She was taken." Taking the guard's hand into her own, the Regent bowed her head. "Wolf...."
"I know, Eph. If you'll excuse me," Wolf asked on a whisper before she moved through the crowd to find her own hut.
The Regent looked to Gabrielle and tears began to fall from her face. "Eponin is dead."
"Oh gods, no," the bard cried softly as she felt the guilt settle upon her shoulders. "It's all my fault."
"No, Gabrielle. Ep died doing what she was meant to do. It was her destiny. Nothing you could have done...or not...would have prevented that."
Gabrielle considered the blond Amazon's words. While it still hurt, she knew that it was the truth. Many Amazons died defending the Nation and those under its protection. It was the most noble of sacrifices for them. "Wolf knew," she revealed, finally realizing why the demi-god had been so quiet all night.
Ephiny nodded. "Ep told me that she had visions every so often."
Gabrielle's hands flew to her face. "My gods, Ephiny. What about the babies?"
The Regent laid her hand upon the young queen's knee. "The Nation will help Wolf care for them. It is our way."
When Solari approached them, she made her report. Fifteen injured with three serious, twelve confirmed dead, and four missing and assumed dead.
Realizing that Xena was among those who were still missing, Gabrielle struggled to her feet. "I'm going after her." She was spun on her heel by a restraining hand.
"Be serious, Gabrielle. You're seven months pregnant. What are *you* going to do?"
When the bard went to open her mouth to respond, her words were stolen by the sight of Wolf.
"She's not going to do anything. I am."
Ephiny had forgotten what the demi-god looked like in her old leather and armor. Since vowing allegiance to the Amazon Nation, the small woman had opted to wear the common two-piece skirt and top. But with the urgency of the situation, it was if she had been taken back in time.
Gabrielle remembered what the woman had looked like just before the battle with Dahok. Wolf had the same determined look in her eyes, which were practically glowing behind her blue and yellow face paint. Her leathers trousers were snug along her muscled thighs and her armor glinted dully in the torchlight. The swirling dragon pattern reminded everyone just how deadly she could be when she chose.
The bard shivered when she recognized the look in Wolf's eyes. The only thing she could compare it to was Xena's face after she had discovered Solon dead. Gabrielle feared for her friend, but said nothing. Nodding her acceptance of Wolf's unspoken plan, she watched as the demi-god adjusted the swords on her back. In one fluid motion, she mounted Beast who had been led out by one of the younger warriors.
"Keep an eye on the girls until I get back."
Without waiting for a response, the small warrior spun her warhorse around with a nudge of her knee and galloped out of the village. Using her preternatural senses, Wolf guided Beast down the main road to Atronos' castle. She knew where it was. She had seen it a dozen times in her dreams. She knew that when she arrived, she would find her bondmate's body crumpled over that of a soldier whom she had run through with her sword. Wolf reminded herself to watch for the arrow that had pierced Eponin clean through the chest. In her nightmares, when she turned the woman over, it would rip a great deal of flesh, marring her beautiful breasts. She would remember to be more careful so that the Amazon's body would not be damaged any further for her spirit's passing.
Xena, Wolf knew, was alive. She wasn't doing so good, but she was strong, and would survive. *Just like she always does,* the demi-god thought with a slight grin. Knowing exactly where each guard would be when she arrived, Wolf halted her warhorse along the tree line and crept silently across the field. Her dark armor concealed her movements in the tall grass. She kneeled a short distance from the castle and watched as the men were gathering their injured from the field and carrying them inside. She knew that she would have only a moment's chance when all of their eyes were diverted from the main gate.
Xena sputtered violently as another bucket of rancid water was thrown in her face. She took slow stock of her injuries and bit back the groan that had tried to force its way past her lips. She was definitely chained to a wall, manacles dug deep into her wrists and ankles. Her face was beaten, and one eye was swollen completely. She tasted blood as it flowed freely from a laceration on her bottom lip. Taking a careful breath, she figured that she had at least three cracked ribs, and her left ankle felt as if it were sprained. Through one hooded eye, she watched as a tall man approached her.
"Ah, by the looks, I would say that I've captured the great Xena," he purred malevolently. "Please tell me it's true," he pleaded. When Xena answered by spitting blood in his face, he laughed violently, announcing the fact that his blow was coming. Not seeing it, Xena assumed that it was going to land on her blind side. In a split second, she reminded herself to relax and accept the wave of pain that was sure to come. She grunted with the contact of his meaty fist. *Well, now we know that he's as strong as he looks,* she mused as she forced her body to ignore the pain that was radiating from the new injury.
"I'll take that as a yes," Atronos snarled, wiping the spit with a rag one of the guards had supplied. "Leave us," he ordered, knowing that none would defy.
Xena watched as the prince moved to stand in front of her once again. He stood easily at six and a half feet. His long shaggy, brown hair and golden eyes prompted a vision of an exotic lion. When she saw his intentions, she closed her eyes and remembered Gabrielle. Her wife, her bard, her friend, the mother of her child. She lulled herself to numbness with visions of honey-gold hair and lively green eyes. She was feeling nothing. Her love's radiant smile lessened the pain caused by Atronos' forced entry and the blinding agony as the big man's fist connected with her head once more.
Wolf thanked Artemis as she made her way quietly through the halls of the castle. She knew the way to the dungeon as if she had designed the structure herself. With a choreographed precision, she ducked into shadows and behind cover as men occasionally passed. She was not surprised to see the heavy wooden door that led to the group of cells unguarded. It never was in her nightmares. Closing her heart against the fury that she knew would rise at the sight, she opened the door slightly and slipped in. Following the vulgar sounds coming from the last cell on the right, she gathered her courage and flung the door wide.
Atronos was leaning heavily against Xena's battered body as he was catching his breath. When he felt the draft along his naked backside, he turned his head to growl at the interruption. He was brought up short, however, by the sight of another female warrior. "Come to join the fun," he asked as he fastened his trousers.
Wolf willed her anger into the deep recesses of her soul. "Why don't you come out here and find out," she drawled suggestively.
Atronos grinned and watched as the small warrior backed out of the room. "I'm always up for a bit of light fun," he quipped.
Wolf's face turned vicious. "For what you've done to innocent women and children, I should kill you. But if you play nice and hand my friend over, I just might let you go."
The prince stared at the small woman with an expression that switched from astonishment to incredulity. "Do you think you can take me, little one?"
Wolf could feel her control slipping once again. Taking a deep calming breath, she exhaled, calm and more sure of herself and her purpose. "If you can look me in the eye and tell me straight that you want me to beat the shit out of you, I'd be happy to oblige," she taunted, drawing the man further out into the main room.
"Such big words, little one. Tell me, what sweet little treats are you hiding under all that, hmm?"
When Atronos made a move to reach for her armor, Wolf ducked and rolled out of his reach. "You know mister, I am not above playing dirty at this stage in the game," she warned as she unsheathed her twin swords.
"Ah...," the prince sighed. "I do so love a challenge."
Wolf watched as he reached behind for the sword that she knew was there. She really didn't want to kill an unarmed man, no matter how vile he was. When the long double-edged blade was revealed, the demi-god unleashed the maelstrom that had been building. All her life flashed past her eyes. She saw the fires of the Celts and heard their battle chants. She saw Master Lin as he taught her a tough lesson, she saw Eponin and their daughters.
And with a breath, she let it all go. She allowed herself to float, to become. Focusing her energy, she dropped her swords and grinned at the man's perplexed look. "Sorry, pal. I just don't have time for this," she snarled before she hurled an energy bolt. The force of the impact sent the large man crashing into the wall behind him with a sickening thud as his charred flesh stuck in places along the rough stone. "Well, that was gross," Wolf muttered as she resheathed her swords and found the manacle keys hanging on a hook by the door.
Wolf laid Xena gently to the ground and heaved a deep breath. "Damn, woman, you have really let yourself go," she gasped, noting with wry humor that the tall warrior was as fit and trim as ever.
"Maybe you just got lazy in your old age," a cracked voice whispered.
Falling to one knee, the demi-god pushed a few raven locks off Xena's forehead. "And you know it," she returned with a grin. "Can you walk?"
Xena tried to chuckle, but the pain in her ribs only caused her to grimace. "Just give a shoulder, and I'll make it."
When the couple reached Beast, Wolf made sure that Xena was comfortable with a waterskin before she trotted back to the castle. Along the outside of the far wall, she found her bondmate. With great care, she reached under and snapped off the arrowhead that was protruding from between her breasts. She carefully removed the deadly shaft. Cradling the Amazon's body, she made her way back to Xena. "There are two more out there," Wolf panted as she accepted the waterskin. "Is Argo around? Beast can probably carry two, and I'm sure yours can carry you plus another."
When Xena nodded, Wolf gave a low, shrill whistle. When there was no answering sound of hooves, she turned to her own warhorse. "Beast, go find Argo and bring her back," she ordered with a scratch behind the horse's ear. Beast snorted and nodded her head before taking off down the trail to the main road.
"She listens better than you do," Xena observed with dry humor. "I thought I told you to stay with Gabrielle."
Wolf smiled warmly, knowing that Xena was already feeling better. "The war party came back...and without you, I might add. She was ready to come after you herself."
Taking another deep drink of water, Xena watched as Wolf rolled Eponin into a confiscated bedroll. "I'm sorry, Wolf."
The demi-god sat back on her legs and hung her head. "There was nothing you could have done, Xena. Nothing anyone could have done. She died honorably." Wolf moved to sit next to her old friend. Taking the warrior's offered hand, she began to cry quietly. "I was so lucky to have found her. I thought that I would never know that kind of love again. And for five years, I was the happiest person alive. I'm better off for having known her."
"You're taking this a lot easier than I would."
Wolf turned to the tall warrior, her face suddenly serious. "I believe in destiny, Xena. Dying on this battlefield was hers, and mine is to continue on."
Xena remained silent as she contemplated the guard's words. She herself had come back from the dead to fulfill her destiny. She understood it, but it didn't mean that she always had to agree with it.
"Well, I'm going back before those soldiers find their bodies," Wolf announced as she stood once again. "You all right?"
The demi-god nodded and slipped away. She followed the scent that seemed to be unique to all Amazons - that of forest and earth - to another body. Her heart saddened when she recognized the woman. She was so young, but she had shown such promise and skill. Normally, she would not have been along for this battle, but with several other warriors retired temporarily by pregnancy, the young Amazon had been chosen to join. It was her first, and last, real-battle experience.
Xena watched as Wolf moved swiftly through the grasses, returning with one body and then crossing the field for the last one. When the demi-god had finally retrieved all the fallen Amazons, the two warhorses appeared. "There's rope in the front saddlebag," she said as she moved to help the small woman.
"Don't even think about it, Xena," Wolf called over her shoulder. "Gabrielle would never let me hear the end of it."
The warrior settled to the grass once more. "She doesn't have to know."
"But I would," Wolf emphasized as she tapped Beast's withers in command for the horse to kneel. With reverent movements, she tied two of the bodies to the animal and commanded the mare to rise. "Xena, would you mind carrying Eponin?"
"It would be an honor."
Wolf smiled in gratitude as Xena whistled for Argo to kneel as Beast had done. After Eponin's body was secure, Argo stood and Wolf helped the warrior mount. "Ready to go home and face the music?"
Xena snorted as she could already hear Gabrielle chastising her for her actions. "Don't remind me."
Apollo's first rays were just lighting the sky when Wolf and Xena returned to Amazonia. Their arrival was announced by sentries who had passed the word along. By the time that they reached the square, a small crowd was milling about, solemn murmurs filled the air. Wolf cast a glance to the warrior who was dismounting with stiff movements and grimaced. Xena looked like Hades' chariot had run her over a few times.
She watched as Gabrielle stepped from the crowd and raked her eyes over her wife. Without a word exchanged, the Queen led her consort to their hut, motioning for the Nagla to follow. Ephiny began calling out orders for a pyre detail and two more Amazons lowered their fallen sisters gently to the ground. Wolf raised a restraining hand when they approached Argo. "She's mine," she whispered as she untied her bondmate's body and carried her across the compound to their hut.
Gabrielle stood in the corner watching as the healer helped Xena to undress. Although used to seeing the warrior's body covered in bruises and minor cuts after a heavy battle, she was unprepared this time. Mentally, she chalked it up to hormones, but when she saw that her wife's body was battered all over, dark, large bruises nearly covered her upper torso, Gabrielle began to cry. And then she wept aloud.
Xena crossed the room and gathered the small woman into her arms and shook her head ruefully. She had been prepared for a reaction from the bard, but not one so dramatic. She expected a few veiled threats and a lame joke to cover the worry. The sobs which were beginning to escalate, took her by surprise. Xena sighed as she led Gabrielle to their bed. The warrior figured that the pregnancy had something to do with Gabrielle's reaction. It sure had played a number on her in various other ways - her ravenous appetite, her unpredictable libido, the easy tears that Xena had become accustomed to.
Laying along the length of the bed and propping herself up on the myriad of cushions and pillows, Xena allowed Nagla to clean her wounds as she held the Queen who was still sobbing quietly into her neck. When the healer moved to sew a wound high on her thigh, her eyes widened in horror.
Xena met the old woman's eyes with a slight shake of her head. Nodding her understanding, Nagla closed the wound and erased the evidence of Atronos' violence. Xena winced slightly when the cool cloth was passed between her legs. In the morning, she knew she would have to find the herbs she would need to end any conception that might have occurred.
When the healer finished rubbing salve into the heavy bruises on her torso, she wrapped the warrior's ribs tightly so that they would knit themselves. With the barest of nods, the old woman gathered her supplies and left the two women alone in the hut. Her shoulders sagging, she returned to the infirmary where others were waiting for her care.
Once Gabrielle had fallen asleep, Xena allowed herself to close her eyes. Her mind drifted over the battle of last night. Considering the situation, the outcome really had not been all that bad. Ephiny had led a squad into the walls of the castle to help her battle the endless numbers of soldiers streaming from within the castle, while Solari and Eponin led the fight outside of the walls. When she had realized that they were in more trouble than they could handle, she had ordered the Regent to withdraw her troops. She had kept the soldiers busy, allowing the others to retreat with few casualties.
With her usual stoicism, she considered the fact that she herself had been doing pretty good. She had finally buckled under the constant blows from fresh opponents and had been unable to escape. She flexed her jaw as she remembered the last blow she that she could. She had not known it at the time, but Atronos had entered the courtyard himself and had dealt it. His meaty fist had connected with the side of her face, and she had seen stars. She had vague memories of being bound and carried through the castle, of several guards taking the liberty of beating her further.
After she had been safely manacled to the dungeon wall and Atronos had revived her, she had to endure the tyrant's glorification of his victory. She had learned of his rise to power in one word - Ares. The God of War had taken a liking to his twisted soul and had gifted him with an army and had ordered him to ravage and draw blood. At some derogatory comment about the intrusive god, Atronos had knocked her unconscious again. *Guess he won't be around to fulfill his contract,* Xena figured with a smirk, remembering Wolf's blank-stared response to her question of the prince's whereabouts.
Xena allowed herself to drift along the edges of wakefulness. She was tired, beaten, and bruised. Gabrielle's gentle snoring lulled her deeper. It had been her thoughts of the bard and their child that had gotten her this far. She could not have just allowed her pain to overtake her, to sweep her into Celesta's arms. Knowing her wife, the small woman would have followed her to the Underworld and argued with Hades himself to have her returned. With a heavy sigh, Xena fell asleep, thoughts of Wolf and her loss caused her brow to pucker momentarily until Morpheus seduced her into his realm.
When Wolf returned to her hut, she deposited Eponin's body gently on the bed and removed the bedroll. Silent tears began to fall once again, as she cleaned and anointed the Amazon with sweet oils. She began to croon a haunting death chant as she brushed her bondmate's hair. When she finished preparing the body, she kissed the Amazon's cold, unresponsive lips one last time and wrapped it in a pristine white linen shroud. She looked over to the empty cribs, forgetting for a moment that the twins were with Triva.
Wiping the tears from her eyes, the demi-god walked from her hut and stared up at the moonless sky. With a muted growl from the depths of her aching soul, Wolf changed her shape and took to the sky. She exhausted herself, catching the gentle currents and flying as high as she dared, in an effort to escape the pain that refused to be left behind in her hut, on the battlefield. Inhaling deeply, her lungs exploded with a thunderous wail. She continued until her throat was raw and parched. When her wings could barely carry her dragon-body, she returned to the village and her hut where she fell into a deep sleep, curled up next to the woman who had brought meaning to her life, who was no more.
Ephiny poked her head into the Queen's hut and found Gabrielle alone in bed with a bowl of porridge and a tray of fruit. "Hey, how are you feeling?"
Gabrielle offered a brief smile and shrugged. "Fine, considering. Have you seen Wolf?"
"She's still sleeping," the Regent answered.
"Was that her last night?"
Ephiny nodded. "I think it was. I've never heard anything like it. It was so...."
"Mournful," the bard supplied.
"Do you think she'll be all right?"
Snagging a slice of apple from the tray, Ephiny sighed. "I hope so. Her daughters need her to be." Ephiny considered Xenon for a moment. It had only been a week since she had seen the Centaur prince last, but every time she had to leave her son, she missed him just a little more. "So, where's Xena?"
"She went for a walk," Gabrielle replied, her brow furrowed with disapproval.
"Warriors," the Regent mumbled.
Gabrielle focused her gaze on the Amazon and narrowed her eyes. "You *are* a warrior, Ephiny," she accused as she threw a pillow at her regent's head.
Wolf woke with a startle and felt to her side for the warm body of her bondmate, but was reminded of her loss by the linen-wrapped form she found. Unwilling to face the truth, she removed her armor and left the hut. In an attempt to avoid any sympathetic looks for just a while longer, she struck out for the forest, her short legs pumping automatically as she followed the trails she knew by heart.
Xena heard the demi-god before she saw her. The woman had thrown all thoughts of stealth out the proverbial window. She was making enough noise to scare away any game.
Xena contemplated her reason for being away from Gabrielle's side when all her body wanted to do was lose itself in her warmth. She was looking not for fauna, but for flora. Her keen eye found the plant that she was looking for the moment that Wolf stumbled to a halt on the path before her.
"Damn, woman, what are you doing out of bed," the demi-god asked as she took stock of the warrior's battered body.
"Had something to do," Xena replied as she cleaned the dirt from the root in her hand. When the tall warrior saw the guard's brow rise in comprehension, she braced herself for the protests that Wolf always seemed to keep handy. When all she heard were the morning birds calling to each other, she found the small woman dragging her toe through the packed dirt of the path.
Wolf looked up when she felt Xena's eyes on her. She wasn't as good as Gabrielle when it came to communicating with the warrior using only her eyes, so she tried the usual method. "You won't get any argument from me," she explained as she fell to sit upon a stump.
"I am pregnant, aren't I?"
Wolf's eyes saddened. "Yes."
"Well, Oracle," the dark warrior snarled, misdirecting her anger towards her old friend. "What do your visions show you of this pleasant surprise?"
"I don't know," Wolf mumbled. "It doesn't matter, Xena. This is your choice, and I have no right to interfere one way or another."
Xena wanted to scream, to lash out at anything in her way. In the past when she had been faced with similar circumstances, things had been much easier. She was her own person. But now...there was another who she thought would want a say. She knew that Gabrielle would be extremely pissed at her for not even telling her. And the thought of terminating the pregnancy, would probably make the bard furious considering her own condition. Xena sighed. "What should I do, Wolf?"
The demi-god shook her head. "Don't ask me, Xena. I can't give you an answer."
"You think I should tell Gabrielle," the warrior stated.
Wolf's shoulders lifted with a slight shrug.
Xena studied the pale root in her hands. It was an easy solution. It would end things...clean and simple. But since she had met Gabrielle, nothing was that easy anymore. She was not a singular person to make choices for herself anymore. She was part of something bigger - a couple. And even though she saw the unfortunate circumstances as more than simple to remedy, she still felt an obligation to discuss the situation with her wife. "Hades," she swore softly. She knew that she would just have to convince Gabrielle that her way was best.
Ephiny could feel the funeral drums pounding in time to her heart. She had lost a great friend to the battle with Atronos, but Wolf had lost part of herself. The regent looked on as the demi-god stood in front of the fire of her bondmate's pyre. Ever since Eponin had been killed, the small woman had opted to wear her dark leathers. In each arm, she held an infant. Zasha and Peran almost seemed to understand the gravity of the situation, for they remained quiet for the most part. When one or the other would fuss, Wolf would lower her head and whisper to them, soothing them.
Furtive glances were cast their way. The stories had already made the rounds along the grapevine, of the demi-god's suffering of the night before. Ever since, however, the woman was just stoic. It frightened Ephiny in a way. Wolf was not the type of warrior to close off her emotions at all times...like Xena. The guard usually had a smile on her face and a mischievous glint in her eyes. The Regent prayed that Wolf's soul would heal.
Ephiny shifted her gaze from the demi-god to the Queen and Consort. Gabrielle was holding up fairly well. Sheltered by Xena's presence, the Queen had given the signal to light the pyres with the same dignity as she had shown in the past. Xena was staid as ever, in deference for the loss of Amazon life.
All Amazons were respectfully silent. At an unspoken time, they began to move away from the pyres and entered the dining hall. Wolf however, refused to budge. She gave the twins over to Triva's care, but she held her vigil over Eponin's body, even when the skies opened up to a dismal, fine mist of rain.
"She's beginning to lose weight," Gabrielle observed as they watched Wolf enter the dining hall. As usual, she had the babies with her, one in each arm. While the demi-god had remained sober and quiet the month since Eponin's death, she still showed the same affection for the twins, who were probably the only ones who saw the woman smile.
"Wish I was," Xena replied with a mock moan as she accepted a baby from Wolf who seated herself next to the Consort. The conversation with Gabrielle about what had happened to her at Atronos' castle, and its results, had gone better than the warrior had expected. She had guessed correctly, her wife's reaction to her plans of terminating the pregnancy. Even if she hadn't been influenced by raging hormones, the bard would have still chosen to preserve the potential life. And Xena, after hours of calm debate, had capitulated.
Gabrielle had used the most powerful argument possible - she had said 'please.' Xena mentally mocked her own weak nature when it came to Gabrielle. All it left her with now was the prospect of getting weird like her wife.
"Wish you were what," Wolf asked as she accepted a bowl of venison stew.
"Umm...about ready to deliver," Xena replied lamely.
The demi-god quirked a brow and snuck a look at her friend's still-lithe frame. "Gotta ways to go yet, Xena."
The warrior flashed a steely look to her friend and then laughed as Zasha, whom Wolf was holding, stuck out her tongue. "I think she's spending too much time with you," Xena commented.
"Nah, she just doesn't like her cereal," Wolf explained as she tried to get the baby to take a spoonful. "Not like Aunt Gabby, huh," the demi-god cooed.
"Please, don't remind me," the Queen asked. Gabrielle's face puckered up into a look of distaste. "I can't believe I ate that stuff for six months. I hate porridge."
"We could tell," Xena agreed wryly, ducking back as her wife took a swing at her.
"Hey, watch the baby," Wolf chastised with a grin.
"Yeah, watch the baby," the warrior repeated.
Gabrielle stare bored down on both of them until she smirked. "Okay. But when you get strange cravings, Warrior Princess, do not ask me to fulfill them."
Xena's eyes narrowed in playful seduction. "None of them," she asked.
Her hormones, which were raging already, suddenly flared, and Gabrielle sucked in a deep breath. Leaning in to her wife's ear, she exhaled hotly. "Maybe just one," she purred, her honey-sweet voice promising everything.
The two women were drawn out of their passionate study of each other by a loud gurgle. Both looked down to see Peran observing them with an intensity that shocked them both. For a second, Xena thought she could see Eponin in the child's eyes. The moment was broken when the baby sneezed and coated a bemused Xena with spittle. Accepting a napkin from Gabrielle, the warrior wiped her chest clean and dried the baby's chin. With a mental sigh, Xena realized that she couldn't wait for a second chance at motherhood.
Gabrielle stared at the thatch ceiling of her hut. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to will away the urge to relieve herself, but its calling was too strong. It was hours before dawn, and she hadn't slept a wink since retiring. With a frustrated sigh, she scooted to the side of the pallet and pushed herself to a sitting position. Taking only a moment to cover her restless baby with both hands, she stood and moved behind a partition to the chamber pot. Her sigh was audible to the warrior, as was her gasp of surprise.
She had been worried, for the past seven months to be exact, that she would not know when the baby would be ready to be delivered. She had nightmares of being alone in a field with nobody around as she went into labor. She feared her ignorance. Hope's birth had been a freakish thing, so nothing from that would have been able to prepare her. But the moment that Gabrielle felt the little pop within her own body, and the liquid that was more than urine splash into the pot, she knew that her fears were unrecognized. With a calmness that surprised her, she stood and straightened her shift.
Xena was waiting for her when she stepped out from behind the partition. She almost laughed when she saw the warrior's face lit up with expectation. Smiling with a nod, Gabrielle moved closer stood on her toes to kiss the warrior's cheek. "So, do you want to do the honors, or are you going to get Nagla?"
Xena paced a moment in confusion before she remembered what she had to do. With a look to her wife who had moved to recline casually on the bed, she grinned and left the hut to fetch the healer.
The moment that Nagla heard the pounding on her door, she knew the reason. Quickly, she dressed herself and ran out to the square to ring a bell that was mounted atop a tower. The delivery of an Amazon princess was an important occasion. Sure that she had awakened enough people, the healer ran to the Queen's hut, where she was ushered inside by Darlea.
Xena had already stoked the fire and was in the process of pulling clean linens from a chest at the foot of the bed. Once she placed them on the pallet, she pulled the chest across the room so that the healer would have room to work. Nagla smiled in appreciation, but frowned when she realized that the warrior was working herself into a frantic state. She shuddered at the thought of having to order the woman out of the room. Fortunately for her, Wolf chose that moment to enter the hut.
"Well, its about time," she shouted as she strode over to the bed. Sitting next to the Queen, she offered a supportive smile. "You ready for this," she asked, her voice heavy with concern.
"Yes," Gabrielle assured her with a gentle pat on her arm. "I don't think she is, though," the bard commented with a nod of her head.
Wolf watched as the normally stoic warrior was wringing her hands and pacing back and forth. "Tell you what," Wolf began with a conspiratorial wink, "you hold off on squeezing out the princess, and I'll get that one to settle down a bit. Deal?"
"You got it," Gabrielle replied with a grimace as the first contraction seized her, working from her back around to her abdomen.
"Just relax and ride them out," Wolf advised as she stood and grasped Xena by the arm. "Come on," she ordered the warrior. "Let's go for a walk."
"No arguments, warrior. She promised to wait for you."
Xena cast a desperate look over her shoulder to her wife, who merely smiled and waved goodbye. Realizing that she was the pawn in some plan of theirs, she conceded and let the smaller woman lead her out of the hut. Five minutes later, she found herself on the outskirts of the village, seated upon a rock and guzzling from a wineskin.
"Just enough to take the edge off," Wolf chuckled as she confiscated the skin. "You want to be aware of your daughter being born, right?"
"Oh, it'll take more than a little wine to dull my senses," Xena replied. It was a good plan, she figured. By removing her from the Queen's hut, Wolf had given her the time and place to calm herself. "Okay, I'm better."
"Ready to do this?"
The warrior smiled nervously. "Sure. I mean, it's not like I've never seen her give birth before."
Wolf nodded as she stood and clasped her friend's forearm. "Wasn't your child then."
"True." Xena forced her breathing to a steady, schooled rhythm. "Almost like going into battle," she admitted.
"Just wait until she gets a hold of you," Wolf warned. "You'd better tie your hair up and put your breast plate on. If she latches onto either, you'll be sorry."
Xena flashed her a disbelieving glance and then remembered how Wolf had flexed her injured hands after Eponin's birthing. "Good idea," she mumbled, nodding her head.
Ten hours later, Gabrielle was cursing, in vivid detail, the warrior's lineage. Xena had tied up her hair, but had foregone the breastplate for the bard's comfort, as the woman was leaning back against her. She ignored the steady stream of insults coming from her wife, for the most part. Some particularly ribald comments about her hands, though, had caused her to smirk deviously.
Ephiny and Solari had been chosen as witnesses to the event, and Wolf had appointed herself the go-between for the hut and the expectant villagers who had gathered outside. The demi-god's brows rose in surprise when she saw that tables were already being set up for the celebrations that would follow the birth.
When the healer finally gave Gabrielle permission to push, the Queen took a deep breath and focused on the chore. Xena was surprised at yet another display of the woman's courage. Not once had the bard cried out in pain, even though the warrior had encouraged it. But, in her usual pique of stubborn denial, Gabrielle swore through clenched teeth that the pain was not that bad. Xena had merely chuckled and offered her steady strength by supporting her wife and helping her to push.
Collapsing for a moment, Gabrielle heaved several deep breaths. "It's not so bad," she gasped as another hard contraction seized her. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to ride the waves as Wolf had told her, but her impatience to get it over with, dissolved her focus.
"One more, my Queen," Nagla encouraged after she turned the baby's shoulders.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and nearly burned the healer on the spot with one look. "DO NOT CALL ME QUEEN," she growled. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed Xena's hands and bore down on against the pain. With a great yell, she forced the baby the rest of the way out of the birth canal. Whimpering, she collapsed into Xena's arms, where she was showered with kisses and murmurs of love and pride.
"Look Gabrielle, she's beautiful," Xena said, her voice full of awe.
The Queen forced open her eyes heavy with fatigue and found her heart swelled with love for the little bundle that was laid on her chest. Ducking her head, she studied the infant's face. Although a vivid red from the birth, the child was beautiful. She had Xena's hair; dark locks adorned her crown.
"I think she takes after you," Xena whispered as she realized that the infant was already beginning to fall asleep. "I can't blame her though, I can't imagine anyone's arms that feel better than yours," she added as she nuzzled Gabrielle's sweaty neck.
The bard grunted in discomfort as the healer manually expelled the afterbirth and began to clean her. "I'm afraid that you beat me there, Xena. I like yours much better."
"Is that all," the warrior asked the two Amazons who had been watching the birth from a corner.
Ephiny and Solari both smiled brightly. "We'll go let them know," the Regent said as she put her hand to Solari's back and pushed.
When the two women finally exited the hut, Xena sighed. "Finally, some...."
A great cheer erupted from outside that shook the walls. "Peace and quiet," the warrior finished.
Gabrielle grinned through a yawn and shrugged her shoulders. "They are Amazons," she mumbled before she fell into an exhausted sleep.
Xena heard the muted sounds of casks of wine being opened and grinned. "A damn good excuse for a party," she said as the healer patted her congratulations and left the hut. Scooting out from behind her wife, Xena laid her length along Gabrielle's side and caressed both mother and child. Allowing a light slumber to overtake her, she gasped when the baby's hand instinctively clutched at her finger.
Not soon after, Nagla was kept busy delivering the children the resulted from the Festival of Life. In all, fourteen babies were delivered, nine girls and five boys, while two came into the world without life. The village took time to mourn the loss of those that had not survived, and then they began to prepare for the Festival of Promise.
"Okay, now. Explain this one to me," Gabrielle asked Solari as she sat in the shade of the trees with the other mothers and babies.
The Amazon kept a sharp eye on the practice field as she crouched down to answer her queen's question. "One month after the last mother from the Festival of Life delivers, we celebrate the Festival of Promise. It is when all of the children born in the between are named, and their lives are blessed by Artemis."
"And that's why Xena didn't want to name the baby...because we had to wait." When Solari nodded, Gabrielle shook her head. "I just thought that we were having trouble coming up with a name," she joked.
"You mean she never told you?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "We've been so busy with the baby, I never really bothered to ask her."
Solari smiled wistfully as she watched the mother and child.
"Whoa," Gabrielle exclaimed softly. "I think this one's hungry," she said as the baby rooted at her breast.
"From the looks of your warrior, I'd say so, too."
Gabrielle looked at Solari and then turned her head to see what the Amazon was talking about. With a swift twist of her wrist, Xena disarmed her opponent and then called for a rest. With eager strides, she crossed the field to where they were sitting and removed her weapons and armor. With a warm smile, she took her usual seat behind Gabrielle.
"I figured it was time to feed her," the warrior whispered into the bard's ear.
Gabrielle turned her head to kiss her wife and then moved their daughter so that Xena could unlace her tunic and pull it off her shoulders. When the infant found purchase on a nipple, the bard sighed in contentment and leaned back.
Xena knew the moment that Solari left them to their privacy, and she silently thanked the Amazon for the gesture. Feeding time was a moment that she felt absolute peace overcome her soul. To see her wife and child connect at the most intimate of levels gave her an exquisite warmth. At just over two months old, their child was a breathtaking combination of the both of them. Her hair was raven-dark and her eyes had already turned emerald green. She was growing quickly off her mother's milk, and was showing promise of being tall. Every day, she thanked Artemis and Aphrodite for her.
Motherhood had made Gabrielle even more beautiful. She regained the glow that she had lost in Britannia so long ago, and she smiled and laughed so easily. Xena was sure that she fell in love all over again each day. It was getting harder and harder to maintain her stoic front, when a goofy grin kept threatening to reveal itself. She felt the grin come along as she gazed down at her wife. The bard had regained her figure, and was just slightly rounder in all the nice places. *Such a comfortable bedmate,* Xena thought with a wicked grin.
Even though she herself was already halfway through her own pregnancy, there were still no outward signs she could see to indicate such, although Gabrielle swore that her breasts were larger. She had been frustrated for a while with her sparring partners because they had begun to take it easy on her, but the Queen had convinced them that anything outside of abdomen strikes was just fine with her. And so, Xena managed to keep her fighting form in spite of it. But she knew from experience that soon it would be uncomfortable to do the more acrobatic stunts, especially since she could already feel herself retaining water. It was only a matter of time before her ankles swelled up like melons.
"You sighed," Gabrielle explained as she switched the baby over to her other breast. "I was just wondering what's wrong."
In a rare outburst of insecurity, Xena blurted, "I'm getting fat, aren't I?"
Gabrielle's brows rose as she tried to stifle a giggle. When she was sure that she had a handle on it, she turned and trapped her wife in her gaze. "I love you, Xena."
The warrior felt her chest contract and her heart swell almost painfully, as they always did when she heard those words said with such absolute conviction and promise. She lowered her head to catch Gabrielle's lips in a fiery embrace. She groaned when their tongues began to duel with each other. Wrapping her arms around both her and the baby, she gently squeezed and held them, her lips still ravaging her wife's.
They broke away slightly from each other to catch their breath.
"She's asleep," Gabrielle rasped, her need thick on her words.
Xena took the baby in one arm and waited for Gabrielle to tie her shirt. Once she was covered again, the warrior pulled the Queen to her feet and led the way to their hut.
Ephiny and Solari abruptly ended their discussion to watch the family walk off the field. For a moment, the Amazons' eyes held each other as they recognized similar feelings in themselves.
"Great to be Queen, huh?"
Ephiny snorted as she turned and shouted orders to a second-year class. "I guess you gotta get it when you can," she replied.
Solari smiled over her shoulder as she watched Triva taking Wolf's twins back to their hut for a nap. With a slight nod of her head, she silently asked the guard to take over the instruction. When the demi-god grinned, she caught the Regent by the elbow. "I guess now's your chance," she whispered as she led the other woman back to the village.
Wolf watched the two Amazons leave the field and she hid her pain behind the mask she assumed so easily. With shouted instructions, she selected a partner to demonstrate the same staff technique that had once earned her the attentions of the past Weaponsmaster.
On the outside, she was confident and secure in her standing within the Nation. On the inside, she felt a debilitating fear for the first time in her life. She mentally grimaced as her heart constricted, as her loss was still vividly sharp. Steeling her resolve, she spared a thought for the twins who were who were asleep in their cribs, whose contented cooing carried to her sharp ears. For her daughters, she would be strong. She would keep their mother's memory alive, for the joy the Amazon had brought into her life.
In the Queen's hut, a child's sleepy whimper was heard over the ragged breathing of two writhing figures.
"Leave her, she'll go back to sleep," Xena advised as she guided her wife's head lower.
When the baby whimpered again, Gabrielle smiled ruefully. "I guess this is motherhood, huh," she whispered.
Xena clutched the bedcovers in frustration. "Maybe she needs changed," the warrior suggested, eager to continue their lovemaking.
Gabrielle rose to check on the baby, but the warrior stopped her with a hand.
The bard cocked her head and heard the soft sounds of the baby suckling her own thumb. Within minutes, even that was quiet. Turning to her wife and licking her lips, Gabrielle bared her teeth. "Now where were we," she drawled suggestively as she settled between the warrior's powerful thighs.
In answer, Xena grabbed a pillow to muffle her cries of passion. She knew that Gabrielle could sense her pleasure simply by reading her body's language. And at the moment she found blinding rapture, the warrior's body promised eternity.
The Way of the Wolf
The Way of the Amazon
The Way of the Bard
The Way of the Child
The Way of the Mother
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